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The Baja Boom

November 30, 1986|ALAN WEISMAN | Alan Weisman is the author of "La Frontera: The United States Border With Mexico."

Mexico has embarked on an ambitious plan to transform Baja California from 800 miles of dusty peninsula into the new Riviera. Sleepy villages are giving way to luxury resorts; fishermen are becoming tourist guides; farmers are now waiters. With the changes come a welcome prosperity--and the bittersweet sense that Baja will never be the same.

Independence Eve, 1986, in Baja California Sur, the state occupying the southern half of the peninsula extending 800 miles below the California-Mexico border. The September heat notwithstanding, 25,000 gather in La Paz, the capital, to feast on paper platefuls of fried-fish tacos in the plaza estatal . One hundred seventy-six years earlier, over in what Baja Californians call el interior , a priest more faithful to politics than catechism clanged church bells to wake the town of Dolores. "Death to the Spaniards!" roared Padre Miguel Hidalgo from the belfry as his sleepy parishioners assembled. Hidalgo--who kept a mistress, gambled and made wine--now became a soldier as well.

The Spaniards soon transplanted his head onto a stake, but 12 bloody years later, Mexico had its own government. Ever since, Hidalgo's call for independence has been re-enacted by presidents, governors and mayors from the balconies of civic buildings on its anniversary.

Tonight, La Paz is no exception, even though an editorial in this morning's paper noted that "these days, we love Spaniards but want (our) government dead." Like webs of huge, patriotic spiders, strings of green, red and white lights drape from the cornices of the blocky concrete capital, and streamers brighten its blank, rectangular facade. Beer is going for 25 cents (U.S.), but the mob is neither drunk nor unruly. This is a family affair, and people politely excuse themselves as they crane for glimpses of sequined ranchera singers and mariachis on the portable stage.

Ten o'clock approaches, the moment when Gov. Alberto Alvarado Aramburo will appear for the sixth and final year to wave the flag and repeat Hidalgo's Grito de Dolores . On either side of the square, skeletal wooden structures rise into the black sky, wrapped with flash-powder-drenched vines. Ramparts of skyrockets connect them to Roman candles, flaming curtains, pinwheels of tricolor fire and a sizzling caricature of Padre Hidalgo.

A unit of La Paz's Heroic Corps of Firemen stands ready at a cherry-red 1957 Crown Fire Coach equipped with brass fixtures and polished oak ladders--a recent donation from La Paz's North American sister city, Los Angeles. La Paz's once famous pearls have vanished from its bay, and protectionism has ruined the city's former status as the duty-free market to the rest of Mexico. But the city grows on: The fire department has quadrupled in the 12 years since Baja California Sur achieved statehood.

The music ceases. The governor, flanked by family and functionaries, approaches the window. With the country's economic crisis dragging on so long, the crowd applauds his rendition of the Grito with less enthusiasm than in previous years, but almost wistfully it echoes his exhortations of "Long live Mexico!" At that moment, fireman Jose Cruz holds a lit cigarette to a dangling fuse. " Ahi va !" children shout, and the sky fills with color and pyrotechnic racket.

After nearly half an hour, one wooden spire remains. The spark reaches its base, and two hot whirlwinds burn red, then green, then white as they race upward. Just beneath the pinnacle they merge, showering the throng with stars. Through the smoke, a flaming ring disengages from the exhausted scaffolding and lifts into the sky. Higher it spins, spitting comets, fixing the crowd's gaze until it hovers above them.

Suddenly it falls. There is nowhere to run from its path. Helpless, all follow it as it lands . . . in front of the Heroic Fire Coach crew, waiting to reduce it to a harmless hiss. "Ah," everyone exhales. A benevolent omen. Shortly, the governor will unveil his successor, who will set the course for their state until 1992. These days, Mexico will take every auspicious portent the heavens can muster.

"Not that things are so bad here," Cruz says, waving to the folks from aboard the gleaming red engine. His ancestors were ranchers in the mountains outside of town, a venerable Baja occupation that has nearly disappeared in recent drought years. This summer alone, thousands of cattle starved, but that is no longer a major disaster here. "As long as the caravans keep coming," he figures, "there's plenty for everyone."

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