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COLUMN ONE

Hard times in the slow lane

Deciderio Mauricio Cantera carved out a good life selling items to motorists at the border. But the flow of cars is ebbing.

November 19, 2009|Richard Marosi

TIJUANA — El Churrero -- the Churro Man -- sidesteps tamale carts, squeezes between bumpers and beggars, working 24 lanes of idling vehicles.

He walks through shimmering exhaust clouds, hawking sombreros teetering atop his head and sweets held aloft in a blue basket. His churros are warm and moist. "Churros here," he yells. "If they're not hot, you don't pay."

Deciderio Mauricio Cantera first waded into the sea of traffic at the gateway to California in 1968 and set eyes on the bored and the hungry as they waited, fidgeted and honked, inching toward the San Ysidro Port of Entry.

This isn't a traffic jam, thought Mauricio. This is a swap meet on wheels.

Over the years, Mauricio has peddled Popsicles and pumpkin pinatas, checkered blankets and flowery ceramic vases, Tweety dolls and Little Mermaids. In the 1960s, plaster busts of John F. Kennedy were big sellers; in the 1990s, Michael Jordan piggy banks.

To American border crossers, the ragtag knots of vendors have long evoked wonder, pity and annoyance -- symbols of disorder and desperation at the shabby entrance to the developing world.

Mauricio and the others are actually regulated by a vendors union formed decades ago to impose order, and to guarantee the safety and cleanliness of the food sold. He wears the vendors' light brown uniform, faded, but clean.

He is one of 500 vendors assigned to different areas along the network of roads, overpasses and bridges leading to the border. Few ever stray out of their assigned territory. Mauricio can sell only along the 300-meter stretch from the international boundary to the Libertad Bridge.

His union badge displays his name, picture and product. "Churros," it reads.

"It's a dignified job. We all earn an honest living here," Mauricio said in Spanish.

Walking the lanes from 8 a.m. to midnight six days a week in earlier years, Mauricio stuffed his pockets with crumpled dollars and pesos. He bought a hillside lot and built a one-bedroom cottage. Later, he built a larger house. He sent three of his four daughters to college and trade schools in Tijuana. In his spare time, he ran through the pitted hills and finished several marathons, including the one in Los Angeles.

These days, the region's weak economy and crime and the heightened security at the border have eroded sales. As a result, Mauricio works fewer hours each day but he is not discouraged. He knows that patience pays off.

Mauricio, 59, still runs every morning -- the exercise, he says, purges his lungs of the carbon monoxide he breathes -- and then returns to the border for another mini-marathon of peddling.

"Fatigue? It doesn't exist. It's only in your head," he said.

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In the mid-1960s, Mauricio's impoverished parents from the Mexican state of Queretaro moved the family to Baja California, following an uncle who was selling baby chairs at La Linea -- the international boundary.

Mauricio's friends encouraged him to keep going north to California, where the economy was booming. He refused. "It was easy to cross in those days," he said. "But I wanted to feel free, not the stress of being illegal."

Mauricio had only two years of schooling and could barely read or write, but he knew numbers and he had a creative side. He worked non-stop for a few years manufacturing trinkets and figurines for his uncle and other vendors. He saved his money. At 18, he paid $1,500 for his own vendor license and headed into the traffic.

Tijuana in the '60s was entering its golden age of tourism. People flocked to the bullfights and bars, the horse races and the red light district. American tourists, Mauricio quickly found, had an insatiable appetite for cheap Mexican crafts and all things kitschy.

He sold piggy banks of all sizes, shapes, colors and themes. He imported ceramic from Guadalajara and blankets from Queretaro. He got up at 4 a.m. to paint flowers on clay pots and whiskers on plaster Santa Clauses with brushes he made from hair he snipped off stray cats.

"The back hair is the best," Mauricio said. "Perfect for painting fine lines."

He kept a pulse on American pop culture, dreaming up products that reflected the times or season. At one point, he employed eight people who manufactured plastic figures of popular icons. "Michael Jordan made me a lot of money," Mauricio recalled.

He sold to children, surfers, hippies and retirees. Items that cost him $1 he sold for $5 ($3 for hard bargainers). Some days he earned as much as $200. His steadiest customers were the sailors and Marines from San Diego-area bases. They'd wobble back to the border after long nights in the raucous tequila bars, Mauricio said. "It looked like the march of the penguins. They'd go home drunk, hugging my piggy banks."

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Mauricio opens the creaky metal gate to his house in Tijuana's El Soler neighborhood, 10 miles from the border. The cracked driveway is flanked by two stucco cottages. In the back, past the rows of multi-colored clotheslines, sits a two-story brick home with fading paint and a peeling front door.

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