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Tuesday, 18 February 2014


By Marcy Belson

I was born about 15 miles from the Mexican border.

A little farmhouse my parents had rented while my dad worked day and night jobs to get ahead.

I lived mostly in the Imperial Valley until I was about 45 years old so I have a history with Mexico.

The first trips were too far back for me to remember. I think going to a Chinese restaurant in Mexicali might have been my young parents only entertainment in the 1930s and early 40s.

My mother told me they were taking me to Alley 19 (the name of the cafe) when I was using a high chair.

By the time I remember the trips, this would have been a typical evening. There was always a crowd, sometimes family members, sometimes my father's tractor drivers and work crews.

We would drive to the border in a caravan, stop at the Mexican inspection station, which consisted of two or three uniformed men guarding the border crossing. One man would walk to the driver's window, ask where the car was going while the other men would never leave their chairs, sitting outside the small building to catch the evening breeze.

My father would tell the inspector, "Going to eat at Alley 19" and the man would wave the car on through. We were now in Mexico.

A couple of blocks and a turn to the left, put us in an alley leading to a good-sized parking lot behind the restaurant. There was no rear entrance so you had to walk back through the alley to the front door.

I think in the beginning, the cafe was located in an alley but I don't remember that.

It was a fairly good-sized restaurant with a dividing wall about half way across. The local Chinese community occupied the first half of the cafe and the gringos and Mexicans were escorted into the second half which was probably 20 tables, all with starched white table cloths and a solitary bottle of soy sauce on each table.

The menu was one side of a typical menu board.

You could have family style dinners known as A, B, C or D depending on how many were in your party and how much food you wished to be served. The waiters were always old men, Chinese, who spoke little English but knew the menu by heart. They were never wrong with an order.

The children and women had soda pop and the men had quarts of ice cold beer, either Tecate or Mexicali brand.

I remember small platters of fried shrimp, almond chicken, pan friend noodles that you ate like crackers, chop suey and barbecued pork always served with hot mustard and small dishes of ketchup.

My dad loved the hot stuff and he would eat the hot mustard without cutting it with ketchup until the perspiration would run down his face, cooled off with another bottle of beer, of course.

My mother told me that the big pictures on the walls, all behind glass, were in the original cafe and were very old.

I believe the early Chinese population had arrived in Mexicali hoping to enter the U.S. and were not allowed entrance. There were tunnels from cafes and stores in Mexicali that opened into other stores across the border in Calexico. They were found during the 1950s and 60s and I do remember the newspaper stories.

After I married and moved to El Centro, which was just 12 miles from MexicaliCalexico, I was already familiar with the streets in Mexicali - or Mex as we called it.

Going to Mex was just no big deal. We had a dentist there, I shopped for shoes and clothes in the department stores, we danced the nights away in the nightclubs. They had wonderful dance bands and singers who worked the circuits; one of our favorites was Estalita Millan and she came from Mexico City.

As a side note, we found her by accident years later, singing in a lounge in Mexico City and asked to speak to her. When we told her we had been her fans and always went to hear her sing in Mexicali, she appeared to be shocked and had no comment.

I didn't have concerns about going to Mex by myself in the daytime; I wouldn't have taken that chance at night. But crossing the border, either way was a simple procedure until about the time John F. Kennedy was murdered. That day, the border was quickly closed and it stayed closed for perhaps 24-48 hours. It was a scary time for everyone.

After that, the border crossings became more complicated, drugs were being ferreted across and everyone was suspect.

I remember coming home from a camping trip to the Sea of Cortez and the U.S. inspection man emptied the salt shaker in front of me. We decided it was because we were traveling with a group of teenagers. Never entered my mind that they would think we were carrying drugs or other contraband.

Now, it's a different world. My cousins who live in the area won't go into Mexico and the waiting lines either way can take hours. Who wants to go to dinner when they have to sit in a hot car for hours.

The farm workers have no choice. The border inspection has opened new gates for the trucks and workers. One of my last duties for the employment office was to work the overnight shift in Calexico, getting the workers from Mexico to the right employers waiting for their crews.

Whenever we had guests from other parts of the U.S., they usually wanted to make a trip "to a foreign country" which meant we would visit the curio shops that lined the streets leading into Mexicali and then have a great Chinese dinner at Alley 19.

Alley 19 is closed now. I miss those days.

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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Thank you for sharing this wonderful look at "Mex." I used to run over to Juarez in the nineties, but have been advised often by locals now not to do that any more. Sad how just a few greedy people can change the good life for so many people.

A very nice and vivid picture of the life I never knew!
I could see your family going there together for dinner. And in your description of how your father enjoyed his dinner is so much affection.

Thank you for sharing the story, Marcy!

My aunt and uncle lived in El Centro and my mother always spoke fondly of their trips to Alley 19. So happy to have come across this story.

It's the pork tenderloin I remember best at Alley 19. I'll bet everyone in El Centro went there at some time when I was a kid. I'll also guess that Marcy Belson had a brother named Gordon.

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