In September, San Diego Magazine, with the help of 12 “big kahunas of the art world,” assembled a list of local art pieces and called it “100 Works of Art to See Before You Die.” One online commenter referred to the collection as nothing more than an “execrable assemblage of hopeless sleaze and cheese.”
I fantasized about what I’d have chosen had I been deemed worthy enough to contribute and came up with my top three: the commemorative wall near 14th & J streets, Downtown, celebrating our town’s African-American cultural heritage; the guerilla “Save the Ocean” mosaic, aka the “Surfing Madonna,” for its intricate beauty and for having pushed all the right buttons; and the vintage Agua Caliente racetrack mural located on the western wall of Downtown’s California Theatre, for a slew of reasons—chief among them a close family tie. My maternal grandfather, Enrique Martínez, was a successful accountant who, in the 1940s, became the general manager of what was then the signature of all things class: Tijuana’s Agua Caliente Racetrack.
For those who’ve been victimized by a series of dollar shots at an Avenida Revolución bar, it might be hard to think that Tijuana once attracted the Hollywood and high-society elite. But the Agua Caliente Tourist Complex did.
It was built in the 1920s by U.S. investors Baron Long (part owner of Downtown’s U.S. Grant hotel), nightclub impresario James Croffroth and Wirt G. Bowman (who at one time was the landowner of Rancho Peñasquitos). It catered to adventure- (and booze-) hungry folks during Prohibition.
Later, the property was taken over by legendary San Diegan John S. Alessio, the ultimate rags-toriches story who, according to an obituary in The New York Times, started off shining shoes fresh out of grade school.
I was surprised to learn recently that the city of San Diego’s Historical Resources Board had approved a proposal by a private company to paint over the Agua Caliente sign and replace it with a beer advertisement. See, the theater has historical status, but not the mural, though 50-plus years after its creation, it’s achieved informal public-art status.
A KPBS story quoted Cathy Winterrowd, the HRB’s senior planner, justifying the decision by saying the mural “does not itself have historical significance.” Clearly, she didn’t do her homework. As the San Diego History Center will tell you, before San Diego became “America’s Finest City,” and before the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau came up with such gems as “365 days of Ahhhhhhh!” and “Happy Happens,” San Diego was “The Gateway to Old Mexico,” an unofficial motto the piece speaks to.
Tijuana’s luster has long since faded, and that mural is a public testament to how good things once were, how Tijuana and San Diego were intertwined. They were sister cities to the core—BFFs even.
My family’s connection to Caliente came from my father’s side, as well. He owned the print shop that made the race programs. Alessio affectionately called him “Junior,” and in one piece of correspondence sent during Alessio’s incarceration for what The Los Angeles Times referred to as “one of the largest tax evasion prosecutions in the western United States,” he told my dad he loved him as if he were his own son.
With support from Save Our Heritage Organisation, a historic-preservationist group, I started an petition at Change.org. I also wrote a letter to Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the city’s Commission for Arts & Culture, and cc’d it to the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council. Two days and 250 signatures later, the permit was rescinded. We’re far from the winner’s circle; the mural’s future could still be in jeopardy unless it gets deemed historic, so I urge you to sign the petition.
The 40-by-80-foot sign is one of the boldest love letters in history—from Alessio to his wife Edna. In April 1956, he unveiled Caliente’s “fabulous 5-10,” a precursor of the modern-day pick-six wager. When Alessio met Edna, she worked at Kress’ five-and-dime store, a stone’s throw from the iconic sign. Their relatives caught wind of the petition and got involved.
Alessio’s 20-year-old grandniece, Sarah Frontiera, told me that as the sign was being painted, Alessio said to his son, Bud: “You see that? Once they put it up, it’ll be there forever.” As for who painted it, the family doesn’t know.
I got an email from a man named Pedro Moreno, who’d heard about a T-shirt silk-screening event I was hosting to further the cause. He said his dad, José Jesus Moreno, was one of the painters and was assigned the task of painting the detailed roses in the horseshoe-shaped “C.” It felt like discovering the Holy Grail, or old Rose going back to Titanic wreckage, or that moment of excitement when you find your first toy at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box.
Pedro brought a couple-dozen shirts to be silkscreened and told me about his father’s uncredited body of work during his tenure at Pacific Outdoor Advertisement, which also included signs along Interstate 8 before they became standardized.
He said the shirts were for a family reunion this Friday. “We always do it on my father’s birthday, and this year it’s particularly significant, as he would have turned 100,” he said.
Before he left, I shook his hand, wished him well and asked him to let me know how things go.
“Oh, I don’t have to tell you,” he replied; “you’ll be there. Like I said before, this is a family reunion.”
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Enrique blogs at elzonkeyshow.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @enriquelimon.