TECATE — Life is changing in this Pueblo Mágico, and not every change is mágico.
Border crossings that took seconds now require minutes. This week, a rush hour passage required an entire half hour.
Residents who once left keys in their cars while shopping downtown no longer recommend the practice. (Nonetheless, a distracted reporter accidentally did this on a recent morning, returning in the afternoon to find his vehicle — and keys — where he had left them.)
Perhaps the most dramatic change: You rarely hear hooves clattering on the streets fronting the tree-shaded town square, Parque Hidalgo.
“We used to have more horses than cars,” said Daniel Reveles, Tecate’s unofficial poet laureate and a full-time resident since 1980. “I used to do local errands here from my ranch in a surrey.”
In 2012, Mexico City added Tecate to the federal government’s list of Pueblos Mágicos, places notable for natural beauty, historical significance or cultural import. This year, magic seems in short supply south of the border, as regions grapple with crime, pollution, drought and the U.S. presidential campaign. South of the border, many are leery of GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s immigration policy, which includes a fortress-like wall along the U.S.-Mexico line.
Fences already line most of the border between San Diego County and Mexico. In the 1990s, a six-foot-tall fence was erected here, followed by 18-foot-tall metal posts in 2008-2009. These barriers are visible throughout the city, yet irrelevant to most of the region’s 120,000 people.
“I don’t have a problem (with the fence), I can cross any time I want,” said Cristela Melendrez Taboada, 17, a waitress at Restaurante Lola, facing the town square. “And I’m pretty happy with life here in Mexico.”
SERIES: THE BORDER WALL
Contentment is a common theme in this town, which sprawls across a valley about 40 miles east of San Diego. People here insist they are too happy, too relaxed to feel any cross-border tensions.
“I love Tecate,” said Martín Cortizo Rodríquez, who left his native Mexico City to work for the town’s Rancho La Puerta resort and spa. “You live over here with quality.”
In “Guacamole Dip,” “Tequila, Lemon and Salt” and other books by Reveles, Tecate is an enchanted village that floats above such crudities as international politics. Still, the author admits that unpleasant realities occasionally intrude.
“El Trump and La Clinton is all you hear right now,” said Reveles, who dines and drinks with “Los Cafeteros,” a band of genial idlers who meet in the bars and restaurants surrounding the town square. “One person says, ‘Trump is right. We are going to build a wall —to keep out all the illegal Americans!’”
Tecate was first settled about 1,400 years ago by the nomadic Kumeyaay, who fished and hunted from the Pacific to the mountains. A small but well-organized museum east of downtown, the Museo Comunitario de Tecate, displays shelters and baskets made by current tribal members.
The museum also gives the rest of the story: Indians and European settlers clashed in the early 19th century. Juan Bandini, whose Casa de Bandini stands in San Diego’s Old Town, abandoned a rancho here after numerous raids.
Farmers and ranchers eventually prevailed, producing vegetable oil, wine and grains for brewing. Rails linked Tecate and San Diego from the early 20th century until 1962, when the San Diego & Arizona Eastern Railroad discontinued service here.
When Daniel and Harriet Reveles visited Tecate in 1976, the town was best known for its eponymous brewery and Rancho La Puerta, a fitness haven founded by Edmond and Deborah Szekely in 1940. Now a 3,000-acre preserve where guests spend $2,835 to $7,500 each for a week’s stay, the ranch had modest origins.
The same is true of Tecate. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Daniel was afraid that the native New Yorker he had married would find the place hopelessly rustic. She did, in an endearing way.
“She said, ‘Oh, what a charming village,’” Daniel quoted his late wife, who died in 1989. “And indeed it was. It was magical.”
A disc jockey and writer, Reveles was inspired by his new surroundings. The couple bought 30 acres 10 miles south of town, horses, the aforementioned surrey, a stagecoach. He began writing yarns that imbued Tecate with a magical realism reminiscent of the mythical touch Gabriel Garcia Marquez brought to his Colombian hamlets.
Reveles, one critic wrote of 1994’s “Enchiladas, Rice and Beans,” “assures his place at the forefront of a long line of Hispanic literary magicians.”
This week at Bar Diana, a 59-year-old downtown institution, Reveles enjoyed a lunch of carne asadatacos and tequila. In a white Guayabera shirt and Panama hat, he held court like retired royalty. Friends descended on his table for a warm abrazo.
“Don Daniel,” they called him. “Jefe.”
“People love the idea, they appreciate his work,” said Carlos Mateus, 61, the bar’s owner. “He’s a good person.”
In this town, who is not? “I’ve never met a bad person here,” said Reveles, who claims to be 91 but has a fabulist’s touch with cold facts. (In an interview with the Union-Tribune’s Arthur Salm 12 years ago, he gave his age as 94.) “Some scoundrels, but no bad people.”
LIFE IN PARAÍSO
As wildfires raced across San Diego County’s back country last week, Melendrez could see the distant columns of smoke. Miles from Tecate, the flames were moving in the opposite direction. Still, the young waitress fretted.
“I worry that we don’t have enough resources to help with the fire,” she said.
Why? Isn’t the fire in another country? “On previous occasions, the U.S. came to help us here. It would be nice for us to be able to help the U.S.”
You find a lot of warmth toward the United States in Tecate, but that doesn’t mean everyone here obeys U.S. laws. During the 2016 fiscal year, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended 80 people crossing the border here illegally. That’s less than .5 percent of the 20,782 apprehended in the entire San Diego sector.
Here as in other places, some blame any uptick in crime on newcomers. At Mini Todo Hidalgo, a gift and school supplies shop near the brewery, manager Grace Adams serves customers from Mexico’s interior. Some were deported from the U.S. to Tijuana or Mexicali, then journeyed to Tecate for the relaxed atmosphere and pleasant climate.
“Some of these people are bad people,” she said. “Not all, but some.”
Good or bad, most migrants are just scraping by. Anastacio Garcia, 64, pushed an ice cream cart across the town square. Earlier this month, he was nabbed during an immigration sweep in Albuquerque, N.M., his home of 44 years — and where his wife and two children still reside.
“I worked in Mexicali,” he said, “but I came here because Mexicali is too hot.”
He had been in Tecate three days: “A nice town, I like it.”
Lacking papers, Garcia can’t cross the border. With the right documents, though, this crossing can be a breeze. Midweek at 3:30 p.m., the line at the border extended a mere three cars.
Yet there are only two lanes at the Tecate Port of Entry, with no provisions for people with SENTRI cards, no separation between cars and 18-wheelers. Moreover, both lanes close daily from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m.
“The lines here can be as long as four hours,” said Joe Crooks, who manages a nearby maquiladora. “It’s gotten worse.”
If Tecate was ever the border’s Shangri-La, untouched by the outside world, Roberto Arjona insists those days are over. He cringes whenever he hears about Trump’s wall or Sinaloa’s drug cartels.
“Every time those conversations happen, there is a direct negative effect on our town,” said Arjona, Rancho La Puerta’s chief executive. “When those comments are made, 98 percent of the time I’ll get calls from my guests, wondering what the heck is going on, whether it is safe to come.”
Slammed by the recession, Rancho La Puerta has bounced back. Business was fair in 2013, good in ’14, better in ’15. This year, the resort is at capacity, welcoming 140 to 160 new guests every Saturday.
“This is paradise,” said Cortizo, escorting guests through the lush grounds and cool, pristine Spanish colonial buildings. “Paraíso.”
Most Mexicans — most Americans, for that matter — can’t afford a week in these heavenly surroundings. But the rancho employs dozens of locals. Its restaurants and shops are stocked with Tecate-produced food, drink and artisan goods. Moreover, the resort’s foundation built and maintains Parque del Profesor, a public park with a soccer field, classrooms and nature trails.
People who live here boast about attractions new (La Finisima craft brewery), old (7,500-year-old petroglyphs in nearby hills) and emerging (the hot new dining spot, Lugar de Nos, led by rising chef Mariela Manzano).
“It is people like her who are giving Tecate a very fine dining scene,” Arjona said.
What they don’t brag about is efficiency or order.
“There are many good reasons to live in Tecate. Convenience is not one of them,” Reveles said. “Here, the road signals don’t always work and people don’t know the rules of the road. Or if they do, they don’t obey them. But you never hear a horn. There is no road rage.
“Everybody lives in harmony. You don’t see hate here.”
It all sounds too good to be true, like mágico.