The morning fog glazed the car window as we pulled into a parking space at the old pescadería in Tijuana. The damp, cold, heavy air muffled the sounds of people. The smells of diesel oil, sulfur, and fish seemed to permeate my being as well as my clothes and skin. Inside was much the same, a slow motion dance centered around two old men and an upside down caguama – the biggest sea turtle I’d ever seen.
I was only five or so, and it was vastly bigger than I was. Its mouth, a reptilian beak, opened and closed noiselessly as it looked around, surveying its captors. It stared me straight in the eye, unblinking as if it knew. One of the old men spoke to the other. For some reason, I couldn’t understand, even though I felt I should have.
“¿Qué dijo, papá?” I asked my father, falling into the Spanish that always felt more comfortable in Tijuana. “I don’t know.” he replied in English, “He’s speaking Kumeyaay.” The old man who was talking seemed to be chanting the same phrase over and over. A red bandana tied around his hand had some blood soaking through. I remember wondering if the caguama had bitten him. The turtle’s flippers waved helplessly in the air as the long knife stabbed into the center of bottom shell. Then they were slicing. Blood was everywhere and a kind of anticipation drew the crowd closer. The turtle never made a sound, as the other old Indian, who, I saw now, was a “tuerto” (with only one eye), reached into the depths of the still struggling animal with his hands and a knife. He withdrew his arms, red to the elbows, with the still-beating heart in his hands. His toothless smile startled me as he handed the beating heart to my astounded brother and, chanting incomprehensible words, drew the sign of the cross on my brother’s forehead with a bloody finger. Then, it was my turn.
I was frozen with fear, holding the still beating heart that tried to jump out of my hands. The blood oozing from it was almost purple. I remember how the cross on my forehead shrank as it dried. We bought some abalone and totoava and drove in silence all the way home. My heart still races with the memory.
HEADING SOUTH 1962
Three bare light bulbs illuminated the old border crossing. It was 4:30 AM. Mr. Locke slowed down the old pushbutton Rambler station wagon just enough to negotiate the two lines of topes as we rolled right through the unmanned Mexican aduanas and started to accelerate over Puente Mexico. The surfboards in the back bumped my head as we bounced over the uneven surface of the bridge then turned left onto Revolución. I had finished my paper route ten minutes ago and was now wedged between my brother and Vance who were both snoring, not being used to such early hours. Tijuana was deserted except for the lights on in the big tortillería at the bend where Revolución turned into Aguas Calientes. The doors, however, were still closed. We turned right onto the old Ensenada Road at the downtown bullring and sped off into the predawn darkness, the only car on the road.