Here's another "deleted scene" from my autoblogography in progress, Violence Girl.
Caliente means hot in Spanish but it was also the name of a racetrack in Tijuana. Well, Agua Caliente was the complete name but everyone just called it Caliente. I guess the abbreviated name better conveyed the postcard image of sunny Mexico whereas Agua Caliente (hot water) only made you think of a bathroom faucet.
With my dad, it was always feast or famine. If he was working we felt rich and if he wasn't we had to scramble for food and shelter. In times of plenty we'd make the two hour car drive south from Los Angeles to the international border crossing and then on to Tijuana. My mom liked to visit the doctors in Tijuana; she claimed they were more attentive than American doctors and that the medicine was much less expensive. My father, despite being diabetic, rarely went to the doctor if he could help it; instead, he liked to go bet the ponies.
Going to the horse races at Caliente was a real treat for me. As soon as we walked in, we were swept up in the excitement. There was an aura of old time glamour and shadiness to it. It was the sort of place where one could find a wide variety of people from all walks of life, from the well-to-do who looked like Italian movie stars to American tourists in casual shorts, straw hats and newly purchased huaraches to regular working class Mexican men in groups of two, three or four. The local women were never there alone or in groups unless they were accompanied by a man. They were usually well-dressed within their means.
Double exposure of me at Agua Caliente.
The first thing we'd do was to get a program and a copy of The Racing Form. I'd take the program, look at the upcoming races and circle the names of the horses with the most interesting sounding names. If my mom and sister were with us they'd go for the snacks. Food at racetracks is traditionally cheap, so we'd stuff ourselves but sometimes if we had cold leftover bean burritos from the drive down my mother would make us eat them instead.
My dad liked to bet Quinellas so he'd pick two horses and I'd pick one and we'd box them. If you're unfamiliar with horse racing, a Quinella bet is one where you pick the horses that will come in first and second in any order. To box a Quinella, you pay triple the amount for your bet but your three favorite horses are covered if they should come in first and second in any combination. I knew way too much about horse racing for a little kid because my father was an avid gambler. He didn't make foolish bets, except where I was concerned. Oddly, my methods for choosing horses seemed to be just as effective as my dad's. We often won when we went to Caliente - not a lot, just enough to make it fun and keep us going back.
Me astride the burro with my family in the cart.
Sometimes we'd be so busy during the day in Tijuana visiting the doctor, taking pictures with goofy hats or sitting on donkeys painted to look like zebras that we wouldn't make it in time for the horse races but that only made things even better because the one thing that I enjoyed more than an afternoon at the ponies was a night at the dog races. The dog races seemed to move at a faster pace. They were easy to watch without binoculars and being out at a race track late at night just felt a little bit naughty. It was very rare to see other children at the racetrack at night except for the little kids who were sometimes forced to sell four packs of "Chiclet" gum (3 four packs for a nickel); most of the other tourist children were tucked safely in a hotel bed or back in San Diego.
Caliente all lit up at night was like an opulent palace. Surrounded by so much poverty, it was an oasis where locals and foreigners alike could escape to a place that was worlds away from everyday life. Over the years and to this day one of my favorite things to do is to play hooky from work and spend an afternoon at the racetrack, making bets on horses with crazy names, eating racetrack junk food and drinking beer or a nice glass of scotch in the middle of the afternoon.