It’s easy to overlook San Pablo. It’s a landlocked, hard-luck suburb of about thirty thousand people just north of Richmond, its noisy older sibling. At less than three square miles of flatlands, potholes, and modest bungalows, it has no industry, no downtown, and no Jack London. All it has are two shopping malls, one of which is dead, and a card room that vaingloriously calls itself a casino. But San Pablo is changing — changing in a way the rest of California would instantly recognize, but we in the Bay Area may not.
Because we’re not really part of California. San Pablo is.
When Father Ramon Abella mapped the rivers that feed the northern half of the Bay Area, he christened a small promontory Point San Pablo, from which this city of gamblers, immigrants, and old white people gets its name. When sailors saw it and its twin, Point San Pedro in what is now Marin County, they could take comfort in the promise that both Saints Peter and Paul were watching over them.
Saint Paul, of course, had about the most famous midlife crisis in recorded history. But cities also can find themselves on the road to Damascus, and San Pablo has had its share of such moments. The most significant of these was precipitated by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, after which thousands of white Midwesterners swarmed into the Bay Area to build Liberty ships in the Richmond shipyards. Building contractors worked day and night to construct temporary wartime housing and, within months, they transformed San Pablo from a sleepy Portuguese dairy community with about 2,000 residents into a federal housing project with a population of 21,000.
At age 87, Joe Gomes still remembers a time when people rode horse-drawn buggies to work. He graduated from Richmond High, watched the city struggle through the Depression, and settled into a life working for the American Standard bathroom fixtures plant, San Pablo’s only factory. In 1941, Gomes bought a modest adobe bungalow right in the middle of what’s now called “Old Town” — then just a bunch of grassy fields. “Forty-two was when people started moving out here, and they just put up any kind of building; they didn’t meet any standards,” he recalls. “But San Pablo was unincorporated, and no one was looking at it.”
In 1948, Gomes’ new neighbors voted to incorporate, partly to fend off annexation by the city of Richmond — industrial Richmond, expansionist Richmond, black Richmond. With that one vote, San Pablo forged its identity, even as the rest of the Bay Area began charting a different path. Since those days, the people who have forged the Bay Area’s identity have been educated, liberal professionals with a taste for civil engineering, cultural fusion, and social transformation: Henry Kaiser and David Packard; Allen Ginsberg and Alice Waters; Harvey Milk and Ishmael Reed. But San Pablo was a little outpost of the rest of California, a hardscrabble bedroom community for white, blue-collar joes who worked the Oakland docks or Chevron refinery and regarded with unease the social revolutions of Berkeley and San Francisco and urban grit of Oakland and Richmond.
In the late ’70s, San Pablo underwent a second road to Damascus moment, as thousands of Laotian refugees arrived in the city, fleeing the communists and Thai refugee camps. But because so many of them were well into middle age by the time they came here, few of them learned English, assimilated into the larger civic culture, or participated meaningfully in public life. San Pablo was suddenly home to an isolated pocket of traumatized refugees, a community too preoccupied with events taking place thousands of miles across the Pacific to focus on West Contra Costa County. And so the city absorbed them and moved on.
Now, San Pablo is changing once again. The “Greatest Generation” is decamping for retirement or the grave, and a young, immigrant, Hispanic generation is replacing it. San Pablo is still suburban and poor, but now it’s multilingual, racially stratified, and grounded in the service sector. This experience is being replicated all across the state, in Fresno, Bakersfield, the Inland Empire. In many ways, San Pablo is the real face of California.
Between 1990 and 2000, San Pablo’s Hispanic population doubled, from 6,737 to 13,490. At the same time, while the smaller black and Asian populations remained fairly steady, the once-dominant white population dropped by a quarter and grew significantly older. The median age for the city’s white people is now 46.1 — almost double the 24.4-year-old pulse of its surging Hispanic population.
This generational change is sweeping through San Pablo. The Brookside Community Health Center cleans teeth and performs Pap smears for illegal immigrants too terrified to enter the adjacent Doctors Medical Center. Trailer parks are being bulldozed to accommodate the growth of Casino San Pablo, now the city’s tax-revenue lifeline. And all along 23rd Street, sidewalk vendors hawk velvet prints of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the thick, viscous smell of carnicerías hangs over every block.
Joe Gomes has watched this transformation with a wizened nonchalance. His son lives in a retirement home on the outskirts of Redding and has repeatedly urged him to move there, but Gomes says the heat would be too much for him. Besides, this is his home, and lately the block has gotten a little more interesting. From his porch, Gomes can see the United Farm Workers eagle adorn a window across the street, a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe rising from a lawn a few doors down, and Mexican ornamental gatework springing up all around his house. “They buy properties here, they wanna improve them, they put up these ornamental iron fences which I think enhances the area,” he says. “They like to play their Latino music, and that’s alright, as long as they don’t disturb their neighbors. And there’s a lot of traffic, too. The Latino population has been a good change, as far as I’m concerned. They’re industrious and hardworking people, and they’re good family people.”
Yes, San Pablo is yet again on the road to Damascus, only this time the signposts are all in Spanish.
Census figures don’t tell the whole story, of course. Only tales of the city can offer a glimpse of San Pablo’s true essence. Perhaps the best place to start is with the city’s most visible casualty: the dead shopping mall.
Nothing bakes under the hot sun quite like a parking lot hungry for cars. Here at the El Portal Shopping Center, three great signs rise forty feet into the air at jaunty, off-kilter angles, welcoming hordes of nonexistent shoppers with an admirably game optimism. Two globes, each radiating an aquamarine halo, stand watch beside a centerpiece that reads “San Pablo International Marketplace.” Just behind and to the right of this triptych, a thirty-foot mound of concrete and rubble squats behind a chain-link fence; pubes of rebar bristle and tuft out from the summit. Once upon a time, that pile had a name: Bank of America.
One hundred yards behind this hillock, bulldozers and steam shovels pick at what’s left of a Mervyn’s department store, clearing the way for a new line of condos. For every new unit of housing built, San Pablo loses a piece of its past. From its groundbreaking in 1960 to the late 1980s, the El Portal Shopping Center was the closest thing to a downtown San Pablo ever had. People bought groceries at Safeway, sheets at Newbury’s, and nails at Home Base. They watched Julie Andrews warble on movie screens and swilled Schlitz at the country and Western bars. “El Portal had been the center of town,” says Luke Sims, who served as San Pablo’s economic director in the 1990s. “San Pablo doesn’t have a city center; the town is a wartime development to support the Richmond shipbuilding. So it didn’t have a chance to develop a traditional downtown. El Portal became the downtown, where people went for shopping and their community life.”
El Portal thrived in the 1960s and early 1970s because it was located right in the city’s center. All the important streets — San Pablo Avenue, 23rd Street, El Portal Drive — run right past it. But Interstate 80 bypasses the mall altogether, and as the years dragged on, that proved to be the only road that mattered. Someone always built a bigger mall farther down I-80, and the customers and moviegoers slowly trickled away. Richmond’s Hilltop mall struck the first blow, and once the Pinole Vista Shopping Center lured Mervyn’s away, El Portal was doomed.
Between 1994 and 1996, Safeway, Mervyn’s, Home Base, and Longs Drugs all departed, leaving the remaining mom-and-pop stores high and dry. The mall’s occupancy rate shrank to 15 percent. San Pablo’s cultural and commercial epicenter became a ghost town. “It felt almost like losing your right arm,” Gomes recalls. Sims remembers a certain sense of desperation growing in the corridors of City Hall: “It was devastating for their self-identity to see the place where they would shop and go to dinner close and get boarded up. … It had a huge impact on sales tax to the city, I want to say like a 40 percent decline in sales tax revenue because of the closures of those stores.” In San Pablo, the median household income in 1999 was just $37,184, far below the Bay Area’s comfortable $62,024. In the mid-1990s, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city had the highest number of residents living below the poverty line in the Bay Area. Clearly, San Pablo needed every cent it could get its hands on.
In 1997, El Portal got one last chance when developer Frank Jao bought the property and embarked upon a scheme to do what he and so many others had done elsewhere. Throughout the subdivisions of the South Bay and Southern California, Asian businessmen have bought decrepit old shopping centers and transformed them into ethnic specialty stores, full of thriving mercados and noodle houses. But even with a $3.3 million loan from San Pablo’s Redevelopment Agency, Jao only managed to prolong El Portal’s death throes. The promised multiplex theater never arrived, and the center’s distance from I-80 proved lethal once again. Jao was reduced to converting El Portal’s indoor mini-mart into a swap meet, and by 2001, the property was back on the market. Bitter tenants told the Contra Costa Times that the developer had sold them a pipe dream.
Now, roughly half the storefronts are in various stages of demolition. The old Safeway is now home to the San Pablo library, a job training center, and a recently shuttered “event center.” The city found itself so broke that, despite a blighted civic legacy of gambling and organized crime, in 1994 its electorate overwhelmingly approved construction of the Casino San Pablo card room, located conveniently next to I-80. A majestic, earth-toned fountain greets casino patrons lining up for Pai Gow and Texas Hold-‘Em, and on special occasions mariachi bands serenade the Mexican immigrants who pack the joint. City finances were saved with this one deal. The only drawback is that instead of taxing bread or canned chili, San Pablo now paves its roads by fleecing suckers who haven’t yet figured out that eventually the house always wins.
Longtime area businessman Leonard Battaglia is pleased as punch about Casino San Pablo. “You have to understand I grew up in Reno, Nevada,” he says. “It’s part of the American heritage to gamble.” Then again, Battaglia seems to have a knack for peering at the horizon.
For the last 28 years, Battaglia has operated his World Travel Agency out of a small storefront in El Portal. With his gold watch, diamond- and ruby-studded rings, and salt-and-pepper hair slicked back over his scalp, he combines the reserved dignity of the Korean War veteran with the can-do boosterism of a small-time businessman. In addition to the travel agency, Battaglia runs a liquor store, a sports bar, and a greasy spoon called Dam Big Burgers on San Pablo Dam Road.
“If I were writing a story about this area, I would have to write with a great deal of enthusiasm,” he says. “Look around. Look around a fifteen-mile radius from here. This is where it’s at. This is the affordable, weather-wise, comfortable, no-crime, bright future for the town of San Pablo. It really is! Nobody recognizes it, but they will.” For the better part of an hour, as he sat outside a cafe a hundred yards from the mall’s demolition site, he gushed about the city’s sunny prospects. “This city is just beginning,” he pledges. “New housing, you got a great golf course out here on the bay, what more could you ask for? … This is going to be the crowning jewel of Contra Costa County, San Pablo. The future’s right here!”
Trouble is, it was a little hard to hear what Battaglia was saying over the bulldozers chipping away at the last of old San Pablo.
One last store of consequence remains standing in El Portal, and it’s all that’s left of Frank Jao’s dream. The San Pablo supermarket is a ratty piece of work, but its lack of artifice conveys a certain threadbare charm. Pigeons roost in the lip of its concrete awning and contemptuously perch upon the twin alabaster lions that guard the entrance. Two plate-glass windows serve as a community bulletin board, where strangers tape Laotian fliers offering rooms for rent, or Spanish posters announcing the arrival of Circo Hermanos Caballero, complete with shots of Dalmatians leaping through flaming hoops. Inside, cumbia music trills through speakers nestled among the Snow White and Powerpuff Girls piñatas that hang from the ceiling. Shoppers pick over Mexican papayas and lotus root before drifting over to the butcher section to browse the vacuum-sealed packs of Golden Medallion beef tendon meatballs. Above the seafood display, a sign warns “Food stamp not accepted for fry fish.”
The San Pablo supermarket exemplifies one of the more curious institutions of immigrant California: the Asian-Latino hybrid grocery store. Nothing else quite signifies the geographical intimacy of these particular huddling masses, and few people could imagine a more incongruous pairing. Yet in barrios across Southern California and the Central Valley, the next generation is being fed by stores just like this one. But there remains one crucial difference between these two populations. Where Hispanic Californians have lived here for 350 years and enjoy a close connection to their home country, many Southeast Asians — the Cambodians of Oakland’s Elmhurst district, the Vietnamese of its San Antonio district, or the Hmong of Fresno — struggle with exile, isolation, and the enduring emotional residue of civil war.
In San Pablo, Laotians have comprised the bulk of the city’s approximately five thousand Asian residents ever since they fled here as refugees in the late 1970s. For the last four weeks, they have been afflicted with a terrible sense of loss.
On the night of October 14, a fifteen-year-old girl named Chan Boonkeut heard a knock at her front door. She went to answer it, but before she could reach the doorknob, about fifteen bullets split the wood and spread inward, snuffing out her life. For the roughly ten thousand Laotians who live on either side of the Richmond-San Pablo line, three things were clear: The young men who did this were Laotian; the shooting was gang-related; and Chan wasn’t even their target. The bullets were meant for her brother, who wasn’t even home.
While San Pablo’s overall crime rate has plummeted from its heyday in the early 1980s, a quiet plague of gang violence grips the city’s Laotian population, and this latest murder brought the seemingly intractable problem into sharp relief. Because of this community’s cultural impulse to keep its problems private, the public quality of this crime brought its own special kind of lost face. According to Terrence Cheung, who works for Contra Costa County’s Southeast Asian Youth Task Force, many families from the community’s Mien ethnicity were too embarrassed to attend the girl’s funeral, because the two boys arrested in connection with the murder were Mien.
This exaggerated sense of discretion underscores a more general attribute of these immigrants. Laotian residents may live in the city, but in many ways they’re still not part of it. Stranded in a strange, high-octane land of industry, advertising, and popular culture, many first-generation Laotians have reacted by turning inward and relying primarily upon one another. If white San Pablo is the past, and Hispanic San Pablo is the future, Laotian San Pablo isn’t quite either, and remains trapped in the amber of its own exile. The rest of San Pablo typically passes it by.
Just as greater San Pablo is in the midst of a generational transition, its Laotians are locked in a generational conflict of their own. The parents view the world through the prism of their rural upbringing, and their children view the world through MTV. It has fallen to two young women, Phaeng Toommaly and Maly Siriboungthong, to bridge this divide. They are part of the “half generation,” children who arrived here old enough to be grounded in traditional Laotian culture, but not so old that they couldn’t learn new ways. They have a certain cultural bilingualism, which Toommaly and Siriboungthong hope to use to persuade their elders that the time has come to confront gang violence and the social conditions that allow it to flourish. “Even though we have a tough time trying to get the elders to understand, we still know how to approach them,” Toommaly says. “It’s a cultural literacy that the younger generation doesn’t have.”
Siriboungthong moved up here three years ago from the troubled Laotian neighborhoods of Fresno, after marrying a Chinese man and breaking out of her insular community. Ever since, she has tried to help to end the wave of assaults and retaliation sweeping through San Pablo’s Laotian children. Toward that end, three weeks ago she and Toommaly called for a parents-only town hall meeting in response to Boonkeut’s murder. They hoped to get their elders to grieve in public, acknowledge that they have a problem, and then ask for help.
The heat wave that scorched Southern California was still ramping up on October 25, and everyone on MacDonald Avenue seemed to wilt. But inside the Richmond Senior Center, the air was pleasantly cool beneath the Chinese oil paintings and leather saddles hanging on the walls. The government officials outnumbered their own constituents; Congressman George Miller, state Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, and county Supervisor John Gioia made small talk in the front seats, while Siriboungthong glanced at her watch and hoped aloud that the parents were just on “Asian time” — that is, thirty minutes late. Finally, after enough people had quietly slid into the back seats, she approached the microphone.
As Siriboungthong laid out the ground rules, a Laotian interpreter stood at her side, and two assistants scribbled away on sheets of butcher paper. Then Siriboungthong did her best to establish the tone she and her colleagues were hoping for. “I’ll ask you to please think back to the very, very first moment that you had heard of this incident,” she softly coaxed. “I’d like you to think back to where you were, what you remember facing, what do you remember hearing? What do you remember feeling? What was going through your mind? And finally, how has this incident affected you, your family, your personal life?”
After an awkward silence, a middle-aged man named Sary Tatpaporn walked slowly down the aisle. With his tie, grey slacks, and timid demeanor, he could have been on his way to work at H&R Block. Instead, he was about to tell the sad story of his son. In so doing, he hoped his example would encourage others to be equally forthcoming.
Standing before the microphone, Tatpaporn spoke in a strong voice, at least for a while. “When we first plan to have our family, we were lucky to have one son, one daughter,” he said. “It’s like a perfect dream, to have a son first, and second a daughter. And my son turned out to be a nightmare for us, and he still stays with us, and have lots of problems, and we have to deal with him almost every day. … And as a result of his mental problem, he lost all of his friends. That’s a sad time, for him and for me.” Tatpaporn struggled for composure, and a tear ran down his left cheek. Maly Siriboungthong glided up behind him and placed her hand on his shoulder. “And to see this incident again,” he continued, “in such a way that an innocent life, a young girl who have a long way to go, and have a very promising future, and her life has been taken away — it just hurt me a lot.”
Tatpaporn’s son was born in a refugee camp. Like almost every Laotian in San Pablo, he and his father were on the wrong side of history. When the communists came to power, they gave Tatpaporn a choice: life in a reeducation camp, or a one-way ticket across the Thai border. So he crossed the border and spent four years in a refugee camp before making his way to the United States. Life here wasn’t much easier at first. Although Tatpaporn stayed with his uncle and attended classes at the Berkeley Adult School, the transition from a rural tent city to the fastest place on earth left him dizzy and afraid. “All of a sudden we were dropped over here, everything was completely changed,” he says in a later interview, in English still jagged after twenty years. “The culture, the language, everything. I have a really difficult time to adjust the first couple year. … At first, honestly I was afraid of the black people, because in our country, we don’t have many of them. … I’m okay now. I have lots of African-American friends.”
Eventually he found work as a bilingual teacher’s aide and began assembling a down payment for a home in San Pablo. But something started happening to his son at age twelve. A white boy started picking on him in school, he says, and the very next day his son joined one of the area’s first Southeast Asian street gangs, the Sons of Death. Within weeks, the boy’s grades dropped, and the drugs and alcohol started. “He would disappear for a couple days, and I wouldn’t know where he was,” Tatpaporn says. “I had to go to different homes to look for him. And when I found him, he would refuse to come home.”
It turned out that his son’s difficulties were rooted in schizophrenia. Tatpaporn remembers the quiet desperation his family experienced as his son’s friends deserted him. Now the father is determined not to sit by while other parents go through similar anguish. He started with the parents of Chan Boonkeut. “The father that lost his daughter, he have similar problems with his son,” he says. “He consult me many times, ask me how to deal with this situation. … I think the real problem in our community, people worry about their face, about their family integrity. As a result, they tend to keep their problem to themselves, not be willing to get help. For me, I’m not afraid to share. I want to share my problem, the problem’s already here. I just don’t want to see the people face the similar problem, or if they do, they honestly accept the problem and try to get help.”
Unfortunately for Siriboungthong, Tatpaporn’s openness didn’t quite set the tone for the rest of the day. The next speaker, Thon Phutma, executive director of the Lao Senior Association, whose comments were translated by an interpreter, argued that only aggressive police action could solve the problem of his community’s violent youth: “I see that the solution to stopping youth violence is to give police officers the power to make arrest when they see that youth are wandering around the street past the curfew.” And toward the end of the meeting, tribal elder Chao Nokham walked to the microphone. As a representative of the royal Laotian dynasty, he said he knew why drugs and gangs plague Laotian children — the communists are behind it. “There are today a lot of people who still working for the Lao communists in our country,” Nokham insisted. “They want them to stay in power for long, long time; I don’t know why. So we have to know that the drug come from our country. Laos is the number one distributor of drugs, you know? And then we have to know, who back them? Who backing them?” Siriboungthong eventually eased him away from the mike.
And so it went. The traditional, male elders argued for mass arrests and blamed the communists, while the social workers and younger parents pleaded for better communication with their children. Standing far in the back of the room, Terrence Cheung explained the meeting’s dynamics. Many of the most respected members of the Laotian community fled Laos in middle age. Their frame of reference is rural life, tribal allegiance, totalitarian rule, and unquestioned respect for elders. The Western parenting models that Siriboungthong discreetly advocates are utterly foreign to them. These vast differences in cultural orientation have helped create a sense of alienation in their children. For many of these kids, Cheung suggests, gang affiliation becomes a surrogate family.
As the meeting wrapped up, Siriboungthong allowed herself to vent a little. “I’m just heartbroken that more parents didn’t show up,” she said. “There’s definitely a culture conflict there. I don’t know if it’s denial, but they don’t want to take responsibility. In Laos, the community raises the child. I’m sensing a hands-off attitude from parents. They operate from old parenting skills, as opposed to the younger generation, which has learned Western ways of parenting.”
Siriboungthong herself still struggles to overcome a cultural suspicion of assertive, young women, as well as a profound mistrust of outsiders. She never uses her Chinese surname, which she took when she married her husband; if she did, she’d have another barrier to break through. The only hope for her and Tatpaporn, it seems, is that there will be more such meetings. Unlearning a lifetime of cultural mores takes more than ninety minutes at the Richmond Senior Center. With luck, it won’t take another dead girl to spark the next discussion.
Most Laotians in San Pablo live in the flat, sad-sack southern part of the city known as “Old Town.” Despite its bungalows and manicured lawns, this is one of the densest parts of the East Bay, a teeming mess of colliding immigrant cultures, where the lingua franca is Spanglish inflected with ghetto slang. While many poor urban neighborhoods have been recolonized by hipsters or gentrified by yuppies, San Pablo’s Old Town has instead become the destination point for thousands of new immigrants. The substandard housing, proximity to the Chevron refinery, and trailer parks alongside the neighborhood’s northern edge have kept down the property values.
Within this environment, a distinctly different type of transformation is occurring. You can cruise the length of 23rd Street from the Richmond BART station right up to the entrance of the El Portal shopping center without spotting a single bank. Instead, you’ll find every outpost of the lumpen suburban economy: taco wagons, pager outlets, nail salons, and low-rider chop shops. And where San Pablo once prided itself on keeping the spirit of Richmond securely on the other side of the line, today the two cities are merging into one vast, immigrant metropolis.
Here is where San Pablo’s Hispanic world begins. But even so, the Latino quality is nuanced by the remarkable stew of ethnic identities that distinguishes New San Pablo from what came before it. Consider the businesses on just one block near the Richmond border. A Yemeni family runs the Shop ‘n Save Liquors; a white guy owns Ken’s Antiques; Asians run T&N Auto Accessories, California Furniture, and the Lady Bug beauty salon; and Latinos run Ventura’s Body Shop, Alicia’s Flowers, and Casa Chicas, a small storefront salsa and guacamole factory.
Life here isn’t exactly easy. According to Albert Lopez, a San Pablo city planner working to revitalize the grand boulevard, most neighbors worry about the high crime rate and shop here more out of necessity than love. But in the mornings, this street still comes alive. Just after 8:00 a.m., an army of Hispanic mothers meanders down the street, ready to run errands, meet friends, and buy the week’s groceries. Whereas most Americans drive everywhere they go, the immigrant spirit that prevails here is distinctly pedestrian. The señoras of Old Town still prefer to walk, just as they did back in Mexico.
Francisco Flores, one of San Pablo’s new Mexican shopkeepers, says the Hispanic immigrants along 23rd Street yearn for the neighborhood intimacy that walking provides them. They’re both fascinated and horrified by the fast pace of American life — entranced by the promise of opportunity, but dismayed by the ubiquitous loneliness of hustling.
“We come from a place that’s very integrated, you know — father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, grandmothers, and so on,” he says. “You come here, and you’re alone. You’re like in one of those, what do you call it, the circus in the time of the Romans. When you come to the US, you feel like you’re in a Roman circus, you have to control the animal. … Of course, here there are opportunities, it’s a great chance to earn money, to buy clothes, to buy soda pop. But you’re living a lonely life, loneliness is an enemy that’s against you, because you leave everything behind. Even though here you wear nice clothes, Levis, or nice tennis shoes, or have a hundred dollars in your pocket, that doesn’t fulfill what’s in your heart.”
Flores owns the Tigress, an old 23rd Street dive bar and one of the last outposts of Old San Pablo. It’s just a few blocks from the homes of Joe Gomes and Sary Tatpaporn. The Tigress opened in 1957 as a tiki lounge, evoking the noirish Polynesian grit that San Pablo’s Pacific theater vets brought back to the States with them. For decades, white working-class men threw back mai tais and martinis beneath the bamboo. But earlier this year, time finally ran out for the Tigress when Flores bought the property and set about transforming it into the next phase of San Pablo’s social life. Sometime in the next few months, he plans to reopen the place as a mercata, carnicería, and cafe. Recently, on yet another of those baking, bone-dry October afternoons, Flores was perched at the top of a ladder, banging out the last of the drywall with a claw hammer. Two of his brothers were in the back, shoveling swaths of fiberglass insulation into plastic garbage cans while mariachi music played on the radio.
Sweeping his hand over the grooves cut into the foundation by the old bar, Flores explains his plans. “What I have in mind is have a meat market right here, have a deli where my brother is working right now, and right here in the center will be small shelves filled with Mexican groceries,” he says. “And here is refrigerators with milk and sodas and fruits.” Flores pointed to a deep alcove where the pool table used to be, now stacked with old bar stools and debris from the drop ceiling he had just demolished. “This is gonna work!” he promises. “This is like the No Fail Cafe in Emeryville; have you seen that? This is same thing, can’t fail. It won’t fail, because I have parking space, I’m on the busiest street, I have a new building, I have the charisma to talk to people. I speak the language, I know what they want, I know how they think.”
Flores has come a long way since he first paid a coyote $350 to sneak him across the border in 1978. He was a sixteen-year-old butcher’s son from Chavinda, a small village in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The skies above Tijuana poured buckets of rain as he snuck through the fence, only to be caught by la migra and shipped home after a day in detention. But Flores knew his family needed money, so he slipped back over the border a few days later. This time, he found himself in the back of a car, en route to a safe house in East Los Angeles. Flores still remembers the awe and confusion he felt that night. “I thought it was crazy here,” he says. “It was after nine o’clock, and I saw nothing but lights on either side of the freeway. And I thought to myself, ‘These people are crazy. Where are the fields? Where are the factories? Where are the workplaces here? These crazy people — nothing but lights here.'”
Within three days, Flores was holed up in a one-bedroom West Berkeley apartment, along with his brother and eight other men. They slept on cots in shifts and worked the service trade. Flores got a job washing dishes at Caffe Mediterraneum, and grew to revere the Italian owner as a surrogate father. He attended Berkeley Adult School English classes at the same time as Tatpaporn, and eventually took a janitorial job at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto. But the long hours and incessant loneliness began to wear him down, and he missed the intimacy of his family and village. After three years, he returned to Mexico. The lure of money was just too strong, however, and within three months, he was back at the border, shopping for coyotes.
After another harrowing dash across the border, Flores was in the United States for good. He slogged away at Caffe Med and Spenger’s until he got good work as a driver for a foundry, where he worked for the next twenty years. He met his future wife in San Francisco at a socialist labor hall dance, and courted her for two years before her parents consented to the marriage. He picked up his GED and became a voracious reader: his favorite authors are Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and John Grisham. He got a green card during the 1986 amnesty. He started a family.
Flores made a habit of cashing his check and separating the money into little piles for groceries, the mortgage, and the phone bill, and laying them out on the dresser. Each week, his stay-at-home wife took the grocery pile to feed their four children. Today, they’re doing alright for themselves. Flores was lucky enough to buy a few small properties before the boom, and rents them to UC Berkeley students. There’s something hopeful about this man, with his intense work ethic, communitarian spirit, rigid traditionalism, and the avidity with which he thrusts these qualities at you.
“We got two teenagers, one seventeen, one sixteen,” he says. “And we haven’t had any trouble with them — drugs, tattoos, negative things. I always talk to them, you know, ‘You don’t need drugs, you don’t need negative things on your body to feel good.'” Flores still thinks of his old manager at the Caffe Med and tries to emulate his values as he raises his children. “A man needs to have a family,” he says. “A man with no family is nothing.”
When Flores was laid off by the foundry eleven months ago, he started thinking about opening a business. Now, he says, he has his plan all figured out. His brothers, children, and wife will work the registers and stockrooms, his rental properties will pay the bills, and his family will eat by raiding the store’s supply room. And 23rd Street, he believes, is just begging for the kind of business he will offer. He says Mexican shoppers are looking for a certain human intimacy, a richer commercial experience than the one found at sterile, fluorescent supermarkets. He hopes to offer San Pablo’s new residents a more familiar kind of store.
“We, the Hispanic, like to talk to people direct,” he says. As he explains, he jumps to his feet and strides around the room, pointing at imaginary produce. “Direct communication, like, ‘How much those tomatoes? How much these onions, how much those chiles? I don’t like those, they’re too old — you have fresh ones?’ ‘Oh yes, I have a box in the back.’ You know? They like the direct communication. ‘I like this meat — could you slice it a little thinner?’ Or, ‘I like that with a little lard, uh, fat on the side.’ See? … Human contact, yes. They don’t want to go to the shelf and grab what they want. They want you to grab it for them. That’s who we are.”
And he has one more card to play. Thanks to his years at Caffe Mediterraneum, Flores has a knack for gourmet coffee. He’s convinced that Hispanics sick of the pisswater sold at ghetto doughnut shops will swarm his place for some quality espresso. Gourmet coffee on a street that can’t even support one bank? Maybe he’s just a damn fool. Or maybe he’ll end up bringing a bit of the white-collar Bay Area to blue-collar San Pablo. If he pulls it off, Flores will have done his part to bring San Pablo into the Bay Area’s yuppie orbit, to fuse its immigrant energy with the sensibility and palate of the rest of the region. Maybe these two worlds won’t seem so distinct ten years from now.