Photo credit: Martin Dee
In my historical fantasy novel Gods of Jade and Shadow
, a young woman takes a road trip with a Mayan god across Mexico during the 1920s. Their ultimate destination is a hotel by the seaside in Baja California. The hotel is inspired by a famous Mexican resort called Agua Caliente (literally Hot Water, named after the hot springs in the area), which for a few years was as ritzy as Monte Carlo.
In the novel, the architecture of my imaginary hotel follows the Mayan Revival look that became popular during the Roaring Twenties — the Fisher Building in Detroit and the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles were both designed in that style. The Agua Caliente hotel had less of a modern edge. It was a bit Disneyland-ish, attempting to evoke an “old Mexico” which had never really existed, complete with Moorish-Spanish details: red tile roofs, archways, and even a minaret. It supposedly looked a bit like the Alhambra and cost more than $10 million to construct (that would be a couple of billion dollars nowadays).
Agua Caliente was designed as a playground for the rich and in the 1920s, with Prohibition in full swing, it was a great hit. Millionaires and movie stars could avail themselves of a small airplane and fly into Baja California or hire someone to drive them south in a car. Taxis were easy to find near the border and could take you to Agua Caliente for 75 cents, round trip. The less well-to-do could jump on one of the railcars that provided interurban services between Tijuana and Agua Caliente.
Once guests arrived, they could visit the Gold Room, where only gold chips were used for gambling and all the men wore tuxedos, or have lunch on the patio while musicians played the guitar. They could visit the racetrack and bet on the horses, rent a bathing suit and dip into the swimming pool, or watch dancers such as Margarita Cansino — who would one day modify her hairline, hair color, and name, becoming Rita Hayworth — perform.
Many movie stars visited Agua Caliente. Jean Harlow was a huge gambler and a fan of the resort. Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, John Barrymore, and Tom Mix were also in attendance.
The road to Tijuana was the “road to Hell.”
Agua Caliente was not the only entertainment venue in Tijuana. Prohibition had created a mushrooming industry of hotels, bars, brothels, and gambling dens. Though the border closed at night, eager Americans simply got in through holes in the fence and shuffled into the city. La Ballena (The Whale, also nicknamed El Mexicali) was a drinking establishment with the longest bar in the world, 215 feet, while the winery Bodegas de San Valentín had a capacity of 10,000 liters. Cabaret dancing had been banned in San Diego, so you could obviously find women kicking up their heels for eager patrons in Tijuana.
Saloons and casinos such as the Sunset Inn attempted to lure customers with signs in English, promising a taste of “quaint old Mexico,” but there were also businesses advertising the newest jazz trios. Eddie Rucker was named one of the “highest priced entertainers in Tia Juana,” and black entertainers were in great demand.
The nearby town of Mexicali also got in on the action. It already had a bullfighting ring and now it added more entertainment, bars, and saloons. It was never as ritzy as Tijuana, but then again it was hard to compete with Agua Caliente. Newspapers advertised places such as the Mexicali Southern Club, The Imperial Cabaret, The Black Cat, Climax Bar, and The Waldorf Bar, indicating they were just a few steps from the border. The clubs boasted about their exotic shows, such as hula dancers and Egyptian performers. There were boxing fights and, obviously, jazz bands.
Mexicali had a sizable Chinese population, so there were also segregated Chinese casinos. The segregation being necessary, according to local authorities, because Chinese locals consumed opium, which was frowned upon.
The area populated with Chinese businesses was called La Chinesca and seemed to benefit from this exotic allure, with American tourists eager to sample the drugs and booze offered there. From 1922 to 1924, violent conflict — the Tong Wars — sprang up between competing Chinese factions.
Americans, seeing so much booze around them, would sometimes get a notion that they could make a quick buck smuggling liquor into the States. Some people simply tried to sew secret pockets into their coats, but others tried to stash the liquor in a boat and outsmart the U.S. Coast Guard. Supposedly there was also a bootleg tunnel connecting Mexicali with Calexico, for those who preferred to walk from Mexico to the United States.
Americans were soon troubled by the millions of people crossing the border south. Newspaper articles decried the vice dens in Baja California. Pastors and volunteers stood by the border crossings, urging would-be sinners to turn back. The road to Tijuana was the “road to Hell.”
Things were going swell for Tijuana; even the Great Depression couldn’t slow down the partying. Then came the repeal of Prohibition. Americans who had been eager to guzzle down drinks could now find entertainment on their side of the border. Casinos didn’t rely on selling drinks for their business. The money came from gambling, but a great deal of establishments were not casinos. Within three months of California repealing anti-liquor laws, more than half of all saloons in Tijuana had closed.
Another blow came in 1936 when gambling in Mexico was repealed. The Agua Caliente casino shuttered down. The Tecolote, also known as the ABW Club or the Owl, was the most famous establishment in Mexicali. There was gambling and drinking but also prostitution. It, too, shut down. It was the end of an era.
By the time my father visited Tijuana in the 1960s, he said it was all dingy businesses and one had to avoid the American tourists hoping to score pot. I was born in Baja California and can testify that in the 1980s it was much of the same: no glamorous movie stars or Gold Rooms in sight. But for a while, it was a land of enchantment. Gods of Jade and Shadow
shows a glimpse of this era of bright chandeliers, flashy cars, and designer gowns — at least for those who could pay for extravagance and decadent delights.
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is an award-winning author and editor. Gods of Jade and Shadow
, a historical fantasy combining Mayan folklore and the excitement of the Roaring Twenties, is her latest novel.