Remembering Tijuana when it was safe and quiet
Editor’s note: Hector Vazquez lives in Basalt with his wife and their two daughters, and works for Habitat for Humanity of the Roaring Fork Valley in Glenwood Springs. He grew up just across the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana.
Vazquez: I was born in 1965 and grew up on the border in Tijuana during the 1970s when there was no fence between the two countries. It was a very unique life. We lived a half-mile from the border, and I used to ride my bike to the United States every day.
We used to run errands for the INS, border patrol. They would give us money to go buy sodas for them at the 7-Eleven. It was a different world back then. In fact, people in south Mexico thought that Tijuana was part of the United States. When I was growing up I never saw Mexican money. It was all dollars. Even the television, we didn’t have any channels in Spanish, so we watched “Popeye” and “Bugs Bunny.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s, when everything started changing, that I realized I was Mexican and not an American.
Gallacher: Did you listen to American music?
Vazquez: Yeah, we listened to classic rock in the ’70s and heavy metal in the ’80s. My brothers and I used to listen to radio stations broadcasting out of San Diego. I grew up with a bunch of skateboarders during that time, when kids were switching from surfers to skateboarders. It was a great life. I liked it a lot.
Gallacher: Contrast that to Tijuana now.
Vazquez: It is very different. I used to be able to walk down the street like I can in this valley. I would see a lot of people I knew, and I would stop and visit with them. It was very polite and respectful. We used to leave the car keys inside the car. We would leave it like that for days and not even worry about it. The doors to our houses were always unlocked.
But in the 1980s everything started to change, lots of traffic and a lot more people. I think the earthquake in Mexico City got people moving north. One of the places they chose to move to was Tijuana.
Gallacher: Why did you come to the United States?
Vazquez: My parents moved to the valley about 15 years ago and my father started a landscaping business. I brought my family to visit a few times, and we finally decided to join my parents in 2002, back when there was still a lot of work.
We were living in Tijuana at the time, but our daughters were going to school in the United States. My wife used to get up at 4 in the morning to get the kids across the border in time for school. They spent at least two hours waiting in line to get across. Once they were across it was only five minutes to the school. She would come back to the house and then do the same thing in the afternoon to pick them up, another two or three hours. So we were tired of that life.
Gallacher: What did your parents do in Mexico?
Vazquez: My father used to have a factory where he made pottery and statues out of plaster. He had big trucks and used to bring the merchandise across the border into Arizona and California. We always spoke English, even in Mexico, because we were dealing with American people in the business. They were coming to my father’s factory every day with their trucks to buy pottery and take it back to the U.S. to sell, so we had to know how to speak English.
Dad was doing all the production work, and my mom was doing all the paperwork. She was the one who coordinated with all the buyers and sellers. There were 50 to 75 people working for my parents. They were very busy when I was growing up, we always had somebody to help at the house. We lived a block from the factory, so there were always a lot of workers and relatives around the house.
Gallacher: Did you go to work in the factory when you were young?
Vazquez: I did, but I didn’t like it. When I was 17, my parents felt like I was doing too much skateboarding and not enough work. They sent me to live with friends of the family in Arizona. They were hoping that this family could teach me how to work.
I spent about six months with them, and I worked hard. I went back to Mexico and stayed about six months, and my parents found another family. This time they sent me to Florida.
Gallacher: What did you do in Florida?
Vazquez: We made and sold birdcages. My parents made some in the factory in Mexico and shipped them to this family in Florida and we would sell them and make more. There were a lot of birds in Florida.
I spent four long years there. And then we started traveling throughout the South and up the East Coast to state fairs, selling bird cages and other Mexican items. I spent another four years doing that. That was fun. I really enjoyed it.
When I was 25 I settled down and married my sweetheart of 13 years. We fell in love when we were 12. I’m 46 and we have been together for 35 of those years.
She lived half a block from my house and her family owned a pharmacy across the street from my house. She had to pass my house every day, and I would wait for her. I always said hello to her but she wouldn’t say hello to me. That went on for months and months. But one day she smiled and said hello, and I knew I had a chance.
Gallacher: Do you have children?
Vasquez: I have two beautiful daughters, 12 and 14. I am very proud of them, and they are both very smart. They get along and do well in school, which is a gift.
Gallacher: So in this wonderful life, was there a particular hard time for you?
Vasquez: Well, it was a hard time and then again it wasn’t. This year I had a massive heart attack. I was doing my martial arts class at Basalt High School, and all of a sudden I just collapsed on the floor and hit the back of my head. I woke up two days later in intensive care in Denver.
Apparently when I collapsed I wasn’t breathing and, fortunately for me, my instructor had just completed a CPR course the day before and he started working on me. Maria, one of the students in the class, ran out screaming for help. Some people were next door in the gym, and they heard her and came running.
One of those people was Brian Larr. He hollered, “Where is the AED*? Please get it. I can help him.” Someone found it, and Brian knew what to do. He saved my life.
The paramedics took me to Aspen and from there they flew me to Denver. I was out for two days. The doctors told my wife that they weren’t sure what kind of shape I would be in when I woke up. They didn’t know how long I had been without oxygen.
When I woke up I knew that I was OK when I started speaking English to the English-speaking relatives and Spanish to the Spanish-speaking relatives gathered ’round my bed.
A week later I had a triple bypass.
Gallacher: How did that experience change you?
Vazquez: It made a very big difference in my life. Before this I believed that there was nothing else after this life. People used to tell me, “Once you’re dead, you’re dead. There’s no coming back.” But I came back. And now I know that we have to be better prepared, we have to take better care of each other. We have to love each other. We have to do things to change this world.
Sometimes people think you have to invent something or be a billionaire to help. But it’s not like that. We can all help our neighbor, our community, our friends, our families. It’s the people around us who need our help. We can all make a difference.
When you have a near death experience, that’s when you find out. Mine turned out all right. It was a great journey, and I am so happy to be here. I’ve got a lot of things to do.
* An AED or automated external defibrillator is a portable electronic device that automatically diagnoses and treats some types of heart attacks. The application of electrical therapy stops the arrhythmia, allowing the heart to re-establish an effective rhythm.
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A crew from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center last week cut disks of wood from trees downed by a powerful avalanche that thundered off Garrett Peak in March 2019. The samples will aid research by dendrochronologists into the epic avalanche cycle.