By Greg Niemann
Mexicali, the state of Baja California’s capital and second largest city, was
a hot (120+ degree days) barren desert with dust storms and desolation. Not far
away, however, was the Colorado River. Early in the 20th century Americans began
building canals to divert water west, creating the vast Imperial Valley. The whole
area became a fertile agricultural center.
Today’s Mexicali was earlier called La Laguna del Alamo, first settled in
1898 by former miners who left the dwindling pickings at El Alamo near Ensenada
to try their luck in the desert.
Going further back, it is known that Juan Bautista de Anza camped near the
site in December 1775 on his way north. But the desert was forbidding and for well
over 100 years the area was claimed by no one.
One of the American agricultural pioneers, C. M. “Limpy” Holt, was the
first to coin California’s “Imperial Valley” name, thinking it projected a more
positive image for a difficult and desolate area. But Holt did not stop there. He
tinkered with the words California/Mexico, switched some syllables around and
came up with names for the towns on opposite sides of the border (Cal-exico and
Mexi-cali), and the names stuck, La Laguna del Alamo to be forever called
Water tamed the desert
After the Imperial Canal was finished in 1902, Mexicali began to grow as
water became available for irrigation. Many of the earliest settlers came to work on
the irrigation projects for the Colorado River Land Company, an American
company which owned practically all of the land in the valley. The company then
leased land for cotton and the workers stayed to cultivate their ensuing crops.
The founding date of Mexicali is March 14, 1903 and Manuel Vizcarra was
elected the town’s first Civil Authority. In 1904 Mexican President Porfirio Diaz
authorized Mexican canals to divert more water to the Mexican side of the border.
A big flood occurred in 1906 as the waters of the Colorado River went over their
banks. Levees and dikes were painstakingly reinforced and the planting of cotton,
cantaloupes, alfalfa and corn resumed.
The Intercalifornia Railroad, a branch of the Southern Pacific, was built and
went south from Calexico, through Mexicali, continued east through Baja
California farmland and reentered the United States at Yuma. Not only was it a
shorter route from the Imperial Valley to eastern markets, but was able to tap the
rich cotton and agricultural areas south of the border.
During the Revolution of 1911, soldiers of fortune came into Mexicali.
Under the banner of an American labor movement, the IWW (Wobblies) tried to
make Mexicali a Socialist enclave. They were driven off by the Mexican army but
not before lives were lost and numerous wounded. Once the Wobbly leader was
shot, the remaining anarchists gave up.
Stability was restored in 1915 by Colonel Esteban Cantu who served as Baja
California Norte Governor in 1915-1920. He moved the Baja California territorial
capital to Mexicali and was responsible for much of the infrastructure around the
In 1936, the Colorado River Land Company was ordered by the Mexican
government to sell most of its holdings to Mexican farmers and farm communities
known as ejidos.
An exemplar of diversity
During the early years of Mexicali's history, the town was an exemplar of
diversity with one report listing among the laborers approximately 5,000
Mexicans, 3,500 Chinese, 300 Japanese and 200 Hindus. But it doesn't mean they
got along. For example, many Mexicans blamed the Chinese for taking ‘their’ jobs.
There is still a large Chinese population, one of the largest concentrations
per capita outside Asia. You can find excellent Chinese food among the reported
200 Chinese restaurants in the capital city.
Today’s Mexicali covers 5,254 acres and is home to about 700,000
inhabitants, or right at 1,000,000 people if you count the surrounding area. The city
maintains a highly educated and skilled population, having modernized to become
an important population center.
While historically an agricultural economy, today Mexicali has gradually
embraced other industries. Mexicali pioneered the aerospace industry in Mexico,
when Rockwell Collins, (formerly Hughes Tool Company) decided to established
an operation there in 1966, becoming the oldest company under the maquiladora
Since then many other companies, such as Honeywell, Gulfstream,
SunPower, Mitsubishi, Autolite, Nestlé, Coca Cola, and Goodrich Corporation
have built maquiladora plants in the city.
In 1986 Mexicali achieved international recognition with a meeting between
then Mexican President Miguel de le Madrid and U.S. President Ronald Reagan.
The huge sand dunes to the east of the city have become an attraction unto
themselves. Sandboarding has become big in the Algodones dunes. In fact, the
2016 Continental Sandboarding Cup will be held there in March, (3-21-22, 2016)
attracting the sport’s best athletes from countries like Peru, Switzerland and Brazil
to tackle the massive mountains of sand.
Earlier this year I crossed the border at Mexicali and noticed a large
construction project underway just south of the border on the right, confirming
continuation of an expanding economy.
Gringos most often just drive through Mexicali on their way to San Felipe or
other points south, and that’s a shame. Along with great Chinese food, there are a
number of good, inexpensive hotels to choose from, including the Fiesta Inn and
Real Inn Mexican chains. Even the popular five-star Hotel Lucerna is still less than
$100 a night. That iconic hotel with a cascade falling into the pool has been there a
long time too, as we stayed there back in the 1980s.
Mexicali is an interesting city, hugging the international border on the north,
and continuing to sprawl in the other directions. On my last visit I made a wrong
turn and found myself in a suburban area I never knew existed. But we found a
great restaurant on our impromptu detour.
Mexicali is unique: farmers, ranchers, factory workers, merchants and
politicos work side by side to keep it a viable city. It still seems a little weird,
though, to cross the border into Mexico and order dim sum instead of tacos.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit Greg's website.
Updated: Sep 16, 2015 03:52 PM