Un-Made in Mexico

Sex, drugs and the American flag: The true tale of an Orange County family

I've just received a message from a social experiment unfolding disastrously on the edge of the world, a note from the Female Participant in that experiment who, per the experiment's original abstract, doesn't know she's a Participant in the experiment—doesn't even know the experiment is an experiment, really believes, that is, that she and her husband of 17 years made this bold life decision to withdraw their kids (the Minor Participants, equally blind to their roles vis-ŗ-vis the research) from a private school in Orange County in order to insulate them (16-year-old twins, a boy and girl) from (Participants' words) "the materialism" and "the rat race" and the general "obsession with money," to build a dream home in a remote town on the Pacific Coast of Baja California, a few hours south of Ensenada, which puts them just north, east and west of nowhere, and to immerse the Minor Participants in a culture shockingly distinct from Orange County's—to take them "from yachts to fishing boats" (Participants' words) so that (a) said kids develop the "skill set necessary for success" (Participants) in the "emerging global economy"—to transform the MPs into "world citizens" (Female Participant)—and so that (b) the parents will "find time to slow down, you know, enjoy a slower pace of life, you know, a life that's about family and community" (ditto). Spanish-language acquisition was a top priority, as were (in order of importance) (what Participants call) "global consciousness" and "sustainable living—you know, like composting your own shit, and just, like, leaving a smaller footprint on the earth."

Also in the original research proposal: in a move that unwittingly parallels the social-economic decision of many Mexican nationals, the husband will remain in the family's Newport Coast home, working at his job in a Newport Center office with a view of the very same Pacific Ocean that his wife and kids (in Baja California) will see every day, thereby earning his Third World family a First World income of about $300,000 (plus commissions, bonuses, 401k, membership in a golf club and a remarkably generous expense package, including unlimited cell phone, miles and a travel and entertainment budget that, alone, could sustain a very aggressive partying schedule). The wife will abandon her career as a private-practice attorney and manage the domestic sphere, overseeing construction of a concrete-block and palm-frond-roofed home (the roof known thereabouts as a palapa, a kind of arboreal umbrella) run on solar power, gray-water reclamation, the aforementioned composting toilet (all of this approx. 100 yards from the shore of the vasty Pacific) and rearing the Minor Participants.

They are, that is, and however unconsciously, the classic Newport Beach family, the father earning a top-percentile income, the mother tanning herself while Mexican laborers raise a home built entirely on proceeds from the purchase and sale on Wall Street of stocks in global companies. The kids, like many in Newport and elsewhere, are unfathered except, as this overview will reveal, by men who are strangers.

Photo by Matt Brill/Getty Images
Photo by Matt Brill/Getty Images

The experiment is going badly now, like one of those pharmaceutical industry drug trials in which the participants begin to die and FDA officials step in, observe the suffering with dispassion (they've worked in Third World drug trials) and truncate the test. But despite my most strenuous efforts—countless e-mails and phone calls to the Participants and, finally, an urgent trip into the field in December ending with a midnight showdown in a local bar, where, with even the Minor Participants blank-eyed from drinking shots of tequila alongside well-worn Americans, the Male Participant prepared to deprive an American expatriate the use of his limbs as punishment for (the Male Participant has reason to believe) "sniffing around my wife while I'm not here"—despite all this, I can't stop the experiment, as evidenced by the note referenced above, a transcription of which I furnish here:

"I know you mean well, but stay the fuck out of our business. We're going through a rough patch that could turn into something longer than a patch. And when the chips fall wherever, you'll want to ask yourself if you choose [sic] the right side."

*   *   *

Last December, Participant reports of loneliness, anomie, drug and alcohol abuse, stupidity, fistfights, alleged acts of marital infidelity, academic backsliding, sunburn, shouting, boredom, a dramatic move on the mother's part to block e-mails from the Newport Beach father, and other indicators (jealousy, inadequate diet, dearth of intelligent conversation, etc.) suggested things had well and truly turned to shit.

I left Orange County just before Christmas and drove 800 miles to intervene in the experiment.

I'd been told to drive four hours south of Ensenada on Highway 1, what must be the most dangerous stretch of road outside Kabul, a two-lane, potholed, hairpin-curved affair on which the Mexican drivers of 18-wheelers, in advance of their U.S. counterparts, seem determined to test the hypothesis that two objects—my Prius and their marble- or granite- or concrete-block-laden vehicles—cannot occupy the same space. In gullies like shallow roadside graves, I saw evidence of the failures of previous tests. Surviving this, I would hit the town of K, they said, continue on for a few miles and turn right at a wooden shack—"the beer store." They described the shack as yellow, but, some 10 or more years before, the shack had suddenly turned the color of the dirt road that would take me from Highway 1 to the experiment. I had not been told that the Prius was a bad transportation choice; I drove, bottoming out along the ribs of the dirt road, between palm trees that served as windrows for fields that had passed quickly (after the Revolution of 1910) from the Catholic Church to ejidos (communes established by the national government). Under the hammer blows of the North American Free Trade Agreement, control over these fields had passed from happy commie farmers into the hands of more ambitious commune members and were thence chopped into parcels and sent into the hands of mostly wealthy Americans fleeing the horrors of an America they love and hate (more on which in a moment) and willing to lease land under a 99-year title.

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