Un-Made in Mexico

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

Surfing.

I didn't point out that Orange County is something like the surfing capital of the world, but a grander surprise awaited me at the surf camp.

The Participants had told me that the Minor Participants spend the morning in a nearby Mexican public school (where girls study cooking and child care, boys study construction, and the physics curriculum includes a section on the interaction between baking soda and water), return home to the experiment and then surf until nightfall at Ensenada X-treme. Sometimes, the Male Participant told me, his Minor Participants ate dinner there as well, and occasionally spent the night there so that the Female Participant, unsupported locally by the Male Participant, might explore the pleasures of adult company at Bar Harbor.

I had imagined Ensenada X-treme as a sprawling villa with wind-blown, primary-colored tents on a white-sand beach populated by well-muscled, zinc-nosed watermen in trunks the color of fire coaching the MPs. I encountered instead a wheel-less 1960s-era VW van on blocks, its seats removed and placed like park benches closer to the shore. Inside the van, called "the office," there was a fetid sleeping bag, some surfing magazines from a few years back and what looked like a bong.

The MPs introduced me to Alex, a beer-bellied 35-year-old in a backward baseball cap who, in turn, introduced himself as Ensenada X-treme's "CEO." He had a way of speaking that some people no doubt find winning. Indeed, though he had known Alex just a few weeks, the Male Participant averred that Alex is "just the best," "never negative," "always upbeat" and "just the most positive guy you'll ever meet." And verily, Alex did say much that was positive—declared, "I'm not just into positivity, I am positivity!" But most of Mr. Positivity's unbalanced buoyancy was Hallmarkian, or perhaps first-year AA. When I asked how he, Alex, formerly of Huntington Beach, California, had arrived at Backend of Nowhere, Baja California, he answered, "God never closes one door without opening another," a declaration that hints at much darkness before dawn and raises questions about the relative value of the dawn that follows a darkness that positively eats hope.

Alex's philosophy vis-à-vis the swinging of doors preceded and punctuated his story about the road—figurative and, it turns out, literal—to Baja. It included much that would have made Charles Dickens shudder (a virtuous and wealthy father replaced by a violent stepfather who reduces the family to penury, apartment living and the worst high school in the Newport Mesa School District) and some that was unintentionally ironic: "someone snitched on" Mr. Positivity in a business deal that he only vaguely describes but that sounds (given a climactic transaction in a dark meeting place in a bad part of Santa Ana and the presence not of credit cards and merchants but of thugs who stole Alex's "inventory"—all of it, down to "the really high-tech equipment" he used "to measure it," "it" being the inventory, about which Alex will say only that "it's very complicated") sufficiently like a drug deal or stolen-goods operation.

Alex told me all of this in a way that seemed rehearsed; he did not blink; he seemed to inhale only rarely, at the moment when he might pass out from lack of oxygen. And he seemed absolutely tone-deaf to the effect of his story on others, to the lack of interest others might find in this tortuous anecdotal résumé, and equally deaf to the irony: that his much-professed "positivity" is built around a story of himself as a victim of predacious others (mother "just not there" for him, evil stepfather, thugs in dark places), including an other that emerges, here and throughout the expat community, as the biggest, most insidious Other: the United States of America.

America, Alex explained (and others in the community backed him on this), has become a country overrun by illegal aliens, sold out to foreigners (Chinese and Mexicans, primarily). This is something I would hear throughout the rest of my short stay at the experiment: America—land where our fathers died, land of the pilgrims, etc.—has been taken over. The peculiar oligarchy ruling America is a shifting, shadowy alliance of drug agents and domestic spies; Chinese manufacturers of toys, electronics and cheap clothes; unions, lesbians and liberals. I found at least one explanation for this later that night in Bar Harbor, the unofficial restaurant/community center: there are two TVs on all the time—one tuned to sports, the other to Fox News. But the other explanation—the other force that has driven these people into exile—is the sort of thing that drove our forebears to the frontier: many of them are on the run. Alimony and child support, arrest warrants, modest pensions, and, sure, a general dissatisfaction with what many of them see as a rigid, nearly totalitarian government. Mr. Positivity said the government, though putatively conservative, is driven to control every aspect of life, and "Alex [now speaking of himself in the third-person singular] isn't anyone's bitch." And "no offense" to me, he said, "but anybody who can live in OC is a bitch, no offense, but that's just the way it is. You're always going to be someone's bitch up north," someone's employee, renter, spouse.

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