Indolence clings to San Diego like sheets to the skin in summer. It is a place rich only in time: the oil boom that fleetingly livened the South Texas towns of Freer to the west and Alice to the east bypassed San Diego. The compliant coastal plain gives over to the wild and inhospitable brush country here, land that submits to nothing but the inexorable pressure of the sky. “There is not a thing to do in this lonely land but drink and fornicate,” a turn-of-the-century traveler wrote, and to speed across Duval County today is to believe little has changed since then.
San Diego, the county seat, puts up a good front. It is, like most small towns, neither interested in nor of interest to the person just passing through. The Lopez convenience store and El Mercado supermarket indicate how little this insular and isolated place has in common with the small towns that line the interstate highways to the north, towns that are little more than far-flung suburbs with their own 7-Elevens, multi-cinemas, and strip shopping centers. English is spoken only intermittently in San Diego. In its heart, it is a Mexican town begrudgingly located in Texas.
In San Diego, Americans are people who live elsewhere; Anglos are people who bring or cause bad news. Faith soothes, fate rules: The Catholic church on the town square brims with people on Sunday mornings; on a weekday a young boy, pumped by a friend on the handlebars of his bike, crosses himself as he speeds past. A white horse, loose from the field, poses no inconvenience as it prances down a main street; instead cars fall into line behind in an impromptu parade. Cocks and dogs have the run of their blocks, where ancient adobe houses graciously permit frame bungalows and trailers on adjoining lots. The few spacious Spanish colonial mansions, their windows covered with extravagant grillwork, overlook the shacks of Naked City—a poor neighborhood so named because the babies run around without clothes. Reconciled to close quarters, San Diegoans present sunny faces to one another. There is always time for coffee at the Dairy Queen and Jerry’s Diner; one of the worst snubs imaginable is to refuse to say “hi” to someone. In this town of five thousand, everyone belongs.
Only after spending a longer time in a town might one question this congeniality, see it as a courageous attempt at wishful thinking. For San Diego is a kingdom of cursed. People here are epicures of talk, but the stories they embroider and embellish have the haunting beauty of a mournful corrido. When San Diegoans talk of their families, they talk of loss: the mother who went mad, the brother who stole the inheritance, the son killed in an automobile accident on Christmas Eve. Resigned to the price of passion, townspeople are all too familiar with tragic results of beer-joint fights and late-night lovers’ quarrels.
But the curse of San Diego is found not in the cruel mixture of poverty and passion but in its own hunger for accommodation. A student of history knows the secrets the insiders do not give up willingly—that this is a place where terrible things have happened, a place where justice has been as fleeting and capricious as the dust devils that swirl up and disappear along the back roads out of town. One of the oldest towns in Texas, San Diego is a place shaped by violence, oppression, and domination: first, as Anglo and Hispanic settlers battled bitterly for control of the land—“My grandfather killed her father,” a resident told me, her way of introducing a character into her family narrative—and later, as the people of San Diego fell under the spell of Archer Parr and his son George. The two men helped the Mexicans take over this parched Eden only to take their freedom in return; styling themselves as patrones, the Parrs used the threat of violence to maintain control for more than sixty years. To survive, the people of San Diego learned to submit—or to be cast out into a world they did not want, that did not want them.
Eventually the Parr empire collapsed, but the people of San Diego clung together even more fiercely in the aftermath. Marked by history, they had only one place to feel at home. They would acquiesce to their own: When toughs took over the club at the town’s only hotel, the respectable customers simply moved on. It did not matter so much that the hotel soon closed as a result—no one cared about visitors anyway. It did not matter that city-hall windows in San Diego had to be boarded up and white-washed because, one woman explained, “we have a man who doesn’t like glass.” In San Diego it is better to sit in the dark than to punish the man with the rock in his hand. Never did it occur to the people here that they had exchanged one form of tyranny for another.
It is occasionally noted that no highways lead north from San Diego, a detail that seems to reveal indisputably the town’s southward orientation. In fact, a few local roads do lead north out of town. One in particular, on the far west side, is a winding, desolate stretch that eventually turns to caliche before veering east to intersect State Highway 281. The mesquite and prickly pear form a curtain along the roadside; it is barely possible, beyond a rise a few miles outside of town, to make out a small colonia of shacks and treeless lots