Experience San Diego’s Mexican Heritage in a Myriad of Ways

Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood is a celebration of San Diego’s Mexican heritage
Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood is a celebration of San Diego’s Mexican heritage | © Stacy Keck

The border town of San Diego is a rich mix of Mexican and American culture. The city’s Mexican influence is palpable wherever you go, and it has made this seaside destination one of southern California’s most interesting places.

Like all border towns, San Diego’s soul is a reflection of the cross-cultural community who have called this place home. Take a walk through Chicano Park in the Barrio Logan neighborhood during the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead), and the Mexican influence is even more remarkable than usual. During this time, altars are set up across the green lawns of the predominantly Chicano neighborhood, decorated to the hilt with sugar sculptures, marigold flowers and the photographs of loved ones long gone.

Perhaps some of the people in the photographs were the ones who fought for Chicano Park in 1970, when the parkland was on the brink of becoming a highway patrol station. Or the ones who protested when the neighborhood’s access to the bay was cut off by the US Navy during World War II. The history of the local community is as woven into the foundation of Barrio Logan as the murals and public art that adorn every surface here. To truly see San Diego today is to understand and appreciate this sun and surf city’s Mexican roots, which have made this cultural hybrid one of southern California’s coolest spots.

Visit Old Town during Day of the Dead celebrations

San Diego comes alive during the Day of the Dead celebrations – which take place for over a week in November – especially in the historic heart of the city’s Old Town. For people of Mexican heritage across the world, the Día de Muertos is a time to remember and honor those who have departed. It is believed that people have three deaths: the first when you die, the second when your body is buried and back in the earth, and the last when the last person who remembers you on this earth has also died. As long as someone remembers you, you are still alive in memory.

‘Día de Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) celebrates ancestors who have passed away

Dive into the streets of Old Town, brimming with people dressed in vivid colors, and listen to the live music play among local families enjoying the holiday. Here, you can get your face painted to resemble La Caterina, the female skeleton who is one of the most recognizable symbols of Day of the Dead celebrations, before joining a candlelight procession as the sun dips over a glowing Californian sky.

Eat a meal in Barrio Logan

One of the first things you will see as you drive into the neighborhood of Barrio Logan is the line snaked around a hole-in-the-wall joint with a green sign that reads Las Cuatro Milpas – a third-generation Mexican restaurant that serves up some of the best home-made tortillas, carnitas and tacos. Stop here to pick up some food to go (they have limited seating, and only take cash).

You can’t leave Barrio Logan without tucking into some tacos

Alternatively, try an El Xolito – a salsa verde-laden tribute to the Tijuana-style hot dog – paired with a tangy michelada cocktail at Barrio Dogg. Chef Pablo started selling hot dogs out of the back of an Impala lowrider, and quickly became a local favorite for his playful flavors (think spicy cactus fruit salsa, smoked poblanos and wasabi sesame seeds), and self-described “Chicano comfort food”.

The neighborhood is Mexican in essence – created by the influx of Mexican refugees to the area during the Mexican revolution – and contrasts the hipster feel of Little Italy, for example, where organic produce and natural skincare stalls reign. Spend the afternoon wandering through this emerging art district’s galleries, breweries, boutiques and craft coffee shops.

Hop across the Mexican border for a Tijuana road trip

Las Vegas is now universally known as the place where Americans (and everyone else) go for a weekend of debauchery. However, during Prohibition in the 1920s, Tijuana in Mexico was more Vegas than Vegas is today – a place where Southern Californians could escape for days of low-key boozing and gambling. Today, teenagers in SoCal still steal across the border, unbeknownst to their parents, to experience the freedoms of “TJ”.

Tijuana is right over the border from San Diego

To get a feel for Baja California, spend the day with Turista Libre (Free Tourist) – founded by a former journalist who helps people discover the many facets of Tijuana. On a day tour with them, you can hop on a dusty yellow mini school bus, where they will ply you with shots of mezcal, and serve up a family-style meal of mole, tamales and salsa at an authentic restaurant that could be run by your abuela. Later, you can try your hand at a game of lotería (a traditional game similar to bingo) at a local brewery.

Take something tangible away from Mexican store Artelexia

Elexia de la Parra grew up in Tijuana and San Diego with her family’s Mexican values and turned her passion for cross-cultural collaboration into a business. Starting out with a stall at the La Jolla Farmer’s Market, Elexia now has a lively store called Artelexia in North Park where she sells unique handcrafted Mexican imports, while supporting the local communities who produce them. She’s also branched out into workshops that teach people how to make sugar skulls and piñatas, as well as week-long trips to Mexico.

You can learn to make your own sugar skull at Artelexia

She says when she started out, her clientele consisted mostly of older people. And now it’s the young people who come into her store or attend her workshops – looking to connect and understand more about their culture. After all, like all border towns, the most interesting thing about San Diego is the city’s connection to Mexico – one that has elevated it from a sleepy surfer town into a vibrant cosmopolis bursting with color and culture.

For more information, visit sandiego.org. The writer stayed at The Guild Hotel, a merger of iconic heritage and modern design, in the heart of downtown San Diego.

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