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Life here isn't exactly easy. According to Albert Lopez, a San Pablo city planner working to revitalize the grand boulevard, most neighbors worry about the high crime rate and shop here more out of necessity than love. But in the mornings, this street still comes alive. Just after 8:00 a.m., an army of Hispanic mothers meanders down the street, ready to run errands, meet friends, and buy the week's groceries. Whereas most Americans drive everywhere they go, the immigrant spirit that prevails here is distinctly pedestrian. The señoras of Old Town still prefer to walk, just as they did back in Mexico.
Francisco Flores, one of San Pablo's new Mexican shopkeepers, says the Hispanic immigrants along 23rd Street yearn for the neighborhood intimacy that walking provides them. They're both fascinated and horrified by the fast pace of American life -- entranced by the promise of opportunity, but dismayed by the ubiquitous loneliness of hustling.
"We come from a place that's very integrated, you know -- father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, grandmothers, and so on," he says. "You come here, and you're alone. You're like in one of those, what do you call it, the circus in the time of the Romans. When you come to the US, you feel like you're in a Roman circus, you have to control the animal. ... Of course, here there are opportunities, it's a great chance to earn money, to buy clothes, to buy soda pop. But you're living a lonely life, loneliness is an enemy that's against you, because you leave everything behind. Even though here you wear nice clothes, Levis, or nice tennis shoes, or have a hundred dollars in your pocket, that doesn't fulfill what's in your heart."
Flores owns the Tigress, an old 23rd Street dive bar and one of the last outposts of Old San Pablo. It's just a few blocks from the homes of Joe Gomes and Sary Tatpaporn. The Tigress opened in 1957 as a tiki lounge, evoking the noirish Polynesian grit that San Pablo's Pacific theater vets brought back to the States with them. For decades, white working-class men threw back mai tais and martinis beneath the bamboo. But earlier this year, time finally ran out for the Tigress when Flores bought the property and set about transforming it into the next phase of San Pablo's social life. Sometime in the next few months, he plans to reopen the place as a mercata, carnicería, and cafe. Recently, on yet another of those baking, bone-dry October afternoons, Flores was perched at the top of a ladder, banging out the last of the drywall with a claw hammer. Two of his brothers were in the back, shoveling swaths of fiberglass insulation into plastic garbage cans while mariachi music played on the radio.
Sweeping his hand over the grooves cut into the foundation by the old bar, Flores explains his plans. "What I have in mind is have a meat market right here, have a deli where my brother is working right now, and right here in the center will be small shelves filled with Mexican groceries," he says. "And here is refrigerators with milk and sodas and fruits." Flores pointed to a deep alcove where the pool table used to be, now stacked with old bar stools and debris from the drop ceiling he had just demolished. "This is gonna work!" he promises. "This is like the No Fail Cafe in Emeryville; have you seen that? This is same thing, can't fail. It won't fail, because I have parking space, I'm on the busiest street, I have a new building, I have the charisma to talk to people. I speak the language, I know what they want, I know how they think."
Flores has come a long way since he first paid a coyote $350 to sneak him across the border in 1978. He was a sixteen-year-old butcher's son from Chavinda, a small village in the Mexican state of Michoacán. The skies above Tijuana poured buckets of rain as he snuck through the fence, only to be caught by la migra and shipped home after a day in detention. But Flores knew his family needed money, so he slipped back over the border a few days later. This time, he found himself in the back of a car, en route to a safe house in East Los Angeles. Flores still remembers the awe and confusion he felt that night. "I thought it was crazy here," he says. "It was after nine o'clock, and I saw nothing but lights on either side of the freeway. And I thought to myself, 'These people are crazy. Where are the fields? Where are the factories? Where are the workplaces here? These crazy people -- nothing but lights here.'"
Within three days, Flores was holed up in a one-bedroom West Berkeley apartment, along with his brother and eight other men. They slept on cots in shifts and worked the service trade. Flores got a job washing dishes at Caffe Mediterraneum, and grew to revere the Italian owner as a surrogate father. He attended Berkeley Adult School English classes at the same time as Tatpaporn, and eventually took a janitorial job at Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto. But the long hours and incessant loneliness began to wear him down, and he missed the intimacy of his family and village. After three years, he returned to Mexico. The lure of money was just too strong, however, and within three months, he was back at the border, shopping for coyotes.
After another harrowing dash across the border, Flores was in the United States for good. He slogged away at Caffe Med and Spenger's until he got good work as a driver for a foundry, where he worked for the next twenty years. He met his future wife in San Francisco at a socialist labor hall dance, and courted her for two years before her parents consented to the marriage. He picked up his GED and became a voracious reader: his favorite authors are Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and John Grisham. He got a green card during the 1986 amnesty. He started a family.
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