Harry Crosby in Baja California in 1974 photographed by Paul Ganster © UCSD

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Like most journalists who cover the San Diego-Tijuana region I’ve spent most of my time pursuing fast-changing events close to the U.S.-Mexico border. But there’s another world just a few hours drive down the Transpeninsular Highway of landscapes studded with boulders and giant cacti, isolated mountain ranchos, Spanish missions and indigenous murals that speak to a time when the border did not exist.

Director Isaac Artenstein’s upcoming hour-long documentary, “The Journeys of Harry Crosby,” takes us to these parts of the Baja California peninsula that seem frozen in time. They’re seen through the lens of a lifelong La Jolla resident who spent decades photographing and researching the area’s history. Crosby, who is now 94 years old, gave up his job teaching high school science to document the people and places of sparsely populated regions that are separated geographically from mainland Mexico.

Through interviews, film footage, and still photographs, the one-hour film follows Crosby’s photographic expeditions during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s far down the Baja California peninsula. It is a testimony to Crosby’s work, but also to a unique and little known part of Mexico. Among the highlights are Crosby’s moving and intimate photographs of rancheros, whose ancestors first settled the region when there was no border between California and Baja California.

“Probably half of the mountain ranches that I went to are abandoned now,” Crosby says in the documentary, as he speaks of visiting these isolated and self-sufficient communities. “It wasn’t some kind of an act that was put on. I saw what was really there. I’m sorry I didn’t see it 20 years earlier.”

Much of Crosby’s work is in black and white, shot with a Canon 35mm camera. His images are featured in six books on Baja California – with subjects ranging from Tijuana in the 1960s to cave paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco. Artenstein calls him a “national treasure,” who “has been responsible for introducing the culture and history of the Baja California peninsula to modern U.S. audiences.”

Artenstein offered me a sneak-peek at his documentary. Mostly, it  filled me with longing – to drop everything and travel the length of Baja California, as Crosby once did, riding mules and camping under the stars, and meeting local residents.

Watching the documentary also made me appreciate the legacy left by Crosby and others of his generation with profound knowledge of Baja California. One was the late Norman Roberts, whose “Baja California Plant Field Guide” described the many endemic plant species on the peninsula. Another is photographer Eve Ewing, who accompanied her oceanographer father in the 1950s as he conducted a census of gray whales in Scammon’s Lagoon, and is interviewed in the film.

Isaac Artenstein and Harry Crosby / Photo courtesy of Cinewest.

“Crosby is a builder of bridges, of cultural bridges. And after four years of rhetoric about ‘build the wall,’ we’re saying ‘build the bridges,’” Artenstein told me when we met last week.

“And who better than Harry Crosby? Really, I can’t think of anybody else.” 

“The Journeys of Harry Crosby” is a co-production of Artenstein’s company, Cinewest, and the San Diego History Center at Balboa Park. Cinewest is in discussions to air the documentary sometime this year with Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) as well as Canal 22, Mexico’s main cultural television network.

Closer to home, the documentary has won the endorsement of both the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana and the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. They are planning screenings of the film on both sides of the border this summer – as part of the upcoming celebration of the 200th anniversary this year of diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico. The exact dates have not been announced.

Artenstein is himself a fronterizo – born in San Diego but raised in Tijuana, a member of the city’s Jewish community, which he featured in an earlier documentary, “Tiuana Jews.” His father owned a curio shop on the popular Tijuana tourist strip, Avenida Revolucion, and that is where Artenstein first learned English. 

Artenstein, who now lives in Oceanside, grew up with little knowledge of Baja California’s interior and its rich history – subjects that were barely touched on in schools on either side of the border. He first met Crosby four years ago, while working on another project involving the Spanish missions.

“The Journeys of Harry Crosby” is a retrospective. But one Artenstein believes is timely and important for both sides of the border. “We share stories, we share cultures, we share landscapes, we share an entire ocean that’s called the Pacific,” Artenstein told me. “I want people, especially in this region, to embrace a California identity in a really deep way.”

Also Noteworthy

  • As the U.S. government stopped admitting Ukrainian refugees at U.S. land borders last month, some were stranded in Tijuana. A volunteer told the Union-Tribune that as of April 26, 82 people were staying at the city’s provisional shelter for Ukrainian refugees. A Tijuana official told KPBS that authorities are encouraging Ukrainians to go to Mexico City, where they can apply for asylum in Mexico. Or wait until May 23, when the COVID-19 restriction on applying for asylum at the border is lifted. 
  • A group of 200 Special Forces soldiers arrived in Tijuana last week to strengthen the battle against organized crime and reduce homicides. They joined more than 3,000 soldiers and National Guard members already in the region. (Union-Tribune, Tijuanapress.com, El Sol de Tijuana)
  • Mexico’s undersecretary of security announced on Thursday, April 28, that the slayings earlier this year of Tijuana news photographer Margarito Martinez and journalist Lourdes Maldonado are linked to the same criminal cell made up of remnants of the Arellano Felix Organization. (San Diego Union-Tribune, Punto Norte, GLocal)
  • San Diego County has started offering free legal services to immigration detainees facing deportation, becoming the first along the U.S.-Mexico border to do so. (inewsource, NBC San Diego, Union-Tribune)
  • The California Air Resources Board (CARB) last week announced the delivery of air sensors to Tijuana to provide air monitoring of particulate matter along the border with San Diego. The CARB received $18,000 in grant funding for the project through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Border Program. (Union-Tribune, KPBS, CARB)
  • Cuyamaca College is hosting an exhibit showing for the first time in the U.S. the work of 20 Mexican photojournalists that “chronicle day-to-day life among indigenous and Afro-American people and the tragedy of poverty and ongoing drug violence” in the state of Guerrero. Proceeds from the sale of the photos will support the Mexican journalism website, “Amapola.” The exhibit, called “A Photo for Freedom,” is free and opens Thursday at 5 p.m. with a reception featuring an online discussion with the head of the website that will be streamed live on YouTube. The exhibit is located in the lobby of the Samuel M. Ciccati Performing Arts Center at the school, located at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego. It runs through early June.

Please contact me with any comments and news tips at: sandradibblenews@gmail.com

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3 Comments

  1. I read Crosby’s book “The King’s Highway in Baja California” several years ago. One of the most fascinating books I ever read.

  2. “Probably half of the mountain ranges that I went to are abandoned now,” Crosby says…
    should that be “mountain ranchos”?

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