The agricultural region known as Imperial Valley is visually stunning. The farmland resembles a giant green carpet.
I’m a real estate appraiser sent to determine the Fair Market Value of the Heroes Hall located in a small town called La Esperanza within Imperial County, bordering San Diego and the Arizona desert.
I checked into the The Incan hotel, a Spanish style architectural relic. Upon entering the lobby, I’m greeted by a fountain, a parlor with antique leather upholstered chairs, and a stone fireplace. The elderly hotel clerk checks me in by having me write my name into a register as there is no computer, and I see a telephone switchboard still in use. Adjacent to the lobby, there’s a dimly lit cocktail bar surrounded by bar stools adorned with well-worn red leather cushions.
My room is small, including a bed with squeaky springs, a bathroom lined with colorful Mexican ceramic tiles, and original plumbing fixtures. The antique telephone has no dial, ringing only to the front desk switchboard. The hotel and room are throwbacks to simpler times.
My stay will be 24 hours. I’ll use the time to explore a small town in California of a bygone era.
I was awoken early in the morning by the din of a crowd assembling outside the Heroes Hall across the street. The old alarm clock on the night stand read 5:00. I hurriedly dressed, washed my faced, combed my hair, and headed over to see what was going on.
As I entered the crowd waiting to enter the Heroes Hall, a child approached me with a restaurant order book.
“What you want, Senor?”
I waved him off. I noticed many children roaming throughout the crowd taking orders. Most of them were wearing tattered clothing, and some were barefoot.
The doors to the Heroes Hall opened revealing an auditorium. An old priest walking slowly with a cane was permitted entry first, and sat at the back of the hall. Once the last of the crowd sat, the hall became silent. The priest said a prayer before the business of the day began.
The children walked throughout the hall taking orders and, soon thereafter, returned, delivering drinks and food. I was curious about the place and events to unravel. I spied a young man wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off, revealing muscled arms with tattoos extending to his neckline. I sat beside him.
“Excuse me, Sir. Can you tell me what’s going on here?”
“I’m suspicious of strangers, especially dudes wearing a business suit!”
“I’m a businessman staying at the Incan Hotel. I was awoken by the commotion outside the hall and came to check it out. My name is Jason.”
He remained silent.
“I’ll buy you whatever these kids are selling if you’ll tell me what’s going on here.”
“I’ll take you at your word. Watch.”
He held up his hand and was approached by a child to take his order.
“Give me one large black coffee, one breakfast burrito, one pack of cigs with a pack of matches, one airplane bottle size vodka, and one airplane size whisky. What do you want, Jason?”
“One large black coffee and a toasted bagel with cream cheese.”
“Vente Cinco dollars, Senor.”
“He’s telling you twenty-five dollars.”
I gave the kid thirty dollars, and was handed a receipt.
“How can a kid take an order for booze and cigarettes?”
“They have a system between them so everything is legal.”
“What going on inside here?”
“All these people are day laborers waiting for the Round Up when the foreman from the growers arrive and hire labor for the day.”
“Why would people pack themselves into a hall just for a day’s pay?”
“They’re paid by how much they pick, and paid cash at the end of the day. They have hungry mouths to feed at home and bills to pay! They gather here every day except Sunday.”
A man arrived with our order. He handed me five dollars change, and I refused it. Inside a brown paper bag, I retrieved the coffee, pack of cigarettes, a yellow matchbook inscribed Imperial Liquor Store including the fleur-de-lis, and the food.
“These kids make money with tips. They’re also paid a commission on each order by the coffee shop and liquor store where all the stuff comes from.”
“Wouldn’t food trucks parked outside be more convenient? These kids should be in school.”
“Small towns protect their own. Trucks would put the coffeeshop and liquor store out of business. No time for school. These kids are earning rent and food money for their families to survive. At lunch time, they’ll head out into the fields and deliver lunch orders to trucks who phone the orders into the coffee shop and liquor store. The trucks pick up the items and deliver the orders to the kids who run them out to the laborers in the fields.”
“Why is it so silent in here?”
“I call it The Trance. Everyone is silently praying; they will be chosen to work today. I’ve got to eat my breakfast, smoke a cig, and get into my trance. Stick around, and you’ll see the life of Los Imperiales.”
“Thanks for your information. I didn’t get your name.”
“I didn’t give it to you.”
I left to sit at the back of the hall and watch.
Cycloptic ceiling fans made the room hotter, acting like blenders whipping up the anxiety of the impoverished, desperate workers who appear to be immigrants from Mexico.
A nest of sparrows was sequestered within the rafters, and the chirping creates a soothing chorus to the silent mediation of the laborers.
Truck horns sound the arrival of the foremen. The large wooden doors secreting memories of weddings, confirmations, school dances, and USO events of decades pass are thrown open; the foremen enter and bark their labor requirements, “Five lettuce pickers; two cabbage pickers; tractor driver; one sorter; and one bundler.”
Only ten laborers out of a hundred were chosen at random to toil under the blazing sun for pay, which I suspect is below minimum wage. The lucky jump on back of flatbed trucks. The engines roar, ripping apart the morning calm. Those not chosen for work drag themselves home to await the following morning when they might be chosen.
I file out with the others and return to my hotel room to begin work on my appraisal. Although I confirmed the old hotel has Wi-Fi; it’s spotty.
Appraising an old building like the Heroes Hall is difficult, and my search for sales comps is tedious. An examination of property sales in town suggested property didn’t trade often, likely held for generations. The sole exception was a plot of land on the main street which had sold to a partnership named, Solve 4 y. I traced the members of the partnership to lawyers of a San Francisco law firm known to represent land developers and tech giant billionaires. I suspect the lawyers were fronts for their clients who placed their fortunes into real estate development, including office buildings, shopping centers, distribution centers, and housing. I made a note of the property address.
I found a newspaper article regarding a fire in town, “The new brew pub and restaurant fire was of suspicious origin.”
I glanced at my smartphone and was struck by the many APPS I had downloaded. I imagined an APP created for the children permitting them to receive food and drink orders directly from the laborers and placing them with the coffee shop and liquor store. The APP would also permit direct hire between the growers and laborer’s, eliminating the need for trips to the Heroes Hall. It might be profitable if the children could charge the growers a fee to obtain labor through their APP while collecting a user fee on each food and sundry order.
A horn blew outside my window.
The horn was blasted by a beat-up former school bus. The children who delivered food earlier in the morning began to board the bus, which I suspect was taking them into the fields to begin taking lunch orders. It saddened me they were taken into the fields to work by a school bus. The old alarm clock read 11:00 am.
I spent the remainder of the day walking about the small town which hadn’t changed in over fifty years, including a gas station with original pumps, and the usual businesses found in a small town. I was struck by the vintage metal and neon signs which would fetch top dollar at auction given the creativity and craftsmanship of each sign.
I approached a property matching the address of the sale I noted earlier. It was a fenced off building which had burned to the ground. A charred sign reading “Brew Pub” remained, likely the building mentioned in the newspaper. Underneath the charred sign, I could make out the scorched cover of a yellow matchbook with the fleur-de-lis. I felt as if I had eyes on me, and a chill ran up my spine. I left immediately.
I decided to end the day with a cold beer at the Incan Hotel bar. I sat at the original oak bar, atop an antique stool with a soft, red leather seat cushion. Like the town, the bar appeared to be stuck in time. There was an antique jukebox replete with hits, peaking in the fifties which cost a dime to hear. I was the only customer.
The bartender approached, “Buena’s Dias, Senor. What would you like?”
“A Mexican beer, please.”
He returned with a tall bottle of cold Mexican beer, first placing down a thick red napkin inscribed in gold, reading, “Incan Hotel,” and a sparkling clean, tall beer glass.
“Enjoy, Senor. Salud!”
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find the old priest holding his cane.
“May I join you, young man?”
I held his hand as he struggled to climb atop the bar stool.
The bartender quickly approached.
“Hola, Padre. El mismo?”
“Si, Renaldo. Para mi y mi amigo.”
The bartender returned with a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses. Before pouring, the bartender wiped clean the dusty old bottle of premium tequila blended many decades ago.
The priest lifted his shot glass as I lifted mine saying Salud before downing his first shot, and pouring each of us a second.
“Occasionally, we’re visited by young people like yourself who are bankers, lawyers, and real estate people. Why are you here?”
“My name is Jason, and I’m an appraiser sent to determine the value of the Heroes Hall.”
“I’m Father Hidalgo.”
“Why does the photograph of the soldier hang above the bar, Father?”
“Many, many, years ago, that young soldier was my best friend. He was killed in Iwo Jima. His name was Ernesto Reynoso, whose family owned this bar and built the Heroes Hall in memory of Ernesto.”
“Are the photos hanging in the Heroes Hall of fallen Imperial Valley sons and daughters?”
“Yes. It disturbs me to remember officiating at their baptisms. Why are you appraising the Heroes Hall?”
“I wasn’t told, Father”.
“Who is your employer?”
“A very prestigious law firm in Los Angeles.”
“You’re the appraiser my lawyers sent to provide me an updated appraisal on the Heroes Hall.”
“I’m fortunate to meet you as I wasn’t provided any contact information for the owner. The lawyers prefer that I remain objective in my valuation.”
“I expect objectivity.”
“I’d welcome any background regarding the Heroes Hall, Father.”
“The Reynoso family owns this hotel, the Heroes Hall, many of the retail businesses up and down the street, including many thousand acres of prime agricultural land fronting Interstate 8 at the off ramps.”
“Does the Reynoso family still farm the land and do the hiring out of the Heroes Hall?”
“The Reynoso family has owned the land since the Spanish land grants. The many generations are independently wealthy and have no desire to dirty their hands and sweat picking crops, but some of the younger family members are aware of the land value, and I’m feeling pressure from them to consider offers to sell the estate, although the farm land is leased to corporate farmers paying handsome rent providing comfortable lifestyles for the Reynoso family.”
“Why would I be sent to appraise the Heroes Hall and not the other properties, Father?”
“As a young priest officiating at Ernesto’s funeral, I became a trusted advisor to Ernesto’s father, Ernesto Senior. Senior saw the future value of the real estate increasing as California grew after the war. We drove to a big shot law firm in Los Angeles where Senior had an ironclad trust written, stipulating that no property could be sold by the Trustee unless the fair market value of the Heroes Hall, as determined solely by the Trustee, was approved.”
“You’re telling me the fate of the entire estate worth tens of millions of dollars is determined by the fair market value of the Heroes Hall?”
“Yes, Jason. The Hero’s Hall was Senior’s connection to his fallen son, and he wanted to ensure Ernesto would have the final say, even beyond the grave.”
“Who is the Trustee?”
“You’re looking at him, and with Senior’s wishes firmly in mind, there will never be a satisfactory fair market value.”
“The trust has frozen this place in time, Father.”
“I prefer to say, Senior has secured the opportunity for the poor to provide for their families. My colleagues up and down the coast have witnessed small towns like La Esperanza fall victim to California’s growth and gentrification. I’m blessed with the opportunity to halt progress and prevent the fields from becoming distribution centers, retail giants, and expensive housing tracts which will displace the field workers. Ah, Renaldo is returning with my dinner of home-made tamales to go. Renaldo, please provide my friend Jason a plate of your lovely wife’s homemade tamales for his supper.”
“What is the tab, Renaldo? I would like to pay.”
“He means no charge, Jason. It was a pleasure to speak with you. I suggest after dinner, you drive over to Calexico; cross into Mexico, and visit lovely Mexicali. Crossing back home across the border, you’ll witness something very special.”
I helped the old priest off the bar stool, and watched him slowly walk out of the bar. After eating the delicious tamales, I drove over to Calexico and crossed the border into Mexicali to look about.
Traffic was horrendous, returning back across the border. Father Hidalgo said I would “witness something very special,” and I saw the kids from the morning selling cold drinks and gallon bottles to the frustrated motorists inching forward in heavy traffic.
The wait time for motorists crossing back into California can be hours in the heat. There are no restrooms, markets, or any opportunity to leave the crowded procession of cars.
The enterprising kids made up flavored drinks, filling plastic bottles, placed them within beat-up Styrofoam ice chests, and walked up and down the procession of cars hawking the cold drinks.
The children also sold empty gallon size plastic containers marked “Urine Bottle,” including a sturdy cardboard funnel and cap to desperate motorists stuck in traffic with no bathroom facilities for $5.00.
I was impressed by their ingenuity. Recalling my idea for an APP earlier in the day; I imagined the motorists waiting to cross the border, placing a delivery order on an APP with the convenience of having it delivered directly to their car!
Ahead of me was an expensive sportscar with a license plate reading, “APPKING.” It pulled to the side of the road, and a hand emerged waiving the kids to come speak to the driver. It may have been coincidence, but I suspect the APPKING, like many opportunists before, would be disappointed by Father Hidalgo’s decision not to sell the Reynoso estate.
I motioned to a teenage boy and girl who appeared to be supervising their younger cohorts. They approached my window.
“Yes, Senor. Cold drink or urine bottle?”
“How did you get here from La Esperanza?”
“The school bus brings us to and from the border.”
I pulled out the business card of the lawyer who retained me to complete the appraisal.
“Go to the man in the sportscar. Tell him he is to speak with Father Hidalgo regarding any business with you. Give this card to Father Hidalgo and say Jason told him to contact this lawyer regarding your conversation with the man.”
“Yes, Senor. Who are you?”
“A friend of Father Hidalgo.”
“We go now to see man in sportscar. Gracias, Senior Jason!”
As my car inched forward in traffic, I slowly passed the sportscar. The driver looked familiar, including the tats of the tough guy I spoke with at the Round Up. Feeling my stare, he turned his head towards me, grinned, held up and waved a pack of cigarettes, and turned away, resuming his conversation with the kids.
I suspect the APPKING wouldn’t take advantage of the young entrepreneurs. How ironic it would be if a tech giant, interested in purchasing the Reynoso trust for development, would be enriching its poorest citizens by creating a profitable APP inspired by their enterprise?
Father Hidalgo knew the winds of change were blowing towards La Esperanza, and large donations paid to politicians lusting after tax revenue result in redevelopment proposals and eminent domain proceedings, destroying small towns forever.
La Esperanza was paradoxical. In addition to providing me a glimpse of a bygone era, I met enterprising children whose business attracted the APPKING who found it necessary to masquerade as a day laborer in order to evaluate a future enterprise. The town also provided a lesson that one cannot make assumptions about those they meet.
I hoped Father Hidalgo had an ally in creating opportunity for the impoverished residents.
The Heroes Hall provided work to its citizens which a sale of the Reynoso Trust properties would destroy. To facilitate Father Hidalgo’s inevitable decision not to sell, I adjusted my fair market value below its true value. The Reynoso Family Trust may eventually prove no match against formidable buyers wanting their land, but my appraisal might help Father Hidalgo.
As I crossed the border and approached the onramp to the freeway, taking me to my next assignment, the faces of Los Imperiales left me with indelible memories of a bygone era of a town named La Esperanza which, translated from Spanish into English means, Hope.