Looking For Guillermo: Tijuana

A New York writer discovers her late father in the Mexican border-town bars and restaurants that were his life.

Looking For Guillermo: Tijuana

A New York writer discovers her late father in the Mexican border-town bars and restaurants that were his life

Guillermo's was the place to go in Tijuana back in the '50s and '60s, when that Mexican border town was a playground for the rich and famous from both sides of the frontier. My dad, Guillermo Carreño Olsen, who owned the place, was a judge at the local bullfights—a prestigious, mayor-appointed position. The way the story goes, the bullfighters followed my father to his restaurant and the beautiful women followed the bullfighters and the rest of the world followed the beautiful women. Sammy Davis Jr. went to Guillermo's, and George Hamilton and Lana Turner. It was said that the drogas traficantes could be on one side of the room and the federales on the other, but there was never any problem; there were no problems at Guillermo's.

Guillermo's (officially called El Bodegon de Guillermo) burned down in 1978, when I was 12. All I have left of it are snapshot memories, tinged with nostalgia, like the black-and-white photos of my parents and their friends, looking fabulous in their coats and ties and gowns and gloves, as if life were just one long party. I have memories of my own little feet running back to my dad's office, where his secretary would greet me as if I were somebody important. Of sitting up "like a lady", with my napkin on my lap, in a big red booth. Of ordering my very own plate of carne asada, served with an enchilada (chicken or cheese), guacamole, and refried beans, with white queso fresco—which makes Mexican food taste the way it's supposed to—crumbled over everything. And I have memories of blowing out the candles on a cake that read "Feliz Cumpleaños, Carolina" while the waiters sang "Las Mañanitas", the Mexican birthday song—and of feeling so proud that my dad knew why my mom had brought me and my sister Christy to the restaurant that night.

But I also have memories of the way my dad would inevitably get bored with family life mid-meal and leave our table to toss a caesar salad for someone else, always getting called back again by customers who asked him to wave his hand over the bowl with a little more of the "secret ingredient" he kept in a shaker in his coat pocket (which, I recently learned, was salt). And memories, as I got older, of trying to tell him about my report card, the photography class I was taking, or the trumpet solo I was playing in band, while he'd look around the room, flag down a waiter, or talk over me to my mother across the table, acknowledging me only occasionally with a brush on the cheek and a "Mi hija bonita"—my beautiful daughter.

My dad was a man's man, a man of his friends, not of his families—though he had six children, two each by three of his four wives. The nights when we visited, he invariably ended up at a table with the men, with their amber-colored drinks and clouds of smoke and big-man laughs. Men who introduced themselves to me at his memorial service and said, "Your father was like my brother. If you should ever need anything…."

So it's five years later, a Friday night in October, and I'm driving across the border into Tijuana to spend two months with Memo and Iridia, my dad's last two children. I'm here because the thing I need to know is who my father was. When you're little and your dad spends almost no time with you, you grow up and wonder what he was doing instead.

I used to worry that maybe "Daddy", as I tried to call him, was more of a father to Memo and Iridia than he was to Christy and me. "Don't take it personally," my mother would reassure me. "He doesn't have the restaurant anymore. He's just too tired to live the way he did." The way he lived was that if you were with him, you had all of him. But if you were, say, the wife at home, counting on him for anything at all, well…. His sole purpose in life was to enjoy it. The way my mom tells it, Guillermo was the handsomest, most charming man she'd ever met, and next thing she knew, they were married: "We used to fly to Vegas on a moment's notice. We'd go to Mexico City for the weekend. And then I had you two, and he was still flying to Vegas on a moment's notice, still going to Mexico City for the weekend." Once, he went to Mexico City for the weekend and didn't come home for three months. Every few days he'd call and say, "Aye, Mami! I'm sorry. I ran into so-and-so, and I'm staying a few more days. Besos." By the time he did come home, she'd moved us back across the border, to San Diego, and when he walked in and said, "Mami, I'm home," she tells me, she couldn't even get mad at him. "That was Guillermo."

Now I'm on calle Carillo Puerto, heading towards where Guillermo's was—on calle Galeana between the avenidas Francisco Madero and Revolucion—just to orient myself. I'm driving as if I didn't know that in Mexico you're guilty until proven innocent. I haven't even bought insurance, and getting into an accident here without it means a sure trip to jail, even for a Mexican. But it's like a dare. Anytime we're driving in Tijuana, my mom repeats the story of how once, during the short time she lived there, she got pulled over: "When the policia found out I was the wife of Guillermo Carreño," she says, "oh! He just kept apologizing and sent me on my way!" I guess part of me wants to know if my name still means something here.

I come to a stop sign. My windows are down, the Santa Anas are blowing, and I hear plaintive Mexican love songs coming from the car next to mine. I look over and see a young, dark-skinned guy with his girl in the kind of white American car—dusty and lopsided—that my dad used to drive. To my left, amid rows of fluorescent-lit auto-repair and tuck-and-roll shops, four men in cowboy hats slouch around a taco stand, as if they came from nowhere and have nowhere to go. The smell—of wet dirt and exhaust fumes and meat on the fire—is familiar, and I am in love with the scene. I want to step into it, to know what it feels like to walk up to a taco stand in Tijuana as if it were the most natural thing in the world. To be Mexican.

Johnny (Juan Javier), my big brother by Guillermo's first wife, has given me some names of our dad's friends. I pick up the phone and, with practiced rolled rs, tell the men who answer, "I am Carolina Carreño, daughter of your friend Guillermo. I am writing about him. And I would like to meet you." People are friendly and, I imagine, a little surprised because even if they do know that my dad had two gringa daughters, I doubt that they know my name. But they do seem to like hearing from me and to welcome the chance to reminisce about Guillermo's and the good old days of Tijuana.

I have dinner with Frederik von Son—who introduces himself as "your father's oldest friend"—and his wife, Anita, at La Fonda Robertos, a place where my dad took my sister and me sometimes to show us that there was Mexican cuisine beyond refried beans: food like blood sausage, squash-blossom quesadillas, chiles en nogada. Freddy talks about the time my dad called him in the middle of the night, crying: He had a government job at the time, and he'd taken his first bribe. "Your dad was a good man," he says, and I figure Freddy was his good-conscience friend, a ballast in his wild, stormy life.

Another day, my dad's second cousin Carlos Esquerro invites me home for breakfast with his wife and daughter and tells me how Guillermo's began: "Your father had just married the most beautiful woman in Tijuana [his first wife], from a very distinguished family. And he was a certain type, very handsome, very fine. Together, the two made Guillermo's what it was—glamorous, magical!"

The place where I've been told my dad spent the last good days of his life—and the place I have therefore been nervous about going to—is Paellas Toñico. A few weeks into my trip, Christy and I make a date to meet our dad's brother, Uncle Hector, and his wife, Edie, there. We arrive first, sit down at a table near a man who is singing flamenco, and look around at the photos on the walls. There, among the pictures of famous bullfighters in their mirrored trajes de luces (suits of lights), we find one of our dad wearing a guayabera and the crooked smile I inherited from him. The man who is singing flamenco has his arm around our dad, so we guess that he must be Toñico. When he finishes singing, we introduce ourselves, and Toñico, a short, round man who wears his emotions on his face, stands up, clutches his heart, and says, in raspy, lisping, near-incomprehensible Spanish, "Aye! My body is cold! Your papa was my best friend!"

Hector and Edie arrive, and Toñico's wife, Yolanda, brings us tortilla española and pa-ella and red wine, followed later by some natillas—like a cross between creme anglaise and custard, with a touch of Cointreau, served in a wineglass with a spoon. "Your dad thought he made better paella than I did," Toñico says. "But I told him, 'Anyone can make paella, not anyone can sell it!' "

I need to meet Alfonso Bustamante. Everyone I talk to says he can tell me all about Guillermo's—and about Guillermo himself. Besides, I've heard his name all my life. The Bustamante family owns half of Tijuana and is very active in politics—and supposedly, surprisingly, they do it all on the up-and-up. I try calling Alfonso myself, but I never get past his secretary. I ask Iridia, who works in a high-rise owned by the Bustamantes, to leave a message at his office on my behalf, but as far as I know, he never gets it.

I stop by Toñico's to see if he can help me. Toñico doesn't recognize me from a distance, so I say, "Soy Carreño!" And he replies, "Aye! My daughter! Where have you been?" In Mexico, you do not just walk into your dead dad's home-away-from-home, state your business, and leave. You sit down, and you let them offer you a drink and introduce you as your father's daughter to anyone who walks in. You let them show you all the pictures on the wall that they showed you before. And then you get lucky. "This one," Toñico says, "is Alfonso Bustamante." I want to meet him, I reply, and Toñico says something to Yolanda, and two minutes later she's handing me the phone: "Señor Bustamante is on the line." He speaks low and in a monotone tells me that he is having dinner later with a friend of my father's, Giraldez, who has done radio commentary for the bullfights in Tijuana for 40 years, and would I join them?

I put on a dress and heels and lipstick, because that's what you do in Mexico, and I go to Casa Dobson, which is owned by another friend of my dad's, Paul Dobson—an American restaurateur who is in love with bullfighting and with Tijuana. When I walk in, Alfonso is sitting at the bar with half a dozen men, who offer hands and kisses and introduce themselves to me. Alfonso tells me quietly, as if it were no big deal, "I tried to get some of your father's friends together so you could meet them." "Te debo," I say. I owe you.

There is Jota-Jota (J.J.), playing "A Mi Manera"—"My Way"—on the guitar, and Pancho, who says, "I was a waiter for your father for many years. I respected him very much." There is Mariano Escobedo, bald and handsome in a houndstooth-check sport coat, who owns the now-shuttered Jai Alai Palace across the street from where Guillermo's used to be. There is Rogelio Leduc, a bullfighter, who tells me that he drove my dad home from Toñico's near the end. (If my dad tried to drive himself, he explains, he'd fall asleep at stoplights.) Toñico is there, reciting po-etry and pouting when we don't all stop to listen. And Felipe Loza, a youngish man, who says, "It would be too much for me to say I was a friend of your father's. I can only say that I had the great honor of knowing him." And Giraldez, who is light-skinned and about six and a half feet tall and whose real name is Valeriano Salceda; he explains that it was the homesick bullfighters from Spain who taught my dad how to make paella.

And there is Alfonso, ordering for the table—queso fundido (baked melted cheese) with the spicy Mexican chorizo that I remember from childhood and with rajas (grilled strips of poblano chile) and mushrooms. He leans in occasionally and asks, "Are you okay over there?" or murmurs translations in my ear when the conversation speeds up. And when the waiter brings a grilled, sliced New York steak with cebollitas (green onions), Alfonso squeezes it all with lime, makes a little taquito with it, and hands it to me while I do my best to keep up with the stories: "He would walk down Revolucion, and the girls would stop and stare." "All generations wanted to know him." "He was one of the most popular men in Tijuana." "I knew him my whole life, and I never saw him get angry, never saw him be mean." "Amigo de todo el mundo."

When I came to Tijuana, I secretly imagined that if I looked hard enough, asked enough questions, met the right people, I might actually get back to those glamorous days of my father's famous restaurant, and even to my father. But as Alfonso and so many others kept telling me, that was una epoca. Una epoca muy buena. Una epoca pasada. And one afternoon, eating lunch with Alfonso and Mariano, feeling so comfortable and so happy, it hit me—that no matter what group I brought together, no matter what restaurant we were in, and no matter how much we talked about him, Guillermo Carreño would never walk through the door, greet us with handshakes and kisses, and join us at the table. Still, as I sat at the table in the places where my father went, with my father's friends, Tijuana—the place where I was born—began to feel, at last, a little like home.