Old Town San Diego, a different Wild West

His boots touch the dustry ground, each press of the boot like a knife cutting the tension.

A dust ball rolls across in the distance of the deserted main street.

The camera pans out, two cowboys walk away from each other…




The siren bang is heard off screen, the picture goes hazy with the smoking gun and a loud thud is heard.

Someone had been shot.

This is the common image that Western films conjure. The America of small towns and the wild west. The Wild West symbolised by the Cowboy, an animal herder who tends cattle on the ranches of North America.

Cowboys by C M Russell (Source)

These wild Wests were frontier towns at the edge of American-European settlements in present day America during the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of these towns had a full set of services from the commercial,

 to the civic,

to the christian.

But look closer.

This place is the Old Town San Diego Historic Park, the site of the original old town of San Diego founded in 1821 but was later abandoned for new San Diego City near the water.

The old town was later converted into a national park, to document the history of the people (well at least from the colonial period). It is today a good, cheap and free tourist attraction that can be covered in under two hours.


This is not the Wild West town that we have in our mind. The image we think of when we talk of Westerns speak of only one form of a frontier town, the Caucasian-American one located mostly on the eastern side of the country for the wild west in the West of the country was a very different place.

Look back at the architecture especially of the church and the difference becomes apparent. The architecture is more moorish and Spanish than it is Anglo-Saxon and that has to do with the fact that San Diego was a melting pot dominated demographically by Mexican and hispanics rather than Anglo-americans. It’s cultural home was (and still is) closer to the Tijuana and Chihuahua than it is to Boston and Baltimore. 

And you can certainly see it at the Fiesta de Reyes, where many shops and restaurants stock figurines celebrating the annual Dia de Muertos (Mexican day of the dead). In many of these stores, big and small, there are painted faces of people made to look like skeletons and also painted plastic skulls and plastic skeletons dressed up in beautiful clothes.


Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, was originally a festival of the indeginous peoples but later became more and more closely related to All Saints and All Soul’s Day in Caucasian-Christian tradition.

The people of the ancient Aztec culture celebrated death, they did not avoid talk about it but celebrated death as a means of celebrating life. One of the biggest differences is how the ancient Aztecs viewed death. While people in the modern world see a good death as how a person lived a good life, the Aztecs celebrated how people died. If you died during childbirth or war you were seen to have a good afterlife worth celebrating. If however your life was calm and you died of old age or illness that was a death nor worth celebrating.

It strikes me as a society that celebrates living an exciting life.

This is American culture before the 1800s and this historic park is a good reminder that America, and California, is more than a single homogeneous “melting pot”.



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