Visit the Real National City, Unfiltered

There’s a new promo video about National City, California, the place where I grew up and about which I wrote an essay titled “Home is Where the Wart Is.” As you might imagine, my essay is at odds with a Visit National City tourism campaign. All soft focus with bouncy music and a honeyed voiceover, the video features presumed locals teeing off at the (nine-hole) golf course, strolling a grassy knoll in a park, and enjoying a romantic afternoon on the bike trail. It ends with an attractive blond couple raising glasses of champagne against the blue bay. Wait, there’s a bay in National City?

Yes, as a matter of fact. But until the marina was constructed in 2006 on the Sweetwater Channel, was there public access to the bay? If there was, I never knew about it while growing up in National City. I always thought you had to go south to Imperial Beach or north to San Diego to find the water.

But back to the promo video. Is National City really a tourist destination? Does the video reflect the real National City? If many of the comments on Facebook are any indication, the answers are no and no.

Let’s start with demographics, which have changed somewhat since my growing-up years in the ‘60s. Today the city is 63 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian, each ten percentage points higher than when I lived there, and it shows.

Now there are names like Rios and Natividad and Sotelo-Solís on the city council. There’s a taquería every few blocks. There’s a carnicería and a panadería in the grocery stores. The workers are bilingual. Mexican radio stations play over the store speakers.

Filipino restaurants and markets with names like Villa Manila, Pinoy Ranch and Tita’s Kitchenette throng the strip malls on both sides of Plaza Boulevard to serve the highest concentration of Filipino-Americans in the San Diego area. Take a tour with this video and sample vicariously lechon, turon, chicken feet, and balut. Really, you need to watch this.

There’s a particular vibe and flavor to the city that isn’t quite captured in the slick Visit National City video. Here’s an opinion from the Facebook page that more directly addresses this bit of marketing:

Lemme put it this way: If I were from another state, wanting to visit the San Diego area for the first time, and chose to stay in a hotel in National City based on this tourism video…I’d be really pissed once I got there.

As I mentioned, the video opens with an attractive Latina mother and her young daughter dressed angelically in white sharing a moment of sun-kissed bliss at Olivewood Garden (which by the way is a wonderful place). Other Latino-looking folks engage in smile-inducing National City activities before the video closes with the sexy blonde couple kissing over the click of their champagne glasses, a sailboat gliding gracefully behind them.

Like in the telenovelas, the Latinos in the video are all light-skinned. What’s wrong with showing the really brown people that you see in the grocery stores, schools, and parks, and just walking down the street? Or would that scare the tourists away? I’m reminded of when I was in high school and the word on the street was that kids from other schools were afraid to come to our field for football games because they were afraid of our Mexicans.

Oh, and given the estimated median income of $37,000 in National City, you wonder who owns those boats in the marina.

So is National City a tourist destination? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth stopping by. Go to Napoleone Pizza House, famous for its pizza but also for employing a young Tom Waits who has been quoted as saying, “I thought high school was a joke, I went to school at Napoleone’s.”

And don’t forget all the Filipino and Mexican comida. If you happen to be in town while I’m visiting, let’s meet for breakfast at Aunt Emma’s for huevos rancheros.

And aside from Tom Waits, here’s another notable from National City. Rosalie “Rosie” Méndez Hamlin and her 1960s group Rosie and the Originals were best known for their single, “Angel Baby.” Have a listen.