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In some ways Tijuana's richer, more successful older brother, Mexicali is a border town founded on an economy that's less whimsical (agriculture, rather than tourism) and a seat of power that's real (the Baja statehouse). In place of trinket shops and taco stands, Mexicali's streetscape features Home Depots and Wal-Marts, and nary a luxury hotel is without its business center, conference rooms, Wi-Fi, and corporate stationery. Yet even with upscale digs and somewhat cleaner streets, Mexicali remains a border town, with all of the tensions and tragedies that accompany its walled divide from Calexico, California to the north.
Yet even before it was a border town, Mexicali was a Chinese settlement. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, over 90% of the population consisted of Chinese laborers consigned to turn desert lands into farmable acreage. When the Imperial Canal—which diverts water from the Colorado River to irrigate California's Imperial Valley as well as Baja's northern desert—was completed in 1902 (largely by Chinese labor), and the land around Mexicali began to produce crops (again, planted largely by the Chinese), land-grant-following Mexicans started trickling into the region. Today, the basin around Mexicali is Baja's bread- and fruit-basket, and the capital's ethnic mix still reflects the history of the region. In La Chinesca, the city's Chinatown, numerous shops serve up chau men (a variation on chow mein), while others sell all of the expected gadgets from abroad.
Elsewhere in Baja Peninsula
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