At that time, Mexicali was a bordertown of unexpected contrasts. A jumbled collection of sleazy bars, juke joints, cafes and whorehouses clustered in the blocks below the guarded crossing between Calexico and Mexicali. Yet, in a shady plaza less than a mile away, across from “the governor’s palace,” young locals still promenaded under the trees on Sunday afternoons, the women on the inner circle, the men on the outer circle, moving in opposite directions, slowly.
In that shady plaza during Mexico’s Independence Day celebration, September 16, 1943—a day locked in my memory far too long—I came face to face with the beguiling Elva Arce. Her dark, dark eyes, huge—in a perfect oval face. Almost too perfect. Cream white Castilian skin. Her dark hair, long and lustrous. Who was she? A young Dolores Del Rio? I was fascinated.
We were strangers in a crowd, viewing an outdoor exhibit of Mexican art. I don’t remember what I said to her as we stood close to each other in front of a wall hung with Mexican revolution-era paintings. But in response, she gave me a shy, wonderfully knowing smile. That was the beginning.
By late afternoon, we were strangers no more. We walked for awhile, wandering the plaza. We talked, while sitting at a table in an open-air cantina on the far corner.
To the intermittent sounds of mariachi in the distance, I set out to learn more about this captivating creature from south of the border. I soon found out that she had a keen appreciation for her rich Mexican culture and an avid interest in Mexican art—an interest she shared with her younger sister and an older brother.
In a soft, melodious voice, she told me of her first year away at college in Mexico City. She said that she was now at home in Mexicali helping in her father’s business until the end of the year, when she planned to return to the University of Mexico.
She told me that her father owned Mexican handicraft stores in both Mexico and the southwestern U.S. Her older brother managed the largest of these, located on historic Olivera Street in Los Angeles.
She revealed, also, that her mother, whom I later met, affectionately called her Elvita. I liked that. With her laughing permission, I began calling her Elvita.
That afternoon was the beginning of many endearing times we shared in late 1943. Few of my squadron mates knew about it. I would slip away from the base and quietly head for Mexicali and Elvita whenever I could.