San Diego’s “Opportunity Exposition”

As visitors entered the gates of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, they heard “the deep notes of the outdoor organ, the trill of the birds in the tall trees, the cooing of doves in the towers” saw “the splendor of the peacocks’ plumage on green lawns” and were engulfed in the “joyous peace that dwells in the cool cloisters of San Diego’s Exposition. No more peaceful, restful exposition was ever built than this city of Old Spain set in vast gardens.”[1] This “dream city of Sixteenth-Century Spain”[2] was an elaborate creation of San Diego municipal leaders to entice individuals to relocate to San Diego.[3] Advertisements invited individuals to attend the “Opportunity Exposition” in hopes they would choose to relocate themselves and their businesses to San Diego with its “eternal summer.”[4]

San Diego was advertised nation-wide by fair boosters as the “Land of Heart Desire.”[5] The city’s fair had a regional focus highlighting the wonders of the American West, with a spotlight on Spanish missions. Other world’s fairs, including the one in San Francisco the same year, were “Universal Expositions.” However, San Diego’s “Exposition of Opportunity” largely focused inward rather than aiming to show off the wonders of the rest of the world.[6] While advertisements for the Exposition noted that San Diego is a mere twenty miles from Mexico, the city’s Mexican roots were largely ignored. Instead, advertisements focused on how San Diego “aspired to the atmosphere of ‘Sunny Spain,’ both in architecture and its activities, amid the natural wonders of Southern California.”[7] The decisions regarding which cultures to highlight at San Diego’s Exposition in Balboa Park were made largely due to tense race issues, labor unrest, financial gain, and ongoing military conflicts.

The San Diego Exposition was in many ways typical of fairs held across the United States from 1876 to 1916. Desires to boost a region or city’s economy were often the purpose for fairs. Boosters determined what fears plagued people, and then worked to convince Americans those concerns would no longer trouble them if they relocate to the region hosting the fair. The San Diego Exposition also celebrated increased trade due to the opening of the Panama Canal. City boosters promoted economic opportunities, the availability of farmland, the wonders of modern irrigation, and the mild climate to entice individuals to San Diego. Fairs were also a means of American empire building and of establishing a racial and social order in the country. This led to promoting Anglo-Americans as superior. Thus, race relations would have a drastic impact on which countries were represented at the fair.[8]

Despite the desire of fair boosters to focus on the promotion of San Diego and Anglo superiority, the exposition would still include displays from other countries. According to the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, “The countries to be represented at the Panama-California Exposition…are those most directly affected by the opening of the canal, the Latin-American republics of South and Central America, Mexico, and the southwestern states of the United States.”[9] The Exposition also emphasized the beauty of colonial Spanish missions, Native American cultures, and Japanese architecture.[10] European countries were absent from the Exposition due to the ongoing World War. Concerns that the war would impact the fair were assuaged by advertisements that proclaimed, “War will not affect the 1915 Panama Expositions.”[11] However, warfare, race and labor issues would prevent San Diego’s nearest neighbor, Mexico, from attending the fair.

World’s fairs from the mid-1800s through the 1930s were an important opportunity for Mexico to show that the country flourished with modernity under the strong government of the Porfiriato and post-Revolution leaders. Thus, Mexico was represented in American fairs in cities such as New Orleans, Buffalo, Chicago, Saint Louis, Rio de Janeiro, and fairs in Europe such as London and Paris. Fairs were used by Mexican business leaders to form commercial ties by displaying their abundant natural resources. Exhibits extended beyond commerce and included displays of artifacts and performances by Mexico’s military bands. The cultural impact of the Mexican military bands ran deep. For example, at the 1884 Exposition in New Orleans, the 8th Cavalry Mexican Military band’s performances were wildly popular and heavily influenced the creation of jazz music.[12]

Despite the popularity of Mexico’s military bands and the San Diego Chamber of Commerce’s invitation to Latin American countries, Mexico was not represented in San Diego. The outbreak of Revolution in Mexico was a major cause behind this absence. However, there were other issues that made Mexico’s presence at San Diego less than desirable by many boosters and directors. Labor unrest played a significant role in San Diego’s city dynamics at the time the Exposition was being planned. The labor union, the Industrial Workers of the World (oft referred to as Wobblies) organized a chapter in the city. In 1911, the Wobblies, whose membership included many Mexican immigrants, united with socialist rebels under the Revolutionary leader Ricardo Flores Magón to cross the border into Mexico and take the towns of Mexicali and Tijuana. The socialist nature of the Mexican Revolution drew alarm from city leaders who feared the ideas would spread to their city. Additionally, the Revolution put San Diego leaders’ land and business interests in Mexico at risk. For example, fair director and multi-millionaire John D. Spreckels was in the process of constructing a rail line through Baja California and feared the loss of this investment.[13]

Wobblies in San Diego worked with socialists to bring attention to labor issues in the city. These groups soon met resistance by city leaders such as Spreckels and laws were passed to prevent free speech in public areas. This would spark the 1912 Free Speech Fight in San Diego, which saw a great deal of police brutality and came to an eventual end through vigilante justice. City officials believed that immigrants would remain united with Wobblies and other organized laborers. This led to a fear and loathing of immigrants, particularly those from Mexico and Asia. With all of these issues at play while the Exposition was still in the planning process, San Diego leaders did not want to bring in additional people from Mexico to their city, which would have occurred if Mexico had been featured at the Exposition.[14]

Fair planners also used exhibits at the Exposition to further racial divides and emphasize ideals of white ethnic supremacy. This was achieved through ignoring the cultural contributions of the city’s racial minorities, the creation of displays such as the Science of Man exhibit on human evolution, and the demonstration of Western modern science and technology.[15] In particular, the Third Hall of the Science of Man exhibit displayed busts of various races in an attempt to show their physical variations. This emphasis on racial difference was meant to tout white racial superiority in a time when racial tensions were elevated.[16]

While Mexico and her people were absent from the Exposition, fair-goers were still encouraged to take a day trip across the border to Tijuana during their visit to San Diego. In the Union Pacific Railroad publications, the proximity to Mexico is noted. Visitors to the fair are encouraged by railway companies to visit Mexico, where “Tourists are fond of going by tally-ho or automobile to Tia Juana for a taste of Mexican life – and maybe a bull fight.”[17] The San Diego Electric Railway Company advertised day trips to Tijuana where one could “partake of a genuine Spanish dinner and be back in San Diego in the afternoon.”[18] What’s Doing, the publication containing the schedule for fairgoers, also contained a list of “Daily Side Trips” which included “Tia Juana (Old Mexico.)” The day trips to Tijuana utilized rail lines such as the San Diego and the Arizona Railway (S.D. and A.R.R.), which were owned by Spreckels. Visitors to the city across the border could see sites such as National City, the Little Landers Colony, and attend the Horse Races at the Lower California Jockey Club Racetrack.[19] Rather than including Mexico in the fair, day trips allowed the directors and boosters to keep the focus in San Diego on Anglo-American culture, while also profiting from the sales of train tickets for the day trips.[20] Thus, there was more benefit for the directors and boosters in sending tourists to visit Tijuana than bringing Mexico to the fair.

San Diego’s boosters used the Exposition to promote their city to potential new residents and businesses. Tense race and labor disputes, and ongoing military conflicts played a significant role in the selection of entertainment at the Exposition. Visitors were invited to attend the fair where they could enjoy the Old-World splendor of “Spanish Mission architecture, lighted with the soft shadowless glow of Grecian lamps” and watch “the Spanish dancing girls”[21] while disregarding the music and culture of San Diego’s neighbor: Mexico. Thus, boosters carefully curated the 1915 Panama-California Exposition’s entertainment to represent San Diego as a racially superior center for an American Empire.