La Paz, Redondo strengthen historic bond

La Paz Mayor Esthela Ponce, and Sister Cities committee member Jeannie Penner-More at the launching of the La Paz comprehensive awareness campaign on Tuesday. Photo by Mark McDermott

They are two seaside cities separated by a national border and a thousand miles. But La Paz and Redondo Beach have for a half century forged a special bond as sister cities, one that was renewed with gusto Tuesday as dignitaries from each city joined together to launch a campaign aimed at bringing a spotlight on Mexico’s “city of peace and abundance.”

In an unusual joint press conference at the Historic Library in Veteran’s Park, Redondo Beach Mayor Mike Gin and La Paz Mayor Esthela Ponce joined a coalition that included the Rotary Club and Sister Cities Committee in order to bring attention to the La Paz Tourism Board’s comprehensive awareness campaign declaring “peace on the United States.”

The Tourism Board is touting significant ongoing economic development and a new study that found that La Paz’s crime statistics would rank it as the third safest city of its size in California — behind only Murrieta and Mission Viejo and ahead of Huntington Beach and Torrance.

“Our relationship, between Redondo Beach and La Paz, has gone back many years,” said Ponce. “And we want to thank you for holding this event in this great city…to let everyone know about the quality – and quality of life – that surrounds La Paz.”

“It is telling how La Paz has brought so many of us together,” said Gin. “…If you have not visited La Paz, go down and visit. It’s a place of amazing beauty, and unforgettable memories.”

La Paz is a city of 240,000 located along the Sea of Cortez and is the capital city of Baja Sur. The city has more than $1 billion in planned “eco-friendly” development over the next five years, and the Tourism Board is touting a recent study by the Irvine-based firm Competitive Analytics that found the city’s murder and manslaughter rates among the lowest when compared to all similar sized cities in North America.

But Agustín Olachea, the president of the La Paz Tourism Board, deemphasized the statistics. He said to understand the feeling in La Paz – which literally translates as “peace” in English – one must walk along its waterfront promenade and see families and tourists mingling and talking late into the night.

“Numbers and statistics, they are pretty cold, as you all know when you talk about numbers,” Olachea said. “When you visit La Paz, you feel that safety.”

The relationship between Redondo Beach and La Paz grew out of the People to People initiative launched by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Eisenhower, a former soldier weary of war, wanted to forge closer ties between nations based upon cultural exchanges. In 1961, he called upon private citizens to formalize such exchanges and gave rise to the sister city movement.

Some unofficial local histories indicate that some former Redondo officials were drawn to La Paz because of is spectacularly abundant fishing. But Pat Driesler – a former city department head who has become perhaps its most authoritative historian – said that the La Paz-Redondo Beach sister city relationship formally began in 1963 when a delegation from Redondo that included City Manager Francis Hopkins and Daily Breeze Publisher Bob Curry travelled by car to La Paz.

The relationship between Redondo Beach and La Paz grew out of the People to People initiative launched by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. Eisenhower, a former soldier weary of war, wanted to forge closer ties between nations based upon cultural exchanges. In 1961, he called upon private citizens to formalize such exchanges and gave rise to the sister city movement.

Unofficial local histories indicate that some former Redondo officials were drawn to La Paz because of is spectacularly abundant fishing. But Pat Driesler, former city department head who has become perhaps its most authoritative historian, said that the La Paz-Redondo Beach sister city relationship formally began with talks in 1963 and was followed a few years later with an official delegation from Redondo that included City Manager Francis Hopkins and Daily Breeze Publisher Bob Curry. They travelled by car to La Paz.

Over the next decade the relationship would blossom.

“It was really big,” Driesler said. “Every organization in town was doing something…They donated a lot of toys at Christmas time and candy and chocolates for orphanages, sewing machines for occupational kinds of programs in La Paz.”

One of the strongest bonds was formed between the fire departments of the two cities.

Former RBFD captain Ron Cody, whose has been deeply involved with La Paz as a firefighter, a Rotarian, and a member of the Sister Cities Committee, has developed a timeline that shows the depth of this connection.  In 1974, shortly after the opening of Mexico’s Highway 1, a crew of Redondo Beach firefighters drove a fire apparatus the 1,000 miles to La Paz and donated the vehicle. In 1976, a flood resulting from Hurricane Liza devastated La Paz and caused the death of an estimated 476 people; Redondo Beach sent a cargo plane of supplies and a crew of firefighters voluntarily deployed to help respond to the disaster. In 1979, RBFD helped deliver two donated fire engines to La Paz. In 1980, the city, fire department, and sister cities organization donated an ambulance, radio system, and the very first “Jaws of Life” to La Paz.

The Redondo Beach Rotary Club and Fire Department have continued to periodically provide public safety equipment. All totaled more than a dozen fire trucks and ambulances have been delivered – often donated by other California cities but coordinated by Redondo – as well as various other kinds of vehicles and equipment, including school buses and an emergency field hospital. Cody said firefighters from Redondo have cherished their special relationship with their brethren down south.

“Their fire department covers a refinery, a sea port, and an international airport,” Cody said. “You know, they are just doing the best they can with the people they have.”

“La Paz is a big city, and it’s the state capital, and I can go down there and I know the mayor and the police chief and the fire chief,” he added. “But I don’t know the mayor and fire chief of the state capital of California. If I went to Sacramento and wanted to see the mayor, they’d say get the hell out of here. But I could go to La Paz and say I want to see the mayor, they’d say, ‘Just a minute.’”

Redondo Rotary and Sister Cities, in partnership with the Wyland Foundation, in 2005 helped create a lasting monument to the special friendship between the two cities. The artist Wyland travelled to La Paz and painted a large mural – similar to the mural on the AES power plant in Redondo – on a five story federal building. It depicted whales and various sea life found in the Sea of Cortez.

“That was just a really special moment,” said Jeannie Penner-More, a member of the Sister Cities committee. “It was so beautiful, and everybody just loved it.”

But perhaps one of the most lasting connections between the two cities has been created between its children. The Sister Cities Youth Ambassador program is an exchange in which generations of children from Redondo and La Paz have experienced each other’s culture, creating the kind of border-crossing understanding that President Eisenhower envisioned when he launched the People to People initiative.

Nobody better represents this than Gentil Smith. She first travelled to La Paz as a Redondo Union High School student – along with her future husband, Darrell “Smitty” Smith – as part of a group of madrigal singers. Smith has since served several stints as the president of Redondo Sister Cities and has shepherded dozens of youth ambassadors to La Paz, including her son Alex. She has seen lives deeply changed as relatively affluent kids toured orphanages, did community volunteering, and at times were even featured in parades in La Paz. The children are moved by how deeply embraced they are in their sister city, Smith said.

“I have only been involved for a short while in the scheme of things, of the 50 years…I’ve been fortunate enough to be caretaker for the youth exchange program,” Smith said. “So I have gotten to enjoy the glow from everything that happened before my involvement and how appreciative they are of this relationship.”

“In later years, we’ve gone there and felt the warmth and love of all those years before us,” Smith said. “They love us. And we love them.”

Mayor Gin, at Tuesday’s event, remarked on the special gift La Paz has given to generations of kids in Redondo.

“Their lives have been changed,” Gin said. “The youth of our community have literally been changed by their visits to La Paz.”

Olachea said that La Paz and Redondo’s bond is based on the city’s commonalities.

 “We are sister cities because we both share beautiful coastline, both have excellent marinas, both have flourishing and diverse economies, and both are natural attractions for tourists,” Olachea said. “But most of all, because we are peaceful cities and friendly people embracing our visitors when they come to our cities.”

Members of the La Paz Tourism Board said that the timing of its awareness campaign has less to do with combating the perception that the drug-related violence endemic in border towns such as Juarez and Tijuana also exists in La Paz, and more to do with the fact that La Paz’s investment in infrastructure and burgeoning international development – which includes a new five star resort and three “eco-friendly” golf courses – has prepared the city to become a new destination for travelers. 

Nonetheless, La Paz’s friends in Redondo are trying to get the word out that La Paz lives up to its name.

“Our sister city needs us more than ever, I think, at this point in time because of the crimes going on in the border cities and not necessarily going on in La Paz,” said Penner-More. “There is a perception that it is all over Mexico, but that doesn’t mean that it is. That’s just media…It’s just a beautiful city and I can’t wait to go back. The people and the food and the weather – all I can imagine now is the aqua blue water and white sand. It’s just so gorgeous. They need our support, and we are here to give it. At least I am.” ER

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