Back in the 1980s, a group in Ensenada came together to try and form something few had seen at the time—a Mexican charitable organization (Asociacion Civil) with both Mexicans and Gringos participating that could really make a significant difference in people’s lives. What is now known as the Compañeros de Baja Norte, A.C. was formally organized 28 years ago on October 7th, 1992, and they have helped scores of local charities and hundreds of students for almost 30 years. But today, faced with the deadly twin headwinds of the worst Mexican recession since the great depression and the impacts of lockdowns from COVID-19, the organization is struggling to survive, and indeed was inactive for most of 2020.
“I told the membership last summer that the Club itself was at risk,” said Compañeros VP Katrina Tinnaco . “It was vital that we start talking about the future and how we could get there. Our membership was fearful. We were at real risk of shutting down the Club.”
But to get to that future, the organization needed to consider it’s past—a long and proud tradition that started in the 1980’s, when members of the Dixon & Salisbury families, among others, formed this Club—a place where expats and locals could get together, socialize, and use the proceeds from these events to support local orphanages and old folks homes, many other charities, and give scholarships to 30 students twice a year. They began to construct a clubhouse building (complete with a hall seating 100+, and full kitchen/bar), and after a legal dispute was settled, the group formerly known as the Amigos de Ensenada became the Compañeros. Soon after that, they bought the empty lot next door to use for parking. By the early 1990s, the Club was in full swing, with monthly events, rummage sales, raffles, music, dances, a bridge club, and more, and an expanding list of grateful recipients.
“The Compañeros has always been a welcoming place for new Ensenada residents and longtime locals,” noted Jim O’Brien, a Club member every step of the way, since settling in Ensenada 34 years ago in 1986. “We have a great mix of members, have always been open to the LGBTQ community, and especially welcoming new area residents. We’ve had presidents that have been both Mexican and Gringos, women and men. But over the years, it’s been harder to get younger people involved.” With multiple employees, and their clubhouse building lying empty while still incurring all of the fixed costs associated with them, the Compañeros cash began to dwindle to record lows.
Fortunately, some younger members stepped up to help. Treasurer Meghan Magrann in 2019 had gone through the involved process of converting the group’s books to Quickbooks, allowing for better accounting, analysis, and support. “Addressing the basics of internal controls helped us get a better idea of where the club was at and revealed other opportunities as well,” noted Magrann. “But that analysis only took us so far—we needed a clear vision for the future and the will to pursue it.”
Enter new leadership. Members of the existing leadership council approached Mark Tuniewicz, a member who had led the turnaround of the Ensenada Expats facebook group and doubled its size, created the popular Ensenada Karaoke Club, volunteered for the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, is an active member of Ensenada’s Spanish language Calafia Gardening Club, and was a former Lion’s Club member, among other charitable endeavors. Tuniewicz got right to work last fall organizing and was named president in 2021.
This year, the Club began to create and publicize new events, including a rebranded series of monthly “First Friday” happy hours, which have taken place both in-person and virtually, depending on the COVID traffic light. They have also created the new Ensenada Succulent Society, a “club within the Club,” which meets the first Saturday of each month in Ensenada. Other “sub-clubs” are expected.
The organization began working last fall to do a deep clean/sanitization of its facility, followed by a change in layout from banquet-style tables to smaller, distanced tables for 2-4 people each and implemented a mask mandate to enter the building. In October, they performed a “soft opening” of a happy hour event with just 15 people and changed the way people pay for food and drink to eliminate the long entrance lines sometimes found at their events. The combination of cleaning and process changes was intended to reassure the membership that the Club was taking action to protect their health.
While other, similar groups have either suspended all activities due to the pandemic (including large social groups like the Punta Banda Yacht Club, with 200 members, or the Sociedad de Amigos, with 100+), or significantly scaled back their activities (like Rosarito’s United Society of Baja California, with 156 members), the Compañeros have innovated by moving to a program of “To-Go” meals for special occasions, selling out 50 dinners for Thanksgiving 2020, and anticipate a similar reaction for their 2021 Valentine’s Day dinner to-go as well. “Our events have always been known for great food, and these To-Go” events present a real value, people really love them, and you get high-quality food, professionally prepared,” said Club Secretary Mary Jane Boone, who has often led efforts in the kitchen.
The Compañeros is preparing to develop additional new activities driven by investments in outdoor seating (there’s none today), indoor televisions (also none today), and other needed capital improvements. To support this vision, club leadership recently approved the “Compañeros 2021 Capital Campaign,” seeking to raise a modest USD 5,000 to cover these needs.
Tuniewicz noted: “We’ve got seating plans used by the U.S. Parks Service—they build their rustic wood seating to last decades, and so will we. T.V.’s and a sound system will give us a lot more flexibility in terms of the types of events we can hold post-pandemic, be it a sports event, happy hour, or Karaoke. We’ll make these forward-looking investments this year and be ready to go when it’s time again for in-person events.”
“For us to continue our work for the next three decades, we need your help now!” noted 89-year old member Tillie Foster. And if you’ve met Tillie, previously profiled on these pages as the “Baja Queen”, you know she can be very persuasive.
While there’s lots of optimism, the reality is your donations are needed *now* to help the Club survive and thrive. You can contribute to the 2021 Compañeros Capital Campaign via Paypal, using the email address [email protected]. And thanks for helping us start the next 30 years of the Compañeros Rising!