Prince Harry left his Montecito mansion to go to the movies this week, and he skipped Hollywood altogether.
Instead, the Duke of Sussex chose an AMC Theatre at a mall in Chula Vista, the underrated city south of San Diego and north of Mexico that tourists and passersby tend to overlook (their loss). He was there to surprise viewers at a screening of his Netflix documentary series "Heart of Invictus," which follows veterans competing in the Invictus Games. Harry's presence left locals shocked and surprised.
"In shock," wrote @conallen, who in a series of tweets underscored the significance of his visit. "We're not a high profile city; we're kinda low key w/amazing local businesses."
She added how Chula Vista is often "written off by some as just some low-income 'border town,'" and that for "someone of his status to visit is a big deal."
Former Chula Vista resident @Twinkie_Vee agreed, noting that "he could [have] visited any large city." They then pivoted to the speculation that matters most: "I hope he stopped and got some good tacos while he was there. CV eats is [fire emoji]."
"Tacos El Gordo!" @conallen responded, mentioning the local-favorite chain that serves Tijuana-style tacos and has a location across the street from the Chula Vista mall and the AMC. "I mean you CAN’T not go there when it’s like 5 blocks away. I’m sure maybe someone staff could have given him some!" she continued, adding that she actually prefers the nearby taco trucks instead.
Also a block away from the theater is Aqui Es Texcoco, known for its lamb barbacoa, which even drew the late Times food critic Jonathan Gold two hours south along the 5 Freeway.
Representatives for the Sussexes did not immediately respond to The Times' inquiries about Harry's meal selection while in Chula Vista.
While the royal sighting was a shock to some, the visit to Chula Vista makes sense.
Harry is a British Army veteran and served between 2005 and 2015. He fought in the Afghanistan war. He attended the Warrior Games in 2013, an athletic competition to show the physical and mental toughness of wounded, ill and injured active-duty and veteran service members.
Impressed by what he saw, Harry in 2014 started the Invictus Games, his own international version of that Paralympic-style competition. Harry's version has since expanded to host more than 20 teams representing countries including the United States, Ukraine, Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea.
In June, when the Warrior Games were hosted in San Diego at the Naval Base on Coronado Island, Harry was there to pay a visit to the games that started it all. The base is a 20-minute drive from the Chula Vista theater. Also, San Diego County is major military hub. The U.S. Navy is the county's largest employer. And more than a third of the county's 3 million residents are either military veterans, active-duty members or are family of service members or vets, according to the county's Office of Military & Veteran Affairs.
Bonnie Pham was in the cinema for the advance screening on Tuesday night and posted video of Harry's unannounced visit, captioning, "When it's a random Monday night, and Prince Harry crashes the premiere of his show in random Chula Vista."
She is seen giggling along with her friend GraceAnn Skidmore, a military spouse and United Service Organization volunteer, who was invited to the special event organized for USO volunteers and military families.
"As a military spouse, USO volunteer, and someone who is passionate about military advocacy this event was one of a kind and I am so thankful for the experience," Skidmore wrote on Instagram, showing a selfie with the Duke. "Harry is every bit as gracious in person as in the media in his mission to support veterans across the world."
Harry has long been open about the effects serving in the military has had on his mental health and has advocated for the well-being of veterans. In the documentary series, Harry shared how he lacked support when he returned home from Afghanistan.
“The biggest struggle for me was no one around me really could help; I didn’t have that support structure, that network or that expert advice to identify what was actually going on with me,” Harry said. “Unfortunately, like most of us, the first time you consider therapy is when you are lying on the floor in the fetal position probably wishing you had dealt with some of this stuff previously.”
The Invictus Games were designed in part to inspire other veterans around the world as they recovered from battlefield injuries.
Harry's military experiences sparked controversy in January. In his memoir "Spare," he wrote that he had killed 25 Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. He was criticized by both Taliban and British veterans for "boasting" about the death toll. But he has defended the detail, saying it was included in the book to address the shame veterans feel about their violent actions in battle and to reduce the number of suicides.
"Heart of Invictus," which started streaming on Wednesday, was directed and produced by Oscar winners Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara ("The White Helmets"). It is the latest of several productions that were part of Harry and Meghan Markle's $100-million Netflix deal. The royal couple's lucrative partnership had already birthed the splashy docuseries “Harry & Meghan” and “Live to Lead," though Meghan's animated feminist children's show "Pearl" was shelved.
The 2023 Invictus Games will be held at Merkur Spiel-Arena in Düsseldorf, Germany, Sept. 9-16. The duke and duchess of Sussex both are expected to make appearances.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.