Ariel Camacho, narcocorrido/Movimiento Alterado singer, dies

News out of Mexico is that another narcocorrido singer has died.

Ariel Camacho, lead singer of Los Plebes del Rancho, was killed Wednesday in a car accident in Sinaloa. He was 22.

Camacho was part of the Movimiento Alterado, which first grew out of Burbank, of all places, and drafted young singers, doing gigs at wedding parties and quinceneras in L.A. backyards, and transformed them into menacing narcosingers. d30d6e43f0b0850dc39097f43547e72b

The movement has now spread to Mexico and to other record labels. Camacho’s label was DEL Records.

The Altered Movement is known for especially graphic lyrics depicting drug violence, and for the praising the powerful, particularly well-known Sinaloa Cartel figures, in very noncorrido form. The corrido has typically exalted the lone, heroic figure – a man going up against power and probably doomed, but worthy of a song nevertheless.

MA, however, has made a fetish of praising powerful cartel leaders, among them Manuel Torres Felix, El Ondeado (the Unhinged), the late head of security for the Sinaloa Cartel.

All in all, narcocorrido singer has to be one of the region’s most dangerous profession. Beginning with Chalino Sanchez, whose life I wrote about in my first book and who was murdered in Sinaloa in 1992, numerous singers who followed in his footsteps have been killed. Sanchez’s son, Adan, also died in a car crash.

Saul Viera, El Gavilancillo, was shot to death outside a Denny’s in Bellflower in 1998. Among others to die are Valentin Elizalde, shot to death in Reynosa in 2006, and El Halcon de la Sierra, Fabian Ortega, in 2010.

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Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside

Six percent of Americans are black men. Forty percent of homicide victims are black men, most by far killed by other black men, though many of the cases remain unsolved.

This kind of impunity is the result not of too much policing but of far too little. Too often police in places like South L.A.FullSizeRender are swamped, given the caseload and resources at their disposal. They can make little of each murder case, which, once unsolved, strengthens the culture of impunity and of witness silence, and encourages more murder.

That is the analysis of  my colleague at the L.A. Times, Jill Leovy, in her great new book, Ghettoside, based on years of her reporting and research in South Los Angeles.

I’m only a little way into the book, having purchased it only last night. But this already seems like some of the most original, clear, observation-driven thinking on crime that I’ve read in years – and brave as well given the current discourse over policing in the black community.

Here’s some of what she writes:

“…where the criminal justice system fails to respond vigorously to violent injury and death, homicide becomes endemic. … African Americans have suffered from just such a lack of effective criminal justice, and this, more than anything, is the reason for the nation’s long-standing plague of black homicides. Specifically, black America has not benefited from what Max Weber called a state monopoly on violence – the government’s exclusive right to exercise legitimate force. … Slavery, Jim Crow, and conditions across much of black America for generations after worked against the formation of such a monopoly. Since personal violence inevitably flares where the state’s monopoly is absent, this situation results in the deaths of thousands of Americans each year.”

Reading on. Can’t wait for more.

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LAT Op-Ed: Parks, Gang Free, Returned to Owners

An opinion piece of mine is out in the LA Times — this one about the radical changes at Southern California parks.

Parks, by and large, are now free of gang presence. They are, generally speaking, places where families can play and relax without the fear that not so many years ago kept them away.

As I say in the piece, this mostly benefits working-class families who couldn’t use gang-infested parks near where they lived years ago.

This marks a real revolution, I think. Dominating parks was part of how gangs emerged and grew strong in Southern California.

Hope you like the piece.

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Kevin Costner Cutting Cabbage

It’s been a long time since Kevin Costner showed up in a worthwhile movie. Not nearly as long, though, as it’s been since a real Central Valley farming town appeared in one.

They both star in a movie that I saw recently at Walt Disney Studios called McFarland USA, which portrays a kind of unvarnished rural America that amounts to risk-taking I don’t associate with either Costner or Disney.McFARLAND

McFarland USA (in theaters later this month) is based on the true story of Jim White, a football coach who moves to the tiny Central Valley farming town in the 1980s and, instead, creates the McFarland High School cross country team with kids who work the field before coming to school, the children of longtime farmworkers.

The team becomes state champions – a feat the school has achieved nine times. McFarland USA is great tear-jerking sports filmmaking.

For Costner, this comes after a series of movies that seemed to me (though I’m no Hollywood insider) the last gasp of a major career (Draft Day), and may help resuscitate it.

He’s played this part many times. This time, though, he allows himself to be here in all his wrinkles, befuddled a good part of the movie in this foreign land with a U.S. zip code; he’s no longer quite the stud in control that he was during his heyday that began in rural America with Bull Durham in 1988.

Costner deals in fantasy, like every movie star. His has always been a certain kind of American (usually male) fantasy, and often about the nobility of white rural and/or small town America, in particular. Bull Durham, which launched him, had it in spades.

Problem is that part of America has been taking a pounding since at least Bull Durham (farm crisis, depopulation, Walmart). (The latest scourge, about which I’ve been writing, is a locust cloud of prescription pills and heroin.)

It’s the unblinking (within the genre’s limits) look at this rural America into which Costner is thrown that makes this flick worth the time. One place is a cabbage field, in which Costner stoops under the brutal Central Valley sun along with Mexican farmworkers. This is an unfamiliar country for the guy whose last appearance in modern rural America was in the far less complicated Field of Dreams Iowa in 1989.

The movie’s backdrop is its richest attribute: the orchards and streets of the Central Valley, home to some of our poorest towns – McFarland among them. “Are we in Mexico?” his daughter asks as the White family first drives through town.

Embracing this milieu allows the movie, and the star, a few other surreal scenes.

There’s Costner as a proud but stumbling father giving his daughter an impromptu quinceanera, a word he cannot pronounce. Another shows the kids training by running around the local prison – doesn’t every Valley town have one?

McFarland USA is Disney through and through. You’ll whiff Stand and Deliver, as well as Rudy and Hoosiers. It’s still effective filmmaking – I counted five tearing-ups – with a poor, stunningly photogenic, Central Valley town at its center.

We learn that all White’s runners go on to better lives, many, it seems, working for one level of government or another.

That’s not surprising any more.

The Central Valley has inspired thunderous works of art and activism on the plight of the oppressed – Grapes of Wrath, of course, the main example. But none ever stuck with the story long enough, I always thought. For, by and large, people don’t take it lying down for long. They struggle. They move on, they move up; in time, they’re allowed the luxury of forgetting where they came from.

Had Steinbeck followed the Joads, he’d have watched their kids become the next generation of cops and city councilmen along the 99 – and forget their manners when it came to the Mexican-Americans who moved up the highway to take their places in the fields.

I lived in Stockton from 1989 to 1992 – about the time McFarland USA is set. By then, the kids of those Mexican-Americans that Cesar Chavez organized in the 1960s had become cops, restaurant owners, and farmers themselves – and didn’t seem to care too much for the illegal northern Mexicans who worked the fields.

Those northern Mexicans who came to pick in the 1970s and 1980s were amnestied into America. Their kids are today the labor contractors and farmers (and cops). They’re trying to figure out the newest pickers – Mixtec and Triqui Indians from southern Mexico – who seem as foreign to them as his students seemed to Jim White when he showed up in McFarland fresh from a failed Idaho coaching job.

But all that is backstory to a movie that combines some classic sports melodrama with a look at a rural, small-town USA, and, with it, an icon of square white American manhood cutting cabbage in the sun.

Photo: McFarland USA

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Boxer Enriquez, the Mexican Mafia, LAPD – What’s the problem?

There’s been a dust-up recently over a meeting that LAPD investigators held with Rene “Boxer” Enriquez, a former influential member of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, in which he explained to them the inner workings of his former crime pals.

The mayor is criticizing the meeting, questioning why it was held. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has called for a review of the decision to hold it.9780061257308_p0_v1_s260x420 LA Police Commission President Steve Soboroff has called for an investigation into the meeting. Soboroff called the meeting a “giant waste of resources” and “very very misconceived.”

I don’t know what happened at that meeting, but if it was anything like the kind of law-enforcement seminar Enriquez has given dozens of times in the past, then Soboroff need to reassess that opinion.

What is the problem here?

Why would you not want a former Mexican Mafia member to be educating police brass on the workings of one of the most influential, and little-known, institutions in Southern California life today?

Boxer has made a second career (behind bars – he’s serving life in prison) of teaching law enforcement about how his old mates work. I’ve interviewed him extensively. That’s what he does, and, an articulate fellow, he does it pretty well.  (He’s co-author, with local TV reporter Chris Blatchford, of the book, The Black Hand, released in 2009.)

Far from being a “giant waste,” this seems to me to be essential work. The Mexican Mafia is one of the most important institutions in Southern California, particularly in communities with large Latino populations and gang problems.

The Eme used to be just a prison gang. But two decades ago, it marshaled the forces of street gang members to tax drug dealers in their areas, and sometimes also fruit vendors, bars, prostitutes and others – and funnel the proceeds to Eme members, their families and associates.

With that, it became Southern California’s first regional organized crime syndicate.

It’s probably less than that description implies, as it’s run by drug addicts locked away in maximum security prisons, who use drug addicts and criminals as their go-betweens. The miscommunication can be monumental. Still, the mafia has changed life in many parts of this region.

In some SoCal towns, its members are more important than the mayor, with enormous impact on town budgets. Its members can create – have created – crime waves with simple orders to associates who pass them along to gangsters on the street. The Eme has been shown to have alliances with Mexican cartels.

Sounds to me like anyone willing shed light on an organization like that ought to be welcome.

By the way, I contend that Enriquez’s decision to drop out while he was in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay in 2001 was a crucial moment in state prison history, as it helped pave the way for the mass defection of gang members in prison.

It wasn’t the only factor pushing that along, but it was important because it showed the Eme’s soldiers and lieutenants that their higher-ups weren’t going stick with the program. Also, two other mafia members – Angel “Stump” Valencia and David “Chino” Delgadillo – quickly followed him into PC, with several others after that, including Boxer’s old Eme buddy, Jacko Padilla, who controlled the Azusa area.

Protective custody in state prison went from a few hundred to, today, tens of thousands of inmates on what are known euphemistically as Sensitive Needs Yards. Many of them are Southern California Latino gang members. All that picked up enormous momentum after Enriquez dropped out.

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A new Tell Your True Tale book

The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.FrontCover

The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.

Check it out, on sale at Amazon.com for only $5.38 hardcopy or $2.99 as an ebook.

We present the book this Saturday, Jan. 24 at 3 pm at East Los Angeles Public Library, in the Chicano Resource Center.

Please think of coming.

My third TYTT: ELA workshop at the library begins the Saturday following that – January 31.

Over the next year, with the generous support of the County Library, I hope to be expanding the workshops to other parts of L.A. County – Compton, South Central and elsewhere.

TYTT draft cover JPEGBy the way, the first TYTT: ELA book, which we published last year, is also on sale, packed with very cool stories as well.

 

 

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South Gate Rising – my N.Y. Times column

I came to South Gate for the first time in 1997 and 1998 to write about Chalino Sanchez, the slain narcocorrido singer whose career began at El Parral, a narco-music club in the town.

In 2000, I returned as South Gate was pioneering the outrageous and crummy PRI-style politics that stained the newly Latino cities southeast of L.A. for the following decade. I left the town a few weeks later gravely concerned that the implications of the emergence of a Latino majority would mean the same kind of insane, mutant politics would spread to all of Southern California.

So I’m very happy to be able to write the column that appears in today’s New York Times about South Gate and the changes that I perceive in the southeast cities – some more than others, but all connected to a general acceptance by Mexican immigrants of their future and place in this country.

The Saga of South Gate, btw, became a chapter in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. The political culture that emerged there over four municipal election cycles was based, as I say in my NYT column, on preposterous, looney campaign fliers that were nonetheless believed by many voters in that town.

I’ve included below a slideshow of some of those fliers for the historical record and to give an idea of how wacky things got. These are mostly from the 2001 municipal election in which Albert Robles and his cronies won a council majority. For the full story, check out the chapter in my book.

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As a legend passes, a Walmart in Compton?

A legendary Compton indoor swap meet is closing this week, and vendors say they believe it will be replaced by a Walmart.

Snapseed Compton Fashion Center Dresses BWThe Compton Fashion Center, 2100 N. Long Beach Blvd., closes Thursday after 32 years, during which time it revolutionized immigrant business formation in Southern California.

In a tersely worded December 1 letter to vendors, some of whom had been in the CFC since it opened, the owner, Soo Lee, told them they had 30 days to get out.  That deadline was later extended another two weeks – leaving this Thursday as the day when the lights go out.

Shortly before Christmas, the center put up large signs announcing a “Close Out Sale” – and thanking customers for years of patronage – that vendors had not agreed to. Vendors say this left them with little time or opportunity reduce inventory and find a new location.

Of several CFC merchants I spoke with, all said they believe the space will be occupied by a Walmart, though the owner, Soo Lee, has said nothing about his plans for the enormous space. So this may be rumor as much as anything.

Walmart did not confirm a new store at the Compton swap meet. But the company didn’t quite deny one in the future, either. Here’s the statement a spokeswoman emailed me:

“While we are always looking for ways to better serve our Compton customers, we don’t have any new projects to announce.”

Okay. Still leaves the question of what will go into the center that was making the owner push the vendors out so abruptly after so many years in business.

Walmart last summer put a store in the new azalea Shopping Center in South Gate, four milIMG_1919es away, and traffic was so heavy the store wasn’t able to keep its shelves stocked for the first few weeks, according to a shopping center spokeswoman.

Of course, Walmart has also had problems locating inner-city stores in Southern California. Inglewood famously turned away the giant retailer, fearing it would lay waste to numerous mom-and-pop merchants.

“If Walmart comes, all the merchants on Long Beach Boulevard and around here will be wiped out,” said Kirk Kim, owner of Cycadelic Records, which has rented space near a swap meet entrance since CFC opened.

Compton Fashion Center opened in the space of what had been a Sears in 1983. It was the first large Korean-owned indoor swap meet in Southern California.

With that, in a region then becoming a magnet for immigrants from across the world, the indoor swap meet idea took off. Swap meets became a safe place for immigrants, speaking little English and without much capital, to wedge into a cranny of the American Dream.

Compton Fashion Center, in particular, drew people from all over with, in its heyday, 300 vendors selling jewelry, Photo Jan 12, 1 18 21 PMmakeup, music, cellphones, groceries and clothe.

“The holy grail of the hood,” one Yelp customer called it.

At Cycadelic Records in the 1980s, Kirk Kim’s father, the late Wan Joon Kim, and mother, Boo Ja  — Korean immigrants who spoke little English – became the first to sell and promote the gangster rap then emerging from Compton garages. The couple, known as Pops and Mama, sold the first records by NWA frontman Eazy E, and dozens of other rappers that grew to chronicle the city’s crack-and-gang nightmare, as West Coast gangster rap became an international phenomenon. His shop and the center have been in numerous rap music videos.

But a lot has changed since then. National retailers have discovered the hood. Whether the indoor swap meet is slowly fading away is an open question.

Kirk Kirk believe the CFC owners have been keeping vendors out with an eye to attracting to a big-box retailer. Whatever the case, he said, foot traffic has dropped along with the number of vendors.

Last week, the center was slowly emptying. Stalls sat abandoned. Owners were boxing product and sweeping the floors.

“It’s sad. These folks are like my family,” he said. “I see these people more than I see my sister.”

Photos: Kirk Kim; t-shirts and dresses in booths at Compton Fashion Center.

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Miracle on Drew Street

Today I drove through the Drew Street neighborhood and found an L.A. miracle.

Fabrizio Uzan had purchased a triplex out of foreclosure. When I met him, he was redoing the IMG_1929downstairs unit with new refrigerator and stove, new toilet and bathroom sink and shower, new floors and paint.

His property is at the corner of Drew and Estara – one of the most dangerous gang corners in all of Los Angeles a few years ago.

Uzan lives in Hollywood but thought the area had turned around and bought the property. He is upgrading the unit with a thought to charging $1500 for the one-bedroom, up from $925.

He told me he’s in no hurry to rent it. Rather, he wants a quality tenant. Under the old owner, the previous occupants had squeezed two families into the unit. Those days are over, he hopes.

“Good people won’t pay high rent for a shitty place,” he said. Indeed.

Uzan’s investment in this property marks a stunning moment in the history of Los Angeles, I believe.

From my count, Uzan is one of about eight or ten property owners – new and old, residents and landlords – who appear to be investing in fixing up their units/houses on the once-notorious street. Investing in real estate on Drew was lunacy a few years ago. Not any more, apparently.

There’s still some gang graffiti to be seen in the area. But that doesn’t seem to daunt many urbanIMG_1930 pioneers here. The gunfire and late-night insanity of the round-the-clock drug dealing are gone. No more screeching tires startling people from their sleep at night.

This is one street, and a tiny one at that. But I see the corner of Drew/Estara as a barometer of L.A., one that measures important changes to working-class neighborhoods where gangs dominated (and some still do) across the city.

Which is why I wrote about it in my story that Pacific Standard Magazine put on its cover and called “The End of Gangs.”

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Is This How Gangs End?

I’m very proud of my cover story in the January’s edition of Pacific Standard Magazine about the decline of gang violence and gang presence in Southern California.gangs-illo

I’ve been watching this phenomenon quietly unfold for several years. It amounts to a revolution in criminal behavior in the region that essentially invented the modern street gang, then exported it to much of America.

It’s not necessarily to say that, literally, all gangs have stopped existing, though some have. Rather, it’s to say that their behavior is so much more underground, low-profile, so quiet, that it amounts to about the same thing for many working-class neighborhoods that were besieged by these guys for so long. Some are still active but none is as active as gangs were a decade or two ago.

These were truly street gangs, meaning they took their power, identity and reputation from their streets and how well they “defended” them.

Areas like Drew Street, mentioned in the piece, are now seeing a resurgence that was denied them for many years due to the stifling presence of their local gangs.

Anyway, I hope you like the piece. Daily Beast selected it as one of the Best Longreads of the Week - so that was nice….Let me know what you think, please.

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Todo Se Olvida – Everything Gets Forgotten

Riverside Casa Blanca 4Out in Riverside the other day, I took a trip with police through Casa Blanca, just off the 91 Freeway.

Casa Blanca is one of the classic Mexican-American barrios of Southern California, named for a large white mansion on a hill a half-mile east of it and a brand of oranges. The area is still bordered by some orange groves.

It has fascinated me for many years, ever since the great Calvin Trillin wrote a masterful piece about it for the New Yorker, which he later included in his book, Killings. This is probably the best volume of crime reporting in American journalism. I’ve read Killings four times, I think.

Anyway, “Todo Se Paga” – Everything Gets Paid – told the story of the feud between the Ahumada and Lozano families in the insulated barrio that was itself like a small town, quite apart from the rest of Riverside. Police, in particular, were unwelcome. Only a few years ago, officers who went there still risked being hit with rocks, and neighbors would at times start bonfires in the middle of the streets.

Madison Street is the barrio’s dividing line – east of that was the Lozano family and west of that lived the Ahumadas.

Casa Blanca’s story was very un-Southern Californian – a rooted place, where houses were not only inherited but lived in by generations. Unlike most of the region, history mattered and people remembered and things lingered.

In 1992, after a police officer killed a notorious member of the Ahumadas – Georgie – the police chief of Riverside told the LA Times that the department had no vendetta against any of the families out in Casa Blanca.

“We’re not killing them–they’re killing each other,” he said. “If we really (sought) revenge, and wanted to carry it to its extreme, the best thing we could do is sit back and do nothing because they’ll eventually kill each other.”

Over the years, it all got very complicated, with people intermarrying but at the same time feuding, and having to choose sides. Eventually it devolved into two gangs – Fern Street (Ahumada) and Evans Street (Lozano) gangs. For years the gangs that grew from this feud were known for their violence.Riverside Casa blanca 6

Then about three years ago, it all stopped. Graffiti, feuding just ended. There hasn’t been a major crime incident in Casa Blanca for a while now, I’m told.

One cop I toured with said he thought it had to do with an order from drug-trafficking groups that the violence was attracting police attention and getting in the way of business.

That seems a likely possibility, something that’s happened elsewhere in Southern California as well.

But it also seems to me that the world finally came to Casa Blanca, too. A lot of the old families have died, or moved away, or are doing time. Many new residents are from other countries, including Mexico and Central America, and aren’t invested in, or care about, the barrio history.

I went by Ahumada’s Market. An Indian man has owned it for 10 years. There’s a Korean church on Madison, along with a library branch. A Korean man owns a market nearby as well.

Maybe in the rapid-fire change of economics, real estate and culture in Southern California, in contrast to other other parts of the world I could name, it’s more accurate to say that “Todo Se Olvida” – Everything Gets Forgotten.

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A Deportee’s Story

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The other day, I met a kid who was deported to Tijuana from Long Beach.

I’ll call him Carlos, 21.

When he was three, Carlos’s mother took him from their town in Zacatecas, Mexico. They crossed the border illegally and settled in Long Beach, where Carlos grew up and graduated from Lakewood High School.

He studied fashion design at Long Beach City College and got a job in the shipping department of American Apparel in L.A.

Then one night Long Beach police stopped a car he was in and found the driver had some drugs and took everyone in the car into custody. They put an immigration hold on Carlos and a while later he was sent back to Mexico.

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Classical music in Tijuana’s slums

Yesterday, I toured the Centro de Artes Musicales in Tijuana, a nonprofit that has set up youth orchestras in several of the worst slum neighborhoods of this sprawling town.

The CAM formed four years ago and is modeled on El Sistema, Venezuela’s youth orchestra network, which produced LA Phil director Gustavo Dudamel.

IMG_1705Kids whose parents are swap meet shoe vendors and security guards are playing in these orchestras in shantytown neighborhoods, including some of Tijuana’s worst. Caminos Verdes, which has a string section, spawned Teodoro Garcia Simental, aka El Teo, one of the city’s most insane narcos, which is saying a lot. There’s a choir in the north-end neighborhood where most of the kids are children of prostitutes in the Calle Coahuilas redlight district.

This is the next step in the evolution of classical music in Tijuana.

The story of how classical music came to Tijuana, a town that mostly used music as the soundtrack to a striptease, is fascinating.

I wrote about this in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

In 1991, an astronomer and classical music fan had recently moved from Mexico City to Tijuana, where he found no classical music of any kind. But he had a Mexican friend in studying conducting in Moscow.

Together, they arranged to import an entire Russian chamber orchestra – 25 highly trained classical musicians, who left Moscow in the dead of January and arrived in sunsplashed TJ. They stayed, taught music and formed the Orquesta de Baja California and a music conservatory.IMG_1710

Like everything in Tijuana, classical music came from elsewhere. The musicians’ main support came from Tijuana’s middle classes, which are relatively large for Mexico.

From there ushered an entire movement in classical music and opera, which to me felt very underground, very punk rock – as these folks operated with an entirely DIY ethos, bracing themselves against the headwinds of the city’s dominant musical forces: the chintzy disco, techno and heavy metal that boomed from Tijuana’s many bars.

Now the CAM, 20 years later, is taking classical music to the rough neighborhoods that began as squatter settlements in so many parts of Tijuana, and some of which only recently got paved streets.

The connection to Eastern Europe, meanwhile, didn’t stop with those Russians.

Musicians from the region have continued to flow across the globe to Tijuana. Of seven female musicians in the orchestra, two are from the Ukraine, one from Armenia, and one is from Cuba, too.

Just love these stories!

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An attorney speaks to Tijuana deportees

IMG_1665I just sat through a meeting of a Mexican immigration attorney in Tijuana at a shelter for recently deported men, as she explained President Obama’s recent remaking of immigration policy.

At the Casa del Migrante in east Tijuana, Esmeralda Flores wound her way through the intricacies of US immigration law. But the cold hard facts were, she said, “that none of you are eligible” for the temporary reprieve in deportations that the president announced.

Even if you crossed again tonight, it wouldn’t make any difference, she said.

About 30 men, rough and worn out, listened as she spoke. All had to be living in the U.S. as of November 20 – ironically Mexico’s Revolution Day holiday – to be eligible; and they weren’t.

Most of the men had lived for years in the United States. Most had learned to co-exist with their illegal status.

One I met was Filiberto Ruiz, who crossed at 15, and got his first job washing dishes in Oceanside without papers. He showed me, nevertheless, his real Social Security card and California driver’s license, all obtained without legal papers.

“For years, I didn’t need a green card,” he told me. “I preferred not to have one. I knew that sooner or later I’d be going to prison and then I’d lose all that money I’d spent getting a green card.”

Ruiz, now 50, was one of those who took advantage. He got involved in drugs, was deported several times, walking back in at the border crossing in each time. Then things got rough after 9/11 and he was caught one more time and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for illegal re-entry.

All of this – Ruiz, the men at the meeting, and the hundreds of thousands just like them, the president’s speech – are the fruit of Americans’ schizophrenia and double standards when it comes to immigration, particularly the low-wage sort from Mexico.

We have spent all our time enforcing immigration law at the border, where it’s politically sexy to do so. We’ve not enforced the law on Americans – people who hire illegal immigrants, from housewives to factory owners to sandwich shops and homeowners with pools that need cleaning.

So every working-class Mexican learned this fact: Cross the border and you could live and work without too much trouble; even brushes with the law were sometimes not enough to disqualify you from living and working illegally in America.IMG_1204

Father Pat Murphy, who runs the Casa del Migrante, told me of a family in San Diego who own a pool-cleaning business, a house, with kids in school, and 25 years in America – and are illegal.

But these days all that led to that appears to have changed. Tonight it fell to Esmeralda Flores to explain the truth to the 30 or so men who sat with her.

On a related note, Tijuana is a town of deportees: My taxi driver this evening was a deportee; so was the guy who changed the shower head in my hotel room.

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New Deportees in Tijuana, in NatGeo

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This is my first story for National Geographic online  — on the large numbers of deportees who end up staying in Tijuana, the city that they and their parents first crossed through years ago with such optimism on the way to a better life.

images-1These men are everywhere in the city. You see them wandering, with ball caps and small backpacks. Most are undocumented in the country of their birth, as they’ve lost, or never had, birth certificates, Social Security cards and the like.

For Tijuana, though, the question is, how does a town that lived from the energy of people passing through to a better life absorb tens of thousands of men returning traumatized, depressed, beaten.

A timely topic given the president’s speech last night.

The piece contains fabulous photographs by Eros Hoagland. (The shots on this post are mine.)

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