Charles Bowden, dead at 69

I didn’t love everything that Charles Bowden wrote, but I did love the spirit with which he wrote – very much out on his own ledge of the world.

I didn’t agree with some of what he said about the border and Mexico, but most of it came from a life steeped in both. He was no dilettante, this guy.

His book on Juarez was damn good.

He spent a long time writing about the border, about drugs, about Juarez and I’m sorry to hear he passed Saturday in his sleep in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Read an interview with Charles Bowden here. And an obit here.

Find his book on Juarez – Murder City, it’s called – and read that. Pretty fine piece of journalism, and reflective of the guy and his take on his craft and the world. With the rough-edged, opinionated, cranky prose that made him worth reading, and listening to. I met him once, at a conference at Cal State Northridge.

There aren’t too many out there like him any more.

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The Hollywood Star of Los Tigres del Norte

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Los Tigres del Norte got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame today.

The only band that matters in Mexican pop music received their star on Hollywood Boulevard before hundreds of fans, Marco Antonio Solis – El Buki – and lots of glitzy Mexican TV reporters with impossibly tight and short skirts.

The boys got Star 2527, just outside the Buffalo Wings and Live Nation at Hollywood and La Brea. Not far from Lon Chaney and Ethel Merman, as it happens. So there’s that interesting juxtaposition for Hollywood, a district of the city that’s more about immigrants from Mexico and Central America (and Armenia and Thailand, for that matter) than it is about making movies these days, anyway.

The best way to understand Mexican immigrants, by the way, is to dissect the best Tigres’ corridos on the topic.

I recommend Pedro y Pablo, Ni Aqui Ni Alla, El Gringo y El Mexicano, Tres Veces Mojado, La Jaula de Oro, La Tumba del Mojado, El Mojado Acaudalado, A Quien Corresponda. Well, there are many.

Here’s a youtube video of La Jaula de Oro. “Whatcha talking about Dad? I don’t wanna go back to Mexico…”

And for machismo drenched in melodrama, nothing compares to El Tahur.

Some of the best drug ballads in Spanish have come from LTN: El Avion de la Muerte, Pacas de a Kilo, Camioneta Gris, and of course, the song with the first sound effects in Mexican music (gunshots), Contrabando y Traicion.

The first great political corrido in Mexican pop was theirs: El Circo, about ex-president of Mexico Carlos Salinas de Gortari and his brother, Raul.

Their first album in four years, La Bala, is ready to drop in October. The single from the album is the story of a family whose 18-year-old son is involved with cartels and whose rivals come looking for him and kill his 7 -year-old brother with a stray bullet.

Here’s a bunch of photos I took when traveling with the band many years ago.

 

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Mennonite Mob on Destination America tonight

Some of you may remember that I had a scary run-in with drug trafficking Mennonites years ago when I went down to their colonies in Chihuahua, south of Juarez, to write a story about the Narco-Menonita phenomenon.

To recap: humble Old World, German-Speaking Mennonite peasants have become major drug traffickers of marijuana and cocaine. They took unkindly to my presence and I had to leave with police escort.

Anyway, tonight on Destination America channel airs a documentary I was interviewed for about the drug trafficking ways of these folks. cover2big

It’s called The Mennonite Mob.

Airs 10 p.m. To find this smoking hot station in your area, click here.

You can read about my run-in with these folks in the last chapter of my second book, ANTONIO’S GUN AND DELFINO’S DREAM: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

Mostly, the Old Colony Mennonites are known around Mexico for their overalls, their one-room schoolhouses, their dairy farming, milk and cheese, and their supposedly simple way of life, close to God and earth. Not long ago they were all driving horses and buggies.

But there’s a whole other side to that community that I discovered when I went down there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs it happens, I don’t know how much of what I told the filmmakers they ended up using. HOWEVER. I did do a reenactment of my tense standoff with the narco-Mennonites. (Reenactment may be another word for `big fat idiot American reporter’).

Destination America’s website provides me with little encouragement. It features links like:

10 Fried Recipes That Will Make You Forget Vegetables Even Exist

and

Which State Has the Most Terrifying Monster?

so I’m not sure what to expect from tonight’s show and happy that I don’t have cable.network-default-still-v4

They even had me do a “hero shot,” which is me looking slowly into the camera as if I was the toughest stud in the desert that day.

Highly ironic, if you’d have seen me crumbling into the fetal position during the trying time while the Mennonites were pursuing me.

As I don’t have cable, I’m relying on you all to tell if this show’s any good, and if this reenactment is the most embarrassing moment on television, please try to find a way not to tell me. :)

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Tell Your True Tale: A cockfighting story

Big news!!!!

Another story is up on Tell Your True Tale, my storytelling website.Tell Your True Tale

This one is by Armando Ibarra, a friend and longtime San Bernardino gang member, currently incarcerated, from where he wrote this piece.

The story is about a father and son at a cockfighting tournament.

Check out Armando’s cool story …

One of a Million: A cockfighting story.

And remember, send those stories in. I don’t pay but I do edit.

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Unaccompanied minors: How about some perspective

The Dept of Homeland Security today announced figures for youths apprehended alone at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The headline: The numbers of detained unaccompanied children dropped in half, to 5,500 in July.20140508_192715

Also fascinating in the DHS report: The monthly apprehension numbers show a huge leap in March and April, up to 7,000+ and reaching 10,000+ in each of May and June.

So most of those 57,000 kids that were reported detained since October actually came since March.

The suddenness of that surge reflected in the DHS figures adds credence to the idea that this was the result of rumors – spread by a Honduran television reporter, according a US official I spoke with – that the time to leave was now or never given pending legal changes in the U.S. So people began bolting.

But it’s remarkable that the situation on the ground – both harrowing violence and civic disintegration in Central America, dependence on jobs in the U.S., and the huge numbers of immigrants here — is such that rumors would spark a migration fever like that.

I find the whole furor to be surreal in another way. The surge in apprehended minors is really a sign of how well the immigration system is working. Certainly, total apprehensions, which are barometers of the the size of the flow of people trying to cross, are well down these days.

Years ago, when total apprehensions were always over a million annually, thousands of kids — most of them teenagers between 13 and 17 – came to the United States illegally and many of them were alone. But they were lost in the hundreds of thousands of adults who were also crossing.

But with those numbers down (well below 500,000 a year), the kids stand out more. It’s possible too that coyotes are seeing these kids as their last, or maybe a far more important, revenue stream and spreading rumors too. Desperate measures, perhaps reflecting a serious crisis among our friends in the human-smuggling industry.

Not to say that it’s a good thing that thousands of kids are streaming north, but it helps to keep some perspective.

Here are the DHS apprehension figures since January, 2014:

Unaccompanied children Adults with children
January 3,706 2,286
February 4,846 3,282
March 7,176 5,754
April 7,702 6,511
May 10,579 12,774
June 10,628 16,330
July 5,508 7,410

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The Corner of the Virgin: 41st and Broadway

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No corner of the city appears better protected than 41st and Broadway in South Central LA.

There are five virgin murals on three buildings at one corner, and another two on a mini-market a block away.

“We’ve put up flowers and kind of modern rock n roll paintings,” said a woman named Dolores, from Guatemala, who was behind the plexiglass at the mini-market.

“But the cholos come and spray-paint them. So we had the Virgins painted. They’re not cheap – one cost $800 and the other $500. But the cholos respect them.”

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Guatemala: Death threats, land theft and rock carrying

“After sentencing (the defendant) to carry rocks for a number of days , my client  began receiving threats from people  demanding the recession of the law.  After the defendant’s release, my client  was  attacked on more than one occasion ( once with guns)  and threatened with torture and death. My client  believes that if returns to Guatemala  he will be  killed.”

Now that’s something you don’t read every day. San-Quintin0511

But it is the kind of stuff that sends people north to the U.S.

It’s from an attorney looking for an expert witness in Guatemala and Mayan Law, defending a man who is requesting asylum in the United States. 

I’m no expert in Indian self-rule and law in Latin America, but I have seen huge problems with it. Here’s a story I did on the conflict those laws generated between migrants from Oaxaca and those who remain behind in the town.

Here’s the lawyer’s full letter, with names and places removed:

The man seeking asylum is  a 26 year-old of Mayan ethnicity. My client is well educated and interested in advancing the interests of his small Hamlet. He has no criminal record and is politically active in his community.

 After he was  elected as Mayor of Development of his community in 2011, he set about drafting and implementing “Mayan Law” to prevent the abuse of women and children as well  to prevent the theft of land by members of neighboring hamlets.   The law he wrote was adopted by his community and  formally ratified by the civil authorities of the broader municipality. 

 After the ratification of the law, members of the community, (led by my client) arrested  a man from a neighboring town, for stealing land from members of the San Jose community. After sentencing the defendant under the new Mayan Law  to carry rocks for a number of days (12)  , my client  began receiving threats from people in San Luis   demanding the recession of the Mayan Law.  After the defendant’s release, my client  was  attacked on more than one occasion ( once with guns)  and threatened with torture and death.

My client  believes that if returns to Guatemala  he will be  killed. I need an expert who can   provide context for  “Mayan Law”  within indigenous communities  and  within the  broader socio-political fabric  of Guatemala . 

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TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: Cardboard Box Dreams

Hey folks,outpics1

I’m trying to get back into the storytelling now that the manuscript to my book is finished (see below).

I recently held a Tell Your True Tale workshop at East LA Public Library, which produced several fantastic stories.

Here’s one, by author Celia Viramontes. Cardboard Box Dreams is the tale of a day in the life of a bracero worker trying to get a contract.

Really great stuff. So are the other stories, which I’ll be putting up soon.

You can read other pieces by buying the book — Tell Your True Tale: East LA — that we produced out of the workshops on Amazon.com.

TYTT draft cover JPEG

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DONE!!!!!

After many many months of traveling the country, reporting, interviewing, of writing and rewriting and more rewriting, I just turned in the manuscript to my book about the country’s epidemic of pill and heroin abuse.

YAAAAAHHHH!

It’s called DREAMLAND: The True Tale of America’s IMG_0638Opiate Epidemic.

120,000 words.

Comes out in April, Bloomsbury Press.

I’m still walking around in a daze.

Writing a book is a process of discovery, I found again to my delight.

This is my third book. It started out very differently than it ended up.

Quite unexpectedly, it became a tale about the country, where we are as America and Americans, about rural America, the Rust Belt and the country’s nicest suburbs, about what excess will do, and the value of community. About what we lose when we undermine that which gives us community.

None of that should have surprised me, because unlike previous drug scourges this one has permeated virtually the entire country – or at least all of white America.

The story’s about drug marketing, and about our belief that we are entitled to feel no pain.

It’s also about Mexico, and the Mexican town that has devised a system for selling heroin like pizza. Making heroin convenient, and cheap and potent, as well.

On one level, the story’s about Mexican drug trafficking, but it’s probably as much about the impulse behind immigration, andIMG_0546 the Mexican village, and envy and desire.

I didn’t start out thinking that parents of addicted kids would be  part of the mix. But if you keep your mind open, new directions present themselves. So they are now. I love this about journalism.

I belong now to a Facebook site called The Addict’s Mom, where parents write in daily about their addicted kids. So many have died recently. So many people are wrapped up in addiction or the addiction of their children.

It’s amazing that it’s so quiet, because this is happening everywhere.

Given how hard this dope is to kick, it’s going to be with us for a long long time.

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The Flowers of El Monte….dope taxes and attacks on blacks

Today’s RICO indictment of the El Monte Flores gang offers another glimpse of the Southern California gang underworld and how it’s changed.

EMF ran taxation of not just drug dealers but also of fake-document vendors on behalf of the Mexican Mafia prison gang, according to the indictment.emf

The gang also allegedly participated in the wave of race-hate crimes by Latino street gangs against blacks, ordered up by Mexican Mafia prison gang members.

For several years during the late 1990s and well into the 2000s, Latino street gangs were the county’s leading, and by far the most violent, perpetrators of race hate crimes.

This is about the 7th or 8th indictment of a Latino gang alleging this. Others include Hawaiian Gardens 13, Azusa 13, Avenues, Florencia 13, etc.

(You can see more of what I’ve written explaining that entire phenomenon in an chapter in the book, Black and Brown in Los Angeles, published last year by the U.C. Press.)

El Monte Flores – from El Monte and South El Monte – is one of those Latino street gangs that grew up in the numerous barrios that emerged in post-WWII Southern California, places where Mexican-American workers lived.

Now, 50+ years later, the gang, like virtually all Latino gangs in the region, pays homage and obedience to the Mexican Mafia. In this case, the orders allegedly come from an Eme member named James “Chemo” Gutierrez, who just finished a 20-year federal sentence for murder in time to catch this indictment.

Reading between the lines of the indictment, Gutierrez took over in 2007 for Frankie “Frankie B” Buelna, the long-time Mexican Mafia member who was killed in a bar fight in Pomona and before his demise controlled many of the gangs in the San Gabriel Valley.

What’s interesting about these RICO indictment is how they have become almost as routine as morning coffee.This is the 25th or 26th in the last six or so years. So many that the US Attorney apparently no longer holds press conferences to announce them.

Still, the indictments are powerful things and have gone a long way toward changing gang activity in the region.

Federal prison sentences are longer than state time. There’s no parole. Plus, guys are sent to prisons in South Carolina, or Arkansas, or Minnesota – far from friends and family. No girlfriend’s going to be visiting any gang member in Arkansas. Plus, so many gang members are wrapped up in each indictment. the EMF was tiny, with 41. The Florencia and HG13 indictments each involved over 100 defendants.

The effect has been to either neutralize many gangs, or force them underground, giving the neighborhoods a welcome breather from the constant blight, graffiti, shootings etc that for so many years accompanied the presence of any LA street gang.

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The Bracero Treaty changed America

imagesThis month marks the signing of the Bracero Treaty between the U.S. and Mexico.

The 72nd anniversary – not a sexy number, I guess. But the moment seems relevant given the crisis of unaccompanied kids flowing up from Central America, in especially large numbers over the last couple months.

The furor, the appearance of the kids themselves, are part of the complicated perversity that now surrounds the immigration issue, where Americans want and don’t want immigrant laborers. It all began with the Bracero Treaty.

The treaty was signed in 1942, allowing Mexican guest workers to be contracted to work the fields of the United States, harvesting the food that the country and its military needed while men were fighting World War II.

Mexican laborers from isolated villages were contracted to work in Utah, Arkansas, Washington, Nebraska and, of course, much of California. There’s a lot that accompanies the story. (Here’s a preview to a documentary.  There’s an historical archive here.)

But the important thing here is that the treaty began the transformation of America in many ways. First, it began the transition of agriculture, particularly in California, away from white, native-born labor to eventually an entirely Mexican, and then Mexican Indian, labor force today.

(In the early 1960s, Cesar Chavez, just then organizing farmworkers, was a main opponent of the treaty, and lobbied hard to end it. He was equally a fierce opponent of illegal Mexican labor.)

Our desire for cheap, plentiful labor trumped our dedication to the rule of law – a recurring theme through the next decades. So, crucially, the first large flows of illegal immigrants came at the same time as the two million legal laborers contracted under the treaty over its 22 years.

That, in turn, began the custom of migrating illegally that took hold in many Mexican states – Jalisco, Zacatecas, images-1Michoacan and others – and has become a business for many.

Eventually, years after the treaty finally ended in 1964, its legacy would continue as  construction and home improvement, meatpacking, gardening and landscaping, and many more, grew to depend on Latino immigrant labor. (Here’s a story I did on a gardener from Durango who died trimming a palm tree in L.A.)

The Bracero Treaty also began turning many parts of Mexico (and later Central America) into dependents of the U.S. economy. The first channels of immigration from certain villages to towns in the U.S. began with the treaty. That continues today. Some Mexican towns eventually just emptied almost entirely, a collection now of large, beautiful, unused houses built with immigrant dollars.

For a couple great stories about braceros, check out Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles, a book of stories from writers from East LA. Two of them are about braceros.

Here’s a link to one of them on my Tell Your True Tale storytelling website: Cardboard Box Dreams by Celia Viramontes.

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Faustino Diaz: Trombone master from Oaxaca in L.A.

Faustino Diaz, the Oaxacan trombone master, returns to Los Angeles this weekend for a concert at the Ukrainian Hall, 4315 Melrose Ave., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Diaz thrilled Mexico last year when he won the International Trombone Competition in South Korea.1511733_908562385837387_4934257276349175473_n

A few days later he visited the Pico-Union District and the music school run by director Estanislao Maqueos, who has used his school to organize Oaxacan youth orchestras.

There, I had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his life, and having to venture out into the world to find his music like a migrant finds a future.

The interview is above and in Spanish.

Check out the concert. Should be good.

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Mexico victim, this time, of the New Kabuki

Twitter has been full of references to history and colonialism and Europeans stealing what rightfully belongs to Latin America.

Dutch airline KLM exacerbated things by apparently assigning the intern to PR. Anyway, somebody at KLM put up a BrUTRLDCMAAIiufphotoshopped tweet with a “Departures” sign next to the figure of a Mexican fellow in a large sombrero and thick mustache. “Adios Mexico” read the tweet that lasted about two minutes before it was taken down, but still preserved online.

Case you missed it, Mexico was robbed of its advance in the World Cup by a shameless flop by Dutch forward Arjen Robben.

It was an outrageous piece of work that any ref ought to have seen. Replays sure showed it. The flop led to a penalty kick that put Holland up 2-1.

Mexican coach Miguel Herrera said “the guy with the whistle” knocked Mexico from the World Cup.

Much as I was disgusted by the play, I don’t see Herrera’s complaint.

That’s soccer. Flopping and absurd playacting are allowed to be part of the game – like fighting in hockey and equally detrimental. I wonder seriously if players aren’t instructed by acting coaches. It’s embarrassing. The other day Uruguayan Luis Suarez bit an Italian, then faked as if he himself had been hit in the head, without penalty. It probably determined who advanced and who went home.

I wonder what it means that a sport so much of the world is crazy about relies so heavily on fakery, histrionics, on the telenovela, the soap opera.

What is clear is that the New Kabuki affects outcomes. Mexico was the victim this time, but I’ve seen Mexican players flop with equal vigor and shamelessness.

215285I’m watching Greece vs. Costa Rica and Greek tragedy is on display. Replays have shown at least three pathetic pieces of Greek faking.

The saddest part is that it robbed the best player in the tournament so far, Guillermo Ochoa, of continuing to display his talent on the world stage.

The noblest guy on the field had to endure a penalty kick that he didn’t handle.

Without any irony, apparently, he was selected as player of the game.

 

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The New Kabuki Theater, aka The World Cup

cropped-719px-WC-2014-Brasil.svg_.pngSo now it appears the Uruguayan yahoo name of Luis Suarez actually bit another player in 2010.

I confess that I hadn’t heard that.

I only saw that during yesterday’s game against Italy, the poor Suarez tried to bite Giorgio Chiellini, in what to me looked like an attempted headbutt on the Italian.

With that, the irrepressible Suarez fell, grasping his poor aching head, and front teeth, which are huge, by the way, as if he himself had been headbutted.

Never, it turned out, was there a better case for instant replay as this sad Uruguayan was somehow allowed to remain in the game. Uruguay, then with 11 players to Italy’s 10, scored moments later.

I don’t have documentation, but I suspect the ridiculous Suarez was later embraced by wife or girlfriend, friends and teammates back in the locker room, instead of ridiculed for this shameless behavior.

The bloated and absurd organization known as FIFA, which just scheduled a summer World Cup in a country with 120 degree heat, is investigating. So I’m quite relieved.

The best Kabuki theater in the world continues in the World Cup, contaminating what is a beautiful display of athletic ability.stock-photo-dental-implant-176798672

Just as hockey is marred by fighting, soccer is irrevocably contaminated with this constant fakery, flopping, and telenovela histrionics. Are soccer players f-ing mamas boys? Weenies? Merest little tap and they go down, writhing in some imaginary pain. Some are beginning to writhe before they hit the ground. It’s a disgrace. I am proud that I have not seen one American do that kind of crap – Not One.

THIS JUST IN: Luis Suarez actually bit two opposing players prior to the incident in the Italian game, I’ve now learned. Amazing he’s still playing at all.

but perhaps we understand better this Buzzfeed piece on how much fans would have won betting on whether Luis Suarez would have bit someone.

And the Washington Post on why athletes bite (emotion trumping reason), a question that hadn’t come up since Mike Tyson-Evander Holyfield.

 

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Bulletproof Burial Ground – the Narco Tombs of Culiacan

I made this video recently when I was in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where I walked the grounds of Jardines del Humaya, the cemetery that is the final resting place of dozens of legendary drug traffickers.

It looks like a mini-Beverly Hills. Some of the tombs have air conditioning, barbecue grills, sound systems, even bulletproof glass. A few are the size of a house or two near where I live.

Immigrant village cemetery

Immigrant village cemetery, Michoacan

One had a long banner to a fallen, presumably murdered, brother, swearing to him, “There’s no truce.” (No hay tregua.)

I’ve seen much smaller versions of this in immigrant villages. One thing immigrants do with their dollars is build larger burial places. They do away with the iron crosses of their poverty and build themselves sepulchers with a statue of Jesus or the Virgin, maybe an open bible in stone.

But these are modest in comparison to the Jardines del Humaya.

Strange, excessive, lurid. I felt as if dropped into some foreign kingdom. These are the new Pharoahs.

I made this video with the help of my anonymous guide. I hope you like it. Feel free to subscribe to my Youtube channel – True Tales Video.

 

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