Monthly Archives: February 2012

VIRGIN: Virgin of the Razor Wire, “Pray for Us”

Virgin of the Razor Wire, Highland Park, Los Angeles

In a back alley in Highland Park, northeast Los Angeles.


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GANGS: Are gang members gay?

Talking with a transgender woman the other day, I was informed of the following:

Tiny Lexington Avenue in Hollywood is known as a strip for transgender prostitution. Gang members from Central America tax the streetwalkers for permission to work. Sometimes they beat them, but not infrequently, they have sex with them.

“Mainly, the girls are Central American themselves; many of them have an arrangement with Salvadoran and Honduran gangs where they’re allowed to work and afterward they pay them and in many cases have sex with these Central American gang members,” she told me.

“I don’t know how these Central American gangs do it but many of them like to have sex with men in dresses. That’s an area where you see a lot of men with beards, with Fidel Castro like beards – they look like a young version of Castro, Castro in the 1950s.

“Ironically despite the extreme homophobia you’d find in these gangs, these Central American gangs, for some reason, they prefer boys in wigs to the more womanly types. I believe probably these gang members are some type of closeted cases that prefer to be in bed with a man with a beard and a wig. They might have these issues and they want the wig on top of the guy so they’d be able to say `I’m still straight because the guy was wearing a wig. If the dude was wearing a wig like a founding father, that makes me straight.’

“I think these gang members,” she said, “if they were in another situation, they’d be like West Hollywood folks themselves. Probably they’d be out of the closet.”

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STREETS: Adan, ice cream vendor

Adan, ice cream vendor, from Puebla, Mexico, Glassell Park, Los Angeles

Took this photo the other day when I was in Glassell Park, in northeast L.A.

I was asking Adan if he wasn’t afraid driving through Drew Street in Glassell Park, which had been a very frightening place, due to a gang that once controlled it. He said he’d been driving the street for three years with no problems.

I asked him if he’d mind if I took his photo. He crouched down and here it is.

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Filed under Business, Gangs, Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants

BUSINESS: An upholsterer’s revolutionary roots – Benjamin Argumedo IV


Gritaba Francisco Villa: ¿dónde te hallas Argumedo?
ven párate aquí adelante tú que nunca tienes miedo.


Today, looking for someone else, I happened upon Benjamin Argumedo IV — great-grandson of the famed Mexican revolutionary of the same name.

The original Argumedo has a famous corrido written about him and figured also in the classic song, Carabina 30-30, which Los Lobos covered a while back (quoted above). There was also a movie about him, starring ranchero singer Antonio Aguilar: La Persecucion y Muerte de Benjamin Argumedo.

As with most revolutionaries back then, his was a romantic and complicated history. An illiterate saddlemaker who rose to revolutionary fame by leading peasants to claim land they said was theirs, he later switched sides and supported the counter-revolution of Victoriano Huerta. When that failed, the new government of Venustiano Carranza sent troops after him, captured him in Durango, where the Lion of Coahuila and the Tiger of The Laguna, both of which were his nicknames, was shot by a firing squad in 1916.

His great-grandson owns a custom upholstery shop in Highland Park, where he puts life back into old sofas and easy chairs — something he learned from his late father, Benjamin Argumedo III, who started the business, Golden B.A.,  at another location. Golden being for the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ben – as IV is known –  opened his own shop three years ago and called it Golden B.A. IV. (Don’t know about you, but I see a resemblance to his great-grandfather.)

Ben’s father moved the family here in the 1950s, he told me, probably looking for a better life than they were going to find in Coahuila. They landed in  Highland Park (a neighborhood in northeast LA) in the late 1950s, when it was mostly populated by Italians and Jews. “We were the only Hispanic family around,” he told me.

Argumedo IV grew up there as Highland Park became the Latino neighborhood it is today, and has returned only occasionally to Mexico, and not at all recently due to the drug violence down there.

So many immigrants have these stunning stories tucked away in their family histories. (I’ve also met a sister of a former first lady of Cambodia and a former first lady of South Vietnam — both in the suburbs of L.A.)

You can hear the Corrido of Benjamin Argumedo here.




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FOR THE RECORD: Is losing manufacturing jobs inevitable?

If so, why have other developed countries, with high wages and developed safety nets, lost far fewer than the US?

This study, from the Brookings Institute in DC, argues that manufacturing job loss is not inevitable, but requires an industrial policy that the US lacks.

The US lost 41 percent of its manufacturing jobs to overseas between 1979 and 2009, according to the Brookings authors.

Other developed countries — Canada and Germany, principally — lost far fewer, though with higher wages and, I’d suspect, higher taxes. Manufacturing allows Germany a trade surplus, they argue.

They argue also that manufacturing jobs are crucial to a country’s continuing to innovate, a crucial thing in the 21st Century economy. Keeping manufacturing here allows the kind of nuts and bolts experience with production processes that leads to innovation. A similar and compelling argument is also made by Thomas Friedman, whose work and approach I greatly admire, in his new book, That Used To Be Us.

All very interesting stuff, I find.


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VIRGIN: Nino’s Meat Market

Virgin of Nino's Meat Market, Avalon & 51st Street, Los Angeles

Another in my attempt to chronicle the many Virgins of Guadalupes on Los Angeles walls.

The more I do it, the more I’m struck by the way the street of south LA and of Pico-Union, Hollywood and other neighborhoods make up what amounts to a massive open-air modern art museum.

It’s an interesting time. Who knows? In 10 years, a planning-commission-like conformity may have come to these areas. But for now they’re a jangle of images, much of related to commerce, yet the overall effect is riotous color.


Virgin of Nino’s Meat Market, Avalon & 51st Street

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MEXICO: El Palenque

A great way to see what Mexico’s best columnists and academics are thinking is El Palenque from the online news site, Animal Politico.

This week’s discussion is about whether Mexico’s system is broken, and how to fix it.

The discussion comes after a riot at a prison in Apodaca, in the state of Nuevo Leon, which was really a cover for a mass prison break of 30 members of the Zetas drug cartel. Another 44 inmates were killed, all members of the Zetas’ former employers, and current rivals, the Gulf Cartel.

The prison warden and 18 guards guards have been suspended.




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BOOKS: The American Revolution

I’m reading now Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which follows my finishing Founding Brothers (Joseph Ellis) a few weeks ago.

I’m woefully unread about the American Revolution, to my embarrassment.

Anyway, as I’ve read I’ve found myself being rather down on Thomas Jefferson. Not so much because he owned slaves, which is a startling thing for a guy so interested in individual liberty, but it was  part of life in Virginia and I’m loathe to blame people so far back in time for what was commonplace.

Rather, it was his utopian idea of small govt, and his idea of continual revolution.

He sounds like a Leon Trotsky, who I think was remarkably naive for an educated guy and never understood the full implications of his theories.

In reaction to the English monarch, Jefferson apparently developed this idea of a country with nothing but small businessmen and small farmers and all-but-nonexistent govt (though he later expanded the country enormously with the Louisiana Purchase).

He was quite at odds, in the end, with fellow Virginian, George Washington, over such things as federal taxes (sounds familiar). Yet Washington was living in the real world, seems to me, and faced the challenge of making a new govt work in a world of many threats, not the least of which was still England. So federal taxes, while unpopular, he saw as necessary to provide the services that held the country together.

The Jefferson ideal, while nifty parlor fodder, seems to me would have spelled the end of the new country very quickly, not to mention that it overlooked all the ways that small farmers and businessmen are enabled by the services a competent federal govt provides (roads, regulation of markets, post offices, etc).

He had that famous quote about the soil of a republic needing to be irrigated with the blood of tyrants every 20 years or so (a paraphrase) — similar to Trotsky and Lenin’s idea of perpetual revolution. I learned with dismay that TJ was a big fan of the French Revolution because of this, until well near the end of FR — by which time most folks had long seen it for the bloodthirsty disaster it was. Like the Soviet Revolution, the FR gave way to dictatorship, which I think is what Jefferson’s ideas would have led to as well in the US, finally.


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MEXICO: Lynching follow up

A Mexican official said Friday that there is no evidence that the three youths lynched by a mob outside Mexico City had intended to kidnap anyone.

As I wrote in a post a week ago, the three were killed a week ago by a mob of folks who believed they’d kidnapped, or intended to kidnap. But officials say the mob was mistaken. Moreover, none of the three — two of whom were 16 years old — have even any criminal record.Two were construction workers; the third a helper in a stationery store.

Authorities have arrested 23 people in connection with the lynching.

Lynching, as I mentioned in the earlier post, have long been part of life in Mexico, the expression of poor and working class communities’ outrage at criminals going unpunished. Sometimes, as it appears was the case here, their anger victimizes innocent people who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. In my first book, I wrote about just such a lynching.



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LOS ANGELES: LAT to charge for online content

The LA Times, my employer, will now be charging for online content, as its president announced Friday.

An idea that had to come, I think, as newspapers cannot continue to give away content that costs money to generate.

As the story notes, we have more readers than ever before — which is true of most newspapers, I suspect — but are losing money and cutting staff. I’m hoping this will begin reversing that trend.


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STREET: Questions for a transgender Mexican immigrant?

I’m in Chatsworth, in LA’s San Fernando Valley, to interview a transgender woman from Merida, Mexico. I’m interested in hearing a story of her transformation, which apparently took place here, and it was seeking this that she fled Mexico (fled being not too strong a word in her case, given the harassment she received).

I’ve been interested in stories of transformation for much of my journalistic life, I guess because they usually involve someone making difficult choices, traveling from one point to another in some way. Immigrant stories are endlessly interesting for that reason. Also, someone who changes over time is usually someone intent on something, perhaps even obsessed, and they are more interesting than folks who let life happen to them.

If you have a question you always wanted to ask a transgender woman, and Mexican immigrant, now’s the time to shoot it to me. Happy to hear any ideas…..

Meanwhile, sitting at a cafe in Chatsworth, porn capital of America, a troup of four gaudily attractive young women in tight mini-skirts and one unshaven guy in short hair and a shirt unbuttoned to his chest just walked by. What am I to make of them?




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GANGS: Where’d all the gangs go? pt. II


I spent some time today on Drew Street in the Glassell Park neighborhood in northeast LA.

This three three-block stretch was once one of the most dangerous spots in the city. It was essentially a closed society, and had as much to do with a Mexican village as with LA itself. It was inhabited by dozens of families from the town of Tlalchapa, Guerrero in the Tierra Caliente, a particularly violent part of southern Mexico.

Drew was the landing strip for immigrants from Tlalchapa, but even back in the town, Drew came to be known as the “Barrio Bajo” (the Low Neighborhood), as all those with aspirations came and left, leaving behind those with other intentions.

A few in particular grew up to run the drug trade on the street and their children grew into gang members. By the middle of the last decade, Drew Street was like a garrison state in some ways, where the folks on the street ran things, dense apartments provided places to hide and watch for police, and no one could move in who didn’t have some connection to the gang families in the area. (I know one person who had his rent money refunded by the gang to get him to move.) One family in particular was the shot-caller: the Leon-Reals, and especially the matriarch, Maria “La Chata” Leon.

I wrote about the family and the street after one of the family members, Danny Leon, was killed in a shootout with cops in 2008.

In the following years, the gang on Drew Street was the focus of a RICO indictment and a gang injunction. Many went to prison, including La Chata. One of the Leon Reals, Francisco, turned state’s evidence. The city seized several properties and, in an attempt at a kind of exorcism, destroyed La Chata’s house, which had a large satellite dish and was thus known as the Satellite House. It’s now a community garden.

Things are very different now on Drew. The gang still has some presence – it writes on trees and sidewalks, but by and large things are quiet, even sweet, on Drew.

Adan, an ice cream vendor, says he hasn’t had any trouble in the three years he’s been driving the street. The community garden seems full. There are no kids in hoodies lurking by the cars. The major apartment buildings are without graffiti.

I spoke with Ignacio Ramirez, who bought in 1968 and watched as the street descended into hell. He woke up to a body one morning, and a bullet hole in his door another.

He now owns four properties on Drew, even buying one of the houses the city seized due to drug activity.

“It’s getting there,” he said.

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Filed under Drugs, Gangs, Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants

TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: Santa Fe Springs Ice Cream War

This week on Tell Your True Tale, my storytelling website, is a story by … me.

Don’t usually do that, as I want the site to be for others to tell their stories, which it has been. But every once in a while I put up something of my own.

This was from days in high school when I was, briefly, an ice cream man driving around Southern California in a truck with a jingle going full blast.

Check out “The Santa Fe Springs Ice Cream War.” Share it if you like it — on Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Most of all, think of writing a story of your own. I don’t pay, but I do edit.

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Part of what I hope to do with this blog is report and point out stories that surprise.

With that in mind, I’m starting something I hope will become a regular part of the blog — as much as time permits: highlight stories that are surprising and tell us a little bit about the world, standing above the babble and din of the daily news cycle to do what journalism is supposed to do — surprise and educate us.

Please feel free to send in your candidates. Here’s mine for today:

-A 2006 story about an editor in the Middle East trying to reshape Arabic journalism — from Anthony Shadid, NY Times reporter who died this week in Syria of an asthma attack. Great reporter, this guy.

-A remarkable story about the ex-director of Olympus, an English fellow and the first foreigner to rise to the top of a major Japanese corporation, about the reportedly Yakuza-connected goings-on inside that company that he apparently tried to expose and for which he was then fired and run out of Japan.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu in Arizona says he did not threaten with deportation a (legal, apparently) Mexican immigrant identified only as Jose, said to be his lover, but Babeu did acknowledge that he is gay and is stepping down from the committee helping Mitt Romney in that state. Babeu has been one of the more vocal AZ sheriffs on the issues of illegal immigration and smuggling, and is running for Congress. Here is Jose’s statement.

Kinda liked that, in a state beleaguered by ideology and issues of immigration and Mexico, love (or something like it), for a while anyway, trumped all.

-Finally, murders are down in Juarez, leading some to believe that the Sinaloa Cartel has won the war for that town, so important in drug trafficking into the US. In a related story, Pres. Calderon visits Juarez to call for No More Weapons from the United States.


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STREETS: Virgin of the Carniceria


Virgin of the Carniceria, Beverly Boulevard

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