Category Archives: Culture

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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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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Death of a Tuba Superstar – RIP El Jokoki

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Carlos Soto, El Jokoki

Sad news from Mexico that Carlos Soto Beltran, aka El Jokoki, has died of complications from leukemia.

Soto was the tuba player for many years for Banda El Recodo, the holy mother of all bandas in Sinaloa.

He grew into something of the Michael Jordan of the tuba, in that he was a great player, but also made his persona into something younger tuba players wanted to follow and emulate.

He was, in other words, the first star tuba player – something that Mexican tuba playing didn’t have before him.

Soto spent 20 years with Recodo. He retired due to his illness in 2012 and his place was taken by another great and influential tuba player, Alfredo Herrejon.

During his years with Recodo, though, Soto raised the bell on his tuba so that the audience could see his face, thus plucking tuba players forever from the obscurity and ignominy they endured with the bell covering their face down to their nose.

I want to say he was among the first to engrave his tubas with florid designs – but others please correct me if I’m wrong.

Soto also had a signature tuba mouthpiece – the Jokoki – made by Pablo Garibaldi of Garibaldi Music in Paramount, CA.

His nickname means Cream.

El Debate from Culiacan says in its obituary that he retired from Recodo to dedicate himself to therapy for people sick with cancer, spinal ailments and others.

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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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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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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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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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Tijuana, my kinda town

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Tijuana lately. I love that place.

In many ways, it’s the least Mexican of cities, but in a good way. True, it’s got none of the colonial architecture that tourists love in the Mexican interior. The town has only been what you’d call a city since the 1960s.

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Tijuana, Avenida Revolucion

It was a blank slate in many ways. Which is good. For neither does it have the stifling and controlling economic structures that keep those outside from rising, and which are part of life in so many cities in Mexico. There’s a more meritocratic vibe in Tijuana, due to its newness and its proximity to the US. For those reasons and others, it has a very large middle class.

That middle class is changing, has been changing, the town in many ways. One is way is through high tech. There’s a real entrepreneurial effervescence nowadays, with lots of young people looking to tech as a way of starting their own companies, and not just some mom-and-pop tiendita either, but enterprises that provide employment for many.

That’s the idea anyway. It’s early yet. A lot to see, a lot can happen – or not. I’ve been writing about it for a website in San Diego: Xconomy.com/san-diego. Here’s a story on opera, high tech and Tijuana.

And another on a kind of incubator for new tech ideas. And finally, a piece on Startup Weekend in Tijuana, an event to prod new ideas into actual businesses.

Headed now out to Drew Street in northeast Los Angeles to see how one of my favorite gang neighborhoods is faring.

More on that later.

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Tell Your True Tale: East Los Angeles — the book presentation this Saturday

TYTT draft cover JPEGHey all — An invite  to the presentation of a book that grew out a tremendously successful series of nonfiction writing workshops I gave to new writers at East L.A. Public Library.

The presentation of  TELL YOUR TRUE TALE: East Los Angeles takes place this Saturday (April 26) at 2:30 pm, at the library, which is located at 4837 E 3rd St, (323-264-0155).

The volume is stunning for the mosaic of East L.A. it presents, as well as the variety and quality of the stories: A vet returning home from Vietnam; a janitor in Houston trying to find her children in Mexico; of braceros finding their way north and back home again; a man learning confidence as he woos a woman; a bus rider in Los Angeles; a mariachi singing for a heartbroken family on Christmas Eve.

All by folks who’d never published before: Andrew Ramirez, Celia Viramontes, Olivia Segura, Manuel Chaidez, Jacqueline Gonzalez, Joanne Mestaz, and Diego Renteria.

I call my workshops TELL YOUR TRUE TALE. They attempt to excavate new stories from unheard communities as they help new writers over the intimidating humps that keep them from realizing their writing dreams, and push them to start thinking like writers — all by mining the stories in their lives or those of people close to them.

Hope you all can make the presentation this Saturday, and pass along the word to others who might be interested.

Meanwhile, grab the book at Amazon.com.

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Good Friday in Los Angeles, a video

I was in downtown L.A. and encountered the Stations of the Cross near La Placita. So I made this short video.

Let me know what you think. I’m trying to put out one of these a week.

Share it if you like it … and feel free to subscribe to my Youtube station: True Tales Video.

 

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Alejandro Escovedo don’t need no six-string basses

photo (1)Last night, in the middle of a 90-minute set in West L.A., Alejandro Escovedo hunched over his black electric guitar and splayed his feet as if he was up against gale-force winds.

 He leaned into his lead guitarist and a schoolboy grin spread across his face.

I think the song was Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.” But I can’t remember any more.

All I remember was the pure exhilaration on his face, which I took to mean that he still sucks a ton of joy from the simple act of playing in a band and getting it to thunder like a herd of African wildlife.photo(1)

I took my wife to see Escovedo at The Mint on Pico Boulevard (great place!).

He was backed by the Sensitive Boys. This was a real garage band – which is all any rock musician with any balls should aspire to. I mean, the drummer had only four drums. (Thanks, man!) The guitarist had two guitars. Same with Escovedo. The bassist – bless his heart — had only a four-string Fender.

The gear didn’t matter. What mattered was the spirit. The idea that all you needed was your own heart, and jagged point of view, and love of fun.

Escovedo knows how to choose a great cover (“All the Young Dudes”), but he’s not an oldies act. Just a survivor.

He made his life in a young man’s game and, more than 30 years later, continues to create within it. He’s got a bunch of albums of his own songwriting.

Escovedo is one of the few from the original wave of punk rock (1977-81) who’s still making music. He was in the SF punk band, the Nuns, then Rank n File. Moved to Austin. I think since the late 1980s he’s been crafting his own career as a singer-songwriter who plays acoustic guitar but whose big love is for a nasty old pawn-shop electric turned up loud.

But I don’t know his resume.

All I know is that mostly folks who started out with him are all dead or gone on to other things. Or they’re in the RocknRoll Hall of Fame, which amounts to the same thing.

Punk rock was a joyous moment, an essentially American thing. It told a bunch of kids who grew up on a rock music that was now fat and pompous: You know what? Screw Emerson Lake and Palmer.

You don’t need stacks of amps and $5000 guitars and walls of drums. Screw the elites. You can get up there and do it, too, if you have the spunk.

Hell, you don’t even need to know how to play.

And you damn sure don’t need one of those pretentious six-string bass guitars.

All you need is three chords and the hunch that you need to make life on your own terms. Record your own 45s, book your own gigs, print your own posters. Everything’s up to you. Just don’t ask permission.dead kennedys

That is healthy stuff for a kid to hear. It was for me. It changed my life, though I was never in a punk band. (I did promote my own punk shows, though. Even hired the Zeros, fronted by his brother, Javier, a time or two.)

Any pop music genre is born in times and circumstances and doesn’t easily survive their passing. Punk was no different. It died long ago. The blues died, too — years ago. People can still play it. They still play Dixieland in New Orleans. Doesn’t mean it’s vital any more.

But if it’s worth anything, that music will leave a residue of attitudes that helped create it.

Like gum stuck on a shoe, one piece of punk’s residue is Alejandro Escovedo. Now with “more miles than money,” to quote his lyric, the independence of his spirit doesn’t seem to have flagged much.

Last year’s “Man of the World” is the best straight-ahead, raspy garage rock song in years.

Last night, his “Rosalie” hit me as one of the purest love songs I’ve heard in a while. I’d heard it before, but not live, which helped, though I can’t say why. Maybe it was just more raw, like the feeling. It’s a true story of a boy from San Diego and a giphoto(5)rl from El Paso who met one day, fell in love, and spent the next seven years writing letters to each other until they saw each other again.

He filled the spaces between songs with stories of his family – parents and their 12 kids – coming out to Huntington Beach from San Antonio for vacation, seeing the beach and literally never going back, and of years later waiting outside the Whiskey to see the New York Dolls.

Then he sang another love song: “Sweet Jane” – it was to Lou Reed. “Sing it for Lou” he yelled, as the four chords to the song churned on and on through the night.

We did.

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Mexican clowns swear they didn’t kill Francisco Arellano-Felix

So, the clowns aren’t having it.

At a clown convention in Mexico City, attendees told Milenio.com that they’re sure a real clown did not kill Francisco Rafael Arellano Felix.

“That’s not what clowns do,” said one at the convention that brought together 500 Latin American clowns. “We don’t want violence.”

You’ll remember (or read by scrolling down in this blog a bit) that Mr. Arellano-Felix was shot to death in Los Cabos by a man dressed as a clown a few days ago.

Mr. Arellano-Felix’s family organization — the Arellano-Felix Cartel — ran the Tijuana drug corridor for more than a decade, setting new standards for bloodiness and the corruption of institutions.

Three of his brothers are in US prisons. He and another brother are dead.

The clowns, meanwhile, held a vigil of 15 minutes of laughter against violence in Mexico.

Photo: bonology.com

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Mexico’s gypsies, traveling movies & the blond-haired Roma girl

Europe is abuzz with the discovery of a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria, found among Roma gypsies in Greece and presumed to have been abducted. At least those with custody of her are not her biological parents.

So far, however, her DNA has not matched with any missing girl in Europe.

I’ve watched this with interest.

I had an encounter with the Roma several years ago in an isolated village in Mexico. Roma came to Mexico in the 1920s and there are about 16,000 of them, though they’re all but invisible.

“Gypsies have been ‘de-historified’; they do not appear in the history of Mexico,” David Lagunas, of the National School of Anthropology and History, told Inter Press Service. “We know very little about them.”

I had no idea they existed. But they remain a fairly coherent group, still speaking Roma and wandering through the country — the ones I met did anyway.

This was several years ago — 2002 I believe. I was a freelancer in Mexico. The O.C. Register called and asked if I’d go to a village in Puebla where a boy was to be buried. He had been shot to death by Huntington Beach Police and the family was sending his body back. That was a whole other story.

But while I was in the village, waiting for his burial the next day, I heard a loudspeaker announcing something I couldn’t understand. A few minutes later, I saw a ramshackle truck, filled with chairs and tables and barely hanging together.

Then it stopped and ten or twelve people piled out. They were the Brandy family — three generations of Roma gypsies.  I went over to talk to them, wondering who on earth they could be and what they were doing in town.

They spoke Spanish and Roma. Turned out, they spent their lives touring the most isolated villages, showing movies and charging 15 or 20 pesos. Many Roma people did that much of the year in Mexico, they said.

For some villages, impromptu Roma theater was welcome entertainment, though the Brandys allowed that with cable TV, VCRs and DVDs the numbers of these villages was dwindling.

I watched as the Brandys cordoned off a lot with high sheets so no one could see in. Inside, they set up a projector, put out chairs and benches they had in their truck, and as night fell, they charged admission and put on the worst monster movie I’d ever seen.

I hate all monster movies, but this was the worst. It featured, I remember, building-sized snakes. I remember a desultory crowd of 15 or so enduring this flick.

I didn’t stick around long.

I wanted desperately to go off with them the next day, but the Register needed a story and so I remained. The Brandys didn’t have telephones or maybe they told me that so I wouldn’t tag along.

Either way, I never forgot them.

Photo: Maria (IBTimes)

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Cortez the Killer — Los Cenzontles and David Hidalgo

Check out this video of Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer by the ever-cool Bay Area Mexican psychedelic roots folk band known as Los Cenzontles.

Love this band, and David Hidalgo’s voice is always so fine.

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David Hidalgo

David Hidalgo

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