Tag Archives: Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream

Guadalupe Paz & the TJ Opera Scene

For more than 15 years now, I’ve followed the way Tijuana has developed an opera scene that is one of the artistic jewels of Mexico.

One of the scene’s great products, Guadalupe Paz, a mezzosoprano, performs in Tijuana at the CECUT theater, not far from the border, on May 16.

The emergence of opera in Tijuana was a story I included in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

It’s a bizarre tale involving the importing of an entire Russian orchestra after the end of the Cold War, and fans who acted like guerrilla warriors, fighting in DIY style to establish a beachhead for their music amid the techno, disco and ranchero.

It also involves Mercedes Quinonez, who had tried all her life to find classical voice instruction in Tijuana, only to find it too late, when she was 51. A poignant tale that I’ll never forget. (See photo below.)

Today, opera and classical music are part of the town. Growing from it all, there are today youth orchestras in some of the toughest barrios in Tijuana. (Listen to a radio story I did for LA’s radio station KCRW.)

Opera in Tijuana struck me as completely out of place with the city’s fame and reputation as a town of sin and late-night drunkenness.

But I took opera as a sign of how the town was evolving, with a middle class, an optimism, and an energy — the three of which were hard to find in combination in cities in other parts of Mexico.

That’s why I’ve spent so much time paying attention to it.

Many years ago I also did a report for NPR with my Mexico City colleague Franc Contreras about the phenomenon in Tijuana, which you can listen to here.

There’s also an annual Opera Street Festival in July that is a fantastic event, taking place 150 yards from the border wall, in Colonia Libertad, a place known more for its immigrant smugglers and the artisans who make Tijuana’s plaster Mickey Mouse statues.

Mercedes Quinonez

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Eleuterio Cruz – RIP

I’m saddened to report the death of a fine man, Eleuterio Cruz, a campesino from the village of Xocotla high on a mountain in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. I visited Xocotla five times in 2002 and 2003,

Eleuterio Cruz

where I met with him, played guitar with him once, and mainly listened to his stories of his town.

He was of a generation of men from the town that for 31 years spent every Tuesday taking off from the farmwork that fed their families to hack a five-mile road out of the mountain that would connect Xocotla with the rest of the world.

They started in 1945 and finished the road in 1976.

It took them that long because they had only picks and shovels.

Mr. Cruz was the grandfather of Delfino Juarez, whose story I told in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. He was a nice man, kind and generous, and I remember him with great fondness.

Here’s what I wrote about him in the book:

Eleuterio was born in 1933. He began working on the road when he turned seventeen. For the next generation, every boy did the same.

Today, Eleuterio is sixty-nine and has a sharp nose and jaw. His skin is taut, dark, and calloused by years of hard farming. Raising corn and potatoes all his life on a hilly patch of land made him spry. He’d played guitar in cantinas for many years; he drank a lot, then he turned to Jesus.

Eleuterio worked on the road as his twelve children were born, and as they grew up, and as they had the first of his thirty-five grandchildren. He served as mayor for a spell and organized roadwork crews.

Every man in Xocotla had to work on the road one day a week. On Tuesdays they would usually gather their tools and march down to chop, shovel, and pick at the mountain.

The Second World War ended with atom bombs. Then came the Cold War and an arms race. In Xocotla, the men had no explosives, so they hammered and chipped at solid rock, and at times clawed at it by hand, then dumped the debris down the mountain.

The world outside was changing quickly. The Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, the student rebellions of the 1960s, the hippie era, a man on the moon, the drugs and sex revolution, dictatorships and coups in Latin America, the Tlatelolco massacre, and the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Through it all, Xocotla’s men remained steadfast to the idea of their road. Every Tuesday the mountainside rang with their picks and shovels glancing off the rocks.

“No one died,” said Eleuterio.

One man’s foot was crushed as he hammered at a massive boulder that stood in the road’s path. No one touched that boulder for a generation after that, believing it hid the devil, who wanted to take people.

“I don’t think so,” Eleuterio said. “This person didn’t know how to use a sledgehammer, which is why the rock hit him in the foot.”

For a full thirty-one years the men of Xocotla pounded at that five-mile road. As they measured progress in centimeters, Mexico’s population went from twenty million people to fifty-five million people. Six Mexican presidents, and twelve Xocotla mayors, came and went. A Mexican middle class emerged, though none of its members lived in Xocotla. Through it all, Xocotla’s men kept at their colossal hand-carved public work. The government gave them no help until the end, when it provided a gas-powered jackhammer with which the men shattered the last obstacle in their way—that solid rock where the man had injured his foot.

Finally, in 1976, they finished. A red Jeep carried the priest from a town at the bottom of the mountain up the zigzagging, rocky five miles of one-lane road. Xocotla had a party. Eleuterio Cruz was forty-three; he’d worked on that road for twenty-six years.

 

My condolences to Delfino and the rest of his family.

RIP Eleuterio Cruz.

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DRUGS: Narco Mennonites arrested again

Years ago, I had a run-in with drug-smuggling Mennonites in the area around Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua in Mexico, and wrote about it, and the decay of traditional Mennonite communities there, in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

A recent narcotics arrest in Canada is about that as well. The Mexican Old Colony Mennonites have been working with drug cartels, and been major importers of marijuana and cocaine to Canada and the U.S. themselves, for years.

They began in the late 1970s, early 1980s, and were able to use their ingenuity as mechanics and welders to fashion new hiding places for drugs in trucks and cars.

For my book, I found that the largest drug bust in the history of the state of Oklahoma up to that time was a Mennonite ring run out Cuauhtemoc. The main informant, now presumed dead, was himself Mennonite.

Used to be a Mennonite family crossing into El Paso would be waved through Customs. Now they get the full treatment — drug dogs, mirrors under the car, etc.

One man I spoke with said a common way to smuggle drugs was to strap them around a senile grandmother, wearing a long dress and a traditional bonnet and looking for all the world like a peasant for the 1800s.

This photo here is from an AA meeting I attended for Mennonites in the communities near Cuauhtemoc.

 

 

 

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DRUGS: Mennonites and Time’s `Flower Girls’

Mennonite one-room school house near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua

Time Magazine has published a set of photos of an Old Colony Mennonite community in Durango, Mexico, titling it The Flower Girls. Check them out. Tell me what you think. I find the photos are sweet, delicate, beautiful, and only hint at the disaster that has befallen most of these Mennonite communities, which have tried mightily to separate themselves from the world.

The Mennonite communities in Chihuahua are replete with severe problems of inbreeding, domestic violence, benighted education, alcoholism, and, in the last 20 years, drug trafficking, particularly in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua, four hours south of Ciudad Juarez.

Mennonites came to Mexico from Canada in the 1920s, invited by the government that wanted to colonize the north to avoid further US depredations. Those who came to escape the world were masterful farmers and cheesemakers. But in time they suffered from the same problems as other Mexican farmers: drought, lack of credit, etc. Many in the Chihuahua colonies turned to drug smuggling — some full time and some to pay an urgent debt. I ran into these folks in 2003 and included a chapter on the harrowing result — the scariest moment of my reporting life — in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream.

I like the Time photos immensely, but from them you’d not guess much of the reality of Old Colony Mennonite life in Mexico.

For many of these world-rejecting Mennonites, it always seemed to me that their very attempt to isolate themselves made them  vulnerable to the worst the modern world has to offer. Many I spoke with described their people as lambs, unprepared for what they would encounter outside their community. Some likened it to Indians’ lack of exposure to small pox before the Europeans came.

I’ve included a photo above of a one-room schoolhouse, taught by a man with barely a bad sixth-grade education, which is how Mennonite kids are still schooled in the colonies near Cuauhtemoc, Chihuahua. Would  love your comments on the Time photos.

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