One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.
I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo. He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.
He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala, he told me.
He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it. There’s no rule of law. “Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”
I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.
As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of the Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.
He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them and they are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.
In Guatemalan, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.
So he came back from his visit home, and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. And when he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.
“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”
The first Haitian restaurant has opened in Tijuana.
It’s at Avenida Negrete near Avenida Juarez, not far from the city’s Revolucion tourist strip.
A couple years ago, Haitians began streaming into Tijuana to ask for asylum in the United States. They were coming all the way from Brazil. Their stories were stunning. They had left Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and migrated to Brazil where there was work building the facilities for the 2014 World Cup and the Rio Olympic Games two years later.
But even before the Games began, Brazil’s economy was collapsing. Now without work, many of the Haitian migrants – first hundreds, then thousands – embarked on a journey across nine countries, braving nasty cops and bad weather, climbing mountains and fording wild rivers, some drowning or falling to their deaths.
Those who trekked on connected meanwhile via WhatsApp with their families back home. They crossed Central America and into Mexico, then the full length of the country before ending up in Tijuana.
Their arrival was a new thing for the town, which was of course used to migrants coming from the south, just not black migrants who didn’t speak Spanish. (Here’s a report I did for KCRW in 2016, as Haitians were beginning to arrive.)
Many of the Haitians stayed, mired in bureaucratic limbo. Then the U.S. State Department said it would not grant the migrants asylum, but instead deport them home.
So, stranded in Tijuana, they have melted into the city’s economy. Three taxi drivers I met said the Haitians were well known for their work in the construction industry. I saw one guy working in a shop making tortillas.
“These guys work hard,” said one driver. “You see them everywhere, selling candy at the traffic lights.” (Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote a great story about this.)
It was a matter of time before the Haitians began forming businesses, importing something from home. At the restaurant, where I had grilled chicken, rice, beans and salad, I spoke with a man named Ramon, who said he was the owner. The place had opened in November, he said. It still had the Tamales sign of the previous occupant. But outside and in, it was all Haitians.
Speaking in a mix of poor French, Spanish and English, I was able to glean that some 2500 Haitians now live in Tijuana. A young guy named Roselin told me he worked making furniture for a shop on Revolucion. This was a trade he either learned or perfected while in Brazil.
The restaurant, which appears not to have a name, also sells cosmetics from Haiti. Light-skinned face cream and Afro Marley Twist hair extensions. You can also call Haiti or Canada from the restaurant. Next door is a barber shop, which now appears to cater entirely to Haitian clientele.
But what else do you need to confront a new world like Tijuana more than the most intimate things from home – food you know, to look good, and to call the family every once in a while?
A few of them have Mexican girlfriends. So I suspect in a few years we’ll be seeing little Haitian-Mexicans running around Tijuana.
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.
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.
One effect will probably be to end any attempt at immigration reform for the foreseeable future, and possibly the end of any Republican ability to woo Latinos, as well. Thus perhaps also killing any chance they have to win the presidency in 2016. Who knows? It’s early, but these seem like plausible outcomes this morning of last night’s results.
Cantor had supported the idea of giving immigrant youths citizenship, which was a main reason why he lost in his district that was recently remapped to become even more conservative.
I can’t see how many House Republicans would line up behind any kind of immigration reform that the president and Senate would support. I’m no Washington pundit, but it seems to me that the idea will most likely die again.
Cantor’s defeat was a remarkable event given that he was a national party leader and that he was well-known for raising huge amounts of cash. It came in a political season when establishment Republicans beat several tea partyers – Sen. Mitch McConnell being the most notable example.
Meanwhile, I’ll be interested to see what this does to the Republican Party’s standing among Latinos.
The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.
The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.
A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.
The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.
The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”
The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.
“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”
Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.
The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.
“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”
Up to now, nonunion immigrant supermarkets have been a low-cost place to shop for food — with prices based at least partly, I’ve always suspected, on an especially compliant workforce.
I shop often at El Super, Northgate Gonzalez, El Tapatio, and many others — far more than I go to Ralph’s. I find the produce especially good quality and cheap.
All are owned by immigrants (or folks in Mexico, in El Super’s case). They are staffed by Latino immigrants and target the Latino immigrant consumer. They see cactus leaves (nopales), tortillas, dried black beans, chorizo and often feel just like supermarkets in Mexico.
Many are in spaces once occupied by Ralph’s, Von’s, Alpha Beta and other non-immigrant supermarket chains — buildings many of them moved into after the other businesses were burned out during the 1992 Rodney King riots.
For consumers who’ve known where to go and what to buy, these markets I’ve long thought were a benefit of living in Southern California — same as cheap flooring installation.
I’ve never heard of any of them being struck. But that was then — during years of seemingly unending flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America into the region.
I suspect the El Super protests have something to do with the dramatic slowing in the flow of illegal Mexican immigrants into the US in the last few years. Not to mention, the record numbers of deportations in the last few years.
A smaller supply of workers means those who have jobs gain confidence in their ability to demand better treatment.
The gravest threat to an illegal immigrant without much education or English is a lot of immigrants with the same limited skill set.
That’s why so many Latino immigrants have left L.A. over the years for places like Kentucky, Tennessee, Minnesota, etc etc. They weren’t escaping the migra. They were escaping others just like themselves, who bid down wages and forced up rents.
Now there are fewer of them.
So … might we see immigrant workers at more companies objecting to their treatment by their immigrant owners? Perhaps in other industries — home improvement, for example?
I was in Compton earlier today and came upon this restaurant on Long Beach Boulevard.
El Infierno Restaurant (English: Hell Restaurant), known for its excellent menudo, was named thus by its owner, a fellow named Andres, who comes from Apatzingan in the state of Michoacan, Mexico.
Apatzingan, you may know, is in a ferociously hot part of Mexico known as the Tierra Caliente, and known for its wild ways. Frankly, I was always afraid to visit and never did.
Andres said he named it for the heat of his native region, though Apatzingan lately has become a virtual war zone, as cartels fight each other and the military.
Anyway, El Infierno Restaurant has had some tumultuous times itself.
When it was in its original spot, in a strip mall elsewhere in Compton, it was burned down during the riots of 1992. Andres rebuilt. Then earlier this year, his restaurant was shot up and then someone crashed a car into it, gutting it with fire (see photo, right).
Andres blamed gang members who wanted to sell drugs and didn’t like his surveillance cameras (there to protect his business). A neighboring business owner said he didn’t treat customers well and some got mad. That seems hard to believe, but whatever the case, Andres moved to the newer, bigger, better location on Long Beach, which he shares with a cleaners. (See photo above)
(Reminds me of the time when, from a bus, I spotted a taqueria in Los Mochis, Sinaloa — Tacos Hitler — no lie).
The stories you hear in L.A. if you stop and ask….
Lately, I’ve been struck by how the folks who come here looking for movie or music stardom from all over the US are part of what keeps Los Angeles vibrant.
These are wannabe actors, singers, musicians, dancers, writers — folks who’ve been told by their high school drama or choir teacher in Nebraska or Louisiana that they have talent and ought to test themselves out in Hollywood.
These folks add as much dynamism and energy to the LA economy, I’d bet, as do immigrants from Mexico or Korea or somewhere, here willing to do what it takes to piece together a new life. They just don’t stand out the way immigrants do.
I wonder what would happen to LA’s restaurant industry if they stopped coming. Probably the same as would happen if all the Oaxacans left. (Just at a Westwood restaurant where our busboy was a man from Abasolo, Oaxaca.)
I was reminded of this just now after seeing a movie with one such fellow — Warren Oates, who for my money is nearly the greatest character actor of American movies. Anyway, I can’t think of any better at the moment.
He made a bunch of great westerns, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. I just saw The Brink’s Job, which has a couple of fantastic scenes with Oates. Starred as John Dillinger and was in In the Heat of the Night.
You know it’s gonna be good if Warren Oates is in the thing.
Came from a burg to LA, like so many. A town in western Kentucky that apparently doesn’t even exist any more. He’d entered a drama troupe in college in Kentucky then made his way out west.
Seems to me his career was made possible by a late 1960s/early 1970s’ ethos of casting rugged, authentic-looking guys in westerns and as outlaws and the like. A revisiting of the Western movie, and a revision of the history of the American West in film that took place in those years.
Otherwise, he might well have faced a bunch of Gomer Pyle roles.
As his star rose, he became part of a Hollywood counterculture rat pack that included Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson and did a lot of things that aged him quickly.
Died too young — at 53, I was surprised to learn. I have to say he looked a lot older than that when he passed in 1982.
The Eritreans are migrants/refugees fleeing their country and looking for work in nearby countries and are kidnapped by Bedouins.
The kidnapping gangs have blossomed in the vacuum of political supervision in Egypt’s Sinai desert as Egypt has been dealing with its many other issues in the last year.
Remarkable story about the global economy and the vast lagoons of impunity that exist due to political borders and agencies that have faltered or have not changed with the same velocity as economics — which might be exactly the prescription for what spawns criminal gangs and mafias.
Check out the video of Joel talking with one kidnapping victim, and explaining the genesis of his story.
By the way, Joel’s been doing these kinds of stories about migrants and the borderless world for many years now and he’s one of the best around.
His book, The Other Americans, is a great series of vignettes about folks from around the world changing our country. His chapter on the Patel motel clan is worth the price of the book.
Photo: Sinai Desert; Photo Credit: Wall Street Journal
I found this out as I began interviewing Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico about why there were so many of them in the kitchens of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. I ran into many who told me they started at El Hamlet.
One thing led to another and I discovered that one guy, Asael Gonzalez (pictured above with his wife, Emma, who also worked at El Hamlet), was responsible for grabbing a beachhead there in 1968 and over the next 30 years hiring hundreds upon hundreds of men from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountains who got their first jobs washing dishes or busing tables at Hamburger Hamlet.
One thing that didn’t make it into the story is that Gonzalez converted to evangelical Christianity in the mid-1970s. When he did this, he changed the religious life of many Zapotecs in L.A. Many converted as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least a dozen churches were formed, in Pico-Union and Mid-City, with congregations of Zapotecs who worked at Hamburger Hamlet.
These churches acted as reception centers for arriving immigrants for Oaxaca, where they knew they could find kind words, help finding work, maybe some food and coffee and possible lodging.
All of which makes Gonzalez an enormously influential figure in LA during this time for the way he transformed his own community and parts of the city. I interviewed him and his wife, but family illness kept me from pursuing his story with sufficient depth.
So the story focuses on Marcelino Martinez, who was hired by Gonzalez in 1970 and later became supervisor of kitchens as the chain expanded, training in the kitchens the hundreds of men Gonzalez hired.
When they were amnestied in 1986, they left the Hamlet and spread out to other restaurants, some leaving food preparation entirely.
As the story says, Martinez is still at it, 43 years later. Amazing….
Today, in LA, there are so many Oaxacans with so much skill and experience that they keep restaurant costs low by allowing owners to dig into the vast Zapotec labor pool to quickly replace workers who are leaving, and with almost no training costs.
Zapotec Indians, from a peasant culture where only women prepared food, now make up some of the best chefs and kitchen workers in Los Angeles.