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.
One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.
It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana andhave been melting into the city.
As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put outan album backing accordionist Celso Piña.
Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.
The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …
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.
The new Tell Your True Tale; East Los Angeles book is out, the product of a workshop I did with a great group of eight new writers.
The stories are again fantastic — about Albert Einstein in East L.A., a Czech “almost blind” boy growing up in a Communist boarding home, a young man going to Tijuana to help a deported friend return, a woman on her deathbed remembering the last time she saw her kids, and a girl on her way to Mexico, a child bride.
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.
Kids 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.
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.
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.
I just sat through a meeting of a Mexican immigration attorney in Tijuana at a shelter for recently deported men, as she explained President Obama’s recent remaking of immigration policy.
At the Casa del Migrante in east Tijuana, Esmeralda Flores wound her way through the intricacies of US immigration law. But the cold hard facts were, she said, “that none of you are eligible” for the temporary reprieve in deportations that the president announced.
Even if you crossed again tonight, it wouldn’t make any difference, she said.
About 30 men, rough and worn out, listened as she spoke. All had to be living in the U.S. as of November 20 – ironically Mexico’s Revolution Day holiday – to be eligible; and they weren’t.
Most of the men had lived for years in the United States. Most had learned to co-exist with their illegal status.
One I met was Filiberto Ruiz, who crossed at 15, and got his first job washing dishes in Oceanside without papers. He showed me, nevertheless, his real Social Security card and California driver’s license, all obtained without legal papers.
“For years, I didn’t need a green card,” he told me. “I preferred not to have one. I knew that sooner or later I’d be going to prison and then I’d lose all that money I’d spent getting a green card.”
Ruiz, now 50, was one of those who took advantage. He got involved in drugs, was deported several times, walking back in at the border crossing in each time. Then things got rough after 9/11 and he was caught one more time and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for illegal re-entry.
All of this – Ruiz, the men at the meeting, and the hundreds of thousands just like them, the president’s speech – are the fruit of Americans’ schizophrenia and double standards when it comes to immigration, particularly the low-wage sort from Mexico.
We have spent all our time enforcing immigration law at the border, where it’s politically sexy to do so. We’ve not enforced the law on Americans – people who hire illegal immigrants, from housewives to factory owners to sandwich shops and homeowners with pools that need cleaning.
So every working-class Mexican learned this fact: Cross the border and you could live and work without too much trouble; even brushes with the law were sometimes not enough to disqualify you from living and working illegally in America.
Father Pat Murphy, who runs the Casa del Migrante, told me of a family in San Diego who own a pool-cleaning business, a house, with kids in school, and 25 years in America – and are illegal.
But these days all that led to that appears to have changed. Tonight it fell to Esmeralda Flores to explain the truth to the 30 or so men who sat with her.
On a related note, Tijuana is a town of deportees: My taxi driver this evening was a deportee; so was the guy who changed the shower head in my hotel room.
These men are everywhere in the city. You see them wandering, with ball caps and small backpacks. Most are undocumented in the country of their birth, as they’ve lost, or never had, birth certificates, Social Security cards and the like.
For Tijuana, though, the question is, how does a town that lived from the energy of people passing through to a better life absorb tens of thousands of men returning traumatized, depressed, beaten.
A timely topic given the president’s speech last night.
The piece contains fabulous photographs by Eros Hoagland. (The shots on this post are mine.)
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.
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.
In 1990, Francisco Arellano Felix was owner of Frankie Oh’s – a crass discoteque built with a Flintstones prehistoric decor of large stucco boulders along Mazatlan’s beachfront drive. He was known to be anxious to enter the city’s high society. He was a friend of the great Mexican middle-weight, Julio Cesar Chavez.
That February, Rocio del Carmen Lizarraga was selected Queen of Carnival, one of the most high-profile positions in Mazatlan. She was 17, a fresh-faced high school student from a middle-class family.
A few months later, a small article appeared in the newspaper reporting that Rocio del Carmen had disappeared. Not only that, but that possibly she had been stolen by Francisco Arellano Felix. The newspaper said that her family was distraught, feared for her safety and hired private detectives to search for her.
Mazatlan spun with rumors. But though the reigning Queen of Carnival had apparently been stolen by a member of one of the state’s most notorious drug-running families, newspapers published only occasional short stories below the fold.
There were reports the couple was in Guadalajara, that they had married in a church. (Turned out that the bishop in the area refused to marry them, and they had to resort to a minor priest to perform the service.)
Finally, Rocio del Carmen’s mother, Oliva Lizarraga, told reporters she had spoken with Arellano Felix, who had not let her speak with her daughter, since “she was showering.”
The mother said her daughter, and her now-jilted fiancee, Oscar Coppel, from one of Mazatlan’s wealthiest families, were “victims of destiny” and that “God was the only one who can put things in their place.”
It was all very surreal.
Finally, the episode concluded when Rocio del Carmen took out a large newspaper ad with a short letter that is both thoroughly bizarre and a beautiful exposition of Mexican fatalism.
She was in Mazatlan, she wrote. She thanked people for their support, but added, “I don’t want to be asked by anyone because it would be embarrassing to have to say whether I left of my own will or was taken by force.
“I don’t want to judge the father of my children and he who gave me his last name, since he’s never mistreated me. I accept with resignation the path that destiny has prepared for me, and if God has put me on this road, I have to continue.”
She signed the ad, “Your friend, Rocio del Carmen Lizarraga de Arellano.”
And with that the episode ended, as quietly as it began.
About the worst that came down were pronouncements from Mazatlan’s high society. Arellano Felix “will never be accepted by the Mazatlan society that he wanted to enter,” Ernesto Coppel, owner of one of the city’s largest hotels, father of a Senorita Sinaloa and uncle of Rocio del Carmen’s ex-fiancee, said at the time.
Today, the AF cartel is nothing like what it once was. One other AF brother, the feared Ramon, was killed in 2002. Three others are in US prisons. And so the death of this Arellano Felix is more about history than anything else.
What’s nice about the Los Angeles of today is that you can go out a meet folks with worthwhile stories almost without trying.
I was in the area once called South Central L.A. (now South L.A.) and came upon a guy named Rogelio in a truck selling plaster statues to passers-by on Vermont Street: Snow White, bulldogs, snakes, Mickey Mouse, and this naked lady pictured here, among other things.
He buys them in Tijuana and brings them in.
I stopped to chat. He didn’t let me take his photo, but I shot other stuff.
He said sales of plaster was weak. “Enough to eat, but not well,” he said. “No meat.”
Rogelio is from Apatzingan, Michoacan. He was 16 in 1970 when he arrived in LA about 1 pm one day. He had a job by midnight.
Apatzingan is in Mexico’s Tierra Caliente, a particularly violent place, even before the latest nastiness. He went home a month ago to visit family. The police refer all problems to the local drug cartel — a pseudo-Catholic group of drug traffickers called the Knights Templar. Wonder how anyone would want to remain a cop under such conditions — or join the force at all.
At one corner, he said, there were two groups of headless bodies.
Still, he said he wants to return. This apparently has something to do with the fact that after 42 years in the country, he’s unable to find work that feeds anybody.
This, seems to me, is what LA is right now. If a Mexican immigrant has spent his time here learning new skills — English, welding, painting — he has a better chance of rolling with the economic bad times. But many people did not, assuming that the few skills they always had would be enough, as work had always been so plentiful that you could find a job in a few hours.
Those are the folks who are more likely to be leaving LA — some for other parts of the US, but mostly for Mexico, as it’s cheaper to be poor in Mexico, particularly if you have a place to live.
I told him about Craigslist as a place to put advertise his statues, and told him to give me a call if he needed help.
He said his daughter has a computer, but that maybe he’d call.
The street festival grew from that scene — which itself began germinating years ago when a guy imported an entire Russian orchestra (true story) from the crumbling Soviet empire straight to Tijuana. The musicians stayed, played, taught, shaped the first classical music conservatory in Baja California. A host of local underground opera aficionados were also pushing the whole gig along — among them Enrique Fuentes, who opened a Vienna-style opera cafe in the Colonia Libertad. (photo right)
The opera scene is the fruit of their DIY labor, though it remains a little like underground music (reminds me of punk rock, in spirit anyway) in TJ, which is a city not about harmony and discipline, but where the reigning ethic is about babble, chaos and commerce.
I loved telling this story because it was about Tijuana and its great complexity, yet had nothing about narcos, murder, maquiladoras or strip clubs. Also, it was all about people working toward something without much government help and for the pure love of it.
When my wife started crying after reading the story of Mercedes Quinonez (pictured above) and her lifelong attempt to be an opera singer while working at a hardware store, I figured I’d done well.
The festival takes place on 5th Street and Aquiles Serdan in Colonia Libertad (easy walking distance from the border crossing), a setting that cannot be matched for pure surrealness (surreality?). The neighborhood — the first to be built outside downtown Tijuana — is a crumpled wedding cake of a place, home to the city’s first boxers, gang members and mayors, as well as its plaster-statue industry. Two hundred yards away is the brown wall separating the city from the USA.
Just an amazing place to see people singing Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and the rest. Best time is later in the afternoon. Expect 7,000+ people. On this year’s bill are Carmina Burana, arias from Carmen, Cosi Fan Tutte, Turandot and Don Carlo.
Enjoy a bit of surreal border stuff — a very original creation by some very creative people.
In it, among other things, Timberg wonders why it was California where science fiction writers flourished. He concludes that it was because there was no literary elite or hierarchy to disapprove of the genre.
Reminds me of Tijuana in the 1950s through the 1980s, where lots of poor people could join the middle class because there was no wealthy class controlling opportunity as there was in the long-established cities of Mexico’s interior.
Timberg sees a California vibe in Bradbury’s stories about Martians, and notes the author was a young autograph hound, with no college education, who wrote his first stuff on butcher paper, and Fahrenheit 451 on a UCLA library typewriter into which he had to keep pumping dimes.
“Libraries raised me,” Bradbury is quoted as saying. “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries.”