The El Cargadero Social Club

How a Mexican ghost town lives on in Anaheim

The doors are open. The banners are hung. A band is blazing through a polka number. But it's 8 p.m., and the Laborer's Local 242 Union Meeting Hall dance hall on Chestnut Street in Santa Ana is nearly deserted.

It looks like bad news for the organizers, who've raised a white, green and red welcome banner as long as the stage itself: BIENVENIDOS—CLUB SOCIAL EL CARGADERO. Welcome to the El Cargadero Social Club.

On a stage beneath the banner, La Auténtica de Jerez, a five-piece band from the Mexican city of Zacatecas, is playing as if the dance floor were swarming. Decked out in black cowboy hats, suits and boots and led by a 6-and-a-half-foot-tall accordion player, the band seems oblivious to the fact that they barely have an audience. Although the dance officially started 30 minutes ago, there are still hundreds of empty seats in the 481-person-capacity auditorium.

La Auténtica de Jerez are here to help raise money for El Cargadero, a tiny pueblo in the central Mexican state of Zacatecas. Located about 30 miles up a winding mountain road from the city of Jerez, El Cargadero is the place of origin of about 1,000 Anaheim residents, but it's virtually unheard of outside the small number of people familiar with that isolated region of equally isolated Zacatecas. It doesn't appear on most maps of Mexico.

In Spanish, "el cargadero" means "the loader," as in the lumber-bearing teamsters who rested in the pueblo on their way down the mountains and back to Jerez, the nearest city of any note. El Cargadero was an ideal stopping point: in the middle of a steep canyon, bisected by a river, and surrounded by mountains, it's halfway up the hills of the Sierra Los Cardos, one of the countless eastern subranges of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental. From a distance, the town appears as a tiny green patch in a white desert.

Nostalgic former residents recall the place as an oasis—lush, unique and irreplaceable. It's possible that hundreds of these same people, acting on geographic longing, purchased the same calendar featuring a single photograph of El Cargadero. It's a fuzzy aerial shot—maybe from a low-flying airplane or a high nearby hill. To a stranger's eyes, it looks like a generic Mexican town. It's an arid place. The downtown is split by narrow streets between low buildings that run the length of a city block. There are few cars and almost no people, but the rooftop gardens and tree-lined streets suggest a measure of civic pride and permanence.

It's possible to imagine a time when the place was livelier. Like many other towns in central and northern Mexico, El Cargadero has hemorrhaged residents. The Mexican government says there were 324 heads of household in El Cargadero in 1970. Now, just 30 years later, there are only 82, and many of those families are themselves migrants from other parts of Mexico. The exodus has followed well-defined routes, first to Arizona at the turn of the century, then Hollister in northern California, and finally Anaheim. And that's where most of them stopped, if only temporarily: decades after the migration began, the Cargaderenses, as the descendants of El Cargadero in Anaheim call themselves, remain deeply attached to their hometown.

Twenty minutes into the dance, there's still no audience. Like a standup comedian on Univisíon, La Auténtica de Jerez's accordion player is hamming it up. After each song, he speaks rapidly into the microphone like an auctioneer, cracking jokes and thanking the almost-nonexistent audience for its polite and generous applause. As a special reward, he announces, the band will play the century-old Zacatecas ballad "El Corrido de Lino Rodarte."

Lino Rodarte, so the song and legend say, was a poor boy from El Porvenir, a pueblo in the highlands of Zacatecas, who lived roughly 100 years ago—just before the 1910 Mexican Revolution. He sold grain to farmers, which he carried in two huge sacks draped over the back of his beloved horse. After bandits robbed him, the impoverished Rodarte faced starvation. In what became the first act of his new career as a horse-riding folk hero who, like Robin Hood, stole from the rich and gave to the poor, Rodarte robbed a wealthy passerby. Similar escapades followed.

Angered and embarrassed by Rodarte's notorious reputation as a class warrior, the commander of the local army garrison cooked up a dastardly scheme to capture him, dressing his handsomest—and youngest—soldier up as a woman. We can presume it was dark. Or not. In any case, Rodarte asked the transvestite trooper to dance and was arrested. The federale commander then demanded that Rodarte reveal the whereabouts of his horse, saying he would free Rodarte in exchange for the animal. Legend says Rodarte surrendered the horse but was still brought in chains to the Jerez and publicly executed.

The story does not end there. There's an oral history passed down from generation to generation to Gustavo Arellano Miranda, a Chapman University student. That history says the horse in question was, at the moment of Rodarte's death, ensconced at the Miranda family's old house back in El Cargadero. In fact, according to Arellano Miranda, his great-great-grandfather Sabas Fernandez is the author of the famed "El Corrido de Lino Rodarte."

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