The El Cargadero Social Club

How a Mexican ghost town lives on in Anaheim

Appropriately for such a club, the roster reads like a who's-who list of El Cargadero's most prominent families: Saldivar, Barrios, Fernandez, García, Ureño, Gamboa, Miranda, Casas and Viramontes. Ninety percent of the Cargaderenses have at least one of those names somewhere in there family trees.

The name "El Cargadero Social Club" is sort of a joke: semiregular meetings are held on Saturday mornings at Jax Donut House, which everyone simply refers to as la cafetería. The club's official name: the El Cargadero International Benefit Association. Five years ago, Humberto Saldivar's friend Serafin Miranda filled out the necessary paperwork to form a nonprofit organization and sent it to the California Department of State in Sacramento. Since then, according to Humberto Saldivar, the El Cargadero Social Club has directly raised $102,000 for the village of El Cargadero. Indirectly, the group has raised three times that. In an effort to encourage expatriate investment in Mexico, especially in somewhat neglected rural areas like El Cargadero, the Mexican government provides matching funds to U.S.-based organizations who send money south of the border. Thanks to the Mexican government's "three-for-one" program, in other words, the El Cargadero Social Club has actually raised more than $300,000 for El Cargadero.

The money has paid for street paving, helped preserve El Cargadero's more-than-a-century-old church, and provided more than a dozen computers for a community computer-training school. El Cargadero would probably be a ghost town, were it not for the El Cargadero Social Club. The only road leading into town would still be an impassable river of mud in the rainy season. The discarded, rusting bus that for three decades sat abandoned in the river within sight of the town would still be there. More important, the club is responsible for keeping alive a special connection between Anaheim's Cargaderenses and their original hometown.

But the El Cargadero Social Club isn't unique. It belongs to the Federacíon de Clubes Zacatecanos del Sur de California—the Southern California Federation of Zacatecan Clubs. Each raises its own funds from communities in the United States to send home to different towns in Zacatecas, including Hermita de los Correa and Jomulquillo, both of which are in the municipality of Jerez and are roughly the size of El Cargadero.

Arellano Miranda says the El Cargadero Social Club is the epitome of the American experience. "You have a bunch of people who have to leave their homeland for a number of reasons and who congregate in a certain spot—in this case, Anaheim—so they can have some semblance of community," he explained. "But El Cargadero is still our true home. People from other countries who haven't forgotten where they're from probably feel just as strongly about keeping that connection as we do."

Humberto Saldivar points to the fact that the El Cargadero Social Club—and others like it—raise money for hometowns back in Mexico as evidence that Mexicans living in the United States have become prosperous, especially by the standards of the communities they left behind. "The people left in the ranchos are poor," explained Humberto. "With the money that we raise, we help out our brothers in improving their lives in the ranchos that we grew up in. Before, rains would make it nearly impossible to enter homes or drive cars. But with the improvements due to our fund-raising, it is much easier to live. Our community doesn't need any help here. We all have jobs and work enough to earn a living here. Better to help those who have nothing than those who have some."

As the conjunto Norteño band wraps up "El Corrido de Lino Rodarte," hundreds of people arrive. They fill dozens of tables that had been completely empty only 20 minutes earlier. There's even a table full of suit-wearing Mexican government dignitaries from Zacatecas who happen to be visiting Anaheim.

After the first band has finished, more than a dozen men—in uniforms of yellow T-shirts and black pants—take the stage. They are a group of banda musicians from Nayarit, the Mexican state just south of Zacatecas. An oompah-type band featuring several horn players (including three trumpets, a trombone, a tuba and even a French horn), the second band is at least twice as loud as the first. After one or two songs, the dance floor is full. Most of the dancers are dressed conservatively—men in loose-fitting guayabera shirts and khakis or wide-brimmed cowboy hats and jeans. But a few of the younger men wear baggy pants and sport street-smart shaved heads. The sartorial divisions seem to mean nothing. Everybody dances in unison, moving in wide arcs around the dance hall during the fast numbers, swaying back and forth to slower ones. Meanwhile, children and grandparents feast on carne asada, tortas and chorizo, and teenagers huddle in groups, flirting with one another.

Arellano Miranda is there, dancing with his friend Angie Casas, another college student whose family hails from El Cargadero. His younger sister Elsa is there, too, dancing with her date—who has traveled all the way from another Cargaderense community in Fremont.

The dance is a hit. The money raised tonight will eventually pay for two new bridges that will help speed traffic between Jerez and El Cargadero—on a paved road that probably wouldn't be there without the El Cargadero Social Club.

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