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."

There's no way to verify the story of Lino Rodarte because most, if not all, historical records in Zacatecas were burned by guerrilla fighters loyal to Pancho Villa during the revolution. War touched almost everyone in Zacatecas, including both Sabas and Jesus Fernandez, another of Arellano Miranda's great-great-grandfathers. Jesus Fernandez fled the revolution with Pancho Villa's army at his heels and eventually became a prosperous mine operator in Arizona. His original home in El Cargadero, still owned by the Miranda family, bears to this day the door that—legend has it—was cracked open by the butt of a Villa-ista's rifle.

Revolutionary turmoil generated the first northward exodus of Cargaderenses. Some wealthier people fled because they feared Villa; many others fled because of the so-called Cristero rebellion, the anti-clerical movement that swept the country a decade or so later. Still more fled because they feared being pressed into army service.

Arellano Miranda's 86-year-old grandmother, Marcela Miranda Fernandez, automatically became a U.S. citizen because she was born in Metcalf, Arizona. Her father, Jesus Fernandez, had fled there in the footsteps of another couple, Anastasio Fernandez and his wife, Lupe Carillo, who in 1912 were among the first Cargaderenses to reach the United States. She has childhood memories of the revolution's final stages, when roving bands of drunken Villa-istasterrorized middle-class travelers in the Zacatecan countryside. Although her family eventually regained its footing—and its house—in El Cargadero, times were tough at first.

"We had no shoes on our feet and nothing to eat for three days other than acorns and cactus," Miranda Fernandez recalled over pan dulce at her house in Anaheim one recent afternoon. She and her family remained in El Cargadero until the late 1950s, when a major drought hit Zacatecas—and El Cargadero in particular. That's when the family returned to the United States, settling first in Hollister and later in Anaheim.

But it wasn't forever. Two decades later, she and her husband, José Miranda, moved back to Mexico, leaving their grown children behind. The couple finally returned to the United States in the late 1980s, shortly before José Miranda's death. Her greatest desire is to go back to her old house and finish her old age in El Cargadero. She's not likely to make the trip. "The conditions there are too hard for me to return," she acknowledged.

Arellano Miranda counts exactly 155 direct family members from El Cargadero now living in Anaheim. The exception is one uncle, who still lives in El Cargadero. Anaheim has been home to Cargaderenses since at least 1907, when the Avila family became the first to emigrate there from El Cargadero.

The second may have been Sabas Miranda, another of Arellano's great-grandfathers, who in 1908 arrived in Anaheim in pursuit of seasonal work in the city's famed orange groves. He eventually returned to El Cargadero for good. By the 1920s, about 30 families from El Cargadero had made it to the United States. During the wave of anti-immigrant hysteria that came with the Great Depression, many Cargaderenses were either forced to return to Mexico or left voluntarily. The situation reversed itself, however, with America's postwar economic boom and the advent of the U.S. government's bracero program during the 1940s and 1950s, through which hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were encouraged to work in California's myriad fruit orchards and vegetable farms.

In the early 1900s, many Cargaderenses who had temporarily emigrated to the United States gave birth to children in California and Arizona who automatically became U.S. citizens. The next generation therefore had an advantage over other Mexicans seeking to emigrate to California. Soon, the population of Cargaderenses in Anaheim numbered in the hundreds. Of course, segregation—in fact, if not always in law—reigned well into 1960s Orange County, during which time Mexicans were prohibited, among other things, from using public restrooms.

"Many people decided to go home to El Cargadero in the 1960s because they weren't happy," recalls Alicia Miranda, Arellano Miranda's aunt. "In 1967, my father decided to bring us back to El Cargadero. It was like moving back into the past. The cows! I didn't know until then where milk came from. It was very hard for us to start all over in Mexico. We had to do our washing in the river."

Her sister Angela eventually returned to Anaheim and became a successful small-business owner. But her happiest memories still revolve around El Cargadero. Both she and her two sisters, Maria de la Luz and Angela, the youngest of the four, were born in El Cargadero and spent their childhoods there.

"I was the happiest child in Mexico," Angela said. "My parents had a big ranch at La Cueva, right outside El Cargadero, that was right on the river. My entertainment was to chase chickens, playing games with the eggs. I want to return there one day to write about everything. For me, it's very important."

Angela says hard times hit El Cargadero in January 1955, when a freak frost ruined the town's avocado crop. "I was 6 years old when people woke up and something felt strange in the air," she recalls. "What was it? The avocado trees were very dry and hard. They split open from the frost. The crops were ruined for many years afterward. We had to cut the trees apart for firewood because they were destroyed."

Two years later, the climatic pendulum swung the other way, and a massive drought ruined whatever had survived the frost. "People started to realize they couldn't live," she said. "People started to think about going to the United States. My father had to sell the ranch."

In January 1960, the family moved to Hollister. For two years, José Miranda "broke his back" in the fields. The children helped their parents make a living by picking garlic and potatoes. Hearing that the work—or at least the weather—was somewhat easier in Anaheim, the family moved south three years later.

Orange County was then just entering its real-estate boom. Disneyland was almost a decade old, and suburban developments swirled southward. With the boom came signs of great wealth. But while their Anglo counterparts went to school, José Miranda's three children went to work in the fields, picking strawberries seven days a week. The pay rate for field work at that time was $15 per day, plus 25 cents for every box of berries picked. "It was all day long: 6 a.m. to 6 p.m," Alicia recalled. "My hands were throbbing; the skin was cracking and dry. It was horrible! Horrible!"

During rare breaks in field work, the two oldest sisters attended Fremont Junior High at the intersection of Broadway and Olive Streets in Anaheim—the school has since been torn down —and then Anaheim High School. Along with a few other Mexicans who made up a tiny minority at the high school, they were among the first Cargaderenses to attend high school in the United States. It was the high point of their generation's pursuit of the American Dream, but it also made backbreaking field work seem like a vacation. At age 14, Maria was forced to drop out of Fremont to work in the fields full time. Her sister Angela wasn't so lucky.

"I've never been hurt so much in my life as I was hurt in school," Angela recalled. The white students mostly ignored their Mexican counterparts, but teasing—usually about their style of dress, intelligence or manner of speech —often metamorphosed into bullying and violence.

To defend themselves, some young Latinos in Anaheim formed gangs. Angela said she never joined one, though she could have used the help. "They jumped us all the time," she said of her Anglo classmates. "Always! We were very few. . . . During recess, they'd chase my [male] friends into the trees."

Anaheim High School's teachers weren't much better. "In gym class, we would get F's because we didn't want to change our clothes; it wasn't proper in our culture to wear shorts," Angela said. "They advanced us along, even though we didn't speak English. They wouldn't let us use the typewriters or anything. It was so horrible. In homemaking class, our job was to clean the entire school like janitors."

Angela said that one Mexican student was chased into the school swimming pool by a group of whites who chanted, "Get out of here! Go home to Mexico." Angela claimed the victim drowned because he couldn't swim—though no records of the killing exist.

Three decades after Angela's nightmare ended, another generation of Cargaderenses is attending Anaheim High School. While race relations have improved dramatically, antipathy toward Mexican immigrants hasn't disappeared. Arellano Miranda's graduation from Anaheim High School roughly coincided with the most recent peak of anti-immigration hysteria at the high school district. Last year, Harald Martin, then the school board's president, urged the district to sue Mexico for the cost of educating undocumented Mexican-American students. The proposal, which was unconstitutional and therefore never implemented, nonetheless sparked heated controversy. It angered many, but perhaps none more than Arellano Miranda. In a speech to the school board last year, he expressed the frustration many Latinos have with Martin's anti-immigration politics.

"My name is Gustavo Arellano, Anaheim High School class of 1997 and son of a former illegal immigrant," he began. "We are not Mexican or American, legal or illegal—we are humans first and foremost. . . . We should not castigate others simply because of the status of their legality; we should help them and welcome them."

Arellano Miranda's experience at Anaheim High School—and the extremist politics of its school board—radicalized him. He now considers himself a socialist and divides his time at Chapman University between studying Mexican film history and pursuing politics.

But his 19-year-old sister, Elsa, who graduated from Anaheim High School two years ago, says she enjoyed certain aspects of her education.

"Going to school in Anaheim, you bump into people from El Cargadero all the time," Elsa told the Weekly. "First, you narrow it down to Zacatecas, and then you realize the other person's family is from the municipality of Jerez. Then you find out they're actually from El Cargadero, and you have a relative in common. It gives me this love and pride for that land, even though I've never been there. We always want to know more. The fascination with El Cargadero is passed down from generation to generation."

A few weeks before the dance, a group of eight men were sipping coffee inside Jax Donut House in downtown Anaheim. They're either from El Cargadero, married to someone who is, or have visited there. Humberto Saldivar and his brother, Amador, both from El Cargadero, sat next to each other at one table, facing yet another relative, Benjamin García. Their friend Daniel Rodarte was there, as were Angel Saldivar and Jacinto "Chinto" Saldivar, neither of whom is related to Humberto and Amador. So was José "El Jéfe" Ureño, now in his 80s and by far the oldest of the group. Finally, there were Lorenzo Arellano and his son, Gustavo. Lorenzo himself is not from El Cargadero, but another town in Jerez, Jomulquillo. All are members of the El Cargadero Social Club, and their purpose is to plan the upcoming dance.

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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