Poor Mexico

The country where hope died

Photo by Johan VogelThe West Side Kansas Street gang isn't from Kansas Street nor do any of its members live in the west side of South Gate, home of the real Kansas Street. As journalist Sam Quinones writes in his new book, True Tales From Another Mexico, the bored Mexican teenagers who make up the gang actually live in a barrio in Michoacan, hundreds of miles south of the border. Few of them have even been to the U.S.

Quinones spent several days with the group of Mexican gangbangers, an experience that seems to have been more surreal than harrowing. Not only was the West Side Kansas Street gang pretending to be from America in order to seem cool, but also its members weren't even amateur criminals, much less hardened killers.

"As tough as their lives may have been, they're still the product of a Mexican province where innocence still lives," Quinones concludes. "Here, the streets aren't as mean. Teenagers don't spray neighborhoods with bullets. And they don't smoke around their parents. Not yet."

"Not yet" might work as the subtitle for True Tales, in which Quinones seems eager to prove that though it's jacked-up, there's still hope for Mexico.

That's a tough sell. Despite the recent election of Vicente Fox—ending decades of dictatorship—corruption is still rampant, two guerrilla armies continue to challenge the government and millions of people remain in poverty beyond anything seen in the U.S. There's no obvious solution to these problems, many of which are the product of Mexico's proximity to the United States.

To this day, narcotraffickers and federal police massacre each other on Mexican street corners. Along the border, factory women disappear while on their way home from work, only to turn up raped and mutilated in the desert, and hundreds of border crossers who make it out of Mexico freeze to death or die of thirst in the mountains a few miles east of downtown San Diego.

Quinones, a California native who joined the Pacific News Service's Mexico City desk in 1994, began his career as a crime reporter for such daily newspapers as The Orange County Register. His background shows: more than half of the chapters in True Tales From Another Mexico are about murder and death. One of the most horrifying—and, to Americans, eerily familiar—stories involves a public lynching of two suspected child molesters in the mountainside pueblo of Huejutla; they were killed in daylight, accompanied by the cheers of half the town's population.

But Quinones hopes to rescue Mexico's reputation. Capturing the complex cultural geography, he profiles personalities as diverse as runners-up in a Mexican drag-queen contest in Mazatlan and a brilliant Zapoteco basketball player from the hard-luck, hardscrabble hills of Oaxaca. One story reads like something from Inc. magazine, tracking the progress of a tiny popsicle business that went on to become the Mexican equivalent of Häagen-Dazs.

Such stories reveal the fact that even in a country as generally desperate and hopeless as Mexico, people can survive—and even succeed. Especially if they make it to el Norte. The last story of the book—and one of the most poignant—is that of Nuevo Chupicuaro, a tiny pueblo in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato. The town's population is made up of farm workers who live in places like Wasco and Bakersfield. With the meager wages they've made away from home, the Chupicuaros have remodeled their houses, which wait—empty—for a return that some of the town's hard-working émigrés admit they may never make.

If Quinones is seeking to portray Mexico as a country of hope, he has failed. The brutal truth, which is underscored throughout his book, is that hope stands little chance in modern Mexico. He fails in the most honorable and lucid manner imaginable, however, struggling to find light in a world of almost total darkness.

In that sense, Quinones is following in the footsteps of the many valientes he describes in True Tales From Another Mexicowhom he characterizes as "a valiant, if doomed, example of human courage." It is with the story of the greatest valiente of them all, Chalino Sanchez, that Quinones begins his journey into the chiaroscuro reality of modern-day Mexico. The country's most controversial modern-day valiente, Chalino embodied the Mexican immigrant experience. Fondly remembered simply as Chalino, his off-key, nasal vocals—remindful of Bob Dylan's—suggested he was a Mexican Everyman. The dissonant voice sparked the most controversial form of Mexican music: the "narcocorrido," or narco-ballad.

A farm boy from small-town Sinaloa, Chalino murdered a rich neighbor who allegedly raped his sister at a party. He fled to the U.S. illegally, working menial jobs throughout Los Angeles. By night, he blew off steam in cantinas, listening to and attempting to sing corridos, old-fashioned Mexican polka ballads that extol the virtues of long-gone valientes.

Soon, Chalino was making money writing his own clever corridos for friends and complete strangers alike, all of whom wanted to send a tape of Chalino singing their praises to relatives in Mexico as proof that they had made it in el Norte.

A true valiente himself, Chalino always packed a gun—and for good reason: not everyone liked him or his music. Once, an audience member shot at him as he performed onstage in a bar in Coachella.

Chalino finally met his doom during a visit to Culiacan, the state capital of Sinaloa and the most violent city along Mexico's heroin- and marijuana-rich coastline. Shortly after leaving a bar one night, Chalino, his two brothers, a cousin and several young women—including Chalino's girlfriend—were stopped by armed men in an official-looking Chevrolet Suburban. As Quinones reports, one of the men told Chalino that his "comandante" needed him; the group led him into the darkness.

Quinones picks up the narrative, telling Chalino's story—and maybe Mexico's. "A few hours later, as dawn broke on May 16, 1992, two campesinos found the body of Chalino Sanchez dumped by an irrigation canal near the highway north out of town. He was blindfolded, and his wrists had rope marks. He had been shot twice in the back of the head."

True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx by Sam Quinones; University of New Mexico Press. 320 pages, hardcover, $29.95.
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