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Illustration by Kathryn HyattYUMA
The crowd chants, "Me-xi-co! Me-xi-co!" in an attempt to get the singer to acknowledge that the majority of the audience is Latino. He does. "I'm going to sing a couple of more songs," he tells them, "then all of you can go back to Mexicali."
And the Yuma Convention Center explodes.
Only one white man in the world—and he's not the pope—can tell a group of Mexicans in the United States to return to Mexico and not only avert death, but be loved for saying so.
His name: Steven Patrick Morrissey, former lead singer of the Smiths, current saint among countless young Latinos.
The same convention-center audience demographic greets him wherever he performs: Los Angeles, Colorado Springs or this desolate desert town. So he always makes sure to yell out "Mexico" or perform some grand ethnic genuflection to his adoring fans, letting them know that he knows. They always respond in ecstasy; grateful.
By the time you read this, there will have been numerous television reports, radio interviews and newspaper stories revealing that many Morrissey fans are Latinos. They will tell you that history—musical, cultural, transnational—will take place this Friday at the Arrowhead Pond when Morrissey shares the stage with Mexican rock en español titans Jaguares in the biggest crossover attempt since Drake burned the Spanish Armada.
And they will tell you that you should be surprised. You shouldn't. There's something logical in this Latino Morrissey-worship. Morrissey knows it, his fans know it, and even academics know it. What exactly "it" is isn't exactly clear except that it's there, as plain as the Morrissey tattoo on the left shoulder of the muchacha crying on the floor of the Yuma Convention Center.
NEW WAVE'S SERMON ON THE MOUNT
I received the call at about 2 in the morning: a weak, almost slurring cry for help. "Hey, Gustavo. It's Ben. Man, I need my Morrissey CDs back. [Long pause] I really miss them. [Longer pause, voice now quivering the slightest bit] I need them."
Ben follows up the next day with an e-mail: "Please get me those CDs as soon as you can. I am being deprived."
Ben is Benjamín Escobedo, a 25-year-old Santa Ana Democratic Party stalwart. Across the back window of his car is the salute to Morrissey and his domination of the city in which the singer now makes his home, "Moz Angeles." He let me borrow his Morrissey/Smiths collection (every CD, even the bootlegs, imports and special editions) for only two days before sending those messages.
Ben's devotion to Morrissey is a lesser example of what Latino Morrissey fans feel for their god. They wear pins, patches or tattoos with their charming man's face. They dress like him (rockabilly chic to British mod), carry around his favorite flowers (gladiolas), and cite his songs as answers to every problem they might have. One particular favorite is ending e-mail messages with the line "It takes strength to be gentle and kind" from "I Know It's Over," New Wave's Sermon on the Mount.
Some fans, like Cal State Fullerton graduate student Patricia Godínez-Benjumea, go as far as visiting his house in the Hollywood Hills and dropping off stories they write about him. "His music is the soundtrack of my life," Godínez-Benjumea says. "He reaches my innermost thoughts and fears and aspirations and longing. For a long time, I felt isolated and alone. Only Morrissey comforted me."
Godínez-Benjumea wrote an article discussing how Morrissey saved her life for a school publication. "My friend Maggie told me where he lived and said I should go give it to him," she said. "Before, I never had the guts to do it. Even when we went to his house, Maggie put my story in his mailbox. I didn't even tell my husband that I did that."
Ben has yet to visit Morrissey's home, but he knows the address. His love affair with the Manchester native began when his brother and friends introduced him to Viva Hate. "When I first heard the album, it blew my mind," Ben says. "Every time I hear him now, he impresses me more and more."
Morrissey plays such a big role in Ben's life that he has a death pact with his friend: whoever dies first will make sure that "Well I Wonder" ("Please keep me in mind/Please keep me in mind") is played at the funeral.
"Moz speaks to me," Ben says. "For almost any problem in life, I can think of a Morrissey song. For example, 'Hand in Glove' has that line"—and, here, Ben sings—"'And if the people stare/Then the people stare/Oh, I really don't know, and I really don't care.' That taught me to not care about what others may think of who I love.
"From the very beginning, I knew that Latinos liked Morrissey," Ben remarks. "In fact, I cannot name one white person who likes Morrissey."
'A HEAVENLY WAY TO DIE'
What is it about Morrissey that attracts Latinos? It may be that it echoes the music of Mexico, the ranchera. His trembling falsetto brings to mind the rich, sad voice of Pedro Infante, while his effeminate stage presence makes him a U.K. version of Juan Gabriel. As in ranchera, Morrissey's lyrics rely on ambiguity, powerful imagery and metaphors. Thematically, the idealization of a simpler life and a rejection of all things bourgeois come from a populist impulse common to ranchera.