The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx.

By Sam Quinones. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001. 16 halftones. 320 pp. $29.95 cloth. $19.95 paper.

Reviewed by Eric Van Young, Professor and Chair, Department of History, University of California, San Diego.

Any reader interested in Mexican society of the last decade or so–those already fascinated with the country and the changes it is going through, interested non-specialist readers, or students–will take great pleasure in this book. In a series of fifteen essays produced for magazines such as the San Diego Reader and L. A. Weekly during 1998-1999, a brief introduction, and a long afterword written after Mexico’s epochal national elections in mid-2000, journalist Sam Quinones gives us a series of brilliantly etched portraits of Mexicans on both sides of the border. These range from a famous performer of narco corridos (popular songs celebrating the deeds of drug dealers, similar in tone to the more florid examples of gangster rap) who went to an early death; basketball players from Oaxaca living in Los Angeles; and lynch mobs in rural Mexico. There are also the drag queens and trans-gendered young club singers of Mazatlan; politicians in the Mexican national congress and in the barrios populares (poorer neighborhoods) of Mexico City; religious enthusiasts living in a utopian community in western Mexico (similar, at least on its surface, to the Branch Davidians of Waco); and a macho village tough-guy who dies in a hail of bullets.

Quinones takes his readers on a giddy, vertiginous tour of Mexican society and politics in the 1990s. He has interesting things to say about the relationship of the rapidly Mexicanizing and Latino-izing population of Los Angeles to Mexico itself. He speaks of “Oaxacalifornia,” the large community of people from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca who have migrated in recent years to Southern California and northern Baja California to work as agricultural laborers, domestics, janitors, food-service workers, and in other low-paying jobs. These opportunities nonetheless underwrite a standard of living that most of them could never hope to attain in their native Mexico. Quinones also probes the dark terrain of this experience beyond the economic exploitation of these migrants in the restaurants and tomato fields of southern California, and into the heart of contemporary politics and culture in Mexico itself. Among the most memorable essays are those dealing with the lynching of two innocent salesmen a few years ago in Huejutla, in eastern-central Mexico, victimized by a sudden collective hysteria centering on the abduction of children for the commercial sale of their organs for transplants in the United States; the portrait of a rigidly authoritarian, rather creepy religious sect in the western state of Michoacan; and the history of family and inter-community feuding in another area of the same state. Almost all the essays in the book are vividly rendered, insightful, and written engagingly with a slightly melancholy tone. Quinones’ skill as an anecdotal story-teller never strikes a false note.

This compulsively readable book also provides some cautionary lessons, however, in the limits of high-level journalism as history. The engagement of the journalist’s sympathies with his subjects can skew the reportage, tempting him or her to wishful prophecies that do not come to be realized. In the first place, the text has a number of mistakes, perhaps oversights, that do not greatly undermine the pleasure of the reading, but nonetheless betray a presentism that calls into question the accuracy of the author’s historical vision. Let me cite but two examples among many. In the engaging essay on the Mexican telenovela (soap opera), Quinones associates the somewhat puritanical values projected in the stories exclusively to the paternalistic ethos of the former (and future?) ruling party, the Partido de la Revolución Institucionalizada (PRI). The claim leaves aside entirely Mexico’s still intense Catholicism. In an essay on the Los Angeles-modeled youth-gang scene in the western Mexican city of Zamora, Quinones calls the Virgin of Guadalupe “the patron saint of Mexico’s Indians and her poor” (p. 154), when in fact La Guadalupana, as she is known, is the patroness of Mexico period, officially consecrated as such at the end of the nineteenth century. An even more serious mistake is to assimilate, as Quinones frequently does, the very porous PRI regime that dominated Mexican political life until the 2000 elections to the model of an authoritarian society along the lines of the former Eastern Bloc, the failed states of sub-Saharan Africa, and so forth. It has certainly been easy to criticize the ossified ruling party in Mexico, and Quinones was led to this point of view not only by his obvious personal sympathies, but also by the cumulative weight of his reportage. The combination of this PRI-bashing and his view that there is “another” Mexico yearning to burst forth after three-quarters of a century of one-party rule, corruption, and social repression, however, induced him to prophesy that the 2000 elections that brought Vicente Fox and the Partido de Acción Nacional (PAN) to power would free the creative energies of Mexico’s common people, better their lot, and bring forth a sort of secular utopia. This has certainly not occurred, and most Mexicans are rapidly losing faith in a long oppositional party that finally came to power on promises rather than a program. The massive abstentions in the congressional elections of July, 2003 – only about 40 per cent of eligible Mexicans went to the polls, and the Fox government was far from receiving a renewed mandate – indicate that the political millennium predicted in Quinones’ eloquent and hopeful afterword has not come about, nor is it likely to do so. Nor is Quinones’ quite explicit interpretive premise about “another” more creative Mexico–awash in vitality, inventiveness, and change for the good–convincingly exemplified, for instance, by the narco corrido, which from a less optimistic point of view is an arguably interesting art form that nonetheless feeds off the corruption, degradation, and misery associated with the drug traffic.