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San Diego's Modern-Day Renaissance Man

One in an occasional series on immigrants in San Diego.

November 10, 1986|KAREN KENYON

SAN DIEGO — A collection of wooden and metal masks from Mexico and the Orient decorates the arch in the home of Jose de Jesus Mondragon.

It could be said that Mondragon himself wears many masks, or faces, for he is a concert violinist, a chess master and a teacher of Spanish.

A member of the San Diego Symphony for 21 years (until September, 1985), Mondragon now divides his time between San Diego and Tijuana. In San Diego, he teaches violin, Spanish and chess in private lessons (and on occasion teaches Spanish at Converse International School of Languages). In Tijuana, he is a professor of music and maestro of the string section of the Chamber Music Orchestra of the Autonomous University of Baja California. He also teaches chess in Tijuana, where one of his students is an international master.

Like many Mexican-Americans, the line at the border is fluid for the elegant Mondragon, who seems to be a mini-repository of his Hispanic culture and a modern-day Renaissance man.

How does he manage so many activities?

"It's not tiresome or boring," he said. "I feel very happy. I'm busy all day, constantly active in different areas. And I also take time to practice and study my violin." He hastens to add, as if that is not enough: "Any free time I get, I'm always reading."

Books on history, art, music, chess and Eastern religion fill his North Park home. In his precise, dignified voice, Mondragon tells the story of the mask collection. One colorful mask is from the Michoacan area; a bearded mask and the dark-faced mask next to it from the time of the Spanish conquest, along with a metal mask, are from near Acapulco; a carved wooden puma mask is from Oaxaca.

Clay figures sit on the porch and on a table in the living room. One seated figure holds an armadillo, another figure is of a two-headed dog, and a dark clay figure of a woman is in the process of giving birth. These Nayarit figures are assumed to be from the 13th Century, he says. A music stand, and his 1910 Italian violin, in its case, sit waiting nearby. A recording of Nahuatl (language spoken by the Aztecs and Toltecs) poetry is on the tape recorder.

Born in Mexico City in 1926 as the youngest of seven children of a father who was a painter, and a mother who was a non-professional singer, Mondragon took up the violin and chess about the same time, at age 13. "I was a slow starter," he says, joking.

The Mexico of his childhood was colorful and peaceful, he says, "but today Mexico City is anything but peaceful. Every time I go to visit my family, they say, 'Stay here,' but it's not as peaceful in Mexico City as it is in San Diego. Mexico City is so cosmopolitan, so beautiful, so interesting, but so crowded. Transportation is impossible."

Mondragon was educated at the Escuela Superior de Musica and at the University of Mexico in Mexico City. He has a bachelor's degree in music and five years of study in fine arts, anthropology and linguistics.

His musical background includes the Tijuana Trio and Quartet (which he organized), the National Symphony Orchestra of Mexico and the Philharmonic Orchestra of Mexico. In addition, he has toured throughout Mexico under the sponsorship of the Autonomous University of Baja California.

It was a tour with the Magic Violins of Villafonta, throughout Central and South America and the United States, 22 years ago, which brought Mondragon to San Diego, where he soon became a member of the San Diego Symphony.

Mondragon is not sure exactly what drew him to the violin as a young boy, but recalls that in the fourth grade he heard a boy play the violin and afterward asked for information about studying.

"I had an uncle who played the violin, but actually I had never heard him--but I listened to classical music on the radio all the time," he said.

"In general, we listened to romantic music, like 'Estrellita.' We listened to waltzes influenced by France and Vienna."

An interesting sidelight, according to Mondragon, is that the waltz "Over the Waves," considered by many to be Viennese, is actually Mexican.

"We listened to light opera with a European flavor--Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert," he said. "This music made a bridge to classical music.

"I think, too, I was influenced by my father who was a painter, though I never knew him, since he died when I was 4. But I always heard my mother talk about him. I had lots of anecdotes. She told me he belonged to a circle of painters, poets, musicians, writers--and this idea always appealed to me.

"My father was my observer. I would wonder what my father would advise me to do--or not to do."

Perhaps to follow in his father's footsteps, Mondragon also studied art. "Mostly I did sculpture. But when I did stone carving my hand would shake later when I played the violin, so little by little I quit the sculpture for the violin," he said.

"I never suffered from not having a father. I never felt I was missing anything. People don't just drop from your mind" once they have existed in your life.

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