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Down-to-Earth Spiritual Guru for the Masses

Carlos Cuauhtemoc Sanchez's conservative message is wildly popular, but Mexican intellectuals aren't buying what he's selling.

June 25, 2002|MARIA ELENA FERNANDEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He walks onto the Ontario Convention Center stage, clean-cut in a navy suit, with little fanfare and hardly an introduction. The people who have come to the Ontario Convention Center to listen to Carlos Cuauhtemoc Sanchez, mostly Mexicans and Mexican Americans, rise in an ovation for the man they've come to know intimately through his eight novels and self-help tapes. For them, Sanchez is a cross between a Spanish-speaking Tony Robbins and a beloved priest, a down-to-earth spiritual guru who motivates them through the toughest moments in their lives with his common-sense advice.

Since 1992, Sanchez has sold an estimated 15 million copies of his contemporary novels with messages of family unity, forgiveness, faith and character, and has become a pop-cultural moral guide for millions across Latin America who are so touched by his deeply conservative message that they also pay $20 to $40 to flock to his lectures. Among Latinos in Southern California he outsells such literary giants as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; his books and tapes are sold at stores, carwashes, even meat markets.

On this Sunday afternoon, he begins by imploring his audience of nearly 4,000 to focus on the voices of their own consciences while he speaks, not just on his words. Then he tells a dirty joke about a baby chick in a man's pants, and the crowd erupts in laughter.

He goes on this way for a few minutes, reading off well-worn sayings from his notes, dropping in an aphorism here and there: "The thief who robs from a thief lives in Mexico City."

Then the arena goes dark, and the spotlight is on Sanchez as he begins his talk about the price of success. For the next 90 minutes, he tells anecdotes, quotes the Bible and offers the kind of advice you might hear from a friend. He discusses the differences between material and spiritual wealth and the importance of placing God and family above all else.

"Success depends on the way you interpret your failures," he says. "Maybe somebody rejected you, or betrayed you or manipulated you. Or maybe you lost money or a competition. It happens to all of us! And it happens frequently, and that's how you distinguish who is triumphant!"

A Roman Catholic who grew up in a middle-class suburb of Mexico City, Sanchez studied industrial engineering before he became a high school teacher and founded three vocational schools with his wife, who is an English teacher. But Sanchez always wanted to follow his grandfather, Claudio Gutierrez Marin, who was a writer and had a doctorate in philosophy. Sanchez committed himself to his craft at a young age, carrying a heavy typewriter to school every day. As a child, instead of playing soccer, he locked himself in a classroom to write.

In high school, he developed an interest, and talent, for cycling and won a spot on Mexico's Olympic team. He traveled abroad competing in international bicycle races and winning prizes for his short stories, essays and a novel. His first bestseller, "A Desperate Cry," published in 1992, evolved from the suicide of one of the students at his school. The boy killed himself after running away from home and returning to a harsh beating by his father. "Cry" urged fathers to communicate better with their sons.

'Sanchez Fever'

When every publisher in Mexico turned down the manuscript, an editor friend helped him print 1,000 copies. That caught the attention of a textbook publishing house, Ediciones Diamante, which has now published all of Sanchez's books and of which he is now a part-owner. The book, and the two that followed, were immediate hits, creating "Sanchez fever" among the Mexican populous.

In Mexico City, where Sanchez lives with his wife, Ivonne Herrera, and three children, ages 7 to 13, he both is loved and loathed--revered as a poetic philosopher in some circles, ridiculed as a fraud and buffoon in others. The books resonate mostly with young, working-class Latinos--not known for being avid readers. His biggest followers are women.

Yolanda Arias, a parent facilitator at El Sereno Middle School, is so moved by Sanchez's message that she organized a bus trip for 70 parents for his Ontario event. "His books have a really strong message about how to deal with our youth in these difficult times," she said. "He teaches that it's not money but your values and your principles, routines and traditions that matter. You just grab the concept and it stays with you." Adolfo Oseguera, who attended the event with his wife, Norma, said he has found some answers for his personal difficulties in Sanchez's books. Isabel Gomez-Bassols, a Miami-based Spanish radio talk show host whose advice program is broadcast on 1580 AM in Los Angeles, often recommends Sanchez's books to her listeners.

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