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Bringing L.A. lore to Mexico

December 08, 2009|HECTOR TOBAR

I traveled to Jalisco last week. First I visited bustling Guadalajara, the capital city of that Mexican state. Then I drove through rolling hills covered with mesquite trees and agave plants, and arrived at a small town with a huge church where a delegation of local dignitaries was waiting to greet me.

Along with several dozen other U.S. writers, I came to discuss a topic near and dear to the locals: Los Angeles.

The city of L.A. was the "guest of honor" at last week's Guadalajara International Book Fair. The novelists Susan Straight and Jervey Tervalon attended the fair as Angeleno literary ambassadors too, as did the poet Marisela Norte and many others.

We were all asked about the myth, legend and reality of Los Angeles.

"Your city is so diverse, with people from all over the world," Jose Cervantes Pulido, a 30-year-old engineer, observed after one of the many panel discussions. "It seems to me that Los Angeles is the first city of the future. But I'm wondering: Do all those different people really get along?"

In Jalisco nearly everyone has a family tie to Southern California. Tapatios, as residents of Guadalajara are known, are used to hearing tall tales about L.A.

Their relatives return from L.A. sojourns and speak of Disneyland and sandy beaches -- and quite a bit more about the abundant wages Mexican immigrants supposedly earn here.

"When people come back from over there, they hold big parties, with lots of food and even two music bands," Cristian Alcantar, a 28-year-old high school administrator, told me. "Basically, they're showing off."

Alcantar finds the bragging of the returning tapatios annoying, especially since he hasn't been able to see the place for himself.

"I applied for a tourist visa, but I was denied," he said.

The months-long process of trying to get a visa from the U.S. Consulate in Guadalajara is a bit like getting a tax audit -- among other things, you have to prove to U.S. officials that you have thousands of dollars in the bank.

Alcantar described the process as "denigrating," so much so that "I won't apply again."

Alcantar can't go to L.A. But last week, L.A. came to him.

Not long after our arrival in Guadalajara, the organizers of the book fair dispatched me and a few other L.A. writers into Jalisco's rural interior. I spoke at Alcantar's public high school in San Juan de Los Lagos, a highland town famous for a centuries-old Catholic shrine.

Alcantar, a vice principal at the school, picked me up in Guadalajara for the two-hour journey.

"Everyone is very anxious to hear what you're going to say," he said, adding that about 200 students would gather to hear me speak.

This being Mexico, however, there were several formalities to attend to first.

An official committee gathered in the town's main square to greet me, including the queen of the town's annual fair, the head of the local tourism office, and Amando R. De Leon, San Juan's official "historian and chronicler."

De Leon led me around the historical sites, including a domed cathedral that houses a tiny statue of the Virgin Mary said to be responsible for the miraculous resurrection of a dead girl in 1633. Legions of money-spending pilgrims have come to San Juan de Los Lagos ever since, and the town's wealth made it a prize in several wars.

Benito Juarez's army shelled the town, leaving huge holes that can still be seen in the cathedral's stone walls. During the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa's soldiers shot up the statue of the Roman goddess Fortuna in the town square.

Fortuna and her cornucopia were eventually repaired. And for decades San Juan de Los Lagos and its people continued to be blessed with good luck.

But now many of San Juan's young people are counting the days until they can leave.

"Some of our students are just waiting to finish high school so they can go," Alcantar said.

They'll celebrate their graduation, and then head north and cross illegally into the U.S.

Alcantar told me this over the obligatory big lunch that included a shot of locally produced tequila followed by confessions from three other members of my welcoming committee.

Like Alcantar, they'd all been denied tourist visas to the U.S., they said, despite being respectable, property-owning members of Mexico's professional class.

Rogelio Ramirez, a teacher, said he has an older brother in Los Angeles he hasn't seen in 20 years. Maria de la Luz Delgado, the tourism official, has a brother who's a sheriff's deputy. Andres Juarez, the principal of the school, has relatives in both California and Detroit -- some legal residents of the U.S., others not.

"They went north on an adventure," Delgado said of her relatives.

Alcantar, Juarez and others at San Juan's high school have been working to keep the town's young people home.

"We want them here so they can go to college and continue their educations," Juarez said.

The principal and the other school officials were hoping I'd give the students a dose of L.A. reality.

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