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Nostalgia and reality collide in Mexico

Bobby Salcedo's killing shattered the romantic image many Mexican Americans shared about their homeland. Some say they won't go back; others refuse to give up hope or sever ties.

January 17, 2010|By Hector Becerra
  • Jorge Andres Herrera and his siblings have limited where their band, Hermanos Herrera, will perform in Mexico. They say the northern states are too dangerous.
Jorge Andres Herrera and his siblings have limited where their band, Hermanos… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Bobby Salcedo grew up in El Monte, his immigrant parents staking the family's future in the working-class suburb that felt worlds away from the Mexican farming towns of their roots.

But like so many Mexican Americans, some of Salcedo's fondest memories were from the winter and summer vacations when his family would pack into the van and drive 1,300 miles south to the lands of their ancestors in Jalisco.

The pace of life slowed there, with children hanging out in town plazas late into the night and young men handing flowers to pretty girls as they strolled in opposing circles. For many young Mexican Americans, that small-town life seemed a panacea compared to the urban stresses of Los Angeles, and to being cooped up at home, playing video games and watching TV.

The connection to Mexico stayed with Salcedo through the years as he became an assistant principal and El Monte school board member. He continued to visit family in Mexico, and did charity work for South El Monte's sister city, Gomez Palacio in Durango state. He met his future wife there.

The 33-year-old Salcedo and his wife returned to her hometown this Christmas to visit family and friends. A few days later, they were at a bar when masked gunmen, suspected members of a drug cartel, burst in and kidnapped Salcedo and five other men. They were shot to death execution-style and dumped near a canal.

The case made headlines as an example of Mexico's out-of-control drug war and prompted mourning in El Monte, where Salcedo was a popular educator and a rising community leader.

But for many Mexican Americans who are deeply rooted to the land of their parents, the killing also underscored the complex relationship they have with Mexico and provoked feelings of anger, disappointment and betrayal.

"Mexico is going through very fast change, so you kind of have in mind all these different images and ideas," said Francisco Balderrama, a professor of history and Chicano studies at Cal State L.A. "A lot of them have passed on into a type of nostalgia."

Balderrama said his youthful memories of Mexico are different from his son's.

Like his son, the professor studied in Mexico as a young man. But his son also volunteered for the Peace Corps in the state of Queretaro. His son experienced the difficulties of getting things done in Mexico, a frustration Balderrama never had to experience. His son also has a more updated perspective on some of the country's dangers.

When Balderrama proposed that his son take a bus to meet him in another state of Mexico, his son said that could be unsafe.

The Salcedo case is a reminder of the new realities, the latest bang in a steady drumbeat of violence that has steadily chipped away at romantic notions that many Mexican Americans had.

"We see what we want to see down there," said Salcedo's brother Juan, 35. "We're not down there, living the daily life of the average Mexican. We're living an American life in a Third World country. Our dollar goes further. We're able to enjoy things that many people there are not able to enjoy."

Childlike nostalgia

Juan Salcedo said he remembers getting into the gray station wagon, later upgraded to a "big ole" white van, at least once a year. They would bring various things people had requested: paper towels, bags of sugar or flour. Their mother Graciela's town was Tototlan, their father's Atotonilco, both near Guadalajara. They would hop around, visiting family and being fed or taking trips to Lake Chapala or a little water park.

As the Salcedo children got older, the trips became less frequent but they never stopped. Two years ago they went to the wedding of their cousin Eddie Macias, who used to tease Bobby and his siblings about their Spanish.

Bobby was "very proud of his Mexican origins, but very proud of being an American," said Macias, 36. "They got to know many other parts of Mexico, not just from a family point of view, but as part of their culture."

Macias said many Mexicans have negative or stereotypical views of Mexican Americans, saying they just work in the U.S. but don't amount to much.

"On occasion, unconsciously at times, I'd defend them," Macias said of his five Salcedo cousins, all of whom graduated from college. "I'm very proud of my family in the U.S. I would say, 'On the contrary, I have family in California, and they contribute to their community. They are examples of how to live for the rest of us. Here and there.' "

American dream

Bobby Salcedo became a teacher in South El Monte and president of the town's sister-city program, which includes Gomez Palacio. He met Betzy Lazos there and married her two years ago.

He helped raise money for orphanages and firefighters and other causes in Gomez Palacio. The violence in Mexico always seemed distant to the Salcedo family.

"I was a nonbeliever," Juan said.

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