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Life on the Line 

A new CD and photography book provide a glimpse of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.

When you're nursing a Nogales hangover, it's hard to beat the cool, calm ambience of Elvira's. After a night of fun with your favorite fichera, leave her in bed and shuffle over to that gently soothing sanctuary, where a few beers sipped amid the fountains will make you almost human again. So much so that by the time your sleep-late sweetie comes swinging through the door, you'll be able to greet her with a grin instead of a growl.

Just watch out for the music. In Elvira's and every other border joint, the musicians can be terrible. Last time I was there with a pounding head, I was chagrined to see a trio of familiar faces. I'd heard this crew before, messing up "Maria Bonita" so badly that I vowed to never again request one of Agustín Lara's beautiful ballads. When they offered to play "Cielito Lindo," I could feel my temples throb. Thinking of last night's libation, I asked for "Los Tequileros," hoping they'd give up and leave me to cry over la cruda. They smiled instead, then performed the corrido with precision and aplomb. For a few moments I forgot my misery.

I was only mildly surprised that they knew the song. Up and down the border, corridos are currency, classic compositions and conduits of news. Wordy and simple, corridos are tall tales, ballads, story songs--more important for what they say than how they say it. Many are merely informative, but others are also beautiful, even poignant.

In Heroes & Horses: Corridos from the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands, Jim Griffith has compiled 16 of the region's most enduring corridos. A folklorist, author and beloved local institution widely recognized for his television appearances, Griffith was the perfect man for the job. The album is a milestone, and an unmitigated delight.

Recorded in the field, the album's corridos cover a wide range of enduring popular subjects, and Griffith's extensive liner notes do a fine job of explaining each song's significance. Included are such regional standards as "El Corrido de Nogales," and what is perhaps the most famous corrido ever, "Joaquín Murrieta."

Also included are four corridos about horse races, proving that even though the Fray Marcos betting parlor has been closed for years, Sonorans will always love their horse races. And that, had I heard the tragic news in time, my request at Elvira's should've been for one of those, since the eminent Seattle Slew had died the day before.

Compared to Griffith, Maeve Hickey and Lawrence Taylor are relative newcomers to the border. Nevertheless, they've carved a nice niche for themselves, publishing three books on the subject. Their newest, Ambos Nogales: Intimate Portraits of the U.S.-Mexico Border, is a collection of vignettes and photos.

Visiting ramshackle colonías and a semi-pro bullfight, hanging with the Border Patrol, homeless tunnel kids, artists, musicians and others, Hickey and Taylor's accounts of life in the two Nogaleses are not necessarily groundbreaking, but they are heartfelt and well told.

Taylor's text is easygoing and nimble, his tone is amiable, and he's got a sense of humor that allows him to poke gentle fun at his subjects (except when those subjects are Americans; then his poking can get nasty). An astute observer, he's usually successful at fighting the urge to interpret what he sees (his epilogue is an exception). And even though he doesn't dive in as exuberantly as I'd like him to, Taylor isn't afraid to dally at the fringes of the demimonde, a part of border culture too often ignored by faint-hearted writers but crucial to the local economy and the larger Mexican mystique.

Hickey's photos are generally too formal for my tastes, too conservative in composition and choice of subject matter. But her respect for her subjects is evident in her formalism, and she does break away a bit from the strict portraiture of her earlier books.

Ambos Nogales has its flaws. There are scores of technical errors concerning the bullfight, and the epilogue is stylistically out-of-sync with the rest of the text.

Overall, though, Ambos Nogales is a worthwhile read that will rest nicely on any border bookshelf. Its lucid and frequently lovely observations are presented in context but largely without interpretation, and that's a good thing.

At one point in Ambos Nogales, Taylor recounts the flash flood rescue of a family trapped under a sewer grate near Elvira's. That drain is a popular entryway to the subterranean labyrinth that Taylor and Hickey's tunnel kids inhabit. Next time you're in Elvira's, requesting corridos and hoping to cure la cruda, check that storm drain when you leave. If you're lucky, as I once was, you'll see a couple kids slithering down the hole with elegant artistry. The sight won't help your hangover, but it'll amuse you nevertheless.

More by Jim Carvalho

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