Jotos and Hangings

'Another Mexico' covers the real Mexico.

True Tales From Another Mexico, by Sam Quiñones. University of New Mexico Press, $29.95.

Myths are only partly based on myth. Like stereotypes, myths are born of real, if narrow truths, and can be used for good or bad: Stereotypes can be used to predict or pigeonhole; myths can be used to strengthen or weaken personal and cultural ideals and identity. Used correctly, myths can do quite a bit of good. Used incorrectly--the worst you can do with a myth is put too much belief in it; almost as bad is denying its importance--myths can be deadly.

Not long ago, while tossing back tequila with a group that included the writers Dagoberto Gilb and Doug Peacock, I found myself defending another writer, Cormac McCarthy, who was under assault by a few people at the table. In particular, McCarthy's critics took issue with his take on Mexico. Their complaints went something like this: "It's the same old story. White boys come down to Mexico, get drunk, steal our women ... it's crap."

Never mind the fact that the guys calling women in Mexico "our women" were both born here. The real problem was their ignorance of what I call the Mexico Myth. (McCarthy has his faults, but using the Mexico Myth isn't one of them.) What my tablemates failed to understand is that the Mexico Myth is real, powerful, and just as important to Americans as the El Norte Myth is to Mexicans.

The El Norte Myth makes America the Land of Milk and Honey, which it is, and isn't. But for those who see America that way, the issue is not whether to believe (they already do) but how much to believe. For those who believe (and there are millions), finding the proper balance of belief and skepticism can quite literally mean the difference between life and death.

If the El Norte Myth makes America the Land of Milk and Honey, the Mexico Myth makes Mexico the Land of Silk and Money. In the Mexico of Myth, you can get drunk, high and laid; or beaten, raped and robbed. You can get rich quick or lose it all, fall in love or get a stiletto in the heart, sing out loud or get your throat slit. It's all true, and it's all a lie. Again, it's all about finding the right balance--belief and skepticism, pleasure and pain, life and death.

As a firm believer in the Mexico Myth, it was with great pleasure that I read Sam Quiñones' new collection of journalism, True Tales From Another Mexico. For Quiñones, "Another Mexico" is unofficial Mexico, the Mexico on the fringes, surviving and sometimes thriving outside the system. His Mexico is my Mexico, and to anyone else who's come down from the ivory tower or the tour bus long enough to walk that country's mean streets, it's the real Mexico.

In 15 well-written and well-researched pieces, Quiñones covers the Mexico of the Mexico Myth: Drag queens in Mazatlán, murdered women in Juárez, provincial lynchings, telenovelas, corrido revivalists, Chicano gangs gone south, capitalist success stories, and the thing that makes "Another Mexico" both possible and necessary: long-term, institutionalized corruption. Taken individually, each piece is powerfully rendered and insightful; taken as a whole, the pieces portray a vibrant, resilient people, struggling and surviving against a corrupt state and an indifferent, sometimes hostile church. Simply put, True Tales is extraordinary.

The first piece, "The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez," chronicles the career of the Sinaloa-born LA singer and corridero. Before Chalino, LA vatos listened to rap, dismissing traditional Mexican forms as beaner music. Then along came Chalino, who, with his lousy voice and working-class style, made the corrido cool. Naturally, while performing in the wild-West Sinaloan narcopolis of Culiacán, he was murdered. Naturally, the police probably had something to do with it. Naturally, hundreds of corridos were written about his death. It's a quintessentially Mexican story, beautifully told.

"Lynching in Huejutla" is a harrowing tale of mob violence in a provincial town, where decades of corruption, injustice and mistrust mixed with ignorance, superstition and bootleg liquor, producing gruesome results. As with most stories like this, the crime isn't nice, but it's understandable. And as usual in cases like this, they killed the wrong guys (they should've strung up the mayor and governor). Told chronologically, the story's tension and simmering violence are palpable, scary, intense. And quite Mexican.

Being a grizzled old gabacho and denizen of the demimonde (I'll take the bordello over the boardroom any day), my favorite piece in the bunch is "The Jotos of La Fogata," which recounts a few weeks in the lives of Mazatlán's pageant-crazy drag queens. Pitting pretty underage whores against polished professional beauticians, it's a battle royale to die for. None of the girls I met in Mazatlán had any spare parts, but I've spent enough time with drag queens to know that Quiñones' reportage is right on the money.

The rest of the pieces proceed in similar fashion, at once entertaining and enlightening. There's a nice photo section, and Quiñones includes a section of updates on the original pieces. He also provides a cogent afterword on President Vicente Fox, whose stunning victory broke the reign of the world's longest-running single-party system. Quiñones has high hopes and great confidence in Fox, as do I and most other Mexicans and Americans.

Fox has already instituted some much-needed reforms. But if he really wants to shake things up, he should give me a call. I know a Juárez drag queen who puts the Mazatlán jotos to shame. And she'd make an excellent Mistress of Cultural Affairs.

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