Lost Musician

Nogales native Charles Mingus is an often-forgotten part of the city's rich history.

I am driving toward Nogales through a freakish November fog in search of Charles Mingus.

On my dash, a dog-eared copy of his rambling autobiography, Beneath the Underdog, flips pages in the wind. I randomly read a line: "Charles, you're a dangerous man! You hit me." Moments later, a mangled javelina corpse flies past my window, clipped on the snout by a Mac truck bound for Mexico. As a writer, I appreciate the foreshadowing.

Born in Nogales on April 22, 1922, Mingus is known the world over as an innovative jazz bassist, composer, bandleader, author, poet, philosopher and outspoken advocate for equal rights and justice.

When he died on Jan. 5, 1979, in Cuernavaca, Mexico, the legacy he left behind included more than 50 albums and roughly 300 individual works. In addition, Mingus has the distinction of being the first jazz musician to have his personal archives housed in the Library of Congress.

Yet in Nogales, Mingus is a man who never was. A leisurely walk around town reveals not a plaque, monument or mural dedicated to their native son. Shop windows are equally devoid of memorabilia.

This is strange.

In the city of Watts, where Mingus lived for most of his childhood, there is the Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center. In New York City, where he performed regularly, an official Charles Mingus Day was declared following his death. Even the U.S. Postal Service recognized him with a 32-cent stamp bearing his image.

So where's the Mingus in Nogales?

I decide to try my luck at the Pimeria Alta Historical Society, where the officially sanctioned history of Nogales is shaped and edited. Located in the original city hall off Grand Street, the society operates a museum, library and archives "dedicated to the understanding of the region of Southern Arizona and northern Sonora."

But when it comes to Mingus, a tour of the society is completely unenlightening.

At the very least, I assumed there would be the quintessential photo of Mingus grappling with his bass, eyes closed in musical reverie. Maybe a 4-by-5 index card with a sentence in faded ink noting: "Charles Mingus was born here." But again, there is nothing.

Fortunately, I meet historical society member Ricardo Ojeda. Ojeda is a Nogales native and former Marine whose eyes grow bright when asked about the history of his hometown. On the verge of completing his teaching degree at the University of Arizona, Ojeda teaches history at Nogales High School.

Ask Ojeda why Mingus, a man who over the years claimed to have African, Anglo, Hispanic and Native American roots, has been expunged from Nogales history, and he will tell you he believes it is part of a pattern of exclusion dating back more than 100 years.

"The founding fathers of Nogales where mostly white, Protestant men from the East Coast, and that is the view of history that you will see most prominently preserved here in Nogales," Ojeda says. "It's the history of some, but not of all."

Intrigued, I take Ojeda up on his offer to go for a drive in search of the Mingus family home and birthplace.

On the way, Ojeda explains that Mingus' father, Charles Mingus Sr., was a black Buffalo Solider from the U.S. Army 25th Infantry stationed with his family at Camp Steven B. Little.

The camp, established after the Mexican Revolution to fortify the border, was initially home to mostly white soldiers. When World War I broke out, the white soldiers were shipped off to fight in Europe. Replacing those white soldiers were the Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry.

"In the latest history book on Nogales, there is no mention of Mingus at all. And the Buffalo Soldiers? They only receive a couple of sentences," Ojeda says. "It's all about how we present our history. Our city has a rich history and we need to talk about the past so that we can move forward into the present."

ON A BLUFF OVERLOOKING the city, Ojeda pulls over, and we get out. The fog has long since lifted, and the sky on both sides of the border is equally clear and blue. Ojeda produces some old aerial photos of the military camp. Since the camp was abandoned in 1933, few of the original structures remain. However, the landscape is relatively unchanged, and we are able to pinpoint the approximate location of the hospital in which Mingus was born. To a jazz fan, this is sacred ground.

"When I was in school, I was never taught that the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed here," Ojeda says. "They never told me that Nogales was the birthplace of Charles Mingus. But when I learned about it as an adult, I was in shock. It was like my eyes were opened for the first time. I wondered: Why had I not heard of them before?

"Right now, my students tell me that there is nothing to do in this town. That it is boring. That they can't wait to leave. But when I tell them the history of the Buffalo Soldiers or of Mingus, they suddenly become interested. They want to know more. They want to learn."

Behind a house where part of the hospital once stood, a lush garden now grows. Ojeda knows the woman who lives in the home and laughs: "She says it grows so well because of all the body parts that were buried there."

We get in the car and drive a bit further. Along the way, Ojeda points out buildings, still occupied, that once housed enlisted personnel. At least one appears to be little changed since it was built roughly 100 years ago.

According to Ojeda, finding the exact house the Mingus family called home is a difficult if not impossible task, since the military routinely destroyed many of the camp's original records when they left.

At the time the Buffalo Soldiers were stationed in Nogales, they and their families walked a fine line between segregation and freedom. On the one hand, they were charged with protecting the city and its residents with their lives. On the other hand, the country they had sworn to protect treated them as second-class citizens.

It was a world of segregated schools, communities, bathrooms and saloons.

After The Battle of Ambos Nogales in 1918, when troops from Nogales, Sonora and Arizona shot it out across the border, a Mexican corrido or folk ballad arose:

Soldiers, soldiers, gringos
We never saw them again
They sent in the blacks
And went into hiding

Roughly a year after Mingus was born, his father moved the family to Watts, where better medical treatment for his wife and living conditions for his family were available.

"It's not surprising that they left," Ojeda says. "After the white soldiers were shipped out, the quality of life in the camp declined dramatically. It really was crappy duty for those who were stationed there. There were definitely worse places to be, and some Buffalo Soldiers married Mexican women and stayed behind. But we still need to talk about how things were then so we can get past it. The historical society should not just be a repository for elite family histories."

BACK AT THE HISTORICAL Society, director Axel Holm has a simple explanation why a cabinet full of musty, dead ducks is more prominently displayed than anything about Mingus.

"I never heard of him," he says with a shrug.

When informed of who Mingus was, Holm, a Nogales native with roots that go back several generations, is apologetic and quick to correct the error, noting he would now like to dedicate an entire room in the museum to Mingus.

Holm also announces, apparently for the first time as well, that he would like to purchase a building at the former Army camp and create a Buffalo Solider museum and a kiosk telling their tale atop the bluff where the hospital once stood.

Then in the same breath, he quickly discounts the idea of that ever happening, noting that budget constraints and a lack of resources would make it impossible.

"The focus in this town is commerce, and there has never been enough of a majority in Nogales to focus on history that is not mostly commerce," Holm says. "Mingus may have spent some time here. What was it? A year? But we also don't want to miss the guys who stuck around and built this town."

Asked about the segregation that existed in Nogales, Holm plays it down, saying Nogales was always a melting pot of ethnicity. And while each ethnic group kept to itself, Nogales was "no worse" than any other American city at the time.

"A lot of history does not get recorded," Holm says. "I think you will find Nogales was much more tolerant than other places."

Regarding upcoming historical projects, Holm does indicate he is looking forward to researching the lives of Martin Laughman and Andy Bookas, a couple of Nogales drinking buddies and merchants, one of whom regularly wrote letters to the local paper.

"Delightfully entertaining," he says.

When told Holm initially claimed he never heard of Mingus, historical society general administrator Teresa Leal smiles thinly.

From behind her desk, she lifts a poster purchased during a Mingus symposium in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico, in 1999. As an Opata Indian whose tribe she says was declared "extinct" by the Mexican government, Leal knows first-hand that history is shaped by those who control it.

"People from all over the world come here to ask about Charles Mingus. They say, 'Where is the museum? Where is the monument?' And I say to them: We have nada," Leal says. "If you ask me, I would say it is intentional. There is never a push for history unless you say: Here I am. We need to include important figures such as Charles Mingus in our history. And we can do it in a way where we do not attack anyone. But we shouldn't not address it because it will make us feel uncomfortable."

JOSE LUIS TOLEDO IS THE EDITOR of the Nogales journal of arts and culture Nahual. For the past three years, he has organized jazz concerts in Nogales Arizona/Sonora celebrating the life and music of Mingus on Mingus' birthday. Relying on local donations, Toledo says this year's concert had been canceled due "the economy," but that he hopes to put on a concert in 2004 and is actively seeking funding and musicians who are willing to participate.

"We need to do more to remember this wonderful musician," Toledo says. "When Mingus was alive, across the border was the red zone. There were cabarets and nightclubs where people would go to hear live music. One time, I met a bass player, and he told me that Mingus would occasionally come to Nogales and play a few songs. I'm not sure how true that was, but back then, it wasn't uncommon at all to have someone famous sit in for a few songs with a local band."

Leaving Nogales, I find myself thinking about Mingus and his legacy.

Much has changed in the world since he was here, yet the obstacles of race and place he faced still haunt the town in which he was born.

The following week, when I call Nogales press secretary Juan Pablo Guzman to ask him about Charles Mingus, he too asks the question that has become all too familiar: "Who is Charles Mingus?"

Once again, I explain who Mingus was, and Guzman suddenly remembers, noting "it is very weird" that the historical society makes no mention of Mingus on its Web site or in any of its displays.

Yet during the conversation, Guzman is not only surprised to learn that Mingus was born in his city, but he also says he does not believe Nogales has ever officially recognized him.

While waiting to be waved through an immigration checkpoint by a languid-looking Border Patrol cop wearing very dark glasses, I remembered the words of Maria Fraoso, a student of Ojeda's I'd met earlier at the historical society.

"No one ever told me that someone like Charles Mingus lived here or who he was until we learned about him in class. Learning he came from Nogales," she said and smiled, "It made me feel proud."

I guess some things are changing after all.

FOLLOWING MY RESEARCH for this story, I contacted Sue Mingus, the musician's widow, to ask her opinion about the lack of recognition her husband has received from the city of his birth.

In a statement dated Dec. 27, 2003, she wrote the following:

"I'm not sure whether the birth of Charles Mingus in Nogales on that bewitching date, April 22, 1922, carries any resonance with the town of Nogales yet--I know these things can take time, sometimes decades, before the importance of a birthplace may be acknowledged.

"But I am pleased to say that last February 2003, the mayor of Los Angeles laid the cornerstone of a multimillion-dollar Charles Mingus Youth Art Center in Watts (a suburb of Los Angeles where Charles grew up), next to the legendary Watts Towers, at a ceremony attended by various Mingus family members and community leaders.

"I hope one day there may be a memorial of some kind in Nogales, as well, commemorating Charles Mingus' musical achievements. He was a major 20th-century American composer who left one of the largest and most personal legacies of composition in American music.

"His scores, recording tapes, letters, photographs and memorabilia were acquired, in their entirety, by the Library of Congress in the mid-'80s--a first for jazz composition and a first for an African-American composer.

"Several repertory bands carry on his music today, including the Mingus Big Band, which has been performing every Thursday night at Manhattan's Time Cafe for the past 12 years, the Mingus Dynasty, the Charles Mingus Orchestra and the Epitaph Orchestra, which performed a few years ago in Arizona at a Mingus tribute.

"As for me, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to be involved in Charles' music. Last year, I published a book called Tonight at Noon about our relationship and about the many activities involving his music since his death.

"Charles spoke out, throughout his lifetime, about what he believed, about the injustices he experienced in society, about the necessity of taking a stand, about the feelings and emotions that eventually made their way into his music. His voice was loud and clear then, and it lives on today."

For information about the Charles Mingus legacy, visit www.mingusmingusmingus.com.

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