The tuba has become the emblematic instrument of Southern California, much the way the electric guitar was in the 1970s. Mexican banda tuba playing, particularly in Southern California, is going through a period of intense innovation and experimentation, due largely to its popularity at house parties thrown by Mexican immigrants for birthdays, quinceneras, weddings and more. Tuba players are now standout instrumentalists, no longer banished to the back of the band. They make more than other players, too. I spent a good while interviewing tuba players about this new world they found themselves in, and wrote about for the Los Angeles Times. That, in turn, led to stories about how high schools had been seeing their tubas stolen, largely, teachers believed, by thieves selling them to banda musicians. The non-Mexican tuba world had been experimental and effervescent for years. this was due to a few influential teachers and a lot of jobs, in movie studios, Disneyland, community colleges, and more. But this attitude of innovation was new to the tradition-bound Mexican banda world and only a few years old by the time I happened on it.


I lived with a colony of two dozen drag queens in Mazatlan’s red-light district as they prepared for what was then the oldest gay beauty contest in Mexico, which took place at a bar called La Fogata. It was a wild two months, as they worked as hookers in a nearby club and rented rooms in a squat apartments surrounding a patio. Most came from small towns, where they began hooking at a young age, often in cantinas, the great cathedrals of Mexican machismo. This being Sinaloa, narcos were some of their best clients. The queens had come to Mazatlan for the money and camaraderie with others who were like them. They remain the only hookers I’ve ever met who liked their work. They injected hormones, shaved incessantly and fought often. A few years ago, I went back and found La Fogata closed, its owner, Marta Caramelo, deceased and her adopted son, Alejandro, in prison for murder. I wrote about the whole time in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico, in an attempt to understand why a country as macho as Mexico has so many men dressed as women.

LA JEFA: Murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe in L.A.

Murals of the Virgin of Guadalupe are everywhere in Latino neighborhoods of Southern California. Many were painted on markets and liquor stores to dissuade gang members from painting graffiti on the businesses. As a shield, she worked. Got any shots of La Jefa? Send them in, with a description of where they were taken and we’ll add them here.



The Sunday dance-hall scene in and around The Alameda park in downtown Mexico City. The scene emerged to provide fun for rural kids who’ve come to the capital to work construction (boys) and as maids (girls) on their one day off. The park became their space on Sunday afternoons. Later, dancehall entrepreneuers set up up in various buildings abandoned since the 1985 earthquake and turned them into temp discos for these kids, packing in hundreds at a time. It’s part of a story I wrote about in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.


View a video of the Opera Street Festival, which takes place in Tijuana every July. It’s held in Colonia Libertad, a bareknuckle neighborhood known for boxers, gangs, immigrant smugglers and as the place where the city’s plaster statue industry began. The Festival is held about 100 yards from the steel wall separating the United States from Mexico. One of Mexico’s great cultural events, not to be missed. Another story that’s a chapter in Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.



The Popsicle Kings of Tocumbo, Michoacan is one of the great business stories of Mexico. La Michoacana shops are across Mexico, providing a decent living for thousands of once-poor families who don’t have to migrate to the US or deal drugs.  The popsicle shops became canvases for unlettered rancheros to display the business acumen they didn’t know they possessed. Michoacana style paleterias are now part of the scenery of Mexico — found from urban neighborhoods, high-end suburgs, out to distant rural villages. The story comes from my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob,  the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx.


VELVET PAINTING: Juarez and Tijuana


Also from Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream, the story of the Henry Ford of Velvet Painting, Doyle Harden, and the boom in the despised pop art he initiated from El Paso/Juarez. The story of how velvet spread across the United States in the 1970s involved Eskimos, Scientologists, Sandinistas, Palestinians and thousands of poor border residents who got rich painting. Meanwhile, velvet painting planted the seeds of a border art scene that flourishes today.


Comments (2)


  1. Annie Wildbear says:

    Painting on velvet…THANK YOU SAM!!!

  2. […] Photos/Video ← LOS ANGELES: The Tubas have left the building … again February 8, 2013 · 10:30 am ↓ Jump to Comments […]