Author Sam Quinones

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HORIZONTE talks to journalist and author Sam Quinones about his new book, “Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration”. Quinones will give a perspective of immigration not normally heard in the immigration debate. Find out more, visit the Sam Quinones Web site.

José Cardenas:
Good evening. I'm José Cardenas. Tonight a conversation with Sam Quinones, author of Antonio's gun, "True Tales of Mexican Migration." That's coming up next on "Horizonte."

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José Cardenas:
Sam Quinones has been a journalist for more than 20 years. Sam Quinones lived in Mexico for 10 years and worked as a freelance writer. He's currently a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. In 2001, Quinones published his first book, "True Tales from Another Mexico," the lynch mob, the Popsicle kings, Chalino and the Bronx. His new book, "Antonio's Gun" and "Delfino's Dream," looks into the migration of Mexicans into the United States. Both books offer an interesting perspective to the ongoing immigration debate. Amend, thank you for joining us.

Sam Quinones:
Thanks for having me.

José Cardenas:
Let's talk about your career and the 10 years you spent in Mexico.

Sam Quinones:
Really I was escaping the rain of Seattle. I'm a California boy and went up there briefly.

José Cardenas:
You could have come to Arizona

Sam Quinones:
I could have. I made the mistake of going to Seattle and didn't like it, the gray skies and variety of other things that weren't really to my taste. So, I really went down to Mexico to study Spanish. I spoke Spanish already, but I really needed to speak it better, I felt, to use it as a reporter. When I was down there, I by chance found a job at a magazine. This magazine paid about 95 percent less than I was making at my newspaper job, but I was unhappy there, and I wanted a new kind of adventure, so I took the risk and just went down to work for this magazine. It lasted about nine months, just enough time to get to know who the major bureaucrats were in the Mexican government and that kind of thing. Then it went under after the 1994 peso devaluation. After that, it was either go home or stay. If I stayed, I was going to be a freelancer with no other work around. Really I was feeling more like I just wanted to do my own thing at that point anyway. And, so I became a free-lancer and within a couple of years, I had enough climates to really live very well down there, and there was more interest in Mexico as the years went by because it became clear that there was major changes afoot.

José Cardenas:
And you were writing for U.S. papers.

Sam Quinones:
I was writing mainly for U.S. papers. I also spun those stories off anybody who's a freelancer knows that you've got to resell to live. I would write one story and sell it four or five times in the state and then look for magazines really to sell it to down -- down in Mexico. I might spin it off into an op- ed column as well or a variety of other things. Once you put your mind to it, there's a lot of ways of making money off of one story.

José Cardenas:
These experiences gave rise to your two books. The first and second one both emphasized true tales, true stories. But there are differences. Tell us about those differences.

Sam Quinones:
The first one, "True Tales from Another Mexico," really focuses on Mexico, how Mexico was changing, was kind of breaking away from this kind of stifling grip, the age-old officialist-bureaucratic tendency Mexico had on the country represented best by the pre-revolutionary party that, by then, had been in power for about 70 years. I was very interested to watch how--

José Cardenas:
And the focus was the loss of the election?

Sam Quinones:
That was the end kind of it. I focused not so much on the main actors that anyone would know but rather on the margins of the country. I wanted to find out there what I thought would be a more illustrative truth about how the country was changing, what the country was about these days and instruct, kind of impart lessons to Americans about the complexity of the country. I don't feel we have a really deep knowledge of what Mexico is. And so I began to focus on stories on kind of the margins of the country, but I really believe that, on the margins, is where you kind of find the real truth. In the interior, in the halls of government, the truths are too easily kind of papered over or polished over, and I felt getting out to the provinces or getting out to parts of Mexico City where no one really had covered much, that became my focus to kind of focus on how Mexico was breaking away, searching for something new, kind of the new world in a sense, breaking away from this old tendency to kind of concentrate power in the center and have everything come from top down. And I felt a lot of stuff was bubbling up from the bottom, and that was where it was more interesting to me to be. Also, frankly, as a free-lance writer, everybody else, all my correspondent friends remember were covering the halls of government and the big corporations and so on, so my job really, I couldn't compete with them. I needed to sell stories that they were not doing. So I was finding my way out to the kind of unnoticed places, and that suited me just fine. I'm not really happy in a press conference. The second book really deals with kind of the flip side of that, which is if the theme overall is how Mexicans are breaking away from what has kept them down and kept them -- kind of the foot on the neck kind of thing for so many years, well, one group that has certainly been doing that are the working classes, the par and working classes who have emigrated, simply left Mexico. They were doing that a long time ago.

José Cardenas:
Ever since the 1910 Revolution.

Sam Quinones:
Right. And really picking up steam after the Brasero Treaty in 1942 with the United States. And of course in the 1980's really growing because of the economic disaster that was the 1980's for Mexico. All so all of this was kind of like -- I saw it as two sides of the same coin, I think.

José Cardenas:
Let's talk first about the significant of the title. This book is called "Antonio's Gun" and "Delfino's Dream." What's the significant of that?

Sam Quinones:
"Antonio's Gun" is a story that took place in the late 1920's in a little village in which a man's father is killed by the local valiente, the local gone man who is in the employ of the town boss. This man -- this kid actually at the time really -- has no other alternative. He either submits to the outrage that's been perpetrated against him, which is the murder of his father or he goes north to the United States. That's what he does. There he buys a gun. He comes home, and he kills the guy who does it. Now, I just love stories like that, these great old tales, kind of like Clint Eastwood kind of things right out of the movie. As a journalist, I'm drawn to that. As I talked to the old folks in town who knew this story very well, I could also see that this was kind of what people were looking for. When they go to the United States, what they're looking for is kind of alternative to submission. You're looking for some way not to have to submit to the powers in your town that say, this is all we're going to allow you. This is all you're going to get. We have it all controlled. There's a few families that control the economics or the politics or sometimes both, 'cause they're very often connected. We're not going to allow you to do. There's a lot of people. They are most of the folks who have come here. What are they actually looking for? I think they're looking for an alternative to that submission.

José Cardenas:
At the same time, many of them returning, not necessarily with a gun to kill somebody --

Sam Quinones:
No.

José Cardenas:
-- but you talk about the house building that goes on --

Sam Quinones:
I believe that now -- that was one case. I just loved the story, and I thought, god, that would be a terrific way to start the book. But really what the people are looking for now are houses, because across Mexico, one of the great unnoticed, I think, urban renewals going on in North America is that millions and millions of dollars for many, many years every year pour into Mexico and are used to build houses. What does a house mean? It means I don't have to live in the shack that I used to when I was growing up. It shows everybody, hey, I did it. I'm not -- you ran me out of here, but I built my house, and I'm building it to show you. It's also kind of protection. If you live in a shack where it's raining on top of you, well a house that doesn't leak and doesn't rain, I mean, that is a form of protection. It's also kind after thumbing of the nose in a sense of immigrant at the local elite saying, hey, you threw me out of here, and I'm back to show you what I can do.

José Cardenas:
I want to talk about one of the rather curious aspects of that -- that's going on in Mexico right now.

Sam Quinones:
Right.

José Cardenas:
In terms of those houses just sitting there.

Sam Quinones:
Right.

José Cardenas:
But before we do that, the other part of the title, "Delfino's Dream."

Sam Quinones:
Delfino in Juarez is a young kid that I met. I was really planning on doing another story about migration, and that is that Mexico City depends on cheap labor very much the way the United States depends on cheap labor. Mexico City attracts many thousands and thousands of kids, 12, 14, 16, 18 years old from the villages in the states around the capitol. They all make three or four times more in Mexico City than they could make in their village at farming. They come to Mexico City, and a lot of the boys are construction workers, most of them. The girls, most of them are maids. And these are the unseen parts of the Mexico City economy. Without them, I believe the economy would simply halt. They are the necessary cheap labor, totally exploited, very little health insurance. Some health insurance. Not much. They send their money home up in the mountains and the rural countryside to their families who really rely on this money. Delfino was a kid who did that for 10 years. In 10 years, he kind of bet his future on Mexico City in a sense. He said, "Okay, I'm not going to the U.S." In fact from his village, nobody -- it's the only village I personally ever encountered where no one actually went to the United States. The first time I went there, no one had gone. Ten years later, he still doesn't have anything. His family still has a shack that leaks rain. He buys them a television. They have to cover it in a clear plastic bag and tie it up so that the rain won't short it out when it rained, because it'll leak. They have -- you know -- no plumbing. Dirt floors. He goes to the United States --

José Cardenas:
Comes through Arizona, doesn't he?

Sam Quinones:
He comes through Arizona in a harrowing tale. I write three stories in the book about Delfino, the first one in Mexico City about his life as a construction worker and his kind of daring. He's a tremendously daring kid. Goes at age 12 alone on a train to Mexico City, alone on a train, to Mexico City to help support his family. He's is 5-foot-tall, about 100 pounds, knows nothing about the city. It's the largest city in the world. And here's he's getting off thinking, ok, I'm just going to wing it and see what happens. That's the kind of kid he is, quite an admirable impressive guy.

José Cardenas:
The next time we see him, he's crossing the desert.

Sam Quinones:
What happens, he decides after 10 years -- he's got a kid now, got a wife. He can't make it. Mexico City has not been able to channel his desires, his needs, what he needs as a man, what he needs as a father, what he needs as a husband. And what he needs just as a human being with the kinds of things he wants to accomplish in his life. So he comes north and makes the mistake of traveling in June, 120 degrees on the floor of the desert. Very nearly dies. A woman does die in that trek. It becomes essentially a death march. But he finally makes it through, very gripping tale these guys were telling me. Interviewed him and his friends and the coyote who lives in a town near there.

José Cardenas:
The guy that brought them across.

Sam Quinones:
Right. Correct. He makes it to the United States. He lives in a suburb of L.A. called Maywood. There he becomes a floorer, building houses around southern California. And, with the money he makes, he is the first one back to send his money back home. He's not the first kid to come to the United States. There are a couple others who kind of were first. But he's the first one to send money back home to build a house, the very symbol of his own humiliation, which is a shack, which is a leaky shack that, when I went and visited him the first time, he would not let me stay in his shack. He put me with another family who had a much nicer house, 'cause he was so humiliated by the rain, the lack of toilet, so on. Now what he does with the money that he earns up here is he sends it home and builds himself a two-story concrete house with plumbing, with two very nice bathrooms actually, a kitchen, a living room, and the largest -- he made sure that it had the largest windows in all of his town, 15 by five feet or something like that. He put smoked glass windows across them. They look like enormous sunglasses on the house.

José Cardenas:
So the building of the house is kind of the second story about Delfino?

Sam Quinones:
That's the third. The first is about Mexico City. The second is the trek through the desert. And the third, the final ending, the final story is about him being in the United States, building this house, and changing his village. People saw what was possible. He was kind of this daring kind of pioneer who came to the United States and said, I did it. How did he show -- what was the way he showed how he did it? He built the house back in the village. From there, 100 or so people from that village are now in the United States seeing his example.

José Cardenas:
Now, before that, though, you indicated there weren't that many who had left and yet one of the overarching themes in your book is what you call the "culture of the departed." Tell us about that.

Sam Quinones:
Culture of departure is what you see in the villages where emigration has been going on for a long time. I'm talking really about the states that are the major sending states in Mexico. Jalisco, Michoacán, in this order, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Oaxaca, and Zacatecas.

José Cardenas:
Far south.

Sam Quinones:
These are states where people have really been emigrating since the 40's and 50's, and again, picking up in the 1960's and 1970s, 1980's and so on. There's been a long, long history of people going to the United States. What they've done mainly with their money -- first of all, of course support their families. Send their money back to essentially feed their families, that's number one of course. Number two very quickly after that is to build houses. In these villages, enormous beautiful houses now stand. Now you have two-story homes, marble floors, satellite dishes, wrought iron patios, Jacuzzis. Beautiful development. Well, what's happened is that no one's going back to them, so Mexico is in this very surreal event. It's kind of filling with houses that eventually -- people think they will go back to at one point, but they never do. So what happens is people spend their whole lives building these houses and then finally, by the time they're finished, by the time they're in their 40's, they've been in the states, say, 20 years. They've got kids, maybe even grandchildren. They have -- they're used to the medical services or the shopping or whatever it is, and they no longer -- for whatever reason, they're no longer going back. One reason is essentially Mexico has not changed enough to be a country where they feel comfortable.

José Cardenas:
Some would suggest one reason they're not going back is because it's harder to go back.

Sam Quinones:
Not for these -- no, no, no. The villages where this is taking place, most of them are legal residents or citizens. Now, they've been emigrating since the 1960's.

José Cardenas:
Legal residents in the United States?

Sam Quinones:
Sure. In the United States.

José Cardenas:
Because the suggestion will be that the tightening up on the border made it harder to get back and forth.

Sam Quinones:
That's true for folks who are illegally here, but most of them are from newer areas of immigration. A lot of the folks -- and some folks in the states I mentioned. Not everybody is a legal resident, but the folks who have built up the houses and so on, really the reason they're not going back is that they simply -- you know -- you can't go home again. It's the whole theme. You can't go home again. You come to the United States. You change. You become somebody very different from the person you left.

José Cardenas:
And you have children and grandchildren.

Sam Quinones:
And they're not going back. And definitely also the wives definitely don't want -- a lot of the wives definitely don't want to go back, because they remember taking water from the well a mile away from the home and bringing it back. They're not interested in going back and reliving their childhood because it wasn't -- a number of wives have told me, "my husband kind of wants to. I'm not so clear on it." What happens is, because there is this constant -- there is a constant return. People do go back. But for a few weeks at a time. So what happens --

José Cardenas:
Festivals?

Sam Quinones:
For fiestas, weddings, sometimes just for a couple of weeks kind of like tourists. A lot of these villages have become tourist destinations for the people who left them as poor migrants, back say, 30 years ago. They use them as a place to come down and relax three weeks, four weeks, and that's it.

José Cardenas:
And to show their success.

Sam Quinones:
That's a big part of the house. So what happens is the people who come down from the states, they come here -- they come back down to Michoacán, say, and there they show the folks who remain behind, this is what you can do. Well, pretty soon everyone -- especially young kids, boys especially, they're growing up. They're about 15. All their lives, all they've heard about it how the world is in Phoenix or Dallas or Fresno or L.A. and the good jobs, the women, the cars, the adventures, the danger, all that, the gangs, all that kind of stuff. All of that is -- they want to kind of test themselves. So they're not leaving --

José Cardenas:
Not necessarily crushing poverty.

Sam Quinones:
No. They're not starving to death by any means. They're actually receiving lots of money. Those villages are actually pretty well off. But it's more of a culture now that people leave because everyone else has done it, and I want to do it, too. I just cannot live with myself. Who wants to be the only 16-year-old, when all his buddies get together, does not have a good story to tell back in the village.

José Cardenas:
Just a couple of more stories. One, the tomato king and his success in running for office.

Sam Quinones:
Andre is fascinating figure in Mexican immigration. A year after Vicente Fox won the election, he came back -- the presidency, he took kind of inspiration from that and also a few other things to go back to his home city of Herrez, a town in the state of Zacatecas. He had left there illegally. I mean, he had left their poor. He'd come here illegally in the back of a trunk the day after he got married. Come to an area near Sacramento, California. Over a period of many years, he'd become a very, very prosperous rancher and rightfully felt that he had something to teach the elites of Mexico. And so he went back to run for mayor. He was not the first one to do this, but he became the most celebrated because he had this sexy name called the "tomato king." They called him tomato king because he is a big tomato farmer. People didn't even know his name after a while. They just knew he was the tomato king. He comes down and runs this campaign that is -- whey loved about his story was not that he was Cesar Chavez or Mahatma Gandhi leading the great, the noble cause in the benefit of the migrant or whatever. He was a guy like anybody else. You know? A chubby womanizer, beer-drinking guy, very hoarse voice, talked like this a lot, and a guy who came down -- really whey wanted to do was what I think a lot of immigrants want to do, and it's a very normal, very natural thing, and that is show the people who ran him out of there, in his view, what he's able to do. You know? He wants to come down -- he told me very point blank, I'm an American. I think like an American. All my business ideas are all American. These people in Mexico don't get it. They don't understand. He said a famous thing. There's been a rock in the middle of the road for 25 years, and people just get used to it. Immigrant comes home and goes, why don't you just move the rock out of the road? This is kind of his story. He then met with a lot of problems because he was not technically a legal full-time resident.

José Cardenas:
But eventually he became the mayor. Right?

Sam Quinones:
The story in my book is about his first campaign in which he won and they annulled it because he had been found not to be a full-time resident for a year of Herrez, Zacatecas. He established residency, ran again, won, and now in the last election, in the last Mexican election in 2006, he won. He changed parties actually in the middle of this, common thing in Mexico. He became -- he ran for a federal congress, and now he's a congressman for Mexico, and I think he is the president of the immigration commission of the congress. Terrific story.

José Cardenas:
We've only got a few minutes left. Let's talk about the Mennonites.

Sam Quinones:
The Mennonites are the last story in my book, and they're the way I kind of leave Mexico. I was leaving Mexico, and it was my adios in a sense to Mexico. I went to the Mennonite colonies in northern Chihuahua because I'd heard a very surprising thing. To me, there were old colony Mennonites, farmers with straw hats.

José Cardenas:
German descent.

Sam Quinones:
Spoke very little Spanish, didn't marry outside of the clan, the race. Still blond hair, blue-eyed. The men spoke some Spanish. The women speak none. It was a very kind of cloistered economy but kind of with one foot in the new world and one in the old. Still had one-room schoolhouses, taught their kids the way their great-great-great-grandparents had in school houses. They were placing tremendous pressure economic, the way many peasant farmers are in Mexico, which is from drought and bad -- high credit and a variety of other things. They have had a real -- they've been really under pressure for a number of years for all this, and they've had three essential responses it seems to me, the old colony of folks that area. One is to emigrate illegally. They now are found in large numbers in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas. They're tremendous dairy farmers, a long history of it. The other is to turn o alcohol. Ravaging. It's horrible, alcoholism now, in this very old world pious biblical community. The third is to turn to drugs. A number have become addicted to cocaine and crack, and certain families have become big-time drug smugglers, the largest smugglers of marijuana into Canada are Mennonites from this area, Chihuahua, I'm told by a police officer.

José Cardenas:
Not the image you would have.

Sam Quinones: |
Hardy the image you would have from the quaint peasant from the 1850's with the bonnets and that kind of thing. They're fully involved in that, and a lot of farmers -- Mennonite farmers are feeling the pressures. They say, ok, 10 grand to take a load across of dope to El Paso. I'll do it 'cause I need the money.

José Cardenas:
They were part of the reason you left Mexico as quickly as you did?

Sam Quinones:
I went down there and asked the wrong questions of the wrong people, and the day I was leaving, I was actually leaving. They didn't need to do this to me. [Chuckling] but the day I was leaving, they began to follow me, and it was a terrifying experience because I really believed they were going to murder me, and they followed me with several different cars, ended up pulling up right up to me and taking lots of pictures.

José Cardenas:
Sam, real quickly. We've only got about 30 seconds left. What does this mean for immigration policy? I think what you've indicated is Mexico's got to change before this is going to work.

Sam Quinones:
Absolutely. We can change all we want, but this is a two-sided equation here, I think. After living 10 years in Mexico, after talking with people, immigrants and politicians, I think down there the one thing that we need to do up here is begin to pressure Mexico to start changing things that force people to leave and make that a country that people have to leave.

José Cardenas:
Sam Quinones of the Los Angeles Times, thanks for joining us on "Horizonte" and sharing these fascinating stories. Hope to have you back.

Sam Quinones:
I hope so, too. Thanks very much.

José Cardenas:
Thank you for joining us on this Thursday evening. From all of us at "Horizonte," good night.

Sam Quinones: Author;

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