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October 5, 2007

Book Notes - Sam Quinones ("Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

One afternoon I heard Sam Quinones on NPR's All Things Considered, talking about his book, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration. As he shared stories of the immigrants profiled in the book, I sent him an e-mail inviting him to this series.

Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream consists of nine immigrant stories. Quinones chose a variety of subjects for the book, successes are profiled alongside failures, always with a degree of humanity and respect. At a time when the debate over immigration and immigrants rights in the United States is often soiled by political demagoguery, Quinones' personal depictions of the immigrants directly involved is refreshing, this book should be required reading for lawmakers everywhere.

The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review called the book "genuinely original work, what great fiction and nonfiction aspire to be, these are stories that stop time, and remind us how great reading is."

In his own words, here is Sam Quinones' Book Notes essay for his book, Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream:

Follow the Leader by The Soca Boys

I met Delfino Juarez – a main character in the book - in an open-air dancehall across from the Alameda Park in downtown Mexico City.

The dancehalls are for the thousands of kids who come from the rural villages in the states around the capital. The boys are construction workers; the girls maids. They send their money home each week to their families, who depend on their remittances as Mexico City depends on their labor.

They have only Sunday off. So cheap dancehalls have formed near the Alameda and the park has become an open-air Sunday afternoon singles scene for rural kids. Thousands of them descend on the park then for the few hours of fun they are allotted each week.

Delfino Juarez was one of them. By the time I met him, break dancing was the rage at the dancehall. Whenever the DJ played a set of techno-funk, the young construction workers would form a large circle and one by one try out their moves. Delfino was one of the best.

The DJ at the dancehall where I met Delfino also played Follow the Leader every Sunday. The song has a great hook and I can’t hear it without remembering the dancehalls near the Alameda.

You can see photos of the breakdancers at my website,

No Rompas Mas Mi Pobre Corazon by Caballo Dorado

This is the Spanish-language version of Billy Ray Cyrus’ syrupy country hit “Achy-Breaky Heart” of the early 1990s. The DJ at the dancehalls near the Alameda would also play it every Sunday and the kids would do line dances to it. It was a huge hit across rural Mexico when I lived there. I went to several fiestas where it was the hit of the party.

Nessun Dorma

This is one of opera’s greatest arias, with a spine-tingling climax. It is from Puccini’s opera Turandot, which is the favorite opera of Enrique Fuentes, the main character in my story about the emergence of opera in Tijuana.

Va Pensiero

A gorgeous lament, from Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco, sung by Israelites in exile in Babylonia.

I heard this late one night as I stood on 5th Street in Tijuana’s working-class Libertad neighborhood. I was outside Enrique Fuentes’ Café de la Opera, as a chorus rehearsed inside several days after the city’s opera company produced Pagliacci. I was looking for an ending to my story about Fuentes, his café and opera in Tijuana. As the chorus began to sing from the inside the café, the ending came to me, framed by the music. It seemed so beautiful and strange that this melodic lament would usher out onto the silent street of this ragged neighborhood, a hundred yards from the wall separating the two countries.

Researching the piece, I found, too, that it had an important place in opera, in Italian independence, and in Verdi’s life and death, which I detail in the book.

Suspicious Minds – Elvis Presley

One of my favorite tunes by Elvis Presley, who in turn was an iconic subject of hundreds of velvet painters in Tijuana and Juarez.

The velvet painting boom was fueled by the Henry Ford of the art – Doyle Harden, a Georgia farm boy who moved to Juarez and built an enormous velvet-painting factory. In his factory, painters sat in rows. Each painted one detail on a velvet – say a pine tree – then slid the canvas along to the next artist, who added something else – a snow-capped mountain or a sun.

Harden, and then his competitors, turned out thousands of velvet paintings every week and sold them across the United States and into Canada and Central America.

The velvet-painting boom involved mostly outcasts – working-class Mexicans, Palestinian refugees, Eskimos, Scientologists, immigrants, as well as Doyle Harden – before it faded in the mid-1980s. The boom, however, transformed the border.

All songs by Chalino Sanchez

Chalino Sanchez was a Mexican immigrant who became the most influential musical figure to emerge from Los Angeles in the last quarter century.

Sanchez sang narcocorridos, ballads about drug smugglers and pistoleros from his native region of Sinaloa, the birthplace of Mexican drug smuggling. He came north after murdering the man who raped his sister.

In Southern California, he developed a side business of writing corridos for money. The corridos he was paid to write were about folks who were drug smugglers, or who'd shot it out with federales in some small town.

He recorded them and little by little his fame grew, though he never had a recording contract and radio stations shunned him. Rather, he sold his music at swap meets, bakeries, butcher shops. He couldn't sing, but his stories in song kept people listening.

He was murdered in 1992 in Sinaloa. In death, his fame and musical influence reached stunning heights. Today, millions of Mexican-American kids have tuned into their parents' polka music because of him. A legion of Chalinillos has sprouted as well, many of whom grew up on the streets of Los Angeles.

He's on the cover of, and his story is told in, my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx.

She Bangs – Ricky Martin

I hung out for two months with a colony of transvestites in Mazatlan, as they prepared for the oldest drag-queen beauty contest in Mexico. That experience I turned into a story in my first book, True Tales From Another Mexico: the Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx (Univ. of New Mexico Press).

The pageant was run each year by Martha Caramello, a transsexual who ran a heterosexual club in the city’s red-light district. One night a year she opened the club to the queens, who were hookers in a club across the street and lived in a run-down apartment complex a block away. One night of them a year was all she could handle.

During the pageant, the queen candidates did a kind of can-can dance review to the Ricky Martin song, practicing it over and over for weeks before that. Whenever I hear the song, I think of them, remember their plucked eyebrows, haughty behavior, and the way they ached for love and endured the worst of men.

Again, you can see photos of them at my website,

El Corrido de Abram – Banda Joven

A corrido about the first Mennonite drug smuggler from northern Chihuahua arrested in Canada, this in 1988. He was then released on bail, and fled to Mexico and was later killed in a car accident.

The song highlights, though, the growing involvement of cloistered, German-speaking, Old World Mennonite communities in northern Mexico in both drug use and drug smuggling to the United States and Canada, which I detail in the last chapter in my book.

Old World Mennonites are believed to be the largest importers of marijuana into Canada. The largest drug bust in the history of the state of Oklahoma was dope from the Mennonites communities in Chihuahua.

Don’t look for the song. I bought one of the last of the records from a guy who knew the band.


When people risk everything to escape poverty for a shot at a better life, it is grist for breathtaking stories and fantastic music.

For almost 40 years, Los Tigres del Norte have created the best of it, combining music and stories into a series of terrific corridos, ballads, about immigration.

The band is as unknown to non-Mexican America as the immigrants to whom they sing. But the best Tigres songs gauge Mexican immigrant feeling better than any anthropologist.

The band has released several greatest-hits albums:

Siguen Los Zarpazos

Mas Zarpazos

Grandes Exitos de Los Tigres del Norte

Contrabando, Traicion y Robo

Here are five of their best songs about Mexican immigration, plus one album worth noting:

VIVAN LOS MOJADOS (Long Live The Wetbacks)

Recorded in 1976, it was the first Mexican pop music hit about illegal immigrants, most of whom at the time were farmworkers.

The song was the first to express how they saw their situation, and asked the question “when the wetback goes on strike, who will pick the onions, lettuce and beets?” In small towns across America, Los Tigres heard a roar go up every time they started the song and realized that undocumented farmworkers ached for songs that recognized them. Vivan los Mojados spawned a wave of jokey mojado songs by other bands in which the ingenious immigrant fools the bumbling Border Patrol.

LA JAULA DE ORO (The Gold Cage)

Years later, the immigrant has outwitted the Border Patrol. He finds himself imprisoned in his new country. He has all he needs, but is unhappy. He cannot go outside for fear of being deported. His children, meanwhile, reject being Mexican and don’t speak Spanish. In the middle of the song, his son, in English, says, “Whatcha talking about, Dad? I don’t want to go back to Mexico. No way.”

El OTRO MEXICO (The Other Mexico)

The Mexico in the United States. The song was a response to an attitude, common in Mexico for many years, that immigrants were betraying their country for leaving it to work in the United States. The song insists it is immigrants who keep Mexico alive.

”While the rich go abroad to hide their money and travel Europe,” the band sings, “the campesinos who came here illegally send almost all our money to those who remain back home.”

TRES VECES MOJADO (Three Times a Wetback)

The story of a Salvadoran immigrant who must cross three borders to get to the United States.

The band recorded it in 1988 amid the exodus of Central Americans to the U.S., gaining them a huge following there. One radio station in Guatemala has a daily Tigres del Norte hour.

The only unbelievable part of the song is when a Mexican gives the Salvadoran immigrant a hand along the way – an uncommon occurrence, according to many Central Americans.

JEFE DE JEFES (Boss of Bosses)

One of the few double albums in Mexican pop history, it was recorded in 1997. The title refers to a fictional drug boss and the album has several narco songs.

But the album was also a response to the anti-illegal immigrant feeling created by California’s Proposition 187, which would have denied various government services to illegal immigrants.

Three of the album’s best songs are about immigrants and their conflicted feelings toward Mexico and the United States. El Mojado Acaudalado (The Wealthy Wetback) is about an immigrant who’s made his money and, not feeling welcome in the United States, returns to Mexico. Mis Dos Patrias (My Two Countries) has an immigrant naturalizing as a U.S. citizen, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and protesting that he is not betraying Mexico, but simply protecting his pension in the country where his children were born. Finally, Ni Aqui Ni Alla (Neither Here Nor There) doubts that immigrants can find justice in either country.

Sam Quinones and Antonio's Gun and Delfino's Dream links:

the author's website
the book's page at the publisher
the author's MySpace page

Tucson Weekly review

the author's guest blogs at TPMCafe's Table for One
All Things Considered feature with the author
Daily Texan interview with the author
Fresh Air interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)

Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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