Today the legacy of the Russians and Fuentes' cafe is hundreds of youths studying classical music, and dozens learning Puccini and Verdi, hoping for an opera career like that of Martinez.
She took lessons from Elena Vostriakova, a Moscow native who was one of the conservatory's premier voice coaches and who died in an auto accident in 2000.
Martinez first sang in Fuentes' cafe at 25. Now, she produces her own concerts around town to supplement her income and, twice a year, a recital for her 33 voice students. The one this particular evening she put on herself, charging $3.50.
The audience "was once just our families. Then it expanded to our aunts and uncles," she said. "Now, it's people you don't know but they know you."
It was 9:30 p.m., late and time to leave.
Before the crowd dispersed into a brisk Tijuana sea breeze, Martinez sang a final song.
"Te Quiero, Dijiste" ("I Love You, You Said") is the lament of a mother whose child died in her arms:
Sometimes I hear a divine echo
That borne on the breeze
Seems to say
I love you so
So, so, so much.
latimes.com /columnonePrevious Column One articles are available online.
Previous coverage of Mexico's drug war is available at latimes.com/siege.