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Taps sound for mariachi mecca

Times Staff Writer

In almost 40 years at the same Wilshire Boulevard location, La Fonda de Los Camperos has been buffeted by social forces that would have sunk other businesses. Almost every decade, it seems, some catastrophe scared away customers from the Mexican restaurant, home to the concert-class Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano.

In the ‘80s, the business survived the infestation of gangs and drugs that drove people away from the area around MacArthur Park in the infamous Rampart police division. In the ‘90s, it survived the Rodney King riots that kept visitors away from Los Angeles as a whole. Then at the start of this decade, it survived the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 that temporarily halted the flow of international tourists who regularly frequented the restaurant, hungry to get a taste of local culture.

But about four years ago, Natividad Cano and his business were hit with a more direct challenge that turned out to be the final blow. It came in the form of an eviction notice tacked up on the restaurant’s heavy, hacienda-style doors.

The building at 2501 Wilshire Blvd. had been sold, and Cano and his Camperos were being unceremoniously kicked out -- violins, guitars, trumpets and all. La Fonda made a final stand, fighting the eviction in court. But after many sleepless nights and some $80,000 in legal fees, Cano has finally decided to walk away from the business he founded to bring honor and respect to the humble mariachi.

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“When I first opened La Fonda, people told me that I was crazy, that I wouldn’t last a year,” says Cano, 74, a native of the Mexican state of Jalisco, the cradle of mariachi music. “But I did it. I survived and Los Camperos went straight to the top. For me, it was never a matter of power or money. I just wanted to prove to the world that mariachi music could be rescued from mediocrity, from the cheap cantinas where we used to play for a dollar a song.

“People are willing to die for their beliefs and for what they feel,” he continues, “and what I feel is mariachi.”

On Oct. 28, Los Camperos will give their final performance in the restaurant that has been their home since 1969. Los Camperos, who are slated to perform Nov. 1 at UCLA’s Royce Hall, will continue to tour. And Cano vows to reopen in a new location, possibly downtown, within a year. Yet the closing of La Fonda marks the demise of a cultural landmark in Los Angeles, one that represents the striving of Mexican American culture for a worthy place in its adopted homeland.

I spoke to Cano this week at his restaurant, which still looks much as it did when he first moved in, replacing an Indian restaurant that had been destroyed in a fire. The place is showing its age, especially in the cold light of day before opening. The exposed brick columns, wrought-iron railings and arched windows lend an air of Old Mexico, but the design feels dated. The glass from the arched windows has been replaced by slabs of tile, an attempt made years ago to screen customers from the deteriorating scene on the streets outside, increasingly populated by derelicts and drug dealers.

But at showtime, the magic of mariachi lights up the place, with charismatic musicians in their traditional charro outfits arrayed in front of a painted mural serving as backdrop. The excitement and quality of the shows have drawn fans from far and wide, including my father, who would drive down from San Jose on vacation to catch what he considered the best mariachi outside of Mexico.

Cano, who is raising two school-age daughters from his third marriage, shows no sign of slowing down. He pulls out a picture of his girls from his wallet to explain what keeps him young at heart. And he quotes Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata to describe the fire that makes him keep fighting.

“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” he says, defiantly.

Yet he doesn’t try to disguise how hard the eviction ordeal has been. He waged the protracted legal battle to save his business even though some advisors told him to cut his losses and get out, since post-9/11 business was hurting. Cano wouldn’t have it. Besides, he figured, the neighborhood was finally coming back and so were the good times.

“It’s been horrible, just horrible,” he says of the battle with his new landlord. “I suffered a lot when the business went downhill, but I held on and held on. Now, when things are getting better, they kick me out.”

The dispute started about four years ago after the building was sold and the new owners challenged the validity of Cano’s lease. The landlord, identified in court documents only as 2501 Wilshire Associates, raised the rent and first sued in 2004, eventually demanding back rent of more than $125,000. In addition, says landlord attorney Pamela Mozer, Cano was ordered to soundproof the building because the mariachi music was disturbing new tenants who were staging theater productions upstairs.

J. Randall Faith, Cano’s longtime lawyer who successfully fought the eviction in court, says the lease was legally renewed before the building was sold. He says the owners were simply trying to force his client out because gentrification was driving up the value of property around the park, symbolized by the beautifully refurbished Park Plaza Hotel around the corner.

It was the value of the neighborhood that first attracted Cano to this location. He had been offered other sites in East L.A. and elsewhere, but this is where he wanted to be. Wilshire Boulevard had a cachet he associated with the Miracle Mile, which is actually further west.

The desire to take the mariachi uptown was rooted in a humiliating incident Cano experienced during a stop in Lubbock, Texas, in the 1960s. He was on tour with Miguel Aceves Mejia, one of the world’s great mariachi singers, when he was refused service at a local restaurant because, as the owner warned, “we don’t serve Mexicans.”

Cano gasps when he tells the story, as if the shock still takes his breath away.

That night, he recalls, he couldn’t sleep. But he promised a fellow musician: “I’m going to open a place where everybody can come: Americans, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italians. Everybody!”

The restaurant opened April 12, 1969, a debut doused when a pipe sprung a leak in the main dining room.

Cano’s concept called for showcasing the mariachi on a formal stage during fabulous dinner shows, an idea that has since been copied by competitors around Southern California. Los Camperos have been a training ground for many musicians, some splitting off to form their own bands. Although mariachi music makes up a declining share of the record business, a grass-roots movement has seen student groups, classes and festivals sprout up across the Southwest.

Cano eagerly shares newspaper clippings and program brochures from recent performances, from Fresno to Vancouver. Los Camperos took the mariachi to concert halls from New York to Tokyo, he says, and are now more in demand than ever. So why doesn’t he just retire? Hasn’t he accomplished enough?

Cano responds with a saying he is fond of quoting: “The road to success is always under construction. You never really arrive.”

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Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano with special guest Eugenia Leon perform at the Day of the Dead Celebration, 8 p.m., Nov. 1, at Royce Hall, UCLA. Tickets: $22-$38; $15 UCLA students. Call (310) 825-2101 or go to uclalive.org.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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