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Essential California: 20 years of ‘True Tales From Another Mexico’

The book cover of "True Tales from Another Mexico"
A first-edition hardcover of “True Tales from Another Mexico” by Sam Quinones.
(Gustavo Arellano / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, July 9. I’m Gustavo Arellano, writing from Anaheim.

The vast majority of books published by university presses are important, stultifying works. Trust me: As someone who reads them religiously, you can only take so much subaltern this and praxis that and a blizzard of citations before your brain checks out and starts to dream of reading something easier.

Like the Summa Theologica.

That’s what makes “True Tales From Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx” by Sam Quinones such an extraordinary tome. The vast majority of books published by university presses come and quickly get forgotten, yet Quinones’ book — published 20 years ago this August by the University of New Mexico Press — continues to sell. It’s the best type of nonfiction book: one that captures a moment in time yet remains as relevant as ever.

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“True Tales From Another Mexico” is an anthology of stories about the country that Quinones published during the 1990s as a freelancer set on digging tired stereotypes to find its “true” side. But rather than exoticize what he found, Quinones reported on his subjects as who they were. Each tale showed a vibrant people ambling for something bigger at a time when the American press — much like today — still focused its Mexico coverage too much on government corruption, immigration to the United States and drug lords.

“This book would fail were its tales bizarre for bizarre’s sake,” Quinones wrote in his introduction. “It seems to me that in a country with an arid officialist culture like Mexico, precisely on the edges is where some telling truths can be found.”

He showcased stories now very much a part of mainstream Mexican culture in the United States — the narco folk saint Jesus Malverde, the preponderance of La Michoacana ice cream shops, the mass killings of women in Juarez — but that were revelations when they originally appeared in American publications. Since Mexico is so intertwined with Los Angeles, there are many L.A. ties in his chapters, making “True Tales From Another Mexico” one of the best books to ever capture Mexican life in Los Angeles.

Two in particular stand out as masterful glimpses into Angeleno life.

One, “Zeus and the Oaxaca Hoops” unspools the story of L.A.’s massive Zapotec community through its favorite sport — basketball. We get snapshots of Guelaguetza before it became the restaurant legend it is today, of Koreatown and Mid-City as the neighborhoods were turning into Oaxacalifornia, and of Southern California’s mighty Oaxacan hoop leagues, which continue to this day. Other newspapers and magazines — including The Times — published articles about the phenomenon before and since Quinones, but none reached his multilayered approach, complete with an anecdote about a 1,300-pound bull named Trueno (Thunder) that a team won as a tournament prize.

Even better is “The Ballad of Chalino Sanchez,” the first-ever English-language treatise on the late corrido singer. Sanchez revolutionized Mexican music forever from the Mexican nightclubs of southeast Los Angeles — but no local English-language publication bothered with his full saga until Quinones wrote about it for LA Weekly in 1998.

I still remember picking up a copy at the old Tower Records in Buena Park, blown away by how well Quinones captured Mexican culture in Southern California during the 1990s, and wondering how an outsider got it.

The beauty of the Oaxaca hoops and Chalino Sanchez pieces, besides remaining great reads, is that they captured Mexican life in Southern California as it was and is: not a monolith, but a federation of regional identities simultaneously changing the U.S. and being changed by it. The subtleties of Quinones’ reporting have inspired many Latino writers across the United States since — including yours truly.

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Quinones went on to publish another anthology on Mexican migration before working at the L.A. Times for too brief a period. He’s now more famous for his work on the opioid crisis in the United States — his last book, “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” won the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, and another book on the subject is scheduled for this fall.

But Quinones still has his pulse on Latino L.A. In a recent appearance on Beto Duran’s “Living the Dream” podcast, Quinones revealed he’s working on a book about the preponderance of Virgin of Guadalupe murals in the Southland.

Hey, San Diego State University Press — try to get in on that action.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

L.A. STORIES

Coronavirus cases in California rise for first time in months as the Delta variant spreads: Though overall numbers remain small, weekly coronavirus cases in L.A. County have tripled and COVID-19 hospitalizations have jumped by 40% since recent lows. Los Angeles Times

COVID-19 ravaged L.A. restaurants. Will permanent outdoor dining help save them? Parklets and patios to the rescue ... maybe. Los Angeles Times

Hollywood is known for comebacks. Now the neighborhood is working on its own: Because the only entrepreneurs who are rebounding shouldn’t be just unlicensed Mickey Mouses and Freddy Kruegers. Los Angeles Times

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Block by block, tent by tent, city crews remove homeless campers from Venice Beach: No sightings of L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva in a Ranger Rick hat this time around. Los Angeles Times

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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

Gov. Gavin Newsom asks all Californians to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15% amid the drought: Pro tip: Three 5-gallon buckets in your shower will gather most of the water that rinses off of you during a five-minute shower. Perfect for the garden! Los Angeles Times

Column: Republican Kevin Faulconer tries to run his recall campaign as a policy wonk: That still isn’t own-the-libs enough for the GOP grassroots. Los Angeles Times

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Inside one city’s multimillion-dollar effort to convert motels into affordable housing: Shoutout to the story’s author, Melissa Montalvo. She’s already doing great stories in the Central Valley just a month after getting an A in my Orange Coast College journalism class. #respect Cal Matters

CRIME AND COURTS

California Proud Boys use secretive network to promote ‘their white supremacist agenda’ — and go largely unscathed: The first in a promised three-part series focuses on the Central Valley. Raw Story

In Los Angeles, taking on tagging hits new heights: Graffiti abatement is soaring, in part because more crews are on the streets. Crosstown LA

Will the wheels stay on a moratorium protecting 10,000 street vendors? Just when Los Angeles is getting back on its feet, struggling vendors have fresh reason to worry. Capital & Main

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

Intense heat wave arrives: Expect dangerous temperatures for days: Drink lots of water, conserve electricity, and try to summon the spirit of Charles Hatfield or something. Los Angeles Times

A series of earthquakes shook Northern California and Western Nevada on Thursday afternoon: Largest one was 5.9 — do you have your kit? Los Angeles Times

‘Being a COVID long hauler has taught me to be fearless, push back and take lots of notes’: L.A. Times data reporter Sandhya Kambhampati writes about her journey in this first-person essay. Los Angeles Times

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CALIFORNIA CULTURE

The archive of the most prolific Black Southern Californian architect finds a home: The papers of Paul Revere Williams — who built homes for Hollywood stars and affordable communities alike — were jointly acquired by the University of Southern California School of Architecture and the Getty Research Institute. Hyperallergic

The L.A. Taco guide to the best mango sticky rice in Los Angeles, mapped: From Sherman Oaks to East Hollywood (and Thai Town, of course), dig in to one of Southern California’s most underrated summer joys. L.A. Taco

Take a trip to NorCal to canoe in one of the ‘rarest vessels in the world’: The Yurok tribe offers river tours in their ancestral vessels. Los Angeles Times

people in two canoes
Yurok guides Zechariah Gabel, front, Sammy Gensaw, right, and Jon Luke Gensaw, left, take visitors on a two-hour tour of the Klamath River.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

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Shohei Ohtani isn’t Babe Ruth — he’s better: Meanwhile, the Angels he plays for are just over .500. Sports Illustrated

Anaheim Public Library is here for you: The biblioteca where I spent most of my childhood gets named Library of the Year by Library Journal for its community programming in the face of COVID-19. Library Journal

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny, 86. San Diego: Mostly sunny, 78. San Francisco: Sunny, 71. San Jose: Sunny, 90. Fresno: Sunny, 112. Sacramento: Sunny, 107.

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AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Beatrice Rolon-Cahill:

I was born (1933) and raised in the heart of Los Angeles by parents born in Mexico but who embraced both Mexican and American culture in our home. The late 1940s/early 1950s Los Angeles scene was, in a word, “jumping.” Downtown L.A. was alive with crowds heading to Woolworths for club sandwiches and ice cream, the Tower Theatre to see newsreels, the Paramount Theatre to watch a movie and performances by Lionel Hampton and a young Sammy Davis Jr. and his uncles dancing onstage, Westlake Park boat rides, the Olympic Auditorium jazz sessions after hours, the luxurious Red Car to Long Beach and Venice. It was an amazing time to live in Los Angeles!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.


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