Singer/drummer Joe Serrano of Paradise Hills has been playing in local norteño bands for 46 years. He guesses there are close to 2000 "Mexican cowboy" bands in the Southern California/Tijuana region.
The huge number of bands "…drives the price down," says Serrano, leader of Rayo Norteño. "The club owners go for the band that charges the lowest."
Last week, the market got even tighter: pursuant to charges that arose after a bust in March, on November 13, the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control revoked the license of D'Elegantes, a 250-capacity restaurant/bar in Vista that was packed every weekend with fans of live norteño music. The ABC said the owner must transfer the bar's liquor license within six months.
Serrano was at D'Elegantes last March, when it was raided by agents from more than one government agency.
"The migra came in and asked me for my papers," says Serrano. "A lady from the IRS was there, asking me how I paid my band. Why should I carry papers with me? I'm an American citizen. It is racist and it is a slap in the face."
Bar manager Mike Meraz says, "They stormed in with guns out."
Sheriff's deputy James Smith confirms that the March raid was a "collaborative effort" involving the sheriff's department, immigration, customs enforcement, and the IRS. He says the raid resulted in a bartender being arrested for selling fake IDs.
On a recent Channel 6 news report, Smith said that the bar was a hotbed for "stabbings, shootings, robberies, prostitution, drugs." He said he has a page full of calls for service involving D'Elegantes. He connected a nearby prostitution arrest to the bar, saying it involved a "cross-dresser who would take clients across the street to a church parking lot."
Meraz says his bar has retained legal representation and will fight the charges alleged by Deputy Smith on Channel 6.
"I have been there for four years," says Meraz, "and I say for them to show me any arrests or citations for under-age drinking or drug use."
ABC administrator Robin Van Dyke says that some of her staff went undercover and went into the bar to observe the sale of drugs but that "no cases were made" and no charges were filed.
Meraz admits that his bartender was selling fake IDs. She lost her job, he says.