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Mexicali has changed a lot in recent years. No longer sleepy, it now has clubs, bars, and restaurants that feature live music with sophisticated lighting systems, wide-screen TVs, and satellite dishes. The last official census here claimed a mere 700,000 residents, but residents claim that a more precise figure is somewhere closer to a million. My search for a local garage band began when I called up an old drinking buddy named Juan Corella.

Juan is now a partner in a local advertising agency, and he explained, “Mexicali is now the Seattle of Mexico in terms of music and new bands. A lot of new bands are starting here such as Vil Sahara (Desert Home), La Carta de Tío Don Lagarto (Uncle Lagarto’s Letter), and Nudos (Knots), to name just a few. The main difference between the nightlife down here and the nightlife up there is the square footage,” he said with a smirk as he tapped a half-smoked Marlboro into an already full ashtray.

I went out in search of a live band — a local group — that might want to talk about what they do to a nosy American who speaks Spanish with a funny accent. I found airy and spacious clubs like ¡No Que No! (whose name defies translation but is an expression used after completing a dare; translated loosely it means, “Thought you said I couldn’t!”). It had live music and plenty of elbow room, a refreshing change from the cramped sweatboxes in San Diego’s Gaslamp. Cover charge at ¡No Que No! is $5.00, and that includes two drinks. I chose Tecate beer. Your cover charge tickets are purchased through a small Judas window on the left corner of the building. And they offer valet parking. Inside, a barmaid who looks like Selena provides fast service and a sexy smile.

Unfortunately, there was no live band there that night, so I walked across Calle Benito Juárez to A La Jarra. A La Jarra features a unique beer promotion, its famous barra libre or free bar. You bring your own cup, mug, or stein, and they will fill it with beer for free between 8:00 and 11:00 p.m. There is also no cover charge after 11:00. This club is popular with young people and has a relaxed, unpretentious feel to it. The doorman at A La Jarra does not enforce a dress code, but you are frisked. It was at A La Jarra that I saw El Solsticio (Solstice), an appropriately named garage band making a go of it here in the Mexicali desert.

I talked to Alfonso Verdugo, 19, who plays a creamy-white Fender electric guitar. As we spoke, he pushed back his shoulder-length brown hair and pensively stroked his goatee. In front of A La Jarra, in the parking lot, Alfonso explained about Solstice.“We have been together three years, and we started playing on June 21, during the beginning of the summer solstice. We started out playing American covers, like Guns ’N’ Roses and other bands that were popular at the time. Initially we sang in English, because we thought that’s what people here wanted. Later we found that there was support for us to sing in Spanish, so we began translating popular songs.

“I have a love for music, and I have always enjoyed playing. I have never had formal lessons and don’t really care how many people watch us play. Right now we are looking for gigs here in Mexicali. We have played at Arragons here, and we do private parties. Luckily we are getting a lot of support here and encouragement from family and friends, thank God.”

His parents are divorced, and he has two younger sisters. He has been playing the guitar since he was 15.

In the fall he will be attending the University of Baja California in Mexicali and plans on earning a degree in communications.

“We have only had this drummer [Herman Hernandes] for about four months. The last one we had to get rid of because he was spending too much time with his girlfriend and not enough time in rehearsal.”

I pitched my next question over the sound of a blaring car horn, amid the exhaust fumes. I asked what their songs were about. He pushed back the rolled sleeves of his white loose-fitting shirt and said, “I try to convey with my music what I see and what I think is happening here and everywhere. Our songs are about real problems and social issues. We try to write about things that really happen to us so that others can better relate to us. If something good happens, then we will write something good. If something bad happens, then we will try to express what we see wrong, such as with a social issue like abortion or other things that have happened to us.” I asked more about this rock song that he composed on abortion.

“The song is called Déjalo vivir' ("Let It Live"), and is about something that happened to a cousin of mine. My cousin Victor was 19 and had a girlfriend of the same age. She accidentally got pregnant, and they were both really concerned. Fortunately there was enough resources from both families so that they could have married, and the three of them could have had a stable life. At first she agreed to marry Victor. One week later she had an abortion and married a well-known narcotics trafficker. Now she drives a brand-new car and has everything she wants. When my cousin explained it to me, he wrote it all down in a letter, and I took his letter and put it to music.”

  • "Déjalo vivir”
  • Mi sueño cayó
  • El jamás me conoció
  • Solo se formó
  • Pero nunca nació
  • No quiso sufrir
  • Sólo quiso vivir
  • y tu lo dejaste morir
  • Mi sueño voló
  • Mi sueño murió
  • Por que su madre lo
  • destruyó
  • Lo destruyó
  • Me causa daño pensar
  • Que el ya no regresará
  • Lo aplastaste, lo destrozaste
  • y te marchasted
  • Todo fué fácil
  • Tan fácil como escupirlo
  • de tu vientre
  • Matando de la manera
  • más cobarde
  • A quien no puede ni
  • siquiera defenderse.
  • Tus palabras son ladriodos
  • Tus hechos son basura
  • Y no puede matar el dolor
  • Por que su madre lo destruyó.
  • Y cuando veas los pedazos
  • del ser que antes vivía en ti
  • Verás tan solo un reflejo
  • de lo que nunca dejaste vivir.
  • “Let It Live”
  • My dream fell
  • He won’t ever know me
  • It formed by itself
  • But it was never born
  • It didn’t want to suffer
  • It just wanted to live
  • and you let it die
  • My dream flew away
  • My dream died
  • Because its mother
  • destroyed it
  • It hurts me to think
  • that he won’t be back
  • You smashed it, destroyed it
  • and you marched.
  • Everything was easy
  • Just as easy as spitting it
  • from your womb
  • killing in the most cow-
  • ardly way
  • Killing someone who can’t
  • even
  • defend itself.
  • Your words are bricks
  • Your acts are trash
  • and I can’t kill the pain
  • because its mother destroyed it.
  • And when you see the pieces
  • of the being that once lived in you
  • you will only see one reflection
  • of who you never let live.

“We write on many issues — government, corruption, drugs, and even divorce. The song about drugs is called ‘The Abyss,’ and it is about this guy who wastes his life on drugs.” I asked about the corruption song.“The song is called

‘Bien estar para su familia ’ (For the Well-Being of Your Family). It is a satire of government corruption and politics. We wrote it because we are fed up with the corruption here in México, and so are a lot of people. We also have a song about the nationalized television broadcaster Televisa we call ‘Camino al fin’ ["Road to the End"].

The other members of the band are also from Mexicali. Alejandro Soto, “La Piedra,” “the Rock,” plays bass; Herman Hernandes plays the drums, and Hector Hugo is the vocalist.

Alfonso describes their musical genre as heavy rock but not heavy metal. He compares his band stylistically to Pantera or Metallica but with Spanish lyrics and more melody. When I asked them what kind of music they listen to, each gave a different answer. Hector, the vocalist who is studying to be an electrical engineer at the Universidad Autonoma de Baja California, listens to Soundgarden and Pearl Jam. Alejandro the drummer listens to Kiss and Slayer. Alfonso on the Fender electric guitar — that he purchased here in San Diego at Guitar Center — listens to Cypress Hill and Suicidal Tendencies. They all met at the university through mutual friends.

They rehearse two or three times a week in a comfortable Los Piños residential area of Mexicali, one of the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. The light-colored homes with stained-glass windows here are surrounded by gates, walls, dogs, and occasionally guards. This is the neighborhood where local politicians and land-owning families reside. Outside these houses, the steady drum of cooling systems can be heard over the cicadas and the occasional barking of a dog.

While I spoke with Alfonso, I was struck by his confidence and lack of self-importance. He mentioned that they “just finished recording some demo tapes and are eager for a recording contract.” Plans for the future include trying to work out a deal to play at Mex Fest at Cal State-Northridge in December, but so far nothing has been finalized or signed. He said it was chilo, “cool,” that Americans were taking an interest in what is happening musically across the border. He was soon greeted by an entourage of friends going into A La Jarra and left the interview after shaking my hand again and saying goodbye.

During the summer, the sun beats down on Mexicali with a vengeance. I awoke Sunday morning, and it was 85 degrees before 9:00 in the morning. Watching the heat rise off the black asphalt and distort the air from inside my air-conditioned car, I wondered, while I waited to cross the border, how the kids selling chewing gum between the rows of cars could stand the heat.

The Chiclets kids with smudged cheeks played hide and-go-seek around the dusty cars waiting to cross the border in the impossible heat. They smiled and laughed, ducking around idling traffic as the cars slowly crept forward. It was finally my turn at the inspection point. I was waved through by a tired-looking guard. In my rear-view mirror I saw the Chiclets kids, and I thought of Alfonso’s song and considered all the possible meanings of “every child a wanted child.”

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