When Ginny Silva began her singing career, Tijuana’s Avenida Revolución was infamous, a raunchy place of strip clubs, where hookers and drug pushers worked in the open and where we young fellows went if we meant to get blasted and cut loose, or, if horny and shy, we preferred fantasy over real live girls. If we hoped to meet a companion who didn’t charge for her sweetness, yet probably hadn’t taken a vow of chastity — or else she wouldn’t go to Tijuana — we’d choose one of the dance clubs. Usually Mike’s Bar.
I remember Mike’s as flashing strobe lights, sparkling outfits, sharp-dressing Mexican guys hitting on the gringas, who, in those days at least, were considered easier targets than non-pro mexicanas.`
Marriage lured me away from Avenida Revolución. Thirty-some years passed between my youthful visits to Tijuana nightclubs and the one I made to watch Ginny Silva.
On the way, I worried about writing her story, as I suspected the most dramatic part would be her stay in Tijuana’s La Mesa prison. Suppose she wanted to talk only about her musical comeback after 14 years offstage and asked me to leave out the criminal stuff? Then what would I write — a publicity whitewash or a ruthless exposé of somebody who, on the phone, seemed humble and kind and who was trying to revive a sidelined career? I’m no PR person or hard-nosed investigative journalist but a novelist with an affinity for anybody attempting a comeback.
Como Que No!, near the Plaza Financiera in Tijuana’s river district, is a clean, friendly restaurant and dance club. Most or all of the customers besides us were Mexicans, but Ginny and her band sang every number in English. She opened with a Carole King song, followed it with “Hello Stranger,” which had me sighing with nostalgia that the dreaminess of Ginny’s voice inspired. Then “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Gladys Knight might’ve chafed with envy at the way Ginny’s voice, rich and a little throaty, shifted without a hitch into an upper range.
A few days later, I went to her home, a small place, cottage-size, on a commercial street a couple of blocks toward the border from the north end of Avenida Revolución. Though the neighborhood appeared quiet enough, she’d moved the front door because the old one opened onto a loitering place for drug addicts. In the patio between her house and the sidewalk, her daughter Dulce cooked and sold hamburgers and teriyaki chicken burgers off a vendor’s cart she had bought recently and meant to take to a better location once she could afford a vendor’s license.
Ginny’s son Omar, a CD player hooked to his belt and an earphone in place, and her younger daughter Cristina passed back and forth from the kitchen to outside while Ginny and I sat in the living room next to the stereo. I asked for her story, from the beginning.
“Okay. Nineteen sixty-three, at the end of the year — I remember because it was when the Beatles came out on record — I started in a group named the Nightowls. But after a little while I sang with a different group on Sunday afternoons, at a place at the Playas called Taurino, and from there we went to play at parties. And then I became famous overnight.”
A shy laugh, and she said, “I worked on Revolution Avenue at two places before I went to Mike’s Bar. Mike’s was the best place on Revolution. I opened at Mike’s around 30 years ago, and I played there about 9 years. And we played at parties and went on tour down south, to Mazatlán and to a lot of places. At that time, I was with a group called the Stukas, and we were very popular. With the Stukas we spent so much time traveling, the guys in the band took their families with them. We had a big truck, like a stake bed, we had all the luggage and even a washing machine. I took a picture, in Cancún, and the guitar player is sitting on top of the luggage. We were on tour, coming and going, for five years, in the ’70s.”
“Did you make any records?”
“No. Today a lot of people are looking for new talent. Back then, they preferred music from other countries. I always sang in English, and for records in English they had all the groups from the States and England. I did make some recordings and signed the contracts, but the records never came out. The record people in Mexico preferred beautiful singers — I mean singers who look good on the stage; they have beautiful shapes and faces. They preferred the girls who would come out with different kinds of clothes than I wore. I never liked to dress like they dress now, almost naked. The shortest thing I wore was hot pants, but even that was too much for me. I didn’t feel comfortable.
“My style was always soul. When I first started, I used to sing Connie Francis, Brenda Lee…and one night the guitar player gave me a record of Ike and Tina Turner, ‘A Fool in Love.’ He goes, ‘Here, learn this song.’ It was like screaming, and it took me a long time to get the feeling of that song. And then I started to get into Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Dionne Warwick.
“In my time, there were no girl singers in the clubs. There were a lot of good groups that used to play Beatles songs and songs from all the English groups and Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago, but nothing by girl singers. In Tijuana, I was the only one. People still remember me as the best singer of that time, maybe because there weren’t any other girl singers, and I brought a different style, and every time they hear a soul song or rhythm and blues, they think, ‘Ginny used to sing that.’ Now they see me and think, ‘She still sings the same.’ The people that come to Como Que No!, they’re the same ones that used to see me in Mike’s, or at the Odyssey, where I used to play with another group, called Bandolero, in the ’80s.
“Most of the musicians from my time are living in the States now, in San Diego, or playing in Las Vegas or L.A.”
“Like Carlos Santana.”
“I never met him,” she said, “but he used to play on Revolution at the same time, I think at the Convoy Club. He didn’t play there very long. He did good when he crossed the border. That was the best thing he could’ve done.
“I got my chance. The opportunity came to me, and I didn’t take it. It was in New Mike’s. Some people from Motown came and heard me sing, and they wanted to take me. I was around 25 and very insecure and afraid to go by myself. I wanted to take the group, and they said, ‘No, we want you only,’ and I said, ‘No thanks, then.’
“The other singer in our group, the guy singer, he told me, ‘You’re so dumb, Ginny, you should’ve gone. It was your opportunity.’ And I didn’t take it. So I always say, ‘Opportunity knocks once and never comes back.’ But I think God lets things happen for a reason.
“I worked in groups, in nightclubs, for 25 years or more, and a lot of the musicians were drug addicts. At that time, in Tijuana, it was easy to get any drug. Marijuana, acid, heroin, cocaine, and all the kinds of pills. Now, the police are always around and looking for people selling stuff. But not so much back then.
“All these drugs and users, but I didn’t do any of that. I didn’t even drink. Then, you know, something happened and I started to do cocaine because I wanted to help my kids’ father.” A smile colored with irony, and she said, “I wanted to understand why he didn’t stop using it. To help him, I thought I had to understand. But I liked it. Then I was stealing from him and he didn’t know. I used cocaine only when I worked, because I danced a lot, and it was easier to dance all night on cocaine, and I started losing weight. Everything was okay until he told me he had an affair.
“We talked about it, and I thought we could fix our problems till he told me something intimate that really hurt. And that’s when I started abusing the drugs. And I wanted to die.
“At work, people noticed that I was drinking, but they never talked to me — nobody said anything — and I felt so lonely. I would drink and abuse cocaine and scream at God to take me away because I didn’t want to suffer anymore. I used to cry a lot, and I would hear a voice inside me, like when someone’s in pain, like a lament, real loud, and I would think that if someone was standing beside me, they could hear, the voice was so loud. And I felt that nobody cared for me or if I lived or died, and nobody cared how much I was paid. ‘I’m a good singer,’ I thought, ‘and they’re not paying me as much as I’m worth,’ even though I was the best paid of any of the musicians in the Tijuana clubs. At the Odyssey I was making $300 a week, and that was a lot of money then, before my son Omar was born, and he’s 20. But still I was complaining.
“I think God hears when we call Him, even if we scream at Him and complain. He knows. And He had to do something that I guess He didn’t want to, but He had to. He let me get arrested. That was the only way to separate me from everything, because I would tell myself, ‘I’m not going to do these drugs anymore,’ but I didn’t quit. And what else happened to me, if I would shake my head, I felt everything inside my head move. My brain, I believed my brain was shaking around in there.
“And my memory was all messed up. I was miserable, and I asked God to take me away, and I guess that’s what He did. Like when you send a drug addict to a place where he’s going to get better. That’s what He did. He sent me to prison.
“What happened, I was selling too, and they set me up. A guy that used to buy from me, he got caught, so the police had him set up the drummer in our group. See, the drummer used to take the cocaine to the guy, and the police marked some bills and they came back to me. But the drummer didn’t know. He was in prison with me.”
“Did they want you to set up the people you bought from?” I asked and hoped it wasn’t too indelicate a question.
“Sure,” she said. “But I didn’t tell them anything. So I thought they were going to beat me up very badly because they didn’t believe my story, and I didn’t believe it myself. They knew I was lying.
“I used to pray to Jesus Christ, when I was selling drugs. Even though I didn’t know anything about Him, I would make a prayer we call Justo Juez, the Just Judge. I prayed for the Just Judge to protect me so I wouldn’t get caught. And when I was in the police station with the federales, and I wanted to kill myself, more than ever I wanted to die because I didn’t want to go to prison and I was scared that the federales would beat me up, because they did a lot of things to the people there. I prayed hard, with all my heart. I asked the Just Judge, ‘Don’t let them beat me up.’ And after I said that prayer, I didn’t want to kill myself anymore.
“The next day, they took me into a room and they covered my eyes and wrapped my wrists behind my back and they hit me on the ears, about three times, but not really hard. A policewoman, she took the blindfold and the ties on my wrists off. She was the one that hit me, but she didn’t hit me that hard, because she knew me, from seeing me sing. She didn’t hit me that hard, but it messed up my ear. My hearing still isn’t so good in that ear, and it hurts sometimes, like if you put a nail in there. But when she took the blindfold and the wrist things off, she said, ‘Ay, Ginny, I can’t believe it. I can’t believe you did this.’ Because I was a known person and because God wouldn’t let them, they didn’t hurt me badly.
“The lawyer said I would get out in a year, and when the trial came, I was a year in jail already, so he said, ‘They’re going to sentence you to one year and let you go because you already served it.’ But they sentenced me to ten years for less than an ounce.
“When I was sentenced to so long, I saw my man, my kids’ father. The way he looked, I think he lost hope. I guess he heard ‘ten years’ like I did. ‘Ten years,’ I thought. ‘Ten years to live in that prison. I’m never going to get out. I’m going to be so much older then.’
“If you get sentenced here for ten years, you have to be in prison at least for six years and eight months. I thought I would get sentenced to a year and they sentenced me to ten years. I was very angry for that, and more angry because the guy who got caught, the one that helped the police set up the drummer and me, they told me he was free. Then I felt like the world fell on me.
“In prison you lose your freedom and you feel impotent, and they always remind you where you are and who you are. You’re a prisoner, and they treat you all the same, the really bad people and the better ones — except, if you have money, you can get what you want. If you don’t have money, you’re nothing.
“Where they put me, there were bunks, one on top of the other, six bunks, so 12 women in the room. And you need somebody to give you food. If people don’t have anybody — no family — the Christians come and feed them, but only once a week, and they give out clothes and shoes.
“My youngest daughter was there with me. She lived in prison with me starting when she was almost four years old. Not in that room with all the women. They sent us to the men’s section, to a building like a hotel. It has small rooms they call carracas. I was there with another girl, and Cristina was there with me.
“When I wanted to watch TV or sleep or hear the radio, I used to hate the Christians because they would be outside singing and praising God, and I used to get really mad because I couldn’t hear the TV or whatever. They tried to get me into another religion — not Catholic, I mean — but I never felt like going. Not because I was Catholic. I wasn’t ever a good Catholic. I never practiced my religion, never went to church since I was little. My mother was Catholic, but she was married by the church and then separated from my father, and she used to tell me that she wasn’t allowed to go into the church because she was separated from my father.
“When people aren’t instructed in God’s things, they make a lot of excuses; they use anything as an excuse not to go to church and hear things that they don’t want to hear. If they hear something bad about a priest or whatever…that was what happened to me; I used those things as an excuse not to go to church.
“A woman comes into the prison — it’s her ministry — she goes there and preaches and makes prayer groups, and she was starting one. Already she had two leaders, and they invited me. But I never went. Because I didn’t want to hear. I used to spend all my time crying and reading my future with tarot cards. And I would be on the phone all the time asking my kids’ father for money, and when he came we had big fights and I wanted to kill him.
“I used to say, ‘When I go out, I’m going to sell big. I’m not going to use anymore, but I’m going to go to an espiritista,’ an occultist, one of these people that do things to take the bad luck from you. It seems like a good thing, but it’s bad, like a Satanic thing. But that’s what I used to say. ‘When I get out, I’m going to go to the espiritista and let them do a limpia, a cleansing, and I’m going to sell big and make big money and make up for all the time they made me waste in here.’ For revenge. Because they put me in there for ten years, so long.
“You know, at the prison they allow conjugal visits. And when the Christians in the prison talked to me about the commandment ‘Don’t commit adultery,’ I didn’t feel anything. I didn’t think of my relationship with my kids’ father as adultery.
“In the prison, Father Vitorio, he was from the Misioneras de la Caridad, the order of Mother Teresa. When I met him he was just ordained and he came to the prison and did the masses on Sundays, and I would go to him and confess. Every month I would have to tell Father Vitorio, ‘I sinned again.’ And after a while, he told me, ‘I can’t absolve you, because you have to make a decision.’
“He said I had to get married or quit my adultery. And I thought, ‘How am I going to eat in here?’ How was I going to do without what my kids’ father did for me? He used to give me, like, a hundred dollars a week. He was selling drugs, that’s why he had the money. When I told him that I went to confession, he asked, ‘What happened?’ So I told him I wanted to get married and he said, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ll just go on like we’re doing and when you get out we’ll get married.’ Just lies.
“And then when he came for another conjugal visit, I had all these images on the walls of my room and I could feel them watching me. And I couldn’t do it.” Ginny laughed. “I wanted to get married, because when I started doing God’s things, I wanted to get married by the church. I didn’t want to sin anymore. I wanted to start over, being good. But he said, ‘No, when you get out, we’ll get married on the outside,’ and I said, ‘No. Here.’ And he didn’t want to. Now I’m glad he didn’t.
“What happened in prison, first one of the other women, a prisoner, she invited me to pray the rosary. So my conversion started with the rosary.”
As I’d never been Catholic, I asked how the rosary worked.
“What we do first,” she said, “is pray for the people, for the needs of the world, for the sinners, so they get converted, for the poor, so they have ways to eat or get a job. For the sick, for the people who don’t have anybody. You make the petitions at first, then you say a Holy Father and then ten Hail Marys. And you say a Glory to God, and then you say the Misterio, the mystery, and it depends on the day. One day we’re living Jesus’ conception, and then when Mary goes to Elizabeth and tells her the news, and then when Jesus is born, and then when He is presented at the temple, and then when His parents can’t find Him and He is in the temple teaching. That’s five mysteries. And next is when Jesus is at the Mount of Olives, and another is when He is whipped, and next is His crown of thorns, and another is when He’s carrying His cross, and the other is when He is crucified. The last five mysteries are the Gloriosos, and they start when He is resurrected, and the next is His ascension, and the third is the Holy Spirit, when it came. The fourth is when the angels took Mary in body and soul to heaven, and the last is when she was crowned Queen of Heaven and Earth. That’s 15 Misterios.
“This woman who comes to the prison, she told me that I was the first converted woman in the 14 years that she’d been serving there. But she never gets discouraged. Every week she goes. And she went for me to a lawyer in Mexicali. I already was four years in there. And the judge in Mexicali said, ‘Why is she in prison?’ Because there wasn’t enough evidence for me to be in there. And he ordered the other judge to sentence me again and give me my freedom immediately. That’s when I finally knew it was God who was keeping me there in prison, because He wanted me to meet Him. And at the right time, He gave me my freedom. This is a miracle, because when I was ready to go out, He gave me my freedom. I was already in there four years, and by that time, I was ready to go.
“Mary is like my mother. I can call her and she comes. I can feel her. I can almost see her, even though I can’t really see her because I’m a sinner, you know. But I can feel her all the time.
“See, Mary had a lot to do with my conversion, so I pray with her. I don’t pray to her, because we don’t pray to her, we pray with her. For her intentions. Her intentions are our intentions, yours and mine. So when we say, ‘We offer this rosary to you for your intentions of your immaculate heart,’ that means we’re in her heart too, even if we don’t care for her. A lot of people don’t understand her because they haven’t discovered her in the Bible. She’s there. She was left at the foot of the cross as our mother. When Jesus tells John that she’s his mother, John represents humanity, all of us. She was not a sinner at all. She was created to be God’s mother.
“Now I belong to Comunidad Alianza. We are evangelists and we serve wherever there is a need. We’ve gone to Santa Rosalía and many places in Baja, to L.A. a few times, San Diego. Right now, I don’t have a visa — I can’t go to the States — and I don’t have much time to go anymore because of my work, my singing.
“The way my life has changed, it’s a miracle. Before I met Jesus, I thought I was happy, except when things were going bad and I was depressed, you know. But you have a false vision of life when you don’t know anything about God. When you start getting into the knowledge of God, you change your way of thinking. You start realizing that your life wasn’t good before, not at all, that you had a false conception of things. So when God starts revealing Himself to us, our eyes are open and we start seeing things that were really wrong.
“Some people think the Bible is just a book to teach us how to live well, but it’s not. It’s God’s word. And God’s word is Jesus Christ. It’s a person. It’s not a book, it’s a person. See, ‘In the beginning was the word,’ God’s word, and God’s word was Jesus, from the beginning. And everything was made from Him, through Him. When God speaks, that’s Jesus. So the Bible is Jesus.
“A lot of people in the church, when I say I’m singing again, they make an expression that says they don’t approve, and at first I felt bad because they think that I’m going the wrong way. But singing for me is a gift I was born with. And for a long time, 13 years, I didn’t want to sing at all anymore, because I was afraid I would go back to the same things. Maybe I would fall into temptation.
“Before I decided to go back and sing professionally, I prayed a lot, and I got really confused, but then I said, ‘Lord, confusion doesn’t come from You. Give me a light, show me the way.’ Because it took me a long time to decide, and I felt like singing was the right thing for me, but later I felt like it was wrong. But when I wasn’t singing, I was just getting by. Every time God would give me money, it would be to pay the bills. Exactly what I needed, no more. I said, ‘Lord, I want to live by Your divine covenant, but everything costs. And I’m a singer, that’s my gift.’ ”
She looked as if she’d run out of story, but I wanted more. “Do you think about God when you sing?” I asked.
“Yeah, when I sing ‘You Needed Me,’ it goes, ‘I cried a tear, you wiped it dry. I was confused, you cleared my mind,’ and when I sing that, I think about God and try to hold that thought in my heart. But I have a lot of distraction there in the nightclub.
“One song I think He gave me for a message. ‘Sweet Love,’ by Anita Baker. A part of it goes, ‘Sweet love, hear me calling out your name, I feel no shame, I’m in love. Sweet love, don’t you ever go away, it’ll always be this way.’ When I first sang that, I felt like my heart was getting very hot, even before I thought about the words. My heart getting hot made me pay attention.”
About my affinity for comebacks, at my last high school reunion, I heard dozens of remarks like “It’s been a good life,” and while fleeing that place I wanted to yell, “Hey, we’ve got another 30 or 40 good years maybe.” Some of us aren’t willing to fade out. And why should we be? Business people get shrewder as they age, painters gain more experience with color and perspective, writers know more weird characters they can draw from. Crafty pitchers trade their velocity for knucklers and spitballs. A friend of mine who grew up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation says the ball teams of old fellows always beat the younger teams because the old guys know how to cast spells over their opponents.
So I wanted still more about Ginny’s comeback, and I asked, “What was the hardest part of starting over?”
“Well, the singing was hard at first because my vocal cords were cold. I didn’t use them for so long. With Comunidad Alianza, I sing Christian songs, and I made three tapes, but they’re not like singing ‘Lady Marmalade’ or ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ or ‘Hard for the Money.’ ”
“Your vocal cords must’ve warmed up,” I said. “You make those riffs seem so easy, especially jumping from down deep to up high. How do you do that?”
An impish smile, and she said, “Last Friday, the night you came, the keyboard player told me, ‘Hey, you sound really good tonight, huh.’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, I warmed up,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but you know, when you do the falsetto, you can’t hear the change.’ I said, ‘It’s a trick.’
“And it was a little hard for me to start singing again, because a lot of people knew I was going to come back, and when we started to rehearse ‘I Will Survive,’ I couldn’t phrase right and I got panicked. I thought maybe I couldn’t sing anymore, but I kept trying.
“One of the things I have learned from the Bible is that you have to be a yes or a no; you can’t be in the middle. I can’t be doubtful. I can’t have second thoughts. Because there are other people involved. The guys in my band, none of them are Christians, but they are good guys. Only the guitar player was with me before, in Rosarito. That’s where I was playing when we got arrested, at the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
“And when I told people I was going to sing worldly music again, it made me sad to see the expressions of the ones that don’t like the idea that I’m working. Maybe they think that I’m going to leave the comunidad, but I’m not. And some of them are happy for me. They say, ‘That’s great. Go on and sing. And even if you don’t talk about God or sing about Him, when you are finished you can say “God bless you.” And with that, you give your testimony.’ And when people come to me at Como Que No! and they say, ‘Well, I’ll see you; bye, Ginny,’ I say, ‘Yeah, and God bless you,’ and they say, ‘What? Oh yeah, you too.’ I always say ‘God bless you.’ At first I couldn’t say it, but I got used to it and now I feel good saying it. Because when people say ‘God bless you’ and they’re sincere, a blessing comes.
“In the Bible, John says, ‘You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.’ And I met the truth, because the truth is a person. I met Him and He made me free.
“I wasn’t free ever until I met Him. I was tied up, like in chains, by a lot of things. Because I was very insecure. I never talked on the microphone, and if I ever did I had to study and memorize every word, and if I forgot one word, I would go blank. Now, when I go and serve with the comunidad, I take a tape for background and I sing, and I can talk freely.
“Some people won’t believe this, but when you have an encounter with Jesus, you fall in love with Him. I don’t have a husband or boyfriend. I don’t need one, and it’s been like this for a lot of years.
“I hope when musicians that remember me read this article that they come to see me and to talk with me. I’m not going to talk to them about God. I want them to see what He has made in me and to know that He can make them into something good if they let Him. Because He loves us all and He doesn’t want us to get lost, and everything’s possible with Him.
“And I want to give glory to God, because He’s responsible for you being here. I feel flattered because I never thought that anybody from the Reader would be interested in me — it never even crossed my mind — and I know that Jesus made this possible, and for His reasons. Maybe He’s starting something and He wanted me to be part of it. The night you came to Como Que No! I talked to Him. I said, ‘Lord, I am so happy for this opportunity You are giving me to open my heart to all San Diego and say my testimony openly, and I am so thankful for You to give me this gift.’ He’s such a loving Father, sometimes He spoils us.”
Because I’m making a comeback too, as a father with a brand-new baby, I’d be an ungrateful wretch if I didn’t say “Amen.”