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.