RARA-AVIS: kent harrington / Dia De Los Muertos / Forward to Capra Edition

From: Kukana Fields ( kukanafields@yahoo.com)
Date: 25 Sep 2005

Dear Rara
  I've been following the discussion concerning the definition of Noir with much interest and found myself lost in thought as people talk to me about other things. Sure sign of someone who loves novels!!
  For fun I thought I would enclose the essay I wrote as an introduction to the Capra edition of Dia De Los Muertos. I think it's interesting as I discuss the history of Tijuana as "Sin City", as well as my POV on Calhoun.


April 2003

San Rafael, California


Dear Reader,


It's most unlikely we'll ever meet, that's the way it is between the novelist and his readers unfortunately. We do have a connection though, a marvelous and profound one, however distant. You might be reading this even a hundred years from now, but we'll connect here on these pages for a moment and time and place won't really matter. I like to think of all the places I'll travel in spirit, if not in the flesh.

The novel you are holding is set in Tijuana Mexico. I first past through that city when I was a child of seven in the late 1960's. I was traveling with my mother's Guatemalan family -- an aunt and two uncles --on our way to Central America when we passed through by car. It seemed to me a sleepy town that morning.

The Tijuana I first saw as a child had come to personify for Americans by the 1960's, not only a corrupt and Godless Mexico, but a corrupt Latin America. No small feat for a down at-the-heels border town. The city's blighted reputation was based on the fact that it was where Californians went to indulge themselves in ways they couldn't back home, at least not legally. Both gambling and prostitution--why people wanted to go-- were legal enterprises in the city and prostitution still is. (Remember this was before Las Vegas.)

Illicit sex, I think was the really meaty part of Tijuana's mythology. The notorious sex shows, central to that mythology, were probably apocryphal. Real or not, they existed in the salivating imagination of sexually repressed American males in the pre-Playboy Magazine world depicted in "Our Town" movies. Was it that Catholics were viewed as more licentious? Who knows? Where did the Latin Lover idea spring from? Why not a German lover? In short, according to a lot of young American men in pre World War Two California, the word was out: Sodom and Gomorrah, buddy, did exist and you could drive there!

 It turns out that all this weekend sin was on offer to these bright eyed boys and girls from well scrubbed homes by-- low and behold-- their fellow Americans! [1]"The Jockey Club, Tivoli Bar, the Foreign Club, the Sunset Inn and Agua Caliente Casino were all owned by Anglo-Americans and employed mostly American workers." In fact the Yankees had come as early as1885 and stayed and controlled the tourist industry until the Mexican government ran them out in the 1940's. So ironically, it was not those Mexicans, (The same Mexicans who had treated Davy Crockett so shabbily at the Alamo. And, who said so memorably in bad English, "We don't need no stinking badges!" in the movies, obviously a rough bunch.), but Americans that were responsible for creating the myth of Tijuana's as the city of sin. Contrary to the myth of a corrupt Mexico, It was the Mexican government that put an end to all that good-old fun. I've heard that the Cardenas administration actually turned some of Am!
 owned casinos into schools. This transformation should have put an end to the town's sinful reputation. But, unfortunately, the city was, when I first saw it, only resting up for a bigger show.

 By the 1990's Tijuana finally surpassed it's own colossal reputation when it became arguably one of the most violent and corrupt cities on the planet. Both the country and the city changed profoundly during those intervening years, and not for the better. The Mexican government, (formed by the Mexican revolution 1917), that had once been responsible for cleaning up Tijuana, and building a modern and relatively prosperous Mexico, was finally undone by the illegal drugs business. Political Corruption was the order of the day in Mexico, and hell was visited on Tijuana, which had grown into a border megatropolis. Like so much in our modern world even crime had industrialized. This is the city that I write about in the novel. It's a frightening place.



 When you first walk across the border from the United States into Tijuana, there is a heavy old-fashion metal turnstile used by pedestrians to enter the city. If you ever go, you should enter that way, on foot. Someday they will turn that old-fashion gate into something modern, something slick, that marks nothing. But I hope you see that turn style-cage. It's probably dates from the 1930's or 1940's. There is something final about pushing through that gate, and hearing it creak, feeling it's weight, and seeing a waiting foreign world behind those gray bars. And there is something both fascinating and surreal about seeing the city's begging children (Always shocking), and mean looking taxi drivers all waiting for another Gringo to "welcome". No computer-turnstile could ever give you that moment.


I started going to Tijuana as an adult because I liked to go to the bullfights. You get all the big time matadors there in Tijuana in the summer. I love the music they play at the bullfight. A small band is seated way above the arena in the sun, trumpets glaring. Usually the musicians are older men who look like they could use a meal. When they start to play, it's to punctuate some drama below: Perhaps the bull confused, bloody, is standing in the shade waiting for that last assault. Or the sweating young matador, his black slippers in the gold sand, finally exposes the killing sword, before he rushes towards the bull and victory, or something else. Something dramatic anyway spurs the musicians to play. The bullring in the old downtown is the best one. (There's a new one built by the sea.) The old ring is beautiful and intimate, and for some reason I think of it as Baroque, although it really isn't.

I used to go alone to Tijuana in those days because most people I knew then found the place a bore, or hated the bullfights, or both. I was working in Oakland at that time, where I was shot at by feuding gangsters most every day. So to me the idea of sudden death was very real. I could relate to the bull and to the bullfighter completely. But now I can't watch the end of a bullfight because it's cruel and I know it's cruel. (Is an anonymous death in some dark porcelain slaughter house any better? I know what I'd choose.)

Sometimes I'd take the girl who would end up becoming my wife. I remember her looking so sexy in tight white pants and her long black hair. I remember the way she watched the fights both repelled and fascinated. I remember her buying French perfume at the fancy shop on Avenida Revolution after the bullfights. I will always remember her surrounded by other young Mexican women at the counter, all of them so intent on the shopping and all of them looking so beautiful and perfect in the late afternoon light, that in summer hits the disheveled and raucous Tijuana streets and makes them oddly sorrowful, golden and dirty-beautiful.

Sometimes I would drive down from the Bay Area with very little money, as I was trying to become a novelist and was living hand to mouth, which sounds romantic, but isn't at all. I would have just enough money for a bullfight and a decent hotel (the Hotel Arizona), and gas money home, and that was it. And sometimes I went when I really shouldn't have gone, as I didn't have any money at all to spare; but I went anyway. I've never regretted that about myself. To be any kind of artist is to be madly myopic I suppose.

 It was when I was alone in Tijuana that I first started "Dia De Los Muertos". I'd like to think that maybe I saw some guy that was Vincent Calhoun, the protagonist, in the restaurant of the hotel Arizona near the bullring. They had a good lunch there and served it by the pool. All kinds of people came to eat lunch at the Arizona before the bullfights: gangsters, movie people from LA, young marines, and just ordinary day trippers like me. I'm sure I saw someone like him there because that's where the book starts for me, by the pool, with the lunch being served by waiters in starched white coats and everyone looking forward to the bullfight.

What about the novel? For me it's about this man Vincent Calhoun, who stands suddenly at the entrance to a very dark alley--which if you want we'll call human consciousness-- and hearing the band strike up, walks on towards where he knows something important, (his humanity) and yet frightening (his past), is waiting for him. He hopes to prevail. Don't we all? I always thought his story oddly hopeful, but I'll let you be the judge of that.

 My original opening for the novel --the two paragraphs below-- were omitted in the first edition. That publisher, Dennis Mcmillan, was right and correct to do so. And the story starts for me now-- and I hope for always-- with these words: "It was Tijuana's knack at getting back at you that worried Calhoun."


All the best,


Kent Harrington








Imagine Ross Perot French kissing Roseanne Barr with a mariachi backdrop and you have the context for modern Tijuana. The slick and the profane together in an unimaginable and gruesome combination, all dressed very badly. Honky-tonks and high-rises, the miserable and the millionaires, the hustlers and the hustled as Entertainment Tonight. Mercy, decency, fair play, as the hip-hoppers say, were not in the house. It is the city of the fast buck that is reaching the speed of light-- Coca-Cola and chaos. Dollar dudes and busty dudettes with bad attitudes who don't fuck with the small change. It's a town where razors appear quickly. Where people go by street names like Morocco Mole and Bob Wire. Where children don't officially exist because no one filled out a birth certificate. No amount of modern cosmetic surgery by the city's chamber of commerce can convince you to relax. This is not a modern city as much as it is something new, something truly unique and frightening, the bas!
 s line in
 a NWA song--- a full color ad for the Twenty-first century. Tijuana is the city of a million desperate crime stories that are never told, but instead are lost, blown like Mc Donald's wrappers into the surrounding desert.


The words tawdry, ugly and mean are pathetically old-fashioned in the face of what you see on Tijuana's streets. The experience requires brand new English words that have yet to be coined but will certainly be cool acronyms, perhaps something like: C.R.A.W.L. Cruel reasoning animates world leaders, or P.A.I.N. People all in need.









[1] San Diego State University web site : azatlan.sdsu.edu (San DiegoMexican & Chicano history. )


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