Hilario Peña – Págale al Diablo (Pay the Devil)

zzz Págale al Diablo

I’ve been enjoying Hilario Peña’s novels for several years now. A great fan of such writers as Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, he has published a series of highly enjoyable “novelas negras” that bring a distinctive Mexican perspective, and a liberal dose of black humor, to the classic noir genre. My personal favorites are La Mujer de los Hermanos Reyna and Juan Tres Dieciséis.

So many great noir novels have been made into films – films noir – that when I read one, I find the characters, locations and settings easy to visualize. I picture dark streets, heavy shadows, low camera angles, claustrophobic spaces and stressed characters. Peña’s novels are no exception. They tend to be filled with gangsters, crooked politicians, treacherous women, bad cops, tough-talking detectives and clueless victims. But they have always been novels.

When the clerk at Libros Gandhi in Mexico City handed me the slim volume, I thought there was a mistake. But when I saw the graphics, and the artwork inside the book, I realized I was in for a new and fun experience.

The story is pure noir… and pure Peña. It focuses on Telma, a classic femme fatale, and Silverio, the poor schnook who falls under her spell. The plan is that Silverio will kill Telma’s husband, and they’ll use the insurance proceeds to go together to Long Beach. Not the most glamorous plan, but a clear call to action for Silverio. Things go well at first, with Siverio even finding a component of revenge to soothe his largely untroubled conscience. But the complications begin when he hears disturbing things about Telma, and obstacles are thrown in the way of their plan, including blackmail, infidelity and betrayal, gangsters with guns and a boxing match we know is rigged. We just don’t know which way it’s rigged.

As I whistled through the book, I realized I wasn’t getting the sort of descriptive passages or back stories that I’ve come to expect in a novel. Still, I was getting beautiful pictures of the people and action in my head. And of course, the dialog was as hard-boiled as you could hope for. There wasn’t enough art work to consider it a graphic novel, though, and it’s too long to be a short story. Perhaps it’s a novella, but it felt kind of like a screenplay.

He may disagree, but I believe Hilario Peña has written a film noir… and I had a lot of fun with it.

Martín Solares – No Manden Flores (Don’t Send Flowers)


What do you do when you’re rich, your daughter has been kidnapped, and you live in a city on the gulf coast of Mexico? You can’t go to the police or the army, because they may actually be the kidnappers. Anyway, they’ll milk you for cash, regardless of whether they lift a finger to help. You can’t ask any of the 3 gangs that control the region, because if you ask the wrong one, you’ve just made yourself a target to them. And you can’t trust your personal security staff, because they may have facilitated the kidnapping by selling their inside knowledge of your activities.

Martín Solares’ excellent novel, No Manden Flores, takes place in an unnamed city in Southern Tamaulipas that has been devastated by gang wars and corruption. It’s a place where you can’t go out for dinner, because the restaurants close in the evenings due to the gang violence. It’s a place where you can’t get medical assistance after a beating because the medical staff deserts the clinic in fear that the gangsters will come to finish the job. And if you take the wrong bus, you might find yourself hijacked and pressed into slave labor in a criminal compound guarded by a virtual army of thugs.

The answer to the kidnapping question is that you hire a smart, street-wise detective, a former cop who solved a high-profile murder case a few years ago. And you hope to heck he doesn’t cross paths with the city’s police chief who framed a suspect to collect the reward for that murder case – and has been trying to kill your detective ever since.

The focus of the book is divided equally between the detective and the chief of police, and the irrational, apocalyptic challenges they both face in accomplishing their radically opposite goals and intentions. The author treats us to an abrupt surprise with the structure of the book, which led one reviewer to describe it as 2 books. I’m not convinced. Despite the richly drawn characters and tight plotting, it seems to me that the book is not about the detective and the police chief, or about the kidnapping, as much as it is about the time and place in which the story is set.

The book’s title happens to be the same title as a famous article by author Jorge Ibargüengoitia, written as a bittersweet remembrance of his mother at the time of her passing. I read the book as a commentary on the direction of the gulf Coast, and Mexico itself. Don’t Send Flowers is a stern warning… and a great book.


Desde Amazon:

No manden flores cuenta la historia de Carlos Treviño, un ex policía que se ve obligado a volver al Golfo de México a fin de investigar la desaparición de una rica heredera.

Partiendo del sur de Tamaulipas, cerca de Paracuán, y viajando hasta el centro de la violencia en la frontera norte, Treviño deberá seguir el rastro de la mujer, e indagar entre los grupos criminales que se disputan el control de ciudades y carreteras. En la misma medida, evade la persecución del tenebroso Comandante Margarito, jefe de policía de La Eternidad, que lo busca para matarlo. La rivalidad entre estos dos personajes con perfil de tiburones elevará la tensión durante siete días a niveles nada recomendables.

La crítica ha opinado:

“Una radiografía seca, aguda, del horror en el que vive el Golfo, la red de complicidades, los alcances de la tragedia. Una novela ruda, directa, emocionante, que será de lectura obligada para quien quiera asomarse al infierno en que se ha convertido el Golfo (y México a la vez)” -Antonio Ortuño-

Rosca de los Reyes


I was in a Mexican bakery in Los Angeles the other day, and wondered what the big round cake was. It was a Rosca de los Reyes, the traditional cake to celebrate Epiphany on January 6th. According to tradition, that’s the day the 3 wise men arrived in Bethlehem.

rosca (1)

Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Roscón de reyes or rosca de reyes (kings’ ring) is a Spanish and Latin American king’s cake pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany.
Although the name indicates that it should be round, the “rosca de reyes” generally has an oval shape due to the need to make cakes larger than 30 cm across for larger parties. Recipes vary from country to country. For decoration, fig fruit, quinces, cherries or dried and candied fruits are used.
It is traditionally eaten on January 6, during the celebration of the “Día de Reyes” (literally “Kings’ Day”), which commemorates the arrival of the three Magi or Wise Men. In most of Spain, Spanish America, and sometimes, Hispanic communities in the United States, this is the day when children traditionally get presents, which are attributed to the Three Wise Men (and not Santa Claus or Father Christmas). In Mexico before children go to bed, they leave their shoes outside filled with hay or dried grass for the animals the Wise Men ride, along with a note.
The tradition of placing a trinket (figurine of the Christ Child) in the cake is very old. The baby Jesus hidden in the bread represents the flight of the Holy Family, fleeing from King Herod’s evil plan to kill all babies that could be the prophesied messiah. Whoever finds the baby Jesus figurine is blessed and must take the figurine to the nearest church on February 2, Candlemas Day (Día de la Candelaria). In the Mexican culture, this person also has to throw a party and provide tamales and atole to the guests. In US communities with large Mexican and Mexican-American populations such as Los Angeles, San Jose, and Chicago, the celebration includes the Mexican hominy stew pozole, which is made for all one’s neighbors.
In Spain, roscones bought in pastry shops have a small figure hidden inside, either of a baby Jesus or little toys for children, as well as the more traditional dry fava bean. Whoever finds the figure is crowned “king” or “queen” of the celebration, whereas whoever finds the bean has to pay for the next year’s roscón or Epiphany party.

n Argentina, there is a similar tradition of eating the rosca on January 6, although no figurine is included. A similar version of the pastry with whole eggs baked on top is served on Easter as rosca de Pascua.
In some places, the roscón de reyes is replaced by panettone, also baked with trinkets inside.
In France, a similar pastry known as a galette de rois (made with puff pastry and almond cream) is eaten on Epiphany, and in the US, the formerly French/Spanish city of New Orleans LA continues this tradition later in the year with their Kings’ Cake, a rich yeasted bread decorated with colored sugar and eaten before Mardi Gras.

Juan Villoro – Arrecife


My rating: 4 1/2 stars

La Pirámide is the only successful hotel in a resort area that failed disastrously when all the others gave up fighting the engineering catastrophe that required constant import of sand from Cuba to replace the entire beach that washed away on a weekly basis.

The key to the resort’s unique success is “extreme tourism” in which visitors can engage in daredevil sports activities, but can also find themselves kidnapped and beaten by guerillas, or risk encounters with deadly snakes. The genius behind the concept is Mario Muller, but he has to be careful, because the hotel could easily be worth more to the owners as a money-laundering vehicle.

When Mario reaches out to his lifelong friend, ex-rocker Tony Góngora, and brings him to this fantasy land, Tony thinks he has found a safe refuge from reality, much safer than the drugged half-life he had been living for many years. Tony is holding on in the midst of the ruins of his life, much as the hotel is holding on in the midst of the ruined resort area. Even in this unreal environment, he still remains isolated, refusing to become involved, until an act of violence strikes rather close to home. And it turns out Mario has a much grander plan to up the ante, and force Tony into the bright glare of reality and personal engagement.

This is literary writing at its finest, as we have come to expect from Juan Villoro. It is a difficult task to make a story of a failed life in a failing environment interesting, even if the possibility of redemption lies at the end, but Villoro is more than capable of pulling it off. I first discovered him when a reviewer called his novel El Testigo “the great Mexican novel.” I’ve read many Mexican novels since then, and I know I’m not alone in placing Villoro at the very top of his profession.


Hubo un tiempo en que las playas eran un sitio de descanso. En la época del turismo extremo los viajeros necesitan otras emociones. El ex rockero Mario Müller descubre una visionaria posibilidad en el Caribe: los placeres del miedo. Y a orillas de un inmenso arrecife de coral edifica La Pirámide, resort que ofrece peligros controlados hasta que un buzo muere fuera del agua. Reflexión sobre los daños que elegimos para intensificar la vida, esta apasionante novela describe una nueva ecología: el cambio climático vacía los hoteles y el lavado de dinero los regenera como emporios fantasma. Pero Arrecife también es una historia de amistad, amor y redención. Villoro, uno de los mejores escritores latinoamericanos, otorga realidad a una utopía: los problemas de ese paraíso son las virtudes de una novela excepcional.

«Esas atmósferas ominosas que tanto nos recuerdan por momentos a las ficciones apocalípticas o fantasmagóricas de Ballard. Los diálogos tienen esa sequedad irónica de las mejores respuestas y observaciones psicológicas de un Chandler. Arrecife es una novela perfecta a la hora de sincronizar el desdén por la vida que se inflige el narrador y el esfuerzo casi titánico, agónico, de un moribundo Mario, el amigo capital, por indicarle la ruta de su salvación definitiva. En esta magnífica novela de Juan Villoro no hay tiempos muertos» (J. Ernesto Ayala-Dip, El País).

«Lúcida y poderosa lectura del pasado y presente, donde el terror, el sacrificio de los dioses y el mito se confunden» (J.A. Masoliver Ródenas, La Vanguardia).

«La prueba irrefutable de que uno está ante un escritor de fuste reside en esa envidiable capacidad para cambiar de temas y registros cuando todo parecía dirigido a volver sobre lo mismo» (Ricardo Baixeras, El Periódico).

«Villoro se ha basado, para su libro, en ese fenómeno sadomasoquista de nuestra civilización que lleva a ciertos turistas del mundo desarrollado a disfrutar de un fin de semana en un campo de concentración o en una mazmorra de la Inquisición. Lo que él ha hecho es darle a su ficción unos tintes étnico-mítico-telúricos que la hacen totalmente verosímil… Una magnífica novela» (Iñaki Ezquerra, El Correo Español).

Jesús Malverde Chapel – Culiacán

Mexicans will sometimes adopt folk heroes, and raise them to near-saint status. They are not saints recognized by the church, but some people pray to them as if they were. Jesús Malverde is a well-known example from the Sinaloa area. I first became aware of him, and his Culiacán shrine, from Arturo Perez Reverte’s novel La Reina del Sur, which was virtually an homage to Sinaloan writer Elmer Mendoza.

Sinaloa is the historic center of the Mexican drug trade, and Malverde has become especially popular among traffickers and traders in the area. The walls of the chapel are covered with prayers for future transactions, and thanks for the success of previous endeavors.

I visited the Malverde chapel on my recent visit to Culiacán, and here are some of the photos I took. I’m also including a picture of a Malverde statue that I took through a store window in Los Angeles. Appropriately, he is holding a big bag of marijuana, and a fist full of dollars.





Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Jesús Malverde, sometimes known as the “generous bandit”, “angel of the poor”,[1] or the “narco-saint”, is a folklore hero in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. He is celebrated as a folk saint by some in Mexico and the United States, particularly among those involved in drug trafficking.[2] He is not recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

The existence of Malverde a.k.a. ‘El Rey de Sinaloa’ is not historically verified,[3] but according to local legends he was a bandit killed by the authorities on May 3, 1909. Accounts of his life vary – sometimes he was a railway worker, while others claim he was a construction worker. There is also no agreement on the way he died, being hanged or shot.

Since Malverde’s supposed death, he has earned a Robin Hood-type image, making him popular among Sinaloa’s poor highland residents. The outlaw image has caused him to be adopted as the “patron saint” of the region’s illegal drug trade, and the press have thus dubbed him “the narco-saint.”[4] However, his intercession is also sought by those with troubles of various kinds, and a number of supposed miracles have been locally attributed to him, including personal healings and blessings.

A series of three Spanish-language films have been released under the titles Jesus Malverde, Jesus Malverde II: La Mafia de Sinaloa, and Jesus Malverde III: Infierno en Los Angeles. They all feature tales of contemporary Mexican drug trafficking into California, with strong musical interludes during which the gangsters are shown at home being serenaded by Sinaloan accordion-led Norteño bands singing narcocorridos.

Spiritual supplies featuring the visage of Jesús Malverde are available in the United States as well as in Mexico. They include candles, anointing oils, incense, sachet powders, bath crystals, soap and lithographed prints suitable for framing.

“Always & Forever” is a dramatic stageplay that features Malverde as a prominent character. The play examines various aspects of Mexican-American culture, such as quinceañeras, banda music, and premiered in April 2007 at the Watts Village Theater Company in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. A revival production opened in May 2009 at Casa 0101 Theatre in another Los Angeles neighborhood, Boyle Heights.

A brewery in Guadalajara introduced a new beer, named Malverde, into the Northern Mexico market in late 2007.[5]
A Malverde bust is featured in AMC’s Breaking Bad television series, in the episode entitled “Negro Y Azul”.
A popular Mexican hip-hop artist performs under the pseudonym Jesús Malverde.
Several important scenes of the telenovela La Reina del Sur take place at his chapel in Culiacán and Malverde’s name is mentioned many times during the show.