Profiles published by date: Sergio Avila; Adán Pérez ;Dario Veliz, the creator of Casa Country; Chuy Lizarraga; Horacio Palencia; Betty Lizarraga; Alexis Félix ;The authority on Mazatlan’s port -Alfonso Gil Diaz; Rob Lamonica; Humberto Becerra -from shoeshine boy to a captain of industry; The passions of Alfredo Gómez Rubio; Sixty minutes with Gabriela Rodriguez Garcia; Playa Mazatlan proudly presents Lance Vient and the fine family affair; Retrato de un artista, Antonio López Saenz; Ken Woods – still playing around; It’s more than stilettos and a crown; Lori Davidson; Rafael Rodriquez; Claudia Lavista; Mike Veselik; Anne Murphy; David Robb; Delfos; Lucila Santiago
Sergio Avila, all by myself.
By Sheila Madsen, November 2017
You’ve seen and heard Sergio and his sax all around town, playing by himself – “I’m so good when I am by myself!” His career didn’t start solo in Mazatlan though. His music mentor, Nestro Landeros, played the piano but Sergio was not captivated by the keys [he does play the piano now] and wanted to learn the saxophone. There were no sax teachers and almost no saxophones available in 1986 in Mazatlan. Nestro eventually found a sax and gave it to the 15 year-old Sergio.
To avoid disturbing the neigbours the teenager took to practicing in the family shower. He had a sax manual [now, now, you know what I mean] and listened to hundreds and hundred of records. His dad was an English teacher and loved all kinds of music – from classical to rock. Dad also bought the Reader’s Digest Record subscription so the vinyl flowed through the Avila household. “Dad loved listening to music [Ray Conniff, Charlie Parker, The Beatles] but he didn’t play an instrument – just the door bell.”
After high school and a diploma in computer science, Sergio joined/formed the band Hamlet that later morphed into Hechos Raros. With this Spanish rock and roll band [already speaking fluent English] the young sax player performed in LA, Houston, Chicago, Miami, and all the big cities in Mexico. In his early 20s Hechos Raros made a record deal with the Mexican group Fonovisa. The famous Mexican singer/songwriter/actor Pepe Aguilar also discovered Hechos Raros and promoted them; they enjoyed many successful years in Mexico City and other cities.
His music college was live, up close and personal. Sergio watched every group, watched the lighting, the recording, the mixing, every nuance was stored into his database. “I don’t drink, smoke, do drugs, I don’t even drink a beer, so I had lots of time to observe and keep the best of what I saw.” Then the gigs, the travelling no longer excited Sergio – he went solo in 2006.
I asked him if he was lonely, if he wished to have a singer accompany him, or to be part of something larger. He returns to his opening quote “I’m so good when I’m by myself. When I’m playing in a restaurant I can change the mood, the ambience. To me people are having a really good time if they are talking. I’m not a concert, I’m just part of scene.” Today he’s out of the shower, has a mini recording studio, owns three alto saxs and even if he has a gig, hepractices three to four hours a day. “I need to rehearse the new songs from Adele, and songs like Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Outloud.”
Sergio is a super-calm enthusiastic man, who’s really happy with his life in Mazatlan and it was no problem for him to find balance for his music, his friends and his family. Smiling he says “I feel really good with my first 30 years of my saxophone!”
Here are his answers to the classic Bernard Pivot questions:
If you could play on any stage in the world where would it be: Bellas Artes
If you could play with any group, dead or alive, who would it be: Pink Floyd
What is your favourite word: love
What is your least favourite word: politics
What turns you on creatively, spiritually and emotionally: solitude
What turns you off: noise, a crowd
What sound or noise do you hate: banda music.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt: teacher [anything but music] What profession would you NOT like to do: politics
If heaven exists what you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates: Finally!
[You’ll find all of Sergio’s gigs here, under THE FAIRLY ACCURATE DAILY MUSIC SCHEDULE – La Magia del Sax. Feel free to request a song – some of the most popular ones are Hallelujah, My Way and All of Me. His cds sell for $50.]
Mazatleco opera singer brings banda to New York. What?
By Sheila Madsen, June 2017
I thought getting an interview with José Adán Pérez would be difficult, probably impossible. He’s not only a famous opera singer, but he’s in Mazatlan enjoying a rare holiday with his family. Adán hadn’t been home in three years and I doubted if he would want to take time. Adán could not have been more accessible or willing. We set the date by text, he responded quickly and we met a Gaia Bistrot – he was five minutes early. This was no temperamental opera star. This was a Mazatleco bubbling over with passion, enthusiasm and a zest for life. Adán arrived in a New York Yankees baseball cap, a bright orange shirt and shorts; his big brown eyes were buzzing with excitement and he was ready to share the news of his latest venture.
At only 41 years old, Adán has been showered in successes in each of his careers. One as an engineer, one as an opera singer and one as lead singer and founder of Banda Nueve York. As a boy growing up in Mazatlan’s Centro he attended several music schools and later went to university and graduated with an engineering degree. After four years of toiling away in Mexico City in the auto industry Adán realized how much he missed his music. The engineering world no longer interested him.
“I’m crazy, I like to take risks and if the music world failed me I could always fall back on my engineering skills.” Turns out he didn’t need Plan B. The baritone graduated from The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia and made his stage debut in 2007 at the LA Opera with Puccini’s La Bohème conducted by Placido Domingo [who was also one of his maestros]. The past ten years have brought Adán nothing but rave reviews [Figaro 90210, for instance] and his agent has opera engagements booked until 2021.
Along the way he met and married Michiyo Morikawa. This vibrant Japanese woman is a classical pianist and when she and Adán travel to Tokyo the Mexican Embassy invites Adán to sing in the local Mariachi Samurai band – yes, he speaks Japanese [along with a gazillion other languages]. He’s also invited by the New York Mexican Embassy to perform on important holidays such as Independence Day. Although he travels in the rarefied air of opera, he’s not afraid to don a mariachi outfit and belt out those songs.
And, because he’s from Sinaloa banda is near and dear to Adán’s heart. Now we are moving into his banda phase and the time is around 2015. Adán and Michiyo have a three-bedroom apartment in New York and they frequently spend their evenings with other successful musicians. Out comes the mezcal, out comes the tequila and instead of a hangover – Banada Nueva York was born. Adán contacted several of the most popular Sinaloa bandas [El Recodo, La Original Banda El Limón] and they sent him sheet music for the group of 16 to learn.
The rehearsals take place in their apartment, “we all squeeze in and hug like Mexicans”. I couldn’t help but wonder how the neighbours felt about these sessions and perhaps out of consideration the group has found four places to practice in, frequently with a live audience; El Museo Barrio in Harlem, El Patron Nightclub in the Bronx, La Boom Nightclub and Shrine. Often there’s no cover charge as the Banda Nueve York announces to the audience “these are a live practice sessions, it’s our laboratory and if we make a mistake we’ll re-do the song.” The audience is mostly comprised of enthusiastic dancers from the Dominican Republic who don’t even notice the do-overs.
The group does have paid gigs but in reality it’s a financial investment for everyone. Many of the musicians are from Broadway [“The Lion King”, “An American in Paris” who were part of the philharmonic orchestras in Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall or jazz clubs across New York] and are not Mexicans. However, they all seem to embrace the banda sounds – “we’re just trying to enjoy and have fun with it.”
New York has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the United States and Banda Nueva York is certainly gaining traction. They just released “Noche de Pasión” [you can listen online or YouTube, or Spotify ]”with lyrics appealing to the people who work and live here in the United States. We like to express the fears, desires and needs of the Mexican-American community.”
If for years you’ve been saying quietly to your friends in Mazatlan “I’m not a fan of banda” I guarantee you Banda Nueva York will change your mind.[When you are in New York you can find their next gig on FB: https://www.facebook.com/contact.BandaNY/ ]
Meet Dario Veliz, the creator of Casa Country
By Sheila Madsen [October 2016, La Casa Country Restaurant Bar, “prime steaks & Mexican food.”]
If you were to Google the meaning of self-taught a picture of Dario Veliz would surely pop up. His journey to success is filled with joy, hard work, and a relentless desire to be the very best – no matter the job. And to be the very best, you must never stop learning or improving.
Dario left Durango at the age of 15 for Mazatlan filled with a zest for life, a love of sunsets and the ocean. He lived with his aunt and immediately got a job in construction; the boss would toss him all the grunt work and he completed them with a smile – for just one year. At 16 he approached the Playa Mazatlan Hotel for an apprenticeship position and was accepted. “I was in heaven. I was assistant to the bartender, snapping caps off beer bottles all day long, and then they would bring me dinner, and then tips, I couldn’t believe my luck.” Out of the 25 young men in the program only five were selected. Dario worked at Playa for 15 years and eventually became the maitre’ d. From there, he went to the Ramada for three years [was Los Sabalos] as the food and beverage manager.
During these years he did two important things. At the age of 20 he married Frances [who was 17], and he never stopped searching for mentors that he could learn from. A vision of a restaurant was slowly creeping into his head but he wasn’t ready, he needed to learn from the best and the brightest. He pursued and learned from Carlos Anderson [Señor Frogs, El Shrimp Bucket], Angel Cruz [La Costa Marina] and then he approached the owner of No Name Café. “That was my university, I learned everything about the restaurant business, customers, quality and service from these smart, successful men. I knew I didn’t want a hotel, I wanted a restaurant. I also saw a huge market for bbq ribs and the TexMex concept at the No Name Café – but it was run by an American and was only busy for five months of the year. I saw people lining up every Thursday and Sunday for all-you-can-eat ribs. Mexican customers maybe more difficult but they drink more, and once you know how to treat them they’ll come back every week.”
Part of Dario’s personal university was studying the Ray Kroc McDonald’s system. That kind of worked out well for McDonald’s, so why not introduce a similar quality control system for Casa Country. With quality control, consistency, and attention to service being top of mind, Dario and his four brothers opened Casa Country in 1993. He admired Lee Iacocca too; “start with good people, lay out the rules, communicate with your employees, motivate them and reward them. If you do all those things effectively, you can’t miss.” Iacocca also said “people always like to eat.” To learn more about motivation Dario proceeded to take the Dale Carnegie and Toastmasters courses. But the learning doesn’t stop there. He’s a voracious reader [non-fiction, business, marketing, anything to improve his restaurants] and he had heard of ISO 9000 in Canada and the US. ISO is essentially the bible of all operating manuals, [“the standards provide guidance and tools for companies and organizations who want to ensure that their products and services consistently meet customer’s requirements and that quality is consistently improved”.] Passing the ISO can take two years to qualify – to pass all the on-site tests, it’s expensive and Casa Country is one of the few restaurants in Mazatlan that has ISO practices. That was achieved ten years ago. Self-taught, oh yes.
Dario admits you can’t please everyone, and different people have different standards. He also strongly believes that ISO empowers all his employees to react in the same way each and every time to the rare complaint. Customers who return week after week [and they do] are guaranteed a consistent product. “If I can’t promise quality and consistency, then I’m nothing, I believe that much in a solid system.”
Now in their mid 60s, Dario and Frances have more time together. With three sons and a daughter all involved in the Casa Country Group, “I’m lucky, they all wanted in, they didn’t want to do anything else. I used to play tennis for hours every day, I’d go for every ball, I was a demon on the court…but with two knee replacements that is no longer possible, so I swim and will return to the golf course.” If the couple want a night off from the Casa Country restaurants they enjoy going to Vittorio’s, Los Arcos, Héctor’s Bistro [rack of lamb for Dario] and El Cuchupetas in Villa Union.
Dario’s daily routine is to wake at 5:30 a.m., swim and be at the restaurant by 8:30 a.m., and then he’s home for a siesta and returns to Casa Country around 6 p.m. I asked him why he spends so much time at the restaurant when his children are running it. He answers, “what else would I do? I like to quote Confucius, ‘choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’”
[La Casa Country Restaurant Bar is located Av. Camarón Sábalo, 916 5300 and is open every day at noon. “We have the largest parking lot in Mazatlan.” The restaurant seats 300 people, and there are 55 employees. The Cabo Casa Country also has 55 employees and seats 120. El Bife in Centro is a present from Dario Veliz to the Plazuela Machado. The beef is all bought in Torreón and Monterrey. The skirt steak is the most popular and the Casa Country group buys approximately 7.2 tons a year. If you want to be a waiter at Casa County you gotta know the country dances.]
Chuy Lizarraga just keeps on growing.
By Sheila Madsen, August 2016
You may have met Chuy [Jesus] at the Saturday organic market in the Zaragoza Square. His company, Chuy’s Orgánico, really delivers on its slogan – “from our farm to your table”. What you buy at the Mercardo Orgánico was picked three hours prior to the 8 a.m. market opening. To understand his passion for organic farming is to understand his success with hot peppers.
Born and schooled in Mazatlan, Chuy travelled to Montreal and Toronto to formally study English. He returned to Mexico and obtained a marketing degree in Monterrey and still thirsty for more knowledge he earned an international business degree in Madrid. Chuy had no problem securing high-level office positions. Well, just one problem; he was bored, really bored, and longed to be outside in nature.
Eighteen years ago he began his farming adventure by renting small acres of land near Villa Union and La Noria. He rented equipment and employed labour when needed. The hot peppers were in hot demand. So much so, that today he owns acres and acres of land [he won’t tell me how much] and has hundreds of employees [he won’t say how many], but this humble man did admit he has six managers to assist him in overseeing his pepper kingdom. Every day he sells between 80 to 100 tons of hot peppers. 80% known as Lizarragas remain in Mexico, and 20% known as Chile Mania, are sold in the United States.
This successful business man [“I am not a farmer”] begins his day at 4 a.m. He fields buying calls for several hours, and then checks on the drivers, the pickers, the sprayers – every aspect of what it takes to sell tons of hot peppers. Lunch is on the go and he returns home around 7 p.m. to have dinner with his lovely wife Marbella and two teenage daughters. “It’s a big responsibility, it’s a lot of pressure, I’m responsible for many people and their families, I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 58.”
After that powerful statement he confesses that the pepper business “is practically running itself, it’s computerized, and I wanted to learn about organic farming. Five years ago I started with small plots of shaded land, really for friends and family. It’s less than 1% of my land but now I have between 57-60 crops in small protected houses, and I enjoy spending hours in the field investigating different methods – for instance I started with blueberries and blackberries but the Mazatlan climate was totally wrong for berries, so I switched to vegetables and other crops that actually grow all year. I now have sixteen people working in the organic fields.”
Chuy recognizes that organic is not really popular with Mexicans, “it’s more of a fashion for them, not a commitment.” He sells his organic products to high-end restaurants in Mazatlan, Durango and Culiacan. He travels extensively around the world to educate himself on various methods of organic farming and ok, to relax a little too.
There are many good reasons to visit the organic market, but Chuy Lizarraga is my main reason. He’s a terrific conversationalist, always up, always joking and he loves chatting with the foreign community because they get the importance of organic. His message to the foreign community is this: “I really appreciate that you care and please continue to support organic growers.”
Chuy is an absolutely delightful energetic man; with him you can’t help but to grow with the flow.
[MOM, Mercado Orgánico de Mazatlan, will reopen on Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon starting November 12 in the Plazuela Zaragoza. However, if you’d like Chuy’s products earlier, perhaps in October, send him an e mail and he’ll put you on his organic delivery list: firstname.lastname@example.org]
Horacio Palencia – the king of banda is feeling romantic these days♥
By Sheila Madsen, January 2016
Setting up an interview with Horacio Palencia was not easy. He was either in LA, DF, and could only meet me on a Monday night, at 7p.m. in his recording studio/condo. Oh, and an interview in a coffee shop was not a good idea.
I did my usual research. Horacio is an award winning songwriter all right, but I didn’t understand just how famous he is until I arrived at his recording studio. The condo is awash in awards all neatly arranged on several shelves and dozens of BMI awards hang on his walls. In ten years, Horacio has become one of Mexico’s most popular banda/romantic singer/songwriters. The two slashes// are on purpose; he recently decided to perform, and he’s making the transition from banda to romantico. Singing his own love songs. The reason the singer/songwriter prefers not to be in public, he humbly explained, is because the women line-up for autographs, and follow him. An enthusiastic group of Guanajuato gals chose Mazatlan for a holiday because they may experience an Horacio sighting. His condo reception gave him a heads-up about the travelling fans and Horacio graciously met with them and happily signed autographs. He does like to meet his public – on his terms.
Horacio is a delightful, unassuming 34-year old man. Born in Rosario to a working class family – his father was a farmer – his uncle taught him to play the piano at eight. Being a typical Sinaloa family all he heard as a child, was the music of Sinaloa – banda. He started singing when he was 16 and at age 24 wrote De Ti Exclusivo for La Arrolladora Banda El Limon. From that hit he wrote the grammy award-winning song Mi Razon de Ser. With those proceeds Horacio bought a house for his family in Mazatlan. His career has only gone in one direction – up. He then went on to write Corazon Negro for the movie Salvando al Soldado Perez and if that wasn’t enough, the famous Mexican ranchera singer, Chavela Vargus adopted it and sang it many times before she died when she was 93. And more awards were bestowed.
With so many hits [he has written over 500 songs] and awards, Horacio has been travelling in the US and Mexico and has now had the opportunity to listen to other types of music. Today, he has chosen to focus on romantic acoustic, and to sing only his songs, which brings us to his upcoming tour – Un Concierto Acústico.
Gerson Leos, the musical arranger for all Horatio’s compositions, says “he’s the king of banda; there are two important banda songwriters in Mexico and he’s one of them. He’s famous for his compositions. What can I say? It’s my music and I love this romantic phase.” This “romantic phase” involves a 13 piece band with Gerson on the keyboard, plus a piano, cello, violins, percussions, sax and guitars. Gerson goes on to say “ the tour begins on February 9 and includes live performances as well as tv and radio. Horacio says “it’s a special show, it’s high quality with a live band, I love the violins, I love the sax, all set to a backdrop of well-made videos.”
Being young, Horacio is dreaming big. He’s busy learning English as he wants to be an international singer. He dreams about writing a song for Marc Anthony. He’d love to perform on stages in Paris, in New York and in LA, at the Microsoft Theatre with Romeo Santos or Michael Buble or Taylor Swift. Why not all three?
The king of banda songwriting quietly mentions “I was hidden as a songwriter, now I want people to know me, to see me perform, I want the audience to connect me with the songs I write.” Please welcome the romantic phase of Horacio Palencia.
[ You can follow Horacio on his “official” FB. Gerson Leos is a well-known jazz keyboard player and music arranger. You can see him on Thursdays and Fridays playing with his trio, Tecomate Jazz, at Pedro & Lola, around 8:30 p.m. Sandy Hill Pool is a certified ESL teacher and she kindly introduced me to Horacio.]
Meet Superwoman. Betty Lizarraga never stops helping people.
By Sheila Madsen (July, 2015)
For five months I watched Betty organize Tuesday afternoon bingo at Angelina’s Kitchen. She was entertaining, enthusiastic and obviously a people person. Betty made the hour speed by faster than you can say B.I.N.G.O.! We finally had a chance to have a heart to heart over coffee at AK’s. Betty is like an artesian well – bubbling over with passion and a genuine love for The Red Cross.
Born in Mazatlan, Beatrice Guadalupe Lizarraga, says “my first dream was always to speak English. I took a job as a secretary for a property management company so I could pay my way to the English school; it was on Angel Flores (it’s no longer there) and I went for one year. I also have a social worker degree from UAS [Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa].”
It was her English that landed Betty a job at McDonalds as a cashier (for $6 an hour) in East Palo Alto. From 1997 until she returned to Mazatlan in 2007, she also had cashier jobs at Jack in the Box, and finally a long stint at Oakwood Market.
Betty is a Superwoman. A typical day for her in East Palo Alto would be to attend English classes from 8 a.m. to noon, return home for lunch and then work as a cashier from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. During all these swing shifts Betty married, had two daughters and kept on saving – enough to buy a house in Mazatlan. Betty’s eyes light up when she says “I finally got a raise to $9 an hour at Oakwood, and I still talk to my boss there every week.” Her footprint is clear: Betty loves to work, and she loves people.
Betty’s husband, Juan, is a construction worker and he was employed at The Red Cross on Zaragoza. Betty would bring him lunch and visit with the guys and the women who volunteer. Everyone appreciated that she spoke English and that she enjoyed meeting people. Did she want to join the Red Cross Committee? Not really, she wasn’t ready to take the formal Red Cross oath. But, boy oh boy, Betty was ready to volunteer! Since 2012, Betty looks after the social media, helps the ladies organize meetings, breakfasts, fundraisers, anything to streamline the busy days of the volunteers. I asked her, what’s the best part of your job? No hesitation, “meeting people and helping people.”
Returning to how we met – during bingo. Betty had never organized a bingo game before (she was nervous) and I’d never played before (I was not). She won the heart of every expat who attended; Bingo Betty made Tuesday bingo worthwhile. Except, it really isn’t worthwhile for The Red Cross. Here’s the sad reality. The Nationals expect to win money from bingo, not give, so they won’t come out for prizes. Betty was running around persuading restaurants to give The Red Cross a discount, buying wine, jewelry and other tempting items for the five prizes awarded each week. At 50 pesos for each card, five games, the math just does not add up. More was going out than flowing in. At this point Angelina joins us for the discussion. What if everyone donated jewelry they never wear as a new source of free prizes? Would the foreign community play bingo if there were no prizes awarded? How about just twice a month? We were unable resolve this dilemma. [If you have any suggestions, or ideas please send me an email: email@example.com.]
Regardless, Bingo Betty left with a wide smile; it’s her daughter’s quinceañera next week and there’s a huge fiesta waiting for her in East Palo Alto. Beatrice Guadalupe Lizarraga has big dreams and with her positive outlook she’s bound to find a practical way to help The Red Cross. Nothing will stop this Superwoman.
(The Red Cross is located on Zaragoza #1801. They have seven beds, shifts of doctors and nurses (a combination of volunteers and paid), and nine ambulances. Dial 065 if you need an ambulance, not 066. The cost of the ambulance to any hospital in Mazatlan is 400 pesos. If you wish to donate to The Red Cross and you don’t speak Spanish, please e mail Betty directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and she will ensure you will get a receipt and your donation reaches the right person. If you speak Spanish, then call the admin land line, 985 1451.)
Alexis Félix’s magical mystery music tour
By Sheila Madsen (June, 2015)
Two important events occurred in Mazatlan in 1975. Hurricane Olivia ripped through Mazatlan in October devastating the city and leaving 30 dead and thousands homeless. It was the worst hurricane since 1943. The second event was happier; the birth of Luis Alexis Félix Silva, son of blues singer Ginny and drummer Luis.
Alexis Félix enjoys saying he was born months after hurricane Olivia. It’s the songwriter in him and it’s the strong statements inked on his arm [never again] that make him offer up these dramatic details. Alexis was to the musical manor born. His mother, Ginny Silva, was/is a famous soul/blues singer with the Tijuana group Los Stukas and his father is one of the best drummers in Mexico. Alexis was born in Mazatlan, his parents moved to Tijuana, played with Los Stukas, separated, divorced, and reunite today in various gigs and groups. At six years old he remembers watching his parents perform and loving it. “That’s what I want to do, I want to feel what they are feeling.”
Shifting between Tijuana and Mazatlan he started singing professionally when he was 14 with a band called Hamlet. He had no desire to be in drummer dad’s shadow, “when I was young, all I wanted to do was sing.” He left Hamlet and joined a Mazatlan band, Medusa – they toured for ten successful years all through Mexico. Still no instrument in sight. It wasn’t until he was 23 that the guitar attracted him – along with his young Canadian girlfriend Heather. Eventually, everyone got married – Alexis to the guitar and to Heather. They have three boys, all bilingual, all with Canadian and Mexican passports. Their world is as wide open as Alexis’s musical influences. He’s crazy about, well everyone. When you grow up watching Bugs Bunny, Sesame Street, The Muppets (Ernie and Kermit were his favourites) and with a mother who effortlessly belted out Aretha Franklin songs and a father who drummed like the guys in Earth Wind and Fire then you can’t possibly narrow your scope; it’s as large as the Pacific ocean.
I did manage to encourage him to finish these sentences: I am happiest when I am playing… “the blues.”
If you could play on any stage with anyone, dead or alive where and who would that be. Alexis practically curled up in a fetal position, scrunched up his face and finally said, “ok, it would be a Live Aid concert, with Led Zeppelin, Queen and Jimmy Hendrix. But I would be happy playing my guitar with Bob Marley or John Lennon, anywhere.”
Alexis was moaning, “you’re killing me, this is like a Rorschach test.” “Oh just relax, it’s nothing like a Roschach test, it’s simply Bernard Pivot’s classic questions, you’ll love this.”
What is your favourite word – peace
What is your least favourite word – anger
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally – passion
What turns you off – a bad attitude
What sound or noise do you hate – fear
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt – psychologist or an electrical engineer
What profession would you not like to do – a cop
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates – we’ve been waiting for you. Jimmy, Steve, and the rest of guys are in the room, let’s jam!
(October 2017: Alexis has returned to live in B.C. Canada. But he will be back this winter for several gigs – playing around town.Ah, the magical mystical world of music. Stay tuned or listen to him on MazatlanLife’s Bandstand)
The authority on Mazatlan’s port – Alfonso Gil Diaz
By Sheila Madsen, May 2015
[Updated – on October 13, 2016, after 22 years, Alfonso Gil Diaz retired and passed the baton to Ercé Barrón Barrera. Another “big” position could await him, but in the meantime he will spend more time with his family and probably go on more cruises.]In 1994, Alfonso Gil Diaz assumed the position of Director General of API Mazatlan, port director. API stands for Administración Portuaria Integral. During his twenty-one years (he’s held the job longer than any other Director General) Alfonso has seen the best of times and the worst of times.
Before we set sail and launch into his duties, let’s start at the beginning, with the sunrise part of the interview. Alfonso’s father escaped his strict (and affluent) parents by leaving Mexico City and making a new life in Mazatlan. His dad suddenly died in a tragic accident when Alfonso was only 4 ½ years old. Mum returned to Mexico City with her young family and together the three generations created a fulfilling and rewarding life in the capital. Alfonso was bright, responsible and eager to learn. His grandparents provided him with a top-notch education: law degree from UNAM, ( Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico), followed by an MBA from the prestigious ITAM, (Instituto Technológico Autónomo de Mexico).
Armed with two powerful degrees our port director practiced law for years and ended up as in-house counsel for The Xerox Corporation. During this time he met his wife Theresa (“she was my gift”), they married and had five children. As so many Mexicans state when they have lived and worked in Mexico City for about twenty years, and they have a family – many long to return to Mazatlan, to a simpler way of life. They are tired of sitting in traffic and they grow weary of the pollution. Xerox provided the ticket to get out of Dodge – Alfonso would own and operate a Xerox dealership in Mazatlan.
I’ve spent a small amount of personal time with Alfonso and his wife; he has the quickest and the driest sense of humour, it snaps like a twig. There’s almost always a pause and one funny word. Just. One. Word. I laughed out loud when he told me about the Xerox dealership, I couldn’t imagine him selling photocopiers. Of course, he had employees to do that, he’s just doesn’t seem like a Xerox/IBM kind of guy. Turns out the suit didn’t suit him either, but Mazatlan did.
How he got the job as API’s Director General. Alfonso had a friend who wanted the Director General’s position – it was vacant. Alfonso can reach out to more business connections than a giant octopus; if his arms can’t find so-and-so, then they have a friend who can. The port is federal and Alfonso connected the boss in Mexico City and his friend. Unfortunately, the friend had a shipping business and was told “no, it’s a conflict.” Fortunately for Alfonso, he just had a Xerox dealership and he asked straight out, “I’d like the job.” His background is typical for director of ports; in LA, NY and Miami all appointments come from the mayor and are held by men who have extensive experience in business, law and most importantly, management skills. Alfonso had it all and that is why he got the job at 48 years old and still has it today. Alfonso kept referring to “my boss in Mexico City” and I didn’t push it. It doesn’t matter who he is, but it’s a federal appointment with no political affiliations. In twenty-one years presidents come and go, parties are in and out of power but “the boss” seems to be independent. I think. And that brings us to the high noon portion of the interview.
There are two vital elements to our port of 170 years – cargo and cruise ships. It proved impossible to manage both effectively. The cargo portion is jobbed out (with formal bids every year) to an independent private company whose sole focus is on making the lucrative cargo portion work efficiently and economically. Suffice to say the world of cargo is massive and complicated. That team does not report to Alfonso Gil Diaz, but they do have regular meetings.
The habour master – the person in charge of the water, the pilots steering cruise ships in and out, issuing el mar de fondos (surges), issuing hurricane and storm warnings, everything that ensures safe cruise ship entering and exiting – also do not report to Alfonso Gil Diaz. They too, have regular meetings.
So, what does he do? Currently he has 50 employees plus 40 Marines for port and cruise ship docking security and 20 independent security employees that constantly patrol the area and docks. He and his wife have been on 15 cruises. Let’s say that’s five ports of call for each cruise; Alfonso has personally inspected 250 cruise terminals around the world. He maintains that our port has the best terminal he’s ever seen. And he aims to keep it that way. The standards are high, and he ensures that each and every cruise ship passenger has a first-class experience. He oversees all the concessions and weeds out the poor performers. He hires and fires outside personnel when necessary. His group also assists the city in ways that you wouldn’t think to connect to the port. For instance, all the Carnaval floats are constructed and stored at the port, as well as API supplies the Massey Harris tractors fueled by gas, to pull the floats during the parades. API spent money improving the Malecon from the Pedro Infante monument to the Fisherman’s monument – from new paving and repairs to supplying trash cans. “About 20 of us [various businesses, tour companies, Tourism, sanitation] meet four times a year, kind of a cruise committee, to see how API can help out. After all, we are a party city, if we can spare the employees, and if we have the resources we will contribute what we can.”
He also admits, “I have a glamorous job, it’s important to attend cruise line conventions around the world. Part of my job is public relations – to encourage them to dock in our port and to sell the great experience they will have in Mazatlan. We can handle four cruise ships now at the same time, perhaps five, my big dream is to expand, build and have seven cruise ships docking. But these past years have not been kind, the money is not there [for expansion]. In our best year we had 520,000 cruise ship passengers, we need to get that back and go beyond.”
I had to ask the question: “when there is ‘an incident’ what is the protocol, how is that handled with the cruise lines?” Alfonso responds, “please remember that safety and security outside the port are under the watch of city and state governments. Recently, Dr. Francisco Manuel Córdova Celaya, Minister of Tourism Sinaloa, went to Miami to talk with the Carnival Corporation and he may also have met with (in other states) Holland America, Princess, and Norwegian Cruise Lines. If they [the governor of Sinaloa, Mario López Valdez, Mazatlan’s mayor Carlos Felton González] want me to attend, I’d be happy to participate. But it’s really a state and city matter.” This was the moment to move onto the sunset section of the interview.
With retirement on the horizon, Alfonso is looking forward to spending more time with Theresa, his five children and eight grandchildren. But not all the time. He and Theresa want to continue to travel, and take more cruises. They both want to cruise through the Panama Canal and spend weeks in Europe. “I’m not bored yet with travelling.” While in Mazatlan he enjoys walking the Malecon, taking hundreds of digital photos, reading and watching the latest movies. Alfonso is a worldly man, not yet tired of the world.
As the sun sinks slowly into the port, Alfonso Gil Diaz wants to say to all the English speaking people – tourists, snowbirds, full-timers – “thank you, thank you for coming here, for spending money, for investing by buying houses and condos, for creating jobs and helping many Mexicans with your various charities. I am especially grateful to the Blue Shirt volunteers who have encouraged and inspired cruise ship passengers to explore Centro Historico – we needed that ‘walking’ revitalization. You’ve all made Mazatlan a better place.”
Rob Lamonica is not who you think he is. He’s way better.
Contributors: Gerard Koldyk (The Culinary Market); Alfredo Gómez Rubio (Pedro y Lola), Anne Heynen (loyal fan); Jennifer Woodman and Michael Hall (Social Café Lounge); Glenn Sorrie (Macaws/Casa de Leyendas). Facilitator: Sheila Madsen, April 2015
“ I have enjoyed listening to Rob since the first days I started visiting Mazatlan nine years ago and his live music formed a special part of the mosaic that attracted me to make Mazatlan my second home. Today, I miss the keyboard duels he would have with Phil (Neville) at the old Canucks but whenever possible, I take in Jazz Jam on Tuesdays at La Bohemia or his Sunday night ensemble at Pedro & Lola. I have always found Rob’s musical performances world class in that if he played in Vancouver, New York or London he would attract a crowd.” GK
“ I have known Rob since he arrived in Mazatlan. He’s a great musician, he has a great ear; he just lets it flow from jazz to blues. Rob is key to the entire music scene here – he includes Mexicans, Europeans, Canadians and Americans, he’s part of the transcendental music movement. He’s an important asset – Rob is merging cultures and also creating a vibrant hub for the foreign community. Mazatlan is the music city of the Pacific and people like Rob and Lori Davidson and Chris Henderson make our port unique. The diverse mix that Rob offers is exactly what will keep the momentum going in this music movement” AGR.
“ I cannot imagine the music scene in Mazatlan without Rob. He is so very versatile. He provides wonderful piano solos at Héctor’s Bistro. He also plays R&B at Chupiteria and C&W at Macaws. Where I see him really let go is at Jazz Jam. He switches his keyboard from piano to organ to suit the tune and that change produces other weird and wonderful sounds. It’s a jam session after all and his keyboard skills are outstanding at this venue. Rob is gracious and very appreciative of any tips. He is friendly and personable. He is so passionate about his music and it shows. I also like the way guests can play with him when they show up at Jazz Jam. Rob gives everyone a chance and we have had some wonderful surprises this past season.” AH
“His range of music is amazing. Rob and Lori (Davidson), we call them the dynamic duo, put on a real show. They not only compliment one another, they inspire one another, it’s truly a professional performance that people book weeks in advance to see. The audience really appreciates the mix of English and Spanish tunes.” JW/MH
“I have known Rob for over ten years and he has been at Macaws for five years (wow, has time flown by!) My experience with Rob has been a little different from others. I am a “retired” drummer and have a soft spot for musicians. As you know, the talent in Mazatlan is amazing and Rob is no exception. What makes him different is the uniqueness of his style and personality. He loves to play all genres and styles of music including soft “elevator” background, soft and hard rock, jazz, blues, country, reggae and whatever comes. And, he does it by ear without reading music. I have watched him grow over the years and he just exudes the love and passion he has for his music. Rob can be the backup to another artist, take the lead, or do a single. It’s all good to him. He’s an amazing talent and we are lucky to have him in Mazatlan and I am very pleased to feature him at Macaws. In addition to his musical talent, Rob is a compassionate person. He cares about others and it shows by his large following.” GS
When I read those quotes to Rob he misted up and said “wow, those are words you’d expect to hear at a funeral. But I am alive! I have a deep sense of gratitude, those comments validate that I am on the right path.”
Before he arrived in Mazatlan in 2003: Rob Lamonica was born in New Haven Connecticut. His family moved to Oceanside California when he was six and his parents had enough money to buy an upright piano and an organ for their musically inclined children. Rob’s mother encouraged him to take piano lessons. He did. While his piano teacher was a sweet elderly woman (who also required an oxygen tank), Rob found the lessons boring; besides he could already play all the melodies. “My brain just doesn’t work that way.” He’d rather skip classes and ride his bike. When he graduated from a bike to a car he’d listen to Billy Joel, The Eagles and Elton John on the radio. “I gravitated towards soft rock and ballads.”
It’s off to college (California State University, Chico) in 1995 where he majored in English Lit. He’d have on- again -off -again gigs, open mic nights and to increase his spending money he worked in a taco shop selling three tacos for a dollar. You might say his love of Mexico started there. But it didn’t. You might think with his love of music and literature he’d work in a related field. But he didn’t. He spent three dreadful years as a sales person in his family’s real estate company. Rob would personally buy new sinks, or counter tops to please his prospective clients! His sister noticed his financial and emotional meltdown and whisked him off to Cabo for five days of R&R. That was the aha moment, life could be different, “I don’t need to live like this.”
Rob randomly chose Mazatlan. No reason, no friends, no connections. From the above quotes you can see how quickly Rob and his keyboard made friends, attracted audiences and won the hearts of minds of everyone. Twelve years later Rob has a full dance card. Not a single night off and he wouldn’t change a thing. I asked him if he could fulfill one fantasy, dead or alive, what would it be? Without hesitation, he answered “I’d like to play at Red Rocks (Colorado) with my keyboard, an upright piano and a Hammond organ. I’d love to play for/with Eric Clapton and Ray Charles.”
To wrap-up our chat I moved onto the classic Bernard Pivot questions:
What is your favourite word – music
What is your least favourite word – hate
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally – inspiring stories
What turns you off – war
What sound or noise do you love – the piano
What sound or noise do you hate – gun fire
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt – writing
What profession would you not like to do – sales
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates – we are all equal
(This interview took place on May 15, 2015. It’s now 2017, and Rob is busier than a one-armed paper hanger. You’ll find in him on THE FAIRLY ACCURATE MUSIC Schedule To listen to Rob on MazatlanLife’s Bandstand click here)
From shoeshine boy to a captain of industry
By Sheila Madsen (with translation by Fernando Becerra, January 2015)
I am so delighted that Fernando Becerra couldn’t stop talking about his father. Every time I bought my frozen shrimp from him at MercaMar, Fernando revealed more details, always wrapped in respect, pride and love. A picture was forming in my mind – from a shoeshine boy to owner of a shrimp fleet. It’s a success story just bursting to be shared.
Meet the dad: Dr. Humberto Becerra Batista. With Fernando translating, this humble Mazatleco agreed to share his story. At the age of eight Humberto had loads of energy and was always on the move, always looking to make money – so he could contribute to the family coffers. When his fisherman father gave him a shoeshine kit for his eight birthday he saw peso signs and immediately took to the streets (in Spanish, a shoeshine boy is called a bolero) and pestered all his neighbours to have their shoes shined.
When his father returned from the sea he quickly put a stop to the bolero. Humberto was only to shine shoes for the family, he was was not to make money from the kit – a bolero was not a career path. Humberto waited a few years until he was 11 and could then be employed as a bag boy at various supermarkets. Humberto says, “I was restless, I was always looking for the next job. I have a clear memory that after high school I had no idea of what I wanted to do. I had been scraping rust off my father’s boat and my father said to me ‘choose a career now, or I’ll throw you overboard.’ ”
Humberto chose dentistry. That explains the title Doctor on his business card. He had a successful practice in Guadalajara and in Mazatlan for nine years. Even if you have a big mouth, it’s a small space to work in and Humberto longed for a larger landscape. He returned to the old man in the sea – his father. Together again, they divided the duties; one did the fishing, the other the freezing and selling. Their market expanded every month. Guadalajara is the second largest buyer of shrimp in Mexico and Humberto easily conquered that territory. Sam’s Club was buying their frozen squid chorizos, they couldn’t keep up with the demand. In 1993, they formalized their partnership under the corporate name of Promarex. The plant is located in Mazatlan and because its number one customer is the United States the tag line is in English – Export Quality Seafood Products.
From September to March his five shrimp boats each with a crew of seven cast its nets along the coast – usually 20 miles out for four weeks at a time. All the cleaning, and flash freezing, (in salt water, two hours after the catch) is done on board and the shrimp are further processed at Promarex and then shipped to the U.S. or the number two client, Japan. Americans like the blue and white shrimp, while the Japanese prefer the small brown shrimp. From April until October the fleet fishes for squid. A new shrimp boat costs around $700,000 dollars and is equipped with bathrooms and many also have showers and air conditioning. The crew receives a percentage of the catch; if they fish for all 12 months it’s an annual salary of approximately $120,000 pesos.
A year ago Humberto became bored (again) and launched his retail store MercaMar. I believe the thinking went something like this: why have all this fabulous frozen seafood – shrimp, squid, shark, tuna, swordfish, lobster and hake in a huge plant just to be exported? Why not keep small portions of each and sell it at a reasonable price to the people of Mazatlan? That’s the gist of the translation, but the accurate quote comes from the son, Fernando “what defines us the most is that we have the best prices in town, we are trying to delete the taboo that fish is expensive.”
Six months ago Humberto became bored (again) and decided to build a tuna boat. Well, why not – his brother owns a shipyard. Humble Humberto says “it’s a modest boat which will hold 240 tons of tuna and will have the latest equipment for cleaning and freezing.” This modest boat comes with a 2.5 million dollar price tag. Humberto goes on “oh, this is a small boat, some cost 25 million dollars and have their own helicopter pad.” How much tuna do you need to sell to make your 2.5 million back? Humberto responds “I think I will need a year and half and then the bank will be happy.” It’s a bit of a risky business; 240 tons of tuna can be caught in one week or in one month. It all depends on where the tuna are and how good the captain is. “If you own a boat with a helicopter the helicopter locates the tuna and you are able to catch more, faster – but that’s for the rich owners, that’s not me,” says Humberto.
He’s only 56 and his green eyes are shining with future plans. He wants to grow the processing plant and he’s already introducing new products to Mazatlan. If they sell in his two stores, MercaMar, then he will know if he has a larger market in Mexico and South America.
Humberto Becerra Batista certainly lives up to the definition of a captain of industry: “a business leader who contributes to his community in a positive way.” The shoeshine boy has made his father proud.
(MercaMar no longer has any retail outlets]
The passions of Alfredo Gómez Rubio
By Sheila Madsen, October 2014
For 14 years Alfredo Gómez Rubio has been carrying a torch for Centro Historico. His vision and his passions have ensured this flame continues to burn bright. Just try selling “centro hysterical” in 2000 – not many buyers. Then, all eyes were on the Zona Dorada. Today, the eyeballs are all on Centro Historico and its revitalization.
Alfredo is a delightful mass of energy; if he’s not talking on the phone, he’s scanning the screen or he’s tapping his iPad. He’s the consummate multitasker but he always keeps his brown eyes on the prize. Despite not having any electronic gadgets in the 70s and 80s he successfully managed to master English in a Catholic military school in California for grades 7 and 8. He completed his education at Monterrey Tech; graduating with two degrees – a BA in biochemistry, followed by an MBA.
Even though the Plazuela Machado was deserted in the mid 80s that didn’t stop Alfredo from launching a food processing plant (tuna, yogurt, shrimp) or opening an Irish pub on the corner of Heriberto Frias called Café Pacifico – where Vintage bar is located today. The entrepreneur continued his buying spree. In 1997, he opened Pedro & Lola (on December 22 the restaurant will turn 17 years old) and he bought the Melville Hotel in 1999. Lots of properties, but no players on this Mazatlan Monopoly board. Alfredo Gómez Rubio was not enjoying the way the dice were rolling in this game.
His Get Out of Jail Free card came in the form of a 2001 DC conference called Main Street. Cities around the world were desperate to reclaim their downtown core and this symposium of smart minds offered attendees the recipe to revitalize these areas. Alfredo returned to Mazatlan armed with inspiration and a solid plan. With a lot of help from old families, in 2002 Proyecto Centro Historico was born.
Alfredo never let go of the torch. He says, “our group focused on getting things done, we were really pragmatic, we had a process, it was none of this blah, blah, blah.” The original 2002 mission statement reads: “Proyecto Centro Histórico, A.C. (the Historic Center Project) is a multidisciplinary group of citizens and organizations that have joined forces to improve the conditions for the development of Old Mazatlan by enhancing its identity and heritage, based on four principles: organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring.” All the members of Proyecto Centro Historico are volunteers, except for one paid manager. Today, there are 15 members and Manrry Fuentevilla is the full-time manager.
There were the good times from 2002 – 2008 when Mazatlan was having a mini boom, the cruise ships were docking, condos were sprouting up faster than bamboo shoots and tourists were flocking to our beaches. “Centro was becoming cool and coffee was hot. Six years ago there were no coffee shops in Centro and now we have more coffee houses and spas than lawyers’ offices” says Alfredo. Despite the recent dark years, Alfredo goes on to say, “Centro has thrived as a community, it’s a place to meet your friends and we have many, many more choices such as Janet Blaser’s organic market, The Culinary Market, the Becerra’s Casa Garcia, Water’s Edge, and Héctor’s Bistro (formerly Molika). We have business people making investments, they are here for the long term, they love the history and they want to make Centro a success.”
Our mayor, Carlos Felton González, recently approved plans to spend $28 million pesos on five separate projects. Alfredo admitted the money would trickle down slowly (federal, state and city officials are all involved) but the first project to be completed “soon” is the Carpa Olivera. That’s the natural sea pool opposite the old Canucks, now La Chupiteria, beside Rodrigo Becerra’s mermaid monument. I frown at the name Carpa Olivera and Alfredo adds “don’t bother to translate that, it means nothing, it’s named after an old family. This is my pet project, I love to swim and imagine it lit up at night, with possibly a small food and drink concession overlooking the ocean. How (insert expletive) great would that be?”
As he gathers his electronic toys from the lunch table I think about how much I appreciate the passions of Alfredo Gómez Rubio. Centro’s time has come and we have the man with the magic torch to make it all happen.
(If you are interested in volunteering for Proyecto Centro Historico – you don’t need to speak Spanish – please call Manrry Fuentevilla at 985 4980. You can discuss the area which best suit your talents: organization, design, promotion or economics. If you wish to donate money you’ll receive a tax receipt.)
Sixty minutes with Gabriela Rodriguez Garcia
By Sheila Madsen (September, 2014)
Gabriela Rodriguez Garcia quietly walks through the beautiful courtyard at Casa Garcia stopping to speak with friends and staff. I’ve met her briefly once before and she is gracious, elegant and calm. It’s as if she’s just come from a meditation session, she has a tranquil yet open manner. We quickly establish we were born in the same year and that I may call her by her first name, Gabriela.
She’s at home at Casa Garcia because it was her grandparent’s house, and now it belongs to her and her four sons. Before we meet the kids, let me tell you a little about her early days; it was an unusual path for a Mexican woman of her generation. Born in Mexico City she spent her childhood surrounded by the arts, culture and the buzz of DF. For her high school education, her parents decided on a Catholic boarding school in Chicago. She told me “I loved it, of course all my studies were in English, and I made many friends.” Her parents were originally from Mazatlan and the family would often return for holidays. She remembers staying at Casa Garcia with her grandmother and aunt – the house was on the second floor, and her grandmother rented out the ground floor for office space. It was a necessary business to pay the bills for the upkeep on this mansion.
After Chicago, Gabriela returned to DF and got her BA in economics. (Recently, she obtained her master’s degree in marketing and business. Stay with me, you’ll see this woman never stops.) In 1970, she married in DF and now we can meet the kids – the four Becerra brothers. From eldest to youngest: Roberto (engineer); Diego (chef); Rodrigo (sculptor, designer, architect, owner of La Mona Pizza); Rodolfo (business manager). When talking about her boys she becomes both animated and aggravated. They drove her crazy as active teenagers always in various accidents, some serious, other just enough to make her worry. “The worst was when Diego took up bullfighting, OMG it was terrible, I was really mad. But now they have settled down and all married nice girls. I think they even cook and do the dishes, they are good husbands.”
The family left DF in 1986 so the boys really spent (misspent?) their youth in Mazatlan. Raising four children didn’t curb Gabriela’s desires; she proceeded to learn Italian, join a book club, take a printmaking course from Glen Rogers, and still takes painting lessons from Lucila Santiago. She loves to travel and last year she met Diego in Spain and then went on to Paris. She begins her day with yoga, then meets friends at The Looney Bean, squeezes in an art or language class, lunches solo at home at 3 p.m., perhaps a small siesta then she’ll join friends for dinner at Héctor’s Bistro (formerly Molika) or Casa Garcia. Gabriela tries to see three movies a week, attend the Angela Peralta during the season and always reads a book before she goes to bed.
I asked her “when do you have time for family dinners?” “Well, we are 17 (each couple has two children) so it’s either at my house or here at Casa Garcia, but all of us make the time. I feel very Mexican, I love the culture and these family dinners are important. In 2009 when we began the renovation of this ruin, I was involved 100%. I’d supervise the architect, it was a great big job – remember it was full of rocks and stones. It was a large project but now that it’s over I just look after the gardens and plants. The boys manage the business and I can travel, I can do anything I want!”
Right now, Gabriela Rodriguez Garcia wants to wrap-up our interview. She has friends to meet, a Spanish play to see at the Angela Peralta, photos to take for her painting classes, a historic novel to read and she has some short stories she wants to write. My sixty minutes were up and as I watched her depart her beloved restored ruin I was left with this observation; Gabriela lives each and every day with a passionate serenity.
(Casa Garcia houses the restaurants El Presidio and Compañia Minera, the upscale Mexican cantina. It’s located on Niños Heroes and Mariano Escobedo in Centro. If you would like to read reviews and updates on these restaurants, please click here.)
Playa Mazatlan proudly presents Lance Vient and the fine family affair
By Sheila Madsen (August 2014)
In 1953 American adventurer and contractor, Ulysses Solomon George, built a family-style hotel miles north of the popular Olas Altas strip. Everyone thought he was nuts. Except John Wayne, Rock Hudson and a bunch of other celebrities who flocked to the Playa Mazatlan Beach Hotel in 1955 for hunting, fishing, swimming, sun bathing, whale watching and various other sports. The friendly Mazatlecos who had never seen Americans before, welcomed the California visitors with open arms. And vice versa!
Lance left a lucrative position as corporate director of sales for the University of Phoenix to return to his hometown and family business. He was used to working independently in Phoenix and now, well he’s surrounded by family and lots of opinions. As a husband and father of three he embraces family life, but it’s been an adjustment incorporating the family members into a business career. “I’ve only being doing this job for four years and my father has 40 years of experience, he sees things I don’t see yet. I have a lot to learn from him. My 92 year-old grandmother, Bernetta Vient, has a point of view, as do my aunts and uncles and other family friends. I am not without input. Sometimes I feel I have all the responsibility and none of the power to make changes! Yet changes are made and we are exceeding our goals of being the number one family hotel in Mazatlan.”
If you want to know the real Lance Vient, that’s easy – just read TripAdvisor. He responds to each and every posting. He does not delegate that task, it’s not scripted, there are no templates for answers. He cares about your complaints (there are hardly any) and he passionate about correcting any mistakes the hotel has made. That’s the way this blue-eyed, energetic manager starts his day – at the computer, scanning posts and responding. That’s the reason 85% of his business is repeat business. People freely write “we’ve been customers for 51 years (insert, 20, 15, 5 years) and we’ve already booked for next year. Please thank (insert employee names) and we can’t wait to come home again.” Too good to be true? Nope, this is the real deal. This is what makes Playa Mazatlan a mum and pop hotel. “We are not into real estate, we are not selling timeshares, we need full occupancy, this is our legacy” says Lance.
- 1955 – Lance Vient’s great grandfather, Ulysses Solomon George, adored Mazatlan – the wildlife, the beautiful Mexican women, the Sinaloa cuisine and decided to build a hotel; it opened with 80 rooms in 1955
- 2010 – Lance Vient assumes position of operations manager
- 2014 – third largest hotel in Mazatlan
- #1 family hotel in Mazatlan
- 405 rooms
- 437 employees
- 85% repeat business (the night pie slices this way: 12,000 hotel nights, 20,000 condo nights )
- Playa Mazatlan has it’s own: carpentry shop, butcher shop, bakery, seven pools, 600 foot zip line, rock climbing wall, a temazcal (sweat lodge), 11 food and beverage areas, fitness centre, a spa, and The Venado Showroom
Rewind. Lance begins his day by dropping his daughters off at school, then has breakfast with his grandmother and then he hits the office computer. After that, he walks through the hotel, around the grounds, talking (and listening) to guests and employees. He loves to point out the time span in the architecture – flat concrete roof, to clay tiles, to the more ornate wrought iron balconies. Playa Mazatlan represents the construction changes from 1953 to 2014. On the way to The Venado Showroom he shows me the different tiles embedded in the stairs. It’s another family tradition; whenever a bathroom is renovated some of the tiles are saved and inserted into the next new construction. It’s a way of preserving past styles. Nothing says the past and present better than The Venado Showroom. It was his dad’s idea to have the changing balcony-scapes and Lance updated this charming room with state-of-the art staging, lighting and sound system. It’s the perfect example of how this family continues to honour the past with an eye for the future.
When you are twenty-year old bilingual man with dual citizenship there’s more on your mind than hanging around the family hotel. Lance set his sights for Arizona and followed his dream to become a cop. He was close to completing all the necessary requirements when an incident occurred that changed his career path. He went to university majoring in business with a minor in marketing. Day jobs included being an office clerk at Mail Boxes Etc. in a dreary Phoenix strip mall. In his down time he created ornate tattoo designs. Lance is rather famous for his tattoo designs – he himself has never been inked. (His latest artwork project is much larger than a tattoo pattern; take a look inside the Kids Club at Playa, all the murals are hand painted by Lance.) At thirty with a wife and three children, Lance knew it was time to return to the family business – because he always felt that’s where he really belonged.
At four-years old Lance would twirl in his father’s leather swivel chair, hands laced behind his head, proclaiming “some day this will be my office.” Lance’s ten year-old daughter is doing much the same thing, but being a girl (and girls can do anything) she’s got bigger ideas. She’s not after an office, she’s eyeing the whole property and already making improvements. What a relief! Playa Mazatlan will continue to be a fine family affair.
(Playa Mazatlan hosts “really big shows” for its guests and for the public – from fiesta galas to the new Mazatlan Comedy Club. For all events please click here and scroll down.)
Antonio López Saenz was born in Mazatlan in 1936. He is perhaps Sinaloa’s most famous living artist and sculptor. He graciously agreed to an interview with the host of Artists Studios, Cecilia Sánchez Duarte. Of course this is not the first time Maestro has been interviewed, but it is the first time he’s allowed his originals to be reproduced digitally, or via giclee printing. All under the watchful marketing eye of his nephew, Victor Manuel López de la Paz. The artist spoke to Cecilia about his early life (he left Mazatlan for Mexico City when he was 15) and the great masters who influenced him. He also gives advice to all young artists: travel, be open, surround yourself with culture, and keep on being inspired. Antonio López Saenz still paints every single day. The conversation between Antonio and Cecilia is so warm, intimate and animated that to distill a section of it into English would be like ripping a finished canvass in half. This dialogue must remain whole. Besides, his work does not require a translation, it flows directly to your heart.
Meet Queen Lupita 1964 and Queen Lissy 1995 – one of the first mother daughter Carnaval queens
Lori – lean, lovely, live!
By Sheila Madsen
On a humid Friday morning at 11 a.m singer Lori Davidson could not get a pulmonia. Her long auburn hair is swinging in the breeze, she’s wearing tight hot pink jeans teamed with a black tank top, revealing milky white skin, dusted with freckles. A single silver heart is dangling from her neck. Her corn flower blue eyes light up when I hand her a glass of cold water and she drinks in the ocean view. This gal’s a babe. And she couldn’t get a pulmonia?
This gal hails from San Francisco. Lori began playing the guitar when she was eight years old. The classical music phase lasted two years. The rock, blues, jazz and all the alternate sounds eventually wooed her away from Bach. She was a traditional young woman by day, attending Pepperdine University, but at night, she’d take a walk on the wild side; she’d hitch hike to Santa Barbara, sing and play her guitar in the streets earning a few dollars. Lori transferred to San Francisco State University, and graduated with a degree in English literature. What does a beautiful redhead, with a killer voice do with an English lit degree? You marry bass player Ken Embrey, take day jobs and sing at night.
Lori says: “Ken Embrey’s finger prints are all over my back. He challenged me, he pushed me, he gave me confidence in my singing, he did nothing but encourage me and make me a better performer and songwriter.” Wow, not many ex wives say that about their ex husbands. Together they played with Bay Area blues favourite, Tommy Castro, and performed in hundreds of other blues gigs. Together they “drove truck” for seven years. 5,300 miles every week from Sacramento to Dallas, 24/7. Together they bought houses, and a boat, wrote songs, and shared dreams.
Ken was playing bass for the legendary blues pioneer, John Lee Hooker. His only lead female singer got sick. This was no small venue, this was LA’s Hollywood Bowl, this was the annual Playboy Jazz Festival. Ken suggested his wife, Lori, to the humble sharecropper. The master of the R&B rock said, hell yes, bring her in. No rehearsal time, Lori does her sound check. The great John Lee Hooker has a single comment, “you can kick it up.” Lori Davidson steps on revolving stage and asks, as she always does at every gig, “who’s ready for the blues?” 18,000 people screamed and applauded, that’s a high this redhead will never forget.
Four years ago Lori and Ken sailed into Mazatlan to duck a storm. To everything there is a season, and it was time for Lori and Ken to go their separate ways. Lori’s dance card is booked solid in various Mazatlan venues. She’s a band with many names: The Lori Davidson Band, Wingin It!, Lori Live at Social, or Lori and Rob at Social. By day she reads (heck she’s written a book, Cedar Creek, you can find it on Kindle) and treats her voice as an instrument. She mists, drinks tea (with honey and lime), does vocal warm ups and then practices silence. “I’d admit I love to talk, so the most difficult part is not to speak two hours before a performance!”
I ask the question that has been on the tip of my tongue for months, “what’s it like to have a Mexican boyfriend?” Lori strokes her silver heart (we know who that belongs to) and simply says, “he’s the best of the modern world, he’s the best of the old fashioned world. He’s chivalrous in all the ways I want from a man.” This gal is lovin’ her man, her simple life, and the lack of consumerism she happily ditched in the United States. Lori wishes for nothing more, she wants nothing more. Well, perhaps one tiny wish – to sing with Bonnie Raitt.
The Music Man from Mazatlan, Rafael Rodriquez
By Sheila Madsen
“Rafael, all you have to do is say his name and everyone knows who you are talking about…a very talented guitar player and singer, he draws people into his music, from romantic, to up-on-your feet dancing – he’s a true gentleman.” That’s an enthusiastic quote from Eileen Moore co-owner of the restaurant Topolo. Ardent fans of Rafael, Mary and Wally Glavind, have this to say: “Arriving in Mazatlan we had no idea it would be a musician that would make our stay so memorable. But sitting under the palapa listening to Rafael Rodriquez our first evening, we knew we had found something special; excellent music from a very talented guitarist and vocalist. From the first note we felt, rather than heard, the soul of Mexico.”
Rafael arrived for his interview two minutes early dressed in pressed khaki pants, and a beige shirt with a repeat pattern of bamboo shoots, socks on, shoes polished. He’s a serious, soft spoken man who only asked for a glass of tepid water; nothing too hot, nothing too cold to spoil his voice. At 49 this professional knows what he wants, he’s clearly focused on his goals. As with many musicians his journey has taken its twists and turns. There are three children, two ex wives, stints in various universities from Mazatlan, to Guadalajara, to UNAM in Mexico City and gigs with bands named Los Navegantes and Extasis. He briefly wanted to be an accountant (he’s good with numbers) but since he’s been strumming on a guitar from the age of eight, music became the food of his life and he played on.
The good with numbers bit is important; his first gigs were with Sr. Peppers, Gus Gus and Casa Club El Cid. He knew not to rely on tips, but to ask for a flat fee. And thirteen years later after he went solo, he still plays that way. Rafael does confess he counts on tips and sales of his cds. He also quickly adds that he pays into the musician union and the various branches of the tax department. This once upon a time wannabe bean counter takes care of business. Perhaps that’s why owners like Jen Woodman of Social, and the volunteers of Hospice dinner dance so enjoy hiring him. He shows up on time, every time, and puts on a really great show.
His music inspiration comes trova, Cuban trova. One trova definition is: to qualify as a trovador in Cuba you must be able to sing songs of your own composition, accompany yourself on the guitar and deal poetically with the song. Trova began around 1885 and the traditions continue today in Cuba. Rafael has composed four songs and just recorded them in Guadalajara. If you see him around town, perhaps ask him to play an original. I think it’s safe to say Rafael meets the criteria of a trova.
Born in Mazatlan, he learned English here and in his travels to universities. He has a genuine love for English music and studies the words, the nuances and meaning during the day. Currently, Adele has captured his interest and Rafael is learning some of her hits. Whenever I hear Rafael play, I want to tell people to stop talking and to listen. “Does this make you angry?” He’s matured and his response is: “At first I was very mad, I wanted to stop the music! Eventually I understood it’s part of my job. My voice is stronger, now I know I have a talent, I was born for this. I am very proud to be a musician. I enjoy every night. I imagine I am putting on a concert.” Rafael Rodriquez does not need to imagine he’s putting on a concert, he does.
(you can follow Rafael’s musical whereabouts on our “fairly accurate daily music schedule” or if you wish to hire Rafael just call his cell – 669 161 2772)
Let’s see what’s new with David Robb
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Contemporary dance lights up our stages
By Sheila Madsen
Claudia Lavista and Victor Manuel Ruiz ignited the creative torch in 1992 by forming Delfos danza contemporanea. Based in Mexico City, the dance troupe quickly became internationally famous. A smart and very sensitive person with vision in Mazatlan’s, Cultura office, Mr. Ricardo Urquijo, wooed Delfos to Mazatlan in 1998. At the same time as Delfos was receiving rave reviews, the government encouraged Lavista and Ruiz to design a four year BA program for dance, known as EPDM – Escuela Professional de Danza de Mazatlan, The Professional School of Dance of Mazatlan. This is where the torch of eternal flame gets passed between Delfos and the school. If you are chosen to be part of the EPDM family, only 22 students each year, then you also get to share in the Delfos’ massive creative injection of international proportions. Just look at what they are doing and the interesting workshops being invited here to enhance their education.
Delfos and the school collaborated for the “Let it Be”, an extravaganza at the baseball stadium- a tribute to the Beatles and Queen. I was there and was in awe of this complex, talented, joyous performance. I particularly enjoyed watching Maestro Enrique Patron de Rueda doing some serious multi-tasking. He’s a famous opera orchestra conductor and had no problem directing “Freddie Mercury”, the “Beatles Band”, the Angela Peralta and the Guillermo Sarabia Chorus, the Britania Quintet and high flying dancers. Imagine. Imagine being a dance student on that stage with 8000 people in the audience clapping and cheering. Between the fireworks, dry ice, music, the constant, yet ever changing videos and Patron’s baton, how much more exciting does it get for a twenty year old?
Even when they are off stage, the lights are on and plenty of people are home to further their dance education. Lyn Wiltshire, is a professor of dance in the Department of Theatre and Dance at The University of Texas, Austin. She recently met with the Mazatlan Institute of Culture and Arts Director, Mr. Raúl Rico, to establish an exchange program. Students from Austin and Mazatlan can now obtain academic credits while studying and gaining new cultural and artistic experiences. Laura Faure, Director of the Bates Dance Festival in the U.S., gave two conferences on contemporary dance in the U.S. and the upcoming Bates dance festival. The festival, according to Claudia Lavista, “is a fantastic space for contemporary dance, which every year turns out to be a paradise for the dancers that have the opportunity to live the experience. This festival integrates a magnificent group of choreographers, teachers, musicians, dancers, students and lovers of dance.” Students soak up these lectures like solar panels.
The light gets brighter with Shamou’s visit to the dance school. He’s a fantastic percussionist from Iran. He plays live music during his workshops providing an enriching experience for students and teachers. April brings Argentinean choreographer Leandro Kees and the Colombian dancer Marcela Ruiz for a five week workshop. They will collaborate with the Delfos dancers to create two new choreographic pieces. On July 2 you’ll see those results when Delfos and the graduating class present a Gen.X performance. However, on May 9, Leandro Kees will be presenting his own show; Antropomorfia, at the Angela Peralta Theatre. This project has many Mexican financial contributors and is bound to stretch all creative boundaries.
Last weekend I thought I was in a funky New York gallery. But no, it was our local Recrea, which had provided space to 4th year students. I really can’t describe this surprise and delight art installation. It was constructed from hundreds of cardboard boxes complete with peep holes for live dancers, videos, candle lights, and various models doing weird and wonderful things. Everything they do is leading edge, arty, fun, and professional, proving again the creative flame burns brightly throughout Mazatlan, no matter the stage. These dancers break all the rules, because are no rules, and that’s exactly what you should expect this spring in the theatre – the unexpected.
(The Delfos Dance Company and the school, EPDM, are both located right beside the Angela Peralta Theatre, in the Municipal Centre for Arts. It’s easy to spot the dancers gliding through the Plazuela Machado: look at their posture, their hair, their make-up, their clothes and the sparks of energy emitting from their long limbs.)
Born to paint – Lucila Santiago
Born in Mexico City in 1952, Lucila followed her mother to Mazatlan 20 years ago. She has been drawing as soon as she could grasp a crayon: “since I was three years old all I wanted to was draw and paint; no dolls for me.” Her father always kept her supplied with art books. There were no family discussion, no debates; Lucila was to become an artist. Her parents even built her a private art studio in their backyard so she could experiment with all forms of art, including sculpture. No tree house for this girl.
As a teenager she was inspired by Vincent van Gough, and then at 16, “I skipped school and visited the house of Frida Kahlo in Coyacan and Diego Rivera.” Besides these great artists I asked who else inspired her: “all my teachers; I studied visual arts, which includes video, installation, multi media photography, copper and enamel, I loved it all.” Just look at her mystical, fuzzy impressionistic paintings and you can see her influences. In a follow up e-mail: “you asked about my favourite painters and I told you about a German group back in the 80’s called Jóvenes Salvajes, among them, my favourite is Anselm Kiefer, but I have many favourite painters, also of all times, like Velázquez, Tápies, Orozco, Toledo, and Tuymans.”
Santiago is the size of a crayon, very shy, and whispers that she currently teaches in the Municipal Arts Centre. I believe the school has been re named – The Ricardo Urquijo Betran Art School- in honour of this great man who did so much for the arts of Mazatlan. Ricardo and Lucila would often travel to the small country towns on Sundays and give art classes. She misses this kind, wonderful man and mourns his death. “Who will go to these pueblos now and teach the children about art, flowers and birds” she wonders.
Lucila’s paintings are hanging around the word: Mexico City, Spain, Athens, Brazil, New Zealand and Canada. She admits she works quickly and she can finish two canvases a month. Often she has a photo, but most times the idea is already formed in her mind and the acrylic tubes get squeezed and the brush dances over the canvas. She listens to jazz, Brazilian and classical music while she paints. She is part of the Glen Rogers’s printmaking exchange group and was recently in Bluseed, Sarnac, New York State. “I felt blessed to be in another environment, another country to be sharing and painting.”
As she was sipping her ginger ale her body language indicated she was terribly uncomfortable talking about herself. She would be much happier at home painting in her living room. I cut the interview short, because after all, her paintings are worth way more than any of my words.