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How Was Your Day … Mexico City Salsa Emcee?

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Carlos Avila
Mexico City

Today was fine, quiet. I work from 8 to 5, then I get washed, put on my suit and come to Salón Los Angeles. I use a different voice when I’m on the mic to when I’m working in my shop. You have to charm people. During the songs I relax and think of what to say. You can’t smoke in here, but I hide the cigarette across the palm of my hand. It makes my voice sound gravelly. Salón Los Angeles has been open for 78 years. I’ve been the emcee here for half of them.

You’d have to call this a hobby, though: To make a living, I sell toys and gift-wrapping in this neighborhood. But this is what I live for. I’ve seen them all pass through here: Tin Tan, Cantinflas, Tito Puente. Cubans, Venezuelans, tropicalia musicians from Acapulco, they’ve all come through here. A month ago, we had the youngest member of the Buena Vista Social Club in. He’s 70. The best was Dámaso Pérez Prado, the guy who invented mambo. He was tapping into something very deep, very special — primordial. There’s a shrine to him at the back of the room; you’ll see people stopping to bless themselves when they pass. It’s like he’s a saint. In a way he is, for the impact he had on people.

The neighborhood around here, Guerrero, has always been tough. It’s one of the toughest in the city, everybody in Mexico City knows that. But while everywhere else is modernizing and becoming more expensive, this has stayed a barrio for the people. Guerrero is always going to be Guerrero. But there is something different now. There are more assaults, more robberies. Young kids who have nothing to do join gangs and take a place over. They’re not like we were. They want different things: luxury hotels, cars, electronic things, I don’t know what. Everything finishes at 10 p.m. here, so I’m not scared going home, personally. The crowds on a Tuesday and Sunday have all known one another for years. A lot of the married couples who still come here met here. There’s never any problems. It’s a little oasis, a little bubble. Salón Los Angeles is never going to change. When you come here, you travel back in time. You’re in the golden age again.

The difference between our generation and the kids causing problems is that young people now are very impatient. When they want something, they have to have it immediately. I think that explains everything. When I started with salsa and danzón [a late-19th-century precursor to salsa], I accepted that they were complicated. So I watched the older ones. I studied them. I didn’t just jump in with my limbs hopping everywhere like kids do these days. Honestly, they can’t even make eye contact. First I studied what to do; only afterward did I start dancing. Complicated things like danzón are about paying attention — and paying attention makes the complicated things simple. That has implications for how you relate to other people. Back when I was their age, you’d get to know your girlfriend faster. After three dances, she’d already be your girlfriend — because you knew her. You made eye contact, you paid attention to her, and that was it. Today, in these places where it’s just beer and screaming, after maybe three drinks you’ve figured out each other’s names. That’s nothing. That’s not connection. Of course, dancing was also my filter. If we didn’t do well together on the floor, I’m afraid it was goodbye.

This isn’t a place for young people, really. You won’t find better people than the Tuesday and Sunday crowds who come for danzón. They’re not rich, and they never were, never will be. Most of us are drawing pensions now. Instead of going out and spending money on things, they would save up their 100 pesos ($7.25) to pay for an evening together.

The rising violence isn’t a problem here. The problem is the economic situation. It’s the same old story: The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer. The dance hall’s not covering its own expenses at the moment, for example. They enlarged the floor in the ’90s to fill the whole space, but we struggle to fill it nowadays. There’s a lot of competition from smaller, louder places. But here at Salón Los Angeles, we can forget about all that. This is the most peaceful dance hall in the city. It’s come through worse times than the ones we’re in now. The 1985 earthquake hit Guerrero harder than any other neighborhood. Over there, in the Tlatelolco apartment complexes, it was a complete mess. We closed the dance hall for a month — not just to tidy up, but out of respect for everyone in the neighborhood who’d died. But two weeks after the earthquake, there was a queue around the corner. They were clamoring to get in, all dressed up like pachucos.

I remember going out to them and saying, “Guys, we’re closed, you know this. Two more weeks and we’ll be open again.” And I remember them saying back, “They might be dead, but we want to dance!”

So we opened the doors.

 — As told to Tim MacGabhann 

Photos by Alexandra Washburn