With a Song
How a local immigrant became an honored friend and host to Vicente Fox.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
The surprising synergy that led former Mexican president Vicente Fox to Monterey County last week started with a song, a powerful song that made powerful people cry.
Local contractor and mariachi singer Jose Buenrostro was wearing his embroidered mariachi best when he approached the knot of people surrounding Fox in the lobby of a San Jose hotel after an event Oct. 25. Buenrostro and his wife, Bobbi, hoped for a handshake, maybe a photo; when they had gotten close enough to Fox at the event, Buenrostro had only managed to slip Fox his business card before el presidente was swept in another direction. On the back Buenrostro had written, in Spanish: When I came to this country I couldn’t find work because I came as an immigrant. Now that I have it to give, I can’t. Help.
At the hotel, Fox reacted immediately to Buenrostro’s clothes—“Mariachi! Where are the mariachis?” he said—before playfully demanding to know why Buenrostro hadn’t played at the event. Buenrostro, who had performed while Fox wasn’t present, offered to sing a cancíon on the spot. Fox smiled, and Buenrostro summoned a heartfelt original that he delivered a cappella.
“I knew which song I wanted to sing,” he says. “I wanted to share it with the world so bad.”
As Buenrostro gave himself to the plaintive gravity of the tale, in which a teenager leaves his beloved hometown in Jalisco for the United States with his mother’s blessing, or benedicíon—then learns that his illegal status prevents a return for his father’s funeral—the former first lady at Fox’s side, Martha Sahagún, began to cry. Before long, Fox’s eyes were wet as well. Buenrostro says Sahagún touched his face and asked him to write down the lyrics of the song so they could post it on their website the following morning. Fox also was impressed.
“It’s a great song which brings in emotions that all human beings have, especially that immigrants have,” Fox would say less than three weeks later, while sitting in the Buenrostros’ Carmel Valley home (see story, next page). “That’s why I love the song so much, because immigrants are very special human beings, because they have courage, because they have dreams, because they push for a better life for their families.”
Buenrostro, 48, says he gave up smoking years ago for several reasons. One, he stunk. Two, he and his brother had a bet. Three, smoking was making it hard to outrun immigration officials who chased him every day across Moss Landing and Los Lomas.
While he worked the fields in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, his smoke-free fitness wasn’t enough. He was deported three times. (He got his green card in 1984.)
Buenrostro channels this familiarity with the struggle of the Mexican immigrant in the United States into “La Benedicíon,” along with the seminal pain that comes with leaving home. The song he sang for Fox and his wife was autobiographical.
Fox and Sahagún were so struck by it that they ignored the gathering masses around them at the hotel and talked with the Buenrostros for half an hour—and decided to meet later to further explore their thoughts on immigration and education.
“People don’t know what beautiful hearts they have—it’s unbelievable how they talk with us, like regular people,” Buenrostro says. “Two days later, we’re meeting at Tarpy’s [Restaurant in Monterey] for six hours.”
As they swapped goals, Bobbi says, they uncovered a common tendency to dream. “We talked about what we can do as individuals,” she recalls, “at a grassroots level in the community for international human rights, to restore a vision for people who have lost hope.”
They talked of the Buenrostros’ dream of hosting Mexican students as they train in music, building and other disciplines; of Fox’s plan to better the lives of Mexicans everywhere; of how those dreams might dovetail through the educational arm of the ambitious Centro Fox presidential library in the works in Fox’s native Guanajuato. The idea of a party to help spread the word occurred naturally.
“We figured, let’s bring some people to the backyard, the kind of thinkers that can help us start convening people who have similar thoughts and access to resources,” says Bobbi, “so we invited local business owners, nonprofit foundations, people already doing great work.”
“Fox is going to make a difference, we are going to help him,” Buenrostro says, “to make sure Mexico and Mexicans in the U.S. have a better life.”
As the distinguished guests entered the Buenrostros’ home last Thursday, they passed an elaborate china cabinet that held zero delicate dishes. Instead, there were a few pairs of thoroughly battered work boots. Bobbi put the boots in the case because they represent a dream realized for a boy whose parents couldn’t afford shoes, and a man who today buys boots and sandwiches for needy strangers.
Dreams are a theme with the Buenrostros. The custom contracting firm Jose started after working for several building companies (following his time in the fields) pledges “to build your dreams.” The recording studio he and his wife dreamt up to help aspiring artists without the means to record music goes by the same name as the construction firm: Sonadores, which is Spanish for “dreamers.” But during the party runup, even Jose couldn’t fathom what had taken place.
“I don’t believe it, this for a man like me,” he said the day before the event. “Dreaming is good, but not that much. This is better than a dream.”
He had just dismounted from the backhoe with which he was making some last-minute adjustments to his backyard before some 100 local officials and prominent citizens, such as Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas and executives from Sysco Food Systems and Microsoft, would assemble while Salinas’ La Preciosa radio broadcast the lively mariachi music, including Buenrostro’s “La Bendicíon.”
Fox pumped a fist as Buenrostro finished the song and guests traded ideas and grazed on chorizo, tamales and barbecued green onions. Just past 6pm, not long after some mariachis in traditional Mexican straw hats from Guanajuato peeled off several more rousing songs, Fox spoke.
“It’s a great honor to have [the Buenrostros] as the first active members of the presidential library being built in Mexico, Centro Fox,” he said. “This library and center is the center for all Mexicans and all Americans who live on this continent. This library is a platform for building the future. It is a place where core values of founding fathers of this great nation as well as the core values of Mexicans are going to be intensely promoted: academic and educational programs, research and think tank activities, powerful social policies to enhance and promote education, health, housing and combating poverty.”
Days after the party, Buenrostro still was in the clouds, ever the dreaming mariachi. “With my music, first I want people to dream—to know if they love to sing they can do it,” he says, wearing a black hardhat shaped like a cowboy hat. “I thought I never was going to be singing, not professionally, not for a president, not in my house.”
It’s the kind of story that would make for a good song.