Ilegal began back in 2004ish, very informally and almost by mistake. I was bringing down mezcal from Oaxaca for my bar, Café No Se, in Antigua Guatemala, and the mezcal became popular very quickly. At the time, we were bringing down unbranded mezcal from a variety of villages in Oaxaca that included: Tlaculula, San Lorenzo, Sola De Vega, Santa Catarina Minas, Hierve el Agua, Santago Matatlan and a few others. You see back in 2004, there were very few mezcals that were certified for export, almost none. Bringing a few bottles across the boarder was not such a big deal, but try getting 50, 100 or 500 bottles across and things get a bit interesting. We had to be a bit creative in how we brought mezcal across the border. Especially at the borders we were crossing where back then, the cops, the military, the gangs and just plain old thieves had to be eluded or navigated or coopted, if you get my drift.
At first it kind of began with us stuffing bottles into duffle bags, packing them as luggage under the bus and praying none of our bags would be inspected. Two people can bring 30 or so liters that way. But Oaxaca is a long way from Antigua. It is a day and half trip by bus and then running from village to village to buy mezcal is another couple of days or weeks. It’s an insane way to stock a bar. One day a mezcalero, whom I had been dealing with for sometime, proposed that I buy a pallet of mezcal from him.“You like my mezcal,” he said, “And it is crazy for you to keep bussing up here every other week.” I had no idea how much was in a pallet. When he told me 600 bottles, I said, “Man, I have trouble getting 30 bottles across a border. How the hell am I going to get 600?” He looked at me and smiled and said an expression I have heard so often in Mexico. One I have come to love. That expression is: No te preoucupes. Yo tengo un tio. Which means: Don’t worry about it, I have an uncle.
It turns out his uncle was part of a black market operation on the river between Hidalgo and Guatemala that transported everything you can imagine from one side to the other. By the way, this uncle worked in the mayor’s office. So, when I went to meet him at the address given to me, I was a bit in shock. I had a pick-up full of not so legal booze and I pulled into this sweltering border town known for its murder rate and look at the sign in front of the door which reads Alcaldia, Mayor’s Office. Just after sunset I was taken to a warehouse on the border that in front was a popsicle factory and in the back, behind huge metal doors, was a vast space for goods to be taken across the river. This was the first big run of Ilegal, there would be many more to follow.
There are now many parts of the same mania. I have this obsession with creating little venues for conversation. Café No Se has live music 365 days a year and it offers a space for local artist as well as traveling musicians from around the world to meet and play. It’s also a bar where musicians come to hear musicians. Though we do not play a lot of jazz, in the sense I just mentioned, it is a lot like Smalls in NYC in that it is a musician’s hangout. The bookstore is a used bookstore and we have books in 10-20 languages depending on the stock at the time. It carries better contemporary books as well as classics and a beautifully curated selection of books on a variety of subjects. In an age of Kindle and iPad, I’m a big believer in the printed word and the value of a local bookstore as a place to gather and spread ideas. The bookstore also serves as the headquarters for publishing. We began publishing books last year and we’ve been publishing La Cuadra Magazine for 7 years now. La Cuadra is pretty special. We have writers from around the world, some professional and some just starting out. The magazine covers politics, art, music, and travel. A good deal of it is in essay format. The idea is to make you think and laugh, to take it all very seriously and not seriously at all. But, most importantly SAY SOMETHING.