Dudley Althaus and the Mexico City scene

When I moved to Mexico City in 1994, the guy who knew most about the country, had covered it most completely, was Dudley Althaus. He was from Ohio. He moved to Mexico years before for the Houston Chronicle, where he did amazing work. A few years ago, he went on to work for the Wall Street Journal.

Dudley just announced that he’s leaving the Journal and newspaper work. His final story is about a priest who mediates disputes among narco clans, trying to protect communities from their wrath, in the ferocious state of Guerrero.

I arrived in Mexico fresh from a newspaper-reporting job in Seattle that did not fit me. I had gone to Mexico really to study and improve my weak Spanish. Shortly after the assassination of a Mexican presidential candidate, a job opened at an English-language magazine called Mexico Insight that had already purchased a freelance story of mine. I got the job, though it meant a massive cut in pay. I’d always wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I figured this was my chance. I was ardently single. So I happily returned to Seattle, sold all my stuff, and moved permanently to Mexico. Within a year, the magazine went under and I became a freelancer, selling stories to papers and magazines in the states.

I was lucky to spend 10 years in Mexico with an ever-morphing corps of U.S. journalists that were of the highest caliber. I was always amazed at the people who were down there, who came and went over that decade: Jose de Cordoba, Alfredo Corchado, David Luhnow, Elizabeth Malkin, Mary Beth Sheridan, James Smith, Joel Millman, Ginger Thompson, Gerry Hadden, Brendan Case, Geoff Mohan, Phil Davis, Julia Preston, Sam Dillon, Steve Fainaru, Mark Stevenson, Tim Padgett, Tim Weiner, Lynne Walker, Susan Ferriss, Ricardo Sandoval, Alan Zarembo, Anita Snow, Hayes Ferguson, Colin McMahon, and the late Phil True and Paul De la Garza – as well as my freelancing homies Leon Lazaroff, Franc Contreras and Keith Dannemiller. (Pardon if I’m missing a few.)

I believe in the creative power of scenes. I first saw it in the punk rock scene that developed in the late 1970s, when I was at UC Berkeley, where I produced punk shows. An effervescent agglomeration of the similarly intentioned. At UCB, I wrote my senior history thesis on the jazz scene that emerged in Harlem in the 1940s, where hundreds of musicians converged to compete, collaborate, improve, and produced an entirely new form of music – with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie leading the way.

Scenes – or communities of like-minded people, trained, nearing the peak of their careers, interested in the same things, highly motivated – are where creation takes place. That’s how it felt to be in Mexico City during the decade I was there. It was a great thing for a young reporter to be a part of. I consider myself lucky that it was at a time in my career when I was ready for it, prepared to benefit from the challenges the country posed.

Dudley was the dean of us all, a friendly face, with a generous attitude and great knowledge of the country. The guy who shaped a community, kept us together, organized Friday nights at the Nuevo Leon cantina in the Colonia Condesa, where you could learn a ton about Mexico. I always tried to keep in mind that whatever story I was working on, Dudley had probably already written it a time or two. He was, you could say, the Dizzy Gillespie of Mexico City.

Given U.S. newspaper budgets, it’s hard to imagine that kind of scene emerging today in any foreign country, though the need for it, if anything, is greater than ever.

I left Mexico in 2004 to work for the L.A. Times in Los Angeles – quit that in 2014, and I’m a freelancer again.

Yet I always consider my decision to take that magazine job, and that 95 percent cut in pay, to be among the best I ever made (thanks Mike Zamba and Lonnie Iliff for offering it to me). For it allowed me to spend the next nine years covering a country in complex transition with some of the best reporters our country produced – and at the top of the list was Dudley Althaus.

Photo: Keith Dannemiller (Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle reporter, heading upriver to PEMEX installations on the Rio San Pedro y San Pablo in the Mexican state of Tabasco.)


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10 Responses to Dudley Althaus and the Mexico City scene

  1. Indeed! And the thing about Dudley, unlike so many foreign reporters, is that rather than become arrogant, full of oneself, as foreign correspondents have a propensity to do, Dudley was, and remains, humble. It was never about him, or his byline. It was about the story. And Mexico has no shortage of stories. I recall an evening sometime in the mid-1990s during another PRI-rigged election in San Luis Potosi after the polls had closed and the PRI had declared victory, and Dudley and I proceeded to walk around that town well into the night talking Mexican politics and a lot more. I hadn’t been in the country long, and Dudley was already well established. But he didn’t hesitate to hang out and talk. Thanks Dudley, and thanks Sam for this post.

  2. Chris Albi

    Nice tribute!

  3. Jim Creechan

    Sam Quiñones describes a Mexico City scene that was thriving at the same time that Mary Lou and I spent a sabbatical year in Mexico City (1996-97). We were there at the same time as the journalists mentioned by Sam, and undoubtedly were at many events they covered during that momentous and tumultuous time.
    We undoubtedly crossed paths or rubbed shoulders at the political rallies for a burgeoning PRD and its Mexico City Mayoral candidate Cauhtémoc Cardenas in Coyoacán or the Zocalo. Many probably covered the book launches we attended for authors like Enrique Krauze or Carlos Monsivais, or were also observing the massive demonstrations through Mexico City streets by Barzón or the Zapatista rallies at UNAM with Comandante Ramona. And there is a chance that we even sat nearby many of these journalists on weekends at San Angel restaurants, cantinas and coffee houses. But those reporters experienced Mexico in a very different and inclusive way than we did in a comfortable academic environment.
    I’ve followed all of these journalists form more than two decades, and I never fail to read their posts, reports and books. Collectively, this cohort has produced the most essential English language coverage of the Mexico scene and I personally have been enriched by their insight. Most have kindly responded to my emails whenever I have contacted them with a question.
    I would highly recommend any book from anyone mentioned in Sam’s WordPress blog but I would especially recommend one book that put that entire period in broader context for me. Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon’s book “Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy” was the first English language book that contextualized that entire period when NAFTA came into being and the PRI grip on power was weakened.

  4. Anne M. Sorensen

    Thanks for this, Sam. I too remember those years with fondness and gratitude. Fortunately, Dudley will keep a foot in Mexico.

  5. Anh

    Tim Golden and Tracey Eaton?
    What a wonderful tribute to Dudley, a most amazing spirit – and this piece also reflects the generosity of your own spirit… Felicidades.

  6. Pingback: Salute to Dudley Althaus – Tony Pederson

  7. Don

    It took a lot of courage to take that massive cut in pay, but it yielded some great books! Looks like Randy Newman’s “its $ that matters” doesnt apply

  8. Antonio Ocaranza

    Great story about Dudley and the scene of the foreign correspondent’s Life in MEXICO, Sam. Si many good friends listos. Great to read you!

  9. Esther Buddenhagen

    Thank you for this. We have lived near Xalapa in the state of Veracruz for 12 years, and while we are (much) older than you were in 1994, we find that Mexico is still a wonderful, kaleidoscopic place to live.

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