Tijuana, Mexico, is divided by the stateside-inspired McMansions of the new rich; the stick and tarpaper shacks, refrigerator boxes and other shelters a starving coyote could barely crawl into; and an increasing middle class, where parents await the arrival of their kids in clean, starched, Catholic School uniforms. The main street in Tijuana, Avenida Revolucion, unites and divides the city further. On this strip, you can buy a Mexican wrestling mask, a wedding dress, handmade leather shoes, a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe or 20 different types of tequila. Strip bars nearly equal restaurants in number, and the quality of the food ranges from adequate to world-class.
The young and the foolish arrive on Friday nights from San Diego, Tucson and LA. Many are wellbehaved tourists, while others get drunk, start fights, urinate in the gutters and are taken, by the dozen, to the Tijuana jail, a place with a reputation equal to the Black Hole of Calcutta. A dangerous darkness and an incurable optimism hang just beyond the street’s peripheries.
Life is happier and sadder in Tijuana than in most cities on the northern side of the border. It is more desperate and, somehow, more hopeful here. Much of the hope is imported from the southern states, where workers take treacherous journeys in order to find jobs and send a few pesos home so that the family can survive a while longer. For others, Tijuana is the Mexican version of Ellis Island, a springboard from which they can, usually illegally, enter California. The place smells of taxi cabs, cooking meat and hard work. Personally, I never cross into Tijuana without the expectation that something wonderful or terrible will happen. And in my 40 years of going there, I have rarely been disappointed; twice held at gunpoint by bandits, more often spending time with the most hospitable people on earth.
This is a wonderfully strange place to visit nearly any time, but when you are accompanying the lead singer of one of America’s favorite rock bands, Sonny Sandoval from P.O.D., it snaps the needle clean off the surreal meter. Walking the streets with Sonny makes me feel like an MTV video extra, while the city itself jerks me back to a separate reality.
Across the border we take a taxi, eat tacos, stop at a few roadside stands and move like pilgrims toward three luminous red crosses hovering in the night sky, discussing life, death and everything in between as we look to find God knows what.
Interviewed exclusively for RISEN magazine while wandering the streets of Tijuana, Mexico.
RISEN Magazine: Sonny, I know that you were close to your mother. What did she pass on to you?
Sonny Sandoval: She passed on the importance of family, the importance of a woman who loves God, a woman who serves God with her faith. She instilled a lot of old-school ways and an appreciation for life altogether.
RM: I’ve read that you saw God in her eyes before she passed.
SS: Through all the confusion and the personal hurt, what was going on in her condition, I saw a peace and a trust in her eyes. It was calming in the middle of the storm. I saw that she wasn’t worried or scared about what would happen to her. She had faith that God would take care of her and look out for the family.
RM: Did she have any final words to you?
SS: Not necessarily her final words, but she said, “I just want to know that you and your sisters are going to be in Heaven when this is all said and done.”
RM: Do your tattoos tell a story?
SS: They do, in a way. I really have a love for the art. My first tattoo was of Christ’s head with the angels around Him and the dove. That moved on to a butterfly with mymother’s initials. I got the P.O.D. album cover. It’s all kind of one big story, I guess.
RM: What makes you cry?
SS: Whew! My daughters. To love them so much scares me, cuz there are things I can’t control. At the same time, I sense God looking out for them. That father-and-child love makes me understand God’s love, grace and understanding. The way I care for my kids, I do believe is how God cares for us.
RM: You’ve had thousands of people that don’t even know you call your name. Does that ever make you egotistical?
SS: Nah, never. When I hear people call my name, I think, “Why?” [Laughter] I’ve always said, ‘Don’t look to me, cuz I’ll let you down every time.” Regardless of what I’ve done, struggles or triumphs, God is good. It has nothing to do with me.
RM: Is fame fun?
SS: I’d be lying if I said no. The problem is, you can get addicted to it. I go to a nice restaurant with my family and all of the sudden the chef wants to comp me dinner, that’s awesome. I’m from the ’hood so I’m stoked when someone gives me something. The thing is not letting it get the best of you.
Anybody can relate to love; if you can’t, you’re further off than you think.
RM: As a kid, did you ever stand in the mirror and pretend you were Bob Marley?
RM: Are you outgoing?
SS: My first show with P.O.D., I had my back to the crowd the entire time. In school sometimes I’d take a low grade cuz I didn’t want to go in front of the class to read [my paper]. My buddy’s getting married next week and he wants me to read Scripture. I’m scared to death. When we’re doing shows, that’s when I’m free. I know the intent of the heart of P.O.D.; there’s goodness in it and, hopefully, somebody will be blessed by what we’re doing. But it’s a chance to go nuts for a second, you know? [Laughs]
RM: Do you think there’s Satanism within rock ’n’ roll?
SS: I’m not gonna say there’s not. I believe the Devil’s real, so… But to most people it’s a gimmick. There are those on the opposite end, think everything in rock ’n’ roll is bad. Still, it’s not something to be taken lightly. I’m not afraid of it, that’s all. [Laughs] I know God’s bigger than that.
RM: Have you guys ever been hassled for your faith by other bands?
SS: Never, not once. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love the guys in P.O.D. We’re just four guys from the neighborhood. I think they’re more afraid of us cuz their experiences with Christianity have turned them off. But don’t compare me to that; I’m Sonny from San Diego. I’ll cook for you; I’ll barbecue. You can hang out with my friends, my family; just be real with me. I don’t care; I’ll meet you on a human level, then, when the time is right, I’m gonna share. But I’m not gonna beat anyone over the head.
RM: Do you ever get criticized by the church?
SS: Everybody goes through that; you don’t have to be in a rock band. We got all the same stuff before we were in the eye of the mainstream. Now people love or hate us more than they ever did. I don’t worry about it. If you wanna get to know me, my door is open.
RM: Do you still surf?
SS: Just the other day, a truck drove by with a nice longboard in it and I said, “I need to go and get a board.” It’s something I did in high school and I thought I’d do it forever, but I haven’t been as faithful to that as I have to other things.
RM: Do you have any recurring dreams or nightmares?
SS: I used to have a lot of nightmares when I was young, and every night I’d pray, “God, please take the nightmares away.” That was before I knew how powerful prayer was. I don’t think I’ve had a nightmare since I was a kid.
RM: What do you look for in a friend?
SS: [Laughs] Honesty, loyalty. Somebody that will tell you you’re wrong when you’re wrong and you’re right when you’re right. Whether you’re wrong or right, they’ve got your back no matter what. I’ve got a lot of friends like that.
RM: From the living and the dead, who would you like to play music with?
SS: Oh, man. The first person would be Marley, of course. Wow, I’d just have to say Marley.
RM: Do you find a lot in common with people of other faiths?
SS: I think there’s a lot in common. I mean, just striving to be good and do what’s right. It all stems from the word of God. To me, it comes down to that love Christ has for us. Anybody can relate to love; if you can’t, you’re further off than you think.
RM: What would it take for you to get into a fistfight?
SS: You can come to me and get in my face and I’m man enough to overlook it, but if it’s my friend or my family, it’s hard for me. I’m not trying to prove I’m macho. I wish I would handle it better, but when it’s close to home it really challenges me. But I truly believe that I am a peacemaker.
RM: For what reasons would you go to war?
SS:If I sign up to defend my country, then I sign up to defend my country. Do I believe war’s the ultimate answer? No, but I think there’s integrity in the men and women who signed up for this war. Personally, I’ve never been a military type of guy. I do respect the military and that I am American and live in this country, with its problems, with its wrongs — and there are lots of wrongs. But I think we’re always working for the common good. People dying will never settle right to me. I don’t like to see anybody hurt. I want to see everybody happy, but this is the world we live in. It’s an imperfect world, and unfortunately war comes along with the territory.
RM: Are there any departures on your new album?
SS: There were 20 songs and we’re trying to cut it down to 12. We did a song with Matisyahu, a Hasidic reggae rapper from Brown Heights, Brooklyn, who actually flew in from Israel and then flew out to LA to hang out with us. He free-styled a lot of stuff. One of the songs is called “Testify;” man, and that kinda sums it all up. In spite of some tragedies, it’s been a good year; and no matter what, it’s always good on the other side.
RM: Billy Bob Thornton told me that being famous is like always being on trial. Do you ever feel that way?
SS: [Chuckles] I’m nowhere near as famous as that. The only way I can relate is that P.O.D. is known for their beliefs, their faith. In that case, people put you on trial. It’s weird; you tell people, “I’m a sinner, I’m forgiven; I believe in Jesus who forgave me.” You need a Savior, cuz you’ve been wrong all your life and they expect you not to make mistakes anymore. It’s like, wait a minute, that’s why I am a Christian, because I do make mistakes and I need direction.
RM: Do you ever think it would be fun to do another job?
SS: I’ve been working since I was 15 and I know I’m lucky to do what I do. When P.O.D.’s over with, I’m cool with that. I’m blessed. That’s why I try to create other opportunities for my friends and family, like this clothing company, Jefe. But it’s an honor to do what I do. When it becomes work, I won’t want to do it anymore.
RM: If someone knew you guys just from photos, they might think you guys were pretty tough and serious?
SS: [Laughs] I’m serious, but it’s hard to be all loose when there are cameras on you. It’s still surreal, it’s still weird. My friends are tough guys, you know. But I’ve learned how to love and be compassionate. I wish well for everybody. I love people and want the best for them, but I’m still not a pushover and I don’t take things lightly. I’m a “go with the flow” type of guy.
I’d rather help people get through things than condemn them.
RM: Have you been offered any acting parts?
SS: I’ve just got to get over my shyness.
RM: What makes you shy?
SS: I think it’s something you’re born with.
RM: Were you ever shy with girls?
SS: I’m not that shy, but I’m not a player either. I’ve been with my wife since I was 17 and she was 15, so I never really had too much experience with that.
RM: You have two kids?
SS: Two girls; my oldest is five, my youngest is 17 months. My oldest just started school. When she’s around my nephews, she’s a big tomboy. When she’s by herself, she’s a girly girl, princess. She’s awesome. They’re getting so old, it’s scaring me. Where have these years gone? My little girl looks like a kindergartner now, and I don’t like that. [Laughs] Now she’s gone for six hours a day.
RM: Are you gonna be the nightmare dad when she starts dating?
SS: The guy’s gonna have to face me and 50 other tatted uncles… I’ll probably be making my own bullets. [Laughs] My goal is to treat my daughters like the princesses that they are, to treat ’em so good they’re gonna have to search long and hard to find someone as good as Daddy.
RM: Is it scary to speak the truth?
SS: We used to have such a punk rock attitude and not care what people thought. Now we’re careful not to hurt people. I’d rather help people get through things than condemn them. I believe in Jesus, but I find that I’m totally different than some people who call themselves Christians. It’s like they’ve left planet Earth, man. They’re on holy land and nobody’s invited. To me, there’s no “us against them.” Sometimes I’d like to wipe the slate clean and paint a new picture. I told one of my counselors, “Sometimes I just want to grab my wife and kids, crawl under the covers and wait for the Second Coming.” He said, “There’re still a lot of people out there that need to know the truth.”
RM: Where do you see yourself in 10,000 years?
SS: [Laughs] Obviously, through faith, in Paradise. Paradise to me is doing those things that bring joy to me now. Those feelings you have when you’re with your family, or surfing that perfect wave and never falling off. It will also be in understanding things I don’t understand now.