We first heard of the espectáculo, the performance, when we were walking hand in hand on the marsh field in front of the village—a place of calm, soggy pastures, reedy waterways, and reclusive white egrets – in short, a place where for the most part things move slowly and are pretty much the way they seem. A fine drizzle was romantic, and eased the way.
A bridge of two planks led across an ooze of black sewage coming from the village. A calf bellowed from our side of the bridge. Her mother, who was on the other side, had no intention of returning, perhaps having found a clever way to wean her calf. When we crossed the bridge, the mother approached, then turned away when she realized we weren’t the farmer she belonged to.
A loudspeaker blared out over the marsh. We shook our heads in disbelief. We generalized, a gringo lament. Who would shatter the tranquility of this Saturday evening, wet and soft, after six and a half days of work?
When we climbed the lane, a man on horseback approached, probably the cow’s owner. He wore rubber boots in his stirrup, a milk bucket was slung from one side of the pommel, a thin sack of grain from the other. He held a short length of rope, to hobble the cow. I wondered how much milk he thought he would get with the calf around. On his head he wore the traditional Michoacán woven straw hat, flat on top, with the black tassel hanging from the brim in back.
The loudspeaker continued to overwhelm the evening. The authoritative voice, in a state of great agitation, warned that the espectáculo would not be in the village forever because of the great demand in the period before the 16th of September, Independence Day. A light rain had begun to fall again. Villagers moved past us toward the loudspeaker. My love Alicia, who is less suspicious than I, pressed forward.
The tent was an elaborate affair, with two massive metals center poles. We put our fingers in our ears and approached. It seemed unlikely there would be many spectators. Who could afford the announced fifteen-peso fee? The manic loudspeaker voice, now overhead, proclaimed the wonders of the espectáculo, and practically scream the need to attend, even in this time of economic downturn.
We paid our tickets – they charged us twenty apiece – and entered, just behind the town mayor, whose face seemed stuck in a permanent smirk. He wore alligator cowboy boots. He was overweight and about a head shorter than me. He soon stalked away, out of our view. We surveyed the rows of folding chairs, looking for a place to sit, but also to see if we could spot any of our English students. It was past the starting time. People whistled with impatience and, I thought, skepticism. After all, what could this traveling troupe possibly provide in terms of distraction to people who were used to television.
Finally, the show began. Strobe lights blurred the stage, and the curtain behind it, with flashes of red, green and white. The exotic Yopana – “Mexico’s only” – salsa-ed and twisted across the stage from right to left. Her strong slightly bowed legs were armored in banana-colored Spandex that reflected back the strobe lights. Her mouth was over-painted, in lopsided Vermillion, her brows Frida-dark, her rouge unbalanced. She wore a leotard top, long sleeves, in black, with silver spangles rising up the middle of her barrel-like stomach and possibly padded chest. It was hard to determine her age.
“She’s not even dancing,” said Alicia, in my ear.
But I disagreed. For me, her intent, her lumbering frame, created perfectly the illusion of seduction, suppleness, and skill. Her steps fell within an acceptable range, in matching the music’s rhythm. She wagged her tail, one hip rose while the other fell. Her dance steps showed little variation. What she offered, she offered innocently, and so I accepted her and approved of her, and thought she was perfect.
Alicia looked at me, and I at her. The crowd whistled and writhed, children pushed each other, tried out different seats, and slipped through the metal cattle fences of the loggia to sit closer to the stage. The hidden announcer warned us about shocking events that were coming. The blasts from the loudspeakers mounted on either side of the stage vibrated things in our chests. And then the magician appeared, a short man with a broad face and shrewd eyes, He wore a black coat with tails, a white pleated shirt, a black bow tie, and red pants. He made eggs appear and disappear. A bantam rooster appeared prematurely, we thought – perhaps as a ruse to increase our doubts as to his abilities. He made a rose out of bunched toilet paper. With two empty cylinders, one in each hand, he made a bottle disappear, then reappear. A cigarette disappeared from his hands and appeared in his mouth. He placed two strips of cloth in his mouth, chewed them thoroughly, and then pulled them out—hand over hand—in a long, continuous spaghetti. He dropped burning toilet paper into a cage-like box, which he had shown to be empty, clapped it shut, opened it, and a white dove flew out, accompanied by only a few sparks.
An assistant appeared. Her name was Jazmín. A pretty woman, in her forties, in white high heels, a jungle-pattern dress, in browns and reds, that came to just below the knees, with a slit on each side. The dress was cut excitingly low in the back. In front, it had a square neckline. A cupping action lifted her breasts in a way that was eye-catching and modest at the same time. She handed the master a plaster of paris mannequin of a Mexican campesino, who wore a sombrero and the white frozen face of a simpleton.
The master spoke, ventriloquist-style, asking Quico a series of questions. Did he know, for example, the points of the compass, and Quico would hesitate and give the wrong answer, mentioning the names of lizards, water birds, and snakes – to which the master would shout No! with such force and regularity that it no longer mattered that his lips moved when Quico spoke.
“Do you understand el norte? the master asked. The north?
“Los norteños?” Quico asked. “Sure, those are the ones right there, facing the stage, the ones who have gone north and abandoned Mexico.”
“No, Quico!! Don’t say such things!” in a controlling reprimand – to the delight of the audience. “And el sur, Quico, the south, do you know where that is?”
A careful pause by Quico. Well, that’s us here on this side – by which he meant below the border. The ones who spend their whole lives here in our sureños.” Which he confused with sueños, dreams, and said therefore. We are the simpletons who stayed here and have nothing but our dreams.
“No, Quico! NO!!” And the audience laughed appreciatively.
And did Quico know the difference between the police and the governor of Michoacán?
Long pause, Quico tilted his head in thought. And then, innocently, like the schoolboy trying to do well, offered – too quickly to be stopped – “Yes, the police are the pendejos who disappear the people, and the governor is the güey who governs the delivery of the ransoms – to the police. Which they then split.”
From the master an instantaneous, “No, Quico, NO, NO, NO!!”
The audience responded with a roar of tight laughter. It was clear Quico had said too much. Shaking his head in disappointment, the magician handed him back to Jazmín, who until that point had stood with her hands clasped in front of her, dignified, pretty, and not smiling.
Mexico’s one and only Yopana returned to the stage to dance, wearing white soft cowboy boots, black fishnet panty hose, and a tight black mini skirt, with a silver tirade slung like a watch chain under her belly. I admired her strapless top, her sheer-covered arms and shoulders, the purple frills hanging worm-like from the arms, the long white gloves, and the black flat-topped cowboy hat, with silver studs around the brim.
I thought she looked quite wonderful.
She didn’t seem quite as massive with the short skirt and white booties, the cowgirl look. They went well with the dull sultry look. She held the fake mike to her mouth and lip-synched to the music being hurtled through the loudspeaker. She raised and dropped the hand holding the mike, as the degree of her passion rose and fell. With the other arm she made wide sweeps, as if clearing away swarms of mosquitoes or swimming one-handed in a kind of half breaststroke, or polishing the hood of a car. She did her steps, but only minimally, because the music really didn’t require it. And all the while, the crowd whistled and jeered, but this time I thought, partly out of appreciation for the total package: the languid, numb, almost cute vaquera —doing what could be done with the blasting, formless music, the seizure-inducing white, red, and green strobe lights, and the perpetual hard economics times.
Jazmín and the magician—the mago—returned. He tied a silk scarf around her eyes and, turned the lovely sweeping openness of her back toward us, perhaps so we could read her vertebrae for some indication of what was to come. Then the mago came down off the stage and approached a man wearing a yellow shirt. He lay his hand on the man’s shoulder. He spoke quickly, as if there was much work to do.
“Jazmín, what color shirt is this man wearing?
And Jasmín, who was holding a real mike attached to a real cord, said in the steady clear voice of a seer, “Yellow.”
“And this woman, on her left hand?” He stood in front of a woman now.
“A silver ring with a green stone.”
“And the age of the man I’m standing in front of now?”
“Fifty-five,” said Jazmín. The man nodded, astounded.
The mago fanned out playing cards for a young woman to choose from. “Jazmín, what card is this woman holding?
“The queen of clubs,” said Jazmín.
The mago held up the card. It was the queen of clubs.
“And how old is this same woman, Jazmín?”
The young woman nodded and grinned in a mixture of embarrassment and astonishment. I looked for mirrors, perhaps a small microphone that he was signaling through.
“How is he doing that?” I asked Alicia.
“He has a prepared list, she’s memorized everything. His picks match the sequence. They’re plants, the questions. There’s only five of them.” She said this, as if in appreciation for the added level of skill.
“Jazmín, who am I standing in front of?” the mago asked.
“A young woman.”
“Tell me about her,” the magician asked.
“She is pregnant.”
“What else?” the mago asked.
Jazmín hesitated. She’s in her eighth month.”
“What else?” Jazmín hesitated longer.
“It’s a boy.” The young woman flushed, and looked as if she had received bad news, as if she had wanted a little girl.
The mago moved on to a woman well on in her years, of modest means, dignified.
“How old is this woman, Jazmín?”
“She is seventy-two, perhaps seventy-three. I’m not sure.”
The woman nodded, marginally, her neck stiff.
“Jazmín, tell us about her. Is her husband alive?”
“And what did he do?”
“He rode his horse up into the mountain behind Acutín and made charcoal for people to cook with.”
“And what did he bring her from the mountain?”
“He brought her estrellas.”
“Why did he bring her estrellas?”
“The six petals meant he would love her for six times ten years,” said Jazmín. Her voice was lower, with feeling.
“What else, Jazmín?” Jazmín paused for a moment.
“She has two sons.”
It was the mago who hesitated this time. “Is there more?”
“One son is with the purépecha delegation of the Organization of Indigenous Peoples, on their way to meet with the EZLN, to decide on a possible protest march to Mexico City.”
“Tell us about the other, Jazmín.”
“He was disappeared.”
The mago paused. “When, Jazmín?”
I saw the old woman drop her head and look at her hands.
“Eighteen months ago.”
“Where?” asked the mago.
“In Pátzcuaro, in the big square, by the fountain, sitting with his wife and two little girls. Like his father, he would bring her estrellas.”
At that moment a small boy approached the mago. In his hands, held out in front of him, he carried the dove that had been loose on the tent floor since its escape from the cage and the burning toilet paper. He handed dove to the mago, who leaned forward to receive it, smiling and nodding his head in thanks.
He straightened up. “Jazmín, what am I holding in my hands?”
“You are holding a dove.”
The mago looked at the audience wisely, then gave the dove back to the boy, and motioned for him to take it to people behind stage.
“And do we know who was responsible for the secuestro, Jazmín?” The kidnapping? Silence fell over the crowd. A teenage boy, who had been tipping back in his metal chair, two rows in front of us, lost contact with the earth and crashed over backwards. There was some nervous laughter around us, but it died out quickly. The boy got up meekly and sat down in his righted chair.
“Jazmín?” the mago prompted.
“He is here in the tent,” said Jazmín.
The audience remained absolutely quiet. A few babies squirmed and whined. There was a hum in the sound system. The popcorn popper was popping. Its two attendants stared at the stage, frozen. People began moving their heads, slowly, looking for someone, but trying no to be too obvious about it. People they had never been quite sure about. A good many of them looked our way. Alicia is dark-skinned, and so it was clearly me they were looking at. Even Alicia, who is quick to spot an oppressor, was looking at me in a way I hadn’t seen in a while. The mago approached us and held his hand on my head, as if to bestow a blessing, or about to denounce me.
“Jazmín, whom am I touching?”
“A gringo,” she said.
“Is he the one?” The teenager who had fallen backward with his chair twisted around, gawking at me.
“No,” said Jazmín.
The mago’s hand slid off my head, but in a lingering motion, the hint of a caress, of protection perhaps, and then he moved away. After a few steps, he stopped and put his hand on the top of his own head.
“And who is this, Jazmín? Whom am I touching now?”
The boy who was carrying the dove and who had not quite reached the back stage area, lost control of the bird, and it fluttered back down onto the tent floor and waddled away between the chairs, perhaps looking for popcorn. The bantam rooster, which was also still loose, after its premature appearance at the beginning of the magic show, attacked the dove, but then shrieked when a spectator interrupted its attack with a kick. Jazmín had not spoken. The pause lengthened.
“Jazmín?” the magician prompted. She still didn’t answer. “Can you tell me who it is?”
“No, I can’t.”
“You can’t tell me?”
“No, I’m sorry. But I can’t.”
And with that, the mago winked at one side of the tent, then at the other, and asked for the applause Jazmín deserved. It came in a wave and filled the enclosure, then swept back again, into silence.
The hidden announcer, the authoritative voice we had heard from the marsh, announced the intermission, and that the mago and Jazmín moved among the audience and distributed fortunes, organized by the signs of the Zodiac, for five pesos each. When they came by, I bought one, as did Alicia. When he handed me mine, for Cancer, he winked and said, “Pretty good, huh?” in English. I said, “Very good” also in English, and gave him a thumbs up. I meant everything, from the premature bantam to Jazmín’s puzzlement. I was not sure what he meant.
My fortune, a carbon copy of an original, said, “Perhaps you will make some sort of promise to your partner.” I liked my fortune very much. Alicia would not tell me what hers said. I began a frown and started to say something, but at that moment a group of teenagers—mostly girls, late arrivals and unaffected by what had gone on before, mostly middle-class and non-Purépecha, swept into the tent and altered the mood with their bright, more privileged chatting.
They plopped down, like sea gulls, sometimes sitting on each other’s laps when there weren’t enough seats, then rose again as a flock and landed somewhere else, looking only at each other, but aware of everything, and consumed by a great excitement.
Alicia slipped away to buy popcorn. This left me somewhat exposed. A clown with floppy shoes and a red nose began the second half of the espectáculo, and this seemed to weaken the audience’s interest in me. His companion burst on stage. They kicked and hit each other, to much laugher. The first clown delivered a blow which appeared to kill his companion. He wailed, and lamented his crime.
“Why did you do it?” the mago asked him.
“He offended my wife,” said the clown.
“How did he offend your wife?”
“With his burro.” The crowd sucked in air, gave a tight laugh.
“How with his burro the mago asked.
“It passes without speaking to her.” The old joke, now remembered. The crowd laughed, much relieved. After some homophobic grabbing and exchanging blows, the clown raced off the stage. The crowd seemed happy. They appeared to have sipped from two of their favorite things: simulated violence and homophobia.
A handsome, tall young man in a dark suit with a cream-colored turtleneck entered from the left, holding a real microphone. This part of the espectáculo, he said with a voice of authority – the voice we had heard all the way from the marsh – required the willingness of intelligent, adventuresome people, whose personal dignity would be protected at all times.
Before he could finish, the teenagers rose against the wind they had been waiting for, circled, and landed on the thirty or so metal chairs that had been arranged on the stage. They were a mixture of secundaria girls, high school, and what appeared to be working-class boys, who were a little younger. The lights went out. The man in the dark suit was now not just handsome, but also a hypnotist. The sound system played the Ave Maria, at moderate range. The hypnotist put his lips close to the microphone. His voice grew raspy. He hissed with persuasion.
“Respira profundamente, breathe deeply, duerme profundamente, sleep deeply, escucha mi voz, listen to my voice.”
He led them downward, counting. He dismissed those who resisted. Only eight teenagers remained, four boys, four girls. The lights went on. The handsome hypnotist issued a series of commands. The Ave Maria ended. The loudspeakers gave a popular rock tune. He asked the eight to play the tune on their guitars. They made strumming motions. He had them hold each other, girls holding girls, and boys holding boys, then awakened them with a raven-like click of his tongue, close to the microphone. He played on the audience’s homophobia.
“Were you holding her?” he asked a girl, who quickly released the other girl.
“Of course not!” she answered, with conviction.
The audience howled with delight. Then he woke two boys holding each other, but kept them locked in that position. More laughter. He asked individuals what popular singer they were and had each stand up and strut and lip-synch to the music playing.
Alicia pointed out that everything was rigged; otherwise they wouldn’t have had the recorded cuts ready. I was confused and not sure. I suspected the teenagers had a wide knowledge of popular tunes. We watched them imitate Gloria Trevi, Alejandra Guzmán, and Luis Miguel. The middle class girls took risks, the working class boys were more catatonic. Still, one of the boys said he was Juan Gabriel, which meant that he was gay. This caused a great stir among the audience. He lip-synched well enough, but seemed to be unable to imitate even the hint of stereotyped gayness in his movements. The hypnotist asked him if he had a companion. He said yes and pointed roughly toward us. Blow him a kiss, said the master, and the boy did. Then he brought him out of the trance and asked him if he was throwing kisses to a man. The boy denied it, with a frown. The hypnotist touched his forehead, made a raven click, and returned him to his trance.
“Take him a kiss,” the master ordered, and the boy went down the stage stairs and approached a group of young men, who jumped out of their folding chairs in fright, while the audience whooped. The boy continued, turned toward us, and stopped in front of a smug overweight man, two seats to our left, whom I recognized as the mayor. He did not jumped up. Instead, his smirk deepened. The boy kissed his own hand, then pressed the hand on the man’s forehead. He stepped back. He pointed at his victim.
“Este, this is the one!” he pronounced, solemnly.
A hovering attendant – was it Jazmín? – led the boy back up onto the stage. The audience gawked, waiting. The mayor – unamused – sat with his legs crossed, left over right. He leaned forward, an engaged smirking observer. His right arm rested across his upper thigh, and slanted downward. The hand held a small bag of popcorn – like the one I was holding. The Ave Maria returned and swelled to full volume. From where I was sitting I could look between the heads of the heavy-lidded teenagers on the stage. Something metallic, muzzle-like, the tip of a rifle, 39 Steps, peeked through the curtain opening. The first shot – unheard in the din – exploded the mayor’s popcorn. I looked left. His expression, originally sour, took on the openness of man who realizes he has a problem. Some of the popcorn – still in the air – landed on Alicia, who turned toward me with a frown and snapped: “What are you doing?” The bantam cock, pecking nearby, startled by the popcorn, flew by the mayor’s head, who flinched at what he thought was a second phase of the attack. He lurched backward in his chair. The chair collapsed. The mayor rolled sideways, facing us. The second shot, again unheard, and ignored by the entranced teenagers on the stage, blew the heel off one of his alligator boots. I looked at Alicia, who was saying something angry at me, and then I looked at the stage. The muzzle of the old rifle had withdrawn. In the opening, I saw Yopana, Mexico’s one and only, with her head quite bald, and displaying a masculine intensity. I was aware that the mayor was crawling toward the side of the tent. Yopana looked straight at me. Her face softened, she winked, and she held up a thumb in the gesture of “Very good!” I did not return the gesture because I didn’t think Alicia would understand. The curtain closed all the way, and Yopana was gone.
The lights went on. The hypnotist made various hand motions and raven clicks around the heads of his subjects, and, one by one, they blinked, looked innocent in their disorientation, got up, stretched, and stumbled from the stage, to the applause of their companions in the audience. Alicia and I joined the flow of spectators leaving the tent. Outside, we saw the flashing blue and red lights on two police trucks. One was the town’s Seguridad Publica pickup. The other was a new Dodge Ram Judicial pickup, which by coincidence, it seemed, had been in the area carrying six AR15-armed Judiciales. They wore black paratrooper boots, black jump pants, black T-shirts, and gold chains around their necks.
A group of villagers stood around listening and making comments. The mayor was there, and I saw a graze wound on his forehead, apparently from a third shot that had escaped my attention.
More and more of us gathered around the flashing lights and heard the two town police explaining to the grim looking Judiciales that the wound was from a fall the mayor had taken during the performance. Not from any shooting. No one came forward with a variation on this testimony. One of the Judiciales was talking to someone on the truck radio. The town police argued that the mayor was in fact a suspect in a crime and that they were going to arrest him. One of them took out his handcuffs. The mayor had recovered his smirk. The Judiciales closed in around him. Over the protests of the town’s Seguridad Publica, they led him to the front seat of their truck. With door open, the interior light went on, and we could see the waves of smirks that passed over his face. The villagers and the village police shook their heads in disgust. The Judiciales – two in front with the mayor, four in back, with grim looks all around – drove away, in their new Dodge Ram.
In the dark, someone took my hand and pressed two five-peso pieces into it, I assume for overpayment. I was fairly sure it was Jazmín. By then Alicia was pulling me away from the crowd and telling me she was tired and needed to go home. The drizzle had stopped, and one or two of my English students said hello to me. The moon was up and moved in and out of the clouds like a child peeking from behind curtains. I thought I heard the calf down on the marsh, bellowing for its mother. And that, for some reason, made me wonder how everyone was doing backstage, in the tent.
Alicia took my arm pulled herself close. She began to talk about how much she was beginning to love Mexico, and how quiet the town was, and how wonderful the frogs in the marsh sounded, and how good it was going to be to get into bed and sleep. “Profundamente!” she added, finding my hand and giving it a squeeze, with what appeared to be a wink, with meaning. And I who am open to many things accepted it for what it was – or at least for what it appeared to be.