Tag: Otomi


She sat down in front of me, in one of the hundred or so metal chairs that the municipality had put out in the Veracuz’s Zócalo, facing the Porfirio band stand and, behind that, invisible because of night and the curve of the earth, one of the highest volcanoes in Central Mexico. I did not notice her particularly until she leaned forward and began putting on a pair of strapped dancing shoes. The heels were high but also broad enough to provide stable contact with the black and white tiles of the plaza. I suppose it’s the kind of thing I notice, a woman crossing one bare leg over the other, slipping on one shoe, then the other, in public, for dancing. For that was what the crowd had gathered for – for danzón – but mostly just to watch.

I realized I had seen her before, in fact on that very morning, in an old established restaurant, with high ceilings, slowly turning fans. She had been dressed in waitress black, with a lacy white apron in front, her urraca-black hair pulled back in a bun, low shoes, un-shined, a woman of forty, maybe a little bit more, with white teeth, dark eyebrows, full lips, and a chin that fell away toward her long neck – a beauty who was a mixture of an ancient New World people, and Spanish or Portuguese blood, at least in my imagination. She reminded me also of a friend, who is Otomi from the State of Veracruz – which would very likely make her the recent descendent of a people who had been resisting the genocidal policies of government for the last four or five hundred years.

I had ordered tea, “con la bolsa al lado,” the bag to one side. I intended to use my own bag of green tea instead. She also brought me muffins, cupcakes really, sweet yellow things – which I had not ordered. I assumed it was an establishment obligation. That one couldn’t just order tea without having something else.

I had watched her clear tables, then serve a table of important businessmen next to me, who had skin much lighter than hers. I watched for signs of condescension. I did not see any. I watched for interest they might have in her pleasing figure, her striking face, and darker skin. The only person who showed any real interest was myself. I do not know why particularly. But in retrospect, I suspect it was because of her dignity, also because of my ignorance about her city, her culture, the complexities of her life.

Because she had brought them to me, and because I break my rules at the slightest provocation, I ate all three cupcakes. I read my La Jornada, Mexico’s national opposition newspaper. I watched her when she passed by.

When I had to go, I asked for the bill. She brought it in a little basket. I pointed to the three empty crumb-covered red cupcake papers. “Qué mala tentación fue eso!” I said, in my Spanish. “What an wicked temptation that was!” For a moment, I wasn’t sure she had understood either my Spanish or my way of conversing with people in general, or both.

Then her faced changed and she said, in good humor, “Ah, but now they’re gone, and it’s all over.”

I’m not even sure she met my eyes as she said this, gathering up my dishes – and not the moment later, when she took my fifty-peso note, nor the moment after that, when she returned my change.

Now, in the Zócalo, she was wearing a below-the-knee black dress with small red flowers, perhaps hibiscus. Her urraca-black hair fell shoulder length. I watched the dancers, then her, while she sat in her metal folding chair, in front of me. It seemed evident she had come to dance danzón, but she was not dancing. She watched dancers. I watched, too, trying to understand their steps, the way couples seemed to know to pause, now and then, for a whole beat. At times, I suppose signaled by the music, the dancers concluded a series of steps, then separated, still holding hands, and faced the band stand.

A man had approached. His skin was lighter than hers. She stood up to greet him. He had not dressed up to quite the same extent. In fact, he had not changed from his work clothes, which were lightly covered with stone dust. He had passed something over his black work shoes, but that was all.

I tried to measure his relationship with her. There was something reserved about it. But that is also the nature of danzón. Formal movements from French contra dance, later passing through Haiti, then Cuba, arriving at this port city of fine coffee, high ceiling fans, coral walls, grand buildings in black and white stone, and handsome women.

They danced, formally, but with no more than two hand widths between them. They looked each other in the eye. They floated through a variety of steps, sliding rather than stepping into the next position. One, one-two. One, one-two. That is, one long step, followed by two quick steps – here and there, the infinitesimal hesitations.

I could not tell how well they knew each other. That was, I decided, the key to danzón. Public, formal, the hint of sensuality, understated, completely proper. He seemed handsome, not because he was, but because of how he held himself, and what he knew. He directed her firmly. She followed. He looked into her eyes, she into his, both with a respect and appreciation, and both smiling. Not broadly, rather from muted pleasure. She was elegant in her high heels and her hibiscus dress. Of those who danced or watched, they were not from the highest social class. But, of the fifteen or so couples that danced, it was clear the audience found them the most striking.

At the end of a song – how many had they danced? Two, three? He escorted her back to her metal chair. She did not sit. She watched him pick up his dusty backpack and put it on. He put on his baseball cap, faded olive, with a frayed visor. He held out his hand. She held out hers. He leaned forward, slowly, and kissed her on the cheek. She held his elbow. There was a moment, when she seemed to resist his leaning away again. He said something, without smiling, and she said something back, still holding his hand. And then their hands drew apart, and he turned away. I saw him retrieve an old black bicycle from one of the great palm trees at the south edge of the Zócalo and, pushing it, move out of sight behind the wall of onlookers.

She had sat down again. I watched her. I watched the dancers. The band, up in the bandstand, played more Cuban-Mexican tunes. I stood no more than ten feet from her. At one point, I glanced over and saw her looking at me. I held her gaze longer than I usually do with a woman I don’t know. Perhaps because I felt I knew her, even though I didn’t know her. I looked back at the dancers. She got up. I saw her moving, in the corner of my eye. She was going to pass close by. She stopped in front of me. She pointed at a spot on my chest, then toward the other dancers.

“No puedo,” I said. “I don’t know how.”

She reached out for my hand. She led me out away from the spectators. She showed me the simple box step, and eventually, when she said “Pausa!” – with the accent on the last syllable – I learned to pause at the end of the series of one, one-two’s.

We danced two dances. She looked in my eyes. I looked into hers. I saw friendliness, generosity, pleasure, and a suggestion of intimacy that was not intimacy at all. Something I did not understand. When the music stopped, she walked us back to her chair. I stood along side, awkwardly, as she changed her shoes, crossing first one leg, then the other. She carefully put the shoes in a cheap plastic bag with handles. She put on her scuffed black low heel shoes. She stood up, a little shorter now, and held out her hand. Several older women, on both sides of us, were taking it in – watching, but not intrusively. She said, “Gracias!” I said “Gracias!” and bowed slightly at the waste, the way my mother taught me. She held my hand an instant longer. “Qué mala tentación fue, pero ya se terminó,” she said. A strong temptation, but now it’s over – with a look in her eye, a little bit of mischief, a trace of sadness.

I nodded.

“Not the muffins,” I said.

“No,” she said, and gave my hand a little squeeze.

“And not me,” I grinned.

“No, not you, either.” That made her smile. She dropped my hand, but leaned forward, and kissed me on the cheek. Then she picked up the thin plastic sack with her dancing shoes, and walked in the opposite direction to the one her dance partner had taken, with his old black bicycle.

Smart Women

Ponciano is the head of the demolition crew the city hired to remove the seven-story building that is across from the Café Nada. The Café Nada is where I write each morning. Ponci is married to Lupita, a lovely solid Otomí woman with black eyes and amber skin. She is humble, but not common. She doesn’t read books, but she reasons better than most who do. Her husband Ponci reads, but to no great advantage, according to her. Pouring through the thoughts of people who are not particularly intelligent, she will say, serves little purpose. They use too many “that’s” and not enough “is’s.” That’s how she sees it.

Ponci has read journals on how to drop large buildings in their footprint. The city – a UNESCO Heritage Site and considered the Heidelberg of Mexico – was not interested and preferred to spend many hundreds of thousands of pesos running jackhammers day and night and driving the citizens crazy. But in this case, there was a deadline, and the building, made of concrete and rebar, was not coming down fast enough. The city would lose a contract with La Bohême, a slick restaurant chain for people with money, if the site wasn’t cleared and ready for construction by October 1st. It was already September 15th. The mayor said they would not pay the second half of the city’s contract with Ponci if his crew had not brought the structure down by September 21.

Ponci said he would stop right then, if they weren’t going to pay. The city said they would prosecute him for breach of contract. Ponci said, renegotiate with La Bohême. The city said, you demolish the building, we run the city. Ponci received a letter from the State Government. They were sending inspectors to see if Ponci was complying with state-prescribed safety measures. Ponci replied, they knew perfectly well there were no safety laws, and he would make a citizen’s arrest of anyone who entered the demolition site without his permission. The mayor said, by telephone, there was no such thing as a citizen’s arrest, and he would send the police to preserve order. Ponci replied that the police would need a warrant and show probable cause before stepping on the lot. La Bohême sent a letter to the city newspaper saying they were looking at other sites. That was the 18th, three days before his deadline.

Ponci also read the newspaper, and so, one evening after work, he saw the La Bohême letter. He read it aloud to Lupita. “Why would anyone give a restaurant chain a French name?” he asked. Lupita said nothing. Ponci picked up one of his journals. Lupita studied him from across the kitchen. He looked up. Her face was as beautiful as it was when he met her at a church dance twenty years ago. She was heavier but perfect in all respects.

She left the room. She returned carrying a box. She set it down on the table, in front of him. The side of the box said detonadores, fuses. He leaned forward and turned back the lid. He looked inside with intense curiosity, as if he didn’t know what it contained. He looked slowly. Lupita was smarter than him. He needed time to catch up.

Finally, he said, “You think we can do it?”

“We can do it, Ponci,” she said.

“How many do we need?”

“People?” she asked.


“You and me. Maybe get Carlos and David. That’s enough. It’s just getting dark. We can work till dawn.”

He looked at Lupita. He revisited the fact that she usually knew what she was doing. He got up and held her wide, soft body against him. And then he said, “Okay, I’ll make the calls.”

“But don’t we have to drill a lot of holes?” she said, softly in his ear.

“I’ve already drilled them,” he said, back into her ear. “I told the men it was for practice.”

She held him at arm’s length, studying him again.

He winked at her.

At the first gray of dawn, the building was wired – two sticks of Simplex per drill hole, time-delay blasting caps set to weaken the lower columns first, total detonation time six seconds, each explosion timed by a fraction of a second to precede the one above it. All the wires led to a firing station out by the road. There would be no test shot. There would be no consultation with the city.

They told Carlos and David to stand by the detonator box at the firing station. Ponci disconnected the trunk wire to the box, so there would be no mistakes. The red detonation button was recessed. That was a further precaution.

Ponci and Lupita walked through the building one more time.

“You’re good at this, Ponci,” she said. “Maybe reading the journals is a good thing.”

“You’re a wonderful woman,” said Ponci. “You’re smarter than me in just about everything.”

They were on the ground floor, in the middle section.

“Show me how you connect them,” Lupita asked. “All I did was push in the charges.”

Ponci nodded. He disconnected the wiring to one of the foam-covered charges.

“Maybe you should disconnected this whole section,” said Lupita. “Just in case.”

Ponci looked at her. They didn’t really have much time, but he trusted her thinking. He untwisted the wire that connected the entire middle section. He came back to the Lupita. He showed her how to do a connection.

“You try,” he said. “You can do it with ease.”

In that moment, Carlos, out by the road – understandably tired – stumbled on a stray piece of escombro, and went down. The wire that had been disconnected from the detonator box as a precaution shed its security cap and fell back against its contact. Carlos landed on the box. His imitation Swiss Army knife, in a pouch on his belt, angled perfectly into the recessed firing button and depressed the button to the required depth.

Like any early morning mining blast, the rolling shot rattled the city – except that it went on for six seconds. And it was above ground. The structure melted, kneeled, and came down, perfectly, on its footprint. And then everything was quiet again, and the city seemed to keep on sleeping.

A thunderhead of cement dust billowed upward and out. Carlos and David staggered toward the site, gaunt-eyed from embarrassment and horror. They had broken the most important rule of all, which was not to kill the two finest people they knew.

They stopped, swaying, and peered through the dust. The bricks and concrete slabs, with their twisted and snapped rebar, had fallen everywhere – except in the middle of the building, where, inexplicably, the lowest – in the center – room, with thicker walls and ceiling, was still standing. Through an opening, they saw two dust-covered people holding each other, kissing, alternately laughing and crying and, finally, because of what had happened to their ears, shouting endearments to each other too private for anyone to hear.

Which is when Carlos and David decided to go home and sleep. They weren’t paid enough to answer to anyone for what they had done. They also didn’t want to be there when the police arrived. And the mayor, and the newspapers, and, soon enough – because that’s the way things went – the agents for La Bohême, safety inspectors who might actually exist, and – worst of all – the powerful governor of the State, who might or might not cite them all as criminals, depending on how the event turned out to reflect on him.