Tag: Pátzcuaro

Jorge and the Santa Muerte

First, let me tell you I am a cautious person. The boy stood at a corner, where a side street cut into the main road. Kitty-corner from the Iglesia de La Santa Muerte, the Church of Saint Death. He had been standing there since 1997, long before the church appeared. He was six or seven then. He stood facing the road. He did not register the passing cars. He was dirty, dressed in rags, and barefoot. He was a ghost, and still is. Time went by in five- or six-month intervals. I never thought about him until I was about a half mile from the corner. Then I would start to think about him, and I’d say, “I wonder if the kid is standing there.” Near an unfinished structure, cement blocks, maybe a little house or store. With never enough funds to finish it. Sprayed with a faded graffiti, in black paint that said, “Vale verga mal gobierno.” Roughly, the government isn’t worth shit.

It was November, when I passed. He was wearing a plaid jacket, buttoned askew – Good Will stuff, trucked down from the border, by the ton, illegally. He wore oversized black sneakers, without laces. No socks. For the first time in thirteen years, someone had begun to take care of him. I suspected the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte, right there in front of him.

I was returning from a trip to the big town, where the houses are adobe and whitewashed, except for the first four feet, which are painted a dark cold red. I had walked the square, eaten watery over-sugared ice cream under the portales, the arched covered walkways, and had even had a drink. Whisky. I never drink whisky. I never drink anything hard. But with all the cold red paint and the whitewash, and it being November, one small shot warmed my chest and raised my sense of brotherhood. And that is why I stopped the car and got out. And walked over to the boy. For the first time in thirteen years.

He took a step back. I respected his fear and veered away. I looked for someone I could talk to. I walked up the side street. A man approached. He was a shorter than me, trim and white-haired. His face was a little red. I suspected his chest is warmer than mine. I greeted him. He was curious about me. A gringo out of his car. What could it mean?

“Para servirle,” he said, as if I were a customer. May I help you?

I said I’d been driving past the boy for thirteen years, and I’d stopped for the first time. “He has a new coat and shoes,” I said, waving behind me, at the ghost. It was a question, poorly disguised as a statement.

“Sí, eso sí es,” he said – but that was it. A non-committal agreement.

I wanted to ask things. But a follow-up question would have crossed a boundary. Like, who bought the jacket and shoes for him, why now, why hadn’t he been taken care of before? Who did he belong to? He could have been the man’s child. The man could have been connected to the church across the road. Similar churches were springing up all over Mexico. There was a word associated with them. My wife had told me not to throw it around. You never knew who you were talking to.

He asked where I was from, and was I visiting? I said I was from the capital of the next state north. I was visiting friends, I said. And that was all I said. I didn’t want him to know who my friends were or where they lived. He didn’t pursue it.

“I’ve worried about him over the years,” I said, realizing immediately what I was saying. I was a man who worried, but not enough to stop in thirteen years. A man who recognized a metaphor – the boy as the vast neglected population of Mexico – and left it at that.

The whisky was losing its heating power. I decided it had placed myself in a weak position. The man sighed. He looked at the boy. He looked back at me. Both of us looked for clues. The man’s shoes were modest, the soles good. Mine were fancy nylon sandals, with thick treads for wading in clean rivers and getting in out of first world kayaks.

“His name is Jorge,” the man said. “He’s always been that way.”

“I’m glad someone’s helping him,” I said. “I’ve never tried to help him.”

“Yo tampoco,” says the man. Me either. He raised his considerable eye brows, as if he were telling me something of great significance I probably couldn’t understand. “Even God has not helped him.”

This was a mouthful. I looked kitty-corner to the church.

“Someone over there helped him,” he said. And then he put his palms over his eyes, spread his fingers, and peeked through. As if to say, let’s not go any farther in that direction. He was also grinning, and the humor seemed like it could be at my expense.

“Ven,” he said, using the intimate imperative. Come! And we walked back toward Jorge. The man brought out a paper-wrapped shape, folded back the paper, and lifted out a taco. Chunks of meat in a red sauce. Jorge took it, at about solar plexus level, and dropped his face to it, like a dog. His hands were more than dirty. He farted as took the first bite.

The man wrapped the empty paper together so the juices were on the inside. He took a few steps and threw it against the wall of the unfinished structure, where it dropped among other similar wrappings, just below the graffiti “Vale verga mal gobierno”. He walked back to me.

“I can show you the church,” he said. He saw my doubt. “It’s alright, no one is going to shoot you,” he caught my eye, “if you come in peace.” He had raised his eyebrows again, to emphasize seriousness. If you come in peace sounded like some kind of authority. I was also not sure how we had made the jump: Jorge, then going in the church.

I considered saying I had to get along. I took out my car keys. He glanced at them. “You care about Jorge. We are not always ready to help those we don’t know.” I decided we meant him and me. And that he was building brotherhood.

“No one is going to kidnap you,” he said, with I thought a priest-like smile. “I know you’re curious. They hide nothing. Over half of this village has left the Catholic Church to worship there.” He pointed across the street. I took in the preferred church’s double door, the gothic half-arch windows, the bumpy frosted bronzed plastic panes. The oversized brass door handles – low-end Southern California crematorium style, without the smokestack.

“People are beginning to help Jorge. You’re not the only one.” He opened one side of the double doors. He switched on the lights.

“It’s just us,” he said, turning back.

I pointed my keys at my car, to make sure it was locked. Its parking lights winked.

“Do you have a key for yourself?” he snorted. He was very agreeable. But his joke showed too much intelligence. His Spanish was too clear. I remained standing in the doorway.

“What’s your connection to the church?” I asked, needing reassurance. I used su, the formal possessive adjective. I wanted to keep my distance.

“It’s complicated,” he said. I backed up a few steps, beckoning to him to come back out and discuss it with me.

“What do you want to know?” he asked.

“Well, I’m not sure what I can ask,” I said, thinking of my wife’s warning.

“Where are you staying?” he asked. And then: “Never mind, that just feeds your suspicion. I assure you, we help more people than we kill,” he said, lifting his considerable eyebrows – straight-faced. Pulling my leg, I thought, to show me I was being paranoid.

“My name is Luís,” he said. I shook his hand. It was cold. I did not say my name.

Inside, there were ten or more rows of simple benches. There was space in front for kneeling before the Santa Muerte. She was a plastic Katrina, a skeleton, with three-dimensional bones, wrapped in see through pastel chiffon. She rose up life-size out of a sea of devotional candle that flickered red, white, Virgin Mary blue, and ecclesiastical purple. She was missing one arm. A few shriveled and forgotten Purépecha women knelt before her, fingering their rosaries and praying for what? Food? That someone would touch them? See the nineteen-year old inside?

A car crunched to a stop. The door opened. A Policía Federal stepped through, his jacket too tight for more than one button. He held a small package wrapped in white paper. He glanced at the Indian women. He looked me up and down. He said something to my host. Something quick. A question, ending with ternero. Something like: Is this the missing calf?

Luís’s answer was also quick, and equally coded. “Aún no ha pastado.” Too young to graze, still at the mother’s tit.

“This is Nacho,” said Luis, with his palm out. No one was interested in my name. Luís brought three folding chairs over from the wall, and set them up facing each other. He placed a fourth one in the middle. Nacho unfolded his package on the fourth chair. “Chivo,” he said. Goat meat. I could smell it. So could the Purépecha women. Their rebozos shadowed their faces. Their head had turned, and they were staring. They did not look away.

With a little homophobic posturing – hip cocked, hand on his elbow, finger on his lips – Luís chose a bottle, from the feet of the Saint. Jim Beam.

Nacho gestured toward the goat meat. “Tómale, güero!” He handed me a napkin. I plucked out a hunk of mutton. The meat was still warm, not too fatty. He handed me an envelope of salt. We drank out of votive glasses. Mine was Virgin blue. Nacho wore gold chain under his gun-blue shirt. He needed a shave. His eyes were brighter than I liked. My hand trembled as I lifted my glass. I steadied it with my other hand.

“Qué tal los ataques contra el gobierno?” he asked. How do you like those attacks against the government?

His eyes were bloodshot. I was expected to give an answer. My chest was warm. My heart fluttered. I saw burning buses, trailer truck infernos, their drivers lying in the street. Tiro de gracia. A bullet in the back of the head. Someone like Nacho, shaved, two buttons buttoned, dark suit, standing in front of a huge Mexican flag, the presidential sash across his chest. Three years down the line.

I started to speak.

“Thirty-three municipalities,” he smacked, his mouth full of goat “They got money for sewage treatment plants, not a single one built, casas muy chillón instead, glitzy houses, built by the mayors. Feeder springs covered over. The silted lake. The water level drops. No fish. Horses and oxen for plowing. This is the pinche twenty-first century.” Nacho licked a thumb and hairy forefinger. He glared at me as if I were the cause of it all.

I felt safe. The chatty circle. Three chairs. The Jim Beam. The Indian women had turned away, too hungry to keep their bodies twisted. Like street dogs that knew they weren’t going to be fed.

“I could make a call on my radio, and 40 armed men would be here in three-quarters of an hour. Cut off the roads in ten different places. Lanzagranadas, RPG’s, granade launchers. It takes three hours for the army to get anywhere. A hundred years lost. No jobs. Shit for education. Aguacate or mariguana? How hard a choice is that? The North pretends it’s not involved. Maybe we’ll build the goddamn treatment plants. The fish will come back. Fuck the mal gobierno. We’ll kill the people who stand in the way. Send down the drones and we’ll kill your children.” I looked at Luís. Luís raised his eyebrows. At me.

I had stopped eating. I looked back at Nacho. His eyes were bulging, as if he had come to the surface too quickly. I looked at my Virgin blue votive glass. It was empty.

Nacho said pués, he had to go. He stuck out his gun leg and pulled out his black automatic, some kind of Glock. He cocked it and pointed it at my right foot. I pulled my foot back a bit. The Glock was stuck in midair, and didn’t follow. Nacho wiped goat grease off his mouth. He re-holstered the gun. He filled my votive glass with Jim Beam. He said maybe I could write a letter of recommendation for his daughter, so she could study in Chicago. He showed me a photo. A charming young woman. I imagined myself married to her, visiting Nacho on the weekends. Her name was Maricruz. The old question floated in the air. You know, like how do you get her across?

“Tunnels,” he winked. “And friends.”

I nodded. We stood and shook hands. I bowed slightly, the way my mother taught me. To show I respected him. “Mucho gusto,” I said.

“I know where to find you,” he said. I looked at Luis. He raised his eyebrows – another warning. Or jest. I couldn’t tell which. There were a few chunks of meat left. Nacho wrapped them. He glanced over at the Indian women, decided against it, and put the meat in his pocket, for later.

He stopped at the door. “I also know how to tell others where you live.” A comment I didn’t think went well with the recommendation for Maricruz. And then he was out the door. We heard the car pull away, heading back to the town.

It was very likely he had seen my license plate. He had a radio, probably a black thing, with blinking lights. The curse of Mexico is that there’s a sophisticated microwave repeater tower on every mountain top. I calculated the ease of cross checking information. It was still late afternoon. Transito could still be open. Maybe he already knew my name and address.

Luís led me out the back door, into the sweet smell of cow. A farmyard, carpeted with shredded dried manure from various animals. In a small corral of their own, two fine oxen, for plowing. A large corral, partly covered, with a dozen grey, flop-eared, hump-backed Brahman, happy to back from their lakeside grazing. A clutch of gleaming brown hens scattered before us, heads down, making lateral escapes. Slim Ameraucanas – my favorites. Pigs I could smell and hear, but not see. Probably the same for them.

“Where are we going?” I asked. He looked at me but did not answer. A bent campesino approached us from a path that led in from the marsh. A substantial haystack walked along behind him. A burro loaded with rastrojo de maíz, dried corn stalks, to the extent that the animal was completely hidden. Even its legs. We arrived at a shed at the same time.

“This is Don Venus,” said Luis.

I nodded. Don Venus looked just past me, at one of my ears. He moved his lips. No sound came out. Luis asked him to wait a moment before unloading the rastrojo. The shed was a lean-to, open on three sides. There were still some stalks leaning up against the rear wall. Luís pulled these aside and revealed an old green plastic tarp. And out from under this, he pulled what most of us recognize as the global insurgent weapon, the Kalashnikov assault rifle, or AK-47. It was painted a marine gray, chipped and dinged. God knows how old, or from what military. He fumbled around some more and brought a cuerno de chivo, the curved thirty-round magazine, and clicked it into place, thus completing the icon. In some parts of Asia and Africa, the whole thing for twenty dollars.

“How many have you got?” I asked, before I could stop myself.

He ignored me and told Don Venus – who had seen everything – to go ahead and unload his corn stalks. “Ven,” he said, and we started off on the path into the marsh. Right away, he pulled a pint bottle out of his back pocket. More Jim Beam. I took a swig. Then he took one. Then he dropped the bottle on a tuft of soft dry grass that the Brahmans appeared to be saving for later. “We´ll pick it up on the way back,” he said. He gave me a challenging smirk, in anticipation of a discovered deficiency – in me. “Have you ever shot one of these things?” he asked. I hadn´t. And the little warrior in me thrilled.

The path was a raised dike, formed by the dredged channel to our left. We passed a drawn up dugout – a canoa, the modern version, plywood and fiberglass – that waited for its fisherman to return. The dike widened a little. We stopped where a square – maybe six feet by six feet – had been cut out of the bog.

“Do you see it?” he asked.

I saw something in the brown water, a foot down. I stepped closer. A body splayed out, with small fish, too ravenous to flee, eating away at a vague white mass. Then I realized I was looking at a hoof, and that the victim was a calf that had been split open and staked down at each hoof. And then I thought I saw a human hand floating deeper down, below it all.

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. I turned and saw that Luís had the Kalashnikov pointed at me.

“You could donate your arm to the Saint,” he said. And then, with his brows raised, “For Jorge’s sake.” A smile formed. He thought it was funny.

He swung the gun away. “Let’s shoot it,” he said, and I jumped when he fired a single round at some grebes that were dunking and squeaking, in open water a hundred feet away. The birds fluttered across the water, turning this way and that. Some went airborne, others submerged. I felt pee cooling on my inner thigh.

“You try it,” he said. He moved a lever. “Automatic,” he said. He presented the gun with both hands, like an award. I held it at waist level and fired off a burst. At the grebes, farther away now. They panicked. One fluttered, then floated limp. My ears rang. I fired another burst. This one longer, and cut a path back back into the junco, a not too distant line of reeds. And then I fired until the cuerno de chivo was empty. On purpose. He understood what I’d done. His eyebrows were raised.

“Pasto para los chivos, cuernos para los cuervos.” He smirked, again as if he had discovered a small hypocrisy. Grass for the goats, horns for the crows. Or was the last phrase bullets for the cuernos de chivo -for the corpses the crows will pick at?

I didn’t understand. My mind was on the shredded calf, picked at by fish. I wondered it they were the same white fish that the tourists ate deep fried and cold. Plus, there was something else I couldn’t quite focus on.

On the way back, we stopped for the bottle. The whisky helped. I looked to see if you could see pee wetting through on my pants. You couldn’t. Don Venus sat on a three-legged stool. His burro dozed tied to the shed. Don Venus held a machete across his thighs. Luís handed him the Kalashnikov. Don Venus walked into the shed, to put it away. He carried the machete in his left hand, by its plastic black handle, and the AK-47 balanced in the right so the muzzle wouldn’t drag on the ground – as if it too were a campesino’s everyday tool.

We went back into the church. There were more women inside. One of them very pretty, with expensive shoes, an alligator handbag, and a thin-striped blue and black rebozo, to make her look Indian. I heard her smooth voice address the Santa Muerte: “Preciosa” –precious. Then she looked at me, curious, lingering. I recognized a woman of open complexity. At another time I might have joined the church, to be near her. Outside, I said she was muy guapa, very attractive. Luís raised his eyebrows and tickled the air with his forefinger – Mexican for yes. He said her husband was killed in a shoot out with Federal Police. I suspected Nacho immediately, but didn’t say anything. She had parked her new VW Jetta so close to the front door that we were barely able to squeeze out.

“A stunning woman,” he said. I thought I could hear suggestion in his voice. Like, you could have her, if you were with us. I wondered why her husband was in a shoot out. That brought up the word my wife didn’t want me to use. So I didn’t say it.

We shook hands. I wanted to ask things. The hand under the calf, for instance. Was he supposed to build a sewage treatment plant? Did he offer crystal meth to teenagers, then fuck them? And what’s the stuff with the calves?

Luís raised his eyebrows. “We’ll find her an arm from some other carbrón.” Perhaps because of the whisky and brotherhood, I shook his hand again. Maybe just to celebrate the arm I appeared to be getting away with. Maybe all they had was the hand and not the whole arm. I ignored the word cabrón as a license permitted between warm-chested friends.

“Don’t come back,” he said. “And don’t use the word narco. It just brings trouble.

“I understand,” I said. Although I didn’t.

“Don’t stop again,” he said. I wasn’t sure why he was emphasizing the point. As he squeezed past the Jetta to go back in, he looked at me and wagged his forefinger, Mexican for no.

Under the windshield wiper, on the driver’s side, I found the wrapping from Jorge’s taco. I was pretty sure he had put it there. Some of its juice had dripped down out of sight below the wiper. I took the paper out from under the wiper. I didn’t know where to put it. Jorge was standing across the road still. He was holding his hand out. I walk across the road. He stood firm. His hand moved a little toward me. He didn’t look at me. I put the wrapper in his hand. His head bobbed a little. He lowered his arm, still holding the paper. He continued looking at the road, and beyond to the Iglesia de la Santa Muerte. With the barest trip in my voice, I said, “Que te vaya bien, Jorge,” take care, and I returned to my car. I held my arm up and pointed with the key. The parking lights winked. And then I got in and locked the doors.

The Performance

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’s twenty.”

“What else?”

“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.