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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Mexicali Mamas

 by Jenean McBrearty

There's a cool, dark cantina, one of hundreds in Mexicali, where the women's room has tiny toilets, and cockroaches swagger across the bar. The decor isn't as eclectic as Natty’s in Brawley where a roll of toilet paper graces the altar of a large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the left of the beer box, but it's as visually stimulating. The red ceiling lamp is surrounded by a mirror shade that reveals the owner's strategic attempt to hide a hole in it with a Band-Aid, and there are plenty of hand-painted signs. One lists the price of a beer as 7000 pesos, 10,000 pesos for a beer and female company.
          "The women work in the bar and keep the men company while they drink, splitting the fee with the owner,” my friend, Lupe, explained as the bartender brought us another round. "But they're not prostitutes."
          "More like geisha girls," I said. He bobbed his head in assent. "How much is beer if a woman has a man keep her company while she drinks?"
          He translated the question to the bartender who froze in confusion. Was my friend Lupe gay? Was I suggesting that a man would sell his time to listen to a woman, or that it was proper for a woman to buy it?  In Macho-cali the only answer he could manage was a laugh at the gringa’s joke, as Lupe pointed to me to reassure the man he was not pendejo. 
          "Think I could get a job here?" I asked Lupe.
          "Too old?"
          "You don't speak Spanish."
          "That's okay, the men won't notice."
          "Oh no?"
          "Men talk. Women listen, and do their “look” thing.”
          “What look thing?"
          I sighed. "If a man cries, a woman looks sympathetic," I explained, lowering my eyes, shaking my head, and putting my hand over my heart. "If he gets angry, a woman looks awed." I opened my eyes wide and stared at him admiringly, my hand moving down to cup my breast and lift it in homage. "It's all the language any woman has to know."  The bartender casually wiped a bug off the bar with the same towel he’d used to wipe off water spots on the glasses.
          "We need music," Lupe declared and lumbered across the old Parquet dance floor.  I followed ten steps behind. I felt my pocket to make sure he’d given me the car keys. "Get them from Lupe before he gets drunk or you may never make it home," Lupe’s wife, Sandra, had told me.  She didn’t mind him taking the 40-something editor of the Brawley Tribune to Mexicali thirty-five miles to the South to learn about Mexican heritage. Experiential research is my forte.  It was my first trip past the tunnel that connected Mexicali with Calexico—whether these hybrid names were the founders' idea of creativity or just happenstance I never learned—where the pharmacias sold cheap medicines to the gringos.  
          It was easy to see where the profits of the cantina went—a jukebox with state-of-the-art, compact discs offering single songs or whole albums complete with miniature album covers pictured on the side of the lists for the drunk or the illiterate.  We both found something we liked. For me it was banda music, a blend of nortena and Tex-Mex, a polka beat with a wider range of lyrics.  More bounce, less migrant misery.  "You like it because it's just like German music only without the yodeling," my friend, Trina, told me on one of my gott'a-get-out-of-the-heat visits.  She still couldn’t believe I’d left San Diego for the Imperial Valley where it often topped 115 degrees in the summer, or that I spent money on Mexican CD’s. I reminded her music was a quick and dirty research tool, but she didn't buy my sociology even when I tried to explain:  
     The cover photographer of Banda Machos, my favorite banda group, faces quite a challenge. There are 12 members of the group, some rather portly, whose faces are lost in the black haired crowd, and all wearing cowboy hats, matching boots, and matching suits with fringed seams. Fans and family members know which one of them plays brass, including a sousaphone, and which ones sing.  I don't. But I had it on good authority—Danny from Lou Lang's Music Bar—that they were one of the most popular norteno groupos around. I didn't know that when I bought Los Machos Tambien Lloran —The Strong Men Also Weep—at Wal-Mart.  I just saw the picture of these guys standing around in suits that reminded me of the mod suits the Beatles wore in the early 1960s, which reminds me of uniforms, which... it's complicated.
          I got Danny to translate the titles for me. Tu Abandando - You're leaving me; La Calles Di Mi Pueblo - The Streets of My Town; and, my favorite, Cumbio Torero - The Dance with the Bull.  It's a racy tune, not unlike a fast tango with castanets and rousing oles! that conjures up images of lithe Andalusian beauties in ruffled dresses being dominated by men in black leather boots and tight pants—thrilling to me ever since I saw Jose Greco stomp and click his heels in Around the World in Eighty Days.
          But the flamenco heritage of the song sounded different in the ambience of poverty, dirty red wallpaper, and cracked vinyl bar stools. I gazed at our reflections in the mirrored wall; Lupe and I looked out of place.  A man approached us, furtively reconnoitered, and showed Lupe pictures he had in a faded manila folder.  "No!"  Lupe said.  The bartenders spat out a few words and motioned the man to leave.
          "What was he selling?" I said.
          "Anything I haven't seen?"
          "Probably. It was pure filth.”
          “That's an oxymoron, you know” I said.
          "You can buy anything in Mexicali, didn't you know that? An oxymoron, a necklace - remember the guy with the necklace? Stolen. He's fencing it to buy drugs." Lupe’s voice was brittle.
          “You don't know he was going to buy drugs," I said
          “Yes I do."
          I knew better than to argue with a man swilling his sixth brew.  The awkward moment was saved by the throaty, on-the-verge-of-a-sob voice of Anna Gabriel.  We listened, staring at our bottles of Bud Lite.  "It's too bad you don't understand Spanish,” Lupe said.  “Listen to the words she saying—that only her man can touch her this way, kiss her this way, nobody else makes her feel this way."
          “She can really belt out a tune,” I agreed. I decided to make her La Cascavel—The Rattlesnake—my theme song.  Like Lupe's beer-soaked voice, it had an intense, throbbing insistence to it.
          He was clenching his beer bottle like a life raft.  "This is our therapy. Cervesa. Less expensive, less time-consuming than a psychiatrist.  We come here to be with our people and get away from the stress of America. To be Mexican again."
          He was as poignant as Gabriel who had a lot in common with Axl Rose and Bonnie Tyler—like Total Eclipse of the Heart.  Gabriel forces the sound from her throat as if straining every vocal cord to say words instead of screaming help. Passionate, but suppressed.  I could picture her tied to a granite pillar in an Aztec temple while half-clad warriors in feathered headdresses menaced her with maracas and whips. 
          “That bitch makes me come," Lupe whispered, and sucked out the last drops of beer in the bottle.
          “I guess you do like her," I said, wondering if Gabriel would be sympathetic or awed by his graphic endorsement.  I wondered if Gabriel ever smoked too. My sister sounds a lot like her, and she's a chain smoker.
          “She begs for it," he continued, massaging his groin. He didn't have to explain what “it” meant.  Some unexpected cascavel awaited Sandra tonight.
          Three women came in and sat down off to my right.
          "They're starting to work now,” Lupe said as he sat up straight, trying to pull himself together.  "They’ll be here till six in the morning. I have a lot of respect for them. They help support their families."  I wondered if the women understood English because they were close enough to hear him.
          They all appeared to be at least 35, all of them heavyset and wearing tight black skirts, neon satin blouses, and bright red lipstick. Their nails were long and polished, and they all wore dangling bronze filigree earrings. They sat close together, and talked quietly while the music played.  I could see them looking at us, trying not to stare, but curious.
          Lupe and I were dressed alike too, in faded jeans, turtleneck T-shirts, and tailored jackets with rolled up sleeves.  Our gold digital wristwatches both read ten o'clock. I thought about Lupe’s new Silver Thunderbird parked outside, and watched the women wait for a man who would pay her to listen to him.  Who listens to the women?  Los machos tambien lloran.  Strong men also cry. Was it suffering that made them weep, or the guilt from not suffering enough?
          I thought about Tom Flores, at six feet one of the tallest Mexicans in Brawley, who worked for the city’s Public Works.  He was raising his stepdaughter because his wife abandoned them when the fourteen-year-old got pregnant.  The granddaughter was born with a large red floret on her upper lip, a birth defect that the doctors said they would not remove until the child was four years old.  It was rumored Tom's wife left to return to the husband she'd left behind in Mexico out of guilt, believing the birth defect was God's revenge for her coming to America.  Other people gossiped that the baby was really Tom's child, and that his wife left out of guilt, believing the birth defect was God’s revenge for her coming to America.  Most gossip in the Valley ended with guilt and God's revenge.          
          “No one liked Tom's wife," Sandra confided to me. “She was too dark. Too wild. She went to church too much. ” The contradiction went unnoticed when tongues wagged about one of Brawley's sexiest employed unattached men. Tom had universally acknowledged suffering creds, but he never cried. At least not to me.  
          I remember the long conversations I had with him on Sunday mornings when I’d bring coffee and we’d read the newspaper in his office near the water treatment plant.  He was a wealth of information about the city, its plumbing problems, and the hated city manager.  One of my favorite stories concerned old Jesus Cardoza, who had worked for the city for over forty years. When the city decided to hire a certified college graduate to run the streets and roads division, it “retired’ Jesus sans pension.  Maybe there had been rumors that the La Raza god was pissed off that Jesus had come to America, but Jesus didn’t exhibit any guilt over it, or return to his pueblo like Tom's wife.
He bided his time till the plagues came: the crickets that descended on the city like volcanic ash, the gas leak at the chlorine plant that sent hundreds to the make-shift hospital in the school gym, the arrival of Wal-Mart, and the flash flood. When the storm drains were unable to handle the runoff, the water pressure dropped, and it was clear a main water pipe had broken—somewhere.  A review of the cities storm drain system map proved useless.  Jesus was the only one who knew how the pipes were actually laid out and where the break could have occurred.  Jesus may not have been familiar with the term “poetic justice” but he certainly got a super-sized portion.  His response to the city’s request for his help was an unprintable series of expletives that summed up to a definite no.
          Had Jesus ridden with Zapata or Pancho Villa?  Was he, perhaps, inspiration for one of Villa's horsemen depicted in the mural on the weight-bearing wall of the Mexican-American Club?  Tom was too young to remember anything about Jesus’ origins when I asked him about the leathery old man, but he remembered stories and told me city secrets – it was the kind of information that made being a reporter interesting, interesting enough to keep me hanging out with dark men desperately trying to hang on to their culture though they worked for the city, had pensions, and married women named Sandra. 
          The cantina was filling up with dark men who had no jobs, whose wives worked at other cantinas while they idled in this one.  The women stopped talking to one another, and exchanged words with the men who came to the bar to order.  By ten thirty, none of the men had hired any of the women—not drunk enough, not sad enough yet, I supposed.  But Lupe’s tears were visible now, flowing freely as Gabriel began another tortured song. “White men don’t know what it’s like,” he groaned.  He was wrong, but I lowered my eyes, shook my head yes, and put my hand over my heart.  I could still see the women in the mirror, watching me.  I caught their eyes, and they smiled approvingly.

A graduate of San Diego State University, Jenean McBrearty was raised in Southern California where she taught sociology and political science for military education programs and wrote for newspapers in the Imperial Valley. She was a social science/history book reviewer for Choice Magazine; a columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader; and has been published in Teaching for Success, Static Movement, Wherever It Pleases, and the
Main Street
Rag 2011 Anthology,
Altered States. She won Eastern Kentucky University's English Department Award for Graduate Non-fiction in 2011, and is an MFA Creative Writing candidate.