Several friends I’ve had over the years have harbored a strong contempt for hunting and hunters, while at the same time priding themselves as being manly carnivores and big time backyard barbecue mavens. I’d say “So, you prefer someone else to do the killing for you and to have your meat waiting for you at the supermarket, neatly wrapped in cellophane? That makes you more humane?”
“That’s not the point” would be the usual reply, followed by a confused stare, and usually a subject change.
Where I grew up in northern Pennsylvania, hunting and fishing were not only ways of life, but the lynchpin to the entire economy. Every fall they’d come, mostly up from Philly, men with their red-and-black plaid wool jackets, Winchester 30-30′s, and cases of Schaefer beer (“The one to have when you’re having more than one!”). Buck, doe, black bear, trout: those were the seasons in Coudersport, PA, more important than Christmas and Easter.
But while I never confused manliness with donning an apron and flipping burgers over a charcoal fire, I never really thought that hunting was particularly manly either, just something that guys did, like playing golf or poker. An observation, purely my own: it seems that the more safe, secure and comfortable our society has become, the more we obsess over “manly” pursuits. The Rambo phenomenon—guys running around sporting camouflauge and Russian-made assault rifles—didn’t take hold until the the draft and the Vietnam War were safely over and American men had no reason to fear that they would be dragged into combat against their will.
I thought of this the other day when I was invited to a barbecue in Rosarito as part of Semana Santa, holy week. A restaurateur and his 3 sons came down from Tijuana Saturday to spit roast a pig and a lamb. I was curious about the preparation, so I grabbed my camera and went down to take a look. I watched them attach the headless lamb to the spit and asked “Where’s the head?” I was directed to look into a large cauldron that was heating over a propane fire. Sure enough, there was the head, along with the intestines, simmering away.
Next, they grabbed the pig, head and all, out of a large cooler and attached that to the spit as well. The pig looked like a pig, except hairless and it’s flesh deeply scored by a knife. I’m not sure if the image of a freshly killed animal being wired to a spit would or would not disturb anyone because there was nobody else around to see it. Didn’t disturb me, though, nor did it bring out in me any latent neanderthal urges. I just wanted to know when the damn thing was gonna be ready. I hadn’t eaten all day.
I bring this up not as a treatise on the modern American male and his inability to see the foolishness of equating carburetor tweaking with masculinity, but more about the lack of the same idiocy here in Mexico. There was no Tim “Tool Man” Taylor hooting when the carcasses were hoisted onto the spit, and I didn’t get any sense that the four guys who were doing the hoisting felt any more manly than the guy taking their picture.
Ideally, more people should witness this kind of thing, if for no other reason than to know that the brown thing under the catsup between the buns was once a living creature. This probably would not make vegetarians out of too many of us, but what with all the trendy babel about “locally sourced” and “from farm to table”, it might at least make us all a little more honest about the food we eat.
There is a series of one and two story apartments on Avenida Mar Adriatico a block away from where I live in Rosarito Beach that are populated by a bunch of young men, mostly in their 20′s and 30′s, who congregate on the street on sunny days. I see them mostly on my daily trips to and from my mail box. Most are heavily tattooed, heads shaven, lean and muscular. I refer to them as the vatos. I’ve gotten to know a couple of them fairly well, an older fellow named Ismael and his neighbor, Alfredo. Ismael has the weary look of a man who has seen too much and would like to forget most of it. Alfredo is more feral, living more in the moment, a taut little chapo ready to pounce. Both are friendly to a fault.
Each time I see Ismael or Alfredo, we always plan to get together, to have a barbecue in Alfredo’s concrete side yard, or walk over to Vince’s Seafood to share some ceviche and cerveza. It never happened. Sometimes in the late winter afternoons, killing time alone, I’d think maybe I’d drop down to street level and treat the boys at Vince’s, but each time inertia kept me in my safety zone.
But one day, coming back from the liquor store with a bottle of Don Ramon tequila and a six-pack of Tecate, I caught Alfredo hanging around outside, offered him a smoke and ask if he wanted to do a shot and a beer. He unlocked the gate to the iron fence that surrounds his little concrete block house and invited me inside. I sat on a old bench-style car seat that passed for patio furniture while he washed out a couple of glasses, then we dug into the Don Ramon.
Alfredo talks the way Chicano L.A. gangbangers talk in the movies. Heeey, ‘compa! Que paaasa? Pinche this, chingado that. Except that what comes out of his mouth is not bullshit or jive. Alfredo’s been around the block a time or two: a stint on a fishing boat sailing out of Seattle, laboring on cattle ranches in the Denver area, something that took him to Baltimore, he didn’t say what. That afternoon, as the Don Ramon slowly disappeared, we talked about politics, places we’ve been, our respective assessments of modern life in southern California. He had lived in Highland Park in East L.A., and his mother and brother still live there. “It’s home to her now”, he said of his mother. About the illusive brother I’d heard about before, perpetually coming down to Rosarito for a visit, never arriving, he didn’t say much.
Then Alfredo confirmed what I had already suspected, that he had been deported from the U.S. after serving some time in a California penitentiary. What shocked me was that he had spent 15 consecutive years in la pinta. He didn’t tell me with any sense of defiance or bravado, but in the way you’d tell someone that you had once spent 4 years stationed at Fort Bragg. All he did was read, he said, mostly philosophy. He had read Sartre’s ”Being and Nothingness” behind bars. I’d read it, too, one summer in the 70′s, stoned on a couch in Winter Haven, Florida, and couldn’t make sense of a single word of it. Our conversation eventually veered from philosophy and politics to inconsistencies in the bible. ” Adam and Eve , Cain and Abel, they were the only people in the world, right, ‘compa?” he said. ” And Cain killed Abel and was thrown out of Eden, right? But he married a woman later! Where did she come from, ‘compa? It’s all bullshit, religion. I prefer philosophy.”
The tequila and the daylight were almost gone, so I thanked Alfredo for the hospitality and he thanked me for the drinks. I was tempted to ask him what he’s done to serve a 15 year prison term, but I didn’t. Not sure if I wanted to know. Before I headed home I said “Fifteen years in prison? Fuck, I go bat shit after an hour at the DMV.” Alfredo laughed. “Tell me about it”, he said.
A couple months passed since I’d drunk tequila and talked philosophy with Alfredo. A woman I know , Georgia from Syracuse, NY, was opening a bar called Life’s a Beach here in Rosarito, just in time for spring break. In a display of support, I headed down the street to spend the afternoon at Georgia’s bar. The bartender is an tall, lean affable bloke named Carlos. After a couple of buck fifty promotional margaritas, Carlos and I started to shoot the shit. “We’re gonna be open all night,” he told me. “I’m a little worried about what kind of a crowd’s gonna come in here at 4 am. I think we need a little security.”
“You know any of those guys who live down there on Avenida Mar Adriatico?” I ask, thinking of Alfredo and Ismael, and some of the younger, tougher looking vatos. ”Some of them seem pretty capable.”
Carlos nodded. I wasn’t the first person to mention them. “Tell ‘em to come on down”, he said. “Tell ‘em to ask for Carlos.”
I wasn’t sure if I should mention this, but I did. “They all have been deported. They’ve all served hard time. One guy, Alfredo, did 15 consecutive years. But he’s a good guy. He’s looking for any kind of work. I trust him.”
Carlos leveled his gaze a me. “Not a problem”, he said. And again, with no defiance or bravado, “I did 12 consecutive. Tell him to come down and ask for Carlos.”
The wind in Rosarito has been relentless this month. It’s usually a straight north wind, blowing down the beach, but sometimes coming in off the ocean. Some days, the wind will blow in opposite directions at the same time, a Santa Ana blowing in from the desert colliding with the breeze coming on-shore. Alfredo, one of the security guards at my building, assured me that the wind dies down in the summer. I hope so. Some people hate the cold, some people hate humidity, or heat; I hate the wind. It’s always bugged me. Even one of the vatos was bitching about it the other day and since he can’t even afford a pack of cigarettes, you’d think he’d have bigger things to worry about. “Hace fucking viento”, he said to me when I walked past, right before asking for a couple of smokes.
There have been a couple of other incidents in the past month I’ve struggled with, too. The other day at the ATM outside a Banamex, a man approached me and asked if the machine dispensed American money or Mexican. WTF? I told him that it only dispensed pesos. “No, no, no!”, he replied. That’s when I noticed another guy approaching the ATM, and I knew immediately what was going on. The first guy was going to show me on his machine how to convert pesos to dollars, while the other man was about see if I’d already typed in the PIN on my machine. The reason I knew this was because the same thing happened to me at the same ATM last fall. That time a man explained to me that my ATM wasn’t working but that his was. I’m not exactly sure how he had tampered with it, but sure enough when I tried to get some cash the display screen ask me to try again another time. I had already typed in my PIN, of course. When I moved over to the other machine, I was told again that the bank was unable to process my request and to try another time. That’s because the helpful asshole’s partner had already entered the kiosk and hit up my bank account for the daily maximum of 3000 pesos on the ATM I was originally using. This I found out the next morning when I went on-line to see my account.
So the second incident fell under the category of “Fool me once, shame on you.” This time the two guys scattered when I put on my psycho face and screamed at them that I knew exactly what they were up to. I’ve since learned that this is one of the more common rip-offs down here, and learning this pissed me off even more than loosing the the 3000 clams. To know that I’d been victimized by a scam that was usually aimed at Canadian housewives on holiday in Mexico was a serious blow to my own sense of street cred. “But you’re about the most street wise guy I’ve ever known!” a friend said to me after the first incident. Well, apparently not.
Something else happened just this past weekend. My son Jack came down to visit, so I took him on a food-tasting tour of the area. We wanted ceviche, so we went to the nearby village of Popotla, where the fish goes right from panga to plate. We chose the most popular stall on the beach and waited our turn to order. And waited. And waited. There were two people behind the table: a young guy shucking oysters and a woman preparing the ceviche. While we waited, others came to the table and were promptly served. Still, my son and I remained vigilently patient. Finally our order was taken–four tostadas and a beer–and the ceviche was promptly delivered. But not the beer. Again, we stood there for a good 5 minutes before finally giving up on the beer and taking a seat at a plastic table in the sand. The beer never arrived.
When it was time to pay up, I was surprised to hear that I was being charged for the beer. When I protested, the woman at the table accused me of having drunk the beer and hiding the can. I ask her why she was insulting me, but she merely folded her arms and stared coldly. Finally the hombre intervened and asked if I still wanted the beer. “Fuck yeah”, I replied, “especially if I’m going to pay for it anyway.” I took the beer and we strolled back into town.
Later, I tried to rationalize what happened. After all, it was a full moon and the woman had probably been standing in the sand chopping fish since dawn. But why had I heard the term “gringo” tossed around no less than 4 times while we were settling up? Why was I accused, as a gringo, of trying to dodge paying for a buck fifty beer? The full moon was working on me, too. Late into the evening, I was improvising, in Spanish, ever more insulting things I could have said to the woman, but didn’t.
You see, guys like me are not used to even the most subtle forms of bigotry. I am pure Anglo, in the most literal sense of the word. Until now, this kind of shit has been directed at others, not me.
And I’d like to say that I’ve learned something from all this, but I haven’t. Yeah, sure, how many times has some Mexican woman, perhaps struggling to convey herself at a carry-out in San Diego or L.A., heard the words “beaner” or “mex” spoken among the employees from behind the counter. But, then, so what?
I look outside the window now. That god damned wind has picked up again. The ocean is moving north to south like an enormous river.
Since the streets of Tijuana have been torn up all winter, I’ve had to detour through town on my occasional trips to the border, past the two oldest municipal cemeteries in town, creatively named Cementerios Numero Uno and Numero Dos. Since learning that a famous “patron saint”, Juan Soldado, is buried in Number One, I’ve been meaning to stop to check it out. Finally, this past weekend, I did.
Juan Soldado (John Soldier) was a young soldier from Oaxaca whose real name was Juan Castillo Morales. In 1938, an 8-year-old girl named Olga Comacho disappeared from the street while running an errand for her mother. Tijuana was thrown into a frenzy (largely because there had been, in the 30′s, a string of unsolved child murders in San Diego county) and a search ensued. Before long Olga’s mutilated body was found in an abandoned warehouse. She had been raped and nearly decapitated. Acting on a tip, the Tijuana police arrested Juan Soldado and, under duress, he confessed to the crime.
This threw Tijuana into an even bigger frenzy. A lynch mob quickly formed and stormed the jail, unsuccessfully attempting to get to Castillo. Riots raged for days and several municipal buildings were burned to the ground. To quell the mob, Tijuana police appealed to the army who quickly arranged a kangaroo court (Castillo had no defense attorney) and, after the 18 hour court martial, he was found guilty of murder.
This is where, if possible, the story gets even stranger. By the 1930′s, Mexico had largely eliminated capitol punishment, so the army came up with a creative solution to wash their hands of the Olga Comacho case and to restore order to Tijuana: they decided to employ a practice borrowed from 19th century Spain called Ley de Fuga, Law of Escape. In this rigged game, the condemned prisoner was allowed to actually flee from the firing squad, at least for a few moments, before any shots were fired. Of course, traditionally, the condemned didn’t get very far.
So the following morning, Soldado/Castillo was taken to Cementerio Numero Uno where hundreds of citizens had gathered to witness the law of flight first hand. A naturally reluctant Castillo was pushed and prodded by the firing squad until he began running through the graveyard. He was shot twice by the firing squad after a few dozen yards. Still barely alive, Castillo lie bleeding among the grave markers when a Mexican army officer issued the coup de grace at point-blank range. Castillo was dragged to a nearby grave that had been specially dug just for him, shoved in, then hastily covered with dirt.
It was over the next few decades, for a variety of reason, that Juan Castillo became Juan Soldado, the patron saint of illegal immigrants attempting to pass over the border from Tijuana into the United States. The reason most often given for this rehabilatation from kiddie rapist to unofficial “saint” is the now widespread believe that Castillo’s confession was coerced from him and that he was covering up for the real killer, his superior officer. And for whatever reason, Mexico has a rich history of these kind of ”people’s saints”, ranging from the famous, possibly fictional, Mexican Robin Hood, Jesus Malverde to the infamous Santa Muerte, the skeletal, scythe-wielding patron saint of Mexican drug cartels.
And it’s not just border crossers who petition Juan. The shrine is strewn with written messages begging Juan’s help in a variety of family crises, wishing for a happy marriage to a favored daughter or a miraculous cure from a debilitating disease. In any event, today, and for the past several decades, Mexican workers, instead of having a few beers with friends or a making a long distance call home, drop by Juan’s grave for a final blessing before attempting to illegally cross the border.
The day I stopped at Cementerio Numero Uno, nobody was visiting Juan’s grave, although a young woman was sweeping and tidying up the shrine. She viewed me suspiciously as I took some photographs, but said nothing. At the gate of the cemetery, two small pushcarts had been selling special votive candles, flowers, and plastic figurines of Juan Soldado. I lingered for a few moments at the shrine hoping to experience some vibe or spirit but apparently the transmission lines were down. Other than a light rain, I felt nothing other than curiosity and pity. Curiosity that these kinds of superstitions linger well into the 21st century and pity that thousands of young border crossers have no one better to turn to for help other than their coyotes, Barack Obama, and Juan Soldado.
I intended for Waiting for Epiphany to be a stand-alone piece, but it has generated some confusion. One friend read it, apparently liked it, but ask me if it signaled that I had joined Alcoholics Anonymous. Another woman I’ve known since 8th grade thought that I was sinking into depression. Sorry to disappoint, but neither is true. Waiting for Epiphany wasn’t about drinking, or being depressed, or having some existential crisis. It was about getting on in a new place, even a foreign or exotic one, once the novelty has worn off and routine kicks in as it inevitably does. So what’s the routine in Rosarito Beach? Pretty much the same as anywhere else, except a little more ramshackle, and with a language barrier. Nobody stares at the gringo in the Commercial Mexicana supermarket, at least while I’m looking, and the only attention I get walking down the beach or through town is from trinket hawkers and chiclet sellers. After all, Rosarito is only 30 miles south of the border and half the people here probably have lived one time or another in the states. I’ve run into a handful of other Americans living here. They’re easily identified by the de rigueur snowy white ponytails and matching facial hair, but I don’t go out of my way to interact with them. If I felt like hanging out with gringos, I would not have moved to Mexico. And although my Spanish has gone well beyond “Donde esta el mercado?”, it’s still basically functional so chatting up the natives is a little out of reach right now. Besides, I never much chatted up anyone before, unless I was getting paid to, so why start now? One thing you can certainly rely on here is food. Mexico is a gigantic food court. And since the cost of eating out is about 1/2 of what it is in the states, you can dine out often and I do. There are 3 or 4 taco joints all within a short walk from where I live, and they’re all outstanding. Street food, once the bastion of late night drunks, is now squarely in the radar of heretofore snobby food critics who a decade ago would not have sullied their delicate palates with greasy tacos al pastor or medudo. And I cannot verbally give proper respect to the delight that is a pile of grilled meat, slathered with cilantro, guacamole, and salsa picante, cradled in a warm tortilla. Around here, even the bad ones are good. The popular favorite around here is a joint called Tacos Yaqui, which serves up a burrito-sized taco of grilled carne asada on a wheat tortilla, smothered in beans and cheese. My preference however is Tacos El Paisano which does it up right with cerda asada served on small corn tortillas, all for about 80 cents a piece. Down the street are Tacos Poblano and Tacos Nortena, both hard to beat. There are also a couple of sitdown restaurant I frequent, the best being El Nido (“The Nest”) which raises its meats, rabbit, quail, venison, beef, and chicken on a sustainable organic ranch in Valle de Guadalupe, northwest of Ensanada, and then cooks it over open-flame mesquite. Hard to go wrong with that and they don’t. I should add that it doesn’t weird me out to eat alone here. The only place I remember not feeling a little estranged eating alone in the states was Cambridge, near the Harvard campus. There, it seemed like everyone was dining out alone, their company kept by a magazine or a newspaper. I felt right at home. Here, you don’t even need the newspaper. The many courses of soup/salad/entree come at the perfect pace. When you push aside the appetizer plate of grilled calamari, the salad or soup appears. The wait staff here know their shit, and they pace the meal by watching the customer. The people are fucking poor around here. It’s hard to believe that everyone below the age of 50 has not joined a drug cartel. My friend Jaime, the security guard at the building where I live, works 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, and must endure a 3 hour bus ride to and from Tijuana everyday because his salary does not permit him to fix the transmission on his car, which has been parked across the street for a month. Another guy I chat with most every day I’ll call el vato (pictured left) because I never quite caught his name. He lives nearby amongst other vatos for $200 a month in a small row of cinder block, 2-room houses, backed up against an auto repair yard. All the guys are lean and heavily tatooed. They all seem like decent guys, even if their accents are right out of a Cheech and Chong parody. And they all are guys who have been apprehended and deported from the United States, in some cases imprisoned first, but in most cases not only cut off from work and an income, but from their families as well. They ain’t got shit. I’ve talked politics with the vatos, and they’re not stupid or unaware. I’ll have to ask them the next time I see them what they think of Obama’s bold new plan to grandfather in legal status for immigrant workers, now that the carcasses of their former lives have washed up here. I’m surprised there is not more bitterness here. There’s mostly sweetness and congeniality. Even more so than food, that’s the perfect antidote to an existential crisis.
I’ve always found it an adventure moving to a new place, exotic or not, and I’ve moved to plenty. There’s inevitably the honeymoon period. You start a new job, learn your way around, get to know the shops and stores, make a few new friends. Of course, the more there is to explore and the more there is to do, you can stretch that honeymoon for weeks, even months before the routine sets in. And exotic does help. Moving to Miami, for instance, or Seattle was way more fun than moving to Dayton, Ohio, because Miami and Seattle were totally unlike any other places I’d lived before. And so it is with moving to another country.
The first few weeks in Rosarito fit that pattern. On a cultural level, there was a foreign language to overcome, to say nothing of learning the manners and mores of the people I encountered. But there was still the practical level: learning the streets, finding a decent grocery store, experimenting with new restaurants, etc. But as with anywhere, inevitably a routine begins to sink in.
It’s well known cliche that you can’t really run away from the past, because no matter where or how far you go, you and your past will always be there waiting. And cliches become well known because there’s usually some true to them. The fantasy of a Shawshank Redemption, and other similar popular myths, is that to cross the border and head south wipes away the messy smudges of the past and replaces it with a brighter, sunnier, more simple reality, where a man can while away his days sanding and painting the hull of a boat on the sands of Zihuatanejo, never to look back. But for all we really know, Andy Dufresne and his buddy Red might have ultimately drowned themselves in bottles of cheap mezcal and Mexican whores once the money ran out and the novelty wore off.
Another well known cliche is the opposite of running from the past. The myth of “searching for yourself” is also nurtured by exotic locations and faraway places. In recent decades, an entire literary and cinematic industry has grown up around the idea of middle aged Americans discovering the true essence of their contentment on a goat farm in sunny Provence, on a charming backstreet in Paris, or in a quaint fishing village in Wales. There your “real self” has been hiding your entire life, patiently waiting for you to catch up and join the party. Seldom is your real self hiding in Shreveport or suburban Tulsa.
For all I know, there might be something to these myths because, after all, what can help break the bad habits of the past better than a little culture shock? It’s a variation on the old notion that nothing in this world can focus the mind better than imminent peril. But culture shock is, by definition, sudden and temporary. When the cultural temperature begins to drop a little, habits, memories, and boredom can creep back in like the evening fog. It’s a sorry testimony on modern life that so many people are debilitated with aching thoughts that they’ve somehow missed out on something really important. It partly explains the popular notion that we are afraid of commitment, a society constantly moving around looking for the next big thing.
But really, how far can you run and what are you running toward, except obscurity? If you believe you can’t escape the past then you believe that the past is something that’s attached to you, like the chains dragging behind the ghost of Jacob Marley, and that the future is perpetually just out of reach. This assumption is supported by the force of almost universal consensus. But change doesn’t really come until one begins to realize that any willful attempt to improve oneself is completely futile. These are usually just schemes and the truth is that real freedom cannot exist alongside false freedom, whether on the beach in Zihuatanejo or in a motel room in El Cajon.
So it needs to be with a new set of eyes that I experience my new life south of that magical border. As far as the past goes, it does tend to permeate everything around you if you allow it to. And we all know that the future is a flirtatious mistress. All I can claim to know is the present. And I know at this moment that I’m hungry and that a fresh lobster and a cool margarita are out there waiting for me somewhere. But I also know that “myself” is not waiting for me at the bottom of that margarita.