It’s your cue to get the hell out of town: the day before you were going to put a ring on her finger she realizes she’d rather be with the tall, hairy fellow who carries around books of 19th century German poetry but doesn’t read them. In a flash you jump in the car and drive; you don’t stop, you just keep going south like in the novel about the artist bums with the station wagon who get kidnapped and escape; you cross one political boundary after the next until people start talking different and at the end of the week you find yourself in what your compatriots keep calling the old colonial heartland. They get excited when they talk about this town’s exotic treasures and hidden essence. To you it’s all a bunch of crap, but since you have nothing to do but wait however long it takes to forget her, why not kill some time and see what all the hype’s about. The boutiques and flashing signs on the main avenida don’t impress you, and while the cathedral and square are nice, you’ve seen a hundred like them in a hundred other towns. Looking for the real Guadalajara, you ask around for where to go: the hotel receptionist, the waiter at the café, the taxi driver, but no one gets your drift. Seeing your fair hair and skin, hearing your broken Spanish, noticing your eager manners, they think you’re asking for what the others with your same hair, skin, Spanish and manners ask for, so they tell you about the concert halls, the banquet rooms, the fancy restaurants and you say thanks, but you know it’s all b.s., too polished and fake and without the dirt and grime you’re looking for, and after three days all you’ve seen is her face everywhere until one afternoon striking up a chat with the old hotel janitor you repeat your question. He stops his work, straightens up, adjusts his cap and looks you square in the eyes.
“La Plaza de los Mariachis.” Of course that would be the name and of course you never would’ve guessed it.
Night falls. As the streets begin to whisper their secrets, you make some distance from the town center, first ducking into a steam-filled closet where a dozen hungry locals crowd around a few indecorous tables under harsh fluorescent lights while a sweating cook fills an order every twelve seconds. You devour three tacos and a beer, and the cook—somehow smiling—asks you how many more, so after another three you head back out, passing the colonial portales of 16 de Septiembre, the cathedral, the imposing government offices. A couple blocks farther along the vibe begins to change, the streets look different, less manicured, somber, the people move with more purpose, looking over their shoulder. At Calzada de Independencia, you hit a wall of speeding traffic with no way across, no break in the cars. A waifish teen in all black surveys the street and goes from saunter to sprint, narrowly makes it to the other side and goes back to saunter all as if it were as natural as paying the bus fare, so you give it a try and get past two, three lanes, a honk, you stop and look, a car, another honk, an opening, you make a run for it, two three more lanes and you’re there! But where? This area doesn’t look so hot. It’s dark. Stray dogs sniff at the medley of trash covering the sidewalk and snarl at any colleagues who encroach on their prize. Down the block a few rough types in rags push each other around making threats. Andale cabrón, dame la lana, no chingues. The ceaseless noise of the calzada detracts from the gritty ambiance you seek so you walk on to the residential streets and turning the next corner you see a few of them. Yeah, them. Those gangs of dudes in ranch-hand pants and ornamented jackets, tighter than should be allowed by the laws of physics and of men, extra-wide-brimmed sombreros and ostentatious belt-buckles proudly donned like trophies, each holding his instrument with an elegance that contrasts with the seediness of this place. A short, chubby fellow plucks the strings on his over-sized guitarrón; while at his side, Hardy to his Laurel, is a tall amigo with an impossibly big belly flopping over his impossibly tight belt, strumming away on his pygmy guitar, the vihuela. Next follows an adolescent stick figure, clothes hanging loose in non-mariachi fashion on his noodle arms and legs, holding his trumpet like it’s an extension of his mouth. Then more violin players who my over-stimulated gringo-centric brain can’t process as anything other than identical triplets. And finally the apparent leader, a chiseled, diminutive Adonis with close-cropped, slick hair and a clean-shaven, bright face perfectly nestled in his snug uniform with violin held loosely at his side while belting out a mournful promise to cherish his Juanita even after death carries him off. Three pairs of lovers surround him, singing along, passing the tequila, drinking deep: one couple on the hood of a Chevy; another standing and holding each other, el novio on the verge of tears, la novia’s eyes closed as she sways back and forth mouthing the words; a third couple embracing, tottering in a battle against gravity, threatening to plummet to the ground as one. You stand nearby, listening and watching, certain you found some of that hidden essence, not the exotic kind of your compatriots, not sure if it’s your kind either, but positive it’s what these sad lovers, lost in music and drink, need here and now. You, too, begin to lose yourself in the aria when suddenly the closed-eye woman of couple number two comes to her senses and shoots you a look of disgust; the singer stutters; the guitarist misses a beat; it’s all just a momentary falter and the band recovers, but the couples have come out of their trance. You move on from this un-merry party only to see more just like them, so you float from group to group, song to song, staying with each until you get the sign that your allotted five minutes’ welcome is up. You’re thirsty, but once inside the cantina it’s clear from the immediate stares and comments you cause that they forgot to hang the foreigners-please-come-in-so-we-can-mess-you-up sign, so back out you go, finding a liquor store where a clerk sits behind iron bars filling orders from the shelves and fridges behind him like it’s his penal servitude; as he passes you a sixer of domestic, two limes and your change, your “gracias” elicits an automated grunt and you wonder what kind of life he has outside those iron bars. Returning to the street, to the music, you pluck one can after the next from the plastic rings, spending a few minutes near some commiserating souls, then others, eavesdropping on the soundtrack to their troubles. With half the beer gone and your feet getting sore, your rear finds the curb. An old woman approaches, wrapped in an Indian shawl, barefoot, asking for a cerveza and you oblige. She insists on paying with a story, sits next to you nice and close and rattles off a litany of woes, of hunger and cold, longing and rejection, her voice failing more and more as she goes on, but perks up when she starts about her man, her own tall, hairy fellow who had promised to always be by her side but left her with nothing save a child, now grown and gone, and her head is suddenly on your shoulder.
“Are you crying, señora?”
She sobs and you look around but no one is paying attention because each little bubble of people is having their own scene just like you and her, and you put your arm around her and a little sob escapes you too because you loved your Juanita but she didn’t love you back and the future you had planned will never come to pass, so you sob a bit more to get it out of your system and the señora does too, and when you’ve both cried it all out and settle down to finish your beer she asks for money, so you give her a few coins, say buenas noches, and head back into the sad streets taking one last look at the plaza and the mariachis and the drunk lovers and the hidden essence, then turn away and go down the avenida past the flashy boutiques till you’re back at the hotel where the old janitor looks at your bloodshot eyes and says nothing but nods in understanding.
Alex Wyman is a teacher and lifelong Chicago resident. He has traveled throughout Mexico and holds a Master’s Degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Chicago. Aside from a one-year hiatus as an aldermanic aide on the North Side, he has worked in Pilsen since 2001, and has taught high school Spanish and history since 2007.