By Turk Pipkin
JUNE 1, 1998: Sunday evening in Mexico is a time when people all across the land come out of their homes and into the streets. Gathering in the smallest town squares and the largest city plazas, they celebrate one week that is ending and another about to begin. It is an age-old tradition that for one night replaces the blather of television and radio with a community-wide block-party. And it is the one day of the week when even a gringo can be a part of Mexico. After an afternoon of shopping in the artisan town of Tlaquepaque (Tlah-kay-pah-kay), now a suburb of sprawling Guadalajara, Sunday night calls me from my hotel like a childhood friend who wants me to come out and play. The streets are full of smiling people, and I fall in with the informal procession, all of us headed for the two adjoining plazas at the center of town.
When we arrive, both blocks are nearly filled to capacity with a revolving throng of Mexican families, young lovers, street theatre groups, and vendors of everything from tacos and roasted ears of corn to handcrafted silver jewelry and cheap plastic toys. No less than a dozen ice cream shops have people lined up five deep for their frozen confections, and while the customers stand in line, their main focus seems to be a 6-foot-7-inch gringo with long silver hair. In other words: me.
From my bird's eye view above the teeming throng, I see the bronze statue of Miguel Hidalgo, father of the Mexican revolution. Accustomed to his presence among them, the revelers pass by without noticing his countenance. To me, though, it seems that as he looks down upon the people that have sprung from his cry for independence, there is a smile on his face that I did not notice by the harsh light of day.
One of Tlaquepaque's two plazas is anchored by a giant enclosed courtyard where an ornate central gazebo is surrounded by one cafe after another that comprise a circle of hundreds of tables. In the porticoed entrances to this plaza, ancient iron hooks on the walls support the trumpets, violins, guitars, and the huge bass guitarons of mariachis waiting to serenade the customers at the tables.
The tradition of mariachi music originated in Guadalajara and the chances are that if you ask the players of almost any mariachi band in Mexico, many of them will have played in this splendid plaza. As I choose my table, a troupe of 14 mariachis are playing loudly from the ornate central gazebo.
Between songs, the band waits with smiles on their faces as the audience yells back and forth to determine the next song.
Despite the fact that the group's name is Los Mariachis Aguilas - the Eagles - they do not respond as I join in, shouting loudly for "Tequila Sunrise" and Webb Wilder's "Glenn Frey Must Die."
When the Eagles are finished, they roam through the crowd selling cassettes of their music. Meanwhile, the stage is taken over by a traditional dance group with flashing heels and colorful costumes.
Finding a good table, I light a puro Cubano - a Cuban cigar, that set me back 80 pesos or about 10 bucks (but at least they're legal). Besides, my economic solace rests upon cold Bohemia beer which costs nine pesos - a buck and a dime. A lively trade is also underway in tequila, which is made just down the road in the town of the same name.
The music plays on, accompanied by whirling hems and joyful cries of abandon. My waiter returns with another beer and asks if I am content, a word that often seems such a perfect fit in Mexico.
"Sí, muy contento," I tell him. Very happy.
The only sour note is a kid, age five or six, who's unhappy because I won't buy his roses, and then walks off cursing me when I won't give him even a single peso. Years ago - when I was a street performer myself - I formed obstinate rules concerning handouts, but now it is my rules that do not seem to fit, especially since purchases for my own kids are all around me: two perfect miniature guitars, a sack full of toys - Mexican bingo and plastic jump ropes - and two bottles of fine tequila for friends in the States.
One peso. Who am I trying to fool?
Not wanting to regret anything on such a great night, I call after the kid, but the music is loud and he has already moved on to easier pickings.
Exactly one beer later, another kid comes over to my table with seven tiny sticks. What he wants, I translate with some effort, is to wager that he can make a square with three sticks, and that I cannot. Knowing that he has me hooked, I set a five-peso coin on the table. The boy arranges four of the sticks in a square, then places the other three sticks inside the square. "Una cuadra con tres paletas," he says. "A square with three sticks." Then as soon as he sees my smile of understanding, he picks up the money and skips away.
My next visitor is a man with one of those hand-crank electrical generators. Holding out two electrodes, he offers to shock me senseless for only five pesos. Knowing that the papers at home accomplish the same thing by merely printing yesterday's news, I slide the coin across the table and take the two cold metal cylinders in my hands. It's been since my high school days in the border towns of the Rio Grande that I've succumbed to such lunacy, but I remember to tell him, "Solo, poco." Only a small charge.
Then I see a wicked gleam in his eye, as if another gringo once stiffed him for the five pesos. Before I can let go of the electrodes, he gives the machine a vicious twirl that constricts my muscles and locks my hands tightly on the electrodes.
Right on cue the music and stamping heels build to a crescendo, and the entire stage explodes in a shower of fireworks. For 15 seconds he spins the handle as a steady stream of white sparks pour from the rim of the gazebo, encircling the dancers in a curtain of falling light that arcs in ever tighter circles in the back of my brain. When the sparks have ceased to fly - and the electrician's hand has ceased to crank, I hand the electrodes back to him. My batteries charged, I feel like a condemned man who has cheated death.
It's been a good day. Driving at dawn from the coast city of Manzanillo, I turned north from a seemingly endless stretch of coconut trees silhouetted against blue sea, then climbed into the mountains. Passing close to the 14,000-foot Volcano del Fuego, I found myself in the shadow of the volcano's streaming white smoke. Coming to the long flat highland plains, I crossed the Laguna de Sayuca where a seemingly endless flock of yellow-headed birds passed over my truck in such numbers that the sun was even more diminished than by the smoke of the volcano.
Though I got hopelessly lost when I missed the turn onto the Preferico bypass around Guadalajara, I was luckily rescued by a toothless old man on a World War II-era motorcycle who gave me directions to the shops and plazas of Tlaquepaque. Not long after a good lunch of chicken with mole, I was having a perfect siesta in a bed-and-breakfast called el Ensueño which, roughly translated, means "Dreamland." Pondering my return to el Norte, I dreamed of the morrow when I'd be heading home to my wife and my little girls who'll be eager to see what I've brought them. Who can understand a traveler - first eager to leave home, then eager to return.
On the way to Texas, I have promised to stop in the ghost town of Real de Catorce. Climbing in my big red truck to 8,000 feet on the cobblestone highway, I'll drive through the mile-and-a-half long mining tunnel, regretting that lights have been installed since my friend Humberto and I galloped on horseback through its total darkness four years ago.
In Catorce, Humberto has a collection of fading photographs, 70-year-old glass slides showing ancient memories of Mexico that have been engraved upon my mind since I first saw them one Sunday evening in his shop upon the mountain. My hope is to buy the slides for the new collection of Mexican and Texan photography at Southwest Texas State University where, coincidentally, Humberto's oldest daughter is about to receive her degree. I do not yet know that what I think are glass negatives will turn out to be glass duplex viewing slides, beautiful nonetheless, but not nearly so valuable.
Instead I only know that once again I have traveled in a long continental circle with the events of my journey rolling in circles round my head like the Sunday evening crowd of the Zocalo, all of our circles serenaded by the trumpeting mariachis of the music that made Guadalajara famous.
Life is good; life is round; life has no answers, but only questions. And in the plazas of Tlaquepaque, with one week ending and another beginning, I know the question that has brought me to this place.
Is the promise of tomorrow better than the memory of yesterday? At home in el Norte, more and more often that answer seems to be no. But in Mexico, a land of boundless optimism in the face of often terrible circumstances, the answer almost always seems to be a hopeful yes.
Paying for my beer, I stub out my Cohiba and head back to Dreamland. On the way out of the plaza I consider those around me: the smile of the mariachi who earlier directed me to the last open restaraunt for dinner, my waiter counting his tips, a mother nursing her baby, and a young boy fast asleep on two chairs drawn tightly together, a sad replacement for a mother's arms.
Then I see that the sleeping boy is the flower vendor who I earlier turned away. His head is propped on an empty bucket and his hand flopped open as he dreams perchance of better tomorrows. I reach into my pocket for change, but all I have is a hundred pesos.
"Twelve bucks," I calculate, pondering my decision, but knowing already what I will do.
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