Sorry if this is confusing but I”m posting my book – Dancing in the Stars about my community life in Mexico. You will have to read it backwards – check which chapters are in each post. Here is Chapter 3
Chapter Three: Corridos
In the wee hours of the morning I got up at the sound of my alarm. It read six A.M. – the earliest I had been up in all my years. But I sacrificed sleep to fulfill a city girl’s dream to become country – milk a cow. I met Don Emetereo over at the corral. He let the besero (calf) nurse a bit then pulled the baby away who mooed in protest. He leaned down and milked away. He let me try.
The romance went away the second I smelled the butt I was too close to. The cow smelled like, well, you know, and touching the titas just made it all seem gross. Don Emetereo told me to squeeze harder. It looked easier in the movies. Finally I got a tiny bit out. If I was here alone, I would have starved to death. It takes a village to raise me!
We herded the cows back out to the field once Don Emetereo got enough milk to make cheese with that day. He gave me a leather strap and I yelled “Vaca” (cow) like he did. That seemed to work. They left for the freedom of the fields.
Most everything was used for long term not short term. But he did put a tiny bit in my coffee when we retired into his kitchen. Plus gave me some animal crackers. This would become a morning ritual. I loved it.
One morning I woke up even earlier, at five. It was still dark out and I ventured to the outhouse alone. Not scared due to the moon’s light still available.
Then I met Don Emetero at the dark corrall. By then I figured it was easier to just hold the bucket then try to milk the disgusting things. But a cow peed on my foot. Everything about this process was gross. Maybe vegans are onto something.
Soon I found a different job; hold the calf with the rope while Don Emetero milked the mother. I was staring at the moon in the dark blue sky and daydreaming. I snapped out of it when I heard “aguas”. I didn’t know at the time that meant watch out but I caught on by the tone of his voice. I looked up to see the huge mama’s cows horns heading towards me. We blamed the red pants I was wearing. The mama got the nickname – Diabla, devil. I never went near her again nor wore the red pants, only as pajamas safe inside the cabin.
Try as I might to be compasionate towards Carolyn she still got on my nerves. First by using up too much of our canned supplies and wasting food. I still feared starvation even if everyone kept giving us treats. I couldn’t return a plate empty handed and it was hard to keep up with my cookie production to give back. I didn’t have a garden – the chickens with their unclipped wings ate all the seeds Sheila and I put in. I could only give the popular Peanut Butter American cookies to say thank you for the kindness of our neighbors.
When Carolyn came to do our official work – at the walnut trees, she wore snow boots! It was still hot out! She was afraid of snakes. I guess that wasn’t a bother to me, just something to make me think she was weird. It was bad enough that she wore her renaissance clothing and brought out her mini-spinning wheel. She thought she was in some fantasylan. Given, it was back in time – the Old West, not the middle ages. Even so, everyone was a real human being with modern feelings. I didn’t know how much of reality Carolyn noticed.
Being in a small village and seeing the people day after day, I caught onto the excitement of a visitor. Especially a tall handsome cowboy on a horse. A young man rode in to visit with Don Emetereo and his wife, Dona Matilda. They fed him, especially because they were certain he came from far away – four hours by horseback. Don Emetereo asked why he wasn’t married. He said, “I havcn’t found a girlfriend yet” and he looked at me. I took the bait and flirted back the whole afternoon he was around. I started to understand that flirting was one of the few pastimes around here.
Yet just when you think nothing happens, something happens. That night I was fast asleep dreaming I was leading a girl scout troop through the paths of my new found moutain side home when I heard a knock at my door. “Carolina, esta durmiendo?” Maricela asked if I was sleeping. I went to open the door and she told me to go get Dona Matilda. Maricela’s eyes were teary as she explained that Ramona’s brother had died. It was the dreaded midnight call – but without phones, someone must have ridden over and knocked on the door.
Lobo was such a good guard dog and warmly accepted the foreign volunteers, but the left side feared him, especially at night. I was the bridge to go fetch Dona Matilda. Plus it was nice of them to include me in the village ritual since once word got around, it seemed the thing to do was to come visit and stay with Ramona as she wailed. Dona Matilda tried to comfort her then complained of her own headache. I just watched and tried to be invisible. Must have done a good job – Maricela asked if I fell asleep.
Ramona’s husband soon arrived from the rancho – the fall milking spots where everyone, except Don Emetereo, went to the cows instead of having the stinky beasts stay near us. Husband and wife cried together and that made everyone else cry – Don Jorge, the patriarch, Eva – Maricelas’ younger sister. I teared up but didn’t want to think too much about death – even in the middle of a sort of wake.
I went and told Don Emetereo to join us. He too sat there quietly, in support. I ran over the details – he had drowned. Having no electricity also meant no YMCA or swimming lessons. I already determined this place could be a good setting for a murder mystery, what if he was pushed in? What did I know? I just heard crying as everyone mourned this Greek tragedy – young man with young wife and children, gone too soon.
We all stayed until Ramona drove off with her husband to join her home town for the real wake and funeral. I held Dona Matilda’s hand to steady her on her walk home, then bid them goodnight. I didn’t want to wake up in the morning, but the cows still needed to be milked.
Seems like the moment Sheila left for the city, half the town left for their ranchos. So when Alvarro invited me to theirs and to stay a few nights, I packed my bags and followed him – about an hour and half walk to their milking spot. It was a good excuse to leave Carolyn to fend for herself and to stop using me as a translator.
At the ranch, the women milked the cows and the men rode horses to herd the ones that got away. They built a corral and a makeshift lodge for both brothers – Alvarro on one side and Chemeley on the other. It was close to a brook so they used hoses to make running water get into the houses. One night it rained and Chemeley and Tere made me laugh as they avoided the rain leaking on their bed. My laughter indicated I had no leakage problem.
Yet being close to the brook had dangers. Alvarro asked why I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night to help with the flood. I didn’t hear a thing. He laughed and joked, saying now he knows any old cowboy could come and steal me off to their far away village. I hoped it was just a joke and not a reality up there.
After a few days we returned to Cordon. Rosalba had half the village help pick from her cucumber field. She was getting on my nerves – yelling at me not to step on the vines. I found her overly bossy at the moment. Bending over to pick the cucumbers was tiring. It seemed better to be near everyone else but they were talking only about cucumbers. I realized that a farmer’s life was not for me. And that I’d never overlook vegetables or fruit again – they’re hard work.
The next day I visited the left side of town at their rancho which they called Cajon – box. It was basically a big box and close to Cordon. Maricela showed me how to get there and walked me back in the rain. I still never understood why they had milking ranches far from town except that they might not like the smell and flies of the cows. I did understand that there was no fridgeration so we ate milk and cheese all month. Not a good season for those with lactose intolerance.
Back at Cordon, I was sitting talking to Dona Matilda when a cowboy came up. Not every cowboy rides on his horse. This one drove through and I was glad – it was Jose Luis. A nice surprise. He was with his dad and a friend from the city. They returned for ranch season and to fill up their truck with fall fruit and vegetables to sell back in the city.
They only said a brief hello to everyone who stopped them on the road, then went on to Mesa. I thought I felt a cold breeze. Manuel must have really brainwashed Jose Luis – stay away from that American.
Maricela felt the cold wind too – she suggested I meet Freddy in another village down the slope from our mountain top. I had already been down to Campo Americano on the other side of the hill, now she wanted to bring me to Ensinal. If I thought the road to Campo was steep – that was nothing. Now we were heading straight down, literally running into pine trees to stop us cannonballing all the way down to their village.
Once we got there I found it was even smaller than I had heard – only two families were left and I think they only get up to four maximum in the summer. Most everyone was grandparent age but we met Freddy – the young man Maricela assured me was a genteleman. He was cute – blond and blue eyed and held a sweet smile. But somehow I fixated on that Jose Luis. I met him first, I was loyal.
On the walk home Maricela told me all about the Quinceneara that was coming up in three weeks.
“Quincenara – what’s that?” I asked.
Maricela replied “It’s a dance for my cousin. She’s turning fifteen and it’ll be the first time she can dance or wear make up.”
“Oh” I said. “Big deal: I thought.
Later I would learn it was a big deal. Quinceneara’s are a combination of Mayan and Spanish culture. The Mayan rituals of presenting a new “woman” to the village, and Spanish Catholic coming of age mass. They are celebrated mostly in Mexico and Central America. Up in the Sierra they were very important – not so much for the Quinceneara but for the fact that 1) there was a new woman to date and dance with and 2) it was a big dance where you could meet your future spouse. Of course, a wedding was an even bigger deal.
Maricela warned me that the long dresses I wore would not due for such a social event. Norman had sternly warned us that we had to wear dresses and never shorts – he still considered shorts to be 1960s short. Now I was being told the opposite – my skirts were too long.
Once back in town she brought me to visit with her aunt, Esperanza. Her name meant hope and now she was my only hope for surviving this big dance. She agreed to make me a dress and they talked about what material I could order next time someone went back to the big city. It all seemed like a big headache to me. But the chance to dance all night – now that part sounded fun. Would Jose Luis be there?
Next chance to see him, I took it. Tomas, Beatriz’s husband was visiting Cordon and invited me to go to the Mesa’s ranch. I had seen everyone in Cordon’s milk lands and this one held the promise of Jose Luis. I asked Tere if I’d be all right going alone far off to who knows where with Tomas. She said I would.
But I immediately regretted it. He walked too close and seemed to touch my back any chance he could. I got a bad feeling. I held back the tears. I should have run back in the part of the path I knew.
Luckily soon we met up with other men in Mesa Abajo. Outside of Jose Luis’ house were a bunch of cowboy hats. I guess you can’t leave your hat on when you go inside. It made me realize I was the only woman around. An uncomfortable feeling crept up again.
Jose Luis, his city friend, and his dad were loading up their truck – they weren’t going to the ranch like I thought – just back to the city with cucumbers and quinces to sell.
“Are you going to the Quinceneara” I specifically looked at Jose Luis.
“Yes. I’m bringing my sister up. Are you?” He asked me back.
Maybe this quinceneara thing would be fun.
They started saying their goodbyes to all the men gathered around. Manuel said a word I didn’t understand. He asked me for an “abrazo”. I had no idea what that meant but he showed me – by grabbing and hugging me. Abrazo, i.e, hugs were not part of the normal greeting and I knew it so I pulled away. Too late, all the men laughed. I felt completely humiliated.
I was so mad at them, and their macho Sierra culture, Here I was a single young woman from another tierra (land), unprotected, alone with men. I knew I made a mistake going to the ranch alone with a man. Was I going to be hurt? Raped? Killed?
Soon we all left for the ranches. I was put on a burro – eventhough I wanted to walk. All the men mosied out in a line. It was funny to me –looked like real cowboys in the Wild West on their horses and burros. It was even more real when Maximo (who I trusted) would sing the sweet moaning ranchero songs. I felt like I was in the Brady Bunch episode where they went to the Grand Canyon. But this wasn’t Hollywood and my face was white as a ghost as I feared the burro falling down the steep hills – even if I loved the view. After about two hours, they let me get off the burro and I walked down the last long steep hill.
Their rancho looked more like a little pueblo. I was so amazed – four houses. Since Mesa was bigger, it would go to say that their ranch would be bigger. Even the water system was larger – a real river, not a little brook.
I went over to Lupe and talked with her family. Soon Tomas came over and invited me to their house. I asked if Beatriz was there – tired of being with a macho misogynist who I wanted to punch the daylights out of. When he said that his wife and son, Jaime, were there too, then I agreed to go over. I had dinner with them and talked with Beatriz and Jaime, ignoring the patriarch.
After dinner Beatriz showed me where we would go to the bathroom. There were no outhouses – just a hill designated for going. It was dark, we had a flashlight, and looked for a perfect spot. I worried I’d step on someone else’s product. We were heading up when a flashlight flashed at us. A warning that it was a spot taken. I knew it was Tomas since he had left the dinner table right before us. I kinda liked knowing he was vulnerable – not such a great girl toucher now – or as they say there – mano grande – one big hand trying to touch all over. We found another spot and I wondered if I’d ever feel comfortable pooping like this or maybe I’d just choose to fart quietly the whole time I visited their ranch.
Back in the little house, I slept on a bamboo cot in the kitchen area. I liked looking through the open door, at the lantern of fire lights in the other wood ranch houses, and the stars on their roofs. It looked straight out of the movies but much prettier.
In the morning they wouldn’t let me wake up. They kept telling me to go back to sleep. The women did most of the milking and there were so many people, cows and mooing all around, it was hard to sleep. After eating breakfast quietly so Beatriz and Tomas could hear every news bit and announcemnt on Radio Alegria, the women did let me help clean out sacks – once used for flour, now being readied for some other use. Nothing was ever wasted in the land of no retail.
Then we went swimming. The water was cold but I just did my usual – swim fast until I acclimated. I got to show off my skills from swim team and beat Maximo in a race. I tried to teach them how to play chicken but when I put Lupe on my shoulders I couldn’t even get up – not due to her weight but my weak muscles. So I taught them marco polo instead. It was pure fun!
After sleeping at Beatriz’s again, I ate breakfast over at Lupe’s ranch kitchen. She didn’t have a radio so we talked. I asked her more about what these quinceneara’s were like. She told me how she’d dance with Baldtio and it was a chance to see him again since he lived so far away. I admitted that I liked Jose Luis. She said that he had told her that he liked me too. A surge of high school happiness ran through my body.
Luckily that day I got to go back. I wanted to be back in Cordon and in familiar ground. This time I didn’t feel as nervous about being with men since Maximo was with us singing rancheros again. Plus I felt confident riding the burro, up this time.
I got back to Cordon and Carolyn was her usual unusual self. I stayed up late writing in my journal about all my mixed emotions and experiences being away with all those men and such at the ranch, so she wanted me to walk with her to our outhouse. That didn’t seem like a horrible thing until she clutched my arm, deathly afraid of wild animals. Made me realize that we’ve been conditioned to fear the darkness ,whereas for centuries, cultures dealt with it and the animals all around.
But what really made me mad was that while I was gone she let the beans spoil. They were our lifeline. Instead, she chose to eat most of our canned goods which were for treats – not all the time. She didn’t seem to want to try to live like the Romans do at all. She either wanted the needless comforts of the US or her fantasy Renaissance type of existence. Either way, it was the opposite of me.
By the end of September it was obvious that the Mexican government was not going to send the teacher they promised. A few years earlier, Cordon had built a small school house. The former teacher loved Cordon so much that he flirted with one of the unmarried but older sisters on the left. Sidonia was the volunteer at the time. The woman asked her discreetly if within all her medicine supplies she could possibly have anything that causes abortions. NO, we don’t carry that.
So, the sister ran off with the guy and even two years later, while I was there, her brothers pretended to be furious and pledged to kill the guy. But in reality they knew that their sister was over thirty and they were lucky she finally had the chance to be married off. Like the cougar and skunk hunt, this “predator” was not in any real danger.
I’d get to meet the man now that we were off to Bermudez. Our children would have to go there – about an hour’s walk and over that ninety angle degree hill, to go to school. I thought I could squeeze in a bath and figured Tere’s cement floor bath house – more like a closet – was busy with her family all bringing Eremita to school. Carolyn helped me heat up the water on the stove and we figured the kitchen would be private.
Nothing about this bath was private. First, Eremita came in to say they were ready to go. Then Chemeley came in to get things out of the storage up in our attic. Carolyn stopped them all in the main room as I tried to pour water on me in the kitchen. Now I saw why Tere had a bathhouse with cement – my feet were getting covered in mud.
It got worse – Chemeley and his son Marcus went to the garage next to the kitchen to get the car ready. By then I started putting on my clothes. I could see Marcus’ eyes peeping at me through the wood logs. Our house filled with exhaust as they started up the pick up truck. My body covered but my lungs now filled with pollution.
The whole town bid Eremita and Karim goodbye. Sad to lose them for weeks at a time – even if it is only one town away. They would stay with Karim’s mother’s, Rosalaba’s, sister that now had a two year old with the former teacher. I hadn’t been to Bermudez since we first drove through to drop me off. If I thought Mesa Abajo was big, that was nothing compared to Bermudez. At least twenty houses and I never got to meet even half of the town. They were even big enough to have a tiny shop – run out of someone’s house from the supplies she brought up herself from the big city. I was so excited that there was a store but disappointed to find out it was only things – pots and clothes, no food. Starvation still lurked.
Yet at another woman’s house, she did have food – candy. Not useful but something Cordon literally gobbled up. A true treat. We rarely had sugary treats – only the empanadas with the fruit paste and sugar in the coffee but nothing like the globs of sugar a normal American diet consists of. No wonder everyone had a sweet tooth.
This store must have been doing well since they could afford a solar powered freezer – with a true treat, homemade ice pops. After my hands were familiarly sticky and orange, I realized that it probably wasn’t made with boiled water like we always drank as foreign volunteers. I wondered if you could freeze the ick out of bacteria.
Rosalba and Tere said goodbye to their children and we headed home. Rosalba didn’t seem sad. In fact she warmed up to me and said she loved joking around with Sidonia. I hoped I could live up to this former volunteer’s reputation.
When we hit the hill that went straight up, the tires spinned on the rocks and seemed like they would never make it. Rosalba was scared of death and started saying some Hail Marys. One of the few times I ever heard religion provocked. Death threats have a way of making that happen.
The next morning when I wandered over to the outhouse as I had to every day, I was not happy to find a bull in the field. Our field? The field with our outhouse? Okay, it wasn’t ours – it was the left sides, but I did not want to be charged and killed on the way to relieve myself.
I survived the bull who must not have seen me or cared. I returned to our patio to find Carolyn taking down her hammock.
“Why are you doing that?”
“I’m leaving”. She replied.
I thought her ideas were crazy but this was the worse. How could she leave? Walk all the way home when we’d only rode on the long rocky road on the way here?
“When Norman and Sheila and everyone come to visit with us, I’m leaving.”
“Oh.” That made more sense. They were due to visit in less than two weeks.
We discussed culture shock and how she wasn’t feeling like her goals of stopping cholera were being met in this community. First off, there was no cholera to be stopped. Second, I knew she really didn’t belong. I figured it was her decision and even if I’d be happy to not have her on my nerves, I’d deal either way.
Shrugging my shoulders and wandering off, Rosalba asked me to help her. I didn’t understand with what. I followerd her to the cornfield and she cut down stalks. She wanted me to help her bring them to the corral for the cows. While she cut, I took a moment to look out onto the mountains valleys through her cornfield and thought how I love it here. After my tranquil moment, I went to pick up some corn and looked down thinking “What’s this cloth doing here?” Then I realized it was my skirt. I quickly put it back on. We both laughed. Luckily there were no men around and I was truely in the middle of nowhere.
The days seemed to go by quickly but the time slowly. It took forever for October to arrive. I was glad it was finally here because there was a lot to look forward to – the quinceneara, Sheila’s visit, and a Halloween party I was planning to have at our cabin. Yet I also started to have homesickness. In reality, it was hard being homesick when you don ‘t have a home – all my family and friends had now scattered throughout the world. My mother had moved down to Florida to take over my deceased grandparents’ house. One friend was in Indonesia, another in Japan. Other college pals were looking for jobs in hometowns or new towns. I had no idea what I was going to do once this year in Mexico was over, what would my new place in the world be?
For now, farming was my world. Tere and Chemeley drove me out to their field and we picked duraznos, peaches, off the trees. Chemeley said that people were now calling me “La Cantadora” – the singer. I guess they did ask us to sing what they heard me coming down the hill as Sheila and I hiked to Campo Americano and once in Mesa Abajo I sang some songs.
Tere and I walked back as Chemeley drove the peaches in the pick up. I was looking forward to the quinceneara but now Tere told me there would be a wedding in the winter. Now that’s an even bigger occasion – three days of dancing and festivities. Lupe’s sister, Minda would marry a man from the village where the workcampers had spent all summer.
“Kili? Kili?” I mumbled. That name sounded familiar. Then it hit me.
“Didn’t he like the workcamper Laura?”
“Si” agreed Tere.
“So, why isn’t Minda mad? Why is she still marrying him?” Mabye he didn’t kiss Laura but I heard enough of their dancing and how all the men tried to touch at least.
“That’s how the men are around here.” I took it to mean pigs. So I blurted out.
“That’s why I’m not marrying a Mexican.”
Tere got defensive and said all men are like that. I agreed with her to not make her mad at me. But I didn’t agree. In the US, we couldn’t be like that. We women have freedom. We’d dump the guy who was flirting all summer with someone else, not marry him. But now looking back it seems to make sense. These cowboys had seen many pretty foreign workcampers and volunteers pass through. Many dances, no weddings. They knew these girls wouldn’t really settle down. Too bad I didn’t understand that and instead got caught up in all the flirting and pressure when everyone seemed to ask me if I’d marry one of their boys. Maybe with all my romantic notions they sensed I was one of the few chances they really had to snag a volunteer forever. But as much as I loved falling in love I knew I couldn’t make home-made tortillas for the rest of my life.
I could make cookies and I baked up a bunch of chocolate chip ones from some chocolate chips I had saved. I went around visiting with everyone to pass them out. When I arrived at Rosaalba’s, she wasn’t her bossy loud fun self. Instead she was crying. Alvarro, her husband, had just seen Karim in Bermudez and she missed him. I had no idea how hard it would be to be away from your five year old, your only child.
If I felt like I intruded at Rosalba’s, I’d learn a true intrusion next. I went to deliver a plate of cookies to Don Emitereo and Dona Matilida. I spotted him standing by a tree looking out on the field. I thought he was lost in daydreams and that I’d sneak up on him. I was the one who got scared – as I got close I saw a line of pee and then his surprised face. I spun around and Dona Matilda hobbled over to me, in her slow way doing her best to stop the whole catostrophe. I handed her the cookies and ran home. I wished I never would have to see them again – too embarrassed. But I knew that was impossible. Luckily living so close to each other, those things are quickly forgotten and never spoken of.
I don’t know if it was the show of emotion but my homesickness and loneliness started to kick in deeper. I rode with Alvarro and Rosalba to Bermudez. The minute we got there, Karim ran out of his aunt Quita’s house yelling “Mommy.” Rosalba jumped out of the back of the pick up, scooped him up and they both cried. The emotions got to me, somewhere, somehow.
It only got worse. Bermudez seemed boring. I didn’t know anyone so I just sat there in Quita’s house. She didn’t seem to like me or know what to do with me. Even Eremita seemed cold and distant. Then Quita’s husband started snuggling with her – holding hands, putting his arm around her. I couldn’t stand it. There was no one to hold me. I was all alone in this mountain top. I felt like I was one of those monkeys in the horrible experiments from the 1950s where they took their mother’s away. They needed affection so badly that they hugged the wire fake mommy monkees.
I was glad to get home to Cordon and just forget the mess I was feeling. Eremita returned to her mother and Rosalba was happy to have Karim home. Alvarro put the pick up back in the garage – the other side of our cabin. As I walked by he said, “Carolina”.
I nodded, “Alvarro.”
Then he said, “La muchacha bonita del Cordon” (the pretty young woman of Cordon)
That made my day – after feeling so lonely and unloved.
The next day my lonliness came to tears. Tere showed me her clothing rack full of beautiful dresses. Jewels and sequences and cute mini skirt bottoms. The quinceneara was a week away and I still didn’t have a dress. I wondered if I’d look as good as all of these women.
Going back to the cabin, Carolyn was her normal distant self, so I sat at the outside step by our kitchen and had a cry. The wind and bird’s singing and even the female dog in heat that found our backyard as the only place where she didn’t get chased off, helped cheeer me up. Nature to the rescue. Then I went over to the left and chatted with the women. Esperanza said she’d make my dress on Monday. That made me feel better.
I considered this the land of goodbyes. First Sheila left, then everyone went to their ranches, then the kids went far off to go to school. Now it was time to say goodbye to the cows. It was hard for me. Ever since I was a kid growing up in the suburbs I knew I always wanted to be a country girl and someday milk a cow. Now I had done it for over a month and it had become part of my daily life.
We milked them for the very last time. Then I herded them to the gate that lead to the big field with Don Emitereo and Chemeley and Marcus. I walked back alone – sad.
They say that Halloween has it’s roots in the Celtics. It’s no coincidence that it celebrates death and ghosts since it is fall and the fields are dying. The Earth is changing. I didn’t know that about Halloween or that the upcoming Day of the Dead had the same roots but I did notice something changing around me. When I went out with Tere to gather corn for the cows before their goodbye journey, I saw that all the tall green corn was gone. Instead it was brown and small and dry. I realized how the Earth was changing beneath my feet. And as I looked out past the changing cornfield and the valley and mountains behind the houses of Cordon I realized that I must be changing too and I shouldn’t be afraid of it because the Earth and all her inhabitants go through seasonal changes. Life goes on after the safe bosom of the college campus.
Carolyn wasn’t taking the lonliness and culture shock very well either. When I walked in after the big despidada (send off) of the cows, she was packing her bags. She was determined – she was leaving with Sheila. She didn’t approve of what goes on in this place. That’s what she said. I should have asked for clarification. What was going on? That she couldn’t fight cholera? Speak Spanish? Teach drawing like she wanted?
A new day, a new season – bean picking time. I went early in the morning with Don Emitereo to his field on a hill at the edge of Cordon. We bent over and pulled the stalks out and later would bring them back near his house to get the beans out. We just went down the rows and picked them. We passed the time by chatting. He admitted that he only went to school during the winter times and liked the muchachas too much to really study. No wonder he was illiterate.
Then he asked me why Tere always mentioned Jose Luis.
“Because I like him.”
“He’s too young.”
I worried about that too. I was twenty-two and he was nineteen. So, I thought I’d get more of his opinion. “Then what about that boy from Mesa Colorado”
“No sirve” (No good)
“You don’t like any of them.”
Then he gave me a shocker. “Dona Matilda would be jealous of the way I think about you.” I thought he was joking.
Here was this man who I equated with my beloved grandfather who had passed away only two years earlier. Now he was admitting that he had those type of thoughts about me. I tried not to think about it.
It just made me depressed. Depressed that Carolyn was leaving and wondering if I should have tried to help her more instead of always deserting her. Would it have been that bad to just translate for her?
Depressed that everything was so sexual. I like flirting but this was ridiculous. I thought Don Emitereo was a friend, a grandpa figure. Gross. Maybe Carolyn was right, there was a lot to disapprove in this place.
And what about the quinceneara? I talked with Esperanza as she made my dress. She took my measurements then cut it out of the red fabric. She spinned it together in the foot powered sewing machine that we had as an antique in our basement. When it was done I got to put on my first custom made clothing since my grandmother made me nightgowns as a child. It seemed to fit weird. And it wasn’t my style – not hippy and long and simple but short and with a big white bow of sequence. It was as Maricela said ,the “Mexicana Carolina.” The Mexican version of me, but it wasn’t truly me. And would it work? Would anyone ask me to dance? Would I have fun?
Everyone asking me about the quinceneara and reminding me that some boy would rob me made me more nervous. Rob? Steal away? Abduct? Was this fun or for real? I know they mentioned a few couples who ran off together before an official marriage. Was it mutual consent or not?
Right before I left for the big event, we had some guests. Don Emitereo’s only daughter came to visit with her husband. They were from the village farthest away. They rode on horse back for two days with their three daughters – one being only a toddler. I liked meeting his daughter. They didn’t get to see her much since the women have the wedding in their hometowns then move off to the man’s village. I recognized her husband – his face seemed familiar. Then he told me that Baldito – Lupe’s boyfriend and the cowboy from Shiela’s despida (send off) party, is his half brother. I found it neat that I knew everyone on these vast hills.
They had a worker with them, Beto. A young dark short man who didn’t own land so he worked as a farm hand. After we greeted them and sat dowm for the visitor coffee, Chemeley teased that he came with them because he heard that there was a guapa, pretty, Americana here. Don Emitereo got mad hearing about that and even Dona Matilida recognized his jealousy across the table. The last thing I needed was a love triangle with a 70 year old. I made sure to talk and flirt with Beto as much as possible while he was visiting so Don Emitereo would chill out Beto was fun to hang out and kinda cute.
Beto said he might make it to the quincenera, but maybe not. How was I going to choose a novio? Beto? Jose Luis? All this pressure. Chemeley and Tere teased me that I’d be the pretty American with the ugliest guy in the Sierra – everyone considered Jose Luis ugly because he was dark and not blond like most of the desireables. Alvarro and Rosalba teased me for weeks that some cowboy would rob me and marry me as soon as possible. Maricela kept talking about how novios are made at these parties. I was going crazy over the pressure – why couldn’t it just be a normal party with fun dancing, not life decision dancing.
We grabbed a ride to the village hosting to the party with Maximo and Elia from Mesa Abajo. They rode in the front of the pick up with their daughter Asuzana. Lupe and Minda rode in the back with us. It didn’t take as long as I thought – just 3 hours. I hadn’t seen this village, Mesa Campanera, since the first day I rode down the dirt road arrviving in Cordon. This was the closest town to the paved highway. It was obvious, each house had more stuff since it was faster to get to Yecora on that highway.
We arrived a few days earlier 1) because we had a ride and 2) we wanted to help and see what this thing was all about. Carolyn was even curious about it. So they put us to work. The quinceneara girl’s mother gave us a huge sack of beans to limpiar (clean). That really meant taking a handful at a time and make sure there were no rocks in it. Carolyn said that we were true bean counters.
Next we helped Minda and Lupe grind corn in the kitchen. Even if they were closer to the store, there was still a lot of preparation to do – they couldn’t buy everything. After grinding all the corn we literally made a mountain of tamales. I felt good about helping but noticed a bunch of muchachos in the porch listening to loud music and drinking beer.
I went out there and quickly realized I shouldn’t have. Just one muchacha, a stupid one like me, made them yell out “baile baile”, dance, dance. I tried to laugh it off but then a cute guy who once visited Cordon came over and held his hand out. I couldn’t resist. Noe was only 17 and seemed a little drunk. He reminded me of a little devil. He danced too slow for my taste and put his cheek on mine. Was this appropriate? Especialy with all the women working in the next room – now on decorations. They held up a heart they had cut out from red paper. Very funny. So I soon stopped the baile/dance and went up to bed. Maybe Noe and I could dance the next day but I was really saving myself for Jose Luis.
Carolyn and I were put up in the attic. We climbed the ladder up there and I thought it was funny that we’d have to sleep with the stored corn and the mice that enjoy it so much. But I didn’t sleep. The mice, then the kittens kept me up with their noise. The freezing temperature of the higher altitude of this mountain village made me never settle down. Plus my nerves were all bundled up – from the coffee and anxiety about the next day. A car came in the middle of the night with more guests and noise so it was hopeless. I waited until dawn and gladly listened for the roosters and popped up.
I watered all their plants then peeled potatos. I was getting tired and took a short nap till Minda woke me up to help more. We made lots of little flower decorations out of toilet paper.
A truck came with familiar people – half of Mesa Abajo and Maricela. I told her that I danced with Noe the night before and how hard it would be to choose a novio. She seemed cold and just stated that it was not up to me, but up to them – they choose who they want to dance with. I hadn’t thought of that. Where did I think I was? Home?
Carolyn and I got our chance to bathe. We lugged a huge basin into a barn. I thought it was cute to take a nice warm bath surrounded by hay and saddles. True country living.
The women all got ready in the Quincenera girl’s bedroom. We ironed our dresses with metal irons – warmed up on the wood stove. It was still the Old West to me. Maricela told me that Jose Luis arrived and there he was out the window. As I looked I wasn’t looking at the iron that burned the iron board. I quickly escaped before anyone caught my mistake.
I went outside to say hello to Jose Luis. He came over and shook my hand, deserting his work to help put up the tarp that would cover the dancers all night. We chit chatted until someone noticed he wasn’t helping and called him back.
I went back inside and Maricela did my hair – bangs curled up in front with just a plastic curler and time as my hair went from wet to dry. Then lots of hairspray to get the back to poof up as much as possible. The 80s never left this place. I thought it looked good and I liked my red dress. Then she globbed on the make up. Everyone said I looked great and Mexican but I didn’t feel Mexican. Later lots of people would ask who I was and some were surprised that I talked “funny.” They thought I was one of them, until I opened my mouth.
Everyone was all bathed, dried out, properly poofed up, and ready. We piled into trucks and rode over to the church. All the muchachos stood outside – skipping the service. Once inside it was crowded in the small adobe building but plenty of room if they weren’t choosing to skip. The very white skinned priest lit some candles. I thought it was for religious reasons but as the sun went down I realized it was the same as everywhere – no electiricty.
Once the preist spoke I knew why he looked so white – he was from Wisconsin. His accent gave him away and I remembered Norman telling us the Jesuits ran the churches up here. He spoke how the Quinceneara is not a sacrament but a coming of age ceremony like many cultures have. He spoke of the Mayan roots. I loved how intellectual it was and wondered if anyone else caught that or just wanted it over to get to the dance. Carolyn and I snuck over and talked to him. It was comforting to speak English and meet another countrymen in these back woods. Unfortunately we couldn’t talk long, we had to catch our rides back to the real event – the dance.
Back at the Quincenera’s house, we sat and waited. The band seemed to be so slow. I knew they came from far away, like the big city, so why couldn’t they be city fast? The October mountain winds didn’t feel good in a dress with a short skirt. We were all freezing. Finally they got their act together and the Quincenera herself walzed up in a white mini-wedding looking dress. Followed by fourteen damas and chambelones (dames and chaperones, her cousins and friends) who danced around her in the valse – waltz. They moved back and forth as she next danced with her father, then her Godfather. In the last part of the opening ceremony, everyone danced with their chaperone. Finally the show was over and the band opened up the dance floor to all the guests.
I saw a sea of cowboy hats lurking on the benches in the darkness. Then Jose Luis emerged from the crowd, with a girl. Great, I thought, I’ve been dumped. Yet the muchacha soon walked away and Jose Luis walked up to me and held out his hand. I jumped into his arms.
We talked and joked around. It was our first time dancing together but it felt familiar and fun. I was relaxed. I knew him. He asked if there were any dances since Sheila’s party.
”Because you dance well.”
Was he great, or what? I didn’t even count how many songs we danced to. Norman had warned us –only three per muchacho or else they’d want to marry us. It was Jose Luis, I didn’t care.
Yet that stupid band ruined my plan. They stopped playing. Seemed like it took them forever to start and now they stopped. Jose Luis sat me down and I wondered if he’d get me back up again. I sat at that spot on the porch waiting for the band to start up again. They were taking too long and I was getting too cold so I went inside.
Finally the music started up and I tried to go to my spot on the porch but no matter where I sat, Jose Luis never asked me to dance again. I would try to get near him when he was done dancing with other girls but he never took my bait. Or another guy would scoop me up. What was wrong? I thought we liked each other!
The first guy I danced with after Jose Luis wore a shirt that said “Mother” in English. I asked him about it. He looked at me funny – something was weird about the way I spoke. Then he explained to me that it meant madre. I laughed.
“I know. It’s English. I’m from the US”
His face looked like he had won the lottery. Came all this way to the party, from the big city, to meet a gringa. I didn’t want to ruin his lucky streak but I had him sit me down. I just couldn’t go out with a city slicker, I had come so far in my transformation to a cowgirl. Plus at this early point in the night, there was still hope that Jose Luis would ask me to dance.
It seemed like I danced with a herd of cowboys. One was young – sixteen, another just talked to his friends like I was some broom he was sweeping with, and another thought I came from a town in the middle of the county. None of them were Jose Luis and I wasn’t happy.
I tried to sit near him, try to catch his eye. But all I saw was him dancing with other girls as I kept counting three songs to be let go from some stranger’s grip. The band seemed to take forever between songs and I had to hold hands with the guy de momento. I really hated that band.
Finally I saw a familiar face – it was Norman’s son. He had two sons and this one lived half time up in the Sierra and the other half in Hermosillo. He was dancing with his girlfriend who was from this village. I sat and talked with him in my familiar tongue. He gave me an offer I didn’t expect – I could go back with him to Hermosillo that night and return the following week with Sheila’s intended visit. Now I could have a cure, kinda, to my lonliness and homesickness. Another thing to think about on this cold strange night.
After each long bank holiday of a break, the band would play another tanda (set) of corridos. These traditional songs sound like polka because they are – a mix of Mexico and Texas. The Americans brigning their accordions and the Mexicans telling cautionary tales. There is one corrido about Rosita Alvarez who had the gall to say no to a man who invited her to dance. Men were guaranteed a girl would accept his offer that around the Sierra they never asked, just put their hand out in front of you. There were two valid excuses; 1) you hadn’t had your quinceneara yet and were too young or the opposite 2) married. This girl in the song had no such good excuses so the guy killed her. A lesson to us all. To me it was torture, I had no say in this dance. I literally had to dance with all these men I didn’t know.
As I danced with stranger after stranger, I looked over their shoulders and thought. Should I stay or should I go – at least for the next week. When they tried to talk to me and interrupt my train of thought I used my extranjera, foreigner, card and said “No entiendo” (I don’t understand)
Finally I went inside to eat when they served up the barbeque around 11pm. The cow had just been killed for the occasion so it was fresh meat. I wasn’t that hungry and going inside I lost my appetite more. I saw Maricela talking to Noe. Here I caught myself stupid to think I would have to choose a boyfriend and she had warned me it wasn’t my choice. And now I felt dumb telling her I danced with Noe because he obviously liked her and viceversa.
I was jealous, not just because she was dancing all night with one cute guy, but because she fit in. she knew this dance – all the steps, all the cultural intricacies. I might have looked Mexican on the outside but I definitely wasn’t feeling at all Mexican anywhere inside of me. I decided then and there to give up this game – I’d never be Mexican and the whole boyfriend flirtacious game led nowhere. I should just stick to being a foreign volunteer doing community outreach – being friendly to everyone, not some silly love game.
After everyone ate, they started up the dance with another ritual. The damas and escorts danced around the Quinceneara girl again. Then she threw out a doll to the women watching. That represented giving up childhood. She also threw out a toy car to the men. It was filled with cigars as an added gift for them. Those who caught the items then danced with each other and started up dance part two.
I gave a big smile to Jose Luis, but it was to no avail. He didn’t even make a step towards me. Yet Chapo came running over and asked me to dance. It was at that moment I realized he liked me. This bachelor of Cordon had liked me all along and I had no idea, just the thought wierded me out at Sheila’s despedida. It felt good dancing with someone I actually knew ahead of time, like I had wanted with Jose Luis. I even danced more than three times and sat down with him. Across from I saw Chemeley who somehow appeared in the middle of the night, and Maximo. They saw us sitting together and motioned for Chapo to put his arm around me by mimicking the action. They even went so far to put a hand on each other’s legs. We both just laughed.
I was glad when finally the whole thing ended. The slow band seemed to end and pack up fast. I was even faster climbing up the attic steps and getting ready for bed. I was not happy to find that Carolyn and I now had company. A group of men crammed together in a bed. I wondered if we would be safe but I was too tired to care. I fell asleep despite their lullaby of corridos. This time Carolyn didn’t sleep since more drunks sang outside and she even heard a few pistols go off into the sky. My anxiousness about the party now over, I slept over everything just to make the whole thing be in the past.
In the morning I awoke to find out who were all the bumps in the bed next to us. I was just glad they had left me alone all night. It was Ereberto (Maximo’s and Lupe’s brother from Mesa), Chapo and Cheno from Cordon. But the first person I saw as I woke up was the one I never wanted to ever see again – Jose Luis. Great, just as I looked my best. Why him? I didn’t even say good morning. His friend awoke next to him and asked me if I liked any guys from Mesa Abajo.
I said, “No, they’re all ugly” and climbed down the steps, now hoping never to see him again.
We barely had a chance to eat our morning beans when it was time to get dressed and ready for dance part three – the next day with leftover guests. I thought there was plenty of leftover make up on me but Maricela made sure I had a new layer of glob.
We were at the same porch but now there were less people and most of these guys I knew. I immediately liked this dance better. And no band – just cassette tapes. So the time between songs was faster too.
Chapo asked me to dance first. I noticed the dance floor was filled with couples from the night before – Noe and Maricela, Elia’s younger sister and some guy, Lupe and Baldito (well, they didn’t meet the night before, but they were an official couple). I danced with Chapo a lot but I didn’t want to seem like a couple so I asked to sit down.
I was happy when the spot available was next to Carolyn who was next to Jose Luis. Soon she got up and I sat there quietly. He broke the ice.
“Do you feel like dancing a lot?”
”I don’t really care anymore” I replied coolly.
“I didn’t feel like dancing last night.”
Was that an apology? Is that why I had a horrible night?
He must have felt like dancing now because he asked me to join him on the dirt floor. I was happy but didn’t want to get my expectations up. We danced a long time and got to talk. I asked if he’d come visit me in the US. He seemed to ask honest questions about getting a passport and visitor’s visa.
I realized that even if we would never be novios, we could be friends. He still seemed more interesting to talk to than most up there and after the night before it looked like I had met every possible cowboy on this mountiain.
He put on a tape and it must have been big city music. No one liked it and all sat down in unison. So he sat me down too. This time I knew that could be it and didn’t mind. I enjoyed talking with the couples and decided to just enjoy the day.
Then Davidcito asked me to dance. I thought he was cute when I met him earlier. He was the quinceneara’s older brother and we had talked a little during all the party preparation time. So again, I didn’t count three dances and figured we’d just dance until he sat me down. He danced fast and tried some big city moves like the caballito – horse – where the woman has to “ride” a bit on the man’s leg. Everyone watched us and I thought they approved but soon the women started to wander away and Davidcito kept talking over to me at his friends. They kept laughing. I was getting suspicious that I was being laughed at.
Davidcito yelled to his drunk buddies “Hey, I’m going to New York.”
He was as drunk or more than the other guys. He kept dancing and yelling things at them and they laughed in roars of laughter. I was confused – how come I didn’t understand what he was saying? I never had a problem with my Spanish since I had majored in it and spent time in Spain. I was here just to improve it but now I felt like I was a newcomer.
Then he said something I did understand and it all became clear. He was talking slang, dirty, and was definitely making fun of me. This phrase was simple enough that I caught on. He had me dance backwards towards one pal and said “Here’s some lunch for you.”
I stopped and said “I’m sitting down now.”
That was the least I could do. I wished I could slap him but wasn’t sure if I was allowed in this culture. Would they kill me? I steamed away. Humiliated. Sexually harrased. I was woman angry, on the break of tears which is the only way I knew how to deal with furiousity.
It reminded me of a phrase I had heard – “Men are jerks and if you forget it, they remind you.” Seemed to sum up my whole quinceneara exprerience.
I was happy when the whole ordeal was over. The dance ended and everyone packed up to go home. I said goodbye to Jose Luis who was headed back to the city. A simple goodbye – see ya later, he said.
I jumped in one pick up truck with Chapo driving and Minda sitting in the middle. Carolyn was in back with Cheno and the rest of Mesa Abajo. She was happy now. She had a great time – talking to Norman’s sons’ friends who knew some English. How weird – I had high hopes and a miserable night. She was already miserable and now cured of her homesickness.
Obviously I decided to just go back and stay here. I realized I loved the Sierra and didn’t want to leave yet. I just wanted to leave behind the idea of novios, love, and some weird cross-cultural romance.
Minda and Chapo talked and normally I would have loved to hear the intense discussion but I was dead tired and zoned out the whole time. Only when Minda teased me to marry Chapo did I notice. She asked me who gave me gum the night before after the barbeque and around midnight, apparently the hour of passing out chewing gum. I casually replied that Chapo had. That confirmed her teasing. She informed me that whoever gave you gum, that meant they liked you. I never knew a penny worth of chewing could have such deep significance. I’d never look at a chicle the same again.
Once home I barely said goodbye to those going onto Mesa, quickly greeted everyone on the right, then went to bed. Sleep felt too good.
In the morning I wrote all day long in my diary. So much to write. So many feelings. So many lessons.
I had plenty of visitors and questions about the weekend, so I couldn’t write the whole time. Plus this was the sierra – privacy was foreign. And writing all day was martian like.
Some visitors were unwelcome to me. The boys from Mesa Campanera were on their long trek by horse to their way off village. So that meant the quinceneara nightmare continued. Not only is there the dance then the next day dance, then there is the visit the new (or old) girlfriend. So, Noe went and knocked on Maricela’s door. They sat in the porch on a bench made for two. It was exactly the same theology behind an uncomfortable love seat.
The whole town buzzed that there was a “visita” going on. Noe and Maricela were allowed to talk and be by themselves. One final date before the next quinceneara or Wedding and in a few years, after the date weekend per year, they could possibly marry.
I was jealous. That should have been me. Visiting with some guy.
To give them privacy, everyone came over to my porch and we chatted. Yet Tere and Chemeley kept sending little Eremita over with some fake errand – just to spy on them. I guess that was kinda fun especially for me in a passive aggressive way.
The one thing that cheered me up is that right before the boys left, one did come by to at least say goodbye to me. Baldito, Lupe’s intended and the one who made it to our first little dance in that same cabin, came to let me know they were on their way. I thanked him for the visit and thinking of me – the rejected one, the foreign one, the stupid one who didn’t get this whole game. I think I was so surprised to have a visitor that I didn’t offer the coffee like you are supposed to do with out of town guests. It probably didn’t really matter, they left in a few minutes.
The only unfinished business left from the quinceneara wasn’t bad at all. I walked over to Esperanza’s and thanked her for the beautiful dress. I made her day by explaining it was so perfect and I looked so Mexican that rumors flied around that I was from the county’s capital city. That dress truly was so pretty that I wore it once again since I loved it so, and to shi shi parties in Washington DC and Hollywood years later. Plus, a great story went with the dress.
Little did I know but Maricela informed me as the quinceneara dust settled, that whoever asks you to dance first when you are wearing a new dress in the Sierra, your dress is forever named after him. So now I have the story of my custom made dress christened after the man who smashed my heart the night of my first quinceneara.