Innocents in Mexico
Mexico was a libertarian’s dream. Although major roads were maintained when the potholes got big enough to cause accidents, government maintenance of lesser roads were rarely dealt with promptly, if at all. Here, if a neighborhood wanted a paved road, they got together to buy the cobblestones and hired someone to lay them, or pitched in to build it together. Rules were few. Although there were stop signs, few stopped at them. Not even the police. Here whole families rode in the backs of pickups, perched on the sides or on the floor with grandma on a folding chair. Here people lit up in restaurants. (Although smoking laws twenty years later have been changed.) Fireworks went off every night at all hours––the sign of a fiesta, the death of a child, or any public or private celebration. Downtown, church bells rang loudly throughout the night. There was a rule that no one could construct a window that overlooked their neighbor’s property, so all windows were on the fronts of the houses, but there were no rules for noise. Our neighbors pounded anvils, operated buzz saws and set bricks with a mallet far into the night.
Last night, there had seemed to be a fiesta complete with music and firecrackers going on into the early hours right by our front gate. When we returned from the video premiere, the number of people who were sitting on the curb in front of our house had surprised us, but we had no clue that the purpose for their being there went beyond a Friday night stroll and gossip session. Perhaps they were conducting ceremonies to expel the new foreigners. We had no way of knowing. When we told Steve about it, he said, “Oh yes, two fiestas a week.” His meaning was cryptic. We would, no doubt, find out what he meant.
In the mid-afternoon, Bob motioned for me to look out of the second story window. From our neighbor’s rooftop, strings of flags and fringed streamers descended across the street to light poles opposite. Perhaps there would be yet another fiesta tonight. This time, I would go to see what was happening.
It began in the afternoon, when I could hear a band some distance away. It sounded like a group of first year band students who had assembled to practice both their marching and their music with many false starts and stops. As it got nearer I went out to the street, but saw nothing. Then I saw them––a strung out bunch in white shirts wending their way through the field that crossed to the Gigante. A few men sat on the curb to my left as I left our compound, a few women to my right. A woman passed and I said, “Buenos tardes.” She answered me, but I could see her glance at my bare legs. My Sausalito Art Festival T-shirt was extra-large and extra-long, and covered my shorts. Just as well, as they were covered with smiling skulls, more appropriate for Day of the Dead, no doubt, than whatever festival was going on. To her, it probably appeared that I had on nothing under the T-shirt. More streamers with banners had gone up in the street. They were strung from the houses on either side of us out to a wire that someone had strung from light pole to light pole. It was a few feet lower than the electrical wires and seemed to have been strung for just this purpose. Now several houses up and down the street sported streamers. As the day progressed, I could hear the band practicing from some direction far to our right––along the main road that led from town, perhaps.
In the very late afternoon, the true activities began. At first, we heard the music––this time louder and more in unison. We drew chairs out to the sidewalk in front of our compound. Along the street, a number of our neighbors were assembled. In the distance, to our right, we heard wild drums, cries and shouts. The beat was primitive––more Native American or African than Mexican. Then around the bend in the road they came––young men and old men in pre-Columbian Aztec dress. Bare chests, leather loin flaps. The drummer had so much white face paint on that I thought he was Anglo. Their heels held high, they executed three leaps to the left, then three leaps to the right, then twirled and twisted and yelped. In the front were the best dancers. We tapped our feet and moved our shoulders to their rhythms. Impossible not to. At the back of the troupe came the young dancers––one so young that his mother marched along at the side to keep watch over him. She called out to him as one man veered too close to him. Behind these modern day reminders of the old religions came the new: six pre-adolescent girls in white dresses carrying a flower-heaped platform. Rising up from its middle was a cross. As they passed us, one girl handed over her rear position on the carrying pole to another girl and rubbed her shoulder. An older woman supervised the hand-over and kept the girls carrying the cross and their relief squadron, who marched behind them, in line and in sync. When one girl lowered the pole, the woman reached out to raise the platform to even it out.
Behind the girls came the band I had been hearing all day. They were still not perfect in harmony or rhythm, but they were much louder, which did a lot to improve their sound. The procession moved by our house and down the street. As we carried our chairs into our compound, Bearcat dashed out into the cobblestoned street––a daring move for a cat who a week ago wouldn’t come out from under the bed. I called him back in and he minded.
I spent the day making retablos. I had purchased the tin and glass boxes in the artisans’ market a few days before, intending to give them as gifts when I returned home. But after they lay on the living room cot for a few days, I couldn’t resist opening them to see what I’d bought. The afternoon was hot and I set up my “studio” on the small table of the patio which held the clothes washer. My tool boxes and cases full of art supplies sat on the patio around me. By late afternoon, I was surrounded by strips from cut up photographs, cloth, beads, snips of waxed linen. Each glass fronted box was some degree of its way toward being a retablo. One was dedicated to Bearcat, another to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the third a tribute to life in general––seeds, greenery, birth. With my limited supplies, it became necessary to search the household for things we’d brought that could contribute to the shrines. A container of popcorn contributed fertility and life bursting forth to the Madonna shrine. An old peso brought to me by neighbors who visited Mexico in the 50’s, now worthless, was beautiful when the raised parts were buffed with fine sandpaper. Feathers, beads, charms, seeds, bits of cloth, cut up bits of the photos I’d taken so far in Mexico. Bob awoke from his siesta in the late afternoon and set up his easel––a tall ladder––in the courtyard. He assembled his paints, prepared his palette––and the rain started. Moving his materials quickly to the patio where I sat surrounded by my midden of art supplies, he propped his canvas against the table. Restful large blobs of color covered the canvas. They reminded me of the bougainvillea. His usual bright primary colors had been abandoned for the more subtle colors of the garden and house that surrounded us.
By 9:30, we sat on the deck eating our dinner when the band started in again––coming from a direction about half a block away to the rear of our house. Kids’ voices called out excitedly. I imagined a pinata being broken. Then the fireworks started. They were the spectacular chrysanthemums and huge falling fountain fireworks of a fourth of July celebration. At first we went out to the compound to see them. Then Bob said we should go up on the roof, but by the time we had climbed up the circular staircase with our plates, the fireworks had stopped. We stood at the edge of our roof, our plates balanced on the adobe pillars on the sides of the patio. Up here it was cool, and the food lost its heat quickly. Although it was too dark to see our food, in the moonlight, we could see puffs of smoke ––the ghosts of the earlier fireworks. We could hear a loud “thwack, thwack, thwack” and children screamed and laughed. The band started up, died down, started up––like long spaced hiccups.
An hour or so later, when we were about to go to bed, the activity again moved to the street in front of our house. The band, much improved, came marching firmly down the street from our left. They seemed to have been replaced by another band, for now their music was sure and robust. They seem to have swelled in numbers, as well. They came more quickly than before down the street and stopped two doors away from us. Some of them carried bottles, which they took fast swigs out of before raising their instruments. They played a rousing song before one of the men pulled a man from the house and brought him out to dance with him. He encircled his body with his arms and they danced like lovers to the music. Then the music stopped and the entire band––maybe 15 or 20 strong––streamed into the house. Earlier, as I stood on the roof, I had seen women in that compound making tortillas in the back yard. I had wondered why they would choose early evening to do so, then figured it was to escape the heat of the day. Now I wondered if they were for the musicians, who did, indeed, stay in the compound for the rest of the night, playing music which echoed up the brick walls of their compound directly in through our windows. It was then that the really loud fireworks started and continued for an hour or so. We drifted off to sleep. Was it midnight or 1 a.m.? It made no difference. The fiesta was over and we slept.
Boom! An explosion like a land mine ripped through our open window. Then another and another. Some streamed up into the air, some exploded on the ground. These explosions were cherry bomb sized, then hand grenade sized, then, to our very early morning ears, \ground-to-air missile-sized. Amazing that the cat only stirred slightly in the bed. Just a week ago he would start and run at the rustle of the cat food bag. Explosion after explosion went off.
“What time is it?” I asked Bob, but he couldn’t see his watch. By this time, at least a couple dozen explosions had gone off. Since it was still dark, perhaps the purpose was to bring out the sun. By now the roosters were crowing, so the fireworks had done their job. But they didn’t stop. After one ear-splitting retort, our car alarm went off, adding to the festivites. Bob rolled out of bed and fumbled in his shorts pocket for the keys. I moved to the bathroom and by the time I got back, the car alarm had gone off again.
“Just turn it off. I think this is going to go on all day.” I flipped on the light. 6:15 a.m. Church bells began to toll.
By eight o’clock, all was quiet. The sounds I could hear seemed muffled––either in comparison with the fireworks or due to them. Roosters crowing, the acetylene torch sound of the water heater coming on, trucks and buses on the road, the beautiful cries of grackles. Ceiling fans whirred. Bob slept on in the huge bed on the balcony across from where I sat in the office. This bed was the largest either of us had every seen. It had to be bigger than king-sized. I could stretch out my arm fully from where I slept and still not find him. The cat could sleep sideways between us and not touch either of us.
“We need another person for this bed,” Bob had said as we slipped into bed the night before. I suggested that we could both just roll over to the middle, so we did.
Chapters 1-14 are availble in daily blogs for the past two weeks.