top of page

Santo Gordo - Chapter One

Espresso- Monday Morning


Christ, it’s beautiful.

   That’s the problem—beauty lurks everywhere and jumps at you if you aren’t careful. I could see the sun shining over my balcony on the purple bougainvillea covering the neighbor’s wall, not so much hanging down as enveloping the side of the building. For all I knew, it held that eroded adobe wall from full collapse. Tourists took its picture every day. The Policía cordoned it off with yellow plastic crime tape a while back.

   “It’s going to fall someday,” they explained. “But that’s not a crime. The wall is three hundred years old and is owned by—who knows?”

   The tape was lying in the gutter. Kids pulled it down yesterday and ran with it streaming behind them. Cuidado!—Be Careful was printed all down the tape and easy to read even from across the street.

   You needed warnings here in Oaxaca. The sidewalks were cracked and uneven, never flat. Tank-trap manholes opened up when you weren’t looking, their covers stolen or broken and crushed into cement powder by the overloaded trucks cutting corners on roads meant for burro carts and now filled with big rigs. Tree roots, semis, and washed-out sewers tilted the sidewalk slabs and made walking a balancing test you failed a couple of times every week.

   Everyone coming south from el Norte to stay in Oaxaca was careful for their first months—walking, eating, driving, drinking. But then they grew used to the dangers and dropped the mindfulness that strange geography brings. That’s when bad things happened.

   I didn’t need to be afraid; it was heaven here. Everyone told me so. Warm, sunny, friendly, and cheap. And freedom-filled if you were too dumb to know better—the way most expats lived. Like long-term tourists, boxed in and guarded in the hotel zone with hot showers, working toilets, and spicy cooking.

   I finally got up, dressed, and headed out before the sun cleared the two-story, solid-earth walls that edged the streets forming the city’s long, straight corridors. Those walls locked most gringos out of the real life taking place in big family courtyards, behind closed doors. They could hear it—kids yelled as they chased each other inside. They could smell it―foods were grilling and simmering all the time. And they could glimpse through the metal gates as people came and went—aunts, cousins, grandmothers, and school children in their sweaters and uniforms. They had hints from the crazed growth of vines that crept out over the walls. Mostly flowers, but lurking in the leaves were cactuses to let you know what waited if you tried to climb in. Behind them, even more-dangerous glass shards had been embedded in the top of the adobe walls, backed up by the barbed wire, the final protection from the street. We prayed these old defensive habits of Mexican homeowners were no longer needed, but the people’s memories of hiding from guns and bandits and revolutions took a long time to die.

   Thankfully you were not alone on the street most of the time. But late at night after a drink or two with street lights flickering and making deep doorway shadows, you looked over your shoulder and wondered about the sirens a couple of blocks away.

   I wouldn’t walk these streets too late—no shelter could be found when the metal doors and wrought-iron grills over the windows were locked tight and bolted.

And I didn’t walk the streets after the sun got high, either. Only tourists did. The noon sun was more than hot—it drove darts into your skin, like the arrows that made the gilded saints of the cathedral into martyrs.

   I lived near the Centro, the tourist area. Living was easy there. The Mexicans kept a dreamland for short-time visitors from el Norte—with colors, music, weavings, hotels, and pedestrian-only walkways. They didn’t want to run over their gringos, like they did the dogs and bicyclists you saw in the Sección Roja—the Red section of the local newspaper, blood red, with close-ups of bodies laid out for the camera by the local cops to get their small payout from the photographer. It was easy to skip that section if you only had a couple of days in a four-star, but was harder to miss if you lived here permanently ducking the pictures always hanging in front of you in the newspaper stalls.

   I climbed down the steps and passed the house’s flower-covered altar to one of the local Virgins—the Lady of Lost Hopes, I called her. My landlady, Señora Concepción, had added enough fresh flowers to keep this Virgin Mary happy and praying for us all day long.

   I was lucky. I lived over a family courtyard in a little apartment. I stayed away from the housing mazes stuffed with tourists in high season and mostly empty the rest of the year.

In my place, I got to see and hear a bit of family life, the real Oaxaca. Señora Concepción’s son Jorge, his wife Victoria, and three children lived scattered in rooms around the open courtyard with its ancient stone fountain, ropey vines climbing the walls, lizards sunning themselves, the morning laundry strung from tree to stairs, chickens hiding behind the wet clothes, and the family sedan getting washed again.

   I walked by the fountain, called out hola to Jorge scrubbing the car tires, and went through the metal doors out to the wall-lined street. I hugged the shade by the wall, jumped the open manhole in the sidewalk near the front door, and walked the three blocks to Llano Park. I passed the two concrete lions guarding the entrance while they nursed the stubs of their tails, always recently repaired but then snapped off again by young men establishing bragging rights late at night. At least that was what I figured happened.

   I crossed the park—two-blocks of grass browning in the heat, but carefully swept each morning by workers pushing tree-branch brooms. I followed the shadows of the hundred-foot trees through the central park plaza and then, reaching the other side of the park, cut between two wildly painted cargo trucks covered with virgins and devils, and crossed the traffic-clogged street.

   I pushed the door open at La Avenida, my morning espresso stop. The barista stood sharply dressed, attentive, and smiling. Starbucks got locked out of the Centro by lefty politicos, but Starbucks culture had seeped in. Espresso bars were everywhere, even where tourists never went, in the middle-class and rich parts of town. But they said old native chocolate, hand-mixed into a frothy, hot, morning drink, still ruled in the barrio south of the Centro, where the low-paid workers and those always looking for work lived.

   Charles called to me, “You’re early.”

   He’d been sitting, waiting for one of us expats to come in. I was known for my late appearances. The others must have had a long night drinking because they usually beat me here.

   He was tall, on the edge of portly with his scant ponytail pulled tight, hanging past the collar on his guayabera shirt. I called him a Type One. Type Twos were the rich Texans up the hill, flying in and out, living the gated-community life. Type Ones were like me, living almost Mexican, pulling social security, maybe something on the side―not much―but enough if you were careful.

Charles made and lost his money doing New Age startups. He still had his lawyerly, hustling habits, trying to put together some kind of deal but was far past his prime. He slept late, ate fancy, and got a high on the rooftop terrace with a couple of other Type Ones.

   Type One women, the gringas, came up on the terrace too, a bit younger—artists, poets, photographers with hippie names like Fawn and Rainbow. They had grown kids back in the States and looked tired when they got here. You had the feeling they started life too young or maybe went too fast. Sometimes they lived alone, sometimes they paired up with the men, and sometimes they brought men with them. And sometimes women. Who knew where their money came from?  

   Every so often, one of these women talked a restaurant or bar into holding a show, hanging her photos or prints to make few bucks, selling to tourists. Type One women wrote in their journals, painted watercolors, took photos of the women and children on the streets, and cooked in their rooms. They were busier than the men.

   Sometimes I joined in on the rooftop where the Type Ones watched the stars in the evening, talking their sometimes hopeful, sometimes desperate, but never very active politics and recounting their searches for good doctors, miracle stomach meds, dope, and mezcal dealers. Some Type One men used the nights to check out new women arrivals. Some just leaned back and sipped mezcal, watching the sky and taking it in. Some didn’t sip; they drank hard and rambled through the night even after the others had left.

   Usually I stayed home, went to sleep early, read mystery novels, and studied my Spanish verbs. I had a few Mexican friends, and I drank with them sometimes on weekends when they were off from work. Getting past the northern invader relationship with them had been hard, but after a few years it was starting to happen. Those friends didn’t meet on the roof with the Type Ones. The expats’ roof was a gringo-only zone. Our little, down-at-the-heels American outpost was for cheerleading fellow gringos, not for mixing with the locals.

   Charles gave me a big hug, the type Mexicans do, with a pair of back slaps. He was back from the States on one of the cheap red-eyes, and about to pop with news―way too much for me before coffee. I tried to get away and headed up to the counter, but he had no one else to tell, so he followed me.

   “Cortado doble,” I called.

   The barista nodded clamping the coffee canister to his impressive machine that looked like a leftover from the steam train era.

   “Did you see the black 737s flying in? They taxied up beside us when we landed this morning, and the Federales marched out in riot gear.”

   Dark liquid was dripping quickly into the small cup. I watched as the drops slowed.

   “You know the government bought a bunch of forty-year-old jetliners for the army and painted them black. When the Federales got out of the plane today, in those roll-up ramps, they all had tall, see-through shields and batons with handles and were dressed like a motorcycle gang playing Darth Vader. We could see them out of our plane window.”

   I nodded. I figured he’d practiced that line in his head waiting for someone to come along. He still had a long way to go with the story. The barista steamed the metal pitcher of milk and scooped a spoon of foam on the espresso. It was ready. I don’t sip it like those foodies who talk about a floral aftertaste and cocoa hints. I slugged a bitter mouthful, trying to cool it with the foam. I needed a jolt to get going.

   “They climbed into buses out on the runway. Black buses. And get this. They put those big plastic shields up to block the window. I know it’s hot that way, but no bricks or stones are coming through when they drive down the streets.”

   I looked out the window. Late summer winds blew through the trees in the park. Children played soccer on the pavement in front of the closest fountain. Skateboarders jumped the old carved stone seats that dated back to when no Indians were allowed in the park.

 “You know where they were heading, over to the plantón—the strike. Those teachers want more money and won’t leave. They’ll sit in front of city hall forever. They have tents and cooking pots and even took the porta-potties that the government had brought in for the dance festival. Something’s going to happen soon.”

   Charles liked to talk.

   “You know the teachers strike every year,” I said.

   “Yeah, but remember when they trashed the city?”

   I wasn’t sure if he thought the police or the teachers had trashed the city. Maybe both. It happened a couple of years back and the city was still recovering. I watched it all back then. The old governor ran the teachers out of town with the army. Now the old governor was gone—a new one had been elected this year—and the teachers never really left.

   “You’re heading out today? Remember they might do something.”

I thought the strikers and police would keep far enough apart to only eye each other. The tourists would stay away from that end of the city. But I needed to head over there later.

   “Another cortado, single this time.” I needed more caffeine. “And a cuernito—a croissant.” They were like big, rolled biscuits down here, probably loaded with lard, but they dunked well and left an oily rainbow sheen on the surface that you could stare at until the caffeine kicked in.

I took my time answering Charles, “Well, we’ll see. Just have to wait.”

About then Charles saw Lark, one of the local Type A gringas, when she walked in. He looked for a way to end our conversation and get over to her with his story. She liked to talk politics and police. She was one of those progressives—that was what she called it—who said she was staying till Bush Junior was out, but I thought she was here for good. And a good match for Charles, I mean Carlos. I have to remember last week he announced he was now Carlos. Like the King of Spain.

That happens to us down here. Our names get “Spanished.” Mine got an “o” on the end after a year or so. Now Roberto sounds more like me than old Robert ever did.

   “Well, have a good day.” I helped Carlos end our talk. He nodded and headed to Lark’s table. I needed to start thinking about how to get over to the other side of town through the blockades.

I know the idea of blockades by strikers sounds bad, but they’re like our war demonstrations up north where everyone, the strikers and the cops, know what is supposed to happen. In the States some volunteer to get arrested. Here everyone stays out of jail if they can help it.

   The striking teachers screw up traffic. They commandeer a bus or two. The bus drivers take the strikers where they want to go. They order the bus to the big intersections, park sideways, and block the lanes.      Everyone in town has to drive slow and detour around them. I hated the traffic detoured in front of my house, going two miles an hour, with diesel exhaust and gas fumes filling the street. If this were the States, I’d be suing them for my cough.

   The bus drivers and strikers wait until comida—dinner, about four PM, when the strikers let the buses leave. The bus company pays the drivers for their day and for bringing the buses back. Most drivers continue their routes like nothing happened, picking up passengers along the way. And the traffic cops stay away. And the crime cops pretend like it’s the traffic cops’ job. It’s just those Federales, the national police that fly around in jets. They’ll mess up this game one day.

   I decided to walk over to the bank first. I was out of money and needed a transfusion from the States. The morning was already hot, but I was lucky the sun still wasn’t quite up over the walls, and the shade was dark and deep if you stayed close to the adobe.

   I had to pay bills. Credit cards didn’t work here for basic things like electricity and internet in your apartment. Everyone Mexican waited until the last day of the month and then queued for a couple of hours to pay. I wanted to be my old prompt all-American self, but I’d absorbed the ways down here too deeply and lost my old on-time, gringo habits.

bottom of page