By Edward Stanton
Grand Prize Bronze Winner (tie) in the Fifteenth Annual Solas Awards
You wanted to get farther away from home, beyond the border and Baja California, deeper into the country. The city of Saltillo lay on a slope of the Sierra Madre Oriental, just north of the central plateau, about 5,000 feet high. There you found a boardinghouse with a courtyard on Calle Xicoténcatl of sacred memory.
Your room opened onto the light-filled patio with a gurgling well, shade trees, cracked flower pots, a colossal zaguán or foyer with a carved wooden door. The courtyard was the hub of life for everyone in the house: the landlords Don Alfonso and Doña Hortensia; their daughter, her husband and their children; Panchita, a plump Indian woman who did most of the shopping, cooking and cleaning; a bachelor who taught Latin and Greek at several schools to make ends meet; uncountable dogs, cats and birds in cages. And then there was the woman who scandalized our whole house and neighborhood. Laura.
She must have been in her fifties but she moved with the grace of a young woman. She wrapped her lean frame in shabby scarves and shawls and wore long, rustling, flowered skirts that glided over the cobblestones of the patio. Although her hair was disheveled in front, Laura gathered it into a neat Psyche knot at the nape of her slender model’s neck. Every evening she left the house and did not return until late in the night, at dawn, in the morning or the next afternoon. Laura’s arrivals and departures were staged in the grand style to attract attention and awaken anyone with the nerve to be asleep on such portentous occasions.
A few days after settling into the boardinghouse, you enrolled in a Spanish-language school for the summer. Walking to class one morning, you passed a cantina on the corner and spotted Laura through the louvered, swinging doors. She was seated at a table, alone.
She recognized you, calling in a voice that seemed too husky for her ethereal body: “Vecino! Neighbor! Ven a acompañarme,” Come keep me company.
You walked inside, past the bartender who was sweeping the floor with sawdust. There were no customers except Laura.
Two bootblacks crouched on the steel footrail below the bar, their little shoeshine boxes at their sides. They asked, jumping to their feet, “Le boleo?” Want a shine? in the forlorn mumble used by those boys who repeat the same question hundreds of times a day. There must be more bootblacks in Mexico than anywhere in the world. It may be the only country with a special verb for polishing shoes.
When you reached Laura’s table, she asked, “Eduardo, will you invite a lady to a drink?” Her breath immersed you in the night’s effluvium. On her table stood an empty shot glass.
“Of course, vecina.”
“Sergio! Bring us a pair,” she told a second barman who was removing bottles of Bohemia from a wooden case. Seeing her close, you noticed the glisten of tears in Laura’s eyes.
Sunlight slanted through the doors and windows, striking the time-stained mirror and rows of bottles behind the bar: Souza, José Cuervo, Tequila Añejo, Mezcal Xicoténcatl, named like your street for the indigenous warrior; Anís del Mono with a devil on its label; Johnny Walker Red, local wines and brandies from Parras de la Fuente.
The man brought us a round of tequila with two saucers, one filled with salt and the other with halves of lime. “Salud, vecino,” Laura said, raising her glass in a toast and quaffing her drink as though it were water. “By the way do you mind if I call you by our nickname for Eduardo?”
“Guess what it is.”
“I don’t know.”
Touching my forehead with two fingers, she said, “I hereby christen you ‘Lalo.’”
Your shot did not go down as smoothly as hers that morning, but it would not be our last drink together. She taught you to chase tequila with dabs of salt and juice from the lime, sucked after each swig, making the alcohol taste almost sweet. Other times we would alternate with sangrita (no, not sangría), a reviving blend of fruit juices spiced with chiles.
“Sangrita works nearly as well as menudo for hangovers,” Laura counseled.
You arrived late to class that day and others. Laura would teach you much more than the teachers in the language school. She took you under her wings of tarnished feathers.
While the jukebox played songs on those luminous mornings in the corner cantina, Laura would turn nostalgic and tell stories of her youth. Listening to rancheras and boleros, getting drunk, wallowing in the pain of unhappy love is a collective pastime in Mexico. Hundreds of songs sing of going on sprees, emptying bottle after bottle, drinking oneself into oblivion, all for love, usually lost:
Cómo son lindas estas borracheras…
How nice are these binges…
You did not have old loves to remember, but you grasped the music’s appeal, as enticing as a warm, soft bunk when you’re supposed to be in class or at work. One could cultivate that sentiment for a lifetime. Whole nations do.
Each time Laura evoked the past, her eyes sparkled and revealed the young girl behind her wrinkled mask. In her prime she must have been a startling beauty. Even with her body wasted by long nights, by drink and years, she preserved an air of faded elegance.
Like most femmes fatales she had known many men in her life but only one great love. The facts of that affair remained unclear. Laura stammered when she had drunk too much, and your ears were still learning the rhythms of speech in northern Mexico. You had the impression that the man may have committed suicide. Yet Laura could have fused his story with another about Manuel Acuña, the poet from Saltillo who’s supposed to have killed himself after writing a poem to his beloved. She would often recite his famed “Nocturno a Rosario”:
¡Pues bien! Yo necesito
decirte que te adoro,
decirte que te quiero
con todo el corazón…
Well then! I need to say
that I adore you,
that I love you
with my whole heart…
Laura knew this poem and dozens more by heart. If the jukebox ran out of songs, she would stand unsteadily and recite, fondling the air with her blue-veined, bony hands. She declaimed works by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Amado Nervo and all the nation’s classics. And she sang corridos, ballads, especially those about La Llorona, the legendary woman of Mexican folklore who haunts lonely spots at night, weeping for lost loves: “Ay de mi Llorona, Llorona.”
As Laura chanted, a few lingering customers, the bootblacks of the moment and the bleary-eyed bartenders would turn silent. Passers-by stopped to peek inside the cantina and listen: newsvendors with morning papers bundled in their arms, delivery boys carrying crates of Coca Cola, Fanta and Tri Naranjus; servants on their way to market, crippled beggars dragging their poor bodies along with crutches. The oral tradition was alive in Saltillo, Coahuila, México.
If the onlookers requested an encore, Laura would sing her favorite ranchera:
No vale nada la vida,
la vida no vale nada.
Comienza siempre llorando
y así llorando se acaba.
Life is worth nothing,
It’s not worth a thing.
It begins with crying
and also ends in tears.
As long as she kept the verses flowing with rhyme and meter, the tragedienne could hold her public in thrall. But if she forgot the words of a poem or the lyrics of a song, Laura would collapse in her chair, cover her head and cry her eyes out. “Ay, Lalo, soy una mujer fracasada,” I’m a failed woman, she sobbed through her tears.
Between performances Laura talked about her past. “Modesty apart,” she confessed, “I was irresistible as a young girl, vecino.”
“Ya lo creo,” I can believe it.
“Thank you, Lalo. You treat me like a caballero—a real gentleman you are. Anyway in school I suffered abuse from priests and nuns.” She winced either from the memory or the shot of tequila that she had just swallowed.
“Detrás de la cruz está el diablo,” The devil’s behind the cross, you said.
“Ándale, Lalo. After the Revolution the curas, the priests, the monks and nuns weren’t allowed to wear vestments or habits on the street. Served the cabrones right! I haven’t crossed the threshold of a church since I graduated from school.”
Laura was the first anticlerical woman you would meet in Mexico. She was also a matchless raconteur. Quoting the Spanish proverb, she would say, “Good conversation is food for the soul.”
She could find a story in every person who entered our cantina. When a ghostly beggar, an Indian wrapped in a rebozo, passed through one morning, Laura said, “Fíjate bien, vecino. That man works on a ranch yet he has to beg in order to feed his family. Notice his eyes.” When the Indian passed our table, he glanced at us with palms extended. His glacial look made you shiver. “That’s the kind of citizen our Church and our caciques have created,” Laura said. “One night he’ll stab somebody or wake up with a knife in his heart.”
Another day Panchita, the servant at our house, passed the cantina on her way to market. The portly woman peeked inside, spotted you at Laura’s table and scurried away. By evening the landlords had learned the dreadful news.
Feeling that she had a moral responsibility for her teenaged American boarder, Doña Hortensia summoned you to the living room. It was your first and only entry into that forbidden sanctuary whose shutters remained closed day and night, where incense smoldered, where votive candles burned beneath an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
The landlady sighed. “I suppose she asks for money, Eduardo?” She did not need to mention Laura’s name.
“Once in a while.” A candle sputtered and a bird’s song came from the patio. Suddenly you wanted to be outside.
“I’m going to give you a piece of motherly advice, hijo. For your own good and hers, stay away from her. Es una mujer perdida,” She’s a lost woman, Doña Hortensia lamented. “Every month she’s behind on her rent, she promises to pay but usually finds an excuse. You should not lend her one centavo. Actually you should not see her at all.” Rising on her toes, the woman cupped her hands and whispered in your ear: “I’ve been trying to get rid of her for a long time—so I can rent her room to another gabacho—I mean North American. Your compatriots always pay on time.”
You did not heed her counsel. It was clear that Doña Hortensia cared more about the repute and solvency of her boardinghouse than your probity or pocketbook. You felt the fatal allure of ripe, forbidden fruit, sensing that Laura had more to impart, more vitality than all the other residents and their animals together.
The incident confirmed what you were learning about Mexico: it’s a machista society in public, a matriarchy at home. Doña Hortensia, with Panchita as her loyal informer, ruled the roost at number 111, Calle Xicoténcatl Sur. Sometimes her husband Don Alfonso, the nominal patriarch, pretended to hold sway, twisting his white, Porfirio Díaz-mustache as he mouthed empty orders around the house. Nobody bothered to listen. Everyone knew the women were in charge.
They were also the guardians of religion, the ones who attended Mass, who kept the faith by lighting candles beneath the Virgin in the living room, the house’s inner sanctum. If Doña Hortensia and Panchita governed the home, the Guadalupana—Mother of Mexico, Patroness of the Americas—ruled the nation, the hemisphere and the world for those people. You did not think about these things as much as breathe them with the incense, feel them in the light of the votive candles.
The boardinghouse was a miniature reflection of the whole country, where God the Father and Christ stand as titular heads of the Church, while the people’s worship centers on the Virgin Mary, María Santísima, Most Holy Mary, Nuestra Señora, Our Lady. She and motherhood are so hallowed that a careless use of the word madre in Mexico can be more dangerous than a curse. Speakers soften the incendiary term by using the more familiar mamá or the diminutive mamacita. On the other hand their everyday conversation bristles with references to La Chingada, “the Fucked One,” the Nahua woman who betrayed her people to the Spaniards. Doña Marina, as she was known to the invaders, assisted them in defeating the Aztecs, who called her La Malinche. She slept with the conqueror Cortés and gave birth to one of the first mestizos, offspring of mixed blood. Her crime was cleansed in part by a second mother, the Guadalupana, who manifested herself to a poor peasant near Mexico City as the angel Gabriel had appeared to a humble girl in Judea about 1,500 years before. But in some ways Mexicans are still a people of orphans whose wounds have never healed, who need a personal and communal mother in the form of María Santísima.
Doña Hortensia’s hypocrisy and Laura’s history did not keep you from visiting churches in Saltillo and other towns. The Baroque, Rococo and Churrigueresque façades enclosed somber, cool interiors, so bracing after the glaring heat outdoors. Aromas of incense penetrated your nose and infused your lungs. A few older men, but mostly women recited the Ave Maria over and over. As your eyes adapted to the semi-darkness, you observed how many were dressed in mourning, head to foot.
Above the rows of candles shimmering in the gloom, behind the altars encrusted with bossed leaves and tendrils, you gazed at sumptuous pilasters, cornices, vaults and domes; reredos like fantastic grottos of wood, stucco, porphyry, gold and silver; a cornucopia of vines, flowers, fruits, trees, birds, animals, serpents, fish; centaurs, gargoyles, chimeras, griffins, unknown creatures; golden reliefs, moldings, marquetry, scrolls, curlicues, intaglios, escutcheons. Walking down the nave toward the main altar, you passed a forest of columns, chapels with portraits or statues of saints in marble or polychrome wood, fat-buttocked Cupids, wide-winged cherubim and seraphim with faces of the sun and moon, Christs with gashes blossoming on their ankles and wrists, Virgins of Guadalupe in various local incarnations, their hands clasped in prayer, their head bowed to one side beneath their blue mantel of stars, their gown embroidered with roses, their feet cradled in a crescent moon supported by an angel. O sanctuaries of Mexico, women in black, odors of frankincense, candles flickering in the shadows, bleeding Christs and tender Guadalupanas.
Raised in America’s male-oriented Protestant churches, you were drawn to the nurturing, female religion of Mexico. Somehow being in these temples was a way of returning to your ancestors, to the beliefs of your Spanish great-great-grandmother and your mother’s Sicilian forebears, relinquished once she married your father, who was a reformed German through and through. Compared to the severe, barren, overlit chapels of your childhood, those penumbral shrines embraced you in the warmth of a maternal faith and a tribal worship.
Walking into the ruthless sunlight, you saw the ragged children, the armies of dwarves and cripples. Some sat on the stone steps with their brown palms cupped as though for communion. Like most foreigners you were repelled by the brazen opulence of the Church amid the general misery of the people. But you were learning that in Mexico devotion and suffering are wedded. In some ways the beggars on the steps were just as hallowed as the clergy indoors. You gave alms to those poor souls in exchange for one of the world’s loveliest benedictions: “Vaya usted con Dios.”
As the semester approached its end, you invited Laura for a farewell drink one night.
After the first round she asked, “Lalo, shall we have la penúltima?”
“We never say ‘the last drink’—for us it’s always ‘the next-to-last.’”
Laura surprised you by paying for several rounds of tequilas. Then she asked, “Would you accompany a dama, a lady to her home?”
“Isn’t it early for you, vecina?”
“I have not been escorted home by a gentleman for a long time. I would be grateful.”
Rising from the chair, you gave an arm to Laura; hers seemed light as a bird’s wing. When we reached our house at Calle Xicoténcatl, Don Alfonso opened the creaking zaguán. “Muy buenas noches,” he whispered with a conspiratorial smile and a gesture that must have meant, Hurry up and go inside before she spots you.
But Doña Hortensia was ever vigilant. As we crossed the patio, our landlady emerged by the well, standing with her legs planted on the flagstone and her arms akimbo, like some stalwart peasant woman in a painting by Diego Rivera.
Her eyes burned holes in your back while you held Laura in a final embrace. “Hasta siempre,” Until always, your friend said with tears in her eyes.
After returning to Los Angeles, you wrote Laura several times. Those letters went unanswered. Months later Doña Hortensia wrote to say that her boarder had disappeared, “without paying her rent, of course.”
Where were you Laura, vecina, compañera? Where had you gone, my Llorona? In what bar, in what sunny cantina were you drinking tequila with salt and limes, reciting poems, singing ballads and remembering loves lost forever?
Born in Colorado and raised in California, Edward Stanton has lived in Mexico, Argentina, Uruguay, and Spain, as well as the United States. He’s the author of twelve books, some of them translated and published in Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese. Road of Stars to Santiago, the story of his 500-mile walk on the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, was called one of the best books on the subject by The New York Times; Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James Michener said of this work, “Edward Stanton recounts his adventures with stylish conviction.” Stanton’s environmental novel Wide as the Wind, the first to treat the tragic history of Easter Island, won the Next Generation Indie Book Award for Young Adult Fiction and three other international prizes. The Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Spanish Ministry of Culture have supported his work with grants and fellowships. “Laura: Lady of the Mexican Nights” also appears in his latest book, VIDAS: Deep in Mexico and Spain.