Month: February 2012

The Police Investigated And….

…the hot-off-the-press news about the body by the donut shop is that apparently the poor guy wasn’t killed by narcos, a jealous romantic rival, or anything like that. It was, they say, DOGS! A pack of street dogs apparently attacked the guy around 2:30 in the morning, chewed him up, cut a major artery and he bled to death. How did he get to be naked? Or WAS he completely nude after all? Everyone around here is saying “WHA’????” Some people did report hearing dogs barking but there are so many dogs around here running around loose in the street that no one would pay any attention if they heard dogs in the middle of the night. It turned out that the victim wasn’t a young guy, but in his fifties, and he lived right around there, he was a laborer. These dogs hang around all the time, so did he goad them somehow? No one can figure out how dogs attacked this guy and killed him without there having been much more of a ruckus as it was right in town — but there you have it. Was he very. very drunk, drugged, just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Pues, pobrecito, it is “destino” if god calls you and it’s your time. Will anyone do anything to deal with the stray dogs? Not a chance.

If it’s true, at least we are saved the inevitable cascade of questions from our friends up in El Norte, saying “omigod how can you stay there when they are killing people right on the street corners??!” Of course it’s also Mexico, who knows if if this is really what took place or not. But — well, for the moment, they say it was a pack of dogs. I am sure that more will come out about this, as far as the police are concerned, I suspect it is case closed, and on to the next weird death for them to investigate. The family is apparently asking for a further investigation but it remains to be seen whether anything will come of it.

Meanwhile the “frente frio” (cold front) we suffered last week — meaning we had to put on socks and sweaters and complain to everyone we see about it — has passed, the gray skies are gone, and it’s warming up here – since we have no heat in our houses that is a welcome development!


Rosa came over, her usual day to clean, and halfway through the day she stopped for a bit and asked if I’d heard about the poor señor whose mutilated body they had found the other day up by the donut shop. I said yes, indeed I’d read about it online and that people had been talking about it. How horrible, how horrible; she said her sister, who lives right there, walked out her  front door early that morning and practically tripped over this bloody body which also had been castrated and left there nude, in the rain. Her sister thought he’d been dumped there maybe around 7:30, just as she normally goes to the panadería to get bread and start her morning errands. She said now her sister can’t sleep because every time she closes her eyes, she sees the same awful sight again and again.

“And the worst”, Rosa added, “is that at 7:30 all the little kids have to walk up that hill to get to school and a bunch of them saw it before the police got there, and those kids are now completely frightened and upset by what they saw, and their parents are at a loss as to what to tell them about what it all means.” She said by the time her sister got back from her errands that morning, the police, ambulances, all that, were there and that they were taking the body to the Forensic Institute in Ocotlan.

Thus far, no one has identified this poor guy, no one has claimed responsibility, and as he wasn’t from our town, no one is certain whether it was cartel-related or he just got sideways with someone over a woman or some other score being settled, who knows. She said the worst is that the fallout from something like this is that everyone who sees it right there in the street is in some small way traumatized and damaged for life. Not unlike my adventure with the carjacking, come to think of it. Of course she’s right and she asked me “why would someone do that to another human being, kill them that way?” I didn’t really have an answer for her but we talked about it for awhile longer, till she noticed it was starting to rain, and she gathered her things and ran out the door to get to the bus stop before the weather got any worse.


A Body by the Donut Shop

Guadalupe shrine around the corner from our house....

How can we stand it here? Aren’t we scared? Even this evening, I talked to one of my friends back in the States – an old Mexico hand – who said the hysteria being whipped up by the U.S. press about the violence in Mexico is beyond absurd. She’s visited us here a couple of times and during her stay (many of  her friends told her not to come), we laughed about how the only thing we saw rolling around in the plaza — not severed heads — were a couple of little girls on their branny-new pink bikes because it was a couple of days after Christmas.

Still, you can’t blame our Stateside friends for being increasingly concerned. And it is true that while we have been in a little island of delusion here in the gringolandia of Ajijic and Chapala, the narcos are bearing down on us too as they battle for control of the Guadalajara routes and markets. They found a body just above the donut shop today. This is the donut shop where people go for coffee and morning gossip and which, in the days when I was still eating donuts, I was sure made arguably the best donuts I’ve ever had. No one seems to know who it is yet (a young Mexican male) but of course we’ll all know soon, after the police, such as they are, have done their investigations, and the news will be all over town.  We’ve had some police vs. narco “entre ellos”(between “them”) gunfights and the occasional grenade tossed around town but this is the first dumped body right in our village, right on the street we used to take to get up to my mother’s house.

You’d be crazy not to acknowledge that the noose (or whatever it is) is almost surely tightening around us, or so it would appear. But in spite of the near-certainty of the violence worsening here, even if we talk about leaving or doing something else, where would we go? Our lives are here, our home is here, we continue to love so many aspects of the life and culture; the friends we’ve made. If anyone should have fled soon after moving here, it would have been me, who was carjacked at gunpoint a few months after we got here (the subject of another tale, one of these days….) but somehow I bashed through my episodes of PTSD and flashbacks (the guy with the gun pointed at my head and all that…) and convinced myself that “this too shall pass” — which it did, sort of. Sort of is the operative description: I survived, obviously, but became a maniac about locking doors, locking our gates, looking over my shoulder all the time. I drive my husband crazy wanting to add more and more security; he says he doesn’t want to live in an armed camp. And neither do I, really, but I don’t want to be assaulted ever again, either. As if you could prevent it anyway.

I guess the thing that strikes you most (other than whatever injury you may suffer) about an adventure like that is the randomness and suddenness of it all, where someone springs out of the bushes or comes up behind you or however it happens; and that’s what is so scary about the narco stuff. I mean, they don’t put up posters like they do for the community dances that say “x time, x day, there will be a balacera (gun battle) so y’all come”. Some poor devil is on their list and he gets it in the middle of a restaurant where you’ve gone for a nice comida with friends; or on the sidewalk, and if you just happening to be walking by with your nylon market bag full of groceries, it’s curtains for you too, I guess. Hard to adjust to that reality, and to the idea that it’s probably going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

But we have sunk pretty deep roots here in the years we’ve been here, and at least for the moment, and it’s our home. Once I get behind our locked gates and hear the splash of our fountain, though, I do breathe a bit of a sigh of relief. For the moment.

Sofia’s First Class Overnight

Well, Our Girl actually got off on her class trip at the crack of dawn this morning, to  study rock formations and have “fellowship with students and teachers” –  to Tapalpa – a town up in the mountains about two hours from here. Rosa, who was really opposed to her going  till she brings her English grade up –  is fine with her going now. I had to intervene and say “look, she’s studying like mad, we have a meeting scheduled next week with her English teacher, this is a great chance for her to get out of her village and see something new and have some fun with her friends in a supervised way with a bunch of teachers chaperoning – let her go…her grades will be fine.” So Rosa reluctantly gave her permission for her baby to take off  on the trip and spread her wings just a little. And of course, as one could have predicted, last night I got a call from Sofi about 9 p.m. saying “please, madrina, can I borrow a proper suitcase from you? My mother wants me to put all my stuff in a nylon market bag and it just won’t fit” – I said, sure, come over, we have lots of luggage, you can borrow something.

Reading between the lines I thought that all the kids were going to show up with sort of reasonable duffle bags and trendy “weekender” luggage, and here comes Sofi with her mother’s plaid nylon bag for carrying onions from the market – NOT cool. Anyway they came running over here (ferried over by Danny in the truck as it was late) and we found a very nice black duffle bag of Arnold’s for her to borrow with lots of compartments, plus I gave her a quilted vest and a polarfleece jacket (was going to give them to her anyway as they are HUGE on me since I lost weight) so she’s got nice warm things to wear, Danny lent her some gloves too. The kids were all supposed to gather at school to get on buses at 7:30 this morning, so she’s off!

She gets back home Sunday night and I will be really curious to see if she had fun! Bet she will have a blast. She’s never spent a night away from home. I thought Rosa would be all teary-eyed but she has accepted the inevitable – that it’s time to let her break away from home and the familiar just a little bit – and she’s here cleaning and seems perfectly content. Only bummer is that our usually superb, warm, February weather has been displaced by a nasty ‘frente frio” – a cold front – and it’s cold and nasty and drippy-rainy out there. But I am consoling myself by saying “look, these kids are fifteen, they will still have a blast and it’ll be a big adventure for them all to be out of the clutches of their parents for the weekend….” One can only hope.

A Modest Quinceañera

For a Mexican girl, her 15th birthday is an important moment, usually celebrated with a big party. Called a Quinceañera, it usually involves a special Mass in the local church, then a party with the birthday girl duded up in a dress that looks like an 18th century ballgown. Also required are a bunch of teenage guests, carefully vetted friends and relatives, little kids and babies, cake, food, and the inevitable ear-splitting band or DJ with the volume turned up to 10 or whatever the highest available number on the amplifier might be. Often people go completely nuts and spend a fortune on this party. Not too long ago, we watched from our rooftop (we live in a  working-class neighborhood with chickens running loose in the street and to call the street cobblestoned would be generous indeed) as the house next to ours threw a giant party for a local girl. She arrived at her party in a gown that looked like something out of the opera Der Rosenkavalier, with a feathered headdress. She was suitably delivered in a horse-drawn carriage, which paraded slowly down our impossibly dusty street, avoiding the stray dogs and kids riding around in circles on their bikes. The party went on till the early hours of the morning and we never will get used to the horrible noise these fiestas generate.

Here's what the traditional dresses tend to look like....

When we lived in Mexico City in the fifties, my mother thought the whole idea of a quinceañera was totally barbaric as the assumption was (I suspect that she was in some part correct) that after that milestone the girl was immediately available for marriage and babies. While I am sure that all of that was true in seventeenth century Mexico, as an American teenager I truly never gave any thought whatsoever to having such a party; that was something special for my Mexican pals but the whole deal just didn’t feel right for me. But now that I’ve seen more of what families go through as their precious niña approaches fifteen, I can see what my mother was concerned about. It involves a lot of money and – like big weddings – more of an opportunity to show off than anything else. My American mother did NOT want me having any sort of quinceañera or even the desire for one. In fact, she had begun to worry about how Mexican I was becoming and was concerned about my getting into college in the States. This was just one of a whole complex of issues that led to my family’s eventual return to California. My insistence that “nowadays it’s just a tradition and it hardly means that now that you’re in the 9th grade you should get married” carried no weight whatsoever.

Sofia, her niece America, and me after her Mass

Although the traditions associated with quinceañera parties have changed quite a bit since then, certain aspects seem to remain ironclad in Mexican culture, and the list of “requirements” can make for a very expensive celebration. Since Sofia’s family works very hard and has few resources, all along the assumption was that she shouldn’t even have any celebration of her fifteenth birthday beyond maybe a family dinner with some pastel (cake). But for the first time in her life, she has a group of girlfriends (some boys too!) in her new school and it seemed like maybe we could do something modest – I offered our house and garden for a small fiesta for her family and a few of her friends. But an aunt in the States sent some money with a note that says “you only turn fifteen once, you should have a nice party”.  So an “evento” place was procured (sort of an outdoor garden you can rent for parties), invitations went out, and the family all agreed to make a bunch of food for the fiesta by themselves.

The whole family pitches in to make a feast for everyone!

My bright liberated-American woman-idea was that they shouldn’t have to shell out for a dress for Sofia which would be worn exactly ONCE, so I forked over my Eileen Fisher stretch velvet floorlength dress, which I thought could be cut down to fit Sofia relatively inexpensively. Only problem was, after ditzing around for two weeks with the date of the party and the accompanying special Mass in the church fast approaching, the ladies at the local alterations shop, having never seen such a dress, turned out to be terrified to cut into the (to them, at least) rare and expensive silk velvet. After endless excuses as to why the dress wasn’t ready, they finally admitted that they were afraid to touch the fabric and and scared of losing me as a client and scared of the whole business, but of course no one told me anything.

Frustrated by the ongoing stalemate, the day before the party, Rosa took Sofia on the bus and went to a larger nearby town to hunt for some sort of a party dress so the poor kid would have something even vaguely reasonable to wear. They found one that was floor length, gauzy white with sparkly things on it, (so far so good for church). Sofia protested that she looked like a bride, which annoyed her, but there were twelve hours to go and desperate times require desperate measures. Alas, the dress was also entirely backless and the padre said “no way are you coming to church in that dress, you have to wear a rebozo to cover yourself up. And make sure your friends cover THEMSELVES up too”.  Hence Sofi “covered up” and in the photos her girlfriends all appear wearing these little black capes provided by the church, since their dresses were (of course) either strapless or at the very least, pretty revealing on the top. As for the mini length of their skirts, I guess the padre just had to give a little since there was no way he was going to get these Mexican teenagers looking like Amish girls. Meantime, I thought Sofia should have something “borrowed” from me for the occasion, since I’m her madrina (godmother). So I put together a pile of jewelry, earrings, two of my best rebozos and a gorgeous enormous French silk scarf for her to borrow and sent it home with Rosa after she had finished cleaning for the day, for Sofia to pick out what she wanted.

Well, none of my American-lady-goes-to-the-opera stuff looked very Mexican and of course now I realize that it was totally out of style for a fifteen-year-old. Plus, Sofia is very independent and I should have figured that ultimately she would do her own thing. She arrived ready for her Mass in the backless dress – and with her hair done up with flowers by her two older sisters, and wearing makeup for the first time, looking gorgeous. Somewhere she found a white nylon crochet rebozo that was much more Mexican-looking than my square meter of Parisian silk. The only thing she used of mine was a two-strand crystal neckace (which was perfect with the dress!).  The day after the party, Rosa was so worried about returning my stuff to me that she refused to get on the bus with it and made her son-in-law bring her in his truck with the loot (all of which is costume jewelry).

So, in the end, pretty much everything I tried to do was completely trampled by the persistence of Mexican culture. After I said “it’s crazy to spend a fortune on a silly party that lasts one day” her family scraped together as much money as they could, and with the support of Rosa’s sister in the States the food, evento place, and the long white dress were procured. They ended up with enough to have their own party for her in their own style – including the horrid DJ Sofia wanted (Rosa kept asking them to turn the music down, and they did for ten seconds, then turned it back up again, of course) so she and her friends could dance. No one could carry on any sort of a conversation over the racket. She wanted a limousine and that, too, she had! The distance from the church to the party place they rented was very short so to make the limousine more worthwhile, I gather, the custom here is that the kids all pile into it and they drive all around several local villages posing for snapshots, waving and carrying on, before finally arriving at the party.

Sofi and her "modest" friends in church

The whole family was there and several foreign friends of the family, as well as Sofia’s two volunteer English tutors. We all got put at a “gringo” table with much joking about being stuck at the “kids’ table”. But the real kids were all sitting with Sofia and it was great to see that her school friends came and seemed to have a great time.. The food was wonderful – people began arriving right after the mass with giant casseroles of stew, mole, potatoes with chile, corn and rajas (sliced chiles), all homemade and fabulously fresh. One of Rosa’s relatives came with a huge pot of masa (cornmeal) and she and two other ladies immediately got busy making the most fantastic tortillas, stacks of them. There was a three-tiered traditional white quinceañera cake, buckets of piña coladas and vampiros. I was wishing I had thought to bring some lo cal sugarless something to drink, when I saw the tortillas and said “I think I’m just going to blow this whole diet thing off today….” and I did. I wasn’t all THAT bad but still – oh well!  Then I found out that Rosa had ordered the cake and all the desserts made without sugar so I – who have cut all grains and sugar out of my diet in an attempt to NOT get the diabetes that is slowly killing my mother – could have a piece.  But why didn’t she tell me? It is a mystery.
My little video of the party is below if you can stand watching nine minutes of it! I know some of you know her and her family, so just for fun here is the whole thing.

Sofia and Rosa by the limousine



The party in full swing!



Sofia and her cake