Picture the outskirts of Saltillo, Coahuila in Northern Mexico. My mother used to drive around the desert in circles, dust flying in her wake. We would stand on the running-board, hold on and scream in frightened hilarity as she tore about in her metallic-blue Beetle, THE car of seventies Mexico and driven by everybody. A favourite game was chasing the tumbleweeds and dust devils over the scrub, the sounds of the cars roaring engine rivalled by hollering kids clinging like barnacles to the rolled-down windows. We mapped the route of the tumbleweed via our pattern of tyre tracks; puttering along the switchback mountain roads only to screech to a halt whenever we saw a waterfall across the gorges or a lizard that had been awoken by the noise of our engine. Scaly backed and teetering down the road, the lizards would veer crazily from one side to another and we’d follow on foot or in the car. In the desert silence, all we’d hear was the graze and bump of car tires on a stone and cement road with potholes and ruts large enough to lose a small child in.
No father. Either taking the photos of us or away at work, the reason why we were all living there as migrants in this strange land with its cartoonish cacti, foul smelling creosote bushes, juicy leaved agave, heather-purple mountains and dead dogs in the road. Father. Work then home to sweep us away on road trips and holidays. There were overnight stays in motels-Holiday Inn- with their neon-brilliant displays and names lit brightly on tall metal stands, all scaffolding from the back view and glamorous ‘Vegas, Baby’ from the front. They had curving drives, white-painted rocks and car hops with one white gloved hand held out, the other tucked into the small of their backs. There’s some photographs of me by the motel entrance, hiding my face behind a naked Tiny Tears doll and stropping because I wasn’t allowed to go straight to the pool, cool and blue waters safely penned-in behind wire fencing with scrubby palm trees bent by the desert winds along its perimeter.
The females of the family wore baby-blue mini dresses to pose for the camera and even our mother matched due to the great affliction of the sixties and seventies- the coordinated family photograph. There’s us with tan knees scabbed from scrabbling over the desert rocks and our mother’s legs are encased in American tan tights in ninety-degrees of heat, not yet ready to discard them and go bare-legged. Garlands of white fabric Lily Pullitzer daisies appliqué our waist and neckline as we stand there in our cookie-cutter dresses with their princess shapes and sweetheart necklines; these are dress design names that describe our roles of girlfriend, mother, daughter or wife and our nature; demure, modest,on a pedestal, in the background. Always decorative and “a credit to you”. A tall Beehive from the late sixties is worn by some women and it’s slowly turning into the wilder leonine Raquel Welch and Baby-Jane Holzer mane of the seventies in the last few years of the sixties. We have dimpled soft arms, brown by British standards, pale by Mexican, and I have white-blonde hair, ringlets too, and often commented upon by locals because it is so different to their blue-black straight locks.
Imagine sliding glass doors onto a high veranda and balcony overlooking Acapulco beach with the mountains behind which are home to movie stars who remain in compounds with pools and guards. The grounds are kept pristine to await the twice yearly visits by Dean Martin, Liz Taylor, Frank Sinatra. We knew when they were in town by the fluttering excitement of the hotel staff. Liz is in her tropical floral kaftan, cigarette in an enamelled holder, sunlounger tipped back, and the waiters greeted by her sun-shy squint as they loom over to serve her a cerveza with lime and more cocktails, all Pucci-bright with parasols and fruit. Tiny lizards seek shade at noon under our loungers, lapping at the drips of melted ice which forms puddles and come out into the sun as shadows lengthen and cooler air pushes down on the heat still rising from the stone tiles. The Acapulco cliff divers, macho, celebrated local Gods, poise Cruz-like to fall, timed with the waves crashing in and out of the bay then stalk the beaches afterwards, seawater droplets on black curls, cadging cigarettes and nights with rich American women, beach-widows during the week and starved of attention. The young men steal away when the husbands fly in at weekends, tired and important. We children chase the lizards and catch them, make little homes for them with piles of rocks for walls and filled with flowers picked from the gardens. There’s a roof of ficus branches for shade. The staff disassemble them overnight as they clear the towels left by the pool and the cigarette butts, and empty glasses.
We chase the gophers in the desert too, looking for their hiding places and poking sticks down dark holes. We watch collared lizards dart away when the shadow of an eagle passes overhead, only for them to emerge minutes later, standing on their hind legs, white bellies catching the sun. We wait for the female lizards to develop orange spots on their bellies which tells us they have laid their eggs and then go hunting for their nests which we patiently sit by, squatting down in the sand to await the hatching of eggs laid among the sagebrush, pinyon and juniper bushes that grow in raggedy clusters. We are eager birth attendants. Afternoons are spent walking along the dry stream and river-beds that fill in a flash-flooded instant, hours after the rain clouds dip low on the horizon- one of the biggest desert dangers and the first thing our housekeeper warns us of. Sometimes we poke sticks into the holes occupied by rattlesnakes, hearing the warning rattle deep down in the earth- there is time to retreat as long as you avoid the overcast cooler days when the snakes rest closer to the surface. Or the snakes sunbathe on flat dark rocks, swollen-bellied after a lunch of gopher.
We go in for our lunch. No Mexican deliberately chooses to eat outside in the midday heat and our housekeeper is insistent. Lunch, then siesta. Late to lunch one day- “‘Dónde estás. ¿dónde estás hasta ahora?” she calls then screams in horror, “Mi dios, peligroso!”- My God, dangerous, get away! There is a rattlesnake, sleepy and placid in the sun and I am sitting cross-legged next to it aged four, crooning, talking, singing to it, I cannot recall why. The neighbour comes, broom placed across the head end, followed by a swift decapitation with a spade and the snake is reluctant to die, writhing and opening its mouth for some time, emitting angry little gasps. No longer placid. This is a land where many things are adorned with snakeskin- hats, cowboy boots and our place mats have a strip of it decorating their edges.
Food. Tamales. Damp bundles wrapped in corn leaves, puffs of steam as they are unwrapped. Belted in the middle like a badly fitted housedress, they are stuffed with masa, steamed and fluffy, encircling a dab of dark pork and mole, jab of radiating chile-heat in its dead centre. They are cooling on a hot day, stimulating sweat. Corn (or the typically Northern wheat) tortillas are made with the cast iron tortlilladora or a wooden press made from Encino wood, a hard white oak native to Mexico. Stuffed with mashed pinto beans, some avocado, some tomatillos, chillies and quesa fresca, wrapped into a half circle, they are eaten swiftly in three bites. Northern Mexico is the land of the vaqueros (cowboys), the shepherders, and ranch owners who all settled here and managed livestock, basing their diet on grilled meat (usually beef, lamb, or goat); built around wheat tortillas rather than corn. Cooler weather meant carnitas and carne asada- flank steak marinated in citrus, jalapeno, garlic and olive oil, and grilled or poultry-based stews. Fires are aromatic with burning bundles of mesquite gathered from behind our house: much better than leaving it to blow across the plains and become a lightning-ignited fire hazard during the frequent mountain thunderstorms that passed overhead each week.
We learned to eat on the street, not part of the British culture we had left, then and we ate corn-cobs, sooty from the fire, freckled with chilé, lime juice and piled onto a cart on every street corner, sweet and salt on the fingers. There was barbecued melon, cubed or sold in slices and kept semi frozen on piles of ice tinged pink with its juices and milk-soaked cakes with caramel sauce….all served as a portable lunch, breakfast and also our merenda, the after-school snack we would eat on the way home. We shared our housekeepers Cafe De Olla, brewed in a tall clay pot, scented with cinnamon, sweetened with sugar from the cane. Ours would be heavy on the milk, light on the bean. There was no hope for our uniform, a pale cream turtleneck tee shirt in the winter, which soon became stained with adobe-dark juices from food eaten from the hand as we ran and walked and jumped our way home. Summer smocks were limp from the heat of the day, creased from the school chair, from laying on the grass under the trees as we tried to keep cool at break times. Brown check and cream cotton and a red blazer for winter because the desert days could be cold.
Arriving home to play in the desert around our house with other local children- Austrian, American and Mexican, we drank the hand-squeezed jug of lime and water brought out for us and I still remember the taste of the clay drinking pots used by our housekeeper, all earthy and dusty – the taste of transformed mud against our tongues. Nibbling on it became a form of pica. At table we got the hand-blown glasses bought on holidays, on trips to the artisan glass-blowers of Guadalajara where we would watch them force air into bulbs of swirling kaleidoscopic colours, see the glass flexing and melding, the colours finding their place as the vase or cup or bowl swelled and formed.
An artists paradise, Mexico, for Kahlo, Rivera and Patrocino Barela, O’Keefe nearby and Edward Hopper who stayed at the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz,during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. The hotel rooftop became artist studio and butt of his complaints about the view obstructed by walls towers and electric signs and the frustration at his inability to capture the blue purple green of the mountains in oil paints. The noise and bustle was not liked and eliminated from his landscapes which are a symphony of adobe, earth, rounded corners and buildings abutted. The colours of Mexico are captured in the Serape, the name of this blanket based garment originating in Saltillo although it is woven and worn all over Mexico and Guatemala. Ixtle fibres from Agave woven in bands of red and egg-yolk yellows and greens; then contrasted by the black, violet and bruise-purple colours of the land at sunset. They were one of the first things we bought upon our arrival, flung over beds and settees and as rugs and gifts sent back via shipping crates to relatives and friends. I still have mine but the fringed edges have become knotted and tangled over the decades.
We are on the Saltillo to the Colombia Bridge border crossing to the West of Nuevo Laredo, all 192 miles. The Mexico 57 toll highway between Saltillo and the border is now four-lane but not then although it has always been clotted with lorries and tankers, the mopeds weaving crazily in and out of them, all disappearing towards the mountains as you travel deeper into Mexico. In the opposite direction, traffic slows as you approach the border, cars and vehicles stuffed with humans and their detritus, packing and unpacking bags for inspection, fishing in glove compartments for documents, reaching over seats to smack tired and scrappy children. “Sit still and behave! Or the guards will take you away!”
We drive to the USA to buy Christmas gifts and back again and detour along the way to visit places known only to us locals, turning off the highway into the mountains proper, towards ravines and cuts, waterfalls plunging and gouging deeper pools and streams. The water is the same colour as our VW which is parked alongside as we paddle, sit on the boulders, eat our food and swim. Then, on the way back, a wrong direction is taken then an illegal U turn onto the highway is made after driving across a few acres of rough scrub, kitty-corner to the road. The police arrive, two young guys in limp, sweat-stained and tide-marked uniforms, rote in their application of the time honoured tradition of demanding and accepting payment of a cash bribe. Most drivers choose to pay up, the pervasiveness of corruption. “What would happen if we don’t pay, Dad?” “They’d shoot our our tires and leave us here.” They siphon off a gallon or two of gasoline also. Polite, friendly, one of them strokes my hair “Usted tiene una familia encantadora, senor”. You have a lovely family, sir. Gracias. We’d be anxious if our Father looked anxious. He is used to it. When in Rome and all that.
The combination of tradition and loucheness in fiesta abounds. El Grito de Independiancia on the 16th of September in the town and village Plaza marking our independence from Spanish rule; Los Dias de los Muertos with rituals both metaphorical and literal; Las Posadas and its commemoration of the long journey undertaken by Joseph and Mary, and their search for lodging in Bethlehem. The procession calling at homes along a route, me in cream heavy satin and an angels halo, an ‘angelic’ child with blonde ringlets chosen especially out of all the other children, despite the incongruousness of blonde in a story emanating from a Middle Eastern land populated by mainly dark-haired people. Birthdays and Christmas bought the ubiquitous piñata, Daisy Duck one year, a white reindeer another. Strung up high above the courtyard, a man at each end of the rope, standing on flat roofs opposite each other. Children blindfolded, hold a crepe paper-decorated stick and swipe purposefully at the piñata as it jerks and sways, the men making it more or less easy according to our age. Gradually becoming more tattered, wisps of paper from it whirl and float down with each ‘thwack’ followed by a sharp crack as the stick meets the claypot filled with sweets buried deep in its centre. Whoops and screams of children bounce around the courtyard as they jostle and scrap for the candies that are strewn everywhere. No gallantry. No mercy. Candies stuffed into pockets, into mouths, cheeks bulging. We are already sugar sick from too much Tres Leches Cake and American-style birthday cakes frosted in green, red and white- the colours of the Mexican flag.
Religious ritual and tenets both butt heads and dovetail too with local life. There’s the happiness of families, strolling at night through the streets, eating their honey and lime paletas in the plaza, men smoking short stubby cigarillos, women delving into straw bags retrieving hankies to wipe sticky baby faces and fingers. There’s animated chat and greetings floating across the cobbles, the church bells announcing the lateness of the hour. A time spent sleeping in England and now for socialising instead, punctuated by head splitting yawns until we acclimatise.
Huddled against the mountains, a thin dark line against their bulk is the shanty town. The wind in the right direction carries faint sounds- music, yip yips of stray dogs, a mans voice. A car exhaust trailing off into the mountains or towards the town. The lights glimmer until three, four in the morning, tempting those people who are trying to resist going there; people like our lovely family friend. Early Friday evening and there’s the usual tap at the door and “Can I drop this off for safekeeping?”, a brown paper paypacket left on the table, the door slamming behind him and trail of exhaust fumes as he hightails it towards the brighter lights than those left on at home. Funny, friendly and loved by everyone, our friend struggles with alcohol and will often return two days later, spent in money, begging my parents to hand over the rest of his pay, the money he intended for them to keep safe from his impulses. On those days, we stay in our rooms. He smells funny, and, like our wrestler neighbour who works as a Luchadore and sometimes puts on his mask to chase us around the courtyard in a game, “No exceso de rudezas, senoritas!” ‘not too violent, my little ones’, he is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. We enjoy feeling scared and thrilled by the neighbourly antics of the wrestler though; we know it is a game and one especially for us children. Not so with the friend of our father sadly and because we love him so, we worry for him. That is a wrestling match he will go on to lose.
The woman who live there in that place, we see them sometimes in our town, buying food, visiting the doctor or dentist or hospital. They are not so vivid in the daytime. They don’t need to be. We wouldn’t necessarily know the men who visit them because in the day they could be your father, your uncle, the village priest maybe. Or the doctor himself and they don’t want you to know where they go at night. Nobody seems to talk to the women although they are not strangers and everybody knows who they are. Out housekeeper hustles us along, she doesn’t like these women. She went to school with some of them, grew up on smallholdings next to their homes. I like their earrings, bigger than my little gold studs that I had put in two weeks after arriving here- a Latin American custom that I fought like a hellcat. Screaming, the pain of having a needle pushed through baby soft earlobes. The nun who did it, grim-faced. Not a tender-hearted bride of Christ. The freeze of the ice cube held against the hole. And the ear stud pushed through bleeding raw flesh. I wanted gold hoops, brassy chandeliers that swayed and knocked against my jaw with every defiant shake of my head.
My fiesta costumes are swirling and bright, lace, tiers of stiff, crinkled petticoats, ribbons and covered buttons on dresses in petrol blue, pinks, grass greens; strewn with yellow daisies or pink cabbage roses, seventies bright and naive. Skirts designed to be held out with one hand making a dramatic half circle then released to flow out as I twirl and dance. Backwards and forwards across plazas and school stages, only interrupted by a push and slap fight with my best friend because one or both of us did the wrong steps. Pulled apart by teachers. A little shake “NO! Chicas Malas!” . We dance on, cutting glaring eyes at each other with each pass, making our skirt swirls more pointed, flounce and turn, chins tilted skywards, nostrils flared. Passions aroused by tempo and the shouts of “Arriba!”, the stomping feet of band and crowd marking the beat. Overtaking it sometimes, too. We are only six. The crowd laughed, amused by our fury. My mother, unamused and even less so when, at the end of the day, I returned home carrying a cardboard box, something peeping and scrabbling about within. A commemorative gift from the school.
Beverley the chick soon turned Beverley the cockerel, aggressive, spurred, savage killer of infant lizards and chaser of the brave Luchadore neighbour. No cockerel lived to sing through more than one spring in the farmyards here. Off to the housekeepers small holding went Beverley, Juanita’s axe and outdoor feather strewn table ready for him. then later on, a chocolate spiced, brick-red mole to go with the rooster stew, arroz-rice all for lunch with her elderly mother and even more elderly grandmother. To me, both seemingly as ancient as their Aztec ancestors. Profiles like the black onyx figures sitting by our front door, models of the Aztec Gods, holding their decorated shields. Tiny, weighty and cold to the touch, cooling against the back of a neck on a searing hot day. In this hot country, far from England.