Image: Remedios Varo – Still Life Resurrected (1963)
Charles Haddox lives in El Paso, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has family roots in both countries. His work has appeared in over forty journals including Chicago Quarterly Review, The Sierra Nevada Review, Folio, and Concho River Review.
Mexico of the Imagination
In the fresh spring of childhood, I was constantly at war with the mundane: school, the lunch counter at the Rexall drug store, bedtimes, filthy bathrooms in downtown buildings where my parents sometimes went shopping on weekends. On the other hand, mornings shopping with my parents at the city market or the Del Real supermarket in Cd. Juarez, or a visit to my Great Aunt Lupe who lived there in her minuscule home, where she served us pear and mango nectar from little cans, always filled my world with sunlight and color. Mexico seemed youthful, animate, full of vitality and brightness. My mother told us stories that her mother had told her—legends of historical figures that her parents had actually known, or of disobedient children who met the devil in person under a variety of circumstances. Mexico, always so close at hand—we lived right across the river in El Paso, Texas—was a world apart, a place overflowing with sights and smells and sounds that filled the imagination.
We would go with my father to a bakery that made loaves of sweet bread in the shape of alligators, creatures that would emerge from the icing demiurge with silver eyes and long ivory teeth. One night my father, alligator in hand, tried to open the bakery door with his knee. He broke the glass on the door, and we waited for hours in the dark while the store owner and my father’s insurance agent hashed out a deal on the phone. (I still have no idea exactly what kind of insurance covered breaking a glass bakery door in a foreign country.) As we waited in the darkness, the smell of baking bread, the sound of a beggar’s out-of-tune violin, and the wall painted with a flowery quote from Lic. Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ( incidentally, the wall surrounded one of the grandiose tourist projects which he and his predecessor were at that time famous for), all combined to create a sense of mystery, of romance, of a world of beginnings. Of course, it would be only a few years later that Díaz Ordaz took his place with the grand villains of the twentieth-century, after orchestrating, along with his Interior Secretary and successor, Luis Echeverría, the massacre of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians at Tlatelolco before the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, and a wave of political repression that saw thousands of others imprisoned and “disappeared” during the guerra sucia (dirty war) that followed. In the mid-sixties, when I was still a small child, Díaz Ordaz’s scowling, bespectacled, pinched face was everywhere, as he shamelessly took credit for every conceivable sign of progress toward “modernization” in Mexican life. Not really knowing what lay behind that visage, he seemed to me a kind of parody caudillo, as much a caricature or “type” as Pepe “El Toro” or Tin-Tan. In the end, the only people who mourned his departure from political life were cartoonists.
My sensory impressions of Mexico, the land that fed my imagination like no other, were deepened by the convoluted story of my maternal grandfather’s life, and how it led to his immigration to America. He was born in Guadalajara, or somewhere in Northern Jalisco (other versions put his place of birth elsewhere), and studied medicine in Guadalajara. He was sympathetic to the Villistas for a while, and Pancho Villa was said to have personally threatened him with death because he had a Chinese cook. Villa hated foreigners, especially the Chinese.
After the revolution he got in a fight with a local cacique in Guadalajara (or possibly Zacatecas), and had to flee for his life to Cd. Juarez, and eventually El Paso, Texas (although he continued to practice medicine in Mexico). His first wife died after the move to El Paso, and he met my mother’s mother when she went to work in a drug store that he part-owned in Cd. Juarez. She was twenty and he forty. In later pictures he looks Middle Eastern, a bit like Matéo Maximoff, but with more and lighter-colored hair. His mother was of French extraction, the scion of a family that had settled in Mexico during the ill-fated reign of Maximilian. For all of the stories about my grandfather, who died when my mother was seven, there seemed to be a hundred or so variants. This made him seem like a legendary figure. For me, in those days of childhood, he was as far away as the Middle Ages.
My Great Aunt Lupe was his younger sister and apparently quite a hellion in her day. This was hard for me to believe, as by the time I got to know her she was a poor, ancient woman who always dressed in black and usually wore a lace shawl over her head. Her nose had been partially eaten away by some disease, and she was tall and thin. After my grandfather died, she and one of my mother’s step-brothers had apparently blown all of the family’s savings as well as my grandfather’s half-interest in the drug store in Cd. Juarez. They would party all night at a casino in Juarez, and my step-uncle stopped showing up to run the drug store. As a result, my mother’s family plunged into poverty.
My mother met my father when he was stationed at a local military hospital during the Korean War. She was working at the public library, and my father was an avid reader. He had already developed a love for Mexico, spending most of his free time in Cd. Juarez because his best army buddy was black and if they wanted a meal or a drink together they could get service at a Mexican establishment, while the restaurants and watering holes in Texas were still segregated. My father would go on to become one of the first Americans to introduce Mexican philosophy and philosophers to the English-speaking world with his books on José Vasconcelos and Antonio Caso.
I don’t remember my parents ever drinking hard liquor, but there was always a bottle of Oso Negro vodka around the house. My parents would buy it in Cd. Juarez, and I would fight with my brothers and sisters for the black plastic bear charm that came with the bottle. Since vodka was associated with the Oso Negro brand in our house, and Oso Negro was associated with Mexico, I lived for years with the assumption that vodka was a drink of Mexican origin.
Mexico wasn’t simply a place whose reality stimulated the imagination; it was, in a child’s mind, a place constructed partially out of the imaginary. There is a well-known story about the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. As a child, he lived in the United States and various South American capitals, where his father was serving as a diplomat. He would regularly hear people speak about Mexico, but he believed that it was an imaginary place, like fairyland or Atlantis. Since I visited Mexico regularly from my earliest childhood, I knew that Mexico wasn’t imaginary, but I didn’t actually live there, nor did I feel the familiarity, the sense of being at home that I had when staying in rural Northern Jalisco and Southern Zacatecas as an adult. Mexico was exotic, mysterious, and I was the type of child who liked to speculate on the unfamiliar.
In addition to the new Mexico that surrounded me in childhood, the shiny, innovative concrete architectural monuments of the López Mateos and Díaz Ordaz period, the Luis Barragán/Pedro Ramírez Vázquez-type Modern Movement buildings and public spaces, plenty of traditional Mexico still existed under the surface: the mysterious, the magical, that was as real to me as the latest cement obelisk, or blocky rhyolite tuff fountain that was constantly breaking down. Candlelit religious processions and Posadas, the burning of towering paper-maché-horned Judas figures, a church fiesta where the lotería prizes were crude tripodal ceramic animals that looked like a combination of fish, goats and serpents with Tlaloc eyes; whispered stories of the supernatural. The ancient friar who hovered in the shadows of the festival, always on the edges of the uncertain glare cast by strings of lights overhead—could he not be the Mad Monk, who was reputed to have kidnapped and killed bad children in unspeakable ways? The burning Judas, did he not writhe in agony amid the twirling and raining fireworks? The man in my great aunt’s neighborhood who wandered about cackling and praying and screaming in agony—could an encounter with the devil on a drunken night long-ago really have caused him to go mad? Over Mexico, angels and demons wrestled in the sky.
My brother Tom and I lived for a short time with an uncle in Mexico City when I was seventeen. This was my introduction to cosmopolitan Mexico: bookshops filled with Garcia Marquez and Neruda in Spanish (I had only read them in English), the lovely, vivacious, Beltrán sisters, whose grandparents had been refugees from the Spanish Civil War, and who thought that my brother and I were “muy padre” (very cool), Cantina and Vitale, Italian expatriates, whose ancient father spoke just enough English and Spanish to let us know that he was the dirtiest of dirty old men, “El Muerto” who got his nickname from his skull-like visage, Miguel Pang-Tay, who blinked incessantly (my brother and I came to call this particular tic “Miguel Pang-Tay Syndrome”), and a cast of others. Mexico City was sophisticated jokes in Spanish and rides on the crowded Metro and fascinating museums and side-trips to Puebla and Cuernavaca. It was Mexico of the middle-classes, but Mexico of the imagination was far away.
Years later, when I was grown, I rediscovered Mexico of my childhood in the little towns of Northern Jalisco and Southern Zacatecas. Time stood still in those white stucco and orange-brick towns, walls varnished with black water streaks, horses and mules on the road, the little plazas with their ornate streetlamps facing baroque churches of heavenly beauty, the smell of charcoal-roasted meat and the little mercantile shops with their colorful open fronts. Jars of milk lined up like planets were turning to curd outside of tranquil farmhouses; beetles wearing silk suits whirled in the drowsy morning air. This was Mexico of miracles and magic, where the old legends were still told and the politicians were mocked. In that Mexico of marvels, of religious processions and saint’s days and fireworks, I was once again a child.