A Paradise of My Imagining

When I moved to the colonia named Cerro Gordo in Juarez, the Chihuahuense was repatriated–smuggled across the bridge in my shirt, making me look as if I had a nasty hernia or alcoholic malnutrition. When Beto is away, Rambo sleeps with me and when Beto sleeps with me, the Chihuahua sleeps with Clara; Beto’s mother (though not in her bed– I admit I have picked up some unclean habits from the dogs up North). This sounds more complicated than it should: in the best of times there are the four of us in this 3 room cinderblock house.

The mutt was finally named ‘Lucas’ a few years ago. He remains at the trailer outside Dalhart when Beto is up in that area working. Every six weeks or so, Lucas gets boarded at our friend Norma’s, freeing Beto to visit his mother and I. That hyperactive dog-for-all-seasons vacations with his pack of pals, and everybody gets affection, rest, or socialization as needed.

I imagine Cerro Gordo was always marked by deprivation. A common chore long before the water (and fuel) crunch has been to haul drinking water and propane cylinders up to 7 Calle la Golondrina so that its inhabitants may cook and wash. The river Rambo crossed like a fetus is dry, and a lot of people don’t have much water. This is a dark contemplation made a little lighter by the self-sufficiency of being off the utility grid. It has become my habit to get into work across the border early so that I may luxuriate in the University bathroom and take a leisurely, fragrant dump in a cool tiled space long before students have roused themselves.

When Beto’s father was rejected from the priesthood because he had been born out of wedlock and did not have a birth certificate, he vowed to have as many bastards as he could. He met Clara (I address her as such only in my heart and here in writing) the day after he swore at the vocations director, a visiting monseigneur from Chihuahua City. The compromise for the 15 living years of their courtship and marriage was unstated. Clara taught Beto and his sister catechism, but left even baptism to be decided by her children as adults. Her husband did not produce squadrons of children without birth certificates.

Neither Clara nor her son reminisce fondly about the little ranch in Valle de Allende. It is hard for me to imagine a materially harder existence than that of Cerro Gordo, but I gather that life in a rural village was more difficult to endure than the squalor of a barrio in Northwestern Juarez. Moreover, Beto was 12 when his father died. What was left of the family moved North–a tiny part of a huge fluctuating migration.

The view North from the roof of 7 Calle la Golondrina has an apocalyptic grandeur that for me is rife with nostalgia. In 1955 my own mother was Miss El Paso. Yes, I am descended from Texas beauty queens. I think of her up there, and Clara has a few potted rosebushes to remind us of our other Mother. Beyond the rooftop what confronts the eye is from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch. The air is often grayish yellow, the Franklin Mountains across the way commonly obscured by dust and soot. The surrounding hills are parched and powdery. The cerros are  denuded–anything that wasn’t fixed and could be used as fuel has been burned. There are houses and there are the hills.

…and there I live with the mother of my compañero, teaching at what one colleague calls the ‘Potala Palace,’ it looks so much like a Tibetan lamasery. In spite of the hygienic, convenient and pleasant environment of El Paso, I am almost always eager to get back to the casita at 7 Calle Golondrina. To the ticking of a banjo clock, one of the few things bought up here from Valle de Allende. Ticking above the muted roar of cars and industry and police.

Clara’s room is a sleeping alcove off the kitchen. There is a dresser and a tall bookshelf in it. Shortly after I had met Beto and was invited to meet his mother, I found myself in the house alone for an hour. Gavacho entremetido that I am, I studied the contents of the shelf to learn something about Clara. In Spanish translation I noted the following: three shelves of Louis L’Amour novels, The Analects of Confucius, The Upanishads, biology textbooks from the 60s, Las Moradas of Saint Teresa of Avila, lots of Borges (seeing Borges anywhere never fails to impress me) and countless titles I didn’t recognize. The bookshelf is packed, the only object taking up valuable real estate being a framed postcard of the Santuario de Chimayo, that spiritual corazón of New Mexico far to the North. Seeing the Santuario gives me the same nostalgic impression I get from recalling Miss El Paso 1955.

Beto was 15 when he started to go to the cantinas in Juarez. There are a lot of gay bars in the city, and curiously many have a neighborhood feel. In these places he sampled what the World throws at Juarez; while mostly composed of city residents, there are tourists, and transients from the South. Even at that age Clara tells me he was over six feet and hairy. I am smitten with him now; the imagining of him as a young man is overwhelming. We were both turning tricks at the same time though I was practicing that vacuous occupation in Boston, and shamefully I note I never needed the money like he did.

I think a ‘gay consciousness’ is an American social/political construct. I better quit here before I am asked to explain myself. Beto does not consider himself a ‘joto,’ or even the far more polite ‘ambiente,’ and yet we have confessed to each other our virginity with respect to women (he doesn’t consider me a joto either). I am pretty much content to live with the paradox. For some men, a gay conscious means that they are capable of loving another man in every sense. See? I didn’t quit when I should have. Apropos of nothing, Beto’s full name is Adalberto.

When he was 18, Beto met a man from Minneapolis, here for the Sunbowl. He saw Mark sporadically until this first love died of pneumocystis. The death broke him, the mercenary fled his soul, and he was without a compass for an indefinite time–attaching himself to jaded older patróns who would lead him to menial labor in the States (and take their cut, of course). He did not see his mother for a very long time. Eventually he remembered the ways of horses and cattle and found work and a green card in the Panhandle area.

Which is where he has been for the last six weeks, working at the Clayton auction. It is a Friday in Lent, and he is on his way home. I don’t teach on Fridays this semester, and took the day to help Clara prepare for the homecoming. A cab to the Plaza, a few minutes in the pew with her, then a stroll to El Buen Tiempo, where Beto and I met and continue to meet whenever he comes home. My tocaya is tending bar. She knows our routine. She thinks we’re both pretty cute and the admiration is mutual. Tonight I enjoy her vérve in the wearing of a chartreuse leather miniskirt. She has a fine figure and makes opening a bottle of Carta Blanca seem like ballet.

This evening an older gent–looking like Benito Juarez himself with a touch of eye shadow–sits next to me and we chat. He tells me to be careful in the city. He is taken aback when I tell him I live here. Beto enters the bar, and the older gent sits back from me a few inches. The drive was seven hours, plus the hour or so spent on the bridge. He looks tired. He is very quiet, ready to decompress in this dingy warm bar.

Back at 7 Calle la Golondrina we unload goodies which include a tub of Chimayo chopped green chile, by now completely defrosted. I sit and platicando with Clara as she prepares the following. Beto takes a sponge bath in our room.

Enchiladas de Aguacuate al estilo del Norte

Serves 4

Slice three avocados to yield about 18 wedges. Toss them in lime juice to retain their color.

In a comál or skillet soften corn tortillas in vegetable oil. Let drain on paper towel.

In a jomate or saucepan, sauté a chopped onion in a little oil, when caramelized, coat the onions with two tablespoons of flour, add four cups of chicken broth and 2 cups of chopped green chile. Simmer until thickened.

Place two or three avocado slices in a tortilla, shred some white cheese (Monterey Jack, Queso Blanco, or even Mozarella) over them and roll to form enchiladas.

Put some of the sauce on the bottom of oven-safe plates and place the enchiladas on top of it. Drizzle some of the sauce over the enchiladas, top with more grated white cheese. Bake until cheese bubbles. Top with fresh chopped cilantro and a dollop of sour cream. Serve with rice (recipe to follow another time).

Later we’re in bed, talking quietly. Of the five horses given to him to work the stockyard these last weeks, only three were really broke, so his employers got their money’s worth. He was thrown from one of them and his left shoulder hurts. I tell him about the troublesome graduate student and the disappearance of a computer and expensive software.

…tomorrow…the three of us…pick out some paint…repaint the house…

And finally, sleep.


© Tasso 2002