Toasting the Old Gods in the Highlands of Lower Mexico

SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico

16.7° N, 92.6° W

La Taberna del Cuarto Bacab

San Cristobal de las Casas

The interior of the tavern is dimly lit by wall lanterns; it is the minimal amount of light required for the patrons to find shadows to hide within. These revolutionary plotters and poets speak hushed tones in a language more ancient than Spanish. To them, this is not Mexico. Mexico is the District. Mexico is the self-assumed landlord. This is somewhere entirely else. The impressions they hold of me are hidden, if not by shadow then by big bushy bigote. At best, they recognize me as an oblivious cowboy waiting on a girl at the wrong tequila stand. At worst, they think me an accountant from the District visiting rebel territory to conduct an unholy audit. Either way, I’m unwelcome and easily disposable. Fortunately, I’m practiced at not appearing as desperate or vulnerable as I feel. Howdy, I say with a nod to the barkeep, playing the part of the non-local yokel. The mescal helps me relax, but I have to be sure not to grin too smug or my watchers will think something sinister is afoot. Or that I’m an idiot.

Earlier in the day – though not very early as I am not in the habit of waking at a decent hour when I’ve been awake through the indecencies of night – I visited a church in San Juan de Chamula where the Christian saints left behind by missionaries long-since-fled merged with the old eternals, creating mestizo demigods dressed in European threads. Offerings were sacrificed: everything from the spilling of national brand cola to the killing of poultry atop the pine needle floors. I watched as a rooster was slain before St John the Baptist; I alone blinked. This is gods’ country, just no gods I immediately recognize. 

La Taberna del Cuarto Bacab is named after the fourth brother in a quadripartite Mayan god of destruction. For such a haughty title, this dive is an unassuming apartment above a garage, located down an alleyway from the cobbled streets of San Cristobal de las Casas’ historical town center. The night outside is wet and cold. We are in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, but altitude overrides latitude and the Central Highland mountain chill has given me a shiver only strong drink or a hot shower could shake. I opt for the former as I doubt the other patrons in the tavern want to watch me bathe. They serve bottles of national beers, as assortment of agave-distilled liquors and a Mayan brandy called “pox”, which is the indigenous Tzotzil word for medicine. Si hombre, I tell the excellently mustachioed man behind bar, I want to have the pox. The specialty drink is served in a plastic margarita glass and is mixed with jungle roots which give it a vibrant violet glow and a chewy, silty, consistency. Away from the bar and within sight of the exit, I find a stool to rest half my ass, keeping one leg poised in something of a sprinter’s stance in case I need to vacate muy pronto

A woman steps across the threshold into the tavern and half a dozen shadows shift their heads at her arrival. She announces herself with elaborate performance art; it is akin to watching a ballet set to silence as this woman moves to and fro, shaking out her umbrella, throwing back the hood of her coat and tossing her resplendent mane to the tobacco-smoke atmosphere around her. Satisfied, she descends deep into the tavern and the half-dozen shadows twist their necks with her progression. Even in the darkness, her dynamic presence is disruptive. I can guess their minds; they must wonder if this is a Telemundo weather girl weekending in the jungle. She moves with the carefully-measured-yet-natural gait of a preying jaguar. In spite of the weak light, the absoluteness of her beauty is unanimously agreed upon through the gestures of the tavern patrons: rubbing of the face, removing of the hat, an extended draw of the cigarette, belching from sudden indigestion, etcetera. Her graceful movements are accompanied by the swooshing of rain gear fabric as she navigates the room. I avoid eye-contact, but it doesn’t save me from her bumping into me as she passes; my elbow tilts and purple drink spills on my white linen pantalones

Muevete gringo!, she says to me as if I were in her way. She is without smile, but her eyes are feisty even in their stillness as they dagger past my gooseflesh skin, enflaming my loins, cooking me like a microwave burrito from the inside out. She lingers, watching me, wondering if I am brash enough to advance the rook beyond my front line of pawns. I find myself suddenly without drink, I say, before inquiring of her, quieres un cóctel? Yeah, she quieres. She then discloses in flawless Queen’s English if she does not approve of whichever cocktail I procure, she’s liable to spill it upon my jacket lapels. A beer then, I suggest, thinking of the dry-cleaning bill. I leave for the barman and return moments later with dos cervezas to find she has commandeered my stool with full ass commitment (none of the half-assed-ness I had previously assigned the seat). I provide her a bottle of beer as she coquettishly bats her eyes and says I look familiar to her. Am I a celebrity or an infamous criminal, she wants to know. I provide a backstory, telling her I am a very important pornographic film director in Florida. She finds this amusing as she is a very important pornographic film actress in Florida. Perhaps we’ve worked together. She assumes we have and adds I have an uncanny semblance to her boyfriend. This boyfriend must be very handsome, I say, adding in Spanish with gusto, muy guapo! No, she denies, taking a meandering look around the confines of the tavern, as if looking for someone more interesting to talk to. After the pause, she describes her boyfriend as thus, “imagine a brown bear… now imagine you’ve shaven the bear’s face and dressed it as if the bear was a washed-up castaway cruise director…” She says this as her eyes hold contempt for my linen suit. It is a familiar contempt; one which she holds for most of my wardrobe. She saw me pack when we were back in the United States, and yet acted surprised when I put on my linen suit this morning. Why are you wearing an oversized fancy napkin, she asked. Because, I told her, it breathes well in the jungle. Hours later, after comparing me to a semi-shaved bear, Josephina asks how the linen is breathing, unable to help smirking as she knows damn well the linen has been drowned in the mountain rain. 

Subcommandante Marcos of the EZLN

Josefina Jesús-María is not a pornographic film actress; at least not in films meant for public consumption. She’s a realtor from Florida, and what’s more, is here in Mexico as the cultural attaché for the Metro-Orlando Mesoamerican Chamber of Commerce. I am her companion in an unofficial capacity. Our destination is the ruins of Palenque, a daunting day-trip into the mountains from San Cristobal de las Casas, into the heart of rebel territory. What great optics for her social media account! Privately, though, Josefina is fascinated by the indigenous guerrillas patrolling these roads. Since the early 1990s, the Zapatistas, a.k.a. the EZLN, has been the omnipresent authority of these highlands. In the years since, Jo has shown solidarity from afar for her Mexican heroes, wearing black jumpsuits to her middling Chicago school classrooms as if she were a paramilitary protégé, even cultivating a Frida Kahlo-brow for her high school yearbook photo. But she had never been closer to the Zapatistas than she was tonight. And here we were hoping to bribe her beloved rebels for safe travel to and fro the Mayan ruins of Palenque. 

Josefina has had as many sips of beer as I’ve had bottles. We’ve been at La Taberna del Cuatro Bacab long enough the locals have given up their watchful glares and have returned to the drunken whispers of conspirators in their cups. At midnight, Guillermo, Josefina’s rebel representative, arrives. His revolutionary days are behind him, or so it seems as he hobbles our way, but while Guillermo, Llámame Memo!, may be an elder amongst the rebels, his spirit is as solid as the amber they pull out of these hills and his eyes are just as fiery.

Poxes

After quick introductions, Memo mentions he has a thirst and Josefina sends me off for refreshments. I return with three plastic margarita glasses full of the house cocktail. Watching I do not spill further on my linen suit, I return, interrupting a conversation of significance evidenced by Memo’s furrowed brow and Josefina’s forehead vein. “Cócteles!” I say jovially to ease the tension. Memo feigns joy, but Jo remains somewhere distant. I raise my glass in a meager effort at a joke, “a pox on both your casas! …Get it? Mercutio? …San Cristobal de las Casas…” and pointing at the cocktail liquor, “…pox?” Josephina gets it. She’s studied theatre, she knows her Hamlet, but her humorless glare suggests this isn’t the place. I toast again, an effort at appeasing the local miscellaneous gods, “Salud a los dioses!” Memo humors me and clinks his plastic with mine. 

Jo insists to Memo I’m an imbecile, which allows for their discussions to recommence. I sit back, nursing my pox. Guillermo is the guerrilla father she’s always wanted and Josefina is the Yankified daughter he never knew. My knowledge of the language lacks enough I can only observe and imagine which of her anonymous childhood heroes from Zapatista Junior Magazine could this possibly be before her… is it the infamous spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, or some other rebel, perhaps Minor-Corporal Manny or Rear Admiral Raul. I am lost in my own thoughts when Josefina claps her hands in my face to get my attention. She is sending me into exile. Memo wants to discuss something in private; away from el güero. Oh, and Vic, Jo says at my reluctant departure, no more mescal. Stick to beer, she says.

At the bar, I order a beer with a shot of mescal on the side. Not just any mescal, mind, but the mescal from some one horse village in the Oaxacan valley of lobos, you know the one, the mescal they feed to los cuervos and wait for the crows to fall out of the sky before they know the distillation process is complete, the mescal which comes in an unmarked bottle save the red “X” scratched in goat’s blood on the cork. Yes, that mescal. Within minutes, I am speaking alternative archaeological theory at an obnoxiously-high volume to a confused mustachioed bartender about how Palenque pre-dates the Maya and was a hub of global commerce, trading amber for Phoenician ink and Chinese silk, but this Pre-Columbian history had been covered up by the Vatican and the National Geographic Society because they are afraid of the truth. Verdad, am I right?

I am unsure of the passage of time or when Josefina Jesús-María asks of me, what the flying fuck, Vic? Mescal? Really? Memo is gone and most of the tavern has filed out by now. Jo is hot, not over-boiling but simmering. All, however, is not lost. She says she’ll still go home with me if we leave now. 

La cuenta, por favor! 

Josefina guides the way out of the tavern, but before we embrace the crisp air of the first hours of a mountain morning, she turns and looks over her shoulder at me, first bus into the jungle leaves at 4 a.m. This leaves me little time to pack. I sigh hard and question my devotion to the local gods. They could have done with a few less drinks in their honor. I certainly could have…

Vic and Josefina journey to Palenque

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