Stranger Tongue: Dia de San Valentín en México

Villa de las Gaviotas

TAPACHULA de CóRDOVA y ORDóñEZ, Chiapas, Mexico

14.90° N, 92.26° W

Vic Neverman prepared to dive into Tapachula

You might not realize it from the wrinkled clothes or the cut marks on my wrists from plastic ties, but I was not abducted and sent to the southern-most bits of Mexico under duress. I am here voluntarily. I mean… I am a volunteer via suggestion: here’s the mission if you choose to accept it, but if you don’t you’ll lose me forever. At least, this is the gist. Mas o menos. I am not one for acquiescing to ultimatums, but the upside: the inference of not losing her forever… well shit. If I could not lose her for the next two weeks, I would sign-up for any Herculean task. Even this. And so I arrive in Tapachula. 

The inhospitality of Tapachula is warm and pulpy; prickly even. My armpits singe at the percolating drip of my own boiling sweat until it evaporates, hovering over me as a halo scented with Old Spice deodorant. Trucks rumble through the city streets at all hours, keeping a constant kick-up in this lowly atmosphere of gravely grit and hot sand and the crap of curs; the kicked-up filth combines with my body’s airborne misty musk to create a muddy aura of street grime for me to exist within. Tapachula, unlike me, does not exist in and of itself; Tapachula is a crossroads. A stone’s throw to the south is Guatemala and a kicked-can to the west is a pacified ocean. The nearby coast offers reprieve, or at least distraction, from the industrial grind with its sea-spray and sand-fleas. It is here where Villa de las Gaviotas can be found, along the beaches where the setting sun dances divine light along the twilit shadows, with Tapachula at our backs and, further behind us, past the glow of diesel fog, the dark of jungle mountains. But no one is looking east when presented with this sunset. Golden and hushed, quiet other than the roll of surf, Villa de las Gaviotas is an oasis of galvanized peace in the chaos of Chiapas and the machinations of Southern Mexico. The villa is not open to the public. This is a refuge for the powerful. This is a sanctuary for the depraved. Villa de las Gaviotas is neither subterranean or cheap, but this place is a goddamn dive. 

With dusk, I dine on cóctel de camarón and an unlabeled bottle of mescal with el patrón, Hypolito Jesús-María, a hard man made gentle by long years and deaf ears. His daughters have shuffled him away, out of their way, to this breezy sundeck as they prepare for Valentine’s Day festivities. Deemed similarly useless, I am given the task of entertaining the old man. Hypolito’s trucking company has him well-versed on all roads between El Salvador and El Paso, but such international business has granted him no more English than my forays to South Beach have provided me Spanish. We’re at a stalemate. But I have to try. Hypolito’s eldest, the most beautiful of all the daughters, the one from Chicago, is returning after a decade away, but rather than face her father, she has placed her slow-witted güero boyfriend in this position to amuse. I tell Hypolito how good his eldest daughter is in the kitchen. This is a lie, but seems safer discourse than mentioning the foot-fetish she insist I have or the nipple-clamps she likes to terrorize me with. Que, Old Hypolito asks me, leaning closer. Tu hija, I tell him again of his daughter, esta cochina bien. Que, the wincing deaf man asks again. Tu hija, I yell, esta cochina bien! Que, he asks again. Shit. I reach into my back pocket to withdraw my notebook. I find the page. Oh. Tu hija esta bien en la cocina. Ah, Hypolito nods, si, si.

Cocina bien versus cochina bien, whatever. I’m trying here.

Hypolito’s eldest daughter returns to Tapachula

Hypolito is pleased with me for bringing his prodigal daughter home. This daughter, however, would argue otherwise. The entire Jesús-María clan hates me, I was informed earlier in a display of theatrics. I do not believe her, but she believes it and this is all that matters. She explained her family finds me arrogant and boorish, simple, untrustworthy, even. And to think, I have only just arrived! She said I need to try harder. My strategy of smiling and eye-contact is the wrong game-plan when dealing with a pack of wolves. Oh sure, my goofy schtick works fine with the staff of the villa: the valets, chefs, maids, mariachis, machine-gun sicarios at the gate, nannies and cabana boys, all trained to nod when spoken to, look away otherwise and never breathe word of what takes place herein. But with la familia de Jesús-María, a smile alone will not work. I need to speak to them on their terms, in their language.

The exception: I am not to speak to the youngest of Hypolito’s daughters, Magdalena, a voluptuous fertility goddess in a smoldering leopard-print jumper with an elastic waist. Hypolito’s oldest daughter, mi amor, who grew up in the cold of Chicago without a father, despises her half-sister, Magdalena, simply for growing up in Chiapas with her father. My flirting with the little half-sister would be punishable by death, castration, burning at the stake, excessive tickling, though not necessarily in that order. Flirtation is not a difficult prohibition for me to navigate: my heart is steadfast. Besides, Magdalena isn’t even my type. All daughters of Hypolito, however, have learned one thing from their father: never trust the fickle hearts of men. And I am being punished for the sins of their father. 

Vic creeping around Villa de las Gaviotas

Left to my own devices, I wander the grounds of Villa de la Gaviotas, decorated with red and white balloons for Valentine’s Day, and I find my way to la cocina de las cochinas. There’s an unguarded bottle of wine and I pour myself a glass of red before spotting Magdalena alone with her baby, Humberto II, in a nook. Hola! I sit down across the table from her. I attempt to make conversation, but this is easier said than done. Actually, nothing I say is easy as my Spanish is only a crude tool I use in case of emergency, like finding el baño or una cerveza fria. My palms are sweaty; what a damn trick the body plays on us. How is sweaty palms a trait not weeded-out through natural selection? How has evolution seen sweaty palms in moments of intense stress as a positive attribute? By comparison, the need to take a shit in high-pressure situations makes sense: release the excess cargo to make fight or flight more efficient. But sweaty palms? What good is this? Fortunately, Magdalena and I are past hand-shaking stage. Que chevere, I say to her. Dos hermanas, que chevere, I say idiotically, two sisters, how cool! No wonder they think me a fool. I smile and attempt to make eye-contact. Magdalena’s face is contorted with disgust, which isn’t the reaction I am going for. My peripheral vision alerts me to an imbalance, some lack of symmetry. I disengage eye-contact to notice Magdalena only has one cheetah blouse-strap affixed to a shoulder. The other is entirely undone to allow a bare-breast to be suckled by the babe. Ahh! You’re busy, I see, I say to Magdalena before asking, can I call you “Lena”? Never mind, nows not the time. And then, for reasons I cannot explain, I speak French to the hungry baby, bon appétit Berto, enunciating the “teat” portion of bon appétit in a bit of a squeal. Shit. Dos hermanas, indeed. How cool!

Disculpe, I excuse myself. Maybe sweaty palms is evolution’s way of saying shut-the-fuck-up. 

The Pacific Ocean from Villa de las Gaviotas

Hypolito Jesús-María is crowned king of the road with a fleet of trucks he uses to transport goods throughout North America, but he is a bystander here, tonight. It is his youngest acknowledged daughter, Magdalena, who is the cornerstone socialite of Chiapaneco landed gentry, who tonight, when she is not breastfeeding her brood of offspring, is apologetic to her creme de la creme chums about having their San Valentín holiday weekend interrupted by her spinster-sister from Chicago and the güero dog licking at this sister’s heels. I mean, I am paraphrasing her body-language, but I doubt I am far off. Magdalena’s husband, the homely-looking doctor, Humberto, speaks a little English and he is my only friend tonight. He keeps mentioning how much he loved his time in St Louis and all I can think is, pobre bastardo. Humberto is not just a medical doctor, he owns a few local nightclubs. Based on a few of his friends gathered at the villa, some dressed as Norteño big-belt-buckled cowboys, others outfitted for a night out in Miami, I am assuming (along with the suggestions of mi amor) Humberto’s nightclubs are money-laundering schemes by the local warlords overseeing the trafficking of drugs across the Guatemalan border. The armed guards outside the villa add a little flavor to the suspicion. Do I judge him? No. Excelsior, Humberto! Naturally, however, I have identified hiding spots within the villa in the event of sudden drug war. There’s an overturned boat to crawl up under. I haven’t told mi amor about the boat yet because I want her to be impressed with my survival skills should there be a Valentine’s Day massacre. And if I tell her before any violence presents itself, she’ll think me a paranoid lunatic. 

Valentine’s Day at Villa de las Gaviotas

It is midnight when dinner is served. You’d think I would be starving, but it is quite the opposite. I thought the paella two hours ago was dinner. My gut is full. I could probably skip breakfast tomorrow, as it were. Yet here we have steaks and grouper stuffed with Caribbean lobster, Vera Cruz style. We’re all around a long dining table, the Jesús-María family plus Magdalena y Humberto’s social elite crowd: movers and shakers and narcos and their wives and/or mistresses; all of us are served a heaping portion of food. All but Humberto who is standing and bidding farewell to the crowd. Porque? My only friend leaving? He explains to me in English he has surgery in the morning. If he is willing to stay longer tonight, I negotiate with him, I will help him out tomorrow. It’s a joke. What do I know of surgery? Humberto laughs at me and interprets my words to the rest of the table. Reactions include surprised murmurs, humming and sighs as the crowd reacts to learning my false ability. Humberto’s wife, Magdalena, is smiling because her friends are smiling. Hypolito is smiling because he is deaf and he sees everyone else is happy. Hypolito’s eldest daughter is smiling because she sees her father is smiling at me. I’m a fucking rockstar. I continue my joke, holding my hands up to say, yo soy bueno con mis manos! The crowd is very impressed. Even Old Hypolito’s wife, Concepción, the bitter step-mother of mi amor, is regarding me with a different light. I must admit, in this moment I am pretty proud of my Spanish. I’m crushing it. Concepción Jesús-María asks the question the entire table wants to know. I do not understand the Spanish, but Humberto translates. He says, they are curious if you are gynecologist too. 

Hunh?

Oh? Am I? I realize now I never asked what kind of doctor Humberto was. Oh! No. No! No, no. Yo soy bueno sin mis manos, I say, trying to counter my previous statement, but nonsensically telling them I am good but only without my hands, which makes everything worse, at least in the field of gynecology. 

People are confused, but no one asks further questions. Humberto leaves and I return to my mescal. 

Neil Diamond never sounded so good

Karaoke, which has been the soundtrack to the night, continues through dinner. Earlier, Old Man Hypolito’s most beautiful daughter, the estranged one returned from Chicago, sang a passionate rendition of the mariachi classic, Cucurrucucú Paloma, which left him teary-eyed. After further feasting on surf y turf, the crowd has ventured into the wee hours of February 15th with more bottles of mescal and tequila and more singing. My voice is singled-out as unheard and I am forced to find a song I recognize from the massive songbook. There is no Tom Petty or Dylan or Van Halen or Prince in this catalogue. There is only one song I vaguely find familiar. 

Sweet Caroline! My soul dies a little. Fortunately, mi amor, disgusted with me as she may be, joined me for a duet. Good times never seemed so good. But then these weren’t good times, were they? Herculean task complete, I am able to return to my after-midnight cerveza and my desire to melt into the sands beneath us. How much longer could this night go on?

There is some fanfare as Magdalena announces her parents are to depart. Hypolito is an old man, after all, and his much younger wife, mi amor’s step-mother, Concepción, is flying to Las Vegas in the morning. Much respect is given to Magdalena’s mother and when it comes time for me to bid her farewell, I wish Concepción happy travels, buenos viajes. Except I do not say buenos viajes; I say, buenas viejas. Instead of wishing mi amor’s step-mother happy travels, I have called her a good old woman. Which seems an innocent enough mistake, but a “buena vieja” isn’t just a good old woman. In the streets of Mexico, buena vieja is considered an older woman worthy of sexual proposition. In American colloquial terms, a buena vieja is a MILF. 

Concepción blushes at my comments and looks away as the table erupts with laughter. Hypolito laughs, not because he heard the joke, but because everyone else seems to be having a good time. I laugh with ignorance and concern, as one would when their words are taken for a joke unexpectedly. No one is here to translate until Hypolito’s eldest daughter returns from the bathroom to learn from her half-sister I have asked Old Concepción to be my valentine. I’m still unsure of what I have done, but based on mi amor’s teeth-gnashing and the enflamed embers of her pupils, I fucked-up pretty good. 

At least Concepción seems to like me now. See, they don’t all hate me. 

Feliz Valentine’s…

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