We who gathered at the St. Teresa Del Norte Saloon rebelled against the norms of the day, whatever the norms were, it didn’t really matter, by committing small crimes targeting the oppressors of the lower class. We intended to kidnap the editor of the el periódico El Escorpión del Desierto printed weekly in the desert town of Durmiendo Conquistadores located in the Chihuahuan Desert, far north of Durango and home to 1700 people, most of whom were farmers. There were three of us, three because the designated third person could break any tie in decision-making among the other two. That night I was the third person. Who was the third person was always decided by the draw of the lowest card from a deck.
That night the saloon was crowded and noisy. Clouds of cigarette smoke, thick as the fog in a Tijuana springtime, hung in the air, making it difficult to breathe. Like all saloons, it smelled of cerveza, whiskey and urine. The sawdust that carpeted the floor did nothing to absorb and reduce the stench. The small round tables were encircled by local farmers who hadn’t taken a bath in weeks. To be heard in the din while gesturing wildly, they shouted at each other about their dying crops, their fat, lazy wives, and houses filled with their disrespectful, unruly children. Mariachi music blasted from an old jukebox that rattled like a tin can whenever a trumpet was played. The women who cleared the tables of empty glasses and bottles were old as abuelas (grandmothers) with skin the color of dried leather and as wrinkled as raisins.
We three had a small table to ourselves, pushed against the back wall near the entrance to the baño, where a steady stream of men shoved their way in, attempting to relieve their cerveza-filled bladders filled beyond capacity before pissing in their pants or to puke out the mixture of too much tequila and home-cooked cochinita pibil that sloshed about in their cow’s-utter-like guts. My companions and I had not been to the St. Theresa Del Norte saloon before.
We all lived in Mexico City, hundreds of miles from Durmiendo Conquistadores. We had read about the editor we came to kidnap in an obscure article titled “Editor Tirano” published in the Mexico City newspaper, The News. Our cause was just. It was just a coincidence that liberating the town of a tyrannical newspaper editor was what we had hoped to become known for. Up until then our petty crimes against the capitalistas had gone unnoticed, even by the policía. Thefts of small items from the rich took little notice. We longed to see our faces on the wanted posters pinned to every police station corkboard in Mexico.
Valentina, who sat to my left at the table was particularly offended by the offensive odors that came from the baño. An actress with a gift for impersonations, who could play on stage the famed artist Frida Kahlo one night, and Emiliano Zapata, the Mexican Revolution hero the next night, unrecognizable as herself in either role or in any character’s identity she assumed. She had come that night as herself: a thin, well-bred, daughter of a bank owner father and socialite mother. To her credit, she didn’t wear any jewelry with her military-like khakis. “Men are disgusting pigs,” she pronounced loudly each time an obnoxious odor was belched out of the baño, which was frequently.
“Shut up, Valentina,” Geraldo, the third member of our group replied to each of her outbursts. “We’re here to discuss the matter of Julian Cortez, that tyrant of a newspaper editor who dares to try to subvert the voices of our agrarian brothers. We’re not here to hear your views on the male species.”
A college professor who taught English literature, he once wrote a book that was so close in style to that of Martin Luis Guzmán that he was accused of plagiarism, thus ruining his career as a writer, although there was no actual plagiarism. Every sentence and idea in the 700-page novel about a future dystopian Mexico was his own. Sixty-two copies total were sold. A large, gruff man with a full, bushy beard, he resembled a guerilla – a fighter and the animal – but his spoken English was flawless. He sounded more Americano than Mexican.
Unwilling to engage Geraldo in another argument that would end, as always, with both not speaking to one another, she lit a cigarette, inhaled and quickly blew out a ring of smoke. “I suggest I lure this editor to my motel room with the promise of a night he will never forget.” She blew another ring. “Dressed and made up as Lupe Velez, the most beautiful Mexican actress that has ever been on the movie screen.”
“I checked his history. He’s been happily married and faithful to his wife for twenty years. They have four children who by all reports, he adores,” I said. “Even Lupe Velez couldn’t lead him astray.”
“All men can be . . .” she started.
Interrupting her, Geraldo said, “I have read many of that blowhard’s articles and opinions. He’s in love with his own sense of importance. He believes he’s a bona fide member of the intelligencia. At his favorite coffee shop, I shall engage him in a philosophical discussion seeking his insights and then lead him outside . . .”
“In broad daylight?” I asked.
“Well, no,” he sputtered. “Under the cover of darkness where the two of you will be waiting outside.”
Valentina placed her elbows on the table and leaned forward and stared into Geraldo’s eyes. “What kind of man is this who would be drinking coffee at a shop at night while his wife and family, who he’s devoted to, are at home not questioning why he is having coffee at a shop, at night?”
“The two of you have seen this town. What makes you think there’s a coffee shop anywhere near it?” I added, “and we’ve left out a very important question that we should have answered first thing,”
“What?” Geraldo and Valentina said in unison.
“What do we do with him after we kidnap him?”
At that moment the door to the saloon burst open and six men carrying AK-47s rushed in. The patrons sitting at tables nearest the doors were knocked from their chairs, hit in the head with the butts of the gunmen’s rifles and kicked and stomped on by the intruders’ heavy boots.
“Quiet! No one speak or move or we start shooting,” one of the gunmen shouted as he and the others aimed their weapons at the stunned patrons. One of the elderly women fainted, dropping a tray of glasses onto the floor as she landed with a thud in alcohol-soaked sawdust.
“We’re looking for Julian Cortez,” the lead gunman announced.
Valentina gasped. She whispered, “Why would they think he was here?”
# # #
Let me step back for a moment and take you to a week earlier.
Alone, I took a bus from Mexico city to Durmiendo Conquistadores. There were frequent stops to the small towns along the way where passengers got on and off, frequently occupying the empty seat beside me with such regularity that I did nothing more than nod to most of them, and exchanged only a few words with others. Naturally, I speak Spanish, but on the bus ride I noticed not one passenger spoke English, making Mexico City where English is commonly spoken seem much further away than it was. Born and raised in a large city where I rarely ventured out of, I knew very little of rural life. I heard that the buses going north carried passengers who brought with them livestock, but having passengers sitting next to me who held chickens, roosters and goats in their laps was eye-opening. My vow to fight for the innate rights of the common man was intensified by merely being so close to a number of them while on that bus ride and seeing the hardscrabble conditions where they lived while watching out the window. The other riders on the bus seemed happy, but I was unhappy on their behalf.
The town of Durmiendo Conquistadores suddenly appeared out of nowhere, like a mirage, a main street of dusty two-story brick buildings surrounded by ramshackle houses built on dunes and the side of clay hills. The bus came to a stop in front of a small grocery store in the middle of the main street. I exited the bus with one other person, a woman carrying a small cage holding a dozen small chicks. A boardwalk in front of the store that extended from left to right in front of a few other shops ended abruptly at both ends, dropping off to small dunes. There were a couple of old, battered pickup trucks parked on either side of the street, but no cars. I saw no one. The bus driver removed my bag from the luggage compartment, handed it to me, got back in the bus, and pulled away.
Before the woman with the cage of chicks walked away I asked her, “Perdóname, senora, dónde está el hostal?” She pointed to a square, squat two-story building at the end of the other side of the street. Before I could thank her, she had turned and was quickly walking away. I picked up my bag and walked to the hotel. The only signage on it that indicated what it was, was a small wooden sign above the door that had painted on it in green lettering Hostal Conquistadores. The letters were squeezed together to fit the inadequate size of the sign. A small bell above the door tinkled when I opened it.
The lobby was painted in bright red that had dulled with age, furnished with only one bench and a coffee table with several ashtrays on it and a pole lamp at one end of the bench. A wood fan circled noisily from the middle of the ceiling. The check-in desk, no different than most hotel check-in desks, was at the left. I hadn’t said a word as I stepped up to it when the overweight man behind it, dressed in a gray suit that was a couple of sizes too small, no tie, and an unlit cigar hanging from his mouth, removed the cigar, and in broken English, said, “You are the guest of Senor Cortez?”
“Just sign here,” he said, turning the ledger on the desk, handing me a pen, and pointing to a line on a page of nothing but empty lines.
I signed the ledger.
“You’re on the second floor, room 8, up the stairs and down the hall to the left. A Senor Cortez said he will pick you up here at 7 PM for dinner.”
“Excuse me, Senor. Is that the Senor Cortez who writes such vile things about those less fortunate than the rich and privileged?”
He spat on the floor. “Estúpido.”
I picked up my bag, went up the stairs, down the hall, and into the room. It was small, clean, and decorated in pastel yellows and greens. There was a large sombrero and a multi-colored poncho hanging on the wall above the bed. It too had a fan whirring overhead. I still had two hours before the newspaper editor would arrive. I set my bag on the dresser, kicked off my shoes, and lay on the bed. I fell asleep so quickly, I have no memory of doing it at all.
I was awoken by a knock on the door.
“I’m Julian Cortez, publisher and editor of El Escorpión del Desiert,” said the short man with graying hair and wearing dust-covered overalls and a straw hat. His face was ruddy and darkened to the point of looking baked in the way caused by too many hours in the sun. His boots were worn through in spots and the left one was tied together with part of an electrical cord that served as shoe laces. “Thank you for your letter and for coming to see me.” He spoke in Spanish. “Excuse my appearance. I’ve been working in the field all day.”
Taken aback by his appearance, not at all what I was expecting, it took me a moment to find my tongue. “I had to meet the tyrant editor in person,” I muttered.
He chuckled and handed me several sheets of paper stapled together. I hadn’t seen anything printed from a mimeograph machine in a long time, some copies of a letter in an old file, and when I read the heading on the first page, my jaw dropped. El Escorpión del Desierto.
“This is what drew the ire of the News?” I said.
“I’m trying to wake up the locals to fight the coming invasion of the Bartez Cartel,” he said. “My approach may seem heavy-handed, but I must pose as a staunch capitalist out to demean the very people I want to protect in order to arouse their anger. Julian Cortez isn’t my real name. I’m Jorge Sanchez.” He reached out his hand to shake mine.
I shook his hand, invited him into the room, and shut the door.
# # #
That night at the St. Teresa Del Norte Saloon, at the moment the gunmen burst through the doors, I saw Julian – Jorge – sitting at a table nearby, accompanied by a half dozen other farmers. If any of them knew he was the editor, Julian Cortez, of El Escorpión del Desierto, they didn’t let on. Not one of them pointed him out as the man the gunmen were looking for. How he maintained two separate identities in a town of less than two thousand people was as astonishing as what he told me that night in that hotel room. He had infiltrated the Bartez Cartel, alerted the citizens of Durmiendo Conquistadores of their imminent threat, and knew they were coming for him.
“I wonder who those men are?” Geraldo whispered between clenched teeth.
“Hitmen for the Bartez Cartel,” I answered.
“How do you know that?”
“Julian Cortez told me they would be coming for him.”
Geraldo and Valentina looked at me as if I was an alien from another planet.
“I came here a week ago specifically to meet Julian Cortez. I wondered why a man would purposely paint a target on his back in his own town, of this size no less, as he did with El Escorpión del Desierto.”
The gunmen began circulating among the tables, knocking the hats from the heads of some of the farmers and pressing their guns into the backs of some, threatening to shoot them if they didn’t point out Julian Cortez. It wasn’t until the lead gunman and two of his comrades got to our table that they seemed to realize there were strangers from somewhere other than Durmiendo Conquistadores in the saloon. Even hidden in the back of the saloon, we stuck out like sore thumbs.
“Who are you and why are you here?” the lead gunman asked, aiming his gun from one to the other of us.
Valentina stood up. She had surreptitiously unpinned the bun that had rested on the top of her head, loosening waves of cascading hair down over her shoulders. It changed the appearance of the contours of her face. In an instant, she was transformed from hard-edged militant feminista to a very pretty young woman. “Don’t you recognize me, you idiot?” she said, her suddenly husky voice filled with venom.
“Senorita Raquena!” the gunman exclaimed. He lowered his gun and signaled the others to do the same. “What are you doing here?”
“Carlos sent me to ferret out this Julian Cortez as only a woman can do.”
“I had no idea,” he stammered.
“Julian Cortez isn’t here and due to your blundering he’s probably left town for good. Now get out of here and take your cockroaches with you before I decide to tell Carlos what you have done.”
The gunman bowed, turned, and signaled the other men to follow him as he headed for the door. Once the saloon door closed, looking astonished, Geraldo asked her, “Who is Senorita Raquena?”
“Carlos Bartez’s mistress. I met her recently in a dress shop in Mexico City. She’s taking him for every peso she can get but he thinks she’s madly in love with him.” As she twisted her hair into one long braid and pinned it onto the top of her head, she smiled contemptuously. “Men are such fools .”
Geraldo scratched his beard. “Was all this planning to kidnap Julian Cortez for nothing?”
I looked over at Jorge who was the farmer everyone thought him to be.
“We’ve learned a valuable lesson that will serve us well in the future,” I said. “Looks are deceiving.”