While traveling, if you're invited to participate in a festive event, whether it is a town's celebration or a family's milestone party or wedding, by all means do so. There's no better way to appreciate a culture than by being part of one of its celebrations. When I lived in Mexico, I participated in many festivals and one memorable quinceanero party.
My housekeeper Maria rushed through her work one Thursday in early April, and, after she’d changed back to her street clothes, she dug in her purse and handed me an envelope. It held an invitation to her daughter’s quinceanero party, the event that would mark Rosario’s fifteenth birthday and her passage into adulthood.
I was touched. The fifteenth birthday party is equivalent to a coming-out party in the States or to a bat mitzvah ceremony in the Jewish faith. It is often the most memorable day in a girl’s life.
Maria had worked for me since September. She arrived every week in a clean, freshly ironed dress that she changed before beginning to work. Over the past six months, she had proved to be reliable, scrupulously honest, and punctual.
Maria and I had gotten to know each other fairly well. She had told me about her husband’s sudden disappearance, leaving her with four children to raise. When she reported to my house one week with bruises all over her face and tears in her eyes, I knew that Manuel must have returned for a visit. I frequently drove her home when it was raining, but she always insisted I drop her off a block from her house in the barrio. One of my neighbors told me Maria was ashamed of her home, a concrete block three-room structure with cement floors and holes without glass “windows.” When we had a two-week cold spell, I went through my clothing and told Maria she’d be doing me a favor if she’d take some sweaters, jeans, and jackets off my hands.
In return, Maria always smiled, didn’t touch the dozens of papers cluttering my desk, and tried to teach me Spanish. Every so often, after she’d left for the day, I’d find a perfectly formed, ripe avocado or orange on my counter top in the spot where her purse had rested a few minutes before.
Jake, my friend and neighbor around the corner, had also received an invitation, so we decided to attend the event together. I was somewhat leery about this plan as I was afraid I’d be left alone while “Jake the Rake” used his lines on some unsuspecting nubile Mexican girl, so I made Jake promise to be on his best behavior that night.
Jake gave his word, but that didn’t mean much. He was a short, wiry man, almost sixty but trying to pass for forty, who seemed determined to live in infamy. He drank the diet liquid, Ensure, for two meals a day and spent hours lying in the sun working on his tan. Jake’s entrepreneurial spirit had landed him in prison for a short stint in California, and he was politely told never to return to England. It seems the officials in both countries had no appreciation for black-market CDs and DVDs. He drove a blue Mercedes and had the only limousine service in Ajijic.
He handed me two things when I climbed into the leather front seat of the Mercedes. One was the card he’d chosen stuffed with pesos. We’d agreed that Maria would be hard-pressed to pay for her daughter’s celebration, so cash presents would be the most appropriate gift. I added a few hundred pesos, signed my name, and then turned over the manila envelope and began to open it.
“What do you think, babe? I want to hand those out. I figured I’d might as well stir up a little action. After all, just think how many gorgeous girls will be at this little blow out.”
Inside the envelope were about fifty flyers. Jake’s picture was there along with a blurb in Spanish extolling his virtues. According to the paper I held in my hands, Jake was a wealthy, good-looking, fit forty-year-old American who wanted to make some lovely Mexican woman (under thirty, please) his wife.
“Good gracious, Jake, you can’t possibly give these out. This is a religious ceremony. Maria would kill you!”
Jake turned to look at me and I was afraid the car would crash into the guardrail on the carretera. “Now, Dru, I thought you knew me better than that. I’m an exemplary Jewish man with exquisite manners. I wouldn’t dream of giving the flyers out during the church ceremony. These are for after. At the party later.”
I knew it was pointless to argue. Jake saw an opportunity and wasn’t about to let it slip away. There was nothing I could do but “forget” to put the flyers in my purse. I slipped the package under the seat while Jake looked for a parking spot.
As we approached the main Catholic church in Chapala, down near the lake, we saw a dozen people standing outside. When I peeked inside, I saw almost every pew was filled. Maria had invited everyone she knew.
Jake and I stood outside waiting to extend our congratulations to Maria and Rosario. More women, dressed in their Sunday best, accompanied by their husbands in clean shirts and ties, filed into the church. It was almost 6:00 and I was beginning to worry that Maria might be late. Jake was fretting. He’d offered his limousine for the night, but Maria had said relatives would be bringing her.
Suddenly, Jake poked my arm and said, “Don’t look now, but the Blues Brothers have just arrived.” He pointed across the street where twelve young men, none over 25 years old, waited for the traffic to stop. They were all dressed in black, from head to toe. Each had black pants, a black shirt, a black jacket, and a black fedora. Only a white tie broke the monotony.
Egads! I hoped these guys strutting across the street, tipping their hats to any woman they saw, weren’t going to ruin Maria’s and Rosario’s ceremony. I was on the verge of asking them what they were doing here when Maria’s car pulled up and the men in black formed two lines, bowing to Rosario as she left the car and approached the church.
I stopped worrying about the men and began wondering why Rosario was dressed as though she were a bride. She had on a formal gown, similar to the ones my friends and I wore to the high school prom, there was a tiara on her head, and she carried a bouquet of flowers. Only the veil was missing. I didn’t have time to ask questions, though, because when Maria spotted Jake and me, she insisted the photographer take our picture with the lovely Rosario.
Then it was time for Rosario to make her church entrance. The twelve men in black who seemed, after all, to be Rosario's attendants, not the Blues Brothers, lined up in two rows behind her and the procession began. Jake and I slipped into the last pew. An hour later, after what was surely a memorable but incomprehensible, ceremony, Jake said, “That was the finest church service I ever attended. I couldn’t understand a single word.”
The party was held at the Beer Garden across the street. On Sundays, particularly, this restaurant was considered the place to see and be seen. Mariachi strolled through the crowd of tables and Mexicans and gringos alike ate and drank their way through a pleasant afternoon. Tonight, though, the place was transformed.
Blue and white balloons hung in clusters from the ceiling. At least twenty white-paper-covered tables, each seating eight, were arranged in two rows. There was a head table for Rosario and her family with a blue and white balloon arch over a table that held a three-tiered cake topped with a lone plastic female figure. On the table itself were more balloon bouquets and ashtrays imprinted with Rosario’s name and the date. A dance floor had been created at the front of the room, and the band was warming up as Jake and I strolled through the room.
When Jake and I gave Rosario our gift, Maria tried to make us sit at the head table, but, not wanting her to make a fuss over us, we said we were joining friends. Jake quickly spotted the only other gringo couple in the room, and we joined them at a table near the back. There was an open bar, of sorts. A waiter put a fifth of tequila on each table along with a liter of Squirt, plastic cups, and a plastic bucket of ice. Later, we were served plates of rice, beans, and carne asada. A basket filled with hot-from-the-oven tortillas also made the rounds.
Children ran through the aisles. Toasts were made. A mother in front of us laid her infant on the table and ate her dinner while she and the rest of the family took turns waving scraps of foil from a gum wrapper in front of the baby’s face. People got up to dance, announcements were made, and fourteen-year-old girls gathered in the restroom to giggle about their upcoming quinceanera parties. The old couple at the next table tapped their feet in time to the music. The youngest children clustered at the back of the hall, doing their own dance that involved a lot of twirling and falling down. Jake sulked only a few minutes when I told him I’d forgotten the flyers and then excused himself to go to the restroom. I saw him later standing in a corner, deep in conversation with a Mexican woman who looked to be about 25.
Maria made her rounds to thank everyone for coming. When she got to me, I congratulated her on hosting such a lovely party. Then the part of me that believes in good hygiene and the avoidance of dysentery asked the next question: When was the water going to be turned on? The toilets didn’t flush, the sink faucets were dry in the bathrooms, and the staff told me they had no water in the kitchen. Maria simply shrugged and gave me yet another hug.
I tossed a couple ice cubes into my plastic cup and splashed in more tequila and Squirt; the band began my favorite song, Perfidia; and I saw a good-looking man heading in my direction. I took a sip of my drink and smiled. It was time to dance. Clean hands didn't seem so important after all.