Chapter One: ¡Híjole! In the Darkness
In the darkness of El Colón movie theater, larger than life and superimposed on a giant screen, Pedro Infante, the Mexican movie star, stares straight at me with his dark, smoldering eyes.
It is here in the sensuous shadows that I forget all about my life as Teresina "La Tere" Ávila, teacher's aide at Cabritoville Elementary School. Maybe that's why I like Pedro's movies so much. They make me think to stop thinking or stop thinking to really think.
It is here that I prefer to dream, seated in the middle of the people I call family. To my right is my comadre, Irma "La Wirma" Granados, and next to her is her mother, Nyvia Ester Granados.
It's dinnertime on a hot July night. I should be at home, and yet I find myself lost in the timeless transparency of El Colón watching Pedro Infante in the movie La Vida No Vale Nada. Pedro plays a melancholic loner named Pablo who keeps leaving any number of possible lives behind, and all sorts of women who might have loved him. He's a good-hearted vato who goes on these incredible life-changing borracheras whenever he feels overwhelmed, which is pretty much most of the time.
Ay, Dios mío.
Pedro's lips part slightly with that naughty nene -- little boy -- grin of his as he breaks into a song.
¡Ay, ay, ay!
Pedro knows me. He knows I crave his arms. His touch. His deep voice in my ear, his knowing hands on my trembling body.
The great flames of my dreams billow up to meet the flickering screen, as a wave of intense light consumes the sweet, painful and familiar song of my untold longing.
¡Uuuuuey! The man has me going. Revved up like a swirling red, green, yellow and blue top, I can barely sit still in my seat. I sit up straight, then shiver, then melt down to hot plastic, trying to find a comfortable position. My legs are itchy, a sure sign of the troubled state of my mind, my restless body. There is no relief. I admit, years after he died tragically in a plane crash, I'm in love with Pedro.
In the movie, Pedro-as-Pablo meets Cruz, the widowed owner of an antique shop in the market and he carries her groceries home for her. He offers to stay on to help and that is exactly what he does, cleaning up, fixing things, getting the shop back on its feet. And he can't help but notice how voluptuous Cruz is, despite her black widow's dress.
After exchanging glances that would have worked on any other woman, Cruz still can't admit she loves Pedro-as-Pablo. But she's thrilled to know he wants her -- his lust naked, unadorned. Only when she's behind closed doors in her room can she admit the terrible truth.
What can I tell you about Pedro Infante? If you're a Mejicana or Mejicano and don't know who he is, you should be tied to a hot stove with yucca rope and beaten with sharp dry corn husks as you stand in a vat of soggy fideos. If your racial and cultural ethnicity is Other, then it's about time you learned about the most famous of Mexican singers and actors.
Pedro was born November 18, 1917, in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, and died in 1957 in a horrible plane crash in Mérida, Yucatán, when he was forty years old and at the height of his popularity. He was the biggest movie star in the Mexican cinema of the forties and fifties, what is called La Epoca de Oro del Cine Mejicano. Many know him as "El ídolo del Pueblo." Some people even call him the Dean Martin of Méjico, but he's more, much more than that. He was bigger than Bing Crosby or even Elvis Presley.
Pedro's real life was just as passionate as the one he played on the screen. There was his first girlfriend, Lupita Marqués, who bore him a little girl. And then there was his long-suffering wife, María Luisa. Then came Lupe Torrentera, the young dancer he met when she was fourteen and who bore him a daughter, Graciela Margarita, at age fifteen. Lupe was the mother of two of his other children. And, of course, there was Irma Dorantes, the young actress who starred in many of his movies and became the mother of his daughter, Irmita. The marriage to her was annulled the week before his death.
In between these women were many other women, some whose names we remember, many we don't. And one can never forget his mother, Doña Refugia, or Doña Cuquita, as she was known. She was really the first woman who truly loved Pedro. Pedro was the type of man who took care of the women in his life, from Doña Refugio to María Luisa to all of his mistresses. Either he had a fantastically rich and good life or a hell of a complicated one.
If I'd had a chance and been born earlier and in a different place, I might have tried to take up with Pedro as well. But I was born in Cabritoville, U.S.A., on the Tejas/Méjico border near El Paso. The closest I'll ever come to Pedro Infante is in El Colón on a Thursday night. In here time is suspended. In here I want to imagine the impossible, to leave, for an hour or two, my life behind.
Nyvia Ester sits behind a woman who keeps talking when Pedro-as-Pablo does something cute on-screen, or makes ojitos with his beautiful eyes -- which makes us all sticky and hot like the popcorn with butter that we're holding even though we know he's been dead for years.
All I need is a little quiet and a lot of darkness. And for the man across the aisle from me to stop smacking his dry lips and murmuring under his hot breath.
When Pedro-as-Pablo suddenly takes Cruz in his arms there is a profound and sacred silence.
Then I hear a sharp intake of breath from Nyvia Ester. Irma sighs, a barely perceptible sound of pure pleasure. I slide down in my seat, my head momentarily resting on the plastic chair back, then nervously rise with dreaded anticipation of what is to come. This is the scene where Cruz gives Pablo her father's gold watch. I can't take it. I know what's going to happen.
It breaks my heart every time Pedro-as-Pablo leaves Cruz in the middle of the night after she's given him her father's watch. Later, she wakes up to find him gone and she runs down a set of dark stairs calling out his name. But he will never come back.
Pedro-as-Pablo is the type of man who will never be faithful to one woman. It's not that he doesn't want to be, he just can't. He can't stay with Silvia, the prostitute he befriends. Eventually he earns enough money as a baker to free her from the brothel owner she's indebted to, but when she finally finds him to thank him and hopefully spend the rest of her life with him, to her surprise he doesn't want her.
More adventures, more women, a life out of control. Pedro can't stop loving and leaving women.
Now raucous with laughter, the man across from me applauds as Pedro-as-Pablo awakes to find himself in bed again, now with Silvia.
Not even Cruz could stop Pedro-as-Pablo, make him stand still, find a life of peace. He loved her, but it wasn't meant to be. There is no rest for someone as rootless as him. Only drinking will ease his pain. Silvia is someone he pities. Marta? Ay, she's a minor distraction. How can Pedro-as-Pablo love anyone when he doesn't even like himself?
The temperature inside El Colón is ninety degrees. The main floor and the balcony are packed with people of all ages, families hovering close to each other, young lovers, older couples resting like torpid flies near the water cooler. Outside, it's hotter.
The married men wander down to the concession stand to get a Coke and stare hard at the young girls, chiflando in that soft appreciative way with their breath, a small outtake of air releasing the sexual tension, while their wives slink down in their seats, grateful for a little peace as they pull down their bunched-up panties. Someone takes out a much-used plastic bag full of tortas, someone else a crinkly paper bag full of ripe mangos. The floor is testimony to the fierce hunger that the darkness arouses. Candy wrappers stick to it along with chewed-up stalks of sugarcane with mashed fibers that nobody wants to look at too closely. Crumpled soft drink cups and popcorn boxes are tucked between seats, wads of tired gum are glued underneath.
Voices call out incessantly to the actors on the screen, without any hesitation or embarrassment, as if the audience knows them, are friends, even family.
"Te quiero, Pablo," Cruz tells Pedro-as-Pablo.
The woman behind us tells him as well. "Y yo te quiero a tí, Pedro."
She's getting on my nerves. She knows all the lines to the movie and she repeats them to herself.
I know all the lines, too, but don't say them out loud.
In the darkness of El Colón, Pedro Infante could do it all, and he did. He sang, he rode horses, motorcycles, cars, buses, and he walked away from tragedy unlike anyone else. No one strode away from all these women, those men, their selfish attachments, all those inappropriate and terrible situations as Pedro did in La Vida No Vale Nada.
"Popcorn?" I whisper to Irma, who motions that the tub is with Nyvia Ester. Both of us know we may not see it for a long time. Someone is going to have to go back for the free refill pretty soon and it's not going to be me.
The popcorn at El Colón is greasy and salty, as it should be. Irma says it smells of hot oil, of maíz, of sweaty hands turning tortillas in small obscure villages, of present lives lived in a past tense, of ancestral struggles, of the humid breath of small children, of old, dying animals resting near crumbling adobes, of too many lives struggling for a modicum of hope. Leave it to La Wirms to try to understand the sociological and cultural meanings of different kinds of popcorn.
I say it's the way they do the butter. Gobs of it without regard to cholesterol.
Please don't ever give me a bag of day-old popcorn that isn't warm enough to melt butter. There is nothing I love more than something greasy and salty unless, of course, it's something hot and greasy and salty. Or fruity and crystallized and so sweet your teeth curl in.
I've got simple tastes, ordinary needs that become extraordinary in the dark. What do I know about ancestral yearnings?
And yet this is why Irma says we're here, years after Pedro's death. "We're fulfilling the destiny set out for us, Tere, by those who came before us, the multitudes whose black-and-white dreams have allowed us to dream in color, whose misery and grief, longing and hopes have fueled our tomorrows."
"Whatever you say, comadre," I whisper to her in the dark. "I'm okay with that theory. But, mujer, just look at the man! I don't care how many years he's been dead. I still want to taste him."
"¡Ay, tú!" Irma says.
But I know she knows what I mean.
And she knows I know what she means.
When I watch Pedro's movies I'm watching the lives of my people, past, present and future, parade in front of me. Pedro Infante could have been my father; he was my father's age when I was born. He's the man we want our men to be. And he's the man we imagine ourselves to be if we are men. The man we want our daughters to have loved. Pedro's the beautiful part of our dreaming. And his looks still have the power to make my woman's blood heat up like sizzling manteca on an old but faithful sartén. Just watching him on the screen makes my little sopaipilla start throbbing underneath all the folds and tucks of cloth on the old and creaky theater seat, just give me some honey.
He had a beautiful body. He lifted weights, which most Mejicanos didn't do at the time. When I think of the Mejicanos I know, I hardly think of them with barbells. They're not the exercising type. They're too busy working outdoors fixing the techo or cleaning or working en los files or running after their own or someone else's children or planting vegetables in their backyards.
When you saw Pedro boxing or riding a motorcycle, you knew he was a man ahead of his sluggish time. Physically robust, he did all his own stunts, whether it was fighting with Wolf Ruvinskis, the hunky Mexican actor who showed a lot of his chest during that era of moviemaking, or hanging on for dear life on the top of the old bus that took him down the dusty and interminable road to La Capital and into Cruz's waiting arms. Pedro loved more women than you can count, which is about the best exercise you can ever get.
He was incredibly handsome in that way only Mejicanos can be. I can't explain this to you, only a Mejicana or an intuitive gringa knows what I mean. The handsomeness and sexiness come on you slowly and then hit you between the eyes. The more you contemplate a man like Pedro, observe his mannerisms, stare into his eyes, delight in his unique smile and strong arms, trim waist and good legs, and watch how gentle and yet self-assured he is with people of all ages, and see how much they love him, you will begin to understand a little of what Pedro Infante means to me, and the other members of the Pedro Infante Club de Admiradores Norteamericano #256.
There was only one Pedro Infante, and he was a real man, and I'm very picky about men. It's a good thing. Not like Graciela Vallejos, Irma's walleyed cousin, who looks at men like driftwood she can just pick up whenever she wants. Nor am I like Irma, who's a little too finicky and rarely goes out on a date.
Irma never likes anyone, they're too this, too that. Too desde. That's the word my comadre uses for too you know what. For example, "Our President, Tere, he's just too desde. And what about his wife, she's just too, too desde. And not only that, but the press, why it's just been too desde about desde, if you ask me."
To Irma, most men either smell like Lavoris or pollo frito, or they're only interested in a woman's nalgas or her legs or her chichis and they can't spell worth a damn, which really bothers her. She also hates a man who writes like a third grader. She rejected a CPA she met at La Tempestad Lounge, our weekend "stomping ground," after he gave her his business card, having scribbled his home phone number as a child would, his fingers clawed around the pen while his other hand held a cold can of Coors.
"You can imagine what he'd be like in bed," Irma said. "All fingers and none of them coordinating. And not only that, he was a Coors drinker. Hasn't he heard about the boycott?"
I never seem to think of things like that, things that can make or break a romance, like if the guy has a nervous tic that will eventually become irritating, or if he smells too much of aftershave that masks sour body odor. Irma notices the way men smoke or what they say about people who smoke, or cross or don't cross their legs, the way they comb their hair, if they have hair, and if they don't have hair, what they think of themselves without hair, how they tie their shoelaces, if they have shoelaces, or if they wear sandals, and what their toes look like in the sandals, and the way they drink their beer. She won't tolerate a smoker or a serious drinker, just like me. I can understand that, what with the alcoholism in her family.
There have been a few people I know who have been drinkers, too. Tío Santos, my mother's brother, for one. He always had a cold beer in his sweaty hands. And then there's Ubaldo Miranda, my best friend in the fan club, besides Irma. He shouldn't drink, but he does. He's been seeing a therapist in El Paso for years at Catholic Family Social Services on the sliding scale, pay as you can, and I think he's finally beginning to understand why he drinks. If you were molested during a Quinceañera when everyone was in the big sala having fun and you were in a dirty rest room with your older cousin Mamerto Miranda's churro apestoso forced into your mouth, you'd drink, too. Because you'd want to dull the pain for giving up hope.
But I don't want to get all philosophical on you just because it's dark here in El Colón, or because it's late. Although I have to say dark and late are my best times for thinking. I'm always carrying on this dialogue inside my head. I talk to a Tere Avila who isn't gastada, apagada y jodida. The other Tere, the dream Tere, still has sense and hope. I keep trying to help her out and spare her pain, but she just can't hear me. She's too busy watching the movie of her life unfold in front of her.
I turn to look at my comadre. In the flickering darkness I can see her wipe her eyes. The scene with the watch has gotten to her. Irma is a friend like no other.
My first husband, Reynaldo Ambriz, was never my friend. The only other longtime friend I've had has been Albinita, my mother. She gives you a hundred percent of herself when she just stands in the door looking at you, with such love and hope.
Irma's other best friend is her mother, Nyvia Ester. That's the kind of person Irma is. Who would go to the movies with their mother every Thursday night and look forward to it each week, and not only that, but have a wonderful time? I look forward to it, too, but in a different way.
I wouldn't consider Nyvia Ester my best friend. To me, she's a little scary, but I still respect her. Kind of how you would respect the Black Virgin if she were standing in front of you. That's Nyvia Ester: short, dark, tough. She's had a hard time since her husband left her. Any woman would have to be strong, especially if you'd cleaned houses for over forty years and sent all your kids to college on the money that you'd saved in a world where it's impossible to save, and didn't have a man to help, and no insurance, and you only went to the sixth grade back in Méjico.
The woman who likes to talk out loud to Pedro is starting up again. Nyvia Ester has tried to stare her down with those dark bulldog eyes of hers, and even made growling noises that only a pissed-off Mejicana can make, but the woman just isn't getting it. I don't have a problem with her loving the movie, but how can I be in the dark all anonymous when she's in the dark all noisy?
If it weren't for her, there wouldn't be anything better than sitting in the darkness of El Colón on a hot summer night with La Wirma. She holds my large Dr Pepper while I dislodge a stubborn kernel of popcorn from my back teeth.
"Pass me the popcorn, Irma," I whisper. What I really mean is wrestle the popcorn away from your mother. Nyvia Ester always ends up with the tub. When we get it back it's almost always empty. And not only that, but Nyvia Ester makes us go all the way downstairs to the first floor for refills, where you have to wait in line for about half an hour in front of a bunch of short, horny married men in super-tight Wranglers and Western shirts with rimmed BO circles and thick humpy necks like Brahma bulls who stand behind you making that whistling Ssst! Ssst! noise under their breath, which means many things, and all of them bad. No, señor, today it's not going to be me. I'm not going to refill the popcorn tub.
I can tell Nyvia Ester is really getting irritated with the woman behind us. She whispers, "Silencio, por favor," and the woman still ignores her.
"Sssh!" says Nyvia Ester.
"Sssh yourself!" answers the woman.
"Jew got a problem?" Nyvia Ester says too loudly.
Someone yells out, "Dile que se vaya al Diablo."
"¡Silencio, por Dios! There's children in the audience, watch what you say, cabrón!"
Things are getting tense. An old man, in what was once an official-looking white shirt and pants, slouches his way up the aisle and taps Nyvia Ester on the shoulder. He's the only semblance of an usher I've ever seen here. When it's really busy, he also helps out with the concession stand. Nyvia Ester stands up indignantly as a cacophony of voices yells to her: "¡Siéntese, señora! Down in front!"
Nyvia Ester turns around and tells the woman who started it all, "¡Vieja testuda sin vergüenza!" and sits down to applause.
The woman rises and everyone boos her. She sits down, momentarily defeated. The very polite, very hard-of-hearing viejito raises his voice, "Señoras, por favor, ¡cálmense!" Everyone cheers him. The movie grinds to a halt as the projectionist yells from his booth to tell the audience to shut up. People boo, whistle, yell and stomp on the gummy floor, flattening popcorn boxes and grinding popcorn into fine chaff. Eventually, like an old motor rev-ving up, the movie resumes, words slurred and thick. Pedro-as-Pablo tells Cruz he loves her and everyone cheers. The viejito shuffles up the aisle to the back and trips over a young child in the dark. "¡Ay, mamá!" he calls out in pain. More noise. More shushing. More ugliness, but now coming from the back. Two young men get in a fight.
"¡Jóvenes infelices!" an older woman calls out, damning all youth. "¡Tontos!" a man echoes her sentiments.
The old usher comes up and asks them to leave. The two disgruntled young men leave, two skinny girlfriends with highly teased sprayed hair in tow, to settle accounts in the alley behind the theater.
Things finally settle down. Pedro-as-Pablo walks on a beach near the coast in search of his father, Leandro.
Inside El Colón you can watch el mero mero, el merito, nuestro querido, Pedro Infante, the world's most handsome man love the world's most beautiful women. Like him, you can live happily ever after hasta la eternidad. He is the man whose child we want to bear. He is the man we wish we could be. Ay, Pedro, most fortunate and unfortunate of men. Dead at age forty. Papi, we miss you still.
I don't care if the floor at El Colón is sticky and gummy and wet with too many spilled Cokes. I don't care if kids throw orange rinds and pieces of hard bolillo and popcorn boxes down from the balcony or that everyone is talking or singing along with the music and it's a hot summer night and my legs stick to the torn humid theater seats. I don't even care anymore that the woman behind Nyvia Ester is making so much noise. We're all children in the darkness. In here no one watches us and tells us what to feel.
Inside El Colón I am closer to my people than I will ever be outside in the stinging sun. We are a collective here, and strong. Nothing and no one can deny us that.
Each of us yearns for Pedro, for the world he creates: a world of beauty, physical perfection, song.
Just look at Pedro's expressions. No actor on the face of the earth has done more acting with his eyebrows than Pedro. Not to mention his arms, the most expressive arms I've ever seen! They're very manly, and this is played up with the type of shirts he wears, with short sleeves flaring out at the shoulder. He also sports a lot of sweaters, most of them hand-knit. In her autobiography, Un Gran Amor, Lupe Torrentera, the mother of three of Pedro's children, talks about knitting Pedro the sweater he wore in the movie Pepe el Toro.
Few men could get away with wearing a tight-fitting sweater or those loose suits so popular back in the fifties. You put a suit like that on one of our modern-day so-called movie stars and you have payasoville. Most men have lost their natural grace.
Whether Pedro's arms just hang there, fisted or still, they're full of meaning. He can stride, too. Even his legs are expressive, not to mention his feet. God help us if he takes off his shirt. Who would have ever thought a man's nipples could express anger?
"Ahuumm. Ahuumm." The old man in front of us clucks like a demented rooster. He has something stuck in his throat. For a while we think he's not going to make it, but then he rallies and spits out the offending glob in the aisle near Nyvia Ester. She is not impressed.
It's hard to concentrate with so much happening around us, with the noise of people laughing, crying, sighing, chewing, burping, hiccuping, applauding. Not to mention the meddling, cajoling, rebuking, interrupting, interceding and encouraging words that fly back and forth between the screen and the audience. But just looking at Pedro helps to bring me to a place of attention.
I admit, I've never been good at hiding my feelings in the dark. It's my undoing. I started dreaming when I was a little girl and I haven't stopped yet.
La Vida No Vale Nada is really a violent movie. Only you don't know how brutal it is until it's over.
At the end, Pedro-as-Pablo wrestles with Wolf Ruvinskis. Wolf wants sole possession of a squirrelly hussy named Marta. Go figure what Wolf Ruvinskis would want with a woman like Marta! She's been sleeping with Pablo's father, one of those aging Mejicanos who have to prove their barrel-chested manhood by either dyeing their hair jet black or taking up with a younger woman. She's been chasing Pedro-as-Pablo as well, but he doesn't want anything to do with her, even though she's always throwing herself down on the sand in front of him like a horny, beached mermaid.
Everyone gasps with fear as Wolf Ruvinskis punches Pedro-as-Pablo and then drags him into the salty water to drown him while the spurned and vindictive Marta eggs him on.
Pedro-as-Pablo seems to flounder as Wolf Ruvinskis violently pushes him under the lapping waves, but then he gathers himself and flings Wolf back onto the beach with a battery of blows that leaves Wolf in a broken heap on the sandy shore.
Meanwhile, back at the pueblito, Pablo's mother and siblings struggle in the most abject poverty. The two men, father and son, finally come to the realization that they need to get back home and take care of their kin. All is well. All is safe. All is as it should be. For the men. A 'lo Macho Bravo.
And yet, I am left with questions. I look around El Colón. Is anyone else upset?
What about Marta? What's going to happen to her? Does anyone care?
A glowering and bitter Marta casts a long glance at Pedro-as-Pablo as he walks away arm in arm into a hopeful sunset with his now-reclaimed father, Leandro, both men the bane of her small, useless existence. Wolf Ruvinskis sputters nearby, trying to catch his breath. Marta looks at him with disgust and resignation.
Even in the darkness of El Colón I want to change my dreams, Marta's dreams, but the movie credits roll.
La Vida No Vale Nada.
Pedro Infante. Rosario Granados. Lilia Prado. Domingo Soler. Magda Guzmán. Wolf Ruvinskis. Hortensia Santoveña.
Nyvia Ester picks up her purse and shimmies out of her seat with bobbing and teetering crablike movements, her bowlegs unsteady until she finds her land legs. Irma takes her mother's hand and assists her up the incline toward the door that leads to the stairs and the lobby. The woman behind us smacks her lips, hoists her large body out of her seat and disappears into the uncertain night.
The sound track flares dramatically, full of reckless abandon.
I sit in the theater a little longer, my eyes full of tears, sad tears, tears of hope.
My heart hurts the way it does when you can't love the man you want to. A man like Pedro.
Copyright © 2002 by Denise Ch#&225;vez