In the Year of Our Lord 1878, on the sixth day of the sixth month of the year, was born to one Augustín Arango and his wife, Micaela Arambula, humble peasants on the Rancho de la Loyotada in Durango State, Republic of Mexico, a son, Doroteo, known to posterity as Francisco “Pancho” Villa: social bandit, indefatigable warrior, military genius, and savior of his country. In his honor, the Hijos de Pancho Villa assemble yearly on the anniversary of the hero’s birth in the town of Namiquipa, Chihuahua State, to celebrate the legacy passed down by its owner to his proud descendants, real as well as imagined. Héctor Villa would sooner have absented himself from an election in which George W. Bush was on the ballot than miss the occasion, himself.
Only this year, there were problems to overcome. Several, such as the high cost of gasoline, were relatively small and of little account. Others, such as the opening of the annual convention of the Border Lands Association of Artificial Intelligence Service Professionals in Tucson, on the morning of June 9, were more troublesome. (Though, owing possibly to its unpronounceable and highly forgettable acronym, BLAAISP was usually so ill attended as to be hardly worth bothering with. Héctor was a firm believer that failure to present oneself at associational meetings amounted to an un-American, as well as unprofessional, lapse.) Far more serious were the prevalent lack of air conditioning in Namiquipa—and another possible source of discomfort, also related to heat, as well. This was his in-laws, the Eufemio Villas, still resident—as well as, presumably, smoldering—in Namiquipa. Eufemio, though formerly a Son of Pancho Villa, had been expelled from the society several years before after failing to pay his dues for three years straight. There would be no danger, therefore, of encountering him at the annual meeting. For the rest of it, Namiquipa was a very small place, where everybody not only knew everybody but encountered him in the streets and shops every day of the week. Eufemio, like most bullies and con men, was essentially a coward, but Juana was a cow of another color, dangerous as a charging buffalo when angered. If, having had the barn door slammed shut in her face by the American officials and gotten arrested by the federales as a suspected terrorist into the bargain, she wasn’t simmering with rage still, then (Hector concluded) Juana must have been touched by an angel in the meanwhile. He had reason to doubt, however, that such a miracle had actually occurred. Therefore, the simple thought of encountering his sister-in-law face-to-face, even in the open air and in public, was sufficient to cause Hector to consider skipping Hijos de Pancho Villa altogether this year and driving directly over to Tucson, instead.
He came close to doing so when he brought up the subject to his wife over the dinner table, a week before the celebrations in Namiquipa. Hector realized his mistake almost before the words were out of his mouth, but it was already too late for him. AveMaría, always quick to spot an opportunity, pounced. If Hector would not be leaving for Mexico June 4 after all, he’d be available to accompany the family to the Mexican Heritage Fair in Albuquerque, sponsored annually by the Mexican Heritage Foundation, that weekend. Hector nodded compliantly in agreement, but inwardly, he shuddered. He despised the foundation and everything associated with it as representing the height of un-Americanism and the spirit of disloyalty. Ostensibly devoted to the cause of ethnic self-respect, its true agenda was only too obviously the Reconquista pure and simple. The Mexican Heritage Foundation was the Nation of Aztlán with a face as innocent-looking as that of Attorney General Gonzales. Almost as bad, in addition to being made party to treason, he would have to put up with AveMaría’s friends on the organization committee, women of a certain age and built like container ships, who held bossy jobs in local government and sang in Spanish choirs in their parish churches. Finally, besides lugging George Dubya around in his arms, he’d have to keep a hawk’s eye on Contracepción, forever lusting after the world (as his mother would have put it), lest she slip away unnoticed to a rock concert and discover it there. The more he considered, the more Héctor inclined to the decision to reverse himself and attend the Hijos de Pancho Villa meeting after all.
Having made his mind up at last, Héctor now faced two final and inescapable difficulties that must somehow be got round. The first—how to break the news to AveMaria and Contracepción that the original Namiquipa plan was on and the Albuquerque junket, off—he concluded to set aside until the last moment, when panic provided its own inspiration. The second—the danger he courted from the likelihood of running into one or more of the Eufemio Villas in Namiquipa—Héctor was determined to resolve at once, if only for his peace of mind. As if in divine reward for his courage, the answer came to him in the middle of the night, as he lay sleepless beside AveMaría. At ten the next morning, just as the stores were opening in downtown Belen, Hector stood on the sidewalk along Sosimo Pidaloa with his nose pressed against the plate glass window of a novelty shop, which he exited only a few minutes later, carrying a plastic shopping bag in one hand and looking pleased with himself And he was equally lucky in regard to the other thing. On the night of June 3, AveMaría and Contracepción fell ill together with acute diarrhea after having consumed a large lunch of eggplant parmigiana at the Palazzo Farnese Restaurant in Belen. They were sick all the following day as well, so that, when Héctor announced, with elaborate casualness, that he guessed they wouldn’t feel up to driving to Albuquerque after all, nobody contradicted him. He got an early start for Namiquipa next morning and checked into a motel in Candelaria, Chihuahua State, after dark, having been delayed some hours by traffic gridlock at the border-crossing in Juárez.
Héctor awoke at sunrise to a view of the surrounding Chihuahuan desert, bleak looking even under a late spring sky of milky blue with its naked rock fins oriented north and south and clay-colored expanse of scrabbled caliche dotted with cholla, greasewood, and mesquite, bisected by the black ribbon of the highway bordered with broken bottles and other trash flung from passing cars. Had this tortured, depressing place called Mexico ever really been his home? He ate a hurried breakfast of huevos rancheros, tortillas, and coffee and was on his way again before seven. Though the meetings, scheduled to begin at nine A.M. sharp, rarely got started before one or two in the afternoon, he had 265 kilometers to drive still to Namiquipa, where he would have to find the motel he’d be staying at and get himself into the disguise he was quite certain not even his sister-in-law would be able to penetrate.
Inspired by the Luz Corral Look-alike Contest, organized in honor of Pancho’s favorite “wife” to launch the proceedings, the Sons had gathered punctually for the first time ever in their chapter house on the outskirts of town adjacent to the cockfighting arena. To accommodate the contest, it had been necessary to waive, on a one-time basis, the hard-and fast rule against the presence of women at meetings, a violation of protocol some of the older members had protested. Already by ten o’clock, the society president and subordinate officers felt themselves vindicated by the spectacular success the contest, fueled by plentiful amounts of beer and tequila, had produced. Never, in the experience of anyone present, had a gathering of the Hijos de Pancho Villa been brought off to such fervent, even riotous, effect. It was shortly past ten when the new Luz Corral was crowned. Half an hour later. Sons were pouring into the street, snatching at girls who bore only passing resemblances to Juana Torres, Austreberta Rentería, and Soldedad Seañez and dragging them into the chapter house to participate in additional contests. In the confusion, the arrival, toward noon, of a latecomer to the festivities was not immediately noticed. Wearing a shiny black suit buttoned tightly over his paunch, a white shirt open at the collar, white beard, and wire-rimmed spectacles, the old fellow appeared dazed to discover the party in full swing at so early an hour. But he joined in gamely, working his way around the frenzied dancers through a haze of tobacco smoke to the table where beer chilled in tubs of ice and helping himself to a bottle, a slice of lime, a sprinkle of salt on the back of his hand, and a shot of tequila as a booster.
He was a wallflower at an orgy and almost certainly would have remained that way had he not been spied by Alfredo Terrazas, the newspaper editor and village intellectual. Terrazas, who, when sober, was at work on a history of the Mexican Civil War, was very drunk this morning. In search of beer and a fresh bottle of tequila, he stumbled unexpectedly upon an elderly, potbellied gentleman dressed in black, bespectacled, and whiskered like a goat. Terrazas, in spite of being a journalist and historian, was also a poet with a poet’s imagination, open to the power of suggestion. Steeped as he was in the history of 20th-century Mexico, Terrazas recognized at once the disheveled figure before him.
“¡Venmtiano Carranza!” he shouted, falling back a step and stabbing ahead of himself with a nicotine-stained finger. “How dare you come here—how dare you show yourself at such an affair as this! ¡Canallal! ¡Traidor! ¡A las armas! ¡A las annas!“
In terror. Héctor tore away his glasses, ripped off his beard, jerked the pillow from under his shirt, and flung everything down on the floor. But the Sons of Pancho Villa were upon him already, swinging, punching, and kicking, brandishing beer bottles upraised as clubs. Just as he went down beneath the pile-on, he distinguished Eufemio Villa among the crowd, his eyes asquint and reddened like an enraged pig’s. Though he was five years in arrears with his dues, the Hijos de Pancho Villa had let him into the meeting anyway, as one of the most enthusiastic organizers of the Luz Corral Look-alike Contest.
It had been a terrible trip and now, twelve hours late already for the BLAAISP convention in Tucson, Héctor arrived at Agua Prieta on the Mexican-U.S. border to discover the northbound traffic backed up for several miles south from the international crossing, on account, one gnarled old man explained, of a big sale at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Douglas. (Another waiting motorist thought a free health-fair screening at the Tucson Medical Center was the big draw.) Héctor didn’t care if these people were going north to participate in a voter-registration drive by the GOP. At the rate at which the lines were moving, it could be six hours before he passed through Customs and Immigration, with another two-and-a-half hours on to Tucson. The old man, noting his distress, grinned around the toothpick he held between his two or three remaining teeth and gave him a broad wink. A shortcut existed, he confided, into the U.S. only a few miles east of town. The road was stony and rutted, hardly more than a wagon track. Even so, smugglers considered the route too obvious for regular use, and so the migra left it largely unpatrolled. If the señor wished, he could give him accurate directions . . .
Héctor was desperate. He was a longtime resident of the U.S. of A., bearing on his person the documentation necessary to prove his identity and driving a vehicle duly licensed in the State of New Mexico. Finally, he was no scofflaw, but an honest person whose only interest lay in returning home in a timely manner to be present at an important professional gathering. Hector drew a spiral notebook from his coat pocket and, nodding encouragement from time to time to show he understood, jotted down the directions the old man gave him.
The road was considerably farther east and rougher even than he’d been led to believe, winding north through limestone hills covered with piñon and juniper forest. There were no signs, no markers of any sort, so that the first indication Hector had that he’d crossed onto American soil was three parked minivans beside the trail two hundred yards ahead. A striped awning had been drawn out from the side of one of the vans to make a strip of shade where three men and two women wearing T-shirts emblazoned with Old Glory across the front reclined in lawn chairs arranged to afford a southward view toward Mexico. At Héctor’s approach, the men got out of their chairs and stepped to the middle of the road, holding their hands up to him, palms turned out. They were all of them heavy-set, balding or gray haired, snowbirds apparently from Minnesota or Michigan who had overstayed their time in the Southwest. Two carried shotguns, and the third wore a pistol strapped to his hip.
Héctor recognized these people at once, they were the ones President Bush had described only recently as vigilantes, extremists with dangerous opinions and un-American values. Goaded by fatigue and frustration, he floored the pedal and pointed his car straight at them. Either they jumped in time, or he, Héctor Villa, would run them all down like mad dogs. It was what Dubya would want—and expect—him to do.
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