The man and the bull stood facing one another across the yellow sand midway between the center of the ring and the barrera. The bull was smaller and less ferocious than the big fighting bulls; the man was young, not out of his teens, and instead of the matador’s costume of embroidered silk he wore a suit of tight-fitting tan cloth, and under it a stiff white shirt. He was a novillero facing his first bull, and although he was doing better with it than the novillero of the Sunday before had done with his, still he was making some terrible mistakes, turning his back at a 45 degree angle to the bull as he walked away from a series of incomplete passes. His death, if it happened, would be witnessed by a handful of spectators—family, friends; spectators at the sorteo which had preceded the professional fight scheduled to commence at 6:30 that evening; employees of the Plaza de Toros Monumental—and it would probably not be written up in the Diario de Juárez the next day.
At a quarter past one, with the sun just past the overhead, the temperature approached 100 degrees. Many of the women sitting on the concrete benches were under umbrellas, while Jim Rauen and I stood sweating in our straw hats against one of the iron fences anchored right and left of the entry to the arena. It was warm to be standing out in the September sun of Mexico, too warm to be fighting a bull, and far too warm to be doing it encased in a suit that looked as if it had been made for the hero of a 19th century romantic opera. The novillero’s assistants were dressed as uncomfortably as he, and they too made bad mistakes. The fight proceeded by fits and starts, and at last the novillero took up the muleta. His incomplete motions arrested the bull prematurely, causing him to try to hook the man with his horn as he passed. This happened several times before the boy, in an attempt at imitating the nonchalance of the matador, turned his back on the bull to look up to the spectators. The muleta fell in the sand as the bull, charging, caught him in the seat of the pants and lifted him between the wide-set points of the horns. He landed ahead of himself in a sitting position as the assistants ran in flapping their capes to draw the bull off and sprinted behind the burladero, from which he emerged limping with a tear in the leg of his tan suit, determined to make the kill. He killed poorly, but at least he was not killed himself and he killed better than last week’s novillero had. “That kid is going to be sore for the next month,” Jim said. Around us the women were getting up from the concrete and folding their umbrellas. “Let’s walk over to Paco and have lunch.”
It was good to be back in irreducible Mexico, which resists sentimentality as strongly as the United States embraces it, and where Mexicans are not a “minority group” but simply real people. In fact, it is worth becoming a member of a minority group yourself to be here. Except you are never treated as such in Mexico. Instead you are regarded as either a target of malfeasance, from shortchanging by shopkeepers and taxi drivers to murder at the hands of banditos and the federales, and everything in between; or, as is far more likely, a curious but for the most part welcome guest, by generous hosts. If it were not for a government even more awful than our own, I would probably be a resident alien down here now, having willingly surrendered my legitimate place at the Greatest Trough On Earth to the next illegal paisano arrived in search of the Good Life as exemplified by Time Warner’s culture. Bill Clinton’s wife, Jack Kemp’s politics, and Bill Bennett’s virtue.
The mystery of contemporary Mexico is not the heart of darkness lying behind the charm and intrigue, but the difference between the Mexicans you meet in Mexico and the ones you encounter on the American side of the border. (I am talking not about the long-established Mexican-American community of the American Southwest but last night’s arrivals, their hands bloodied from climbing wire fences and their wet shirts sticking to their backs.) Open-border enthusiasts will protest that being hunted down by helicopters, Broncos, and German Shepherds changes human beings, and they have a point. There is also the fact that Mexicans arriving in the United States today come from deeper within the country than they once did, and that many of them are not really Mejicanos at all—they are Indios. Still, a visit even to a demographically swamped border city like Ciudad Juárez, with its proliferating colonias along the river against the ragged desert mountains, suggests that America is receiving in substantial numbers not necessarily the poorest of the Mexican population, but very likely the worst.
Pathetically the Mexican authorities, like those of every Third World country, discourage foreigners from experiencing what is most simple and touching about Mexico. The travel agencies will tell you that there is a single train daily between Nogales, at the Arizona border, and Hermosillo, the capital of Sonora, and no bus service at all. I learned of the existence of a second train from a Mexican-American gentleman in the lobby of the Americana Hotel in Nogales, Arizona. It was, he explained, a second-class train, departing at 7:45 in the morning and arriving at 2:00 in the afternoon after a run of 174 miles. “I’m in the produce business,” an American businessman told me that evening at a restaurant on the Mexican side where we were eating supper. “I deal with these people all the time. Whatever you do, don’t take the bus down there. They’re a wipeout. And you don’t want to take the second-class train, with the pigs and the sheep and the goats.” “It isn’t dangerous, is it?” He shrugged. “You’ll be uncomfortable.” “And why,” his wife wanted to know, “when the other is only fifty-six dollars?”
“¿Hay una plaza de toros en Nogales?” I asked the taxi driver as we rode the five kilometers from the international crossing to the train station. The driver was nutbrown, as wide as he was tall. His steel gray hair had been slicked straight back from the temples, and his face was covered by wens. “Sí, señor. Y en Hermosillo también.”
In the early morning light filtered by the dust and smoke of the city the drab public architecture of the estación loomed like a gray cutbank against the gravel hills. The train was an ancient diesel locomotive and two grimy coaches, the car ends crowded with people who had been unable to secure a seat inside or else wished to enjoy fresh air on the trip. I entered the second car and sat on the armrest of an aisle seat where someone was already sitting. The conductor had brought along his wife and four small girls for the ride, establishing them in facing seats behind the first row, which was occupied by two green painted trunks containing thermoses from which he dispensed over sweet black coffee. I asked him if he accepted American money. The conductor nodded and palmed the two quarters I gave him, while everyone looked on politely.
The train departed without notice, three-quarters of an hour ahead of schedule, the cars jolting hard against one another and the airbrakes hissing viciously. As it rocked slowly through the environs of Nogales people continued to stare with tactful delicacy. I moved from the armrest to sit on one of the green trunks, and the conductor did not object. The overhead racks were jammed with pails of lard and cardboard boxes packed with ham sandwiches, and the aisle was full of people sitting on their luggage. A woman with a broad Indian face, rather stylishly dressed, continued to smile at me as she cradled a kitten in her arms.
Brown wrinkled mountains ran on either side of the green valley. In the towns along the line people stood in formal arrangement before their houses to watch the train pass. There were churches and Tecate signs, arroyos filled with trash and car bodies, and then the countryside would open out again. At each stop women climbed up and made their way with difficulty through the coaches, selling tamales, pastries, and Cocas; arriving at the next station they were met by their husbands in pickup trucks. At Magdalena, the object of a pilgrimage every September to honor the bones of the Spanish Jesuit Father Kino, a young man came aboard with two plastic buckets on his arm. Seeing me he stopped to exhibit his wares; these were dried apple pastries, each neatly wrapped in its plastic sack. I shook my head. “You don’t want to buy—as usual,” the young man said. He said it pleasantly with a smile. “I’ve already had breakfast. It’s too early in the morning to eat again.” He continued smiling. “Buy something anyway.” I bought a pastry, and he made change in American currency.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “From Wyoming, in the north.” “Would you like to live here?” “The people are very nice. Do you think I could make a living?” “I don’t know. Will you get off to eat lunch at Benjamin Hill?” “Will there be time for lunch?” “Yes.” He watched me carefully for several seconds before adding, “It has been nice talking to you. I must go now.”
By accident I caught the conductor’s eldest daughter staring at me; she looked away quickly. The girls all had on immaculate white dresses trimmed in purple and red. As if on cue they tossed their Coca bottles through the open window. “¿Habla inglés?” “¡No!” She shook her head emphatically and looked over to her mother, a very fat but otherwise quite pretty woman who had not stopped eating since we left Nogales.
At Benjamin Hill a large crowd awaited the train beside the tracks. “¡Tacos!” “¡Sodas!” “¡Tamales!” “¡Ensaladas!” Vendors peddling carts or striding beside the coaches handed up Cocas and Tecates through the windows of the train. The baggage car joined on with sudden impact and a successive jolting along the cars and the train moved slowly in reverse, accompanied by the vendors, shouting. The train stopped. “Permiso,” the conductor asked of me as he reached to light the gas stove on the floor of the coach behind the seat. When he had the flame up his wife heated the tacos he had bought, placing them in a frying pan on the burner. As the train pulled out the villagers waved and the vendors fell back, the train gathering speed. “Un Tecate,” I told a man in the uniform of the Ferocarriles Nacionales de Mexico who carried a basket filled with Cocas and beer. “Sí, señor.” He opened a can and held it forward. “¿Cuanto cuesta?” “Cinco mil pesos.” I looked at the man. A campesino who had been watching the exchange from a piece of board laid across a crate shook his head. “No,” he said. “Demasiado.” Too much.
The conductor, caught in the exchange, seemed bemused. The vendor, looking abashed, stood rigid. Slowly the campesino leaned forward from his crate, took the bill from my hand, and presented it to the vendor. He told the man what change to make, received it from him, and gave me the money. The vendor pocketed the difference and disappeared at once into the vestibule. The campesino looked at me sadly as if to say, “The heart of man is evil beyond description.”
A youngish man, prematurely aged in the face, came along the aisle, bracing himself against the seatbacks. He held a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other. “Hello,” he said. “How are you? Where are you from? Where are you going?” He was on his way to Guadalajara, on vacation from his job as a shrimp sheller in a restaurant in Nogales. Turning his hand over he displayed an ugly burn along the side that he had received while frying shrimps in oil three days before. “I like to cook,” the young man said. “Do you like to cook? I bet you have a nice wife—a blonde. There are many blondes in California. I used to live in f—— California, but f— that. Mexico is the place to be, no place on earth like Mexico.” He gestured with the cigarette toward the vineyards spoking past the train. Dark figures stooped and straightened down the long rows of vines. “In Mexico,” the man said contemptuously, “Indians work in the fields—I don’t. I want money, f—, I go to f—— California.” He broke off to pat at a small sharp-faced girl passing in the aisle, and take her by the arm. She flung loose from his hand and turned on him with a fierce adult composure. “¡Borracho!” she hissed.
I disembarked on the wide platform of the estación at Hermosillo where Guatemalan refugees sat on folding chairs surrounded by their bundles and packages, staring with expressionless faces across the tracks to a row of dingy blue box cars wavering in the heat. Low gravel hills showed between the cars, and pieces of a lake nearly colorless in the neutral haze that smelled of garbage and mesquite smoke, the primary odors of northern Mexico. I hailed a taxi in front of the station and threw my suitcase onto the front seat beside the driver.
“¿Hay una plaza de toros en Hermosillo?” I asked him as we drove off.
“Sí, señor,” he replied. “Y en Nogales también.”