A politician’s life—Héctor was discovering—is, like that of any celebrity, not a happy one.
Even before he’d announced his candidacy for the open seat in New Mexico’s First Congressional District, Tomasina Luna issued a campaign statement announcing her endorsement by the National Council of La Raza, accusing the Republican Party of racism (amounting possibly to genocide), and charging her opponent with willful violation of city zoning and state environmental law by creating a junk yard around his house. After dragging its feet for weeks a hundred miles away in Santa Fe, the New Mexico GOP at last sent Héctor a campaign manager he wouldn’t have asked to serve with him on a church committee. Haníbal Aragón had a degree from the University of New Mexico School of Law, where he’d been elected secretary of the UNM Campus Republicans. Having exercised his J.D. for two or three years, Haníbal abandoned the practice of law to become a lobbyist in Santa Fe for the state tourism board and the city of Roswell in his capacity as president of the New Mexico chapter of the National Association of Paranormal Americans. In addition to politics and extraterrestrials, Haníbal’s other great interest was the classical guitar, on which he performed regularly in coffeehouses around New Mexico, dressed in a black beret and a black cape with a scarlet lining as he fumbled out isolated bars of Ponce, Rodrigo, and Lopez-Chavarri. At their first fundraising event together, Haníbal, to Héctor’s embarrassment, had produced his guitar with the apparent intent of serenading the assembly of cattle ranchers, bank branch managers, and chambers-of-commerce officials before Héctor could discourage him. Also at several early appearances, he’d passed out brochures for the International UFO Museum & Research Center, thus giving Héctor’s would-be constituents the impression that the gray Roswell alien, not Héctor Villa, was running for Congress. And as if Tomasina and Haníbal weren’t cross enough to bear, Héctor had problems at home, where AveMaría and Contracepción conspired—so it seemed to him—to make his domestic life as miserable as his professional one already was. Even before he learned his wife had opened an account there, Héctor received a bill from the Neiman Marcus store in Albuquerque amounting to nearly $6,500 for items purchased in the Ladies’ Clothing Department. In the evenings, his phone rang off the hook with calls from the managers of rock bands Contracep had promised she’d ask her father to book for campaign appearances throughout the district. Héctor’s computer-service business was beginning to suffer, as the desperate parents of children deprived of their favorite video games by crashed systems found their emergency voice messages left unresponded to among the scores recorded by inquiring radio, TV, and newspaper reporters. Finally, little Dubya was growing querulous and fretful from being left so much at the neighbors’ house. Héctor, who’d had no notion of all that a political campaign involved, found his already sizable respect and awe for George W. Bush increased exponentially. If this was what you had to go through to get yourself elected a lowly U.S. representative, it must require real genius—and heroic genius at that—to make a grab for the brass ring, and seize it!
Though the thought shamed Héctor, he couldn’t help envying the President, his reticent First Lady, and their two well-behaved daughters, both of whom knew enough at least to try to keep out of the limelight. By contrast, AveMaría—who insisted on joining him on the platform whenever it was at all possible—never missed an opportunity to put a word of her own in, much to the approbation of the media who made a point of reporting her comments. Almost as bad, the stylish Neiman Marcus career woman’s outfits she’d put on the new card in the belief they could be charged to campaign expenses made her look 25 pounds heavier. As for Contracepción, who tagged along with her mother when she wasn’t in school and seemed to make a point of dressing (Héctor thought) like a Juárez whore, nothing he had to say could stop her from climbing onto the platform after he was through speaking and flinging herself about with a microphone in hand, shrieking like Jennifer Lopez to the accompaniment of whatever band she’d talked her father into hiring for the event. Once a week at least, Héctor remonstrated with the Villa females—without, however, getting anywhere in the slightest.
“This is America, not Namiquipa!” AveMaría would protest. “You’re so old-fashioned, Panchito! Here, people care about politicians’ wives. I go to the supermarket—what do I see in the tabloids at the checkout? Not President Bush! No! I see the Bush twins! Senator Kerry? No—they have a picture of Teresa Heinz Kerry instead! Did you know she’s gained a hundred pounds and shaved her head since the election?”
He had no better success with Contracepción. “¡O papaíto!” she’d wail. “Nobody wants to listen to some boring politician! It’s the live entertainment everyone really cares about! I’m famous already. Just yesterday, some guy says he’s a talent scout from Brazil promised he could make me a star if I’d only go to his house with him and let him take a few pictures!”
So Héctor gave in finally, while keeping his eyes peeled and a switchblade in his pocket for the talent scout, in case the tipo showed up again.
Meanwhile, he had to endure cameramen in his front yard, GOP strategists and ethnic activists on the phone from Santa Fe and around the Southwest, calls from the office of the president of the Mexican Republic in Mexico City and the Mexican consulate in Albuquerque, and the inevitable campaign-finance problems and threatened scandals. (In one instance, the powers that be in Santa Fe panicked when it came to light that the promoter of one of Contracepción’s rock bands was a certain Sid Abramoff. Fortunately, the fellow was found to be no relation to the famous lobbyist in Washington.) There was also the incessant stream of carping, negative, and highly unfair attacks from Tomasina Luna, and the consequent drop in the Republican poll numbers—which in turn produced more phone calls, alternately worried and angry, from Santa Fe, demanding that Héctor respond with negative and unfair attacks of his own. Héctor did his best, but Haníbal Aragón proved worse than useless in drafting a campaign speech (twice he wanted to suggest that Tomasina was from Venus), and he himself, while fluent enough in English in a conversational way, lacked the necessary rhetorical skills in what was, after all, for him a second language. In despair, he approached Brother Billy Joe—by far the most literate man of Héctor’s acquaintance, whose Sunday sermons he greatly admired—for help, and got it. Indeed, the preacher’s aid proved nearly overwhelming, consisting as it did of florid attacks on the Party of the Antichrist and anticipations of the Rapture in which papists like Tomasina Luna and other unbelievers and idolators would be left behind. The effect of the Billy Joe-Héctor collaborations was a further decline in the polls, increasingly agitated calls from party headquarters, and a significant drop in contributions to the Villa campaign. In desperation, Héctor considered dropping out of the race, only to discover himself unable in his heart to let George Dubya down. If only (he anguished) the President would endorse his candidacy in a public announcement—better yet, come out to New Mexico to campaign with him! Héctor had no doubt whatsoever that a visit by President Bush would cast the Luna woman into outer darkness and clinch his own election overnight.
By mid-October, with the election less than three weeks off, catastrophe loomed for the New Mexico Republican Party in District 1. Clearly, the situation called for drastic measures, but no one could think what. So far, all the best ideas had failed, including attempts to portray Tomasina as a descendant of the conquistadores and, as such, an oppressor of the indigenous peoples of North America, and a lukewarm supporter of the Iraq war (a charge she deftly fielded by citing her long-standing friendship with Senator Clinton, well known for having voted for the war and staunchly defended it in Congress ever since). All seemed hopeless when, as if by a miracle, hope struck at last, overnight and in the most unexpected manner.
It came through the heroic efforts of an embedded “journalist” with the Luna campaign posing as a reporter for a granola paper in Taos at the behest of a top strategist in Washington. (Rumor had it that this was actually Karl Rove himself.) By a brilliantly inventive and daring stratagem, the Republican agent had managed to gain entry to Mrs. Luna’s personal computer. As soon as the screensaver flashed on, the agent knew he need look no further for the efficient means of Tomasina Luna’s political effacement. He simply took a photo of the screen with his cellphone and downloaded the image at home later. Even before Héctor himself was told, the entire New Mexico GOP establishment had learned the nature of that image: Vice President Cheney, stark naked save for a Roman general’s helmet on his head and, in his hand, a sword that drooped as if formed of India rubber in a shape vaguely suggestive of the flaccid male member. At last, the evil Democrats had gone too far! The desecration, the lèse-majesté was simply too enormous—immeasurably worse than setting a match to a piece of red-white-and-blue linen with a pattern of stars and stripes printed across it. All that was necessary now was for the Horror to be unveiled publicly at the earliest possible moment—at a Villa rally, with the media standing by and a large crowd assembled (by the promise of free drink, if necessary).
Santa Fe determined upon the Willie M. Chavez State Park in Belen at six o’clock in the evening, when the Santa Fe Burlington Northern workers would be off work already and the day commuters arriving home from Albuquerque. Héctor was like a man brought back from the dead. He felt absolutely assured now that Washington, D.C., was his future—for the next two years, at least, and after that, who knew? Filled with a brimming self-confidence, he wrote his own speech for the occasion, politely refusing help from Haníbal Aragón and Brother Billy Joe alike. And this time, Héctor positively insisted on the presence of AveMaría and Contracepción with him and other GOP dignitaries on the speakers’ platform. He even sent out an emergency request for the Abramoff band, which he installed in a prominent place next to the free beer and chorizo stand, immediately to the right of the platform.
It was a beautiful fall evening, the great riverine cottonwoods along the Rio Grande raising their golden crowns against a cobalt sky, the lion-colored mesa stretching east to the edgy green barrier of the Manzano Mountains. And the crowd, too, was a good one. At least, there were a lot of people. Right from the start, however, something felt wrong to Héctor. The crowd was too large, for one thing. And too many of the faces upturned toward him looked like Democratic, not Republican, faces. (Twenty years in the U.S. had taught him that a liberal face always looks different from a conservative one, as if the two belonged almost to members of separate species.) Even so, Héctor felt assured that most of those assembled to hear him were his people.
In any event, he had to get on with the business, and so he did. It wasn’t until his first three or four applause lines met with scattered poolings of laughter rather than the universal marine roar he’d expected that he began to think there must be something wrong, after all. Perhaps the Luna had got the wind up, somehow. For reassurance, Héctor glanced behind himself, where the big video-projection screen awaited the damning image prepared for it. Then he went on with his speech.
He had just come to the part where, for the first time, he linked Hillary Clinton’s name with Tomasina’s when a woman stood up, very near to the projector itself, and shouted at him, waving a piece of paper above her head. Héctor tried to ignore her but found that, refusing steadfastly to shut up, she could not be ignored. In the next instant, he recognized the woman for Tomasina Luna herself. Shocked into momentary speechlessness by her wholly undemocratic and un-American tactics, Héctor gave Tomasina the opening she wanted.
“You dare throw Ms. Clinton up at me, do you?” she yelled. “Well, let me tell you, Señor Villa, there’s something else Hillary’s against, and that’s illegal immigration! And that means you, amigo! Don’t try and deny it! I have, right here in my hand, a letter written to me, personally, by your own cousin—Eufemio Villa in Namiquipa, Mexico—that tells the whole story of how you and your wife snuck across the border twenty years ago in an undocumented state! Let’s put it up on your projector, Señor, so we can all have a look for ourselves!”
The Villas, pursued by loud jeers issuing from open-mouthed Democratic faces and a scattering of flung chorizos, had nearly reached the safety of AveMaría’s Subaru when Héctor’s cell phone rang. As a man clutches at a straw, he grabbed the thing from his pocket and clapped it to his ear.
“Hello—Mr. Villa? This is the White House calling. Please hold the line for President Bush. The President wishes to congratulate you on a major campaign speech today, Sir!”