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Cantinflas, the castillo and ponche in the plaza

Wendy Devlin

Introduction to the Series
Part 1 - Part 2 Part 3

As the evening mass ended, the huge colonial doors of Santa Maria Magdalena swung open. People swarmed down the church stairs into the plaza. I moved along with the crowd to a wrought iron bench. The small town plaza was alive with color and movement. Shadows flickered across the white curlicues on the kiosko or bandstand. Lights from ornate lampposts highlighted the yellow church. Red, blue and purple bubbles floated above the balloon sellers. People strolled around taco stands, arcades and beverage stalls. In front of the church stairs, a work crew was setting up a stage for the evening's performance by the University of Colima's folkloric dance troupe. Loudspeakers crackled and boomed as the men tested for sound. Roving spotlights sprayed pastels on the rehearsing dancers, who rotated like mannequins around the stage. Half an hour to go before the troupe would burst on stage to the passionate playing of string mariachis.

My friend, Ina Perez, was unfolding chairs on the top of the stairs in front of the stage. Her family always attended cultural events at the town's annual Fiesta de La Virgen de Guadalupe. When she spied me in the crowd, she pointed to an empty chair beside her. Picking my way through the crowd, I wondered where my husband, Bill, had wandered. The show was about to begin.

By the time Bill arrived in the plaza, there was standing room only. Unable to find me and daunted by the prospect of standing for an hour, he strolled towards the food and drink booths. He stopped by a small beverage puesto lit by a dangling light bulb. A small man in theatrical make-up and baggy pantaloons approached him.

The little guy beamed. He was Cantinflas Segundo, the bullfighting clown. This small-town rodeo clown from Guadalajara impersonates the famous Mexican comedy star, Mario Moreno Reyes. In his parodies of class-conscious Mexico, Reyes, the original Cantinflas (1911-1993), entertained the film-going public for decades.

The clown recognized Bill from the afternoon show called an espectáculo. Between events at the show's charlotada (mock bullfight), Cantinflas used Bill and myself, the only gringos in town, as props in his comedy skits. The clown stepped forward, stretching out his hand. At five feet, nine inches, Bill towered above the five-foot clown. As Cantinflas pumped Bill's hand up and down, he burbled greetings in Spanish. Bill caught only a few words.

Cantinflas Cantinflas excused himself and turned towards his two friends. The tall, heavy man extended a hand to Bill, introducing himself. "Castellano Javier. At your service, Señor. My friends here do not speak any English. But they desire to talk with you. If you wish it, I will translate. First, they buy you a drink of ponche."

Bill studied the steam rising from the small cup in the fellow's hand. Disintegrating fruit floated in a murky red bottom. Yesterday he had enjoyed a paler version of ponche in a friend's home. Veteran of many an Irish and English pub-crawl, Bill decided to sample the mildly alcoholic drink. He shook Castellano's hand, answering, "Tell your friends, my name is Bill. They can call me Memo if they like. Sure, I'll join them for a drink."

Castellano swept his hand back towards his friends. "Bueno! This is my amigo, Cantinflas, who I believe you know. And this is his esteemed amigo, Severino Salazar."

Bill recognized the second man as one of the bullfighters from the afternoon espectáculo. He shook the hand of the handsome man with the slightly pockmarked face. Castellano offered Bill his own cup of ponche. He ordered himself another one from the puesto. Bill raised the cup to his lips.

"Down the hatch." He took a swig. "SHEEEEEEEET!!!!!!! What the Devil did you put in that!"

The three Mexicans roared with laughter. Castellano answered with a face split like a half moon. "You like our drink? Picante! That's what we call it." He threw up his hands, "Hot, like our chilies. Like our country. Sabrosito! Riquísmo, no?"

Bill removed his glasses and wiped his streaming eyes with his hand. "Right! More hot sauce than alcohol."

Castellano smacked his big lips. "Tasty…like a woman's kiss."

Cantinflas When his eyes could focus again, Bill licked bits of fruit from his mouth. Suddenly the three men started talking loudly in Spanish. They seemed to be discussing the sixty-year old gringo. Unspoken questions hovered in the air. Were they wondering?

Who was this guy?
Why was he so far off the tourist trail?
How had he managed to show up in an isolated town without even a hotel?

Castellano shrugged his shoulders and turned back to Bill. "My amigos would like to ask you a few questions. Do you mind?"

"Sure, go ahead."

" Bueno…How do you like Mexico? How often have you been in our country? How do you like this town? What do you like about the town?"

Bill replied, "I love Mexico. This is my third trip here. Great town! Wonderful people."

Bill meant every word. The hospitality of Mexican people reminded him of good people everywhere, especially the Irish. Although born in England during World War 11, he visited rural Ireland many times during his first thirty years. Now a Canadian citizen, he joins me, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, on frequent trips to Mexico. Twice we camped with a trailer all over the country with our three children. Several times we flew to Jalisco for a month. This winter, Mexican friends asked us to be guests at their small town fiesta. Next year, we hope to become annual snowbirds to Mexico.

Meanwhile, two dark heads swung towards Castellano for a translation. Then they asked their friend more questions. He drained his cup of ponche and shook his head as if thinking better of their questions. But he leaned his head closer to Bill. "Señor. What the men REALLY want to know…is this. How do you LIKE our Mexican women?"

The question caught Bill completely off-guard. What should he say? Could he get into trouble? He decided to state the obvious. "They're very nice."

Castellano handed his cup to Cantinflas to refill. Showing Bill a mouthful of teeth, the big man motioned his hand at the crowd in the plaza. "When you are in Mexico, amigo…' he paused… "You can enjoy MANY women!"

"Wait a minute. I'm married!"

"Here. That makes no difference. You can have OTHER women."

"Thanks very much. But…I don't need another woman."

Castellano frowned. Cantinflas rolled his eyes. Severino's face darkened. Bill wondered where the conversation was heading. The three men regrouped. When they broke apart, Cantinflas went for more drinks. When he returned, Castellano nodded his head at his friends and turned back to Bill.

"BUT… if you did …want another woman… His eyes darted sideways. "What would you look for in that woman? Our women are so BEAUTIFUL."

His eyes scanned Bill's face. Cantinflas passed them both another drink. Bill accepted the cup of ponche. What could he answer? He'd never been in this spot before.

" Gracias, amigos. He sipped the hot ponche slowly, considering his next words carefully. "Yes. You are right. Mexican women are very beautiful."

Cantinflas Castellano grinned and pressed further, "But do you like the eyes? The big dark eyes. JALISCO eyes!"

The clown fluttered his eyelashes at Bill. The bystanders sitting on nearby concrete benches burst out laughing. Bill now held center stage for the public's enjoyment. When he was sure that all eyes were watching, Castellano swelled his chest and drained his cup and crowed, "The women of GUADALAJARA have the MOST beautiful eyes in ALL THE WORLD!"

Bill didn't want to argue with the big guy. He loved Mexico. Dare he take a chance with these men? Put his feelings to the test? He lubricated his tongue with more ponche. " No…amigos," Bill cast his eyes down as if to study his shoes, "I don't look at the eyes."

Three heads glanced down at the gringo's feet.

"No." He paused dramatically before raising his head, "No… amigos…not the eyes."

Bill swished a little more ponche around his tongue. Cantinflas pulled one ear and fidgeted with his belt. Severino scowled. Castellano stirred the dregs in his cup with a finger.

"No…" Three men fastened their gaze on Bill's face. The buzz of conversation from the bystanders paused. Bill let his words drop into the space. "Because I HAVE BIG DARK EYES!"

Everyone hooted! They'd been had! Castellano draped a big arm over Bill's shoulder. "Ah, Dios! I like you, viejo."

Cantinflas pranced and strutted around the plaza on imaginary high heels. He offered Bill his arm. Bill declined, chuckling, "Besides… amigos…" He took another deep sip. "I think…" He sipped again. "That the lips are…" Ears craned to hear. "MORE …" Eyes riveted on his face. "important than the eyes."

Castellano shook his head; a frown deepened his face as he translated. Severino snorted his disbelief. Cantinflas snickered. His painted eyebrows cracked the pancake make-up clinging to his forehead. What kind of man was this? Time for a team conference. Excluded from the huddle, Bill stepped to the puesto to order a round of drinks for the men. When he returned, Castellano delivered the macho party platform.

"We, MEXICANS," He exclaimed with a glare like cast-iron. "Love women SO MUCH!" He smiled at the bystanders for support. Some heads nodded. He continued. "We try…VERY HARD… to have at least…" He stared Bill straight in the eye. ". . . THREE!"

Bill gulped. He felt out of place and definitely outnumbered. He stared blankly at Castellano. The big man raised his arms, embracing the air. His limbs swooshed to his sides. "AT THE SAME TIME!" He smirked. "One in every part of town."

Castellano's friends slapped his back amid gut-busting guffaws. Inside Bill's head, three cups of ponche were murmuring the secrets of the universe. He just had to share, so raising his plastic cup on high, he proudly continued, "MEN! We, English… have a saying…a woman in every port."

The Mexicans brightened. Bill toasted again. "Amigos. To WOMEN!"

Faces split into smiles. Cups rose, returning the salute. An Aphrodite in fiesta finery sailed across the plaza. Catching the fair wind, Bill hoisted his sails into uncharted waters.

"In truth…" He waited until all eyes were baited. ". . . the first thing I look at is…" His thoughts wriggled like little fishes in a pool of ponche. He grasped the biggest one. ". . . the TOTAL WOMAN!"

The ponche advised Bill further. "Dear amigos…" His cup was empty. "I speak the truth. I DO look at the total woman…" He moistened his lips. "Yes sireeee… the WHOLE ENCHILADA!"

CantinflasSmacking his leg, Castellano boomed in response, "Man! You speak like a REAL MEXICAN."

With the sharing of sangre caliente or hot blood, more verbal spice flew in the night air. Bill enjoyed the exchange immensely. The camaraderie reminded him of his working days on construction crews. He was ready to throw a long ball to his new team.

"It's… VERY…important…" Bill pulled his words way back. Ears like antenna quivered. "that the VOICE be…" He scrubbed the faces of the three Mexicans, and threw the ball to the most likely receiver. ". . . pleasing as well."

Cantinflas nodded and winked. But Castellano had more to say. He lifted his hands to embrace mankind. "Sí… amigo…we Mexicans… think also…" His large hands raised four inches higher. "That the woman's voice……. is…" His hands rose still higher. "Very…important." His arms swooped towards the ground. He grinned. " . . . mañanaaaaaaaaaaa!"

Cantinflas caught the verbal pass and ran for a touchdown. Nimbly, he pretended to pluck his brain from his head and passed it swiftly to his groin, a universal joke. Laughter broke out all around. Bill's turn to be had!

Cantinflas pulled out an imaginary cape. Pretending to flourish the cape, he dodged an imaginary bull. He held the invisible cape out to Bill. What did the clown want him to do? Bill shook his head and asked Castellano to explain.

"He's asking you… if you would like to go in the bullring tomorrow."

"He's got to be joking!"

"Amigo. Don't worry. These men work as a team. They will protect you."

"Tell him. I watched those bulls today. I haven't los huevos! Besides… I just turned sixty."

"Ahhh…you are an old man."

"And my knees are shot."

"No problem. We have a wheel-chair just for YOU!"

Grunting and straining, Cantinflas pushed a phantom wheelchair towards Bill. Shaking his head again, Bill laughed and then asked. "Does it have an engine?"

With a loud grinding of imaginary gears the phantom wheelchair shot backwards, careening around the crowd. Castellano threw back his head, bellowing, "For you, Señor! It even has REVERSE!"

The bystanders nearly peed themselves, laughing.

Unaware of Bill's visit with the bullfighters, I searched for him in the crowd. I felt safe walking in the plaza at night. As I moved towards the puestos, Cantinflas recognized me from the afternoon charlotada. Arms out-stretched he raced towards me. My earlier shyness at the bullring disappeared. I opened my arms wide to greet the little clown.

Cantinflas - Crosby Come to Momma!

Cantinflas dashed straight into my arms. We hugged. He wriggled like a happy puppy. I scooped his light body up and swung him in a circle. When I put him down, Cantinflas drew himself up straight. Taking my hand he tucked it into the crook of his arm and escorted me back to the others.

The Mexicans took turns introducing themselves courteously. Afterwards Cantinflas drew my hand downward and planted a kiss on its back. His fervent Spanish sounded like pure Greek to me. Realizing I didn't understand, he let go of my hand and dashed away to the puesto. Returning shortly, he placed a steaming cup of ponche in my hand. While I savored the drink, Bill described his evening with the men. They seemed eager to talk with me. Were they wondering?

What kind of woman goes with this kind of gringo?

We chatted while waiting for the finale of the evening fiesta. The fiery rickety wooden tower of fireworks or castillo provides an official ending to every evening at 11:00 p.m. Unofficially the party can go until dawn. Bill and I would be experiencing Mexican fireworks for the first time.

We would learn that this is no methodical gringo fireworks display. This multicolored fountain of light show exploded above town. Rockets spewed above trees with ear splitting detonation. Chifladores whistled through the bushes and benches. Fire-spitting wheels gyrated on poles tied in threes. Eight-foot-tall, long Tinker Toy-like structures of tied-together bamboo poles spitted and popped in a sparkling fury.

Castillo - Dale Palfrey When the castillo exploded fifty feet away, children screamed with delight. Some ran away from the unpredictable explosions. Little boys danced beneath the showering sparks of " la lluvia de fuego" (rain of fire), holding pieces of cardboard over their heads. My timidity returned full-force as I jumped erratic buscapies or foot seekers' zigzagging low to the ground.

Cantinflas grabbed my hand.

How sweet! I thought. He wants to protect me.

How wrong!

Cantinflas dragged me towards the sparking castillo. I protested, shaking my hand free.

Smiling and beseeching, he caught hold of my hand again and tugged me towards the castillo.

Is this the safest place? Is he trying to get me to face my fear? Is this guy NUTS?

Jerking free, I skipped up the stairs towards the church. The top of the castillo exploded into the sky. Hissing and spinning, a yard-high fire wheel spun to earth, rushing wildly through the crowd. I watched from the great doorway of Santa Maria Magdalena. When the fiery wheel died, I stepped down the church stairs and back towards the puestos.

I hailed the merry men. "Buenas noches y adios! That's all for me, guys."

Cantinflas clasped me in a good-bye abrazo. Bill and I shook hands with Severino and Castelleno. If the photos of the bullfighting turned out, Bill promised to send them by mail. I asked Castellano, "Where are the bullfighters going after La Fiesta de Guadalupe?"

"A little town outside Guadalajara. They want you and Memo to come with them."

Run off and join the charlotada? What an idea!

I remembered English author Katie Hickman's book, 'A Trip to the Light Fantastic". In 1992 Katie and her husband spent a year travelling with a Mexican circus. Their experiences intrigued me. My mind wanted to jump out of its pocket. I felt like doing something wild and crazy. After all, this trip to Mexico had followed a year of undiagnosed physical agony for Bill. The spectra of cancer or liver disease haunted the gamut of x-rays, scans and scopes. During the final exploratory anesthetic, he felt himself letting go of life. He describes a struggle to return even as the doctors found and removed the source of his physical pain. In the months that followed, he'd gained a new lease on life.

Tonight opportunity knocked, but perhaps it better suited a younger man willing to face excitement with lousy pay and dirty conditions. What did Bill feel about the offer? I teased. "You think that we could go on with the bullfighters?"

"Are you crazy? I want to live! Plus Rose will be returning to Melaque by bus tomorrow."

Snapping back to family reality, I remembered fourteen-year-old Rose. She was visiting Mexican friends in Guadalajara. Our teen-age sons were back home in Canada. Time was short. I spoke a simpler truth to the Mexicans. "Thanks for the invitation. But our plane leaves for Canada in two days."

Castellano clasped my hand goodbye anew.

"Next year amiga. We meet here again. May the Virgen de Guadalupe guide your trip home. May she return you safely to us here in Mexico again."

Mexican Espectaculos - Series Index

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Wendy Devlin © 2001
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