The marimba band filled the breezy space with a rippling rhythm, a tropical river of notes and glissandos, bird-light tunes. Sancho responded to the music from home with a roll of the hips and shy smile.
Sancho Panse, the Juchitan piñata maker, left Tiger Mountain near the Turtle Coast after his beloved mother died in Juchitan de Zaragoza when he was 17 years old. His sister would have been more than happy to have him move to her 40-hectare ranchito, but Sancho was too depressed to even think of that now. Even his nieces and nephews couldn’t cheer him. Instead, he went looking for love in the big city of Oaxaca de Juarez. He came very close on the eight hour bus ride up into the Sierra. But the big, beautiful man with soulful Indian eyes, so like Sancho’s own, did not wave good-by when his wife and children met him at the bus station on Avenida Niños Heroes de Chapultepec. Sadly, Sancho hoisted his few belongings over his shoulder and turned downhill toward the heart of Oaxaca. “Ah! If Oaxaca even has a heart, I will win it,” thought Sancho.
His life had centered on the marketplace and his mother’s fruit stand there. Of course, he had gone to school, too. But year after year, since he was only a boy of six, he and his mother had laughed and joked as they sewed hibiscus borders on his sister’s beautiful blouses or made lewd remarks as the men of Juchitan came by on their errands. How delighted she had been when he first picked up his sister’s little dolls and parted their hair into braids as she clucked encouragingly. “My little muxe! My own dear one. Your mother will love you forever!” The neighbor women, traditional matriarchs of the town and owners of properties, congratulated his mami on such a prize. Never would she be alone when her daughters grew and left to head their own families. Such was the way of life of the Zapotecs of the Tehuantepec isthmus. But she would always have this one, this child of two spirits, muxe.
Making the piñatas, trimming and gluing, cutting and forming the papier mache came to him naturally. No party thrown by the family was complete without Sanchito’s contribution; a clown, a toucan, a giant carrot filled with sweets and sugar cane, jocote plums and oranges, and adorned tastefully with cut paper and rope hair. The neighbors, the whole town came to him at birthdays and baptisms, weddings even! He thought of these things as he walked down Avenida Juarez and so almost missed the Parque Llano with its life-sized stone lions at each corner. A sharp whistle dissolved his daydream but caught his attention. Several young men his age gestured excitedly and one finally broke from the group to speak to him.
“Hello! We see you’re new here. From the isthmus, yes? How absolutely marvelous! Come, come and chat with your compadres.” The boy, in beach shorts and soccer shirt, shooed him along, cajoling and flirting until Sancho followed with a smile. Five young men held court on two park benches under the shade of a jacaranda tree. The youngest, the slim fellow who had brought Sancho over, called himself Martina. “I dance every night with the Guelaquetza troop at Hotel Monte Alban,” he boasted.
“Is that what you call it?” jibed a fat fellow in a large huipil with blue jeans to finish the look. The rest laughed as fatty grabbed for Martina who danced away. Fatty turned to Sancho and explained, “I am a baker at Pan Bambi. Also, I am late to work. Maybe we’ll talk later.” This one vacated a spot on the bench and Sancho sat down heavily. Sancho was no little man, either. He was of the classic pattern for his homeland; a fireplug, short and sturdy. He pulled his shoulder length black hair into a bundle and re-clipped it away from his smooth golden face, straightened his trousers and jacket.
The banter continued, teasing yet friendly. One fellow, a serious one, never smiled but followed the talk. He finally burst out at Martina, scolding him. “You are going to get very sick and die. Do you use the shields I gave you? No! I don’t think so. Come with me right now to the Center and see the sick ones.” He shook his head sadly and Martina began to cry.
“Oh, this is too much. Can’t we just have fun without you bringing your doom into it?” The last and tallest boy chastised the serious one until they all fell silent in the shade.
Passersby waved and one angry old gringo rushed up and pulled Martina aside. Sancho was alarmed by this one. The man held Martina’s arm and asked over and over, “Have you seen Jose? Where is he? Where is he? Oh, that whore!” Finally, he walked quickly away with tittering laughter at his back.
Sancho tired then, and a sort of sadness came with that. Already he missed his little booth at the market. A tear ran down his cheeks, silencing his new friends’ laughter once more. The little dancer ran to him with a hug and grasped his hand. “You need some sleep. Do you have money for a hotel? Because you could just come home with me. There’s a hammock on my patio.”
“I have some pesos, still. But could you show me a good place. I’m just so tired that I can’t think anymore.” Sancho held his travel bundle to his chest, head bowed as little Martina led him away across the park toward El Centro. They crossed the Zocalo and stopped a block from the Juarez Market on Bustamante at number 212, the Hotel Aurora. Sancho and Martina stepped delicately across bags of Cruz Azul cement to the tiny office where Martina did the talking. In a few minutes, Sancho had a half a room for 500 pesos for a week. The other half of the room was unfinished, just bare concrete, but the price was right and the full bathroom was made private with a plastic curtain. Martina gave him a little kiss and a pat before slipping back out.
Sancho sat on the double bed with his bundle. Then he laid down flat with his bundle on the side table there.
The sound of the Juarez Market crowded with people was like home. He could have fallen asleep but there were things to do first. Inside his bundle was a spiral notebook where he kept his records. He pulled that out first and wrote 500 pesos and the date in red ink. Gently unwrapping the rest of the bundle, Sancho laid out a heavily embroidered red and gold blouse and long skirt, his Mother’s wedding dress, his inheritance. “I will find a good man,” he confirmed in his mind. The third item, a leather wallet stuffed to bursting with dowry money, he tucked under his stomach as he fell to sleep. He slept soundly until dark, then showered and spent two more hours making up his face for the night and dressing.
Instead, he saw Martina flirting with a slight, blond gringo over by the balloon vendors. Martina turned just then and caught Sancho’s eye on him. It took a second, but Martina recognized him and excitedly rushed over with the gringo in tow.
“Well, look at you! Already out and you just got here.” Martina was dressed for the evening in mini-skirt and halter top, the perfect little chick. She held onto her gringo who was obviously enjoying the whole scene, including his very gay escort. “Joseph has a friend, don’t you Joseph?” Joseph nodded. “Well, see if he wants to go to the club with us!” Martina shooed him off and sat at Sancho’s table and stared at Sancho. “You look perfect! That blouse! Your face! I hardly recognized you.”
“This is my Mother’s wedding dress, Martina.”
“Amazing, just amazing. Wait until they see you at the Club. La Juchicootchie-teca! That’s what I’ll call you! Simply everyone will be there. May I touch that embroidery? Real gold thread, isn’t it?” Martina was beside himself with the whole discovery of Sancho in drag. It made his own world seem so much the better, more justified. Sancho ate his meal untroubled and serene despite Martina’s delighted eye on him. There was nothing new about it to Sancho. At home, he often went for weeks in a less spectacular version of this same dress. Tonight he had higher hopes. He invited Martina to a drink as they waited for Joseph to return with his friend.
Joseph and friend arrived a half hour later. The friend was a slightly tipsy French boy about Sancho’s own age. “Well, he will do for tonight,” thought Sancho primly. A woman unescorted is just looking for trouble. Sancho was looking for a husband and he knew exactly what he wanted; an older man, kind but not weak, perhaps with a good education but willing to live in Juchitan. The foursome crossed to Avenida Independencia and hailed a cab.
Martina sat in the front seat and directed the cab to the “502.” Sancho took the middle spot between the two foreigners who spoke in English but were otherwise quite respectful. Joseph teased at Martina’s hair-do until she slapped his hand and called him un jotito. “You don’t know how long it takes to get my hair like this. Hours, simply hours of spraying and teasing. Please, just stop. I’ll give you something better before long, don’t worry.” Joseph laughed but let her alone as they pulled to the curb in front of a very non-descript door. “Give the driver twenty pesos, Joseph,” Martina instructed as she rapped on the door with a coin.
The door opened and the group moved inside to a desk where they passed inspection. It was loud with disco music and bright with flashing lights. The man at the desk asked for forty pesos a piece. “Give the man one hundred and sixty pesos, Joseph,” Martina instructed. Joseph laughed and goosed Martina but paid up. They passed into the light. And everyone was there. Fatty waved from his table where the tall boy sat across from him dressed in a lovely evening gown. The old gringo and probably Jose stood at the bar watching them. Probably Jose waved to Martina and they all went to the bar to order. The serious one was there serving drinks, a tray with condoms by his cash register. He nodded to Sancho as he set four Sol beers on the bar. Martina whirled off to dance with Joseph leaving the French boy and Sancho to find a table. Sancho led him to a far table, whirled the voluminous skirts of Mother’s wedding dress aside and sat.
The French boy drank his beer in one gulp and waved vaguely to the bartender for another round. He gulped that one, too, and excused himself to the bathroom. It seemed forever that he was gone, but Sancho finally saw him dancing alone in the strobe light and felt relieved. They had nothing in common, not even a language. The beer was good and cold. He tried to see the other patrons sitting on the edges but it was difficult. One dark-eyed man caught his eye. This one stared at him and then bent to his table intently for minutes seeing nothing. Sancho became curious and watched him more closely. When next he looked up and saw Sancho watching, he smiled and winked setting Sancho’s heart aflutter. He barely managed to smile back but it was enough. The dark stranger lifted his beer in salute, closed the book on his table and rose.
“You are very beautiful. I was just sketching you.” He stood over Sancho and his shadow warmed the very place on his spine where his Mother’s spirit lived.
“Oh, you’re an artist! How perfect,” Sancho gushed. “May I see?”
The fine Mexican man laughed, “It would be hard in this light, my friend. Shall we go somewhere brighter, perhaps.”
“Of course,” agreed Sancho. They left together arm in arm and not Martina or Fatty, the tall boy, the serious one, nor any of them ever saw them again. Isn’t that fabulous?