Thanks for the Taco, Big White Head!

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Big white head

“You’re looking for Zacualco… yeah, just turn left at that big white head. It’s just a few kilometers down the road,” said the older lady with salt-and-pepper hair waiting at the bus stop. In fact, she didn’t say it like that because she was speaking Spanish to a lost gringo-fied half-breed Mexican on the side of a road in Jalisco, Mexico. This is the translated response to our half-asked question: “Buenos tardes. Estamos buscando Zacualco?” Intrigued by the rumor of a big white head, we gave profuse thanks to our guide and away we went in a cloud of dust kicked up by my pickup truck.

We’d been driving for hours in an attempt to help my friend, Domingo Valencia, obtain his father’s birth certificate from his hometown. His father, also Domingo, was my great-grandfather’s buddy, and they’d hoisted many a cold one together at the local watering hole. They’d lived, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks in a microcosm called Lincoln Place, filled with exotic immigrants from all over: Mexicans, Armenians, Hungarians, Macedonians, and Croatians. While today it’s quite unusual for an American to speak more than English, Domingo Sr. spoke Spanish, English, and more than a bit of many of the other immigrant languages.

Domingo Jr. was one of what we’d call, in the vernacular of the day, one of my dad’s homeboys. He’d known me since my debut here on planet Earth. I literally could not remember not knowing him, and he could rattle off embarrassing stories about me crapping my pants, playing in mud, and getting in trouble ad infinitum. He and my dad had lived at the local recreation center, paid for by a local steel mill, and played endless games of basketball, corkball, soccer, and Jee-Joes. Jee-Joes is like baseball, except instead of a bat they would use a broom stick and instead of a ball they’d use a bottle cap. It’s pretty amazing to see such a small, fast-moving object being hit out of the air with such a tiny tool.

As adults they’d played soccer and softball together all the time. They’d played so much that it seemed like I’d spent every evening of my little boy summers at a softball field. I could always be found in close proximity to mud; it was just my thing, I guess.

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Angry young man with cows

Fast forward thirty odd years to Mexico, February 2004. I was the driver and interpreter for this little adventure, and loving it. Domingo and his wife Carolyn were down for a week’s vacation in Puerto Vallarta, and we just sort of hatched this scheme over some micheladas. I jumped at the chance for a road trip in Mexico, because I love this country. In a couple hours you can drive through four different eco-systems due to massive elevation shifts. The scenery is eye-popping, ranging from ocean, dry mountains covered in scrub, impenetrable jungle, and sweeping green valleys filled with a bounty of crops. Also, the people in the rural areas are so damn nice you wouldn’t believe it. People will help you out for no other reason than they are kind. Everything and everyone moves at a deliberate pace without hurrying, and the contrast to urban life, something I’ve lived 10 years of, is night and day.

The town of Zacualco del Torres is a typical little berg of the type you’d find in Mexico. It has a little plaza in the center with the church, city hall, and shops. In the evenings people gather there to eat, hang out, and chat. There are vendors selling tacos, hot dogs, and churros. Churros are like funnel cakes, extruded dough shot into a deep fryer then covered with cinnamon and sugar. In Mexico hotdogs often come wrapped in bacon, which is exceedingly tasty, but it also explains why every pharmacy sells the heck out of Zocor.

For me this was exploration, but for Domingo it was a homecoming to a place he’d never been. It was a vicarious thrill seeing his eyes light up, walking the streets his forefathers walked. I felt good being able to help someone live out a dream. He was the first person in his family to have returned to Zacualco in many years.

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Tortilla production specialists

His father had left here in his mid-twenties, having been born here in 1897. His dad’s family had once been very prosperous ranchers with land and horses, but the big white head ruined them. You see, the big white head is an effigy of Emiliano Zapata, the legendary leader in the Mexican revolution. Imagine if George Washington was a handsome stud with a killer mustache who actually went around whooping ass personally, and you’ll have some idea of what a towering figure Zapata is in Mexico. Turns out that Zapata and his guerrilla troops came through Zacualco and commandeered/ripped off all of the Valencia family’s horses. This blew me away when Domingo told the story, because I’m a real sucker for that eyewitness-to-history thing. The fact that a guy from Granite City, Illinois, has an intimate connection with the Mexican Revolution is one of those brilliant threads from which history is woven.

We drove around, had a bite to eat, and watched night fall on this sleepy little place. We asked around about a hotel, and we had two options. In reality we had one option, because the other was described as dirty. Domingo’s wife Carolyn owned a cleaning service, so dirty wasn’t happening. We ended up getting the last two rooms at this little hotel called El Recuerdo, owned by a nice fellow named Santos, better known around town as “Vaca” which means “cow”, not “bull” mind you, but “cow”. We stayed up drinking Tecates with him until about one o’clock in the morning, talking about everything from Los Angeles, where he’d lived for 19 years, to agave, the plant from which tequila is made, to gamecocks. His obsession was cock fighting, and he had a hutch of roosters at home ready to take on all comers.

In the morning he took us to a little taqueria next to the railroad tracks where this clutch of little old ladies made tortillas completely by hand over an open wood-burning stove. It didn’t even face the road, but rather was on this dirt trail next to the railroad tracks. According to our pal Vaca, the railroad workers would stop a whole train in order to chow at this particular spot. It was just a little courtyard, covered and dark, with beams of light shooting through ventilation holes in the south-facing wall, especially visible by virtue of the fragrant mesquite smoke that wafted in the air. The floor was dirt and all the tables and chairs were promotional items for Coca-Cola, possibly decades old. The moment I walked in, I knew instantly that I would be eating something sublime.

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The sign of quality

Everything was made by hand and the only innovation that I saw was the fact that the tortillas were made from a mix of corn and wheat flour. There were three things on the menu: pork, refried beans, and tortillas. You could get tacos or tostadas and that was it. The pork was simply divine, cooked with chiles, cumin, salt, garlic, and whatever other magic they happened to use. They served it with roasted serrano peppers and salsa that was still hot from being cooked. The elapsed time from tortilla production to consumption was around two minutes. The pig was probably on the hoof a day or two before being in my taco. I could have easily eaten 20 tacos, but I controlled myself, thinking of my girlish figure and the fact I needed to be lucid all day. Eating 20 tacos at nine in the morning would have left me a bloated wreck for the rest of the day.

I’ve tried to make tortillas, and I’ve failed to produce anything resembling a circle. These old ladies just rocked them out with the perfection of pi, over and over again, chatting at the speed of gossip, in a perfunctory routine of motion and sound that had been going on for about 20 years according to Vaca.

Later we went downtown to take care of our business of procuring documents. In our compulsion to be polite we took a seat and started waiting patiently in a room for the church notary to obtain the baptismal records, surrounded by a group of women… just women. Since waiting is a nearly universal condition in Mexico I thought nothing of it. They kept looking at Domingo and I like there was something odd about us, something beyond being Americans. A couple of the ladies started chatting with us in Spanish, and one older lady chided me for scratching my legs, recently feasted upon by a swarm of mosquitoes. She told me that my legs were very nice and that it was a shame to scratch them.

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Better than any burger joint

She eyed me like an appraiser and I could see the gears turning in her head. Mexican grandmothers, like many ethnic grandmas, are on a constant patrol to find someone to marry their grandkids off to. Male or female, it simply doesn’t matter, it’s just their job, and they take it seriously. The fact that I was so polite, spoke halfway decent Spanish, and looked like some guy on a Mexican soap opera had the ladies eyeing me like buyers examining a horse to be auctioned off.

It’s kind of flattering for sure, because being introduced to a girl or guy by a relative carries a lot of weight in this culture. My business partner’s mother, who has adopted me as family, drags me from wherever I am in the house to introduce me to girls she likes. She tells me to have faith in her “good eye” for nice girls. I must admit she’s never introduced me to one that’s the least bit hard on my eyes. As the matriarch of one of the best families I’ve ever had the pleasure to know, she just wants everyone to have that in their lives.

It turned out we were waiting for nothing. The notary was available, and I was horrified to find out why they were staring at us like beings descended from Mars. These women had been waiting to see the local gynecologist, and were wondering what two men were doing in line. It just so happened that the waiting room was between the notary and the doctor’s office. Clearing up that one was a solid guffaw for the ladies there, but they weren’t really laughing at us, just the situation.

After it was sorted out and everyone had a good chuckle I imagined these ladies talking to the family over dinner about us. They of course would be hovering over the table in the compulsive tortilla-slinging manner of Mexican grandmas, sitting only for 30 seconds at a time, and recounting this hilarious tale of the two guys at the gynecologist’s office. I imagine a line from the conversation: “Y mira querida, ese muchacho parece el mismo de Valentin Lanus de su telenovela favorite!” (Translation: “Honey, that guy looked exactly like Valentin Lanus from your favorite soap opera!”)

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