The night my father met my mother, the plaza was drunk with the smell of corundas. Corundas are particular to the state of Michoacán. Wrapped with fresh green corn leaves, their circular shape is about the size of a small fist, depending on who makes them. Their white corn dough bodies are usually filled with a red tomato salsa (or some other salsa, could be anything). Sprinkled throughout the salsa are pungent crumbs of queso cotija (or some other cheese). Usually corundas are paired with pig. That is to say: carne de chile con puerco—pork loins or pork butts or shoulders braised in a roasted tomatillo salsa. Don’t alter this. The salsa should be made with tomatillos. Let them ripen in soft sunlight to get the best quality. On a plate, finishing touches are streaks of crema, which is like sour cream, but no no no no no: it isn’t anything like sour cream. It has a runnier consistency, not as sour of a taste, a higher fat content. You have to buy crema from Doña Chema. She has the best location in all the plaza. Everyone trusts her quality. No one knows exactly how she makes her crema. No one asks. It’s enough to know that Doña Chema’s crema is the crema you need when you need crema for corundas.
Corundas are sold by many vendors in the plaza. People are forced to make a living somehow. You have the option of choosing, doesn’t matter if you’re just a visitor to the town. The welcome sign says BIENVENIDOS A TANGANCICUARO. I’m about to tell you something because I know: don’t waste your time on those struggling vendors. Walk straight to the trees opposite the old cathedral. Stand facing the ice cream shop and there on the sidewalk you will see the food stand of Doña Lilia. She is the one you should buy corundas from. She gets her crema from Doña Chema.
Doña Lilia makes delicious and beautiful corundas. You’re going to want to buy at least two of them. When you’re done eating, you’re going to want to lick the dough that’s stuck to the corn leaves and when a spoon isn’t enough to scrape the smears of tomatillo salsa from your plate, use your fingers. Swipe. Then suck and slurp your fingers like an unashamed person.
Now, Doña Lilia may or may not be related to my parents by blood. These things are difficult to tell sometimes in México. You have to do a whole genealogy, which can take too much time, so usually two last names are enough. If you have to go back any further than that, then that means you’re really in love with the person or you want to make sure that having sex with them isn’t forbidden. There are all kinds of entanglements that happen among cousins, but since I’m not an anthropologist, I couldn’t particularly tell you these things. Suffice it to say that Doña Lilia was not known to be related to either of my parents, but she knew both of them as if she was. Such was her standing in Tangancícuaro: she was like a communal godmother.
And so, because she knew everyone, Doña Lilia, in addition to her corundas, could be counted on for reports about her customers. It was for this latter service that my father approached the stand and said, “Doña Lilia, good evening.”
Doña Lilia was a light-skinned woman, short, and had what some ill-meaning people called brazos de pozolera, meaning: arms fat enough with muscle to stir big pots of pozole and menudo and other stews. Don’t get it twisted: to have such heavy arms was a good thing, a sign of health. Wiping her white and blue apron with her thick hands attached to brazos de pozolera, she said to my father, “Good evening, Sebastián. What shall we give you?”
At her side was her assistant, whom everyone referred to as El Mudo for the simple fact that he never spoke.
My father that night said to Doña Lilia, “Doña Lilia, give me two, please.”
Doña Lilia to her assistant: “Give Sebastián two.”
That was their operating style: él servía, ella cobraba. He served, she charged. Her policy was to not handle food and money at the same time so no one would get sick from eating there, not like from the struggling vendors who seemed to sell indigestion, diarrhea, and other stomach maladies. Some gossipers I know say it was because they handled both food and money with the same unwashed hands. In any case, in the case of Doña Lilia’s operation, she kept food and money separate.
My father had an idea on his brain. He meant to inquire and he did: “Who was the young woman who stopped by here just now? I’ve never seen her before. Who is she?”
“You don’t know her?” Doña Lilia said. “She’s a daughter of the carpenter.”
“You surely have seen his shop before,” she continued. “It is by the new road that leads to La Unidad.”
My father received the two corundas and all the carne con chile and crema and paid immediately.
“I do know where that shop is,” he said. “But I’ve never seen that woman before. Do you know her name?”
“Her name is Berenice,” Doña Lilia said.
“What’s her last name?” my father asked.
“Bear with me one moment,” Doña Lilia said, needing to receive the next customers and attend to them.
My father, not wanting to be rude, said thank you and walked away.
He stood in front of the cathedral on steps as wide as an amphitheater. He had developed the habit of eating while standing, but no he was not a horse, which is what some people say about those who eat standing up. How could he be a horse? He was a farmworker, working on a local farm after school every day. These were the types of habits that needed to be developed in order to be a good worker person. And so, my father stood on those steps, which were made of red stone like bricks or lava rocks, igneous formations, hot. The whole cathedral establishment was like that. It was like that in fact not unsimilar to that really famous church close to the volcano Paricutín, the one forever known in the history books for having stopped the advance of lava. What happened in that town was that almost everything got eaten—all the cornfields, many people—but when the flows and throes and Kelvin-degree fire encroached upon the altar of the church there it stopped and said, Oh, hello you, altar, tabernacle, wafers of bread and all that wine. I guess I’ll park myself here and freeze with you. I would love that.
That’s exactly how it happened in the town close to Paricutín, whenever it was that it exploded and almost killed a church forever. Nowadays, everyone goes there to see for themselves. It’s quite miraculous, beautiful. I went there once. It was very hot, all that sulfur, wasn’t afraid of the volcano though, whatever its name was. Paricutín. It was dormant.
The night my father met my mother, he gulped down those corundas and then littered in front of the church. Can you believe what happened next?
My father continued walking that night, inserting himself into what I like to call the round-a-round choreography. Here it begs some explanation. The round-a-round choreography goes like this: wrapping around the central gazebo, three concentric circles rotate in alternating directions. Innermost circle walks in one direction and stays like that. Just keep going, keep walking in that direction. All night, the inner circle spins—counterclockwise or clockwise, depending on who gets there first. Let’s say it goes clockwise. That’s more or less how I remember it. The important thing about the inner circle: it’s for single ladies.
Now, second circle: single gentlemen walk in the opposite direction as the inner circle. Same pace. Not faster. Not slower. Same pace.
Final circle is a privilege. It’s reserved for couples. Back in the day, you needed a partner of the opposite sex to join this circle. Nowadays, you can be anyone with anyone. The point is you need two.
Simple enough? Which one do you think my father inserted himself into?
The second one. He snuck past the outer circle (you have to find a seam) and joined the procession of young men. He was Sebastián. He was looking for Berenice.
Berenice could be found in the inner circle. She was walking with two of her girlfriends, eating an ear of corn slathered with mayonnaise and queso cotija and powdered chile. Standing in the middle of her posse, Berenice was busy laughing her ass off about something and my father was nervous as shit. He felt the silly heart inside his chest start leaping. It was going to explode inside of him, he was sure of it. Alas, Berenice passed and he missed his opportunity.
Homie almost decided then and there he needed to go home and drink some nurhíteni tea to calm his ass down. That is the herbal tea that is like medicine in Michoacán. Similar to spearmint, its primary medicinal use is to alleviate stomach maladies. It works for other things, too. I know about the stomach part because two times I tried it. Once, I was trying to watch a movie with a female in college and I’d eaten too many corundas. Andaba todo empachado. I had really bad gas. The shit was about to explode from my anus. I thought to myself, Damn. I’m about to unload in this girl’s dorm room and she’s going to smell it. I should probably go to the bathroom and get rid of this shit. Yeah, I tried going into the bathroom and farting but there was so much gas inside me it was still clenching my guts when I got back into the dorm room. I don’t even remember what movie we were watching. All through it, I was too preoccupied burping up fiery fumes of corundas and Coca-Cola. Shit was nasty. Homegirl was nice about it, though. Eventually, I had to tell her. Ey. Uh. I know you wanted to fuck me tonight but I have to go home. Okay? Bye. And then I ran home and suffered! I didn’t have nurhíteni tea that time.
My father, Sebastián—not needing nurhíteni because he knew the reality was he simply had inherited his family’s propensity for nervousness—suffered through a panic attack, then continued somehow standing. He kept walking. He had some time before the round-a-round choreography would deliver him to my mother for a second chance to change his approach up and greet her. He didn’t know how he would do it.
He wanted to do it in the style that was customary: with confetti, rainbow-colored paper circles sold in little plastic bags. They were sold every night in the plaza. The traditional custom was as follows: males who wanted to tell a female hello would grab a small handful of confetti and sprinkle it on the woman’s hair, gently applying, caressing, expressing interest. It was a total creeper move. Some guys exaggerated the whole thing. The most heavily exaggerated guys leaned in and brushed her hair like this: beginning at the roots, then inching down her back and resting on her lumbar region. The brushing was a gentle motion, the hand kept close but far. The woman needed to feel the man without getting her hair messed up. The technique was to sprinkle, not touch. An accompanying move needed to be performed in coordination. It consisted of leaning in face-to-face until your noses…almost…but didn’t…kiss. More often than not, the woman turned away and feigned disgust. She had her reputation to consider. Besides, as I’ve already said, this exaggerated move is performed by the most exaggerated guys. No one wants those guys. They are wannabe gangsters. They do not have money. Their breath smells like shit. Those guys never reach the second step in the dating dance of the round-a-round choreography.
The second step was asking the señorita the question: Me permites acompañarte? If she said yes, the little señor and the little señora would find seams in the choreography and arrive to the outer circle reserved for couples. They would walk and talk and get to know each other. Flower vendors would be positioned on the outside, selling roses. If the walk talk was going good, the potential boyfriend might choose to buy his potential girlfriend a rose. They would walk around until the woman decided it was time. It was over. She wanted to go somewhere.
At this point in the juncture, a variety of possibilities lay ahead. After all, the entire plaza would be booming with activities. There was traditional dancing near the gazebo. In a corner of the plaza there was a modern disco for freak dancing. There were food stands everywhere. There was the cathedral where they could go inside and pray if they wanted to. There were many things that could be done as a couple. The most egregious plan of activity was having sex inside a pig corral.
Local pig farmers had been getting slaughtered by the meat markets. These struggling farmers had no choice but to emigrate, sell their souls to a United States agribusiness company, thus leaving behind corrals for mischievous young people to use and fuck their brains out with a condom on or without a condom on if she’s on birth control and they’re both wise and without disease. De cualquier modo, lovers would grunt in the grips of passion. They would bite each other and squirm. She would cum. He would cum. They’d wait some time, then do it again. When the sun was coming up and their parents were at home not knowing where they were, believing them when they’d said, I’m going to stay the night at a friend’s house, when it was about that time to go home and dream about each other, they’d put their clothes back on. If their clothes were dirty and the parents asked, What happened? the unashamed lover would say, I fell.
These two words were enough to get into the shower and take a short nap before going to school, pretending what happened the night before didn’t happen, knowing deep inside what you wanted was a farm and a farmhouse, so you can have sex inside like a decent person, like a respectable person would if they didn’t have to abscond to pig corrals in order to cop an orgasm from sex or oral sex or just plain and simple handwork.
The night my father met my mother, he wasn’t dreaming about going there with her. There were other things more immediate, bigger problems.
- The vato had spent all his money on corundas.
- Consequently, he didn’t have money for confetti.
- Consequently, he couldn’t try out the super creeper move on my mother’s hair.
Damn. Plan B? What was that? He only had a few minutes before the round-a-round choreography would deliver him to Berenice positioned in the middle of her two friends. He didn’t have confetti. He didn’t have money to buy confetti. He had no choice but to steal some.
My father approached from afar. He spotted the poor boy standing on the left side of Doña Lilia’s corundas stand. He was waiting for a plate. He had the saddest look in town. He wasn’t a beggar, though. He had long ago learned that begging got him nothing.
That night, the boy received a profession, his first job. He inherited the job from another boy, a scraggly teenage confetti vendor who that night told him, “Aren’t you ashamed of being a beggar?”
The boy didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t a beggar. It was true. He wasn’t a beggar.
“Are you even a boy?” the older boy said. “Your hair is long, dirty. You should cut it.”
The boy didn’t have money for a haircut. He didn’t have anywhere to wash his hair. His hair grew wild like that, natural.
“You should get out of here,” the older boy said. “I’m going to want to hurt you.”
On the left side of Doña Lilia’s corundas stand was the boy’s place. He didn’t feel the need to go anywhere.
“Get out of here,” the older boy said. “I don’t want to see you.”
The boy didn’t understand why the older boy was angry. That boy had a job. He sold confetti.
“If you don’t get out of here,” the older boy said, “I’m going to beat you.”
The boy was used to people treating him with violence. The other boys in town harassed him. The girls made fun of him. Older men and women looked away.
“If you don’t stop bothering me,” the older boy said, “I’m going to find your mother and fuck her beautifully.”
The boy didn’t know his mother. The boy didn’t know his father.
The older boy balled both his fists and delivered a right cross to the boy’s left eye. The boy stumbled backward. He fell. He started crying.
“Do you see now?” the older boy said. “Do you see what happens?”
The boy lay on the ground bleeding from his eye. The skin on his cheek had ruptured. The left side of his face was swollen. It was going to turn into a black eye. He knew this from experience.
My father arrived in that moment and grabbed the older boy by the shirt collar.
“You stupid boy,” he told him. “Why did you hit him?”
“I hit that booger face,” the older boy said, “because he was bothering me.”
“And do you believe that that’s a good reason to hit a person?”
The older boy said yes.
“In that case,” my father said. “Receive this slap from me, you fool.”
My father slapped him with the full force of his palm. The older boy started crying.
“And so that you learn,” my father said, “give one of your bags to this poor boy.”
The older boy, humiliated, surrendered a bag of confetti to the younger boy, who was still bleeding and crying, now whimpering. The younger boy received the confetti with bloody and dirty hands.
“Now get out of here,” my father said. “Go cry at home.”
The older boy ran off crying.
My father approached the younger boy.
“My little son,” he said. “Are you okay?”
Little son was a pet name for little boys.
“More or less,” the boy said.
“In that case, so that you feel better, I am going to give you a plate of corundas.”
My father placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. He guided him to the front of the corundas stand.
“Good evening again, Sebastián,” Doña Lilia said. “More corundas?”
“Not for me,” said my father. “They are for the boy.”
“Ah,” said Doña Lilia. “The poor boy who always stands here. I give him a plate every night, but never before I finish selling.”
“Faith it to me,” my father said. “I will pay you later.”
“That is fine but pay me soon,” Doña Lilia said as her assistant dished up two corundas.
“You know that I have a job in the fields,” my father said. “It is only a matter of reaching for some pesos from where I have them hiding.”
“I know you are a good person, Sebastián,” Doña Lilia said. “You do not have to explain.”
My father left the boy at Doña Lilia’s stand. The boy was badly injured from his eye. In his left hand, he was clutching a single confetti bag and on his right hand he received a full plate of corundas: his first real meal of the day.
The problem for my father was the same. He had no money to buy confetti and to top everything off he now owed the price of two corundas. He had also exaggerated his wages. Every peso he received from working in the fields he gifted to his family, save for a little stash he used for buying food in the plaza. He had that night spent the last of his dinero. In order to greet Berenice, he was going to need to come up with a better plan.
The better plan was simple. He was going to wing it, improvise, make it up. What else could he do? Sebastián had no confetti and no money and he wasn’t about to steal a confetti bag from a struggling vendor, not after already having participated in an extreme act of violence. I almost can’t believe he considered stealing confetti. A poor boy could’ve got his ass kicked. Instead, two poor boys got their asses kicked but at least one boy was redeemed by corundas.
Let us continue with the tale. No confetti. No money.
My father inserted himself back into the second concentric circle of the round-a-round choreography. He didn’t know where my mother was. He continued walking. The man was on the prowl. The homie was a tiger. Wannabe gangster was a gangster. He was a sweetheart looking for his love. In the second concentric circle he had less than a full rotation to ascertain forever whether or not my mother remained in the tortuous dance of the round-a-round choreography.
My mother remained. He spotted her in the distance, flickering in and out of his vision as other people’s bodies moved between them. The ebb and flow was slowly delivering my father to my mother, but the round-a-round choreography was finicky. Sometimes, the procession got backed up, as it did now. My father had to wait for the circles to regain tempo. He darted his head left and then right, trying to see past the crowd in front of him, but he couldn’t. Forced to stand still, he closed his eyes and breathed and listened to the sounds of his people talking excitedly in the plaza. When he felt someone nudge his back, he opened his eyes and saw that the flow had resumed. He could see her approaching. Berenice wasn’t laughing. She was scouting. Her face was solemn and serious and stern. My father was struck by lightning. In the split second when their eyes met, he winked an eye.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen