Mexican songs. Mexican movies. Mexican songs in Mexican movies. In my childhood, as today, Mexico was a powerhouse of Latin American media, today television and back in the day movies. Though I grew up obsessed with American movies, I also grew up with television, which took off in Cuba when I was a kid. Before a flood of American TV shows hit the small screen, broadcast time was filled with Spanish-language films, some from Spain and Argentina, but the bulk from Mexico.
The brilliant comedies of Cantinflas, some noir-like urban dramas, an occasional swashbuckler, but mostly charro movies, the Mexican equivalent of Westerns. Charros are Mexican cowboys and though today they dress in jeans and Stetsons, the movies showed them in the traditional gear that has survived as mariachi outfits and charreada (Mexican rodeo) gear. Like American Westerns these movies glorified cattle culture, and though there wasn't much cowpunching, they focused on ranch life -- like many Western words, "ranch" comes from rancho. The plot had more romance than north of the border, and the charros often sang the tunes still known as rancheras.
In those movies I saw the great singing charro Pedro Infante and the equally popular Jorge Negrete, who brought a classically trained voice to the singing of rancheras. Though I was and still am a huge fan of Hollywood Westerns, some charro traits made more sense to me. For one, and I'm not the first to say this, they looked more like the men I saw around me -- they were Latin and wore mustaches. And they didn't ride off into the sunset leaving the lovesick girl behind. They grabbed the girl by the waist and swung her up on the horse before galloping away, like the Centaurs with the Sabines. Since that was precisely what I wish I could do -- if I were strong, macho and knew how to ride -- the charros' erotic appetite was more to my liking than the cowboys' romantic reticence.
But mostly, I grew up with the songs and with an idealized view of Mexico. Yes, the charros were pathologically prone to gunplay over questions of honor -- a syndrome I would learn was called machismo, which at first had nothing to do with the oppression of women but with man-on-man violence. But so were the cowboys with their theatrical showdowns.
Mexican and Cuban showbiz enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. While we loved Mexican songs and admired the matinee idols of Mexican cinema -- and its notorious femme fatale María Félix. They loved our dance music -- at different times the Cuban danzón and the Cuban mambo became the national dances of Mexico -- and they imported Cuban dancers and bands for their musicals and live performances: both Pérez Prado and Beny Moré became stars in Mexico before they did so in their native Cuba. Mexican showbiz partied in Havana. One individual in particular is worth mentioning.
When in The Wild Bunch, Angel, the gang's Mexican member, sees his sweetheart canoodling with General Mapache he whips out his gun and aims it in their direction. Everyone, including the spectator, thinks he's going to blow the vile old general away, but instead, in a fit of machismo, he yells "¡Puta!" And kills her. Still that was enough of an offence to cause Angel to be dragged behind the General car's to suffer a tortured death. And it prompts the bunch to follow William Holden's legendary "Let's go" and start the famously beautiful choreographed carnage that concludes the film.
Mapache was played by Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, who enjoyed brilliant movie careers in both Mexico and the US, often playing that role of Mexican Revolution general/bandido. The original "Bandito." And though in Peckinpaw's masterpiece he's as lovely as Jabba the Hut, in his youth he was known as "the beautiful Indian" (lore has it he was the model for the Oscar statuette) and he would come to Havana and step out of the grand Hotel Nacional in a white line suit, dazzling the local ladies. He was also a director and was hired by Cuba to lens a biopic of José Martí, La Rosa Blanca, a very bad movie. My father, who worked for the foundation that produced the film, knew him and told stories about him. It seems El Indio took machismo seriously and always packed a gun; rumor had it that he'd killed with it. I won't mention his (successful) attitude toward women because I know my female readers won't find it cute.
Mexico was all around me growing up. I wouldn't visit it until I was around 30, but by then I felt more than familiar with the country. Of course, by then I had already read Paz, Fuentes and the great Juan Rulfo, and in that first visit I heard talks by Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska, met Gustavo Sainz and read the very hip novelist José Agustín. I had a passing acquaintance with the muralists, though not with Frida Kahlo. And, for the first time, I ate real Mexican food.
What a revelation! No, it was not all chili hot, but much of it was. It felt burning as I ate, but the more I ate the more I wanted, tears rolling down my eyes. What was this? The S&M of gastronomy? In a way. I would learn the body, reacting to the burning sensation released endorphins, which made you feel, well, good. In other words, indirectly chilis get you high. And like most high-inducing substances, the more you have the more you want. Mexicans are addicted to their own endorphins, I would conclude. But I did not meditate on that during my first visit, for the Emperor Moctezuma reared his vengeful head.
(To be continued)