Apr/May 2023  •   Travel

Return to the Verde Antequera

by Marisa Cadena

A face in the public domain

A face in the public domain

After a challenging start—a hangover, traffic, misunderstood directions, misplaced luggage and a frantic dash across the gigantic Mexico City airport to a missed connection, intermixed with a few waves of nausea, a couple rounds of hot tears, a sweat-soaked shirt and a cold beer—I had finally arrived. When my taxi pulled up to the house, Rubén was outside waiting. The Rodríguez family had grown concerned when I didn't show up hours earlier. I asked Rubén if he remembered me. He assured me he did, gave me a firm hug, and carried my bags inside. It had been a long and disorienting trip, but sitting in the kitchen chatting with the Rodríguez sisters, Juana and Martina, helped to settle my nerves and build back a little of the confidence I had lost in travel. The whole family also expressed enthusiasm for helping me to improve my Spanish, and Rubén was eager to show me around town once I got settled. I bid the family good night and retired to my room to unpack and shower. I didn't know if there wasn't any hot water or if I simply couldn't figure out how to work it. I didn't have the energy to ask. And to be honest, I was a little embarrassed. I took a cold shower and passed out.

I awoke the next morning to a cacophony of new sounds: strange bells clamoring, people shouting, loud car engines, and someone who wanted to be a drummer but had yet to master the skills. Though as I learned years before, the source of every sound is not always what you imagine it to be. In the light of day, my room was more peach-colored than it had appeared at night. I don't think the suite existed when I was there three years before, or at least not in its present form. It was a simple room just large enough to fit a bed, TV, and dresser with a humble bathroom attached. Suddenly, it all felt very real. I lay in bed, acutely aware I was on my own. I had left behind routine, familiarity, and friends. I was untethered.

The first few days I spent getting my bearings by wandering the cobblestone streets, going to museums and churches, eating nieves and drinking coffee, watching the world go by. I don't recall ever being so quiet. My eyes and ears devoured all the newness. I had experienced little of the world beyond books and vacations, save for that first trip to Oaxaca, which had birthed my obsession. My naiveté was vital to digesting the beautiful and experiencing the ugly. I tried to be a keen observer, attempting to see without judgment, to acknowledge my position. I was lonely, but I made a concerted effort to steer clear of other English speakers, especially North Americans. I wanted to learn from the locals, get to know the city through their eyes, not galavant around with other obnoxious foreigners. I kept thinking back to the 16-year-old me experiencing Oaxaca for the first time. We were all assholes: oblivious, arrogant children running around without a concept of consequence or effect. And while the city and people had made a profound impact on my life, I knew I had not reciprocated.

At the house, I spent most of my time in the kitchen, not eating but rather talking with anyone willing to entertain my questions and conversation. Every family member was generous and patient, offering their own inquiries and stories. And when I did eat, they went out of their way to accommodate my (short-lived) vegetarian diet. I ended up consuming more than a healthy quantity of tortillas and quesillo. Everyone's life was easier when I reintroduced meat into my diet, the first of my many forthcoming changes.

When I was in my room, I watched telenovelas. Hechizo de amor was the story of a wealthy blonde, Ligia, who falls in love with poor commoner Gabriel. Her mother, who is not her real mother, but she doesn't know it, forbids their love. Ligia's real mother, who is locked away in an insane asylum, thinks her daughter is dead. Locura de amor follows the escapades of Natalia and her prestigious high school girlfriends. However, the main vein is the inappropriate love story between Natalia and the motorcycle-riding high school counselor, Enrique. I always advise new Spanish speakers to find a telenovela they like because the plots are basic tropes and easy to follow. Also, because the language is colloquial and the acting overly dramatic, you'll pick it up in no time. With dedicated watching, you'll soon be able to accuse a lover of sleeping with your sister or tell the police your mother is trapped in a psychiatric hospital with amnesia.


One night, Rubén asked if I wanted to join him and check out his favorite bar, La Patria. I tried to hide my excitement. I had been holding on as hard as I could to my sense of adventure, independence, and come-what-may attitude, but I was lonely. I felt lost and confused most of the time, even though I was smitten with the city and reveling in pride that I had the ovarijones to be there in the first place. I had jumped in the deep end, not sure if I could swim. I found myself treading water.

I loved my conversations with Rubén. He was patient and funny, with his floppy black curls and dorky laugh. I liked how he said my name, smiling as the letters came out of his mouth. He was genuine. From the first night, he was a trusted friend in the making, like a brother, and he quickly established himself as my tour guide, confidante, and cultural broker. One afternoon, we were sitting outside at Del Jardín, having beers and quesadillas as he explained that the rally in front of the governor's palace, at the other end of the square, was a protest on behalf of the Zapotec people. "Libertad" and "Dinero para la Gente" read the signs. The palace had been spray painted with red letters: "Muere PRI." PRI stood for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the political party that had been ruling Mexico for the last 70 years, was known for greed and corruption. Rubén said political tensions were high at the end of last year. Oaxaca had nearly emptied of tourists because of it. People were still hoping, he said, the upcoming July presidential election would bring about a much-needed change.


By week three of almost daily visits to Rubén's favorite bar, La Patria, I was working there. Toni and Andréa were my favorite bartenders. One evening, I leaned over the bartop and, in jest, asked Toni if he thought I could work there. "¿Quieres trabajar?" I heard a deep voice behind me. Alejandro (Alex), the owner, who I also had come to know, was standing behind my stool. "¿Sí?" I replied timidly. Quickly recovering,"¡Sí, sí! ¡Quiero trabajar aquí!" I cried with conviction.

It was too easy. I realized later it wasn't a favor to me; instead, I was a marketing tool for Alejandro. Young. Female. Americana. And I had light skin. No one gave a shit about my Mexican bloodline—I was born en los Estados. Once word got around, men would surely flock to get a glimpse. Alex was right. They did. I had a loyal group of regulars, but there were others, less genuine. Not unlike the curious folk who might attend a freak show, a traveling circus, to see what it was all about, there were creeps. Silent, drooling beer bellies slumped and staring in a corner, or worse, the handsy ones who always seemed to be in your path, magnets to your waist, or lurking outside of the bathroom offering rides home or after-work drinks, or worse yet, the ones who followed you home...

Waitressing was my pass to staying in Oaxaca. I had options. A routine. A life. And I finally had a sense of belonging. I didn't just have co-workers, but friends. Toni was my buddy, and Andréa (Dréa) was becoming my confidante. It was hard to make female friends, even more so after becoming the token güera at the bar. Güera. White girl. Woman with light skin. Any race, ethnicity, or nationality. Whiteness. Lightness. Güerita. People I had never seen knew who I was. I walked the streets, my name called out by unfamiliar faces.

Andréa was different from other Oaxacan women. She drank and smoked and had sex with anyone she pleased. She never judged me. She never made me feel like an outsider. Quite the opposite. Dréa took me everywhere, introduced me to everyone—and she knew everyone. The running joke was she was the mayor of Oaxaca. La chaparra. Standing tall at 4'10" with jet black hair, black almond-shaped eyes, and a come-hither smile, she was a snake charmer—and one of the best friends I've ever had. An amateur polyglot, she picked up phrases and expanded her vocabulary in Dutch, German, Italian, French, and English with each new tall, white traveler she took to bed. Andréa was my partner in crime and the one I could turn to if things went to shit.


La Patria became my school of Oaxacan nightlife, where I earned my stripes and learned the codes of my new world. It was a crash course in Mexican slang and bar culture. I was 19 and had little experience beyond house parties, a few raves, and getting shit-faced at the end of a dirt road in the country. I barely knew names for cocktails in English; Screwdriver, Gin and Tonic, Rum and Coke, Whiskey on the Rocks were the outer limits of my knowledge. Not only did I have to learn those but dozens more: Desarmador, Cuba Libre, Paloma, Charro Negro… AND I had to learn all the ways that people ordered their drinks, like whiskey with tonic or campechana (mixed with half club soda and half Coca-Cola). I had to answer questions about bottles of chelas, beers I had never heard of, let alone tasted, in addition to those de barril. La Patria's draft choice was clara u oscura and could also be ordered campechana: half light, half dark. And then there was my new obsession, the michelada—"my prepared beer"—a spicy and savory beer cocktail of sorts consisting of a highball glass rimmed with sal de gusano (a blend of toasted ground agave worms, chili and salt) or Tajin chili salt, a few squirts of Salsa Inglesa, AKA Worcester sauce, Valentina hot sauce, Jugo de Maggi or jugo de carne (literally translated to "meat juice" yet, in reality, a doctored version of soy sauce and synthetic umami ingredients—and it's fucking delicious), fresh squeezed lime juice, a pinch of salt and black pepper, then topped off with beer. A perfect drink for breakfast or a nasty crudo, which I learned also meant hangover, not just "raw," but I suppose the raw definition isn't too far removed from the undone feeling of a night of imbibing. The michelada's softer cousin is the suero, made with a simple salt rim, fresh squeezed lime juice, a pinch of salt and beer. Not incidentally, Suero is also the name for the serum drip or IV full of electrolytes hospitals employ to counter dehydration in patients—i.e., damn refreshing.

Alejandro's approach to training me was to throw me to the wolves. Armed with only my mandil, pen and notepad, I wrote everything down, not because I couldn't remember, but because 90 percent of what was said to me was incoherent. I would take my scribbles to Andréa and Toni, beseeching their interpretations of my misunderstood orders. They did the best they could amidst the noise, chaos, and never-ending flow of people and drink tickets. I was constantly fighting back hot burning tears that first week. I felt dumb and clumsy and obnoxious. I found out after the first quincena (I also learned payday was every two weeks for nearly all Oaxacans) Alex had charged me for the drinks I spilled or dropped, my fault or not, for both the price of the drink and the cost of the glassware.

The rule applied to everyone, not just me, so at least I wasn't singled out. One night, someone bumped into Donaji, my fellow cocktail server, and she dropped an entire tray of drinks. She froze, staring at the floor for a moment, then lifting her head as big fat tears rolled down her face in long streaks of mascara, becoming a blubbering snotty mess as she mentally added up her forthcoming paycheck deductions. We all pleaded with Alex not to dock her pay; we witnessed the crash and verified it wasn't her fault. I don't recall if he was swayed. I do remember that one afternoon not too long after, he took the entire staff out to get our ears pierced. I have no clue why. Maybe an act of atonement?


I was a student of the particularities of Oaxacan bar culture. I drank everything presented to me and tried every snack. I learned quickly that botanas or snacks were a required drinking companion. Botanas played a quiet but major role on bartops. Plates piled with fresh cut limes and a salt shaker, a build-your-own suero. Bowls packed with pickled jalapeños, carrots, onions and sometimes potatoes, swimming in an escabeche spicy vinegar bath, stabbed with a few errant toothpicks. My vice: cacahuates glazed in oil. These shiny peanuts were tossed in salt, dried chilis, and garlic. I consumed them with an absent-minded, mechanical addiction. Since it was our responsibility to replenish the botanas for our tables, a large metal bucket full of peanuts was kept on the bar by David, the DJ. Thanks to my lust for those salty nuts, I managed to pack on at least five pounds of the bite-sized demons. The upside to my snacking problem and their proximity to David the DJ was I learned all about popular music. David would make a point of calling my attention to the hits so I'd be in the loop. Rock en español and big-gesture romantic ballads were the current rage, with most bands hailing from Mexico, Argentina, Chile, and Colombia. Bands like Los Caifanes, Los Jaguares, Panteón Rococó, Café Tacuba, Aterciopelados, Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Soda Stereo, La Ley, and El Gran Silencio became the soundtrack to my new life. David often switched to a "poonchis poonchis" playlist when the bar was packed on a Friday night. Nicknamed for the sound generic electronic club music makes (a simple mix of fist-pump-inducing repetitive beats), poonchis were David's attempt to keep the party lively and prevent the patrons from leaving to actual dance clubs.

As I became adept at eating and drinking and dancing, I was also learning how people really talked. Everything was slang. No one spoke in complete sentences, and every other word was a grosería—and that's if I could hear what anyone said at all. All of the literal translations I knew didn't get me far in "Mexicanese." For example, word around town was that a lot of fresas (preppies, not strawberries) hung out at La Patria. Meeting longtime lovers, I was not introduced to someone's better half, but rather their media naranja, the other half of their orange. ¡No mames! was a cry of disbelief, not a command not to suckle. When patrons at the bar got bien pedo, I witnessed them getting skunk drunk, not increasing their flatulence. ¡Aguas! was not an excited request for waters but a warning to be careful. And when I asked Toni to coger the broom, the room exploded in laughter. I wanted Toni to grab the broom, not to fuck it.

Despite these foot-in-mouth moments and cultural learning curves, I felt welcomed by my new family. While Andréa showed me the nightlife, Toni took on more of a big brother role. He taught me about the history and geography of Oaxaca. He was a docent in Monte Albán, the nearby Zapotec archeological site set atop the mountains overlooking the valley city. In the mornings, even after a late night at the bar, Toni would ride his bike an hour to the ruins and back, then work the bar again in the evening. Many nights Toni refused to let me pay for a taxi home, insisting I let him take me on his bike. If he had been drinking, it would turn into quite a comical affair. We'd be swerving and tipping, slow-falling onto curbs, laughing like children as he'd awkwardly navigate the cobblestone streets, my adult body balancing on the back of his bicycle or the handlebars, wearing his helmet (at his insistence). It was a challenging feat sober, let alone a few beers deep.


There was an energy in the streets—an electricity, a sense of anticipation. Whispers of change floated through the air, punctuated by shouts for justice and calls for revolution. The presidential election, which in Mexico takes place every six years, was fast approaching. While the unspoken rule exists for those working in hospitality that you never speak of God or politics, the conflicting opinions and "facts" espoused by the liquor-soaked tongues of La Patria's patrons taught me a few things about civic engagement in Mexico. It is customary that for any given election, Ley Seca would go into effect for 48-72 hours, either beginning on a Thursday or Friday at midnight and ending Sunday (the actual voting day) at midnight after the polls had closed. During the "dry law" period, it becomes illegal for any store, bar, or restaurant to serve or sell alcohol. The idea is laudable: people should be stone-cold sober and casting their votes responsibly, clear-headed. However, the reality, I learned, was people stocked up on booze and threw massive parties all weekend. Sunday morning, pools of vomit coated the sidewalks at a higher frequency than usual, spilling into residential and clandestine areas of town. This is in contrast to the average Sunday morning stroll to church along a main street strip of bars whose patrons left merely hours before the mass-attending crowds, some of whom were one and the same.

I didn't know much about the candidates other than what I gathered from the bar and television. Rallies popped up all over town in the days before the election, promoting various candidates. As far as I could tell, it wasn't like the dominant two-party system of the States. Instead, there were at least half a dozen political parties, all with names including something to do with "the people," "revolution," or "reform," and so forth. I gathered it usually still came down to two or three front runners. The current center-right party, the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional), had been the sole ruling oligarchy for some 70 years, during which allegations of corruption, nepotism, and fraud reigned supreme. Their name, referencing institutionalized revolution, seemed to be a conceptual oxymoron. The people I talked with were frustrated and fed up. They said all the presidential candidates were corrupt, but they nonetheless wanted a change. I had guessed either Francisco Labastida or Vicente Fox could take the win since they were not PRI, and I had heard their names everywhere. Fox was supported by TV Azteca, which owned two of the five or so basic television channels. Everyone at my bar, La Patria, were Fox supporters, but Juana and Martina thought he was crazy. They were voting for Labastida, whose main campaign tactic was to blast his horrific and annoying theme song from loudspeakers hanging out of pickup trucks and bochos driving up and down the streets all day and night. I preferred Fox for no reason other than I liked his voice's cadence. He was a tall ranchero (and former Coca-Cola executive) with an enviable Zapata-esque bigote that made him a "man's man."


¡Viva! Cars honked and people chanted in parade after parade, down every callejon and main street. The collective joy was palpable. Vicente Fox had won the presidency. For the first time in seven decades, the votes of the people had led to true change. The reigning oligarchy was out. People were drunk with hope and reinvigorated with a sense of patriotism and national pride perhaps not collectively felt since the days of the revolution. It was one of the first times I truly felt like an outsider. I could grasp the intellectual impact of the election, but I didn't feel its importance. I did not feel the years of frustration, hopelessness, or anger. I did not feel the power that, even if false and fleeting, the people felt together, united as a populace, as a pais, as a gente.

El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.

It made me sad. I longed to feel connected to a community, to a country like that.

I wanted purpose.

I wanted to belong.


Later in the Rodríguez's kitchen, surrounded by comida and conversation—Juana encouraging me to eat more as she argued with her sister and nephew, repeating her refrain that nothing would change under the new president, and Martina and Rúben countering with their usual optimism—once again, I regained a little of my lost confidence. Sitting at the same kitchen table as I did that first night, I thought about how I had changed in only a couple of short months; how I was initially terrified I had made a grave mistake, foolishly trusting my capabilities, and being confronted with an overwhelming awareness of my ignorance—to who I had become and where I had arrived. I had an adoptive family, new friends and a job! I could make jokes in Spanish (albeit lame) and sing along to the popular songs (with incorrect lyrics). I could also talk shit to snobby prep school girls AND persuade an amnesiac mother to escape a mental ward. Suddenly, I realized I didn't need to take the whole world in one bite. I could make the universe as big or small as I chose. Yes, I had plunged into the deep end, and although I may have only been treading water, I hadn't drowned. The Rodríguez family, Andréa and Toni, had established themselves as my floatation devices. Maybe it wasn't my country. Maybe they weren't my people. But I could continue trying to understand their world. And maybe, just maybe, I could become a part of it.

One cacahuate at a time.