Abogados - Steven Mayers
Updated: Feb 21
From two of the granite walls in the main room of Truco 7 hang a pair of immense paintings, the one just above me maybe ten feet across and eight feet high. In the other painting, across the room, the demented face of a clown crowds the foreground, unpleasantly close, with swirling patches of colors behind him like a wet city street scene at night. The other two walls are a miscellany of small framed ephemera: black and white photographs; faded color photographs; miniature landscapes paintings, a still life, or natuaralza muerte, as the owner, Luis, has referred to them, dead nature; a Juan Posada lithograph of a skull with roses for hair; a bright purple scarf; and old menu (Was it from when the café opened?); a twenty-peso note, Benito Juárez staring off to the side with upturned white collars and parted hair next to a weigh scale, one side a bit lower than the other, in front of a heavy book that is propped open. I have my own deliberations to weigh out while in Mexico for a year, namely what the hell to do with my life. What am I going to major in when I get back to college? Can I even live in the U.S. now that I have learned about its cruelty in other countries, its neocolonial tyranny? Are we all implicated? Can one even break even?
I take stock of things in my notebook. I write down some of the atrocities I’ve recently read about that the U.S. is implicit in. The massacre of El Mozote in El Salvador, which the U.S. funded. The Contras in Nicaragua, which the U.S. funded and supported. The killing of Maya in Guatemala, which the U.S. funded and supported. Everyone I know back in San Francisco is smoking pot and doing coke, which is funding the drug trade here, which is killing people! Okay. How many days I have gone without calling my parents in San Francisco: 8. Days I’ve gone without calling my girlfriend back in San Francisco: 21. Non-filtered Faro cigarettes I smoke per day: 30. Cappuccinos I drink per day: 10. Actual meals I eat per day: 1. Percentage of my time I spend in class at the Universidad: 34. Percentage of time not in class that I spend at Truco 7: 81. Exchange rate of US dollars to Mexican pesos in 1994: 1-20. Cost of a cappuccino: 5 pesos. Thickness of the wad of pesos I receive as monthly spending money: 0.5 inches.
The front room, where I usually sit, has four large tables with leather-covered tops. Plush cushioned chairs and couches encircle the tables, each of which seats ten-to-twelve people, so one typically shares the space with others, most of whom exchange a familiar “Buenas tardes, compadre!” or a “Qué hay, compa?” Three ceramic lamps give the room a warm yellow glow. Most of the exchange program in Guanajuato hangs out at this café when skipping class, though I still try to avoid them, pretending I only speak Spanish. The stereo plays Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Manu Chao. Although we don’t want to admit it, the music gives us exchange students a feeling of being back home, and the café feels like the living rooms at our parents’ houses perhaps, only I can smoke in this plush living room, and the storefront opens up onto the cobblestone alleyway outside.
When you tell someone from Mexico that you’ve been to Guanajuato, nine out of ten times they’ll ask you, “Have you seen the mummies?” In the Museo de las Momias, exquisitely dried corpses – shriveled men in dress coats and bow ties, parched women permanently hunched as if they died while mopping, desiccated babies in cloth diapers, all with the astonished look of frozen death. Most of whom were dug up from the mass grave of a cholera epidemic and are propped up against the walls on display. And every meandering callejón has its own local legend that barefoot children recite word-for-word in singsong voices for spare pesos: the Callejón del Beso, Alleyway of the Kiss, where a miner had kissed a Spanish lady from their balconies across the thin alleyway, and the Callejón del Truco, Alleyway of the Trick, where the café is, where a rich mine owner gambled away all his possessions, his house, and finally his wife, at which point he instantaneously switched bodies with the man who had won his life.
About an inch of pure Mexican vanilla forms the bottom layer of my cappuccino. I light a non-filtered Faro, whose rice paper leaves a sugary aftertaste on my lips, and am taking the first unsweetened sips of my drink – I never stir them, preferring to drink them in layers, like stages in a day, or in life perhaps: milk, coffee, pure vanilla – when the commotion starts. Suddenly all of the locals, including Luis, the owner, who has been stirring coffee drinks behind the bar, start yelling and running out onto the alleyway.
Following the small crowd into the alleyway, I manage to catch a glimpse between shoulders and heads. It’s the lawyer, Octavio, who I just met at Juan’s party, the one that lives in a Volkswagen bus half the year while representing the poor in court for free, a “good lawyer,” Juan had said while raising an eyebrow as if the two words together created an anomaly. Juan had to explain that the word lawyer was abogado in Spanish since I didn’t know the word. It had sounded like avocado to me. “A lawyer is someone who one pays to represent them in court,” he’d explained. I thought of Gulliver’s definition of a lawyer, someone one pays to argue that black is white. Octavio was a lawyer who spent six months of every year traveling around the country and providing pro-bono legal services to campesinos, landless farmers who farmed the ejiods, communal lands that had been, since Salinas, stolen and sold off to the highest bidder. When Octavio explained his life mission that night at the party, his eyes shone with purpose. He was a lawyer who argued for what was right, for the underdog, for the truth.
Octavio’s scarlet face looks like he’s on the verge of tears before it disappears between shoulders and arms. Fistfights have always unnerved me. I’ve never understood the surge of violent energy they incite in people, men mostly. They fill me with a deep sense of fear, and sadness. I can barely see what’s happening in the street between the bodies. The next clip I catch is the back of Octavio’s head as he’s kneeling down and punching someone on the ground. It’s that guy, Pepe’s cousin! The guy he told me to stay away from, the lawyer—yes, he was a lawyer too! What was his name? Wait a minute. Is this the good lawyer versus the bad lawyer?
Octavio’s elbow flies back and then I see Eduardo — yes, that’s his name — lunging at him with a crazed look on his face. “Pinche mamón! Fucking mama’s boy! You think you’re so good!” He lands a poignant uppercut and sends Octavio stumbling backwards into the defense.
Pepe Morales, my Spanish teacher back in California, is the reason I ended up in Guanajuato to study Spanish. It’s his hometown and he met me here in July, before our classes started up at the university, and showed me around town. His aunts, like ten of them, cooked delicious food at the mercado, and he told them to serve me whatever I wanted when I came and not to charge me. They nodded vigorously. I felt weird about the pro bono meals and always left a tip roughly the price of the meal. Pepe’s family seems to be a pillar of the town and I see their name on signs everywhere—the La Zapatería Morales, La Farmasía Morales, La Panadería Morales. Pepe had invited me to his parents’ house for a huge family meal of enchiladas mineras and shots of local mescal. He introduced me what seemed like fifteen uncles, who split into an infinite regression the more we drank. “If you need anything,” Pepe told me with each one”, don’t hesitate to reach out to Tío.” While everyone drank and yelled, a man in his early thirties perhaps sat on a couch in the corner and smoked alone. “Stay away from Eduardo,” Pepe had whispered in my ear, “my cousin over there on the couch. He’s a lawyer, and he’s not good—he’s mal educado.”
The crowd thins a bit as the two lawyers stumble down Callejón del Truco and I manage to get a better view. Eduardo laughs maniacally as he taunts Octavio, bating him with a series of questions. His fists are held up and a dark smudge of dirt streaks his left cheek. His right eye is starting to swell. “You help the poor, right? You’re a savior, like Señor Jesus Cristo, always on the side of good! But what pays the bills? Oh, but you’re misunderstood, aren’t you? You just want to be understood and respected, don’t you?”
I’d met Eduardo at the Guanajuato Grill one night, the discoteca that all of the students went to. Thursday night was the big night since many students were from neighboring pueblos and would return home to their families on the weekends. My roommate, Armando, a chemistry student from the nearby pueblo of Pénjamo, where his family owned the local bakery, would dress up in a silk shirt and drag me there. He and the girl who lived downstairs, Amparo, who studied Industrial Relations and was from another nearby pueblo, were the kind of dancers that circles of cheering dancers would form around. I’d usually hide in a corner and drink cold Coronitas, hoping they wouldn’t pull me into the circle like they once had.
One night I was smoking on a balcony that looked down onto the dance floor, beams of colored lights circling the room like a search party, and suddenly Eduardo was next to me. He took a cigarette from a silver case and lit it with a gold Zippo, flicking it open, lighting it and returning it to his sports coat jacket in a single move that reminded me of someone with nunchucks. “Que onda?” he exhaled smoke from his nostrils. He introduced himself. Since I was one of the dozen or so gringos in the entire town of a hundred thousand or so, I never had to introduce myself, since everyone seemed to already know me. After we stepping on our cigarettes, he invited me out for a copa. I have no idea why I followed him. It could have been the yearning for cool evening air, but I think I was excited to be going so directly against Pepe’s warning. As we walked, he asked me how I liked the city, whether I had met any girls, whether I liked to party. He wore a mocking half smile as he talked.
After walking a few blocks down the single-lane cobblestone street, he opened a wrought iron gate and led us into the small lobby of a building. I was wondering if there was some after-hours bar in the back even though there was no sign out front. I followed him down a barely lit hallway until we approached a glass door with white letters: Oficina del Registro Civil. He took out some keys, opened the door, and then led us down a dark hallway until we approached a wooden door. “This is my office,” he told me while he unlocked the door.
Pulling himself up, a trickle of blood dripping from the corner of his mouth, Octavio makes a motion. He puts his fists up, growling words I can’t quite make out, something about corruption, about working for the government. He paces back and forth as he cross-examines his witness. Having missed the start of the fight, it’s hard to tell who the plaintiff is, the defendant.
A hand grasps my shoulder. It’s Luis. “They do this about once a year,” he tells me.
“When you became a lawyer, you made an oath to serve justice, to work towards the discovery of the truth!” Octavio bellows as the stacked jury claps and whistles around him. “You work for drug enforcement but you really work for the narcos, you son of a bitch!” The jury of his peers yells and cheers. One tries deliberating between the two, but the rest drown him out either cursing Eduardo or just emitting squeals of excitement.
Eduardo let me into his small office and motioned for me to sit in a dark wooden chair in front of his heavy wooden desk. He picked up a polished wooden clock with a round white face from the top of a set of black metal file cabinets, and sat down in the tall cushioned black leather chairbehind his desk. “Bienvenidos,” he said while sliding a panel out from the base of the clock and removing a plastic ziplock bag. Unrolling the bag, he removed three hand-rolled cigarettes, set two on the desk, and taking his Zippo from his coat pocket, lit the third, a blue-white cloud of smoke almost erasing him from the room while the unmistakable smell of marijuana filled the office. He passed the joint to me and I took a puff. When I held it out to return it to him, coughing a bit, he put his hand up and told me to keep it. While I smoked, he began to lecture to me about the way to use drugs in Mexico without being caught. “If you are ever caught with drugs by the police – and believe me I know because I work for them – they will ask if you are an ‘addict.’ Say yes. If they test your urine and find any amount of pot in your urine and you said you were not an addict, they will say you are lying and it could get very ugly.” He lit a second joint, took a long pull, exhaled the smoke into the fug, and picked up a gold fountain pen. He drew a line across a piece of white paper. “In Mexico, there is the good and the bad.” He then drew a squiggly line on top of the straight line. “But you can walk like this if you know how.”
Octavio has Eduardo down and is kneeling on his shoulders. He’s pummeling his face over and over until it is covered in blood. Eduardo appears to be unconscious, his head tilted sideways, a mixture of saliva and blood trickling from his mouth. Octavio springs up with a stature and expression that is at once triumphant and terrified, and the remaining bystanders, all part of his defense team, circle around him slapping his back and celebrating his victory. One offers to buy a round of beers.
As we drink the cold Negro Modelos in the café, an organ grinder with dark sunglasses shows up outside and begins to turn his crank. Off-key circus music pours out to a lurching polka beat. After frowning at the organ grinder, I notice a figure to this right: Eduardo, the blood from his face wiped onto his shirts sleeve, is propped against a rough rock wall, smoking a cigarette. My eyes meet his and he smiles his appeal.
Steven Mayers is a writer, oral historian, and professor at the City College of San Francisco. His work has appeared in journals, newspapers and magazines including the New York Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, Versal, Travesías, Gatopardo, and Powerlines. He is co-editor of Solito, Solita: Crossing Borders with Youth Refugees from Central America, a collection of oral histories published by Haymarket Books in the spring of 2019 as part of the Voice of Witness book series on human rights. Solito, Solita was shortlisted for the Juan E. Méndez Book Award for Human Rights in America and was picked by Remezcla as #1 in their Best Latino and Latin American History Books of 2019.