Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Artwork by Katie Merz and Joy Garnett
The years I spent in Guadalajara weren't a time when I felt especially comfortable in the world. Our last name might have been Villaseñor, but no matter how the money flowed, we were from the rancho and we missed it badly. No one, not even in the yard at the Young Men's Academy, dared to make us feel like newcomers, but they didn't need to: sitting all dolled up in my mother's Ford, we missed our horses and our guns; the old gnaw of our own tree-climbing bodies; the unwholesome company of ranch hands and the smell of shit in the corrals. We missed the lawless, godless world where people obeyed the simplest of codes not because they were of a superior moral class, but because no one wants to eat lead for doing the wrong thing.
When we got to Guadalajara, I won't say it didn't affect me to see what looked like the dome of a giant metropolis rising in the very center of the golden valley of Atemajac. The streetcar line with its dandies, its middle-class attendants, and the ladies in their Sunday best looked to me almost like the devil's work. As someone who had always been in bed by seven-thirty, I marveled, too, at the city's electric lights burning all night long. There were factories, there were rich men richer than I had ever dreamed of, and unbearable poverty; palaces, clubs, museums; newspapers that people read according to their jobs and the color of their skin. The city and its slickness made people think that the news from the capital or the regions set ablaze by the Revolution didn't necessarily mean that everything was going to get worse.
It wasn't Guadalajara that we'd moved to; it was the twentieth century. Even so, it wasn't until I learned that there were four movie houses in town with daily showings of different pictures that I was convinced that there really was some benefit to living in the state capital.
When we were kids living on the ranch, the movies weren't a place, but a man who came through Autlán once or twice a year and arranged private showings in one of the houses in town for the price of a ticket. There was something circus-like about it: a man more like a lion tamer than a showman, with a projector and a gas generator that smoked like the Colima volcano.
Like all children back then, we were taken by our father to see scenes of the dictator getting in and out of his motor car at the mythological castle of Chapultepec--which at the time seemed as real and plausible to us as Rapunzel's castle.
We saw globe-trotting travelogues of Paris and Washington, gypsy dances, and a kind of cross between a bullfight and a horse show that Texans--in really sad Spanish--called “a rodeo”; there were always panoramas of Guadalajara's most notable streets and buildings and some typical fiesta at an hacienda; last came the most famous short of the day, a perspective shot of a train coming into the station. It was said that in Lagos de Moreno it had caused a riot because people thought a real locomotive was about to run them down. Later I discovered that in Mexico City people said it was the Guadalajarans who had fled.
Despite all this, it wasn't film itself--already familiar--that astounded me, but the idea that some unknown person must have discovered that movies could do more than show things, that they could tell stories.
When my friends at the Young Men's Academy brought me to a movie house for the first time, I thought we would see some travelogues and then go to the Agua Azul park to have ice cream, and the truth is that I was more excited about the ice cream than the travelogues, which were always more or less the same.
We came in, sat down, the lights went out, the projector started up, and the first thing I saw was the cavalry of the rebel Constitutional Army charging some pathetic federal troops, and holding them off in a field on the outskirts of Hermosillo; I saw the horses rearing up in fright and the revolutionaries shooting like Apaches, reins in one hand and rifle in the other; I saw the cannon bursts and the boneyard the attackers left in their wake; I saw General Obregón himself making decisions with his chief of staff in a campaign train and I saw him review his victorious troops and march for Guadalajara. I saw him parade behind his legendary Cora Indians, who fought dressed as soldiers in perfect military order, but who entered cities in blankets and feathers, with fearsome eagle screams. I saw the parade floats --"What is that heap of junk?" I asked, and one of my friends, who had seen the parade in person, explained that it represented agriculture´s past and present, as if that were obvious.
Half of the lights went up and the orchestra launched into an innocuous waltz. I was already getting up to go for ice cream when the same friend grabbed me by the arm. Wait, he said, the second reel today is French: there'll probably be kissing.
I settled firmly back into my seat and when the program's fourth movie ended--a gringo cops and robbers reel--I would have stayed to see all four again if there had been more than one showing, which was something that theater operators later learned to offer.
From that first line-up, I think I learned everything that would later show me the way to a better life. I knew about food, not cutlery; cruelty, not crimes; ewes and ranchwomen, not ladies. The movies were there to teach us that there was a wide world beyond the chaparrals of Sonora and the lakes of Michoacán.
How to compare the cramped, dark rooms where we received visitors to the light-filled Italian salons coming to us on the screen from Europe? How to compare our streets of colonial rubble-- horrendous, no matter what the nationalists say--and oppressive cupolas with the furious verticality of New York avenues? While our horseback assailants descended on towns by the hundreds to flay, rape, and kill anyone drawing breath nearby, the gringos stole things that probably didn't belong to anybody: money from a bank, jewels from a museum, certificates from a stock exchange.
If Mexico--possibly because of its proximity to the United States--has always felt a little ashamed of itself and more eager than is healthy to join the big shindig of western culture (to which no one thinks it belongs, not counting Mexicans themselves), from the movies we learned that our low self-esteem and striving might be justified.
Some years later, when the Revolution finally ended--it went on and on during my entire childhood with increasingly sporadic battles, shootings of people of increasingly higher rank, and, by the end, only weaselly assassinations of national heroes--Catholic citizens all over the country finally had the time and headspace to organize big press campaigns and even rallies demanding first that anyone underage be prohibited from entering movie theaters and then the complete eradication of the medium of film. But around '18 or '19, when I began to glut myself with movies, there was an air of rebirth, making everything seem permitted or at least not too forbidden.
Naturally, there were local variants that made movie-going even more enjoyable. Pepe Castañeda, a flamboyant socialist politician who had actually won a fair fight for Mayor of Zapopan, was expelled from city hall by the local party boss. Disillusioned with politics and government, he started a movie house with the little money he had been able to steal (he had only been in office for two months, after all). The place, pompously called the Salon Azul, was frankly homey, with the quirk that Don Pepe himself, armed with a megaphone, sat in the spot that a pianist would normally occupy, giving his own doctored version of the plots. In a movie about Bluebeard, for example, the killer of women wasn't a sinister Moldovan but a conservative caudillo of Tepatitlán, and the hero who saved the last of his wives was a socialist from Ajijic who for some mysterious reason had gone to Romania--or Hungary, the story changed according to the narrator's mood--to educate the masses. In El Zorro, the bad guys weren't Spanish noblemen, but a bunch of American Marines who came ashore at a port in Veracruz that bore a decided resemblance to Andalusia. Cowboy and Indian movies always ended halfway through, while the Indians were winning.
His programs were soon my favorite, though to get to the Salon Azul I had to take the mule-drawn streetcar. It was clear that the movies at the Azul, as we called it, were more fun, and I went to see them in a mocking and ironic way, sometimes with friends from school and sometimes alone. One day I described them during dinner, and my father, strangely, showed interest in coming along. I had tried to drag him to different movie houses before, and though I managed it sometimes, the truth is that he always fell asleep as soon as the first screening began.
I brought him to the next show, even though that meant arriving at the theater in the rolling extravagance that was the Villaseñor Ford, and not by the streetcar, whose slowness allowed one to chip away at the infinite stretch of provincial afternoons and whose constant swaying gave a physical dimension to my anticipation.
Just as always, the night I took Dad to the movies the socialists won, the auditorium erupted with laughter, sometimes laughing with Don Pepe and sometimes at him. It took my father a little longer than usual to fall asleep, partly because of the narrator's megaphone and partly because movies there were a communal phenomenon: Don Pepe might have the last say, but the fact that he had a say at all made the moviegoers feel that they could chime in.
One day, when the audience protested because even though the socialists always won, tickets were getting more and more expensive, Don Pepe announced that on Sundays there would be a free show at the bandstand in the center of Zapopan. Beginning at the first session, he strung together bits of the movies he'd shown that week, so that they always told the story of the usurping of a mayor's seat, won fair and square by the popular vote.
One Sunday, Don Pepe went too far. In the movie, some cowboys outside of a bar discussed whether to join up with the Indians to achieve the triumph of the socialist cause, then a priest came along and prophesied that the union of Indians and cowboys would at last lead to socialist revolution, but in the end, the revolution would be betrayed by the interests of the fat-cat generals who led it and the people would be abandoned to their fate.
The next morning, Don Pepe was swinging from a telegraph post, his tongue cut out and nailed to his forehead. When I told my father, he emerged for a second from his haze of tequila to say: Fuck it: all these years of revolution and there's still no cure for being Mexican.