Monday, May 06, 2013

Guest column: Cinco de Mayo

From friend and occasional guest contributor Jerry Gettinger.

Apologies go out to both Jerry and readers for the tardiness on publishing this.

This was sent to me well before May 5th.  However, it went to an email address that I don't check often, and I checked that address earlier today.  After having last checked it at the beginning of April. :(

Anyway, on to Jerry's observations, published here with thanks -

Cinco de Mayo
It was 1959; I was almost finished with my second year in college. The subject came up in the telephone call to my parents I was obligated to place on an almost weekly basis. “What are your plans for the summer,” I was asked? “Nothing, yet.” Finals were in two weeks and suddenly that subject took up my entire thought process. “You can always come home and work at your old job,” my mother suggested hopefully. O my G-d! I had yet to consider my plans for the summer. My old job was working in the only drugstore in town. Selling cigarettes and various other items. Those other items were in the “family planning section.” That was not my first choice or even my last. I had lived in a big eastern city for two years and did not relish the idea of spending a summer in a very small town. So, I began investigating. Two days later a flyer was in my mailbox telling me about courses at the University of Mexico. I was born and grew up on the Mexican border, so the idea of studying in Mexico was not foreign to me. (Yea, I know. A pun).

On the next conversation with my parents, I broached the subject of studying in a foreign country. I outlined my pitch in such a way as to describe it as an academic exercise giving me the opportunity of becoming fluent in a specialized Spanish. I would live with a Mexican family and study Economics, both Latin American and Mexican. Those studies would compliment my major at the Wharton School. I had the trip detailed, the subjects outlined, and the transportation arranged. Since the university was based in Mexico City and academic in nature, receiving approvals from Dad was a slam-dunk. The key word was “Education”.

I had two roommates from Ohio. Until they crossed the border at Texas, they had not been south of the Ohio River. It was to be an interesting learning experience for all. Each had identical schedules at the University, so Fridays were open to our exploring Los Unidos de Estados de Mexico and learning not only the varied economics of the region, but its culture.

We would devote weekends to further our knowledge. We were 20 and our thirst for knowledge was insatiable.

By mid-July, my roomies and I had visited seven cities and could order cervezas and tequila in at least six ways. My vocabulary quickly expanded to include bartering for various local tourist objects and suggesting to a senorita that a late dinner would be an adventure.

We, all three of us, were 20 years old and bulletproof. So when we spotted a cantina on the edge of Taxco, fear was not a commodity that night, nor was any thought given to using one’s IQ. It was Cinco de Mayo, Independence Day in Mexico, and we all celebrated. The cantina looked as if it were right out of a Hollywood set. Low lights, maybe 10 or 11 tables, half-occupied and even a piano player. We sat down. My roommate motioned to the bartender. He brought over a bottle of tequila and waited for the forty centavos each shot cost. I gave him 2 pesos ($.17) and motioned to keep the change.

Oh, did I mention that the bar was co-ed? One of the ladies was showering attention on a patron at table across the room. It looked like date night. We kept quiet and courteous. When the young (?) lady strolled over to our table, she decided not to use a chair. Instead, she sat on my roommate’s lap.

I was relatively fluent in Spanish by now. When the ladies’ previous boyfriend muttered in Spanish to his cohort, an observation, I understood. He was about to use his machete to chop more than sugar cane. I turned to my friends, brought them up to date as to the mood of the crowd and led my roomies toward the car: rapidly. Suddenly, there were at least 5, maybe 6 customers in the bar, all with very sharp machetes, and all having decided to celebrate Cinco de Mayo in a very unorthodox way. My body would never be found,for this was a real jungle. My life flashed before my eyes.

Suddenly, with the three of us half way to the car, a big, obviously strong Mexican came from out of nowhere and adroitly stepped between the others and us. They paused when Jose` Manuel raised his big machete and announced that it was over. By this time, we were almost to my car. The crowd differed in opinion from Senior Manuel and continued toward us. Jose swung his machete and cut one, superficially. He was strong, and when we were in the car and I started it (praying that it would start), Jose got in the front seat, closed the door and yelled “Vamanos!!” We understood and complied with his wishes, tires screeching. Jose`Manuel had closed the door so hard the window glass shattered and the inside came apart. A small price to pay in exchange for our lives, however.

But why would a stranger come to the aid of three gringos he had never met? During dinner later that night, he explained. When he was barely 12, he and his parents became separated (I never asked why) and he was taken in by an American couple. Educated, honest and, it turned out, a good person, he felt obligated to help and protect norteamericanos. Jose Manuel had suggested a different bar where we had excellent service, good Tacos and the opportunity to buy a very good Amigo a meal and a few tequilas to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It turned out he was visiting a friend a short distance from our cantina and stopped in at the previous cantina for a cerveza. Fortuitous. He said he could never allow anyone to be hurt. As we continued our foray, and he started to return home, we were grateful that Samaritans were Mexican, as well as Biblical. And that Cinco de Mayo was not a body count of gringos.

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