“And every week we’re late, we pay another $10,” says Juana Ynez.
“But what can you do?” Jorge says. “I have to be close to the bridge. Otherwise, I can’t get there. I depend on it.”
Jorge was born in the state of Colima, on the mainland Pacific coast of Mexico, in a fishing port called Tecománpeseta. “My dad was a campesino. He was hired to climb coconut trees and cut down the coconuts.” Jorge says he was fine till he caught polio at the age of one. “It’s a picturesque village,” he says, “but if you can’t climb the mountain and collect limes, or chiles, or bring down loads, it is impossible to survive there. I went to a home for the disabled when I was a young kid, but every day they put us onto the streets to beg. For me, it was impossible to survive in Colima. So I came to TJ when I was 19. Here, it’s difficult but not impossible.”
He found work in a maquiladora. “But they took advantage of my disability. Where they paid others 1500 pesos a week [about $120], they paid me 480 pesos. That’s about $40. It was discrimination, and Mexico has laws, but nobody enforces them. Back then I had to pay $100 a month for rent and pay for transport to get there and back, and food, and water and light…. I was fired after five years for complaining, and you know what? Selling Chiclets on the bridge, with no boss, and no transport, and not having to get up at 3:30 in the morning just to get to work, I made more money. Until the economy and the violence. The last three years have been bad. Really bad. Wednesdays, for some reason, I usually come home without a single peseta.”
That’s when the family, and especially his son — the younger one who has a job as a waiter — have to pitch so that no one goes hungry.
“I was a waitress,” says Juana Ynez. “We met one night when I went for a beer and a dance at the Valentina, across from the Adelita in the Zona Norte. I knew right there that he was serious. And he has been a good father. Yes, I have to help him with his disability, and he has terrible hemorrhoids, sitting on his patineta [skateboard], but he has not failed us. I love him too much. And every day, every day, he goes up to that bridge. After 16 years, that takes courage.”
“I don’t believe in being sad,” Jorge says. “I have life, and I have las fuerzas [my powers] to fight for it. And it’s mostly good on the bridge. People know me by now, and they buy Chiclets when they can.”
But, man, I’m thinking this guy’s a hero. I couldn’t do it.
This is when I notice Maricela, the neighbor, near tears. You can see flashes of a beauty that must have floored the guys back in the day. The big eyes, the swept-back hair, the laugh lines that still get exercise — just not now.
“My son, Jesús, is paralyzed,” she says. “He dove into a shallow pool in Toluca. We keep hearing about cures, but we can’t do anything about it. He has a wheelchair, but an electric one would mean he could be independent. We have no social services to make that happen. It’s so different with your government. It cares about people like Jesús.”
Wow. I ask if she couldn’t get him seen to in San Diego.
“It is too expensive, even if we could get him across. Thousands of dollars. We’re thinking of applying to Cuba because they have excellent programs for paralyzed people, and they don’t cost so much, even with the airfare.”
Then the little place is swamped by kids, and grandkids carrying bolis, ices on sticks, which Juana Ynez went out to buy. Maybe it was an okay day for Jorge after all. Blanca, their grown daughter, who arrives with her kids, says that her husband, who is in construction, is out of work. They often come across town — they rent not far from the cathedral — to share in food here. “Yes, Papá is very brave,” she says, “but he has a big temper.”
Not today, though. The kids have Groucho Marx masks they keep putting on the adults. There’s lots of laughs. I feel a little envious at the real family thing they have going. Outside, in the alley, I slip Jorge a Jackson. Seems the least I can do. “It will help with the rent,” he says, though about an hour later, when I’m on my way back to the border, I spot him coming out of a liquor store with a few cans of cerveza. I don’t say hello again. Hey, the guy deserves a beer, and a beer in peace. Por el placer de ser.
THE SPANISH REFUGEE
The other day I was in at Toñico’s, the paella place on Jalisco Avenue, up beyond the top of Revolución in the Colonia América section. It’s still a cozy Spanish eatery, with great guitar music, serving good paellas. But instead of the Great Old Man, Toñico himself, coming out from the kitchen, it was a gal, really pretty and with a face full of life. “I’m Yolinda, his daughter,” she said. “My dad died.”
Oh, boy. I flashed back ten years to that first, best time.
It was my friend Lois’s idea, after our first bullfight…
“Go, go!” Carla had said, the day Lois called. My true love refused to see bulls killed as a show, so Lois and her friend Kay and I went to the bullfight. By the time it was over, we were high on the vino tinto and the crowds, and, yes, the blood and the heroic trills of the trumpets. As dusk glowed red over Tijuana, we came bowling out of the downtown bullring like blood-drunk Romans. We stood outside, near where they were cutting up the carcass of the last bull. I felt guilt. I felt exhilaration. I didn’t feel like going back to América.