Victor Ochoa: "At Sherman Elementary School I showed slides of paintings that had skulls and snakes. The white teachers got freaked out."
  • Victor Ochoa: "At Sherman Elementary School I showed slides of paintings that had skulls and snakes. The white teachers got freaked out."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
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“GO TO THE TORTILLA SHOP ON the corner. You'll find a big, dark-skinned man who works there and looks like a wrestler, with many tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his arms. He knows everyone in this neighborhood.

Aaron and Austuriano. “I’ve based many of my papier-mache statues on skeletons done by Rivera."

He'll be able to help you." When you get to the tortilla shop, stagger to it along the dark, rocky road with scruffy pariah mutts growling at your heels, you will find that the shop is, of course, closed. Two pregnant women who stand chatting there tell you the tortilla shop has been closed, not just for hours, but for years.

"We had the skeletons of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dancing. Mozart and Paganini playing music.”

“Cerrado ya por muchos anos,” one of them tells you with a tired laugh. Closed for many years. And she tosses the thick, long braid she’s been fussing with back over her shoulder.

She’s curious as to just why a sweaty gringo is trudging around her neighborhood on a muggy, moonless night, looking for a tortilla shop that likely was already closed when she was still a virgin.

Ochoa: "At San Diego State, If I used Mexican elements, like, say, skulls or skeletons, I was told, 'Victor, you’re limiting yourself.'"

“And the big man who looks like a wrestler?” you ask. “With many tattoos of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his arms?”

The braid-tosser squints at you through the gloom and shakes her head.

“A woman down the street,” you continue, noting that the braid-tosser’s companion has begun to eye you suspiciously, “told me he knew everyone in the neighborhood. She said he could help me find someone. I’m looking for a man who makes skeletons. I’ve been told he lives around here.”*

“Skeletons?” The braid-tosser’s eyebrows arch higher and higher on her forehead. “Esqueletos?”

“A man who makes skeletons?” echoes her suspicious companion.

The two women look at each other.

Simultaneously they shake their heads and say, “No, sehor. We’ve never heard of anything like that.”

They turn and, shoulder to shoulder, walk slowly, cautiously away.

The Colonia Rubi, the neighborhood in which you stand and, after a lengthy day of fruitless searching, watch two pregnant women desert you in front of a long-defunct tortilla shop, is one of the immense, spontaneous suburbs that have mushroomed on Tijuana’s prodigious outskirts. Colonia Rubi swells and rambles up and along steep, barren, clay-colored hills about two miles west of Boulevard Agua Caliente. In daylight, from some streets in Colonia Rubi, you can spot the tall twin towers of the swanky Hotel Fiesta Americana rising from the far-below city’s gritty haze.

Few if any tourists find their way to Colonia Rubi. Few if any members of Tijuana’s middle class find their way to Colonia Rubi. It has no department stores or duty-free perfume shops. You cannot place an off-track bet in Colonia Rubi, nor order prime rib there. It has no parks or discotheques to speak of. Colonia Rubi is, in fact, more a point of departure than a destination. The tens of thousands of people who have come to live there have come to carve, literally, for themselves a toehold to a better life. From Mexico City, from the deep interior, from the south, they’ve come to build, with scrap lumber, tarpaper, wooden crates, and discarded tires, rickety launching pads from which to attain the lower stratum of lives incorporated into Tijuana’s tenuous free-market economy. Such a hopeful trajectory is arduous, and dreams of this magnitude would seem to require a basis more stable than one constructed of scrap lumber and discarded tires. So many of the makeshift, temporary dwellings in Colonia Rubi have by now assumed a lived-in look suggesting an uneasy permanency — the only kind of permanency you could really hope to suggest on hillsides whose geologic integrity is compromised by shuffling feet, car traffic, wind and, God forbid, occasional rain.

Colonia Rubi is, then, the perfect neighborhood for your skeleton-making mystery man — the mystery man who plays, in his way, with life’s transience. After all, the notion of permanency doesn’t come to mind easily in Colonia Rubi. Its poorer stretches clutch and cling to these unstable hills. Sewage runs in rivulets down steep, rock-strewn roads. Chickens scratch dirt. Skinny dogs doze under abandoned cars. A sickly gray kitten twitches through its miniature death rattle in the shade of a small corner store, and the two girls sitting on cinder blocks beside it, sipping warm Cokes, don’t notice.

Indians live in Colonia Rubi. You see their women, las Marias as they’re referred to in slang, waiting for buses with their grimy babies strapped to their backs. These are the short, round-faced, dark-skinned women who dispatch their toddlers to pester you for change or to sell you gum when you walk down Avenida Revolucion. These are the women who sit on the pedestrian bridge over the Tijuana River and chew pumpkin seeds while their children maniacally strum toy guitars and screech love songs for the tourist’s casual dime tossed their way. These are women, often married to polygamous men, who have, all in their stubborn, indigenously defiant way, evaded the government’s every brutal program to integrate them into mainstream Mexican society. These people are Mexico’s little dark shame. And the presence of Indians in Colonia Rubi gives you a pretty good idea of just what kind of neighborhood it is.

Which is to say, not a very respectable one, although poverty has nothing to do with it. Indians are in Mexico, as they are elsewhere in the New World, the skeleton in the national historical closet. Their persistent, awkward presence in Mexico is exacerbated by the fact that most Mexicans are mestizos— they have Indian blood. This state of affairs is somewhat unique in Latin America, where some countries, like Argentina, long ago conveniently massacred their Indian populations or, as in Bolivia, observed an informal but strict system of social apartheid. Mexicans are therefore closer to their unruly, pre-Christian past. Despite attempts early this century to make much political hay of Mexico’s mestizaje, or mixed-bloodedness, the nation’s flat-nosed, non-European ancestry still remains something of a sore spot.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The dark-skinned, flat-nosed face is the face of the conquered. The Indian face is associated with deplorable things — the blankets rife with typhus handed over to the Aztecs by the conquistadors, feet held to fire to extract the whereabouts of golden treasure, Oaxacan union organizers gunned down by modern Mexico’s troops. It is the face of impotent rural poverty. The face, more bluntly put, of a loser, not a winner. The Indian face is associated with death.

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