The restaurant was a rambling wood affair with families crammed together and happily intent over their plates until that rumba line of black men – a half dozen of them – began to snake between the tables. That was when the diners looked up.
“Which way?” asked the first man, calling back over his shoulder.
“Over there — !” Someone behind him pointed. The leader took a left.
“—No, over there! Over there!” cried a third. The first man took a hard right.
What had the sight of six black men moving though the restaurant and talking loudly inspired? Watching the men throw their voices forward and speak loudly, the diners smiled. The men threw their voices forward not just to convey information, but also to announce themselves. And people at the tables seemed to understand this. Because the remarks were traded loudly, the diners were easily able to catch the feeling under the words. That feeling was joy.
“—Hey, man which way you goin’?”
“—No! Straight ahead! Go straight ahead!”
At last they reached the table that had been reserved for them. Most of the men did not know one another and had dressed as if for different events. They had little in common except for the color of their skin, the music of their voices, and the fact that they had each chosen to live here in another country.
The restaurant was called La Barca de Oro. Cooks tended the burners and ovens in the two open-air kitchens at either end of the restaurant.
My journey here had begun on “Juneteenth,” or June 19, the day African-Americans celebrate their freedom from slavery. (On that date in 1865, two and a half years after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, slaves in Texas learned they were free. Texas was the last state to officially hold slaves.) On Juneteenth 1998, while mothers were mixing potato salad in Logan Heights, and fathers were letting the meat smoke through on the barbecue pits of National City, and kids in Valencia Park were eyeing the watermelons chilling in tubs filled with ice, I crossed the border into Mexico. I’d heard there might be some African-Americans living there.
In Tijuana, everywhere I looked the grass needed cutting and weeds needed pulling; walls could for some paint, and the cars and the streets they rumbled over could have stood repair. I’d discover in time that once past the traffic and tourists, in neighborhoods where Mexicans live and work (like Second Street between F and G, where La Barca de Oro sits) the city opens up like the pomegranates sold in the local markets – battered and bruised-looking on the outside, but inside ripe, the ruby pellets shimmering, the sweet juice that stains.
When I crossed the border that first day, I found myself in a steady straggle of adults and children who for the most part bore the moist look of tourists. It was early afternoon and there was little movement in the jam of cars coming into and leaving Tijuana. As a pedestrian, I was making good time. The only thing moving faster were the white-and-blue border buses. Churning past, they sent up a chalky dust that blanched the sky and powdered the buildings; the grass and trees looked as if a fungus were eating them.
Set on the table in front of the men were small bowls with radishes the size of plums, slices of green lime, cucumbers, and carrots. Chips were in bowls; so was the tick hot sauce, of a red so furious it looked volcanic. On the other side of the table, a round-faced man with a gold tooth was smiling. The man sitting next to him had his jaw clamped tight. The man on my left radiated calm.
“Well, are we what you expected?”
This came from the man on my right. He was large but carried the weight well. He might have passed for a Mexican with his light skin and black hair.
“What did you expect?” he asked again, glancing around the table. “Did you think we’d all be low-life bums?”
Actually, I had.
On that first visit in mid-June, every once in a while I would spot a brother on the street and explain that I was interested in meeting Americans living in Tijuana. I said I was hoping to learn what had brought them here and prompted them to stay. Two guys said they were here to cool out for the day. One man had come over for the gambling and was heading back across the border that evening. A couple of young men said they were on leave from Camp Pendleton. They eyed so hungrily the young women moving in the crowds that I guessed why they were here. One brother told me to get out of his face.
I came back again in July and a third time in August. At the pharmacies, the clothing and shoe stores, the markets in and around the tourist area of Avenida Revolucion, in pidgin-Spanish, I asked if there were any blacks from the United States that lived nearby. The store owners and cashiers shrugged and shook their heads; once or twice, I got pointed down a side street and was told a black might be living there. I knocked on doors that did not open; I spoke to men standing on street corners. There might have been some black people si!, from the United States, si!, but no, they no longer lived there. Where did they go? No one knew.
Back again in September, I asked myself where would I go if I lived here. What would I do? Which was how I found myself on Third Street, climbing the steep staircase of a two-story building that was painted pastel blue. Pasted on the walls were pictures of Mexican bodybuilders, petite men by American standards. The gym manager was cordial and spoke English. Yes, he knew a black man who came to work out. He had not seen him in a while, which meant he was due for a visit any day. He took my card and promised that if the man came in, he’d pass the card on. As it turned out, nobody called, but it did not matter because that same afternoon I walked two blocks farther to the Baja Gym.
A fake-leather couch was at the entrance and beyond it, Mike Diaz. He was leaning over the front desk watching me. Sure, he said, there were a couple of black guys who worked out here. They came in regular, sure. One would probably be here today.
Diaz looked to have “slick” written all over his handsome face. He plunged almost at once into an account of himself, beginning with how his mother was living in Los Angeles and was about to undergo a major operation and that he wanted to visit her at the hospital but his family had urged him to stay. I’m going anyway, whatever happens, he said. I sensed that he thought I was a cop. I repeated that I was looking for African-Americans only to interview them.
Diaz had a moustache and a buzz cut popular among L.A. gang members but rarely seen in Tijuana. His muscles had gotten him noticed. He’d been invited to work as a Chippendales dancer, he said calling for the image of him in a bow tie and a sequined jockstrap. It’s good money, he told me, the tips, but that’s dancing for dudes and I’m straight, man; I got a girlfriend. Mike, who was 38 (but looked a decade younger), gazed at me, his eyes black. The problem is I need the money, he added after a pause, I got bills.
The gym was a big barn of a space. There was a massage room with a curtain and standing at the table a young woman. Her arms were crossed and her gaze patient. What kind of massage do they give, I asked Diaz. He shrugged. “What kind do you want?”
I slipped ten bucks across the counter. I just want to talk to the black guys who come here, I said. There are Americans in the next building behind the alley, said Diaz. One or two of them were black. But be careful, he warned. They’re probably over there shooting up.
“No thanks,” I said. “Just the guys that come in here. How about that?” Diaz never introduced me to the guys he said came into his gym, but when he called to say he had a lead on some others I could meet, I crossed the border again. By now it was early October. We made our way into a part of the city where certainly few tourists venture. I saw only one nod to tourism: In a doorway two women who long ago had seen better days nailed me with their eyes. One of the women passed a condom to her friend. I pretend not to notice.
We continued on our way with Diaz asking the locals about the black American who was supposed to live in the area. Apparently the man moved a lot. At last we climbed the step0s to a second-story apartment and rapped at a door. Whachoo doin’? A big-breasted woman stood at the bottom of the stairs. Over the banister, on the sidewalk, a ragtag group was looking up at us. Diaz, speaking in Spanish, explained that we’d heard that a black American lived here. He pointed to me saying I wanted to write about the man for a newspaper. It sounded fishy, even to me.
No home! She said, coming up the stairs to join us on the landing. She knocked. There was no answer. See, she said, he no home. She had spoken in English for me. Now she rattled off to Diaz that the man, her tenant, had gone to the United States to pick up his check. She said he always went there around the first of the month. Mike asked her to let him know that we were interested in speaking with him. I left my card.
Back down the street, a man who had been listening stepped forward. He knew a black American, he told Diaz, and would take us to see him. Our guide, in his 20s, was bone thin, with dirty hair and clothes. He had about him the ragged look of a junkie. We said okay and followed him down half a dozen blocks into a neighborhood seedier than any we’d seen that day. Abandoned cars lined the streets, buildings had crumbling foundations, and several dust-covered, mangy dogs barked at us. Finally Mike said we weren’t going any farther. Gesturing, the young man assured us that the man we wanted to meet was just around the corner. Okay, said Diaz and told me to stay where I was; then he left with our guide. Five minutes later he was back. Come on! We started walking, fast. Suddenly our guide was running beside us. Could we not give him a little something for his time? His mouth was a wretched hole. Diaz spat out a couple of words and then, speaking over his shoulder, told me he wasn’t giving the guy shit because there was nobody at the place he’d led him to, but if I wanted to pay him that was my business. I glanced over, then thrust two bucks into his hand.
We moved back toward the center of town and I considered my situation: After four months of searching, the closest I’d come to meeting African-Americans living in Tijuana was a guy who went across the border to pick up his monthly check and someone (maybe) living in a god-awful part of town and known to junkies. “Did you think we’d all be low-life bums?” the brother sitting next to me at La Barca de Oro asked. I would not have put it that way, but it was more or less what I’d come to expect.
Things, however, were about to change.
Diaz pointed up a scraggy hill covered with tall brush. There’s a dude who said he’d be home late this afternoon. He lives up there, he said. I saw nothing resembling a house, and I might have been worried, but by now I’d come to trust Diaz. Sure, he looked out for numero uno, but he was also a savvy street-smart guy who, within limits, could be trusted. (And he was going to get paid if he found me someone to interview.)
We climbed the hill, passing a bone-white abandoned looking church, La Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia (Church of the Prophetic God). The walkway of irregular stones was overgrown with weeds and littered with debris. Ahead I heard the cries of children. Wait a minute, I said. Where in the heck are we going? Who is this guy? Diaz dug into his pocket and then passed me a card. He gave me this, he said. The name on the card was Eugene Mingus.
Mingus, I thought of Charlie Mingus, the man acclaimed as a musical genius, whose recordings and compositions shaped the jazz trends of three decades.
“You think he’s any relation to Charlie Mingus?” Diaz looked back at me. “Who’s that?”
Eugene Mingus pushed aside the screen door. I stepped up at the same time that I ducked my head to keep from bumping it against the door frame. “Have a seat.” He motioned me to a broken-down sofa. There were two mismatched lamps, no windows, and a vague and unpleasant odor that might have been from the plumbing (or its lack). The floor was dirt, and there was no running water. Mingus collected rainwater, he explained. And when it did not rain, for six pesos he bought his water in five-gallon containers from trucks that moved through the city. The children outside were Mingus’s grandchildren (the children of his stepson).
They were playing on the beaten earth in front of his home, a claptrap affair constructed from sod and odd pieces of wood and tin and wedged into the hillside.
Mingus, tall and slim at 51, seemed untouched by the squalor. Soft-spoken with bebop good looks and dreadlocked hair that fell far down his back, he moved slowly, stretching his long body. Yes, he said in answer to my question, Charles Mingus was his father. “I was with him when he passed,” he said. “He came to Mexico because he believed in spiritual healing. He thought there were people who could cure him of his cancer.”
In 1986, seven years after his father’s death, Mingus returned to Mexico for good. He’d been on the road performing with Jimmy Cliff and was burned out. He crossed the border looking for a place to relax.
“And there was this chambermaid in the hotel. She was a fat little old lady named Rosa, and she really cared about her work. It wasn’t about the money, because how much could she be earning if I was paying four bucks for my room? She was coming from her heart, from a family feeling. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was showing me a lot of what Mexico is about.
“This is a Catholic country. They believe in a higher power. That means the women accept the man as the head of the household. They believe in obeying the man. Folks are traditional and very protective of their families.” He had a “kind of street-thing,” he said, that made some people nervous. But within four years he felt fully accepted; he felt he’d come home. Today he does not regret leaving the United States. “We never got a fair shake, what they call our ’40 acres and a mule’. After a while, you get fed up.”
In 1993, Mingus helped form the trio Exiled Genius. Working with New York-born poet Jesús Meléndez and Chicago-bred bassist Mchaka Uba, the group performed in the United States and Mexico. Each man, with strong ties to his African roots, had chosen to live in the same near-downtown Tijuana neighborhood. Banding together, they created what the San Diego Union described as a “distinctive blend of music and poetry that is stirring, intense and unapologetically provocative.”
Speaking for the group, Jesús Meléndez told the Union Tribune reporter that he loved the idea of America, but “I hate the political reality of it.”
That first afternoon, through the open front door of Eugene Mingus’s living room, sunlight pooled on the reddish floor. The rest of the house was lost to shadow and darkness.
“Are you all set there?”
From his side of our table, at the restaurant, Mingus was commanding the scene. Wearing a dark suit and a close-fitting cap without a bill, he was, in the jazz–influenced parlance his father made popular, “a cat.”
“I’m fine,” I answered.
Eugene had been the one to get this party together. The idea had come about that first afternoon we talked. He spoke of how he grew his own corn, tomatoes, beans, lettuce and of course, his greens. As he knew other African-Americans living in Tijuana, he said, he’d get them to meet with me to discuss their reasons for living outside the United States. “It’ll be my excuse for making hot-water cornbread and doing my special thing with greens.” (Mustard, turnip, and collard greens torn up and cooked well, then flavored with a little vanilla and, last, flour added for gravy.) We’d have tequila, he promised.
But the weeks passed and Mingus’s sister died and his wife Allison, had heart trouble, and so instead of a down-home meal, he suggested a restaurant where he knew the owner and was sure we’d be well treated.
And we were, Michael Thorton of the gold tooth was smiling, as pleased with the scene at the restaurant as he was with his girlfriend (and she her daughter). He also liked showing his gold tooth that gave his smile a rakish distinction. He was pleased that the tooth cost only $200.
“You know how much that would have cost in the States?”
Thorton’s girlfriend was a knockout. The petite 24 –year-old had long dark hair and a sweet smile, and because she spoke hardly any English, the swirl of conversation seemed to leave her untouched, isolated, pure. On her lap, her daughter had the fine detailing of a doll. She had taken after her mother and was small. I leaned across the table asking for names. I did not catch the daughter’s name, but I caught her mother’s.
“Dionisia,” she said.
The beers arrived. They were pale, the blond color of champagne. The men twisted off caps and drank. Dionisia had a coke; I drank water.
The restaurant had been painted pink and sky blue. Multicolored striped blankets were tacked up against the windows. Starfish and large seashells hung from the ceiling on a string. Rendered on velvet in bright luminous paint was a cabin snuggled within a forest glade. A waterfall cascaded nearby.
“Would you please pass the chips?” asked Robert, the man on my left. I’d earlier noticed him exuding an air of exquisite calm. I assumed he’d achieved this blissed-out state living outside the United States.
“I came here from Chicago three weeks ago,” he said.
He told me that people here were not the same as in the United States, that it was certainly calmer, that Mexicans seemed more concerned about the person and were not likely to get in each other’s business. As for his blissful air? He shrugged and bit down on a chip that cracked loudly in two.
The reason he looked at peace, I soon discovered was the same reason the young man who’d entered Eugene Mingus’s house that first afternoon had looked at peace. Both had God.
That other man (who wished to remain nameless) had come in Mingus’s home carrying a towel. He had just come from a shower at the local bathhouse. His short hair had the soft look of dampness, his brown skin was a little ashy. Wrapped in an air of serenity, the young man described how he’d graduated from high school in East San Diego, moved to North Park, and was living in La Mesa when he got word that, across the border, Mingus might have a room for him.
“I like to meditate and there was too much going on over there,” he’d said, cocking his head as if San Diego were 20 feet away. “So I came here.”
He’d had no plans to leave Tijuana (although he’d disappeared within six weeks, by the day of our lunch). “I’m done with the States,” he’d said.
Both that young man and Robert had the same air. They even looked alike, brown-skinned with a lack of excess to the features that gave them an Asian asceticism. Mingus told me the youngster had tried to convert him to his form of evangelical Christianity. Robert was also into religion.
“I spend my time reviewing churches. I practice a pure religion.” Robert spoke so low that I had to lean close to hear him.
“My priesthood is the rebuilding of priesthood. Greed has corrupted the churches, so I am going to the people and finding there the new priests.” Quoting John 8:31-32, he went on : “Then said Jesus to those which believed in him, if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed, and the truth shall make you free.”
Robert accused priests and ministers of being thieves of biblical teachings. Those who attempt to teach about God do not know Him, he said. He explained, calmly, that those who were seeking the real truth would find him and they would learn together.
The 41 year-old had been celibate for many years. He had traveled with no money. He had no safety net. Across the table sat Mingus in conversation with the unsmiling man. As quietly as Robert and I had kept our conversation, I knew that both men, as well as others at the table, had heard Robert quoting the Bible and testifying to his work of “rebuilding the priesthood.” Yet no one seemed to mind. They had all stepped off the beaten track.
Markus Robinson, 34, had none of Robert’s easy grace. He also traveled a lot. Born in Rochester, New York, he’d lived in many cities, including Manhattan, Orlando, Houston, Galveston, and Las Vegas. But whereas Robert had a mystical approach to travel and his life’s work, Robinson had fiercely held opinions about matter of uncertain consequence. “I was in San Diego for a while, but I was not used to being so laid back. I didn’t like it.” That city was noisier than he liked, and if people weren’t into your business there, he said, it was because they were too busy trying to keep up with the Joneses. A professional waiter, he now worked in downtown San Diego, traveling back and forth each day from Tijuana. As he spoke, a kind of frenzy nipped at his words. His sentences began to sound as if they were ending with exclamation points:
“I love it! I pay $250 for my share of a three-bedroom condo in the best part of town! You should come by and visit!” he said. “Why don’t you?” You won’t believe the view! Come by!”
I promised to try and looked around the table. Because Mingus had no phone, he had gathered these men together by stopping them in the street to explain that a reporter wanted to ask questions about their lives here. The one person whom Mingus introduced as his friend was the man sitting on his right. And while the others seemed eager to talk, he alone appeared unhappy, even morose.
“You know how they mess with you over there,” he said, when I commented on his air. I knew what it was like to be messed with, but I was uncertain of his meaning. Could he be more exact? He shook his head. “I shouldn’t even be here talking to you,” he said. “I’ve got things happening in the States, things I can’t talk about.”
“Is that why you’re living here in Tijuana?”
A clean-shaven man, light-skinned, and in his 50s, he said he really couldn’t talk about why he was living there. “I trust you,” he said, “you’re a brother. But if anything gets out about me, even if it’s innocent, it could blow the whole thing.”
Mingus assured me that the man had a story to tell.
The fellow concurred. “it’s really big,” he said.
He was, it seemed to me, someone who expects to suffer and be mistreated, who views each new encounter as another opportunity for betrayal and grief. He looked to bear grudges for the wounds that he had suffered.
“That’s all right,” I said, raising my hand. “I don’t want to press you. Just tell me, do you like being here?”
“It’s okay,” he said, dismissively. “It’s not much different. You know, it’s always the same, the bottom line –“ Such men often seek support for their unhappiness, “Am I right? Am I right?” he asked. But the question was rhetorical. He did not want an answer.
“But once it’s all through over there,” he went on, “then I’ve got a story for you that you won’t believe. Be sure and give me your number. You’ll be shocked. I’ll call you up and we’ll talk then.”
The waiters were at last bringing our food.
The restaurant offered 12 specialties including a rice dish and a tripe dish, shrimp and seafood, and something called albóndigas con hierbabuena, meatballs with spearmint. Mingus had ordered for us roasted chicken. Two platters appeared, each with a large chicken set like a Thanksgiving turkey. Our host began to cut into the plump birds. The meat fell away nicely from the bone. He filled plates. Besides the chicken, there were rice and refried beans, lettuce and tomato.
The table got quiet as folks got serious over their food.
“Pretty good,” said Clayton Ables on my right, the first to come up for air. “But my man over there,” he said, pointing a chicken leg at gold-toothed Michael Thorton, “now he would have done a number for you. I mean, the brother can cook!”
So you cook, I said. Thorton nodded and said, yeah, some.
“Are you pretty good around a kitchen?”
“How would you have cooked this meal?”
“Okay, first I’d make up some red rice using tomato sauce, onion, garlic, green peppers, and scallions. Then I’d have two chickens, one fried and the other baked, then deboned. The baked chicked, I’d prepare with guacamole, salsa and chili peppers (with the skins burnt so that they were crisp).”
The food sounded delicious, just hearing him talk about it.
“He makes his own gravy,” said Ables, taking a swig of beer.
“Any good?” I asked even though I had no doubts.
Thorton spoke in Spanish to Dionisia, who was feeding her daughter from her plate. She smiled and nodded at me. Very good, she said. See there! He said, and laughed out loud.
Of medium height, the 40 year-old Thorton was well built and nice looking, a happy guy with a gift for friendship and, with an excess of energy to burn, the need for occasional dissipation. He looked to like his food and a drink every once in a while, a good woman could probably keep him faithful; as for his music, he was a popular neighborhood disc jockey who played free for anyone who asked. Thorton was only dangerous, and then mostly to himself, because he liked to gamble. He spoke of it, bright-eyed and smiling, saying he’d lived in Tijuana for the last seven years, first drawn here for the “sports book”: Caliente. Gambling was legal in Mexico and that was wonderful.
Mexico was not for everyone, he acknowledged. Its way of life was slow, relaxed, with nothing rushed. The rents were cheaper and the people were nice. Thorton began a tale in which he described how his American employers had attempted to get out of paying disability and he was required to hire a lawyer; but as his tale unwound, as he described how he couldn’t work, couldn’t even get out of bed, the point of his story was the generosity shown by his landlord who carried him for three months without demanding rent.
“In the States, the landlord wants his money. Victor Sànchez, he told me not to worry. You know how that makes you feel when you’re sick on your back and can’t move?”
Thorton acknowledged that there were problems living here. “You’re going to find that everywhere, but here it’s the human being first. That’s what I like about living here.”
Just as we finished eating, a Mexican woman approached our table. She was selling loaves of bread she had baked and sprinkled with sugar. She zeroed in on me, asking five dollars; I got her to take four: the others laughed and said I could have gotten it for a dollar. That’s okay, I said, and thought why should not everyone feel as good as we all did at that moment? The woman popped the bread into a brown paper bag that at once took on a greasy stain, like a blotter.
We left the restaurant, ambling slowly. Several abreast, we made our way up the block and turned right onto the avenue called Cinco de Mayo. Small commercial ventures – a bike repair shop, a beauty shop, a tiny pharmacy – were set next to homes enclosed by wrought iron fences. Ahead, near the corner, were a string of restaurants, each no larger than a garden shed. Outside, under two yellow umbrellas, street vendors served food from their carts. Cars had been double-parked on the wide avenue; their owners were among the crowd who stood around the carts eating.
Along the way, I glanced at plates of barbecue ribs and chicken and servings of rice and beans. I’d been taught it impolite to study other people’s food, but Thorton stopped to speak in Spanish to those were eating. He looked at their plates and said something to one of the vendors, who proudly uncovered his bubbling pot. Thorton eyed the contents of the pot, appeared to take in its rich odors, and gave a thumbs-up. The crowd of men and women laughed in pleasure.
We crossed the street into the Parque Temiente Guerrero, a park that took up an entire city block. Many of the trees were clipped so that they took on the shape of coffee canisters; others had trunks painted white. The trees appeared to be doing better than the smaller plants, the birds of paradise, especially the rose bushes. A single spigot sent water shooting 20 feet into the air.
Mingus stepped up to one of the shoeshine stands ringing the park. Raised three feet, the stand was painted black and had bunches of shoestrings hanging like clumps of grapes. He planted his feet firmly on the metal stays, and the young shoeshine man proceeded to give those shoes his undivided attention. The rest of us moved through the park, over the bridges. At the kiddy park, vendors were selling sweets and balloons, and one sleepy-eyed fellow had a big pot of boiling water, milk colored, in which floated small corns on the cob.
Across the street from the park stood a Catholic church dedicated to Saint Francis of Assisi. It was a tall structure, constructed to fit the demands of an exceedingly narrow lot. I cut through street traffic and went up the steps into the church. The interior was mostly creamy white and bright gilt.
That statues were beautifully modeled. The air was at once restful and exultant – this last a result of the building’s narrow walls and extreme vertical lift that forced the eye skyward. Six women were seated in pews near the back. Two fed babies from bottles, one old woman napped, the others fingered rosaries. A seventh woman was at the front on a bare wood kneeler. In her early 20s, well dressed and made up, her hair cut fashionable, she prayed hunched over and with her head bowed. There was a desperation in her pose. Clayton Ables was standing at the base of the steps.
Large and handsome, the 35 year-old truck driver had been living in Tijuana for the last five years. Unlike Thorton, his friend, Ables had not brought his wife to the dinner. “She doesn’t speak English, he had said, “so what’s the use? She wouldn’t enjoy herself.”
He liked Mexicans, he said, but added that this was no paradise, that the class structure had parallels to that of the United States, with the darker Mexicans doing less well than the lighter-skinned ones.
Now, as we stood in front of the church, Ables talked about how difficult it had been growing up in Texas with a father who was white and a mother who was African-American.
“The U.S. has this line going out about there being no more racism, or very little. But that’s a lie. It’s there, I’ve seen it.”
Across the street, couples made their way in and out of the park.
“Here, in Mexico, they’re not eating dogs and cats. That’s part of the propaganda the U.S. puts out so that people figure their system is the best one, that nobody lives as well as Americans. And maybe that’s true, but when I lived there, I was a second-class citizen. There, racism is legalized. Why else is the KKK still allowed to exist?” California, he said, was the worst. “I’d rather be in Tupelo, Mississippi, personally.”
“Hey! In here!” Mingus called out to us as he cut across the street. The others were following from the park. By the time Ables and I caught up with him, Mingus had ducked into a small building, a home converted into an art gallery. When we entered, Mingus was deep in conversation with the attendant, an old woman with soft white hair and thick glasses.
She was the mother of Nina Moreno, a well-known artist and radio-show personality. Moreno had lived in the building until five years ago, when she moved out and turned the nine rooms into a gallery. Each room was small, the artwork appropriate to the size of the walls. Downstairs, at the back of the house was an installation called “Dia de los Muertos,” (Day of the Dead). The floor in this room was covered in eucalyptus leaves that gave the whole gallery a sweet, musky fragrance. There was an alarm clock and an easy chair in the middle of the room with a remote control on the arm. On a small table a cardiograph machine silently blinked. Outside a window, tacked onto the building opposite, a bouquet of marigolds (a flower associated in Mexico with the dead) rained down the white wall.
The sky was a deepening blue and the edges of things were going soft. All up and down Tird Street, the bright pumpkin-orange newspaper kiosks began to glow like low-watt lanterns. The blue of the city buses took on an azure hue. The taxis, loaded down with passengers, hummed past like ancient scarab-beetles. The rainbow colors of the city’s buildings were fading slowly. It was still warm as summertime, and we just stood there, saying little, and then nothing.
If the women passing had clutched at their bags or ducked their heads, if the men had glared or pretended to blindness, if they had responded in any of the ways we all, black men, knew from elsewhere, the moment might have turned sour. But it did not. The Mexicans who passed might have paused a heartbeat, but seeing so many black men together, a few smiled as they went by. Sound was hushed.
And then, suddenly, it was over. Markus, the waiter, had drifted away somewhere, perhaps in the park. Eugene Mingus said he’d better take off. I lifted my loaf of bread, which I’d been carrying for the last half-hour. It had grown intolerably heavy.
“Does anyone want --?”
“I do!” Robert, the preacher in search of the true Christians, jumped forward and all but grabbed the brown paper bag.
My hand free, I now extended it to Mingus. The others came in close. We’d had a meal together and then left the restaurant, walked a block, little more; but then how to account for the feelings that welled up?
“We got to get together—“
“You know where I live—“
“Mi casa es su casa,” Mingus said over and over. That place without running water, with its dirt floor, that was probably at this moment as dark as a cave, was offered as a sanctuary for each of us. And we were grateful.
We were, after all, foreigners here.
“So was it like you expected?”
Clayton Ables and I walked abreast, shoulder to shoulder.
Thorton and Dionisia walked behind us, trading the tired little girl between them. Mingus had gone off with the others.
“I don’t know what I expected,” I said, and then, because that seemed less than the truth, I admitted that I had not expected to have such a good time. Ables smiled.
As we got to Avenida Revolución, soul music – the Temptations, and the Supremes and the O’ Jays – blared from the second floor of the buildings. Ables said he thought he was going to hang out here for a while. Our small party came to a halt. Ables wrapped Thorton and Dionisia (with her daughter) in a bear hug.
“I’m going to look at the pretty girls,” said Ables. Thorton laughed in deep throated appreciation.
“You never said how the evening was for you,” I said.
Ables turned to me. “It was good.”
The light went green. Thorton took the baby and hurried across the street with Dionisia running alongside. I stepped off the curb to follow but checked my inclination to run. Instead, I turned back, not sure of what I’d just heard.
“What did you say?”
“I want to die as a human being, not a black man. That’s what I said.”
The remark was nakedly spoken. I hear you, I replied, and wished I could have found something more profound, more worthy of the remark.
Instead, I hurried after Thorton. When I looked back, the light was magenta and Ables was walking away down the street.
Thorton and Dionisia lived on a hill not far from the border. He liked living some distance from the center of the city; he enjoyed the quiet, he said.
We walked through a plaza. Women, tiny and brown, sat at tables laden with stuff to sell tourists. Only the leather goods stall, with its belts and wallets, seemed to offer something that one might actually need. We passed an open marketplace where people were eating and where gambling results were posted. Thorton’s eyes lit up.
“You better be careful,” I said. I knew he expected to soon receive a large settlement for his injury. “You haven’t even got that money yet and it’s already burning a hole in your pocket.”
The little girl had grown quiet. He shifted her from one arm to the other, her dark hair moving across her shoulders like a shadow.
“I get my money – first thing, I’m buying a house for Dionisia and me. Then I’m buying a restaurant, maybe, so that we’ll have money coming in. And then some of what’s left over, sure, I’m going to play around with it a little bit. But I’m not dumb, no way!” His gold tooth glinted as he opened his mouth wide. I looked at Dionisia. I knew a little of what Thorton was about; I had seen his strengths and some of his weaknesses; and I liked him.
Thorton had earlier mentioned that he’d first come to Tijuana following the breakup of his marriage. At the time, he was broke and without a job. Soon, however, he had not one but two jobs. He had an inexpensive apartment and he had friends, a life. “God,” he said, “must have been telling me I should keep doing what I was doing. So I stayed.”
Dionisia looked at me. “Michael is a good man.”
The smoky smell of peanuts roasting over charcoals wafted our way. We crossed over a huge aqueduct, wide and tall and massively molded in gray concrete. The faint odor of sewage tweaked the nose.
“We’re up there,” said Thorton, standing over the aqueduct and pointing to a hill spotted with lights just beginning to show. We made our way down to the flatland where the lanes of cars inched toward the border inspection terminals. Tomorrow was Sunday and Thorton would cross here by bus to worship at a church in La Jolla. Then he would return and he and Dionisia would spend the afternoon at their Spanish-speaking church.
“That’s a lot of church,” I said.
“God is good,” he answered.
They escorted me to the pedestrian border crossing, a gateway into the United States. The building’s dark, ragged stone façade was an example of the architectural movement called Brutalism of 25 years ago. If you ran your hand over the wall, you scraped the skin off.
“Let me know when you’re coming though again.” I promised I would.
“Be sure now.”
“You bet,” I said.
We hugged. The Thorton took the child and they turned, heading for home. I watched them for a while. It was already nighttime, the sky was black when they reached the incline. There was a billboard I’d not paid attention to until, in a wink, they stepped behind it and were gone.
Jangchup Phelgyal received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University.