L-19, Zona de la Pera, Colonia Federal, Tijuana, BC
Herminia sighs. "Okay. Once more." Her teeth glow white in the night shadows. "Ee, ibi, ooni, comay, mm-mm..."
"Five. Cinco. Five dollars you gonna pay for this bangle."
Herminia looks across the table of silver Taxco bangles and earrings, and straw bags from Oaxaca. I told her I'd buy something if she taught me to count to five in Mixteco. Ee, ibi, ooni, comay, mm-mm.... Love that mm-mm. In the taxi plaza here by La Línea, she's into her last hour at the family stall.
It's Friday night, about 8:30. An aroma of carne asada wafts out from the hole-in-the-wall taqueria next door. Beef strips are smokin' and grillin' away -- along with pork and chicken -- at all three taco stands this side of the Caliente betting place. My border problem ain't getting through Customs: It's getting past these guys.
"£Pásale! £Pásale! [sounds like PAH-sah-lay] £Tacos, amigo! £Pásale!"
Ramiro, the guy yelling, is standing behind the counter of the last taco stall, right beside the row of Mixteco trinket tables. The very last, I guess, before Norte América. So maybe I should fortify myself for the trip north. Hey, this is Friday. Night of the Long Lines. As they say, an army marches on its stomach.
Plus, guy next to the one spare counter stool has just hired a musician to sing him a song. "Rayando el Sol." "Shredding the Sun"? Whatever, it's haunting, and he fingers that 12-string guitar like an old pro.
I sit down and order a carne asada taco (90 cents) and a Coke (also 90 cents) and listen. Meanwhile, Ramiro whips my taco up in about 20 seconds flat, cones it in a paper wrap, whips out a paper plate, and lands it in front of me, while he looks up and shouts, "£Pásale! £Pásale! £Tacos, amigo!" His sidekick brings the Coke in a traditional bulbous glass bottle, and, oh yes. They hand me some grilled green onions and beautifully sloppy jalapeños to nibble alongside the carne asada, which tastes great, 'specially after I douse it with the red salsa.
"We make the red salsa out of red peppers and green tomatoes," says this pregnant girl. Think her name's Erica. She's helping take tacos to customers.
"And the green salsa?" I ask.
"From jalapeños and red tomatoes," she says.
Huh. Green makes red, red makes green.
I order two more tacos, one al pastor (pork), the other chicken. But now I'm behind a whole bunch of gringo guys lining their guts before they head on down to the Adelita Bar and other parts in the Naughty Zone, as regulars call the Zona Norte. So while I wait I check out a poster tacked to the cream-and-red-painted brick walls inside. "Proclamation," it reads. "$5,000 Reward. Francisco (Pancho) Villa. Also $1,000 reward for arrest of Candelario Cervantes, Pablo López, Francisco Beltrán, Martín López. Any informacion leading to his apprehension will be rewarded. Chief of Police, Columbus, New Mexico, March 9, 1916." Across from it a photo of the old aduana (customs) building of 80 years ago. Man. Tiny. White. Uncrowded.
By the time I get back to my stool, the tacos are there, and Flavio Castro, the mariachi, is singing a beautiful number, "Nocturno a Rosario." It's haunting too. I can just about translate some of the words.
"I must tell you that I love you
That I adore you with all my heart
That I suffer a lot
That I cry a lot..."
Everybody's getting sentimental. "My grandfather started this place with nothing," says this guy, Gabriel. He's talking fifty years ago. "It was a little shack. It had no roof. But he worked so hard, he fed my parents. He gave life to us."
Gabriel is collecting the money, after people tell him what they ate. Kind of honor system, really. Nice. He says he's from Michigan. His family's half Spanish and half Puréecha. "We are from the only native peoples who never surrendered to the Spanish," he says. "I am proud of being Puréecha, even though we have never been encouraged to be proud of it. But we have something. We never start a fight, but we never back down either."
A couple of years ago, someone pulled a gun on his brother right here, Gabriel says. The brother got a knife out and stabbed the guy. That shut this place down till the police cleared his brother. Self-defense. So Gabriel came back to help out. He had been at college. I think he says it was at the Universidad de Valladolid, down in the Yucatán. "It was the first university in all the Americas, 1540," he says.
But he's happy being up here helping get this place back on its feet. "I tell my friends down there we have the first taqueria in Mexico. And the best: our tacos are 90 cents. The guys next door are $1.00."
I ask him why the name "Tacos Mino"?
"That's my brother's name. And it was our grandfather's. The name has been in our family for 105 years."
"That's it. No more songs," says Sr. Flavio. "My voice has run out."
I've still got just enough to get that silver bangle for Carla. But now an American girl comes up and says she needs two bucks to get back across the line. Can I help? Is it a scam? How da heck can you know? I slip her the two bucks and go tell Herminia I'll have to get the bangle next time.
"Next time it'll be ushu," she says.