The Corrido of El CabeNon-Fiction Literary Writer . Unsettled in the Mission
“The corrido (Spanish pronunciation: [koˈriðo]) is a popular narrative song and poetry form, a ballad. […]It derives largely from the romance, and in its most known form consists of 1) a salutation from the singer and prologue to the story; 2) the story itself; 3) a moral and farewell from the singer. […] Various themes are featured in Mexican corridos, and corrido lyrics are often old legends (stories) and ballads about a famed criminal or hero in the rural frontier areas of Mexico. […] Contemporary corridos written within the past few decades feature more modern themes such as drug trafficking (narcocorridos), immigration, migrant labor and even the Chupacabra.” —Wikipedia
The Corrido of El Cabe
I. The Salutation
I. The Salutation
This is the Corrido of El Cabe, a scoundrel, addict, and migrant worker, native of Guadalajara. There wasn’t any border he wouldn’t cross, nor any law he wouldn’t break, guided only by the principle of compassion for migrant compañeros on the road. El Cabe doesn’t expect to be long in the world, “Write my story”, he pled, “before my toes curl up in my shoes”.¿Dónde está El Cabe? Solo él sabe… (Where is El Cabe? Only he knows.) May El Santo Niño de Atocha (Holy Christ Child of Atocha), patron saint of travelers, the abandoned, and the unjustly imprisoned, watch over him.
He laughs and says he has crossed many times. He was eighteen the very first time. “I walked to the customs area of the Border, and singled out un moreno (a Black man) with a suitcase. I didn’t hesitate, and went right up to him; picked up his suitcase and walked beside him. He didn’t say a word. He let me carry the suitcase. At customs, he was stopped and searched, but they let me through. On the other side, we were picked up by a car and taken to L.A. They gave me $30 dollars, and I bought a hamburger and returned to Tijuana. Since my friends didn’t believe me, I showed them the McDonald’s ticket I had in my pocket.” That was how El Cabe picked up his work on the Border.
El Cabe is now thirty-two-years-old, a man who can make his way into any place, any time, anyhow for the purpose of stealing; hence his nickname, “El Cabe,” from the verb caber, “to fit.” He says his real name is Jorge, but he has used other aliases before. El Cabe had twelve caídas (falls) with the border patrol near Tijuana, in which he was booked variously as Pedro Infante and José Alfredo Jiménez—names of famed Mexican ranchero singers—and also as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal. This was over a period of several weeks in 1994, when he was being paid by coyotes to be caught by the border patrol—he was a conejo (rabbit) or corredor (runner). The distraction caused by these rabbits allows them to pass their pollos (chickens, clients) through La Línea.
Jorge would be held a few days, released, then paid, and he would return to the starting Line. “People partied insanely on the weekends in Tijuana. The girls would arrive to make money off of prostitution, and the men would be out of their minds with drugs and drink. It was all a build-up to Monday morning.” He was also paid to throw bricks of packed marijuana over the cameras at the Fence. If his aim was true, the bricks would fall on a blind spot, often on a blanket, which was reeled into a hiding post by the collectors on the other side.
Jorge would be held a few days, released, then paid, and he would return to the starting Line. “People partied insanely on the weekends in Tijuana. The girls would arrive to make money off of prostitution, and the men would be out of their minds with drugs and drink. It was all a build-up to Monday morning.” He was also paid to throw bricks of packed marihuana over the cameras at the Fence. If his aim was true, the bricks would fall on a blind spot, often on a blanket, which was reeled into a hiding post by the collectors on the other side.
Soon after, El Cabe crossed into the U.S. to find work. It was October 1994, he remembers, because it was around the time when Selene, the singer, was murdered. He started out from San Luis Río Colorado close to Mexicali [across from San Luis, Arizona], with a gallon of water and gordas duras (dried salted tortillas). In the arid steppes, he ran out of water and food. He was near El Cajón, California when he got close to a ranch. “The dogs came after me, and I just looked at those dogs who were trying to kill me …. But I got one of them, and ate it.”
El Cabe found his way to the highway. It was pouring rain. A Border Patrol van stopped and the agents asked insistently, “Where are the others?” He answered, “It’s just me.” They thought he was a coyote leading a pack, and moved on to search for the group. A motor home going in the opposite direction, back to the Border, stopped and picked him up. El Cabe was exhausted and didn’t care which way the van was going. “The wife of the American didn’t want him to stop, but he told her to shut up, or something like that, and to take the wheel”. Inside the motor home, the man gave him new clothes. “What I remember best about that time is that the American gave me this huge chunk of chocolate. Oh you have no idea how delicious that was.” Silvano who is sitting next to us, asks “He didn’t give you any food?” “Oh yes, but I wasn’t hungry, I had just eaten dog.”
El Cabe got off in San Diego and started moving North again towards San Clemente, making his way con fé y con fa (with faith and with luck). At a gas station around Santa Ana, a pair of gay guys offered him a ride to L.A. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, if ever there were going to be homos in my life, this might be the time’”. But when they reached Santa Ana, El Cabe jumped out of the car and in one leap landed on to the back of a black pick-up truck which was departing. The truck didn’t stop, and sped away without hesitation. “The gays were yelling at me to come back. You know, I assumed they wanted their pay. When we were in L.A., the driver found me in the back, and got really mad. I explained to him that I thought he was helping me escape the homos, and he explained that he thought the guys were yelling at him.”
The driver gave El Cabe 20 bucks and a ride to Ventura. In Ventura, he started making money with the “Arabs of the Marketitas” (mini-marts); taking soda racks in and out. One day, he heard a customer speak his last name. El Cabe asked if he wasn’t related to so-and-so from Guadalajara. He was. The man turned out to be a cousin on his maternal side. After that, Jorge started working in construction through a connection of his cousin. Six months later he was picked up by the police, and sent to an immigration deportation station for about another six months. He was asked whether he would like to be transferred to San Pedro; another deportation station. El Cabe told the officers he “would very much like to be transferred to San Pedro”.
When he got to San Pedro, the judge asked him, “Why did you ask to be sent to San Pedro?” El Cabe answered, “Honorable judge, I’ve never been to San Pedro, and thought to myself that it would be a wonderful opportunity to get to see another part of the world.” The judge was amused and put him under house arrest – outside the deportation center – for fifteen days, so he could be driven around town under guard. “Sometimes I would wiggle out of the ventilation shaft of the house and go get myself some beers, and then return to the house. The agents who guarded me would be completely mystified as to why I was intoxicated.” When the fifteen days were up, he went before the judge again, who asked him “Are you happy now?” El Cabe answered, “Estoy muy felíz. (I am very happy).” The judge gave him papers to pay a fine, and forms to fill out to request a work permit, which would require letters of support. “… But I didn’t have any money, and what was this talk about letters I needed, no one was going to give me letters.” I tell him, “You needed a lawyer.” He retorts, “… and I needed money to pay a lawyer, no, forget it.”
A border patrol delivered him at the Tijuana border. El Cabe told the agent, “When you are on your way back, I’m going to overtake you.” The agent laughed at him. El Cabe piqued by the agent’s incredulity, got to Tijuana and found a coyote and exclaimed, “I need to leave right now!” The coyote had a group ready to leave in fifteen minutes. At that time, they charged $600 dollars to cross, now about $2,000 to $3,000. They crossed and got picked up by raiteros who were supposed to drop them off in San Clemente. On the ride, the raiteros spotted a border patrol van ahead, and wanted to drop their clients on the side of the highway.
Jorge pulled out his pocket knife and told the guy to keep driving. He crept into the passenger side, and as they passed the border patrol van, he waved to the driver. “I knew it was the same agent because he was Black and had half a front tooth cased in silver on a diagonal. He just wagged his finger at me, as if saying ‘you did it, you did it’. He reached for his radio. It might have been to ask for back-up, or it might have been to tell the others to let us through. Either way, we weren’t stopped, and got all the way to L.A. I stayed there another year and a half with my cousin and returned by plane to Guadalajara.”
Jorge says somebody should write a book about his life. After a few minutes, he insists that “I” should write a book about his life, or that a writer friend of mine should write a book about his life. I tell him, “he” should write a book about his life, but he sulks. He wants “me” or someone to write a book about his life. This squabble goes on for a few minutes with El Cabe who wants someone to play witness to his life.
El Cabe crossed again in 1997, walking two hours through a sewage system in Mexicali, making his way towards Orange County, where he worked in the fields en la pisca de apio (picking celery), and later in Santa Paula picking lemons. The pay was $50 per day. After four months, he flew to Culiacan to head back home, but there he got lost in drugs and women. “Something was wrong with me back then … I had a thing, where I would tell myself I had to have a certain number of women per year. I had to meet my quota … 80 or 100 … I would take an earring from each one, and put their name on a tag and tie it to the earring. I still have them.”
In Culiacan, El Cabe spent all his earnings. He was ashamed and didn’t want to return to Guadalajara empty handed. At the railyard in Culiacán, there is a sanctuary to the (unofficial) patron saint of narcos and thieves, an outlaw by the name of Jesús Malverde. “I entered the chapel, and prayed to Malverde, ‘Please don’t let me return home this way, defeated by my own vices.’ I looked up at the saint, and it is then that I clearly saw how the saint shifted his eyes from me, down to the tray of offerings at his feet. There were gold chains, coins and bills.” El Cabe does a perfect imitation of the saint’s holy gaze, and laughs. “I returned to Guadalajara on a plane with new clothes and gifts for everyone. Even my mother said, ‘Son, I think the North has done you well this time…”.
“When was the next time you crossed over to the U.S.?”
“It was 1998 more or less. I crossed with three friends, one of whom got shot. Juan Ramírez Gonzalez was his name…. Three of us were crossing near some carrot fields. We were going about with discretion, by way of the ditch to avoid messing up the fields. We were ambushed by two men with rifles. Juan was shot, and I grabbed and pulled him out of the ditch, towards an outcropping of rocks towards the woods, but by then, in that short time, his entire left shoulder was already covered in blood. We hid among the rocks. The light was dim, and we waited. I had a big rock in my hand. Against the light, I saw one of the men cross in front of me, and I crushed his head. I got him, over and over again, and my friend got the other guy. I think they thought we were country people (gente de rancho) who scare easily.” They later caught a cargo train to San Diego, and ended up by Santa Barbara. There El Cabe worked as a gardener.
A contractor would give them a blueprint with color of how he wanted the garden to end up looking, and they had to plant flowers of that color to fit the landscape design. One day, Jorge made his own design, and when he was done, he told the German lady landowner, that he had modified the original design. She liked the design, and gave him $1,000 dollars more for him and his compañeros, telling him, “I know that if I give it to the boss, he is not going to give it to you … just don’t tell him.” Jorge beams, “I’m really good at crafting things.”
Later, he moved up to Fresno, where he mostly made money thieving. He claims to have once broken into a house holding exotic birds and animals, including a gorilla. “We came in through the door, and the gorilla starts roaring and acting up. So, I take a metal tube and beat the shit out of him, until he was afraid of me, and sat quietly in the corner. We wrapped him up in a canvas bag and put him in the van. We drove straight to Hollywood, to this guy’s house we knew. We tell him, ‘We have a gorilla to sell.’ He says, ‘Bring me a photo.’ We answer, ‘We have him here in the van.’ ‘What?’, he asks surprised. So, we take him out to the van, and its shaking and moving about, but I open the door, raise my arm at the gorilla and say, ‘¡Quieto hijo de la chingada!’, and he cowers, and settles down immediately. The guy said he couldn’t give us more than $15,000 dollars, so we took it, but he paid us $13,000 in cash, and a black Lincoln Town Car. We ditched the van somewhere along the way, and returned to Mexico in the Lincoln.”
His next crossing would be a Wild West venture on the railroads. “It was 1999. I was in Guadalajara, when my friends started prodding me, ‘Come on Cabe, you’ve crossed so many times, help us, take us over ….’ They insisted so that I told them, ‘If you are serious about it, we leave right now.’ And my friends said, ‘But Cabe how can we leave right now, we need to earn some money to cross.’ And I replied, ‘I have $20 pesos. That is all I have. If you want to cross, we leave right now with what we have.’ Some of the guys didn’t even go home. I got my backpack, a change of clothes and a blanket, and we took off with only the telephone number of a relative of one of them.
From Guadalajara we got to Tepic by jumping aboard a cargo container on the train tracks. Around 2:30am, 2:35am, the cargo wagons stop to reconnect to a line heading towards Mazatlán. We had a few hours, and the guys started getting hungry. They told me, ‘Cabe, we are starving, what are we going to do?’, and I told them, ‘Wait here …’ Walking around the streets I found one of those big baskets of bread that the local panaderías (bakeries) were loading up on bicycles, and brought it back. Then the guys said, ‘But Cabe, what are we going to drink?’ I replied once more, ‘I’ll be right back’, and wandered a bit more, until I found a crate of milk jugs. You know, the way milk used to be stored…? I brought it back to the train. You should’ve of seen these guys’ faces when I arrived with that milk. By whole or half a bread roll, we were all able to eat and drink milk for the next leg of the ride.”
The train picked up more tramperos (tramps) on the way to Mazatlan. The guys aboard the train came from Guadalajara, Mexico City, Chiapas, Oaxaca, Michoacán, Guatemala and Honduras. When we got to Mazatlán, the Mexican Immigration Officers came around looking for Central Americans. They let the Mexicans stay on board, but took the Guatemaltecos and Hondureños to a deportation center.
A few of the Mexicans became sad for their companions. So, a guy from Michoacán comes up to me and says, ‘Hello friend, I was wondering if there isn’t something we could do for the Central American compañeros.
I looked up at him, and slowly shook my head,“Sadly, there is…Alas, my Mexican companions lack the courage ….’
The Michoacano looked around,then firmly fixed his gaze on me, ‘Men from Michoacan don’t back down (no se rajan)’.
‘Alright,’ I said, ‘Let’s go’ …
There were two or three hours before the train departed again from Mazatlán. We got to the deportation center, and saw there was only a chicken wire fence surrounding the patio were the men were contained. On the block, there was a passenger bus about to depart, and we tied a rope to the fence and the fender.” El Cabe stops to laugh, “When the bus departed, it took the whole damn fence! Ripped an entire side away! It was a running and a scurrying of people like you’ve never seen in your life. We started running, and I started shouting, ‘Head to the exit of the city! Head to the exit of the city! We’ll catch the train there!’ They followed me, seeing as some of them knew me, and seeing as I seemed to know what I was talking about. We had left some compas on the train in charge, knowing that if they saw us coming they had to hit the emergency breaks. At the edge of the state line, a compa threw the break, and we caught up. The train Engineer came out confused and furious, but we calmly explained, that it was all over and that we were just giving some compas a break. He left us alone, and we rode on to Culiacán.
I tell Jorge I am surprised that they let them continue. El Cabe explains that the famous Mexican comedian Cantinflas was a trampero himself. When he became famous, he bought many trains and wagons, and donated them to the Mexican Federal Railway system on condition that they leave the tramperos alone…. “That promise was upheld until the railroads were privatized.”
They made it to Culiacan, where they were shaken down for money. “Culiacan is very dangerous, lots of corruption, they control the drug and people flows around there.” The troupe of tramps eventually made it to the border in Mexicali, where some made it across, and others didn’t.
El Cabe has one bad eye. Depending on which story he is telling, his countenance is inspired or menacing. I ask him how he lost sight in one eye. “When I was a child, a car rolled over my head. I was 6 years old. The doctors told my mother that resources were being wasted on me that others could use. They were going to unplug me from life support in a week if I didn’t wake up”. On the last day, he woke up, and clearly remembers crying out “ ’Amá!” (short for Mamá) to his mother who sat across the room from him.
“I was a devil … My father would beat me until my entire chest was black and blue … for the things I did.” Silvano interjects, “That’s just abuse.” I nod in agreement. Jorge argues, “No, it’s the only way to make wrongdoers like myself understand. … It’s like this human rights bullshit. You have no idea how many times I escaped jail in Guadalajara for things I should have been locked up for. … True, sometimes I had the crap beat out of me for things I didn’t do, but that was the manly way to do things back then; teach people like myself a lesson.” I say that he is describing a transitional problem for police as they attempt to adapt to a system ruled by law which will require them to find evidence before jailing someone, and that getting locked up seems an ineffective way to achieve accountability, given that jails seem to further twist lives towards criminality.
On this last point, my criminal friend agrees, “You have no idea how many times I’ve heard guys in the slammer get idle, and start talking about ‘that rich aunt’ they are going to hit up or scam out of money when they get out. You have no idea, how many times ….” He chuckles, shaking his head.
“How many times were you in jail in Mexico?”
“I was in the “Sheraton” of Juanacatlán, near Guadalajara, about fifteen times.”
“Why were you in and out of jail so much?”
“Because I was an addict … I mean, I am an addict, but hoy no (not today). You know piedra (crack)? For so long there was nothing else in my life. I would look at other people, and say to myself, ‘Is this how you have fun, you poor suckers?’ Piedra was my life, and I needed quick money all the time. … I was great at breaking into houses. I also had my teachers. When you break into a house, you have 15 minutes to find the money, or else you have to leave, but we always found the money.”
“How did you find the money?”
“The first thing you do is go to the bedroom of the Big Man or the Big Woman in the house. From there you can figure out who and how controls the house. Then you guess in which corner or drawer the money is hidden.” (I’ve come to think of this as The Feng Shui of Thieving).
I ask if he made big money. “Come on,” he answers giving me a look, “People don’t have much; their TV, their DVD, a sound system, their saved up stash of money.” El Cabe sighs,“Being in jail for me was a respite, a rescue from the drugs.”It has been a year and a half of sobriety for El Cabe; an interruption to eight years of addiction to “piedra”.
“How did you get off drugs?”
“One day my mother storms into my room, where I lay ill from fifteen days of being ‘enfiestado’ (‘partying’ or high). She yelled at me, ‘Are you tired yet?’ I answered, ‘Yes, I am’. She plowed forward, ‘If you are a man, like you say you are, stop using. But if you are not a man, then cut off your ‘chingadera’ (dick) and be done with it.’ I only responded, ‘Ay madre, you’ve really offended me now.’
El Cabe locked his door from the inside, and slid the key out from the bottom saying, “Don’t give me the key until I ask for it.” Five days later he pounded and clamored for the key. His family punched a hole in the bottom of the door and threw food at him like a dog, “…A bolillo (sour dough bread roll) with beans, water, or whatever else would fit through”. Two weeks later, the worst was over. He promised his mother to stop using drugs and to stop thieving. He lives one day at a time. He is trying to stick to a worker’s life, and out of a thief’s life to keep a promise. “Don’t think I am not tempted …. But, the Devil no longer helps me; He no longer let’s me get away with things. As soon, as I get a bad thought, here comes the Devil to mess up an opportunity for me. …. The past is not important to me. I believe in the future. The present is what interests me.”
I’ve been sitting for four hours now between El Cabe and Silvano, crossed legged, which is one of two meditation poses I can bear for long periods of time. The other requires a bench. I tell them I learned to meditate in California, and that a purpose of meditation is to learn to live in the present, and that a learning technique requires sitting without fidgeting for long periods of time. Silvano answers, “That is why you can sit out here with us.”
As if with sudden revelation, El Cabe asks me, “Why are you out here?”
“To learn what I don’t know. … I have a lot of education but I am trying to reeducate myself. … I want to figure out another way of living without being locked up in an office ….”
Silvano interjects, “Yes, it is just as I was saying to you the other day: You understand ‘the theoretical’ (lo teorico), and guys like him and I, know ‘the practical’ (lo practico)”.
I nod, “Something like that ….” I tell them about the “Tyson” documentary I just saw, and say that El Cabe’s story reminds me of this other story. I narrate the documentary, since they’ve told me many stories. Deep in the story, I tell how Tyson always lived fast and extravagantly, either on top or crawling on the bottom, never holding onto anything. Tyson admits that he never thought he would live past 40 years. Jorge exclaims, “Exactly, exactly like that … I was always up or down … When I had money, I would close bars and cantinas by throwing Pharaoh Parties (Fiestas de Faraón) … You know, food, drugs, women, alcohol in excess? I would go to bed with three women at a time.” Silvano asks, “Where they also drugged up?” “Yes”, and thenEl Cabe pauses, “I’ve always believed that I won’t make it past 50.”
“What are you going to do if you do?”
Jorge shakes his head in anguish, “No, no … Don’t do that to me …” But I insist, “Maybe you’ll live a long and good life from now on …” He shakes his head in dismay, “I … no …” He had never entertained that thought before, that he would make it past 50. I am sure that Silvano entertains growing old often, being as he is already 50.
His final crossing, before arriving to San Francisco, starts on Cinco de Mayo of 2009. He entered a tunnel that exits at the back of a hospital in Arizona just across the Border. “The tunnel is awash with black water. Everyone walks in silence through the tunnel in the dark. Mothers with children, men carrying bundles of drugs, single men like myself. There is pestilence, there are dead dogs, and corpses.” On the other side, on May 6, he found a tap of water to clean off and change clothes. People leave gallons of water for others to pick up. He grabbed one, and started walking into the desert. He walked and walked for several days with that gallon of water, but soon Death started pacing behind him. One night before dawn, lost, he prayed to the Santo Niño de Atocha (Holy Christ Child of Atocha): “Santo Niño de Atocha, if you are going to take my life today, don’t hesitate any longer, and take it now.” He had just voiced his prayer, when stumbling forward he saw in the dimmest light of dawn a canyon fall about five meters away. “The Santo Niño de Atocha saved me once again.” El Cabe shows me the wood bead bracelet around his wrist with a tiny image of the Santo Niño de Atocha on one bead followed by other tiny icons of saints and virgins on the other beads. “A Mother’s Love, God’s Love, and the Santo Niño de Atocha are the most important things to me”, says Jorge.
As the sun rose he walked into a desert war games field with overturned hummers, charred tanks, and missile craters in the ground. “If there had been corpses, I would have believed that there had been a war there.” The next morning he awoke surrounded by black desert tortoises. “They wanted to bite me”. He stood in the middle, but couldn’t see how to walk around them. He started kicking them over to make a path, but they attacked him. In defense, he stood on a turtle. Its legs splayed out, and it gave a piercing shriek. This scared the others away, and he straggled forward.
Staggering, he reached an abandoned railroad town. There was no food, there was no water. It was a ghost town. He broke open an old tree stump, and ate the termites he found. He also ate a rattle snake. The snake was good for two days of food. Getting closer to the edge of L.A., El Cabe found an overturned “narco car”, or at least he assumed it to be one because there was an official U.S. government plaque inside. He took a leather bag from the back seat and filled it with the radiator water, which replenished him.
When he reached L.A., he was paid $350 dollars to clean a warehouse. He sent $250 home and kept $100 to get to San Francisco. When I met him, he had been two weeks on Cesar Chavez without work and staying at the Santa Marta and Santa María Shelter at 1050 S Van Ness Ave. This is the shelter that Silvano doesn’t like, and says as much. Jorge admits, “Yeah, there is a mighty unfriendly looking compa sleeping next to me. I have to keep an eye out.” He shows us the pair of scissors kept hidden in his backpack, just in case he needs to defend himself. “I won’t know what to say if they find the scissors on me.” I rip out a page of my notebook and suggest he claim to make papel picado to pass the time. This makes him smile.
As the sun begins to set on Cesar Chavez Street, I ask El Cabe for one more story. “Do you know who Cesar Chavez was?” Without hesitation, he announces: “I’m going to tell you the story of Cesar Chavez. Cesar Chavez was a crop picker just like many of us. In those times, los patrones wouldn’t let you have water while working in the fields. You would get beaten if you drank water while on the job. It was after la jornada (the workday) was over that you would be allowed to drink water. Cesar Chavez brought his son to work in the strawberry fields with him. In those times, children also worked the fields. The boy saw a puddle in the middle of the field, and just like you or I would do now, he dove for the water. As he was drinking, the foreman saw him and meant to fire a warning shot to scare him, but instead he hit the kid square on the head. After that, Chavez began organizing workers and created every labor law existing to protect migrant farmworkers. That is how Cesar Chavez began.”I nod at this wonderful oral history: the Legend of Cesar Chavez, as told on Cesar Chavez Street by El Cabe.
As we depart, Silvano and El Cabe accept a twenty dollar bill from me, offered as we Mexicans say, para sus refrescos, for their sodas; a token of gratitude for their time. They accept heartily, and El Cabe asks for my phone number, which I give to him, same as I have to many other people who I’ve met on the street. As we grab our belongings, El Cabe is still telling stories. He brags that his use of language has always been an asset. “I could assault a late night pizza store simply with a sweatshirt under my jacket, pretending to have a gun, and using foul language directed in a low tone at the cashier or owner.” He goes on to say, “I was also a great phone extortionist.”
I’m tired, and that word “extortion” gets to me. Extortion and kidnapping is the nightmare of every Mexican family these days, and, so I slip. I show my cards to the master gambler. Annoyed, I say, “Well then give me my phone number back, if you are such a good phone extortionist”. El Cabe’s expression hardens. Silvano laughs nervously. Jorge starts jabbing his hands into his pockets, and of course, he can’t find the paper. It is a very tense moment, at the end of a long day of sharing stories. Whether he had any mischief in mind, I will never know, but I quickly realize that I’ve broken the safety and magic of the storytelling circle by preemptively judging him.
I look at El Cabe and say, “Forget it … I messed up (metí la pata).”He continues to search his pockets, and muttering under his breath, “Diablo, Diablo, Devil … why are you doing this to me?”I repeat, “Jorge, really, I made a mistake …. I’m really grateful that you shared your story with me.”He is looking at all sorts of little tidbits of paper notes in his hands, but none of the mare, of course, my phone number. Silvano helps us out, “He was very forthright with you about his life.”
“Yes, he was”, and I insist, “I’m just learning Jorge. I apologize.”
Jorge finally relents, “Look …. Look … in another time of my life … In another time of my life, I may have done something utterly offensive to you … touched you … offended you … If I didn’t need it so much, I would throw the $20 back at you”. He shakes his head, and keeps looking for the paper.
“Well, I want to make things right with you”, I say, “Please stop looking for the paper. Teach me something.”
Silvano encourages, “Yeah, you have ‘lo teorico’ and he has ‘lo practico’.”
I nod. And El Cabe let’s me have it, “Look, if you are going to come out here, you have to come out here with humility. I know I am nothing. We are poor. Nothing. Don’t come out here carrying anything that you are afraid to lose, your cellphone, your wallet, or anything else you care about, because you will lose it.”
I say, “I will think about what you have said to me, carefully. Gracias. ”We mend, but I’m invaded by sadness. Almost as if by consolation, El Cabe chuckles, and says, “Now it turns out that I am a pinche maestro (damn teacher)”.
El Cabe never called. Someone on the corner told me he was standing outside the U-Haul. He left Silvano a message for me: that I should write a book about his life. Another day he was spotted, dressed as a cholo (a Chicano gang guy). In the end, I felt indebted to El Cabe. He is likely one of the greatest contemporary troubadours of migrant and border lore. Someone should write a book about his life. For now, I leave him this corrido in prose. He helped me to understand the fearlessness of the poor, in a world where all they receive from the rest of us is our fear that we will lose everything they never had to them.
I believe that when the Apocalypse befalls us, and Armageddon and the other seven signs of the end of world ravage the landscape, and the Flood overwhelms us, there will be one man standing, a trickster, a coyote. On a whim, Coyote may save one or two of us, but be prepared to lose something in exchange.