I just told a peeing prostitute that Mexico has heart, I ponder, winding back to my friends. Not quite sure how I feel about that.

Photo: Jorge Santiago

We wander through the sea to find a table. The ranchera music, with its overdramatic, coordinated wailing of male singers and the vibrant abandon of horns, strings, and accordions, is overwhelming.

On top of that mariachis circulate bursting into whatever songs the customers request, creating sudden pockets of loud live guitar and accordion round the room. Add to that the rowdy displays of machismo that constitute conversation here, and it is like walking through a wave of Mexican male noises drowning one out.

I’m wearing a subtle suede jacket, loose jeans, and Converse, in sharp contrast to the teeny minifaldas and half-open shirts of the other girls here. The men wear the hungry looks of predators, and I’m feeling somewhat exposed as a random blonde piece of prey that’s somehow wandered in. A few laugh and make remarks under their breath as I pass, but otherwise, no one does anything overt. We sit and order beers under their heavy gazes.

Suddenly, my friend Eleutario lets out a cry of “Ay ay ay AYYYY!”, something like a Mexican turkey call which is a mixture of drunken abandon, grief, and unleashed repression. It is common in cantina music and seems to summarize precisely what happens to the male mind in these environs. This cry is seconded by a few other friends and then washed down with lime-laced Victoria. We’re more at home now in the vibe, having let our abandon be known.

But the surreal (at least from our perspective as patrons of the nicely decorated, turquoise-tiled art bars of Oaxaca’s center) quality of the place numbs us a bit. Porno poster, intense male gaze, bustling waiters, prostitute’s laugh, and suddenly…

Mariachis!

Eleutario pays fifteen pesos for two songs, and the mariachis unenthusiastically launch into Camino a Guanajuanto, a Mexican classic.

Photo: Jorge Santiago

“La vida no vale nada…no vale nada la vida…” goes the song. Life is worth nothing…

They sing as though they’ve seen and heard it all before—the revolutionary fighters swept up by patriotic glory; the men who aren’t good enough for the perfect virginal women they desire; the valiant but overly proud heroes killed in duels; the heartless prostitutes and the ones who break men’s hearts; the solitary, tragic figures who give everything up for love and lose.

The music pours over us in the aquarium’s ebb and flow, while the prostitute at the next table grinds away on the lap of a grimly smiling man with three gold rings. Every once in awhile, she gives furtive glances from side to side and tries to pull her jean mini down to cover a little more of her ass, but then, the man’s hand slides up again.

I begin to feel a little queasy. Jorge is taking photographs of another prostitute, who’s wearing big black sunglasses inside the fluorescently lit room, holding up her silver Cinderella heel and smiling. I ask her how she got work here and she shrugs and says, “I came with my friends, and asked to fichar.” Fichar is a verb that refers to fichas, or tickets. The prostitutes earn money from beers men buy them. The normal price of a Victoria at that cantina is 13 pesos; buy it for a prostitute, and it costs 50 pesos.

Somehow, in the midst of our conversation, the woman gets the impression that I am interested in this job possibility and calls over the waiter saying, “Ella quiere fichar!”

“No, no, no!” I clarify, half-laughing, half-horrified, as several men at nearby tables turn their heads. “I’m just wondering how it is for you.”

She shrugs. Shrugging seems to be the normative behavior of a prostitute working the cantinas. I forget, I suppose, that this is their work and their daily life, and they’re not about to break down into sob stories about it because a drunk gringa wants to feel their pain. Do you want to fichar, or not? No? Then vete, get out of here.

I go back to my table feeling slightly ridiculous, but then figure, hey, this kind of humiliation is what feeds good borracheras (the Mexicans have a noun to describe partying with the sole purpose of getting drunk). People are dancing now, men making those sharp, smooth arcs and curves of salsa with the prostitutes. The noise seems to have reached fever pitch, or maybe I’m letting my body cave to my senses.

At some point, I look around to see everyone in a somewhat parallel state, rocking slightly back and forth to the music and the beer, looking a little stunned, occasionally catching someone else’s eye and laughing.

“Vamos?” says my friend Fausto, and we nod. There is a scrambling of peso bills and coins to pay the tab, and then everyone stands with clumsy movements, pushing plastic chairs aside, and we leave. Weaving my way out, I’m noticed less, the men lost in cantina reveries now, thinking of money, or women, or nothing at all.

Photo: Fausto Nahum Perez Sanchez

The night is at once new and very, very old. There are kids playing in the street and alleyways that look as though they are netherworlds containing alternate realities we’d rather not discover. The streets are much darker here, until we begin to get closer to the center and the streetlamps cast a benevolent glow on the sidewalks once more. We are drunk. We are tired. There are really two options at this point:

Sleep.
Tlayudas.

Of course, we opt for the second. Being too lazy to trek across the city to Los Libres, which has the hectic late-night tlayuda joint frequented by all the other rowdy borrachos, we head for the 20 de Noviembre market, where food vendors work ‘til late under the shine of bright yellow lamps. There, we nurse our cantina-beaten souls with huge, crispy tortillas filled with meat, cheese, and beans.

We eat with a sloppy, blissful 1 a.m. laziness, strewn about on the narrow colored benches and lit from behind by the food stand. Our night of cantinas has come to an end. We are sweaty, tired, worn out from the cantinas’ florid outpouring of emotion.

And I can barely think, as we stroll quietly through the empty streets towards home, about where the cantina comes from, and what it means, and where it’s going. Those questions will be for tomorrow.

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