One does not have to travel south of the border to experience a Mexican market. There's plenty of them up here in Los Angeles. Mexican markets. Mercados Mexicano.
If you'd like to experience the Mexican thing, la cosa Mexicano, then go with me to Northgate Market, the largest Hispanic Market in Paramount California. We'll search the isles for dark-eyed Spanish beauties and hope to get a taste of real Mexican flavor. Un sabor Mexicana. And not just the coffee. It's a real southern California experience believe me. I'm not Hispanic so you have to come along. There's safety in numbers. So let's go together. Vamanos.
Many famous Mexican actors and actresses live nearby and shop here. After all, this is LA county. Hollywood is only fifteen miles away. If we're lucky we'll see one. The front entrance blows air on your head and messes up your hair just like in Vegas. Cheap thrill. No cost at all.
Right off I see a girl, but only her head. Her body is blocked from view by stacks of cans of menudo. But her face is what I call "Could launch a thousand ships" quality. Unfortunately there's more to her than that. When she steps from behind the menudo pyramid I notice that her arm is covered from stem to stern with tattoos. How many? If each of those ships was manned by ten sailors that would be just about right. She's no Helen after all. So much for trying to use literary references to spice up my writing. So much for catering to the intelligencia.
As for the men there are three that are pretty interesting. They're older men that push the baskets and mops around. But it isn't just older men's faces they have. It's faces with character. Each one could be right out of For Whom the Bell Tolls. There's one just like Pablo, one like Enselmo and another like Fernando. Character is what their faces have in abundance. These three are worth the trip alone. I just know in their backpacks they've got sticks of dynamite and are ready to blow the bridge. They're the kind of faces you can count on. No nonsense solid faces full of character. That's why they're in charge of the floor. I look forward to seeing them. One of these times I'm gonna bring them a Corona. Maybe manana.
In Northgate they want no one to slip. If someone makes a mess they mop it up real fast. And just to make sure no one slips they fan it dry with one of those fold up caution-floor-is-wet signs. It's a struggle for these men. The old man that looked like Fernando, same grey hair, same broken nose, had seen a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls under my arm. You'd think because he was Hispanic he didn't read much English, or that he didn't read, period. If you thought this you'd be mistaken. He was mopping up a spill in the soaps and detergents isle. A bag of Foca or Ariel had busted open on the top shelf and was drifting over the puddle onto the floor. Little white flakes of detergent rained down all over. It looked tough to me. Hard labor. Many people were walking around and it was busy and crowded.
"Fernando," I said, " how was cleaning it up? Was it a problem?"
He answered with a quote.
"It was like the excitement of the battle except it was clean... In a snowstorm it always seemed, for a time, as though there were no enemies. In a snowstorm the wind could blow a gale; but it blew a white cleanness and the air was full of a driving whiteness and all things were changed and when the wind stopped there would be the stillness."
The man knew his Hemingway. Straight out of chapter fourteen.
As I watched him I realized he wasn't just pushing a mop. He was a man fighting against nature. Battling chaos. Not with a bull in a ring. Instead, he was waring with the elements of soap and water.
" This was a big storm and he might as well enjoy it. It was ruining everything, but he might as well enjoy it."
I knew my Hemingway too. Straight out of chapter fourteen. That's how good Hemingway is. He somehow sneaks his prose into your everyday life. Even now, seventy-one years later.
That's true writing.
The showcase at Northgate is their checkers. There's quite a few and each one is lovely. I don't know who hired these ladies but whoever it is should receive a medal of some kind. A gold medal. Un medalla de oro.
Here are three of the checkers. All three named Maria. Not really of course, but it will save me a lot of trouble after this gets published. I mean, I have to shop there. If there's one place I don't want to end up it's in the middle of Hispanic cat-fight. Long pretty nails can be muy peligroso. Real dangerous.
One checker is short and young and wears too much rouge. Her hair is one color today and another tomorrow. Her lips are the type that get men into trouble. I figure she's a "Mexican Spitfire" just by the look of her. Like Lupe Velez the actress. Like Eva Longoria but shorter. Like Eva Longoria on a HispanicYellow Brick Road. She looks like a munchkin movie star.
What checker here doesn't look like a movie star?
Another one has hair as blond as Jean Harlow's. Her eye make-up is always too perfect, but her lashes are real enough for her boyfriend. She wears ten thousand bangles up and down each arm. Her rings out-dazzle the bright California sun. You can't help but notice. The girls here are into gold.
Many have nails as perfect and sculptured as Eva Mendez's figure. Maybe I shouldn't mention her because her parents are Cuban. But I do. I ask the last Maria,
'Do you do them yourself?"
"Yes," she answers smiling and proud, " I do."
That's the thing I like about Hispanic girls, they have pride. It's held in their eyes and in the way they walk, with a kind of grace, and the cool way they ignore you when they know that you've been staring too long. They know how to help a man save face even in the presence of great beauty. It a lesson they learn from their mothers. Thank God for Hispanic mothers. God bless them every one.
Beauty is not unknown to the women of the Iberian Peninsula. That applies to the Portuguese too. Like certain opals, some believe they possess even more concentrated fire. The earth of the Peninsula is in their genes. It's genetic. Even if they come from the Azores.
I know one of these woman. It is a lucky thing for me that she happened.
So their mothers teach them about their beauty and how to handle it responsibly. How to deal with Beauty herself. They understand Beauty, because like them, Beauty is a woman.
To be ugly is a man's job. And to be too tough to talk.
Oh my God, there's Duncan Reynaldo talking to one of the butchers! Let's go say hello. It's not every day you get to talk to the original Cisco Kid. Let's go get in "The Caballero's Way." He's near the butcher buying chorizo.
"Duncan, how long did the Cisco Kid run on TV?"
"Oh, that was from 1950 to 1956. But it was on radio before that."
"Hey Duncan, what ever happened to Leo Carrillo?"
"Oh, Pancho? He's over near the pan dulces. The guy has a real sweet tooth."
I looked over and there was Leo Carrillo choosing a sweet bread. But then, I noticed that instead of putting it into a bag he was stashing in his shirt! I pointed this out to Duncan and he didn't like the look of it. He said,
"If ever somethin' don't feel right to you, remember what Pancho said to The Cisco Kid... 'Let's went, before we are dancing at the end of a rope, without music.'"
I laughed so hard I had to close my eyes. When I opened them up they were both gone. O. Henry would be proud of me. My literary reference is as secure as my place in history as a writer. The trouble is I don't know if that's bad or good. Editors take note.
They have a tortilla factory right on the spot. The packages of tortillas, when you touch them, are still as warm and flat as Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats. Mexicans like things fresh. Just like the French with their bread. Mais Oui.
I'm standing in one of the lines now and looking over the rows of people and baskets. I suddenly realize I'm the only non-Hispanic in the bunch. I have a mustache so that's cool. I'm a little too pale it's true. Maybe I could look like a man from Sinaloa. I try to show more character, try to look dignified. I stand up straight and attempt to look serious.
This being Hispanic isn't easy.
I assume a certain attitude, adopt a kind of insolence. It's no good, I can't keep it up. Never any good at charades, that's me. Well, I'm a Californio and that's something. We used to be part of Mexico. It's our heritage. I also have pride. And I like pan dulces and soccer.
Maybe I'm more Hispanic than I think. Maybe it's enough for a man to just think like a Mexican or a Spaniard. And have pride in who he is.