Going in Circles
The old-fashioned Mexican ritual of paseo takes on newfangled—and not always so innocent—forms.
They cruise on the main street in Palomas until the small hours of the morning, until 4 or 5 a.m., according to one guy cooking hot dogs on a sidewalk grill in front of the Taqueria Gamez. He said he works until 3 a.m. sometimes serving this caravan of cars and trucks dando vueltas, as they put it—driving around and around in circles.
On weekends, dozens and dozens of cars cruise down as far as the Hotel San Francisco and double back. Then they drive north six blocks to the Port of Entry and turn around again.
Most of what goes on is quiet. Only rarely will a car pour out some jouncey Mexican music or a bone-jarring rap song. It's mostly just the sound of ordinary traffic. It's a way of socializing, a way to see and be seen, and a time to pick up girls. The drivers don't seem to be in competition to have the hottest car, as no one has much money anyway.
I suspected for quite a while that this pattern of driving had something to do with the old-fashioned courtship ritual in many parts of Mexico, called a paseo. In a supreme expression of innocence (or repression), young people used to promenade in a circle around the central plaza of towns, boys moving in one direction and girls in the other, until they linked up with the one who caught their eye. They even had a chaperone watching over them, if you can believe it.
Once when I was down in Ascension, about an hour south of the border, I talked to a teenage girl working at the checkout counter of a supermarket. She said with a shy smile that her mother warned her that sometimes girls get kidnapped in these processions of cars in Ascension. Her family was from the state of Zacatecas, and the mother remembered when young people did the old-fashioned paseo in her small town. The old and new promenades were related, in her mind.
It's obvious that the modern cruising has a seamy, dangerous side that the old paseos never did. Prostitutes are out in force on these nights, and there are a lot of one-night-stands and even criminal rapes. But I've also seen trucks with whole families, including little kids, in the back, and cars with teenage girls screaming excitedly like any teenagers out for some fun. The guy at the taqueria said he saw one guy who drove around from about 4 in the morning, para pasearse—to pass the time.
I spoke to someone recently, Santos, who grew up partly in Palomas. He says when he was a pre-teenager about a decade ago, he strolled around in the plaza with other adolescents in Palomas in what was a faint shadow of the paseo custom. The boys walked in one direction and the girls in the other, but it was all informal and there was no chaperone looming in the background. You would see someone you like and go up and talk to him or her.
Santos believes the shadow-paseo still goes on in Ascension, alongside the cruising, but doesn't happen anymore in Palomas. He thinks Palomas has gone downhill, and that there are more prostitutes than a decade ago.
Santos' current girlfriend, where he lives in Dallas, has a father who won't allow any hand-holding or kissing while he's visiting her family, he says. His farmworker parents in Deming grew up in a similar conservative environment, where the man asked permission to visit his future wife on Sundays, in their living room. (I collapsed in giggles over that one.) There are polarities in Latin American culture that are more extreme than in ours.
Some prostitutes these days, Santos says, are coming from Juarez and even Chihuahua because they can earn as much as $150 a trick instead of $30 in the other places, making Palomas a kind of mecca for prostitution, I guess. He himself once started getting to know a pretty girl in Palomas who after a while turned to him and said, "This will be $150."
Streetwalkers in Palomas are not like streetwalkers in American cities, with their de rigueur platform shoes and padded shoulders that identify them from a block away.
Some Palomas prostitutes get tarted up, but they're just as likely to be wearing jeans and a plain jersey with a nice trim that they may have bought at Wal-Mart.
Some of them look like they could have been students of mine at the upper levels in Deming. And they may have been. They need money so their families can eat. I've spoken to a doctor in Palomas who said that the prostitutes who are a little older often had husbands who've beaten them and left them with children to feed.
On the main street and near the plaza in Palomas are lots of cantinas, or bars, where prostitutes carry out their profession. A few years ago I knew a young woman who worked the cantinas. Together we drove a bunch of little kids to a circus from the orphanage where her parents were "houseparents." I suspected she was a prostitute but wasn't sure.
There was an odd paradox going on. She wore a relaxed, unafraid smile as we watched the trapeze artists and chubby dancers, but at the same time there was an invisible cage over her face that kept everything out. I wondered if she had some kind of fantasy life that distanced her from the reality of her life—that kept her safe.
Her father was a nice man but an alcoholic, and I've been to their house when there was nothing at all to eat. The last time I saw her she was heading to Silver City with her boyfriend, without papers, to work. There was a dignified look on her face, I thought, and a graciousness when she shook my hand. I wish her luck.
She may have been like the girls I've seen leaning against the railing near a farmacia. Or maybe she hung out nervously outside the cantinas like the girls I saw a few days ago. No doubt she's been in the cars going around and around on the main street. I don't think she wants to go back.
I wonder how long this whirlpool, or whorl, of the paseo in the collective consciousness of Mexico will endure. It may last like a fingerprint that persists through all the changes of life. It's like an element of cultural DNA that keeps reproducing itself.
I'd like to see how many transformations the whorl will go through before it loses its usefulness to people and finally spins off into nothingness.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly also wrote this issue's feature on Peppers supermarket. She lives in Deming.