by Shawn Badgley
If you like the holidays, then the plaza in front of the state capital of Zacatecas, in Zacatecas, Mexico, was the place for you during the past couple of weeks. The city brought in a bunch of sand, giant foam rocks, fake palm trees, and a life-size holy family to approximate Bethlehem circa 0 or whenever Jesus was born. Since the trees lit up in flashing oranges, reds, yellows, and greens, it ended up looking like the parking lot of a casino in Vegas, or possibly a playground in one of Dubai’s poorer neighborhoods. One night I was sitting on the steps waiting to watch some kind of Christmas pageant. Among the 300 people in the plaza were a man who resembled Eugene Levy and another peddling Fruta de Horno from a cart. He was playfully attacking children – kids made up at least half the audience – with his tongs between pulls off his cigar. When the play started, the cast entered from behind the crowd, singing and marching past the Fruto de Horno man. One of them was wearing antennae, a sheer black camisole, and black leotards cut off just below the crotch. She was clearly enjoying herself. So was the Fruto de Horno man. “Buena,” he yelled at her. He whistled. She looked back, gave her maracas a shake, and approached him. She leaned in – I thought for sure she was going to kiss him – and asked for a pastry. He gave it to her. She was his only customer all night. Later she drank two beers onstage even though I’m pretty sure her part only called for one, pranced around while wearing an apron and singing “Deck the Halls” as a devil mask popped out of a papier-mâché television, and humped a dude dressed up like a robot. She blew kisses at the kids. The kids laughed. I have little to no idea what the play was about.
In Mexico, you have to buy three sets of nativity figures to amass a complete one. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph come in separate boxes. That's how they get you. Ninety-seven percent of the country's 108 million people are Catholic.
My host’s daughter, 60, is rich. She’s a contractor and has nine bathrooms. Also an array of crystal angels, velvet paintings, and mail-order CD box sets from the United States. She’s found a way around the nativity scene racket by building her own. During a tour of her mansion, she showed me her project in the basement (two bathrooms). It spans a wall, which is painted a bluish-black to look like the night sky. While I was there, nine days before Christmas on a Sunday, she was hot-gluing little stars to the wall. After the first one, which took her about two minutes from application to placement, she looked at me and deadpanned “uno.” I estimated that it was going to take her about six hours to finish the rest, but she was coming down the stretch and in good spirits. Her pastoral scene included turtles, deer, clumps of real grass and mud, and a pump-fed creek running down the center. Also a giant wooden devil. It was cute when her dog Chanel barked at the devil.
The only anti-American sentiment I experienced in Zacatecas was when an old man walking with a cane and wearing a University of North Carolina Tar Heels cap threw his right shoulder into my chest as I walked by. Clearly deliberate. I turned around and said in English “That’s a player-control foul or even an intentional if we’re on my court, Hansborough.” No I didn’t. But I did think it.
A good brush-off in Spanish is “Pinta un bosque y pierdete en el.” Rough translation: Paint a landscape and get lost in it. However, those of you in cyberspace might prefer “Haz click y minimizate,” which you’d direct at someone who won’t stop talking. A good thing to say when someone asks how you're doing and you’re doing really great – assuming that, like me, you’re bored with “bien” or “muy bien” or even “bien bien” – is “alpuro centavo,” an authentic phrase that my host’s 55-year-old son taught me. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in translation, but trust me, Mexicans will be impressed. Should you find yourself wanting to say that something is easy in Spanish, simply say “Esto es pan comido.” If someone asks if you’re ready and you want to instill confidence that you very much are, reply “Nací listo.” I was born ready. Finally, one of my favorite words in Spanish is “ambos.” Both. As in, ambos of those phrases will make people think you’ve got your act together ... and, provided you’re not blond and blue-eyed, possibly even a local. If you’re blond and blue-eyed, don’t worry: Chances are you’ll get lucky every night anyway like my Norwegian friend Anders.
I met a woman living on a ranch who has 26 kids. She had triplets thrice. I met a man from Oregon who was studying at the same immersion school as I was. He founded the website WhatMomWants.com (also accessible via ShareMyHeart.com). It helps guys write letters to their moms and/or girlfriends, and packages them with “9 Heart Cards and 3 Love Me Tender Coupons, Premium body butter, Heart mints, Chocolate truffle, [and] Monogrammed scarf.”
You haven’t lived until Rosa, an unreasonably attractive clarinet player in La Banda del Estado de Zacatecas, smiles at you between parts during “Achy Breaky Heart” while a car alarm and fireworks go off in the background.
In Spanish, “amigo” is friend. “Novia” is girlfriend. A female friend with benefits is an “amigovia.” Mexican men are affectionate and possessive. When I walked toward a couple on the street, the man would often engulf the woman in a sort of protective hug as I neared, shielding her from my inevitable lustful advances. Sometimes couples walk in a weird clutching embrace, one of them walking in reverse down the street, his or her back to you, the other facing forward and serving as guide. It could be a field day event alongside the three-legged- and wheelbarrow races.