My grandfather hoped to establish a commune in Tijuana

The tortilleria was the world’s jolliest sweat-lodge

 Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos.
  • Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

When I was a boy, Tijuana was a place of magic and wonder, a place of dusty gardens laden with fruit, of pretty women, dogs, food, music. Everywhere you looked, there were secrets and astonishments. And everyone was laughing.

The crime writer Ovid Demaris had an early success with a lurid book about Tijuana called Poso del Mundo, The Hole of the World. That pretty much sums up all our feelings about The Calcutta of the Border. Along with several other writers, I myself have made a certain career lately of exploring the demonic face of Tijuana. But what I never told you about the place is that it was also Wonderland — my favorite town on earth.

He turned his cement-block house on the Independencia ramp into a castle.

He turned his cement-block house on the Independencia ramp into a castle.

We Have Always Lived Near the Castle

My grandfather was a visionary who came north to Tijuana before I was born. His hope was to establish a commune. They thought to bake health bread to support themselves. Along with this commune, he intended to pursue his explorations into Rosicrucianism and occult science, as well as launching a career as a poet. Nobody is quite clear about why he chose Tijuana, but then, why does anyone choose Tijuana? In the old days, when Tia Juana’s whorehouse lay on the low bank of that meandering nameless river, everybody knew why. But Grandpa had the border-urge-for-no-reason, even down in Sinaloa. It’s an itch we have gotten to know all too well; the rash seems to be an epidemic sweeping Latino America.

Six or eight women worked in there all day, sweating and yelling over the sound of a radio.

Six or eight women worked in there all day, sweating and yelling over the sound of a radio.

Grandfather wrote his poems on a giant scroll, rolling the pages onto the ever-thickening tube of verse. In an unexpected development, he died and his children burned all his poems. No one much seems to know why these poems had to go, but go they did, leaving one stubborn line that resonated in my own father’s mind for decades: “Give me two wings and watch me fly.”

I always suspected this line came from the day my grandfather realized that gravity did not exist. It happened on the train ride with my father, then a young boy, from Baja into the interior. They were waiting for the train to pull out. My grandfather pointed out a fly hovering in the middle of the car. When the train began to move, the fly remained exactly in place. The train sped up; the fly stayed hovering over the exact spot on the floor. “Why does he not zoom backwards and hit the back wall?” my grandfather asked. “There is no gravity!” he answered himself.

This lesson stayed with my father, and he passed it on to me.


The family house seemed to grow out of a hillside in Colonia Independencia. It’s still there, if you know where to look, though my cousin Hugo might shoot you if you show up unannounced. Hugo has some bullets in his pistols loaded with small buckshot instead of slugs. One time a neighborhood drunk kept disturbing Hugo’s beloved throat-eating herd of Dobermans. Hugo came out of the house and ran down the street shooting the guy until the guy’s pants were soaked in piss as he ran and begged for his life. This is the kind of joke Hugo appreciates. If you stop by, be polite.

My grandfather built the house, energized by the lack of gravity. However, some other mysterious force slowed down the construction, and the house remained unfinished. It was a two-story, but the slope of the hill made the front door actually open on the second floor; the first floor was half-subterranean and hidden. Hey — no problem: the house next door had a home-built balcony that pitched and yawed most gently. The walkers upon it had the aspect of sailors on a small boat. Later, the entire house hunched its shoulders and leaned out of plumb. It was vaguely trapezoidal and somehow jolly for its angle.

Our house had a living room and a bedroom and a dining room and a kitchen on the top (first) floor. There was also to be a second bedroom, but that mysterious power stopped my grandfather from actually putting it up, so the dining room opened onto a wonderful open room that overlooked the canyons and bustling streets of Tijuana. There, drooping clotheslines waved the Urrea flag: giant old-lady underpants.

I spent much time out there, shooting toy guns, watching eclipses, inspecting the arcana of panties, fooling with the ubiquitous Tijuana geraniums, and spying through windows with Hugo’s telescope. Underpants in action!

Also on this sort-of room/more-or-less roof were dogs who delighted in hanging their heads over the edge and engaging passing dogs, cats, and humans in a crazed ear-flopping vertical volley of insults and slobber. They barked themselves silly.

Next door, Ernesto James had an outhouse that would kill a warthog at 20 paces. Pigeons, perversely delighting in the stench-clouds, lived in its rafters. Hugo showed no mercy for birds that smelled like cosmic turds, so he’d plink them out of the air with a BB rifle he got somewhere. Ernesto James, not to be outdone, got drunk some nights and chased the moon around his yard. We could hear him shouting, “Son of a bitch! Luna cabrona!” and then he’d shoot at it. He had a revolver that made a dull pop! like a firecracker, and we’d stay inside lest a stray moon-shot drill us through the tops of our heads. As far as I know, he never did hit the moon.

Elsewhere in the house’s history: the biggest ants north of the equator have been trying steadily since 1955 to undermine the house and send it into the arroyo. They tunnel and excavate, but some stubbornness in the foundation won’t let the house collapse yet. Besides, the ants think that gravity will help, but we know better.

We watched gringo TV and Mexican TV. My heroes were Jimmy Downs (“Howdy-howdy-howdy!”) and Bob Dale. But I also had Juan Luis Curiel — general-purpose host to every available show espectacular on channel 12, and the Four Seasons of Tijuana, Los Moonglow. In terms of TV, I was doubly rich.

Downstairs, there were a couple of bedrooms, a toilet, and the demon. But we’ll get back to the demon later.


Nobody in the barrio knew what to make of the castle. Oh, sure, this fellow had come along and bought a small pinnacle above the foot of Rampa Independencia (the spectacularly unpaved road that tried to destroy every car making its way to the colonia). That was suspicious enough — who would want a hill to himself? This proved outright that something was seriously wrong. At the very least, he probably thought he was better than everybody else, and nothing could make a Mexican madder.

Work began on the mystery man’s dream home. People took it in stride. There was a dream home in back of our own house, as a matter of fact. It’s probably a cocaine-cowboy’s fortress these days, but back then it was a sort of kidneyshaped white thing with big windows where the telescope would reveal the underpants-in-action mentioned earlier. It looked like a yacht of some sort. The word is “moderne.”

But then this man on the hill revealed his intentions. He turned his cement-block house into a castle. A castle! Old folks gawked. Battlements, little archery-slots along the roof-line. Nobody could see if there was a drawbridge and moat or not. His towers threw their shadows upon the small gaggle of houses and beauty shops across the Rampa. These shops, by the way, were built with their front doors exactly five and a half feet away from the open mouth of a storm drain that carried rain floods away from the castle. Presumably, these storm surges would come through the front door, maybe pause for a perm and a quick cuticle-job, before tearing on down the hill and flooding the Cine Reforma.

Rumors flew. He was a general, a retired general, a colonel. The president. The former president. A warlock. A Mafia kingpin. A white slaver. He was kind, rich, evil, mad, a Russian, or a gringo. Then, as if sensing the consternation in the neighborhood and savoring it, the bastard painted the whole thing bright yellow!

It loomed up there, visible from a mile away. Nobody knew exactly what was afoot, but the yellow paint could mean only one thing: the colonel was laughing at us. As far as I know, nobody ever went up there and asked him what was the deal.

One sunny day, beneath this suspicious yellow insult, in a deep pit, I first discovered death.

Viva La Muerte

Hugo was nuts for The Outer Limits. He was also the newest karateka in the family, mastering blood-freezing karate moves in his underground kingdom — our downstairs second floor. He pounded his fists and fingertips into buckets full of gravel. “Fingers of steel,” he’d warn me, going slant-eyed and holding up the deadly knife-blade of his hand. “I could pull your heart out!”

The one Outer Limits that got under his skin was the one where David (“Iliya Kuryakin!”) McCallum got in a time machine and turned into a man from the future. His head expanded into a brain-bubble, almost exactly like the Jiffy-Pop foil container did. This future-man obsessed Hugo, and he’d drawn the bubblehead all over the walls downstairs.

I was down there checking out his drawings with his sister, my cousin Margo. Margo weighed about seven pounds — all eyelashes and eyes. She was the only girl in the world who would hold my hand. Plus she taught me feminine secrets like Dippity-Do. She smelled like soap, bubble-gum, and Vicks’ Vap-O-Rub.

There was a small craze in Tijuana in those days. Kids were taking the little rectangular batteries out of transistor radios and licking the terminals. Yow! It wasn’t exactly a shock — it was kind of like a lick of Satan’s Salsa.

Anyone who has spent much time in Mexico knows that appalling things regularly go into our mouths. Take, for instance, those sickening little greasy shrimps you find in filthy plastic bags. Or how about blood pudding? (We call it “relleno, ” not to be confused with “chile relleno. ” I once made this unfortunate error and was served a steaming platter of what looked like black whipped cream full of onion chunks. A king-sized fried blood clot. I had dark orange teeth for the rest of the day.) And, of course, we have saladitos, brine-soaked prunes. Yum! Eat three of them, and you need immediate triage; an IV drip is strongly recommended.

“Let’s lick the battery,” Hugo suggested, opening the radio.

“No,” said Margo. “Luis will do it.”

“Will not!” I said, quite reasonably.

“Will too,” Hugo explained, jamming the battery into my mouth.

Zzing!

I got a free perm.


After my electrocution, we went up to the street. James Brown came on. We called him “Chayss Brrong. ” It was as close as we could get. Also popular were Los Hermanos Righteous. Margo knew the dances: she could squirm like an earthworm. Hugo and I managed half-hearted shuffles in the dirt.

Suddenly, Margo said, “Wanna see the bear?” “What bear?” Hugo wanted to know. “There’s a bear down the street.”

“Ha!” he scoffed.

“Come on and I’ll show you.”

We started off straight-away, hiking down the Rampa. On our right, the bluff at the end of which stood the castle. On our left, the slope that terminated in the back yards of a bunch of little houses below. We balanced on the crumbling edge, sending dirt clods tumbling into the yards, squinting and waving the dust away when a suicidal driver rattled and clanged over the rocks in the street. I remember whole fleets of ugly ’49 Chevies, Chevies all over the hill, all of them with sun visors over their windshields.

“There,” said Margo, pointing down imperiously. Twelve feet down, looking up at us, was, as promised, a bear.

“Chingado,” Hugo noted.

The bear asked, “Floob?”

It was chained to a tree stump. It was raggedy and dusty, and its coat hung loose on its bones.

We couldn’t figure out what it was doing there. It raised its paw and waved, rattled its chain.

“Told you,” Margo said.

It looked like wooden furniture under a black rug. But it also looked like a bear. I hid behind Margo.

It shook its head, got up, shuffled around, sat back down.

It was wondering what we thought we were doing in its barrio, no doubt.

It said, “Fnarff.”

Hugo took control of the situation.

“Big deal,” he said. “You can stand around and stare at the bear all day. But I’m going down the storm drain.”

The storm drain!

It was absolutely, unquestionably, 100 percent verboten. But he was already sauntering farther down the hill. Margo and I looked at each other and followed.

The bear was saying, “Hoob? Mooble-Fooble!”

We stood at the edge of the pit, the unseen yellow castle of evil high above us.

The drain went straight down. It was perfectly square, made of rather beautiful stonework sunk in webs of cement. The bottom was, oh, a mile away. It had a floor of pale sand. Tijuana’s usual rubble filled the corners: dry weeds, paper, bottles, rags.

“How do we get down?” I asked.

“Like this,” said Hugo. He grabbed me and swung me over the edge and let me drop. I hit the bottom on my rump with a small yelp and looked up. He was gawking down at me, head upside down just like the second-story dogs back at the house. In fact, I thought he was barking, but he was laughing. Margo, beside him, stared down. I could see up her skirt.

“Ayiii!” sensei Hugo-san bellowed as he flew down upon me.

Margo carefully hung her toe over the edge like she was stepping into water, then scrabbled down the wall like a cat.

Before us, the black maw of the tunnel, angling down under the Rampa. In the distance, at least another 20 or 30 miles away, a small square nugget of light glowed.

“All right, cowards,” Hugo said. “Let’s go.”

We forged ahead. I hung on to Margo’s skirt. Margo hung on to Hugo’s shirt. Hugo said stuff like: “Beware...of...the...giant...hungry... tarantulas!” Margo and I had just suffered through Rodan, and there were these giant slugs in a flooded tunnel that ate Japanese soldiers, and we just didn’t think it was that funny. “Bats,” Hugo said, “that eat...out...your...eyeballs.”

We smelled it first.

This awful stench came at us with delicate fingers, sort of tickled at our noses in the dark.

“Who farted?” Hugo wanted to know.

But the stink got worse: it was the worst thing I’d ever smelled.

“I’m gonna barf!” I said.

“Not on me,” said Margo, snatching her skirt away.

“Hey!” I said, waving my hands around, trying to find her hem.

“Be quiet,” said Hugo.

Then we heard it — this slurpy wet sound. I knew it! It was those Japanese tunnel-worms!

“Better look,” said Hugo.

He dug in his pockets. He always had contraband in his pockets: bullets, cigarettes, knives, tops. He pulled out some matches and lit one.

We gasped.

There, lying on its side and smiling broadly at us was the corpse of a pig. Its forelegs were crossed casually. Its whole body was packed full of maggots. We watched its sides ripple and undulate as the maggots ate frantically.

“Mmm-mm, bacon!” Hugo enthused.

“Gyah!” Margo said.

“Mama!” I cried.

Hugo’s match went out. He lit another.

“Death,” he said, suddenly 50 years old. “It’s just death. Fuck it. It’s got nothing to do with us. Let’s go buy some ice cream.”

Chronicle of a Death Forestalled

Of course, death is as familiar to a Mexican as life: it is a constant companion. I’d already learned where life comes from. An older boy had taken me into a field and shown me little gauzy spider egg sacks in the tall grass.

“Know what that is?” he said.

“No.”

“That’s unborn babies!”

“It is?”

“Yeah. When your mom wants a baby, she comes out here and picks one of these and puts it up her thing. Then it grows into a baby inside her thing.”

“Wow!”

I was afraid to walk in that grass — what if I squished a couple of future homeboys?

Now I knew what death looked like, too. Nobody could tell me where death came from, only what it was. However, we all knew what — or who — came from death.

I remember my uncle Carlos Hubbard (no relation to Ernesto James though related by marriage to Juan Wong) telling me once, “Every alley in Mexico has its own ghost.” Forget the Haunted House — if you want ghosts, we got ’em here. Tijuana is the Haunted City.


We had no proof that the bear on the Rampa was a real bear and not a ghost. We discussed going down and touching it in a limited caucus in the downstairs-upstairs, but the motion was voted down in a landslide, Margo and Luis voting no and the Karate delegate voting yes. And who knew what wraiths floated through the halls of the castle?

My aunt Irma, Ladies’ Bowling Champeen of Mexico, claimed that Grandpa’s ghost could be summoned from the land of the dead. “He’s my father,” she told me. “He still has his responsibilities.”

“Why do you call him, tia?” I asked.

“For bowling, of course!” Apparently, Grandpa swooped into whatever bowling alley Aunt Irma was dominating, and he lay his spirit-hands upon her Brunswick ball and guided it to strikes. He was especially effective at cleaning up a troubling 10-7 split. He apparently made several appearances across the border at the Bowlero. I’m not sure if winning a tournament by means of ghosts is cheating or not.


The Urreas thought those ghosts were a riot.

A big party-event at the Rampa was levitating tables. The adults all gathered around card tables and laid their hands on them, and up they’d go. Rising off the ground, everybody hooting. Also, rapping was great dead-guy fun. (Not “Baby Got Back!” — knocking on things.) They’d light up their ever-present Pall Malls and talk to whatever lonesome dead guy was floating around, and he’d knock on the table.

I got rather worried about the dead for a while. What if some dead woman floated into the bathroom while I was pooing? Did dead little girls watch me take baths? What if Grandpa caught me touching my weenie?

Personally, I found these dead folks intrusive.

I had good reason, too. Family legend has it that a ghost used to visit me in my crib. The weird thing is that I remember.

My father used to say that he’d carry me downstairs and put me in my crib, then stand at the door and watch me. He said I used to stare up at the ceiling and laugh, reach out to somebody, watch something fly all over the room. Okay, Dad. Fine.

I do have a memory of what was in the room, though. It was a black wisp of smoke in the shape of a man. He wore a trench coat and a hat. He came up from under the door, wafting out of the crack at the bottom.

Either that, or I’m remembering a Bela Lugosi movie that was on Science Fiction Theater.

Grandpa Urrea is not the only meddlesome ghost in the family. According to Rampa Tales, he himself was intervened upon by the dead.

Things had gone badly for the visionary commune he’d planned. Apparently, baking bread was not the ticket, but they couldn’t find out what the ticket was. The commune went bust. Furthermore, his dabblings in arcane Rosicrucian secrets got him in serious trouble with the Catholic Church. My father always insisted that he was excommunicated, though he was probably boasting.

Grandpa’s whole world was falling in around him, and one night, he paced and paced, unable to sleep. He had a pistol, some say, and he was planning to shoot himself. He walked in the garden, around and around, smoking, trying to get up the nerve to pull the trigger.

The kids were watching. They heard a woman’s voice softly talking to him. They couldn’t see her in the dark. He stopped at one point to light a fresh cigarette, and in the match-flare, they saw a beautiful woman with long hair held up by a crimson comb.

After a time, he calmed down and came inside.

Not another word was said until many years later, after he’d died. Due to some development down in the homeland (the details are never in sharp focus in these tales), several of the brothers were called on to supervise the moving of Grandpa Urrea’s mother’s grave. Our great-grandmother.

She had died many years before the garden incident. And — you can see this coming, can’t you? — when the casket was exhumed, it fell open, and there was a skull with a crimson comb stuck in its remaining hair! The old-timers insisted that she had returned from the dead to make her son live.

I was so aware of ghosts at this point that anything macabre seemed possible. My grandmother burned incense compulsively. When I found the little gray cones of ash, poised perfectly on books and countertops, I was terrified. I thought they were the ashes of burned-up bodies. One time I touched one and it collapsed. I high-tailed it out to the yard and hid behind the pomegranate tree.

Stairway to Heaven

This part sounds like a bad Borscht Belt joke: “There were these two dogs, stuck together in the street.” However, there were these two dogs, stuck together in the street. I kept watching them through the window. They were facing in opposite directions. If they’d been facing the right way, I mighi have gotten it. But I was having a little trouble catching the drift.

We all thought concretely. My father was having some trouble with English. “I don’t get it,” he’d say. “I go to the bathroom, right? And I’m supposed to take a piss. ” He’d think a minute. “But I’m not taking a piss. I’m leaving a piss!”

This really disturbed him. He spent years trying to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Am I taking the piss to the toilet?”

Sometimes we’d sit around and work on it. “If I’m taking a crap, where am I taking it?”

So, concretely speaking, the dogs were a puzzle.

I called my aunt.

I said, “Tia, somebody tied these dogs together!”

She came out from the kitchen for a look.

“Idiot!” she said.

She had a funny way of dealing with us kids. Hugo, Margo, and I were often known as “Idiots” for whatever breach of reason we’d managed. Once, when I was sleeping on the couch, I was startled to hear her in the other room, farting. Whoa! I’d never heard a woman fart. Brroom! my aunt exulted. Frrapp!

I almost gagged on my pillow, I was laughing so hard. Suddenly, her door banged open in the dark and she said, “You idiot! Haven’t you ever heard a God-damned fart before?”

Brraptt!

Needless to say, she wasn’t impressed.

“You think you’re so innocent,” she said. She went back into the kitchen in a huff. Apparently, I had made a really appallingly offensive scene without having any idea of what I was doing.

The dogs, looking somewhat abashed by now, scooted around, backwards and forwards.

“Stop watching that,” said my aunt. She handed me some change. “Go out and buy me a kilo of tortillas. Make yourself useful.”

I took the money and headed out the door.

The colonia was lively as ever. Aside from the Push-Me-Pull-You dogs, scruffy gangs of kids played marbles in the dirt. The ice cream man walked through pushing his little wooden wagon selling paletas. Another man pushing the exact same wagon was selling steaming hot, boiled ears of corn. Their magic skill really involved my brain: how did one keep his icy while the other kept his hot? Huge water trucks rumbled through with bad boys hanging onto the backs. Old ladies swept tides of dust off sidewalks. The mailman marched sharply from yard to yard blowing his whistle. Brilliant kites rattled in the phone lines like slaughtered pterodactyls. The hill was jumpin’.

The tortilleria was the world’s jolliest sweat-lodge. The heat was always high from the massive sheet of iron kept hot by eternally burning propane burners. Six or eight women worked in there all day, sweating and yelling over the sound of a radio. You could smell the holy maiz heating and sending out its incense all over the street. You could smell it from two blocks away. And the sound of their palms on the corn dough was audible from at least one block distant. Pit-pat, pit-pat, pit-pat.

That sound lies within the heart of everyone who relied on fresh com tortillas every day. A sound now replaced by heartless machinery that presses out tortilla analogues on conveyer belts. That’s why Old Town San Diego keeps tortilla makers in restaurant windows. Something sacred is going on, and it gets in the blood.

I would stand at the counter and peer up at them. Those women, with all their mysteries and their laughter. Pit-pat, pit-pat. Everybody was poor, but who knew? Their arms — the richest, most enjoyable brown — jiggled as they worked. Their hair, deep black, wound into immense braids, lay pinned to their necks or

I followed him around the corner and up to the top end of the Rampa. I’d never been up there before. There was no reason to walk up there, and the car was too exhausted by the time it got to the house to go any farther. All it could manage was to turn around and fling itself back downhill.

We slipped between two houses. Down the hill. Into a small canyon.

“Where are we going?”

“I found something,” he said.

They ground the corn in big stone metates, both the corn and the stone handed down through generations from the Aztecs, still bearing Aztec names. Their hands repeated the motions of millions of hands and hundreds of years. Their hands, grinding and patting and laying the corn patties upon the hot metal, were a time machine. You could fly back to Tenochtitlan on their palms, any day of the week.

They fed all us gawking kids. You could hang around a tortilleria and eat a pound of soft, hot tortillas. They’d give them to us plain — good enough! Or they’d roll a few drops of lemon juice in one, or a pinch of salt, or both. I ate a couple of these mini-tacos while I waited.

They pulled pure white wrapping paper off a huge roll — just like my Grandpa’s poetry roll — and tore off a foot or so and wrapped the tortillas snugly. The paper tucks were snug as diapers.

I headed home with the bundle hot and pulsing comfortably against my gut.


I stopped in the botica, the pharmacy/candy store/ju-ju center/soda shop/icon seller/toy store for a candy. My aunt knew I was going to steal some of her change. I was addicted to these rubbery, square, banana-flavored Mexican candies. They tasted exactly like my mom’s nail polish smelled. This was too marvelous, and I explored its ramifications every chance I got.

I was coming out, busy pulling the fillings out of my teeth, when Hugo caught up with me.

“Come on,” he said.

“Where to?” I asked.

“Got to show you something.”

“Tortillas,” I said.

“They can wait,” he said.

We climbed up the narrowing arroyo. We stopped. He pointed.

There was a stairway. A big cement stairway. It flared a little at the bottom. It had railings. It went up about 30 steps. Then it ended. It went nowhere.

We stood on the bottom step and looked up it.

“Strange, huh?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “And guess what. Somebody tied these two dogs together in the street.”

Got the Devil in My Closet

Let me tell you about the demon before I go. You probably won’t believe it. Gringos have a strangely difficult time with the bizarre details of the daily life of Latinos. People scoff at personal testimonials of wonders, but they love to read them in novels from Colombia. To us, however, Magic Realism is basically reality.

I’ll admit, I have some trouble myself. A woman I knew in Tijuana inspected the rash on her husband’s back and said, “You’re hungry for chichar-rones!” (fried pork rind).

“No, I’m not,” he said.

“Yes, you are,” she insisted. “You have a craving for them.”

“But I don’t,” he said.

“You do, but you just don’t know it,” she said. “That’s why you got this rash — it looks like chicharrones.”

He couldn’t see it all that well, so he had to take her word for it.

What she did was, she boiled a bunch of chicharrones until they were soft, then she plastered the boiling slop onto his back. That the rash disappeared was taken to be a miraculous cure, though none of us suggested she had simply burned about three layers of skin off his body.

I can see where that’s too magical. Chicharron-lust is silly. And the dreaded aqua de coco is silly too. It’s a love-potion made from menses and slipped into an unsuspecting man’s coffee. When my relatives point out who put it in whose coffee to make him such a hapless love-slave, I can laugh it off with the best of them. And when the mother of one of the extended family was caught in the middle of a black-magic incantation by her son, and she had a pig’s head instead of a human head, I can, sort of, you know, ignore it.

Still, I’m not sure what to make of my aunt Irma’s bottle of holy water.


She told my father she’d been sensing the Evil Eye on him. Somebody had been shooting him the wicked mojo from a passing car, or some such nonsense. So, she had gone out to a shop and bought an Evil Eye Protector. It was a bottle of holy water tied up in a red-velvet sack. She opened the sack and showed us the water: Yes, we agreed, it was definitely a little bottle full of water. My father was to keep the bottle in his glove compartment, and it would soak up any Evil Eye fired his way.

My father, by the way, was not above crank ideas. For example, he wore a bracelet of magnets that supposedly sucked out all his ills through his wrists. Illness, arthritis, and impotence were all apparently cured by these miraculous magnets. Still, the holy water was too much. “Bullshit,” he said when we got in the car. He threw it in the glove compartment and forgot about it. .

Months later, of course, I opened the glove compartment looking for something else and found the pouch.

“Look, Dad!” I said.

We laughed.

I opened it.

The little bottle was full of black sludge. It looked just like old motor oil.

You figure it out!


In the downstairs second story, there was a small room. It was partially underground — its one grimy window looked out at ground level. Its roof was angled, and its floor was at least two feet above the level of the main rooms’ floors. It was a dark anomaly in the northeast corner of the house. I could never figure out what my grandfather had in mind when he built it.

It was always rumored to have an evil presence. One of the items of evidence the family offered was that everyone who stayed downstairs ended up with some sort of respiratory illness. I, for example, got TB. The fact that a family of tubercular schoolgirls lived directly behind my bedroom didn’t enter into the family myth.

The demon-in-the-back-room event didn’t happen until after I was long gone, come to the USA and the realm of reason. I was not there to witness any of it, so the whole story is secondhand. I took it on faith; you may not be able to.

Irma, the bowling aunt, and her sister, the farting aunt, teamed up to exorcise the foul being from the little room. They went to the Independencia church and filched some holy water, and they somehow procured some church incense — perhaps from my grandmother’s extensive booty. They went downstairs together, flinging droplets all over the place and blowing holy smoke in all the corners. They supposedly entered the room and demanded that the being leave. Then, they say with straight faces, they were physically picked up and thrown out.

All around them, the banana trees in the yard bore fruit; the trapezoidal neighbor’s house refused to fall; Margo developed a marvelous skill for talking to birds — she could make them land on her fingers. Ernesto James ran out of bullets. Tijuana’s Christmas decorations got fancier year by year, then grew old and faded and tattered. Margo moved away. Her mother moved away. The second-story dogs grew old and died. In the street, a new generation of dogs got tied together to launch yet another generation of dogs. Hugo got married and had lovely daughters. My grandmother went dotty, once making the following announcement- about me: “This man has a pee-pee this big!” Then, she died. Dope-fiend cholos crept into the darker corners and whispered curses at passersby. The tortilla shop’s women were replaced by a machine. The botica stopped selling those chemical-banana candies. The yellow castle faded sort of off-white, and there hasn’t been a bear in sight for 30 years. And it never rains.

The saddest part is that they finally paved the Rampa. They made it easy to go there, and people who have not earned the hill traverse it blindly. Day and night, all manner of cars and trucks rush up and back, none of the drivers aware that they have come somewhere. They have crossed over into another, wilder, more beautiful land. A land that is now as invisible as its ghosts.

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