Countless street masseurs ply their trade throughout the city of Tijuana. Most sit on sidewalks near popular areas such as parks, flea markets, plazas, and churches. Signs hanging around their necks read “Experto Sobador” — expert masseur — or something similar. Several of them operate from beat-up vans fitted with massage tables in the back and their services offered written on the windows.
Sobar means to knead or to work with your hands, as in to knead bread dough, or muscles in this case. Experto sobador translates to expert masseur or healer.
The highest concentration of street masseurs work in the vicinity of Tijuana’s Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, on the corner of Second Street and Niños Heroes Avenue. Just a block away, there are hundreds of masseuses of which the church would not approve.
On the Second Street side of the cathedral, seven impromptu massage stores occupy half the sidewalk to sell religious artifacts — candles with saints printed on them, rosaries, incense, oils, and more. Outside most the stores hang signs that bear some version of “Experto Sobador.” One reads “Huesero Masajista — Torceduras, Golpes y Calambres” (“Bone-setter Masseur — Twists, Bruises, and Cramps).
“El Sobador can see you in 15 minutes,” said a short lady with salt-and-pepper hair in front of one of the makeshift stores. Out of the seven, this was the only sidewalk store with a privacy curtain. I could see the sobador working on a shirtless man on a massage table behind a disarray of porcelain angels, tiny outfits, rosaries, necklaces, bracelets, and other Catholic trinkets.
In the store next door, a different sobador rubbed a shirtless middle-aged man who sat on a folding chair exposed to hundreds of pedestrians and cars.
Public massage — not for me. I decide to wait for a private session.
Behind the cathedral there are several businesses, a parking lot, a high school, beauty salon, and a couple of farmacias. More pop-up stores cramp the busy sidewalk. They sell tamales, corn on the cob, fruit, chips, churros, cell-phone gadgets, clothes, underwear, socks, thongs, pirated soccer jerseys, shoe-shining services, and chapulines. It is one of the busiest streets and sidewalks in Tijuana.
Several other sobadores hang outside the cathedral bearing hand-drawn signs. One of them has his sign mounted on a dirty wheelchair. His filthy clothes and long frizzy black-and-white beard do not recommend him. Another sobador limps around with a smile on his face. The sign around his neck, besides reading “Experto Sobador,” features a picture of a bright orange truck.
The only female masseuse in the area sports a short blonde haircut, an oversized Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt, and a similar sign to the rest that reads “Experta Sobadora y Masajista La Güera.” (La güera means “the blonde.”) A couple others sit on plastic crates waiting for people to come ask for a massage.
They all have calloused hands. None of them is working on a client except a swarthy man with long dark curly hair, a clean chinstrap beard, sunglasses, and a clean puffy black vest. He has a more professional demeanor than the rest and is sobando (massaging) an old man’s leg.
Around the corner from the cathedral stands a small mall of mostly empty stores called Plaza Centenario. Another sobador has set up shop in number 8. Bright signs invite you to come in, to ring the doorbell, and not to accept imitators. His signs claim that he is the best in town.
I wait in the plaza in front of the cathedral and people watch. A man with a laboratory robe comes out of a pharmacy nearby and throws bread crumbs on the ground. Pigeons rush from the electric cables over my head and onto the ground. I count 42 pigeons, but I lose count when two small girls start chasing them. I count how many people do the sign of the cross when they walk by the cathedral. About 1 out of every 12. I count how many people are waiting to get a street-side rubdown. Zero. Besides the ones already being worked on. I counted Haitians...3 hung around in the plaza for a while, 20 others walked by. Haitians have become a common sight in the city.
I counted the minutes. Half an hour went by and I went back to the sidewalk store that had a bit of privacy.
“Five more minutes,” said the same lady. I could see the sobador was still working on the same man.
I walked around for a quarter of an hour.
“He is getting ready — five more minutes,” said the lady when I came back around. I could see in the back that the sobador was changing the towels on the massage table.
“¿Que te duele?” (“What is hurting you?”) The sobador finally came out cleaning his hands with a paper towel.
“Take off your shirt, lower your pants, and lay down on the table. I’ll be there shortly,” he instructed after I told him my upper back and lower back were killing me. The masseur, a chubby middle-aged man with a small pencil mustache, was wearing a maroon shirt with “Tijuana” printed in gray letters.
I crouched into the tiny space behind the curtain, placed my bag under the massage table, took off my shirt, unbuckled and pulled down my pants a bit, and laid on the table facedown. I could only see the gray sidewalk surrounded by the sound of traffic and the chatter between the store owners and clients.
The face hole in the massage table was a tad worn out. It wasn’t very comfortable: paper towels covered the most worn-out area. The towels covering the table weren’t clean, but they weren’t very dirty either. My feet extended half a foot beyond the end of the table.
“¡Vicky, ve que bolota!” (“Vicky, check out the huge muscle knot!”) The sobador told the lady at the front of the impressive muscular malformation he’d found in my left shoulder. “Ahorita te arreglamos.” (“We will fix you in a second.”)
The sobador oiled his hands and rubbed my whole back gently...for less than a minute.
Next it felt like he was using a roller mill and a small plunger repeatedly on my shoulder blades. It was painful, but not unbearable. It went on for a few minutes.
I tried making small talk, but the sobador mostly ignored me; instead he gave me short instructions of where to put my hands and when to take a deep breath.
“I’m going to put some electric current on your back so the muscles contract.” The sobador placed a suction cup above each of my shoulder blades, placed the machine connected to the cups between my legs and turned it on. I jolted with pain. He lowered the electric current. I could still feel my back muscles pulsating. He rubbed my back in a rough manner for several minutes. Then he moved the suction cups to right above my buttocks, and did several more minutes of an aggressive rubdown. This time he focused on my upper back, using his forearm and full weight on me. I groaned loudly several times in pain.
He proceeded to crack my knees (like someone might crack their knuckles) and pulled my legs. He instructed me to get on my side, to take deep breaths, and he twisted me hard in opposite directions. To finish off, I sat on the table as he cracked my arms, neck, and back in several different ways.
“¡Listo! (“Done!”) “Get your shirt on, grab your skateboard, and pay Vicky in the front,” said the sobador and left. I’m not sure why he thought my blue messenger bag was a skateboard. The massage lasted 37 minutes (I had a stopwatch going.)
I paid Vicky the 250 pesos (about $13.25) plus tip and waited for the sobador to come out.
“Do it quick. I have other clients,” he says when I ask for an interview.
“My name is Angel, and this is Señora Vicky,” says Angel as he rubbed Vicky’s shoulders. “I’m from Sonora, been in Tijuana for around 20 years.”
“I’ve been a sobador next to the cathedral for 15 years, been going to school for two years, to Instituto Vodder,” a massage and chiropractic arts school in Centro Tijuana, about a mile from Angel’s massage business. “Next year I graduate, if God allows it,” he makes the sign of the cross.“Well, at first I put some ventosas [cup therapy], then some ‘tense’ [electrical] current, then a small massage to expand your muscles. After that I adjusted your vertebrae, thoracic, lumbar, and dorsal. Adjusted your inferior and superior members. And then your neck, you know, you felt it.”
I told him my back felt like gelatin. He laughed, “We all do basically the same, but each of us has a different technique. And my thing, is that I go to school. I see 5 to 15 people a day. Open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day.”
I thanked Angel again, and he gave me a couple of his bright yellow business cards featuring a man touching his back and grimacing in pain. His name is misspelled on the card as Angel Gaztelum. It should be Gastélum.
“Go home and take a cold shower if you can,” he said after he allowed me to take pictures of him and Señora Vicky.