Thursday, July 23, 2009

Backlog: Queen of the Hill (Oaxaca)

A former student of mine, G., has asked me to visit his mother. She hasn't seen him in about 10 years, the time he's spent working his way from dishwasher to busboy to cook and part-owner of a well reviewed Mexican restaurant in Richmond. Reina (translation: Queen) runs her own eatery and would love to have me stop by, G. says. He'll call to let her know when I'll be in town.

T. looks up the address on a street map. The exact street (la prolongacion de whatever) isn't listed, but he knows, more or less, where it's located -- in the toniest section of Oaxaca. A., T, and I agree to eat lunch there.

We hop into T.'s truck and bounce along the road, careening over a million sleeping policemen, up and up, past beautiful old houses whose facades are only partially visible behind ivy- and flower-covered walls. We search for street names, but they're not always marked. We try to follow the street numbers, but they're often random: 325 follows ll, then 18, and 120.

Suddenly, we run into a less picturesque area. And we think we've found where the house should be. T. backs up, so I can ask a young man if we're on the right street. He stares at me blankly.

I get out of the truck to see if I can find the restaurant. T. will try to turn the truck around and return for me.

Finding an entryway in the outer wall, I follow a muddy path to a broken-down house that seems to crumble as I watch. The half-naked children playing nearby launch themselves, screeching, into the hovel. Within seconds, a broken-down woman emerges from the dark interior.

The conversation goes something like this (but in Spanish):

Me: Good afternoon. Are you Reina S.?

She: Who?

Me: Are you Reina, the mother of G.?

She: Who?

Me: I'm from the United States. I'm looking for Reina....

She: Who?

Me: Does Reina S. live here? Do you know her? Am I at the right address?

She: Who?

Me: Thank you. I'm sorry to disturb you. Bye now.

She: Who?

I slog my way back to the truck, a bit irritated that G. has given me what appears to be the wrong address. Part of me is also relieved that G.'s mom doesn't live and work in such a run-down spot.

T. suggests that we continue climbing the hill a bit farther, and A. and I say, "Sure. What the heck," (in English).

So, up and up we go, as the neighborhood becomes more and more run down. We reach the end of the bus line and spot the address we are looking for. We see a series of small buildings, all leaning in different directions, an amalgam of corrugated cardboard and sheet metal, seemingly slapped together with spit. I jump out of the truck and try to find a gate. There is none.

"Shout her name," T. instructs. "That's how we do it here. She'll come to let you in."

I shout. And shout. And SHOUT. No one responds.

People are passing in and out of a house a bit farther up the road, so I approach and ask them if they know Doña Reina. "She's at her restaurant," a man tells me and points back down the street. I am relieved that she doesn't live or work in such a place.

We backtrack and, right at the end of the line -- the bus turn around -- we notice a hole-in-no-wall, a dark and dreary place where a pack of snaggle-toothed, flea-bitten, lame, and mangy mutts one-eyes us warily. T. and A. four-eye me warily and say, "You go first."

I peek into the entryway, and a teenage girl greets me. "I'm looking for Doña Reina," I say.

"Come in," she responds. "Mama!" she calls.

I duck (a rare maneuver for someone as vertically challenged as I am), in order to avoid splitting open my skull, and step down onto the dirt floor. Three bus drivers occupy one of the two tables, digging into unappealing plates of some unidentifiable cut of unidentifiable meat. The place and the plates are swarming with flies.

A. and T. have followed me inside. I can feel their eyes boring into the back of my back. Their thoughts, the same as mine, are on the order of "Oh,my God. Get me out of here!"

I smile as Reina comes to hug me. "We've been waiting for you," she tells me. "Sit down and have lunch."

The woman is short and wide. Her smile is huge and lights up her pretty face. She looks a lot like G. Reina is attractive and warm and hospitable. The place is filthy. My friends are horrified.

"Thank you," I manage. "We're not very hungry, and we don't eat red (or gray) meat. " A. and I assent to Reina's offer of a bowl of soup, however.

G's sister is swatting flies. She whacks one of the diners in the head and giggles. "There was a fly on him," she tells me.

T. says he doesn't feel that great and can't eat a thing. A., good sport that she is, and I eat the thin broth, which is definitely tasty. Reina instructs her daughter to bring us some tortillas and cheese. Although the white cheese looks like it may have fallen on the floor (what are those black edges?), it is delicious with the wheat tortillas. We are brought bottles of water. She won't accept payment for anything.

Reina introduces me to the bus drivers who are finishing up their meal. She invites me to come back for her daughter's quinceañera in December. She tells me that she wants G. to come home, that she plans to build a bigger and better restaurant and that he could help her. I tell Reina about G.'s successes. In addition to his work, he's volunteering to teach an English as a second language class at a church. She is obviously proud of her only son.

"Will you take something to him?"

I tell her that I'd be happy to squeeze something small into my carry-on bag. She wants to send him some mole, the multi-ingredient blend of chilies, chocolate, pumpkin seeds, and more, that can be green, yellow, brown, or red. Although she probably makes it herself, I have visions of the extruded coils of brown paste, sold in the market, that can be delicious but bear a strong and disturbing resemblance to a pile of horse manure . I tell Reina that I won't be able to take it with me onto the airplane, due to the 3-ounce liquid-paste rule. We agree that she'll give me a t-shirt for G., instead.

Reina invites us back for lunch the next day. She'll make something with chicken. We thank her and tell her that we've already got plans (which we do), but we´ll return before I leave, to pick up the shirt. After picture-taking and hugs goodbye, A., T., and I get into the truck.

Before we take off, T. drives us around the back of the building to see the kitchen, which is hanging off the side of the hill. Supported by only by a wooden pole and additional pieces of wood that have been jammed into place, it would surprise no one if it collapsed during the next rain.

I'm upset with G. I'd assumed that, like all good Mexican sons working their assess off in the US, he'd been sending money back to his mother. When I voice my anger, T. points out that there was a pile of bricks inside the restaurant and that Reina is probably buying them, one at a time, as she receives remittances. When she amasses enough bricks, construction will start and stop and start, proceeding whenever she gets the money to pay for materials and manpower.

Perhaps on my next visit to Oaxaca, Reina will have built a restaurant suitable for a queen -- or for the bus drivers that frequent it. And even if she doesn't, I'll go back. For the warmth of the soup and the conversation, for some chicken, and for a hug from this generous and good woman.

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