those days California still wore the cloak of her own
legend, especially for East Coast dreamers like me.
So in 1969, when I finally emerged from the long dark
tunnel of medical school and headed west, I felt like
some latter-day Odysseus bound for a fabled land.
Berkeley I lived in the downstairs apartment of a
duplex on Haste Street. The outside of the house was
painted pink; inside, the ceilings soared and each of
the tall windows shimmered with sunlight filtered
through green leaves. During the long golden
evenings, I would sit on the front steps with a glass
of wine and listen to the guy upstairs practicing
blues on his guitar. Sometimes I would strum some
Joan Baez-y thing on my own guitar, or sometimes my
neighbor and I would jam together. On weekends I went
for long walks, usually ending up on the campus where
there was always music and dogs running around
catching frisbies and some soapbox orator or other
whose harangues would float across a bright sea of
Indian print shirts redolent of patchouli and
marijuana and incense.
within a few years the seductive dream of the sixties
had given way to a kind of tawdry morning after, and
Californias mythic cloak was coming apart at
the seams. I found myself newly single and stranded
in San Diego County where my ex-husbands job
had landed us.
Escondido I lived in a tract house on a cul-de-sac.
The house was painted the same beige earth tone as
all the other houses. Inside, the low ceilings were
soundproofed with popcorn and the square sliding
windows looked out on a bare dirt backyard. There
were no front steps to sit on, and you couldnt
really go for a walk in Escondido because there were
no sidewalks. (The city council wanted to retain the
rural atmosphere of the town.) Besides,
even if there had been sidewalks the only available
destination was the mall, a drab strip of commercial
establishments dominated by Sears Roebuck. The
monochromatic evenings were punctuated only by
televisions flickering in the windows around the
cul-de-sac. At night I would stare into the barren
darkness listening for sounds of life, but all I
could hear was the dull thud of my heart shrinking
into a desiccated lump.
started with guitars in the night. Deep in sleep, I
felt the round bright chords tossed against my window
like little golden apples. Then I heard soft male
laughter and a familiar tenor voice singing: Abre
el balcón y el corazón, open your
balcony and your heart. I came awake in the
darkness, smiling. The closest thing to a balcony in
my Escondido tract house was a concrete patio; but I
switched on my bedside light, padded across the
carpet, and slid open the glass door. If I had
imagined a serenade before that night, I would have
seen it in grainy black-and-white: a balcony, a young
girl in white chiffon, a handsome swain below on one
knee, his sombrero over his heart. But the woman who
now stood at the patio door wrapped in a red flannel
bathrobe was a thirty-four-year-old divorced mother
of two young children, and the serenaders were two
tipsy co-workers of mine, both too portly to balance
on one knee. It didn't look anything like the old
movies, but in my memory that night glows with an
amber light, soft and warm, as if seen through a
tinted lens, a diffusing filter. Carlos and Jorge
came in from the chilly December air and sat on the
end of my bed drinking coffee and singing in Spanish
of moonlit lakes and fishermen, of broken hearts and
tequila. I reclined on the faded quilt, periodically
hissing shhh when I remembered that my
kids were sleeping in the next room. After I went to
the kitchen for a second round of coffee and a bottle
of Kahlúa, I pulled my old guitar out from under the
bed and tried to tune it to theirs. The strings were
brittle and stiff and almost impossible to tune; the
E string snapped when I wound it too tight. The
guitar, cheap when I had bought it twenty years
before, wore the scratches and cracks of my restless
youth and the dust of long silence. One of the hinges
had come off the plastic case; inside were various
sheets of songs with chord notations, some in my own
writing. Mr. Tambourine Man stared up at
me from where a young woman's careless hand had flung
him back when the music stopped. Carlos grinned.
We have to get you a new guitar, he said.
I'm gonna teach you some good songs!
and Jorge had both come to the U.S. from central
Mexico when they were in their twenties, and they had
met one another at the local community clinic where
Carlos was the administrator and Jorge a health
educator. After Jorge's wife left him for an American
accountant, he and Carlos became roommates, sharing
the expenses of Jorge's little house on the other
side of town. When I came to work at the clinic, they
were both kind to me despite my natural East Coast
after the night of the serenade I was ready to accept
their invitation to a backyard barbecue a few weeks
later. My kids were with their dad for the weekend,
and my biggest plans had been to arrange my spices in
alphabetical order. A little social life sounded a
lot better, so I combed my hair, put on some
lipstick, and drove across town.
garage door was open, and there was a hot ping-pong
tournament going on as I walked by. Letting myself
into the house through the front door, I followed the
sound of voices to the kitchen, where a bilingual
assembly line buzzed at the counter as chopped
tomatoes and chiles somehow collected themselves in
clay bowls amid the cheerful chaos. The fragrance of
corn tortillas drifted in through the open window and
drew me out to the patio where Carlos and Jorge
presided over a brick barbecue. They waved when they
saw me, and Carlos pulled a chunk of carne asada off
the grill, wrapped it in a hot tortilla, and popped
it into my mouth. Try it, you'll like it!
he said. And I did.
as dusk began to fall, the guitars came out. Carlos
and Jorge sang the old romantic Mexican songs of
their youth. Bob Shaffer, a long-limbed rancher with
thinning blond hair and a grizzled beard, sang the
old folk songs of his youth and mine. By the time I
went home, he and I had managed a pretty fair
rendition of Feelin' Groovy. As I sank
into sleep, the music seemed to drift across town and
settle around me like a bright net over dark water.
week later I crossed the border for the first time.
called me on Friday.
going to Sevillano's tomorrow, he said.
Jorge's requinto guitar is being repaired, and
Bob wants to order a new flamenco. Want to
Sevillano's? I asked, dubious.
Sevillano. He's a guitar maker in Tijuana. We all
have Sevillano guitars. Didn't you notice the labels?
C'mon, you'll enjoy it. Who knows? You might end up
with a Sevillano guitar, too!
don't know. I stalled. My kids are gone
and I was going to clean out my cupboards . . .
give me that! Carlos's laugh rose from deep in
his chest. I'll pick you up at 9:00 mañana.
9:35 the next morning I allowed myself to peek out my
front window, wondering if I had imagined the
invitation. At 9:55 I heard the unmistakable chugging
of a Volkswagen engine outside and saw Carlos's blue
van in my driveway. What took you so
long? he grinned as I climbed in. I shot him an
annoyed look and settled down next to Bob and his
wife Sue, a tall, comfortably soft woman whom I had
met at the barbecue and who greeted me like an old
friend. Jorge rode shotgun, downing Budweisers from
the cooler at his feet and laughing amiably at Bob's
Peace Corps stories, all of which he had obviously
heard before. The van rattled onto the freeway and
the San Diego-Tijuana border the wide straight lanes
of Interstate 5 come to an abrupt halt; indeed, all
linearity seems to end. The blue van wove in and out
of traffic that looked as though it had no direction
at all, or all directions at once. Cars cut randomly
in and out of what would have been our lane, had
there been any lanes.
it always like this? I clutched Sue's arm.
She gave my hand a pat. Sometimes it's really
gigantic bronze Cuauhtémoc suddenly loomed directly
in front of us, headdress glinting in the windshield.
We swerved around him and maneuvered through the
traffic circle, continuing south along the road whose
only name seemed to be The Old Road to Ensenada.
Finally we pulled over to what would have been the
shoulder, had there been any shoulders, in front of a
pharmacy and a tire shop.
are we? I asked. I thought we were going
to a guitar store!
are. Carlos slid open the van's side door and I
stepped out. Then I saw the sign: GUITARRAS, in
hand-printed letters, so faded that it almost
disappeared between the newer, larger FARMACIA and
LLANTAS signs that flanked it. It was carved in the
shape of a guitar and jutted out from a block wall
over a narrow doorway. Carlos entered, and we all
floor space in the rectangular room was almost
completely filled by a rough wooden workbench,
covered with sawdust and hung with a few simple
hand-tools: a vice, a saw, an awl. Bending over the
workbench with his back to the door was a small dark
figure. He appeared to be filing something with
intense concentration and did not respond immediately
when we went in. Carlos called out, Don
Miguel! The man turned slowly, straightening up
and wiping his hands on his long brown apron. When he
saw Carlos and Jorge, his smooth face opened into a
broad grin, and he embraced them both amid soft
exclamations of greeting.
remember Bob, said Jorge. Sevillano shook Bob's
hand, then embraced him. ¿Cómo estás,
Roberto? he inquired. ¿Y cómo
está la guitarra?
this is Bob's wife Susana, and our friend Judy.
shook hands gravely with Sue and with me. His hand
felt surprisingly large for such a slight man. The
palm was callused.
gusto, señora, he said, inclining his
head in a subtle bow. I merely nodded, unsure of the
that time, Bob had taken a flamenco guitar off the
wall and was tuning it, one leg propped on a Corona
beer carton. Sevillano disappeared into a back room
and emerged with a small requinto guitar,
which he handed to Jorge. She is better than
ever, he said. See if you recognize her
voice. Tenderly, Jorge caressed the smooth face
of the guitar.
he breathed. The crack is gone! Jorge
strummed a chord as Sevillano folded his arms over
his chest with a confident smile. On the flamenco he
had taken from the wall, Bob struck up El
Rancho Grande. Jorge joined in with his requinto,
tentatively at first, then gathering confidence until
Carlos, who had been examining the half-formed
instrument on the workbench, raised his head with an
exuberant ay yay yay yay yaaaay,
and a couple of passersby stopped at the open door to
listen. Sue had draped her sweater over the room's
only chair and was seated on its cracked vinyl. I
found a spot on Bob's Corona carton and sat down,
gazing around the little shop.
walls were hung with guitars in varying stages: a
shiny new flamenco, ready to buy; an elegant
classical with no strings or tuning keys; an old
requinto whose face was scratched and dull but whose
mouth sported a new mother-of-pearl rosette. Two
pairs of dusty castanets dangled from a nail below a
bare lightbulb. Surrounding the guitars and covering
most of the wall space were the girls: scores of
pinups in provocative poses, some fresh, others a
little worn. A brunette in leopard skin décolletage
leaned from a Cadillac convertible. Just below her
hung a faded 8 x 10 aerial photograph of Dodger
Stadium. Tacked haphazardly around Dodger Stadium
were old snapshots of Little League teams, small boys
staring proudly at the camera. On the back wall hung
a life-sized cardboard skeleton, and around him were
tacked a few Polaroids of a family wedding along with
two publicity photos of Mexican guitarists and one of
Goldie Hawn. On the contiguous wall, and higher than
any pinup, a pink and gold Virgin of Guadalupe raised
her right hand in blessing; the gothic lettering
proclaimed her Reina de México y Emperatriz de
had hung the flamenco back on the wall and was
crouching beside Sevillano, who had pulled several
thin sheets of wood from a cabinet along the floor.
choosing the wood for his new guitar, Carlos
explained to me. Why don't you take a look,
too? This one has a beautiful grain. He laid a
fragrant sheet of rosewood over my knees, and my
fingers traced the graceful swirls running through
it. Jorge brought over a couple of sheets of cedar
for the guitar's face, and I lingered over one with a
rich golden brown color. Like your hair,
said Jorge. Sue was sorting through a drawer full of
silver tuning keys, some elaborately carved, some
simple. By the time Bob had finished designing and
ordering his guitar, I had chosen mine down to the
tiny butterflies to be inlaid around the mouth.
Sevillano listened attentively as Carlos explained
what I wanted. Muy bien, he
that it? I asked Carlos. Doesn't he need
to write out an order slip? Don't I have to leave a
deposit? Shouldn't I have a receipt?
laughed. Sevillano called a small boy from the back
room and sent him running out the door. A moment
later the boy returned with a nylon shopping bag full
of cold Coronas, which he handed around the room.
your receipt, said Carlos. He helped himself to
one of the guitars on the wall, and Jorge played a
riff on his requinto. They launched into
Camino de Guanajuato, Bob
following the chords. Don Miguel leaned against his
workbench and smiled benevolently while Sue and I
hummed and swayed.
vale nada la vida, they sang, Life
is worth nothing! And they sang it with such
joy that I waved my Corona bottle in a spontaneous
me, the next few months were filled with music.
Carlos gave me several tapes of Mexican songs he
thought I would like. Chavela Vargas, he told me,
made him think of me. I wasn't sure how to take that:
her voice sounded like smoky rooms and candlelight,
not the self-image of a lady doctor from
Philadelphia. But in the privacy of my car, driving
to work, I found myself singing along with her:
No soy de aquí ni soy de allá,
I am neither from here nor from there. In
the evenings, at home, I listened to the tapes with
earphones on my ears and a dictionary on my lap,
trying to learn the words. One of my favorites was
La Bamba, of which I understood only six
words: Para bailar la Bamba se necesita . .
. Whatever it was one needed to dance the
Bamba, I wanted some.
the time Carlos took us all back to Tijuana again, it
had been two months since I had ordered my guitar and
my fingers were itching to strum it. Sevillano
greeted us with his grave courtesy and assured us
that our instruments were almost ready. When he
brought mine out to show me, my spirits sagged. The
guitar looked naked with its unpolished face and
half-carved neck. Bob's instrument was at the same
indeterminate stage of gestation. Carlos and Sue went
down the street and brought back a six-pack while Bob
and I tried out Me and Bobby McGee on a
couple of classical guitars from the wall. Bob was
off-key, and the beat was too slow, and my Janis
Joplin imitation was a nasal whine. But Sevillano's
calm, kind expression never changed as he polished a
red flamenco until it shone. Then Carlos opened a
beer and played Cielito Lindo,
which we could all sing. We toasted to Sevillano's
health and promised to return soon.
lunch time, Carlos announced as we turned into
a narrow street, made even narrower by cars that were
double-parked up and down its length. Carlos left the
van in what looked to me like the middle of the
street, and slipped a bill to one of the small boys
who surged around us. Mexican car
insurance, he explained, grinning. On the
sidewalk outside the restaurant an enormous copper
pot sat on bricks over a wood fire. A mass of
fragrant steam almost obscured the figure of the man
who was stirring the pot with a five-foot-long wooden
is it? I asked, half afraid of the answer.
Sue took my arm reassuringly. I was translating in my
mind: Carnitas. Little meats?
couldn't hear her answer. Three mariachi bands blared
from three corners of the restaurant; waitresses
shouted orders across a counter in the front; and at
long wooden tables patrons sang lustily and called
out for more beer, more carnitas. We managed
to find four empty places at one of the long tables,
and within five minutes we were singing and shouting,
too. I discovered that carnitas are
succulent chunks of pork which, when wrapped in a
fresh corn tortilla spread with salsa and cilantro,
taste so sweet that I consumed five tacos and was
licking my fingers before the word cholesterol
even entered my mind. After we had devoured the first
kilogram of meat, Carlos ordered another round of
Pacifico beers and beckoned to one of the bands. Five
men approached our table. All wore tight pants, short
jackets, and big mariachi sombreros. Their black
costumes were festooned with silver studs. Their
boots and their belts were soft leather, elaborately
worked. A short, fat man played the guitarrón,
an oversized guitar with a full, deep voice like that
of its owner. The requinto player, small and
animated, beamed and bobbed as his fingers moved like
a hummingbird's wings across the strings. The
trumpeter looked like Don Quixote, tall and thin and
gloomy, with eyes that drooped to match his mustache.
It was the guitarists with whom I fell in love, both
of them: one stocky and middle- aged with
salt-and-pepper hair and kind lines at the corners of
his eyes, the other young and intense with long black
hair and full, pouting lips. It was the younger one
who gazed insolently at me as they sang Ella;
but it was the older, kinder one who nodded and
smiled when, after my third beer, I belted out the
chorus to Corazón, Corazón.
came and went, and at the end of May we went back to
Sevillano's. The guitars, he assured us, were almost
ready. That evening we ate at the old Palacio Azteca
Hotel, on the top floor, overlooking the lights of
Tijuana. The grizzled waiters, dignified despite
missing teeth and bent frames, hovered like courtly
ghosts from the 1920s when Tijuana had been the
playground of Hollywood celebrities who came to
gamble at the Agua Caliente racetrack and to drink in
the prohibition-free clubs. In the restaurant's dim
light, a patina of old elegance seemed to cling to
the worn leather seats and faded draperies. The city,
spread out below us like a feast, looked glamorous,
pulsating with life. The band played Latin rhythms: bolero,
danzón. I danced with Carlos.
move like a gringa, he told me.
Loosen your hips! He stepped back and
demonstrated, to the amusement of Jorge who was
smoking a cigarette and watching from the table. Bob
and Sue threw me sympathetic glances. I tried to get
back to my seat, but Carlos planted both his hands on
my torso. Let yourself go, he instructed.
Just move from the waist. I blushed and
tried out a step or two, holding myself stiffly away
from Carlos and watching his feet. He laughed.
Never mind, he said. He draped his arm
around my shoulder, leading me back to the table.
I'll buy you a margarita. I reached for
the pack of Winstons lying by Jorge's glass. He
looked surprised, but flicked on his lighter and held
it out for me.
didn't know you smoked, he said.
don't, I answered, inhaling deeply. Through the
veil of smoke, I watched the dancers. A short bald
man glided across the floor with a big brunette in a
tight electric-blue dress. He gazed at her as though
she were the most beautiful woman in the world as
they undulated in perfect unison, sensing each
other's moves. Despite an elaborate chignon and heavy
make-up, the woman looked at least fifty, and her
overblown flesh strained against seams and bodice.
But she moved her hips with an easy sensuality, and
she radiated a serene confidence in her femininity. I
wriggled my buttocks a little on the chair,
surreptitiously, practicing to the beat.
June when the guitars weren't ready, we went to a
isn't really a fight, said Carlos. That's
just the gringo translation, but it's wrong. In
Spanish we call it a corrida, a running of
the bulls. Or sometimes we call it la fiesta
brava, the festival of courage.
the bull ever win? I asked. We were sitting on
wooden seats in the old bullring in downtown Tijuana.
I felt underdressed in my Levis and T-shirt; many of
the local women were decked out in high heels, summer
suits, and wide-brimmed hats.
isn't about winning or losing! Carlos was
impatient. That's what I'm trying to tell you.
It's not a contest.
what is it? I asked, impatient myself. By this
time I had learned that it was almost impossible to
get a direct answer to a direct question from either
Carlos or Jorge. Conversation seemed to move the way
traffic moved in Tijuana: in no direction at all, or
in all directions at once.
the matador comes out, watch how he calls the
bull, Carlos said cryptically. I could tell by
the tilt of his head, slightly up and away from me,
that there was no use in asking any more questions.
when the first matador swept into the plaza,
sparkling in his suit of lights and brandishing his
cape, I couldn't restrain myself.
do you mean, how he calls the bull?
Carlos said was, Look.
I watched, the matador faced the massive beast that
was pawing the ground fifteen feet away from him. He
seemed to impale the animal with his eyes, fixing him
with an intense gaze. The bull stopped pawing and
stood motionless, returning the man's gaze. The two
remained that way for almost a full minute, locked in
a mutual absorption that shocked me with its
intimacy. Then the matador gave his cape the
slightest flick, never taking his eyes from the eyes
of the bull. As if drawn by a secret cord, the bull
began to move, running toward the man, head down,
horns out. The matador's body was absolutely still,
every muscle poised and perfect, like a stag scenting
the wind. Only his hands moved, sweeping a sudden
circle of cape across his body and leading the bull's
head in an arc that passed only inches from his legs.
The bull stopped behind the matador, facing away from
him, immobile. The crowd roared ¡Ole!
and I exhaled the breath I had not known I was
holding. My heart was pounding and my palms were wet.
Heat and blood and dust filled my nostrils, and I was
still shaking when the inevitable moment arrived: The
matador raised himself over his bull, long sword
poised. I covered my eyes with my hands, peering out
from between my fingers. I saw what I knew I would
see, what I both feared and needed to see: man and
animal, now locked together by a palpable energy,
merged into one, joined in the final climactic plunge
of the blade into yielding flesh. The bull sank to
its knees. The crowd rose up, roaring. I buried my
face in Carlos's shoulder and wept.
regular visits to Sevillano's had taken on the air of
pleasant social calls, and I had almost forgotten
about the guitars. As my Spanish improved, I began to
listen intently to the conversations during those
visits, trying to glimpse the story I believed must
lie hidden behind the reserve and the modesty of this
remarkable craftsman. I learned only that he had come
north years before from a poor village in central
Mexico to seek a better life in the bustling commerce
of the border. I learned that he closed his shop
every Monday to take his wife to the market, and that
he was an avid fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers even
before the young Fernando Valenzuela came up from
Mexico to pitch. It would be years before I knew him
well enough to ask him how he had learned his art.
Then he would simply shrug and reply, Everyone
in my village makes guitars.
August's visit the conversation in the shop centered
on baseball. The Dodgers were playing the Padres in
San Diego the following Sunday, and Jorge and Carlos
planned to meet Don Miguel at the stadium along with
his two sons, his brother, his brother-in-law, and a
few nephews. Suddenly, in the middle of the
discussion, Sevillano said, Ah! and
disappeared into the back room. He emerged with two
gleaming guitars, one in each hand, which he handed
to Bob and to me without a word. I sat on the Corona
carton and ran my hand again and again over the
smooth curves of the instrument. I inhaled its warm
wood-and-fresh lacquer smell. I strummed a C chord,
then a G, then a D. My fingers were trembling, but
the sounds they brought forth were full and rich, the
strings sensitive and responsive to my touch. The
guitar almost played itself; it made me sound better
than I was.
you like your little classical, señora?
Don Miguel addressed me directly for the first time
since we had met. I answered him in Spanish:
Don Miguel, sí, me gusta mucho. Gracias.
He knelt down beside me and pointed through the
strings to the label inside. In black scrolled
letters it read Miguel Sevillano along
with the month and the year.
gave me an E, and we tuned to each other. He sang
Here Comes the Sun and I followed along.
Then we both sang Peaceful Easy
Feelin, and by that time the boy was back
with the beer and Carlos and Jorge had guitars in
their hands. When they sang De Colores
my guitar and I sang the harmony. Then they did
La Bamba, and my fingers found the beat,
and at the chorus I stood up and began to dance, hips
loose and easy, moving from the waist.