After listening to our answers and asking a few more probing questions, she chose four of us and briefed us on our assignment. Her colleague, Sr. Figueroa, the principal of Escuela Secundaria 22 in Ixtapalapa, a working-class district near the National University, was a Communist. A cheerful intellectual sort with a U.S. university education, he loved to talk about politics; in fact, one of the reasons he had asked to have some of the norteamericano teacher trainees sent to his school was to have fresh verbal sparring partners. Sra. Lopez wanted to be sure she sent Sr. Figueroa worthy adversaries, and apparently she felt that whomever she sent would need more than 80 hours of “whack-ass” lectures to be able to defend themselves. (Maybe Senator Goldwater didn’t go far enough; perhaps the Peace Corps should consist only of political scientists, economists and American Studies majors).
On Sunday, I went through a dry run of my commute out to Ixtapalapa. Monday morning, I passed my first cross-cultural test by negotiating public transportation by bus, tram and taxi and showing up at Secondary School #22 on time. In the office, I met Sr. Figueroa, a fiftyish man with salt-and-pepper gray hair, a thin mustache and a slight paunch. At first sight, he walked over to me and said, “You must be one of the North American Peace Corps Volunteers.” After welcoming me to Mexico and his school, we went into his office, and he wanted to know what the Peace Corps was like. So much for our diplomatic charade! It was hard to answer him because I was still trying to qualify to be in the Peace Corps, and I thought I wasn’t supposed to talk about it. Then Figueroa asked me what Iran was like. I told him what we had studied in books and said that I would send him a postcard from Iran when I found out how accurate our information was. He seemed pleased at this answer. At the first break, he took me to meet Sr. Diaz, my critic teacher. After a brief greeting, Sr. Diaz said, “Tell me about the Peace Corps.”
Sr. Figueroa was most gracious to all four of us who were assigned to his school. The critic teachers were helpful and glad to have a break in their routine. Students too were excited to interact with the North American student teachers as very few foreigners ever wandered into Ixtapalapa. Warren George and I worked mornings in the double-shift schedule at Secondary School #22, and our students went home by 12:15pm. After that, I usually went back downtown to the Regis Hotel to prepare the next day’s lesson.
Are you feeling that?
However, one day toward the end of our two weeks, Sr. Figueroa offered to drive Warren and me downtown after class and invited us to accompany him for lunch at a Spanish restaurant. A survivor from the 1890s, the restaurant’s decor included black and white mosaic tile edged with well-worn marble on the floor, a high ceiling with slowly rotating wooden-bladed fans, scuffed, dark-stained wooden booths, and an enormous mirrored mahogany bar flanked with antique steel wire stools. Many of the colorful, proletariat-type men in cowboy boots lined up at the bar were regulars, and some appeared at least as antique as the furniture. Figueroa, obviously a regular himself, was greeted warmly from all sides when he walked in. In fact, he referred to this place as his “club.”
Figueroa indicated a booth by the window. Warren and I sat on one bench while our host slid onto the bench opposite us. We had some delicious soup and a variety of tapas to go with a lively discussion venturing into the political areas Figueroa favored. However, toward the end of lunch, our conversation gradually shifted to questions and observations about cultural differences. Listening with interest to his comments, even though for us we were talking about the “wrong” country, we were startled when Figueroa interrupted himself and asked, “Have you had a chance to try tequila since you have been here?”
Warren said apologetically, “No, we have been pretty busy with our preparations and classes.”
“It is very important that you taste tequila before you leave. Let me get some for you.”
After Sr. Figueroa signaled his friend at the bar, a bottle of tequila, a set of small glasses, a dish full of mini limes and a saucer of salt appeared. As recent successful college students, we understood the general principles of drinking alcoholic beverages, but Figueroa felt that the ritual of tequila was as important as the taste. We worked on getting the rhythm of the salt, the mini lime, and the small glass. The tequila tasted good, and learning the cultural ritual was fun. After a couple of rounds, Warren and I got the procedure down.
Suddenly our host exclaimed, “You have now tasted clear tequila. You must also try amber tequila. It is Mexico’s best!”
He ordered another bottle, and we poured the honey-colored liquid into our little glasses. Again, the salt, the lime, and the cactus-flavored tequila slid over our taste buds and encouraged a warm feeling in us toward all things Mexican. I would have stopped at that point, but Figueroa insisted on filling our glasses one more time. Warren and I downed the drink, and right away, I felt dizzy and a little queasy. I glanced at Warren, and he looked bilious.
“Are you feeling that last glass?” I asked Warren.
He nodded his head and started to say something, but Figueroa interrupted.
“Oh, Senores, do not worry. It is not the tequila. We are just having an earthquake!”
I looked at the ceiling, and the forged iron chandeliers were swaying in a wide arc. The little dish with the salt slid across the wooden table top and then back. Over at the bar, glasses were clinking on the shelves, but none of the men moved or put down their drink. We felt like we were on a boat as it rocked in the ocean swells. Although the swaying went on for at least a minute, Figueroa assured both of us, who were from seismically stable parts of the United States, that we would be OK. When the rocking stopped, Warren and I seemed to be the only ones in the restaurant who had been affected. Conversations around us continued nonchalantly. No one at the bar had even looked up, quakes of this type on the filled-in lake that is Mexico City being so frequent that the denizens of Figueroa’s “club” barely noticed.
When we left the restaurant, we saw signs that this temblor was a bit fiercer than usual. A huge neon-lit advertising sign had been shaken from the top of a twelve-story building across the park from the Palacio de Bellas Artes and had crashed onto the street, blocking traffic. Across from the Hotel Regis, there were two eight-story buildings. After the quake, the tops of these buildings had moved apart, creating a space between their previously adjacent walls that now looked like a narrow “V.” The quake made the evening news in the States, and it was a couple of days before the families of the Volunteers could get calls through the jammed phone lines to check on our welfare. After the excitement of that afternoon died down, we still had to finish up our practice teaching and couldn’t really begin to process the whole experience until the long bus trip back to Austin.
The tall Texan in black
Because of Senor Figueroa’s Mexican culture lessons, I had purchased one bottle of clear tequila and one of amber to take home as souvenirs. A number of other trainees also brought back a fifth or two of distilled spirits because prices were very inexpensive in Mexico, and we had discovered before the Mexican adventure that Texas (at that time) did not allow the sale of liquor by the drink. Cocktail lounges and bars sold “set-ups” (ice, mixers, glasses and nachos) but expected the patrons to bring in a bottle purchased at a package store. Peggy, one of the trainees, had acquired a number of 1 & 1/2 oz. bottles of scotch, Irish whiskey and other types of hard liquor while in Mexico City. Her father collected these miniature bottles and displayed them in a case on the wall of his den. Since Mexico imported various kinds of European whiskey not distributed in the States, Peggy had found a dozen or more bottles her father couldn’t get at home in Illinois.