Aqui Estamos: A life in Oaxaca
La Boda, or: one can never use enough good toothpicks
Our first invitation to a traditional Mexican wedding was an ornate work of unforgettable kitsch. I held it up to the sun and it glowed in my hands. It captured the sun’s light, broke it into its component colors and hurled it all dazzlingly back into my eyes. It was tri-folded on thick cardstock and sealed with a red ribbon––strips of gold glitter running its length––and tied into a small, dainty bow at one corner.
I removed the ribbon, unfolded the three wings, and gazed: inside elegant cursive, the flash of a red heart between the lover’s names, a poem whose every line began with Amor, and a whole lot of words and surnames and directions that I had to take to my wife for translation.
Holding the heavy, luminescent paper gave me the feeling that the impending marriage outlined inside would be the stuff of legend, the single point of culmination for all the heart-throbbing passion only hinted at in Mexican telenovelas and rock ballads. Neruda had only scratched the surface. That wedding invitation felt like a one-way ticket straight to the very epicenter of romantic love.
But I had nothing to wear. I packed for these three months in a carryon, the same bag I use to chauffer my three schoolbooks back and forth to class every day. My options were A) Dirty jeans. B) Dirtier jeans. C) Kakis with a level of filth somewhere in between A and B.
Kathryn insisted I wear the kakis, even though there was a salsa stain on one knee (I have no recollection of ever kneeling down on salsa). This is what I said:
“But these kakis make my ass look small.”
The roll of her eyes was epic. She knew as well as I did that there is not a pair of pants on earth that have the power to make my ass look like anything more than an afterthought.
“I’m not going with you unless you wear the kakis,” she said.
She meant it, too. I cursed for not including something in our wedding vows about clothing ultimatums and put on the kakis. My secret plan was to wear my heavy brown sport coat, the tails of which would conveniently hide my less-than-pronounced backside and at the same time make my wife feel guilty as I suffocated in the sweltering Mexican heat.
This is marriage. Anyone who says different believes The Princess Bride was a documentary.
The walk to the bus was long and winding. I kept the invitation peeking out of my pocket, ready to fan my face, and tried to keep to the shadows.
“Aren’t you hot in that jacket?” she said as we trod along toward the bus.
A long sigh. A conspicuous wipe of my forehead. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “At least it hides the fact that these kakis fit me like a four-person tent.”
We arrived to the wedding early like well-trained North Americans. It was only the second of a three-day celebration. There had been a civil ceremony the day before, and there would be more fiesta the next day. We had been invited to the religious ceremony in the middle, the segment of a Mexican catholic wedding that most closely resembles our own tradition.
The church was typically grand and bulbous and dark inside. Everywhere the paint was fresh and perfect. There were white ribbons and displays of flowers brought in specially for the ceremony and many of the women wore dresses as luminous as the wedding invitation in my pocket.
Kathryn and I are unofficial experts at weddings. We’ve been to all kinds. Last summer alone we traveled to see nine weddings, two of which were our own (it’s a long story). We’ve been to redneck weddings, hippie weddings, weddings that cost more than both of our college tuitions put together and one wedding in a big church where we were told not-so-politely to stop dancing immediately. We were only trying to waltz.
But I had never been to a Mexican wedding. It was grand. Being Sunday, the ceremony overlapped with the regular service, and the church was full of wedding guests and the old faithful indigenous women who still regularly attend mass. Although the bride and groom were up front, looking very ready to be married, the priest was doing double duty, talking about confessing sins and such. At one point he asked us all to spend some moments in quiet reflection at the exact moment that wedding-related firecrackers exploded outside, giving the distinct impression that we were under attack.
(Mexican fireworks have been written about with much eloquence before, so I’ll just say that they are extremely loud––as loud as cannons––and produce nothing once exploded but little puffs of white smoke. No light, no sizzle––just a whopping amount of noise and something that looks like the exhale of a cigarette. People explode them here as if they were popping bubblegum.)
And there was a mariachi band in the church, too. No kidding. A whole troupe of impeccably dressed men with instruments and tassles just sort of appeared above us. The priest was singing something in Latin, some kind of blessing over the couple, when all of a sudden I heard that high-pitched wail that can only mean one thing: a mariachi band is about to tear it up. I looked up and saw a man in a sparkling white suit with his finger stuck in his ear to get the notes right, and behind him the whole band perched on the balcony used for overflow when people actually used go to church.
The Latin of the priest got them started, then the high-pitched mariachi croon and bass and guitar and horns. They were off. But the priest went with them. He knew all the words and sang along into his microphone. We were caught in the middle of some kind of sing-off, Father Pedro up front and the El Grupo de Monte Alban behind (I know their name because they later slipped me their business card and offered me their services).
It was hard to know what to do, how to act. I swayed a little but I was the only one. I tapped my foot but it felt a little strange, as if it might be an action worthy of confession. I hummed to myself but kept hitting the wrong notes. So I stood perfectly still, like everyone else. How incredible that in the midst of such noise and commotion (firework assaults, mariachi, Latin sung through a crackling microphone) people can be so indistinguishable from statues.
I looked at my wife who was standing serenely beside me, and shrugged my shoulders, tying to shoot my thoughts telepathically into her brain. Then I remembered the kakis.
“Sure is hot in here,” I whispered, pulling the invitation out of my pocket and conspicuously fanning my face.
“You sure are dumb to be wearing that jacket,” she said, always the pragmatist.
And then the song ended and so did the service and we were told to greet the people around us. I shook the hands of all the small, ancient, pig-tailed women around me and felt in their palms––in their grips––the strength and grit of concrete and oak trees. My own hand felt as soft as the silk pillow on which the wedding rings had ridden to the front of the church.
The wedding/mass ended like many I’ve seen. The couple walked out of the church and into a shower of rice. There were lots of pictures and lots of smiling people. We were each handed some kind of leafy branch but no one could tell us what they were for. No one knew their significance. Kathryn and I decided we would take the opportunity to imbue them with our own meaning and began waving the branches in the air toward the married couple, as if we were conferring on them a blessing, shazaaming them with good health, good luck, a dozen children. People started staring. We stopped and let the branches hang limply by our sides.
And then we walked. Processions through the streets of Mexico are a common and tolerated occurrence. People take to the streets, here, in both celebration and protest, and the city stops, or idles slowly behind in their cars. The whole thing was led by El Grupo De Monte Alban, who were doing a fine job of keeping the beat, knowing where they were going, and fending off the curious dogs who darted around their tassled legs.
We walked for at least a mile, left and right and a few more lefts. It felt good to be out in the streets, participating, waving our mystery branches like magic wands at store-owners and staring children.
And the whole thing had the feel of a real Sunday stroll. We sauntered. I noticed things. I saw the little children pick up rocks along the way and stuff their pockets so full that the pebbles dribbled back out to the streets. Every time a dog wandered into range, dirty little hands would sink into the pockets, grab a stone, and hurl it with remarkable accuracy.
And I saw the hem of the bride’s dress, after we switched from asphalt to dirt, begin picking up pieces of the street. The gauzy bottom of her dress caught pieces of wheat, little bits of corn stalk, and the leaves of jacaranda trees. It was as if her dress was adorning itself with the surroundings, absorbing its context. I thought it was beautiful––even the rust-colored dirt fusing into the white fabric.
And then I noticed people clandestinely joining in the procession, slipping into the flow, smiling and clapping and keeping pace with all the rest. I’m sure we picked up at least a dozen stragglers, impromptu celebrants looking for a good time and perhaps a free meal. It all culminated in a memorable mobile fiesta: the bride and groom, El Grupo, the dogs and kids and the two gringos––one looking rather silly in a buttoned up brown sport jacket fanning his bearded face, and the other, far more attractive and looking a little smug, sporting an expression somewhere between I told you so and get a life.
We walked through all the dust until we reached a grassy area overshadowed by a giant circus tent and enough tables underneath to seat the House of Representatives. We sat on the outskirts, right at the edge of the tent’s shadow. We were happy to keep to the periphery, and so were our table companions, a small family of Zapotecos who slipped into the fiesta unnoticed, grabbed seats before anyone had a chance to say anything and tried to look natural, as if they belonged.
We got along just fine. Spanish was a second language for all of us and I think we all felt a little conspicuous. Kathryn asked the old woman how she knew the bride and groom. The woman looked back at her confused, as if she had just spoken a different language, and said: “Who?”
Fair enough. The afternoon become a kind of game between us, an ongoing wink-wink joke every time a waiter came to our table to ask us if we wanted another beer. Wink-wink. Ha ha. Of course. Go ahead and bring a few extras, while you’re at it.
The family, it turns out, had just walked 2 days and many miles to get to Zimatlan in the hopes of finding work. I figured they deserved a few free beers. Or twenty-six. And when the old woman started removing toothpicks from the cubes of cheese and organizing them into her giant pockets, I felt like she deserved those, too. The same with the saltshaker. The remainder of tortillas and napkins and the chicken bones, too. In fact I felt quite comfortable with the fact that most of the items on our table were slowly making their way into the folds of her clothing. I smiled and nodded. The old man with one eye smiled back. Wink-wink.
We were all strangers there. And for some reason the golden rule that one can never use enough good toothpicks seemed as obvious as never look a gift horse in the mouth.
Kathryn and I left right about the time "The Guerrillas," our entertainment for the evening, were warming up their rock and roll vocal chords and testing their microphones. We made sure to say goodbye to our host, the mother and father of the groom, a few friends scattered about and the Zapotec family who had become relatively rich in food and utensils over the course of our relationship.
Unfortunately the old man was asleep from the beer and afternoon heat, and the child seemed distracted by The Guerrillas. But the old woman made sure to smile at us, give as a hearty mucho gusto and shake our hands with the strength of an oak tree and the warmth of a person who had just walked two days under the burning Mexican sun.