Thursday, May 04, 2017

Buses, Pobladores, and a Lost Alligator

Daniel Cano

When people ask me where my stories come from, experiences or imagination, I often answer, “Yes. Both.” The question is a good one. Not all experiences make good stories, and imagination, often, falters. The well runs dry, so to speak. It is those times, I hit the road, like the band Steppenwolf says, “Looking for adventure.”

Sometimes, I return to find the adventures not so adventurous nor the imagination so imaginary. But, then, something strange happens. Given time, like a good mole ranchera, I allow the ingredients time to blend and simmer. Little by little, they, often, acquire the right taste. But unlike mole, for me, this might take years.

Recently, as I re-read Cervantes, a line leaped out at me. After Quixote’s victory over two herds of sheep he saw, not as sheep but as marauding enemy armies, the narrator told us: “In spite of this, however, the worthy gentleman contrived to behold in his imagination what he did not see and what did not exist in reality.” So, do we really see what we think we see?

September 11, 2001 had just passed. The U.S. was still raw. I’d planned to take a bus from the corner of Venice and Sepulveda boulevards, near my home, and head into Mexico to see how far I could get, and, of course, search for a story. Two and a-half weeks later, I reached the guitar-making capital of the world, Paracho, Michoacan.

I’ll start at the beginning. The 333, Orange Line, took me east to the downtown L.A. bus station. Really, I didn’t even know if there was still a bus station anymore, or if the Gray Hound or Trailways were still operating. So, I figured I’d just jump onto the local Metropolitan bus and go to the end of the line. Of course, my wife wasn’t happy with my plan—or lack of one. How could I go to a bus station I didn’t even know it existed?

I’m an existentialist by nature. I reasoned that of course it must exist. People take buses all the time. So, you can understand how relieved I was when the 333 pulled into the L.A. bus terminal, and I saw the long-distance buses lined up.

I bought a ticket to Hermosillo, via Nogales. I had breakfast and talked to a few backpackers, mostly Europeans. We left the station around 2:00PM. I began to question my plan when it took us three hours to reach Riverside, where we stayed for 15 or 20 minutes, just enough time for a snack and a cup of coffee. When I returned to my seat, I spotted a Chicana, probably in her 40s, a bit hefty, sitting in the seat next to me. (It had been empty.)

As we pulled out of Riverside, the woman asked me where I was going. “That sound like fun,” she said when I told her my plan. She said she was on her way to Miami, and since 9-11, there was no way she was flying. I said, “Miami is a long way.” She said, “You don’t understand. I have the worst luck in the world, worse than anybody. If I had been flying on 9-11, I would have been on one of those planes. That’s how bad my luck is.”

We talked for a while. The sun had set as we passed the Colorado River. She pulled out a magazine and reached up to turn on the overhead light. I could hear the button click, but no light appeared. She kept clicking the button. Nothing. She turned to me and said, her tone dead serious, “See. It’s already starting.”

We entered Nogales around 3:00AM. Those heading east stayed on the bus. Those of us traveling into Mexico crossed to the Nogales side of the border. A bus waited for us, and we headed to Hermosillo, where I spent the rest of the day and night, getting the kinks out of my body. I bought a book, Narcotraficante, by a Mexican writer, and a CD of Chalino Sanchez to keep me entertained.

The next day, I made it to Alamos, Sonora, a town that had captured my imagination since I interviewed Fred Machado a few months earlier. Fred was a descendent of the Westside Machado family. He told me his relatives had been with the first party of pobladores who left Alamos in 1779, or thereabouts, to settle Mission San Gabriel.

In the late 1700s, in the Mexican mind, nothing existed north of Alamos. Except for Fray Crespi’s earlier expedition, white men considered Alamos the end of civilization. Anything north was the heart of darkness, a primitive, mythical land filled with images of fantastical people, animals, and death.

Fred told me that the pobladores, composed of soldiers, their families, Indian and African guides headed into this god forsaken desert in the hopes of settling this new land. Two parties left Alamos, one party crossed El Golfo de Mexico by ship, and the other by land into what is today Arizona.
The Machados left with the overland expedition. Some place near Gila Bend, running low on supplies, the expedition leaders decided to split up. Half the group, mostly women and children, continued into San Gabriel. The other half, mostly men, stayed behind hoping to be resupplied. As the story goes, Indians who felt threatened by intruders, attacked, and killed them all.

By the early 1800s, the Machado family and other relatives, the Lugos and Talamantez received grazing rights to settle Rancho La Ballona, which covered what we know today as Marina Del Rey, Venice, and Culver City.

I hit Alamos in time for their annual fiesta. I had a good time, though I was disappointed that no monuments existed telling the history the town played in settling Alta California and Arizona. When I talked to a few old-timers, none of them knew anything of their town’s place in history. So, finding nothing adventurous in Alamos, I once again boarded the bus and headed into the wilds of Sinaloa, through Culiacan, birthplace of the Sinaloan cartel. My next destination was Rosario, Sinaloa, sister city of Santa Monica, California, my mother’s place of birth.

Rosario, the birthplace of La Grande, Lola Beltran, is a small town an hour or so from the coast. The people are friendly and mostly everybody has been to the States. There are few restaurants or hotels but plenty of pictures of La Grande, her house now a museum.

I wasn’t sure of the town’s attraction until some older men insisted on telling me the best places to visit. They argued about location and directions, which they never did get straight; though, they seemed satisfied with their attempt, as if sincerity carried more weight than correct information.
After visiting ruins, like the Portal Colonial, which one woman claimed had been a store and another remembered as a bus terminal, I walked to what appeared to have been a basilica, today in a slow process of decay. A plaque on the wall noted the date as 1760. A gardener working on the grounds told me the townspeople destroyed the church looking for gold, which was said to be hidden underneath. “Did they find it,” I asked? “Yes,” he answered. “And they are still finding more, not just gold but silver and ore.”

A traveler must be skeptical. Who knows what to believe, what is real and what is imagined? Could a herd of sheep in all actuality be a marauding army?

The swankiest restaurant in Rosario is located at the top of a hill, overlooking a lagoon, surrounded by trees and vegetation. More hungry than tired, I made the trek to the top. As I walked to the entrance, I noticed a five or six-foot alligator—or crocodile (I don’t know the difference, something about the snouts) splayed near the main doors. When I looked closer, I saw part of the head had been destroyed. My imagination took flight. Maybe the owner of the restaurant was a big game hunter and the alligator a trophy from Africa or Malaysia, at the very least Cancun. What I did know was that Sinaloa wasn’t home to either alligators or crocodiles.

After I ordered my food, I asked the waitress, a matronly woman, about the alligator. She told me that it was caught and killed in the lagoon. “Maybe it made its way up from the beach,” she surmised.
I didn’t think that was very likely, the beach being an hour away by car. I didn’t recall alligators hatching in oceans, anyway. She was busy and didn’t show much interest in my curiosity.

Before I left the restaurant, I took another gander at the alligator. It looked sad, like it didn’t belong here.

Near the town, I saw a young man I’d met earlier, Miguel, a security guard at La Grande’s museum. He was in his yard swinging in a hammock, shaded by palm and banana trees. I asked him about the alligator. I knew there just had to be a story there.

Miguel told me that a man had brought the alligator, at the time no bigger than his hand, to his home. He built a pond in his yard and let the kids come around to see it. When the alligator reached two-feet in length, it escaped from the yard and made its way to the lagoon. The man went down, and with the help of some weekend fishermen, he caught the overgrown lizard and returned it to the pond in his yard. The incident got attention. People now could say they got to view the alligator that had escaped captivity.

Time passed and the alligator grew. The man’s yard was no match for the monster. Once again, it escaped and found the lagoon. The man looked for it, but the “thing” had gotten too smart, outwitting him at every turn. Still, nobody seemed to care much since the lagoon had become polluted and kids no longer swam in the water. But when fish started disappearing, the rumbling began. Of course, everyone figured it was the alligator having its way. But the situation didn’t seem enough reason to cause any great alarm, so they let the creature slide. Of course, the beast continued to grow.
Then chickens and roosters began disappearing. People who lived near the lagoon did grow alarmed. The last straw, was when Senora Mendoza couldn’t find her suckling pig. If the alligator could down a pig, what would stop it from devouring a child?

Miguel described how each night, the boats filled the lagoon. Flashlights and lanterns lit up the night, night after night, the alligator hunters out there trying to bring in the wily monster, a scene right out of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Just when it seemed that they would never find it, they all heard a shotgun blast, one single blast. That was it. They’d killed the terrorist, which was really a giant lizard.

Folks argued what to do with the body. The skin wasn’t fine enough for boots, belts, or other quality leatherware. So, the owner of the restaurant put in a bid to buy the beast. Nobody could top his offer. He had the animal stuffed, and set it at the entrance of his restaurant, a curiosity piece, of sorts. He figured, it would draw out-of-towners to his establishment, and business in Rosario would boom.
Miguel said, “But that was a long time ago. Most people don’t even remember the alligator is up there, and for sure, most of them don’t remember how it got there.”

The next day, I woke early and walked to the bus stop, nothing more than a bent sign at the side of the road, a hungover, but talkative, young beauty keeping me entertained for the three-hour wait. I didn’t care. I wanted to catch whatever bus came my way.

Like I said earlier, I made it as far as Paracho, where I had something of an emotional meltdown, which had nothing to do with the alligator, or crocodile, whichever you prefer.

Or maybe it had everything to do with the alligator when I began to realize, the deeper into Mexico I travelled, the more of a foreigner I became. Like the alligator, my home was elsewhere, and no matter how Mexican I thought I was, something kept reminding me that I was just a visitor.

From Paracho, I caught the next bus, northeast, heading towards Jalisco, where I still had some family living out on the ranchos. With luck, I could make it to Parral de Chihuahua in four days and visit the corner where another execution had taken place, that of general Francisco Villa.

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