Saturday, January 06, 2018

Los Reyes Magos in the Blizzard of 47 By Antonio SolisGomez, © Copyright 2004 Part II Illustrations by Sergio Hernandez

My brother elbowed me to let me know that it was my turn to say something, just as we had rehearsed.

“We thought it would be a good Christmas present for your mom and make you look like a stand up guy.” I said all that without stumbling once.

My brother had the next few lines and he explained that Baltazar, his character, wouldn’t have to say very much and that he would be in and out of the church in a couple of hours.

Gordo Chávez looked at us as if we were crazier than Pepita’s son, the one that managed to get loose from his room every once in awhile and run naked through the barrio shouting that he was the Son of God.

Before he could say no, and he looked as if he was ready to say no, I blurted out something that acknowledged what I wasn’t supposed to know but that everyone in the barrio knew anyway. “Miranda is going to play the part of Mary.”

What everybody knew was that Gordo Chavez had a thing for Miranda but she would sooner swallow poison than spend time with him. They had been friends once but when he started dealing and went to prison she dropped him like a hot potato, refusing to see or speak to him when he was released. She wasn’t as pretty as Carmen, Don Basilios’ daughter and she didn’t have as nice a body as Petra, the divorced woman from around the corner. But altogether and pound for pound we all thought that she was right next to Rita Hayworth in looks. And she was nice too, not stuck up or mean. Unless one was Gordo Chávez.

“She is huh?” Gordo said, trying to sound like it was not a big deal but we could almost see his brain working, looking for a reason he could use to accept our offer without looking like some love-sick puppy. “So you think my mom would like me to be in the pageant?”

“Oh yeah, she’s like nothing better than to see you in church. She’s been lighting candles for you for years,” Ruly wisely said.

“Really?” he said genuinely surprised, his demeanor softening. “Well then maybe it would be a good Christmas present for her. “Where and when?” he asked.

We gave him the details and flew home as if on wings, both of us shouting what we were going to buy with our share of the three dollars. When we got to the apartment house, we went over to Doña Lupita’s to give her the news and collect our money.

“We did it Doña Lupita. We got you the three men to play the parts of the Reyes Magos, Ruly shouted as soon as she opened the door.

“You did”, she said, astounded at our accomplishment.

“Can we have our money?” I asked.

“Slow down,” she said. “Who are the men?”

“Well there’s Tomás,” Ruly said excitedly, “and Roberto.”

“Roberto?” Dona Lupita interrupted him. “You don’t mean Roberto the Borrachito. And old Tomás the rag picker. Lupita shook her head in displeasure and my heart sang.

“Who’s the third man,” she asked, already seeming to have lost her initial interest but hopeful that at least one of the men would be suitable.

“Gordo Chávez,” Ruly answered proudly, having missed the mounting look of concern on her face.

“The drug dealer,” she shouted and slapped her forehead with the palm of her hand and called on the Blessed Virgin for deliverance from the pendejadas de estos niños, in other words to deliver her from our blunderings.

Ruly and I were confused. We had accomplished our mission, had gotten her three men to be in the pageant. Why then was she so put out.

“We can’t let them take part in the Christmas play,” she said calmly, now that she had regained her composure. “One’s a drunk, the other is a drug dealer and the third one hates the Catholic Church. You’ll have to tell them that we already have someone else.”

“But we didn’t get somebody else, we got them,” I said bravely. “We’ll get our money, won’t we?”

Doña Lupita looked pained. “I can’t give you the money. When a person buys a toy from the store and when they get home discover that it’s broken, they go back to the store and get their money returned. This is the same thing,” she said. “You’ll have to tell them that they can’t be in the pageant after all.”

Ruly and I looked at each other. I could see that my brother was getting angry. Nothing got him angrier than when he was being cheated out of something, like the times he caught our stepfather cheating at dominoes or when the shoemaker wanted to give us a nickel for a box that was worth a dime.

“You can’t go back on your word,” he said. “A promise is a promise and I’ll tell Father the whole story if you don’t pay us.”

Doña Lupita wasn’t concerned about the money. She was worried that the men in question would make a mockery of her artistic endeavor. The mention of involving the Priest was also alarming to her, he not being very supportive of community involvement in matters of the spirit and possibly wanting to cancel the program altogether, so she decided to take a chance that the men wouldn’t show up.  Prior to meeting with us she had resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to fill the parts of the three kings and was planning to expand the narration of Don Basilio, the angel, to cover their part. And if they did show up, she reasoned, their costumes would make them unrecognizable.

“Ok,” she said finally. “I’ll pay you if they show up on the night of the pageant.”

That seemed fair to us, even though we were disappointed not to have the cash in hand. Tomorrow would be Friday January 6th, the Day Of Epiphany and the night of the reenactment of the visit of the Christ Child by the Three Kings. We went home and sat on the kitchen floor with the Sears Catalog between us, playing my page your page and arguing as to which one of us was ending up with the best stuff. I ended up with the page with all the bicycles and that ended the discussion.

Again it snowed that evening and in the morning we could see from the back window that all the footprints of the previous day were no longer visible. We starred out the window for a long time to see who would be first to leave their trail in the fresh snow in the alley. I was betting on one of the stray dogs that roamed the neighborhood. Ruly thought it would be Doña Lupita going to empty the trash in the large metal trash container, the one that the hobos liked to use for sleeping during warmer weather. We were both wrong. Our stepfather send us to Don Basilio’s store for a pack of cigarettes and it was we who left the first prints.

The day dragged endlessly and we looked at the clock every few minutes to check on the time. We played several games of Chinese Checkers, re-read old comic books, played with the wooden toys that came from one of the small shops that line the border in Juarez. Every so often we would each utter a misgiving, not at all sure that any of the men we had recruited would show up that evening at the church. We wanted to revisit them to remind them but it was snowing again and we weren’t allowed to leave the apartment.

Mother had gone in to work at the hotel but luckily she had the early shift and was home by four. She was going to the pageant but she wasn’t going until eight. We wanted to be there promptly at six, the time of the final rehearsal and the time of reckoning. But our stepfather said no, seeing no reason why we needed to go that early and we, not wanting to tell him about our financial arrangement with Doña Lupita, lest he take away our money, didn’t argue the point with him.

By some miracle Doña Lupita came by at a quarter of six and asked if we could help her set up the chairs for the evening’s performance. Our stepfather was reluctant but in the end mother convinced him that it would be good for us to do something useful. So off we went with Doña Lupita, the cold air hitting our face and cutting through our thin jackets as soon as we opened the heavy front door of the apartment house. Our feet made a nice crunching sound on the snow that had been falling steadily the entire day. Our Mother of Sorrows Church was in the opposite direction of the school, a block up from the hoyo. We passed directly in front of Roberto’s darkened apartment and Ruly stayed behind and knocked a few times on his door but Roberto never answered.

We entered the church through the side entrance and made our way down the semi dark aisle. The pews were covered by dark shadows, the only available light coming from the left side of the altar where red glass containers were glowing with the flames from their burning candles. We went through a door and down some steps into the basement that served as the auditorium. Even with all the lights, the basement was dingy, the unpainted concrete walls absorbing the light from the few lights that hung from the tall ceiling. It was a large room, with a raised stage at the side and large black curtains hanging from the ceiling. Setting up the chairs was going to take my brother and me all of an hour. But we didn’t mind. We were too tense with expectation.

We were already setting up when the first cast members came through the basement’s outside door that Doña Lupita had unlocked. Joseph and Mary were the first ones, then some of the teenagers that were shepherds and angels. Roberto the Borrachito came in with Don Basilio and my heart leapt inside my chest. Doña Lupita was telling everyone to hurry and get dressed when she saw the Borrachito, looking sober and fearful, as if he seen death itself. Ruly and I looked at each other and smiled. One down two to go we thought. Doña Lupita went over to greet the Borrachito and took him behind the curtains to get him his costume and explained to him when to come in and where to stand. And most important when he should go up to the Christ Child to offer his gift.

While Doña Lupita was backstage with Roberto, Gordo Chávez walked in slowly as if on tiptoe and not wanting to intrude. Nobody noticed him but Ruly and I. The others were all busy putting costumes over their clothes, the basement’s heater barely putting out enough heat to keep everyone from freezing, therefore the extra clothes were welcomed. Ruly and I walked over to him and said hello and took him behind the curtain to where Doña Lupita was helping Roberto. Gordo Chávez glanced over at Miranda, wearing a dazzling blue shawl and looking like the Virgin Mary herself. She didn’t see him until she heard his deep baritone voice and saw him speaking with Doña Lupita. Her mouth dropped slightly in surprise but quickly turned away to face Joseph and continued rehearsing her lines.

I didn’t recognize Gordo Chávez or Roberto when they emerged from behind the curtain, with Doña Lupita who proceeded to introduce them to the cast as Baltazar and Melchor respectively. You could tell that Doña Lupita was pleased with their transformation, the now bearded men looking regal in their flowing robes and turbans. A commotion outside made everyone stop and take notice, then we all gasped when we confirmed that what had sounded like hoof steps on the concrete stairs was none other than Diablo being led by Tomás.

“Too cold to leave Diablo out there,” Tomas said as he closed the door behind the large animal.
Doña Lupita, who had been shocked into temporary silence, as was everyone else, finally spoke up.

“Tomás you can’t bring the horse in here, Dios Mío this is a church!” she exclaimed.

“Oh he’ll be all right. He knows how to behave. Besides it’ll be more like a real stable
with a horse in here” Tomás answered.

The cast members were smiling and beginning to snicker. One of shepherds said, “Yeah let the horse stay.” 

Others agreed to allow Diablo to stay, some because it would add realism as Tomás claimed and others because it was cruel to put him out on such a cold night.

“Let’s give him Posada in the manger, just like Mary and Joseph,” someone said and that seemed to sway Doña Lupita and she consented.

While Doña Lupita helped Tomás get into his costume some of the cast helped Diablo get onto the stage, where they hand fed him some of the hay and stroked his face.

Dressed in his royal attire, old Tomás was also transformed and seeing the three kings together, the horse by their side, Ruly and I couldn’t help but get chills. This was going to turn out great, we thought.

By the time the first spectators began arriving, the cast had rehearsed with the Three Kings several times and all was ready. During rehearsal Ruly and I had set up the chairs and Dona Lupita put us in charge of helping people to their seats. By then the old heater had made the basement nice and cozy and some of the audience took off their coats. Ruly took it upon himself to ask people if they wanted him to take their coats to the coat rack, hoping for tips as he had seen in the movies. Those that gave him their coat however offered no tip, apparently not knowing or wanting to follow the protocol, regardless of how loudly Ruly cleared his throat. Someone even offered him a cough drop, but no tip.

Finally it was time to start. Doña Lupita had waited for nearly twenty minutes past eight for everyone to arrive but even then some were still walking in. And everyone in the audience had been talking, this being the first chance since the snow started falling to exchange pleasantries or to gossip and Doña Lupita had difficulty getting people to take their seats. She had stood before the audience to get them to settle down. Eventually she would manage to get a section to quiet down and then another would erupt in talk and laughter and then everyone would start up again. It was only after the priest, Father Ybarra, a stern humorless Spaniard, got on stage and simply held up his hands that the crowd as if by magic became silent.

Doña Lupita said very few words, wanting the play to speak for itself but she did thank Father Ybarra for the privilege of presenting the reenactment and asked him to lead everyone in a short prayer. 

However the prayer was anything but short, the good father starting slowly and then gathering momentum and every sentence delivered with great emotion and verve. He rallied against every imaginable sin known to men and most of which we children didn’t know existed such as avarice and covetousness. The audience listened in silence not moving a muscle lest father Ybarra look them in the eye and seemingly accuse them of the sins from which he would have all of us delivered. At last he began making his way down the scale of emotion, his voice lowering for effect and we knew that he was not far from the Amen and the sign of the cross. Suddenly, from behind the curtain, we heard Diablo’s hoofs on the wood floor as he moved forward and parted the curtain with his head, snorting at the audience in greeting and inadvertently pushing Father Ybarra to the edge of the stage. It seemed that time stood still as Father Ybarra sought to regain his balance, his outstretched arms first moving forward and then switching to a backstroke motion while the audience held its breath. Instinctively he reached out and caught Doña Lupita’s arm and pulled her to the edge as well. She not as agile as Father Ybarra, it didn’t take long before they were both tumbling off the stage onto the bales of hay with Doña Lupita screaming, her arms and legs wrapped around the priest in fright. Momentarily the audience lost their view of Father Ybarra, he having disappeared into Doña Lupita’s corpulent body. Finally his face emerged from Doña Lupita’s oversized bosom and he began to extricate himself. The audience hadn’t known whether to laugh or be concerned until the Father angrily demanded that someone help him up.

Some men assisted the Father and then tried to help Doña Lupita but she was too heavy for them to lift and finally she got onto her knees and got up by herself. Father Ybarra was unhurt but shaken up and he asked to be helped back to the Rectory. Doña Lupita dusted and picked off the hay that clung to her hair and clothing, while the buzz of conversation slowly got louder and louder as the audience lost its inhibition. Nobody laughed outright, that would have to wait until they were in the privacy of their homes later that evening and in the years that followed with the story growing wilder and more graphic with each recounting.

Everyone in the audience was now primed for a good time and it didn’t take Doña Lupita very long to quiet them down so that the play could begin. Don Basilio the narrator angel with his handlebar moustache, was the first one to come from behind the curtain and Doña Lupita shining a flashlight so that he could be seen in the now darkened room. He read the verses from the Bible that described the Immaculate Conception and the visit to Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph came out and the flashlight now shining on Mary made her appear supernaturally beautiful. The stage lights now came up and the scene was a street in Bethlehem and Mary and Joseph began asking for shelter, going from one house to another singing the traditional songs of Posada, their haunting melody sending shivers through all the audience. We gave the cast thunderous applause at the conclusion of the scene when the curtain was drawn. 

Don Basilio came out again and read the Bible verses that described the birth of Jesus in the manger. When the curtain was drawn the manger had replaced the Bethlehem street scene and Mary was holding a real baby, the newborn son of Miranda’s sister. A choir of angels and shepherds sang traditional Christmas songs and when they finished, not soon enough for Ruly and me who were anxious to bring out our effort to a perfect conclusion, the Kings walked on, Tomás as Gaspar next to his now infamous horse. They knelt at a respectable distance and the choir sang Noche de Paz. At the conclusion of the Spanish version of Silent Night it was time for our men, the ones that Ruly and I had showered with lies and exaggerations to get them to that point, to say their lines as they offered their gift to the Christ Child.

Tomás accompanied by Diablo went up to the Baby Jesus and knelt and offered his gift of Myrrh. Then Diablo bowed as Tomas had taught him and the audience instinctively broke out in applause. Even Doña Lupita was clapping. Then turning to the people Tomas shouted “Que viva Jesus y La Paz” in other words Long Live Jesus and Peace. He had forgotten his lines but he said what he felt and again the people applauded and shouted back Que viva Jesus y La Paz.” 

Ruly and I were pleased as plum and felt a tinge of pride at having the foresight to have selected Tomás when Doña Lupita gave us a big smile and clasped her hands above her head like a boxer after defeating an opponent.

Roberto the Borrachito, as Melchor, was next. He walked stiffly to where the Holy Family was gathered and kneeling before the Baby Jesus offered Frankincense in a small box. He was supposed to say that he came from a far away land to honor the Child and then get up and walk away. Instead he stood up and began undoing his wooden arm and when the prosthetic arm was free and in his other hand, he threw himself on his knees and began to wail despairingly. He began telling us about war, about the noise of bombs and gunfire, about the fear that went deep into the pit of his stomach and about the smell of death from rotting corpses. He told us about friends that he had seen die, their bodies blown apart, their faces shot off and how he was nearly killed himself. Then he described the men he had killed in anger, how two of them begged for their lives and how he shot them anyway. He asked for forgiveness for his lack of compassion and for his drunkenness and his lack of faith, saying that he would never again wear the fake arm as a reminder of his solemn promise to change and to be thankful for the second chance at life that he felt had been given him that evening. As Roberto spoke I was trying to hide my tears from Ruly but when I saw him and others around us wiping their eyes I stopped thinking that I was the worse thing that a boy can be in a barrio full of macho men, a chillon, a crybaby and I allowed my tears to flow.

Nobody knew what to do when Roberto finished and slowly stood up and walked back to where the two other Kings were standing, his missing arm left at the foot of the Christ Child. Fortunately Gordo Chávez knew that the first rule of performing is that the show must go on and he went and knelt in front of the Holy Family and encouraged by Roberto’s honesty, declared his love for Miranda. At first Miranda gave him a look unbecoming to the Virgin Mary but as Gordo Chavez continued telling her that he also had been transformed that evening, his heart touched by the Holy Spirit, she softened and listened intently to his promise of reform.

Dona Lupita drew the curtain herself, bringing to a close a most amazing evening. However the audience refused to allow the show to end and continued applauding and the men, with the aid of fingers to their mouth, whistled loudly for encore after encore. Eventually, as if given a cue, the audience stopped and everyone stood up and put their coats on and began filing out the door. Ruly and I stayed behind to collect our three dollars and Doña Lupita happily handed it to us without a word having to be exchanged.  

Ruly and I saw many more pageants as children and adults but none as memorable as the one we saw that night.


Gordo Chávez married Miranda and he bought out Don Basilio and became our corner grocer. Later he invested in what he thought was an up and coming company, buying the first El Paso franchise for a McDonald’s restaurant.

Roberto gave up drinking and enrolled at the College of Mines and eventually became one of the most popular teachers at Bowie High School.

Tomás continued making a living by collecting and recycling discarded household items. He and Diablo performed in the pageant for many years, his lines Viva Jesus y La Paz becoming a fixture in all future performances.

1 comment:

msedano said...

my page, your page. dang, antonio, i'd forgotten that game! we also used to compare pages between montgomery ward and sears, what's on page 122? my personal preference was the sears catalog. the index pages were tissue, not coated stock, whereas Wards' was all stiff paper that no matter how many times your crinkled it, it was a poor performer on visits to el excusado.