Once upon a recent Friday afternoon at that hideous corporate hour of 3 o’clock, when freedom beckons from a mere two hours away (but the distance feels like an eternity), the invitation popped up on my computer screen. We were being summoned by Sonya and Ariane to Mi Tierra that night to celebrate Once De Agosto with nachos and margaritas.
I had been to Mi Tierra a few times, but only as a tourist or a tourist host. The first time was with my mother. I was living in Austin, and we decided to spend a weekend in San Antonio. Our hotel was near El Mercado and we were instructed to visit San Antonio’s famous Mi Tierra (it’s been around since 1941). After two large margaritas, I was calling our waiter a jackass and my mother was on the verge of vomiting on herself (she blamed the heat and her diabetes). After moving to San Antonio, I would take out-of-town visitors for Sunday drinks and appetizers at Mi Tierra, to give them a colorful San Antonio experience (the patio in front of the restaurant is a great spot for people-watching). But I had never gone with locals, as a local, to share a local experience. By the end of the workday, the evening’s plans were sealed in an email contract among friends.
I arrived fashionably late that night to find the group draped, in varying degrees of gaiety, around a long, wood table in a sort-of-private balcony room overlooking the bar downstairs. The dark, intricate wooden chairs, large ornate chandeliers, and heavy red-velvet curtains were beautified by candlelight. Pitchers of frozen margaritas, some yellow, some pink, melted around the table; people seemed unable to drink them as quickly as they were ordering them.
In a large, coed group of friends, there is never a lack of good-natured competition or sexually infused drama. That night, the full diversity of our group was in effect. We had a good showing from our lesbian department, and our token gay male was present, too. We also had a couple of couples, the singles, the Gringos, and the Hispanics (our Jewish friend hasn’t been partying much lately, it seems). We also had the added excitement of Nicole’s recent singledom which, combined with her already enormous sex appeal (or it could simply be her sweet personality), made her the man-magnet for the night; this role looked good and comfortable on her as she sat sandwiched between the group’s two most-available and lusted-after bachelors. Luckily, no one’s feelings were hurt, and everyone continued to raise their glasses in toasts to Chris’s 31st birthday, to friendship, to Once de Agosto. Just another night in the 20/30-something soap opera.
But what’s a telenovela without a dramatic soundtrack? I could hear the music throughout the night, but it was at a distance, in the background. From our private balcony table, I could not see the musicians, but could feel the majesty of strings and horns crescendo and decrescendo. Soon I was wandering into the other balcony room to discover one of the biggest mariachi groups I’d ever seen. Consisting of men and women in full mariachi attire (shiny black suits sparkling with silver leg-and-arm fixtures), the group Nuevo Chalpultepec surrounded the table with guitars, violins, horns, and even a harp, and performed as if at a wedding — with passion and grace, body and strength. I was ready to fill my body with the throbbing sensation of horns and vibrato, and so as soon as they completed their performance, I summoned them to our group.
They informed me of the price — $20 per song — before negotiating a tune. It’s not cheap, but, to me, it’s completely worth the fee for a live, full-body music experience and surround-sound orchestration. And with a large group like ours, everyone need only pitch in a few bucks to come to an easy $20. So on behalf of Chris, the group requested a birthday song, fast and upbeat, everyone clapping and singing along. The song ended quickly, and we were left wanting more, needing more. So we quickly negotiated one more song and Ariane requested her favorite traditional mariachi tune: “Sin Ti.” As the the song’s summoner, she was fearlessly serenaded, and she closed her eyes and let herself sway happily along to the music, occasionally joining in the chorus … “Sin ti! … ” Like an urban choir, the voice of each instrument was distinct, yet united with the whole. The horn melody, weeping brass tears, seemed to combine and comfort the sawing of the violins.
In the midst of the performance, I remembered the feeling of total contentment I felt when sipping a shot of Don Julio at a comfortable café in Xalapa, watching and listening to the traditional Veracruz music of another such heartfelt band, letting go of time among friends. One need not be a tourist to enjoy such an experience. l