After a long bus journey I arrived in Tequila late on a Saturday afternoon and in a haze walked down the main street to get my bearings and find the place where I’d booked for two nights. I had the feeling I could have been in any old small Mexican town. Tequila was nowhere near as touristy as I’d expected. There was a run of tasteless tourist shops selling cheap souvenirs and bottles of Tequila. Mexicans wearing white cowboy hats drove Dodge and Ford pick- ups. In the narrow side streets there were markets and small shops and houses.
At the end of the main street there was a cobble stone square and an old cathedral constructed from big pieces of stone set into a red clay and mortar mix. Near the high arched doorway was a statue of a saint beneath which a short text which mentioned that the cathedral was over 200 years old.
Left of the cathedral was a long plaza with trees planted in big white-painted cement boxes, bench seats and a bandstand. Behind the plaza was the Jose Cuervo Tequila factory which I was planning on doing a tour of on Sunday and near by another destination on my tourist agenda, the Tequila museum.
I found my accommodation, a basic room in a small family hotel, had something to eat and feel into a deep sleep. At midnight the Tequila cathedral began ringing its bells every hour. I heard them from my room but I was so tired I slept through them.
On the Sunday morning I got up, had breakfast and head to the cathedral with the intention of attending a mass before going on to the Jose Cuervo Tequila factory and the Tequila museum. But when I got there I found that it was packed out. There were crowds standing at the two open doorways listening to the service being relayed over loudspeakers. In Mexico religion had seriousness which I’d never seen during my travels in Spain: the Mexicans were far more devout Catholics than their brothers and sisters in the mother country.
In the afternoon I made another attempt to attend a mass but once again it was a full house. Instead I head back to my room and slept off the effects of the large meal I had eaten along with my Tequila tastings. Waking up late that afternoon, I ventured outside, wandered around town and ended up and ended up at the plaza next to the cathedral.
And it was there that I suddenly came alive, experiencing that euphoric feeling of being a traveller; of truly being in Mexico with all its magic along with its dark tragedies…..
The plaza was teeming with people.
I was surprised by how many there were and what’s more of every age, from the very old to the very young. The elderly sat on the bench seats and the children ran around playing games. Music filled the air; a group of middle aged men were on the bandstand playing trumpets, saxophones, drums and piano accordion. They stood around the edges of the bandstand and in the space in the centre of the bandstand, a group of children were dancing.
As darkness fell, more people turned up. Sunday evening was apparently a bit of an event in Tequila. Groups of teenage girls, dressed up and wearing make-up and high heels, walked around in groups giggling and eying the boys. These were also prowling around in groups, many of them wearing white cowboy hats and boots and trying to look macho although their faces displayed nervousness and insecurity. Mums and dads and grandparents ate ice creams and kept an eye on the kids. After an hour or two, the band of old men got tired and left the bandstand. Another band, consisting of young men got going at the far end of the plaza and started belting out music at a far quicker tempo.
Making my way through the crowd towards the cathedral and the square in front, I ran into a wall of people milling around. There was another band playing there, near one of the angels. All sorts of vendors had set up little kiosks on wheels, selling tortillas, hamburgers and hot dogs. The little restaurants and cafes at the sides of the square were packed. The main street was clogged with people on their way to the festivities.
As I passed the doorway of the cathedral I saw light shining over the heads of the crowd. There was another mass in progress. Tequila’s priest certainly earned his keep. Because the music from the bands was so loud the sound of the mass coming from the loudspeakers was drowned out.
I wormed my way through the people and stood on my toes to get a glimpse of the proceedings inside. The cathedral was a typical Catholic house of God – it was a gallery of saints and angels and candles and flowers and statues and paintings. There was a massive intricate gilded altar. Everywhere was the image of Christ – baby with Madonna, performing miracles, last supper, judged by the Romans, condemned by the mob, crucified. There were two lines of pews cram packed. At the front next to the altar a priest sat in a big gilded chair, like a throne. He was dressed completely in white. There was a microphone at the end of a long chrome stem right in front of him. He was singing and the congregation was singing with him.
There was something splendidly schizophrenic about what I was witnessing. On one side of the cathedral’s 200-year-old walls was a scene of mass devotion – and on the other, it was carnival time. Inside the cathedral, the tortured body and beautiful soul of Jesus was worshipped with a reverence the likes of which I’d not seen anywhere else in the Christian world. Outside the house of God a fiesta was in full swing with music and food and love and noise and talking.
I thought of something Marcos had said to me that afternoon in the bus.
‘The Americans want to build rocket ships which can take them to heaven, even further, but the Mexicans, they’re happy to leave heaven to the priests. All they want to do is live their lives and try to be happy’.
After five years of living in America, Marcos had decided that he wanted to be a small man and not a big man. He wanted to be surrounded by his family instead of only seeing them a few times a year. He missed his country.
On this night it was easy for me to understand a man like Marcos. I could see a unique culture before me, something far beyond the Tequila industry: a society which might bind, might imbue its inheritors with a powerful sense of belonging.
It was a tragedy that the long shadows of organised crime had fallen over this culture, unique in South America, which meant that even people like Marcos, with no other intention that to live in peace with his family, were not safe. No one was.
And it was in its own way a graphic example of how so many millions of human beings were living today all over the world – whilst technology was galloping ahead in leaps and bounds and yet constituted no more guarantee of a good life, a safe life, for so many millions – or was it billions – of people inhabiting this planet.