Mexico in the 1950s had a rough and ancient look to it. And as I lied about my age in a tense effort to look older and get across the border, this hard-used, slightly adrift appearance surprised and pleased me. I stepped eagerly into the Republic for the first time just outside the desert town of Mexicali, carrying a Spanish phrase book and a cut-down duffle bag. From there, I slowly dropped down the map, visiting places whose names I hesitated to pronounce: Guaymas, Huatabampo, Topolobampo, Guamuchil.
After a desultory week on the beach at Mazatlán, I met a young Mexican who recklessly invited me to visit his home town of Palo Gordo in Michoacán. I didn’t have any idea of where Michoacán might be, but it sounded impressively far away. He was just coming back from working as a bracero — a polite term then used for “wetback” — in California. He had learned considerable English while working in the San Joaquin Valley, and my Spanish, which came mostly from the worn phrase book dictionary in my back pocket, was improving slowly. Since we were usually talking about girls and beer and how fast our money seemed to be disappearing, we had few problems getting along.
I think perhaps my new friend wanted to take me back to his tierra so his relatives could see the kind of people he’d had to put up with in California. I accepted his invitation because it seemed a fine way to learn Spanish and see a kind of Mexico I wasn’t seeing in Mazatlán. Also, I wanted to be a writer and had a vague idea that wandering around the back country of Mexico would be of help.
But by the time we got off the last bus, a broken-windowed Ford that kept boiling over, I’d begun to believe there were easier ways to learn both Spanish and how to write. It was late in the evening and we began looking around the fair-sized town, whose name I could neither pronounce nor spell, for a ride to Palo Gordo. Eulalio, my new friend, at last found somebody who was just setting off in the dusk with a woodened-wheeled two-mule cart of supplies for a farm near Palo Gordo. The man with the cart, Heriberto Ramírez, and his younger brother Serapio, were a bit drunk. In the bed of the cart was a scattering of repaired tools, harnesses, several machetes, a half bag of frijoles, and two new sombreros. I sat down on some harnesses, leaned back against the sack of beans and tried to go to sleep despite the bounce and jerk of the cart.