At first there was nothing but water and rocks. The never-ending thump of the waves crashing against the shore. Mother nature’s eternal heartbeat. The land was too rocky for the sea turtles that arrived en masse further north. Life was more fleeting here. The occasional jaguarundi stealthily wandered out from the jungle in the dark of night, scouring the tide pools for fish that were tossed there from the ocean. As did coyotes and tlacuaches and birds like reddish egrets and peregrine falcons. They’d move on. Then return. Their offspring and their offspring’s offspring. Wind. Rain. Sun. More wind. More rain. More sun. On and on, again and again, over and over, until one day when the universe came together in such a way, one thing leading to another, and someone appeared.
Unable to pay his debts to various creditors after a string of poor business decisions, Armando Soto and his family escaped from Monterrey, crossing the Sierra Madres with a caravan of horses and mules, surviving on machaca and pan de elote. His wife Priscilla, daughter, and a young woman, only referred to as their Indian cook, or La Chichimeca, accompanied him on the journey. The geography was rugged and harsh. These weren’t the flat, fertile plains to the north, but a tumultuous terrain that rose suddenly from the dry western slopes to nearly impenetrable forests of oaks and pines, where the rain and the mist felt like a veil to a clandestine realm that few had ever explored. Monarch butterflies danced in their path and they saw the footprints of pumas and other felines in the moist soil on more than one occasion.
From their mountainous perch, when they reached a clearing on a cloudless day, they could see all the way to the ocean. Their route, once jagged and disorganized, became recognizable. As they moved east, down the sloping hills to lower elevations, the forests transitioned into arid scrubland, full of woody shrubs and succulents. When they reached the shore, Armando started seeking out a secluded piece of land to clear and build a life. Somewhere where they had everything they could possibly need. Eventually, they encountered an abandoned fishing camp, then continued south along the rocky shore for several kilometers. Frustrated by the lack of fertile land, he started to look for a sign. Just then, he slipped on an overly ripe chicozapote that had fallen from a tree.
“This is the place,” he whispered.
After some time, the earth changed shape. Amidst a clearing, palms were planted. Structures were built. There was plenty of fish in the sea and fruits in the trees.
“Why would we ever go back to Monterrey?” exclaimed Armando to his family, who were growing bored with the loneliness of their new home.
While there was much to do, Priscilla and her daughter lounged around lazily, leaving La Chichimeca to carry much of the burden of collecting water and tending to the homestead. They missed their life in the city. They dreamed of their friends and drinking and laughing in cafés. The city was now linked by rail to Mexico City and industry was thriving, but here, it was mostly just the birds and rocks and waves. That would soon change.
From just four there became more. Fishermen and ranchers, sailing down from Tampico, carved out pieces of land of their own. They planted crops and carved paths through the trees with horses and cattle. Soon came their families. Wives and children and friends. Boars and deer were hunted, and the kills were shared among everyone. Families became friends. Friends became family. Everyone helped one another. A network of support. Amidst these blissful times, Sofía, the daughter of Armando Soto, fell in love with a poor young man from San Luis Potosí, Raúl del Canto, much to the dismay of her father.
When the fetus inside of Sofía’s womb could no longer be kept hidden, Raúl was beaten and bloodied by Armando. When he declared to his daughter to never come into contact with that boy again, Sofía planned her escape. Raúl pleaded with her to stay, to try to convince her father of their intentions, but she insisted. In the dead of night, they commandeered a fishing boat. Strong and confident, Raúl rowed along the coast for an hour or two, until a storm appeared. He was no match for the westerly winds and thick rain. The boat tossed back and forth as the storm grew more intense. Waves crashed over them. They held on for their lives, but hope was fading. Through the mist, he saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary, a shining beacon on the rocks, giving Raúl the strength to paddle back to the place they set off from.
Armando and Priscilla, became devotees of the Virgin, thanking her for bringing their daughter back to them. They welcomed Raúl into the family and made plans for their marriage the following week. The women and men of the village joined together to build a home for the young family. A goat was slaughtered, and a pit was dug to make barbacoa for the wedding, for which La Chichimeca was the maid of honor. The festivities ensued for several days, attracting neighbors far and wide. Word of the miracle began to spread throughout the state of Tamaulipas and beyond. A note in the magazine El Mundo Ilustrado from Puebla captured the attention of Bishop Rafael Guizar Valencia, who sent a priest to establish a church in the village of “Santa María de las Rocas.”
A dozen campesino families wandered in from the llanuras, the arid plains to the west. Worn and weary, they were tobacco farmers, that were down on their luck. Severe drought had killed most of their crops and they were left with little. They had no pesos to spend and no food to eat. Just the clothes on their backs and a few horses loaded with the few belongings they couldn’t sell off. Desperate, they set off looking for better fortunes and traveler after traveler they met on the trail told them about the Virgin and her power. It was far from the lands they knew, but they clung on to that tiniest hope of hopes that the tales of Santa María might be true.
On the outskirts of town, where no one was living, they built their ranchos. They tilled the soil and planted their seeds and nurtured them so they would grow. Day after day they cared for them as if they were their own children. They spoke to them and sang songs of hope. Each night in the cathedral, where a detailed wooden santo modeled after the Virgin, carved by a Kickapoo convert, had been erected in a small chapel, they prayed and prayed for a miracle. Night after night until their knees were bruised. They got what they desired. The spring rains were a surprise that season and the crops grew strong and plentiful. The harvest was as rich as any they ever had. They had found a new home and the legend continued to spread.
The next year, a lost band of Borrados came from the north and set up camp not far from town. They had tattoos on their faces and were cautious of the settlers, but some spoke Spanish and communication was rather agreeable between the communities. They traded animal hides and baskets for tools and crops. They tried to teach the settlers about sangre de drago, a tree resin that could heal their wounds, and the medicinal value of other plants, but they didn’t seem interested. They told them about the animals and where to find them, so together they went hunting. However, the Indians didn’t understand why they killed more animals than they needed. They were wiping the forests clean just because they could. They sensed it was best to move on and more settlers moved in and took over their land.
With growing commerce, everyone pitched in to construct a small port. It would allow for the export and import of goods, which could make everyone’s lives easier. Mule driven carts carried the rocks from the shoreline and bit by bit the reef was hammered down and removed. Coral, stones and dirt were piled together, forming an arm of uneven land that reached out into the sea, blocking the waves and forming a tranquil bay. There was now a safe landing for larger boats and a sandy beach with calm waters to wade in. The center of town shifted from the interior to the sea and cargo began to flow from up and down the coast.
Ship’s Manifest – El Huasteco
- Margarita Flores, 23
- Harold Peña, 44
- Gustavo Reyes, 54
- Blanca Reyes, 31
- Gloria Zuazua, 31
- Silvia de la Rosa, 29
- Consuleo Guajardo, 67
- Nayeli Villareal, 29
- Alfonso Villareal, 35
- Paulina Villareal, 4
- Ramiro Villareal, 3
- Alberto Villareal, 1
- 25 axes
- 40 machetes
- 15 shovels
- 50 kilograms salt
- 250 kilograms dried corn
- 10 kilograms calcium hydroxide
- 200 kilograms wheat
- 2 crates rosaries and assorted religious paraphernalia
- 4 botijas of oil
- 2 botijas of vinegar
- 4 crates assorted machinery
- 10 barrels of nails
- 45 cubic bales of assorted cloth
- 2 crates hunting rifles
- 4 crates glassware
- 15 barrels of almonds
- 15 barrels of olives
- 15 pipas of wine
- 10 hogs
- 75 hens
- 120 bottles tequila
When a hurricane swept through the Caribbean, touching down in Cuba and later crossing the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula, it caused copious amounts of destruction. As it moved northwest across the Gulf of Mexico, it regrouped, and the winds intensified. It headed right for Tamaulipas. There was little the people of Santa María could do, yet they were spared the worst of the storm. The tops of a few palms had blown off and a few fishing boats were blown on to land and overturned, but it was almost as if there was some sort of magical shield protecting the village and its people. As the tropical cyclone moved into the interior of Mexico, heavy rains caused the Santa Catarina River to overflow its banks, destroying half of the city of Monterrey. Thousands were killed and many more were left without homes. Hundreds arrived on foot, seeking shelter in Santa María, more than doubling the population.
“Just around the bend, I think. It can’t be too much more. This old horse’s legs won’t go much further. We’ve trekked across mountains, through mud and rain. Our skin is red from the sun and the mosquitoes have chewed us from limb to limb. I know you’re tired. We’ve come a long way but there’s no turning back. We have nothing left in Monterrey. We lost our homes, our families and friends. But we’ll get back on our feet some day and live the life we should. Wait! I think I can see the tile roofs through the trees. Do you hear the ring of the church bell? That’s Santa María calling.”
As the years went on, people from far and wide soon made their way to the village, enchanted by the stories they heard of the plentiful land, the miraculous Virgin, the fertile soil, the rich forest and picturesque beaches. It sounded like paradise. They were bankers and bandits. Poets and priests. Beekeepers and bachelors. Dancers and dignitaries. They were escaping the revolution raging across Mexico. They were being turned against one and another, losing family and friends at every turn. They were tired of the reforms that never happened, of the politicians that clung to power. Of the guns and violence. They wanted to leave that all behind and seek out a new way of living.
Writers and poets from all across Mexico trickled to Santa María little by little. They had nowhere else to go, they felt. Their art had become diminished by the tabloids and heads were being filled by radio waves. Away from the noise, away from that bubble bereft of truth, they could stay here, amidst the rocks and waves, and just write.
“As the rest of the world continues its decay,” said the poet Francisco Montalvo, “we’ll take San Pedro and talk to the stars.”
“I’ll write poems in the sand for all I care,” said the songwriter Ińes Castellanos.
“Let’s stay here and write our lives away and publish our work posthumously,” said the novelist Arturo Villalobos. “The critics can tell me in hell what they think.”
After accusations of wrongful death by multiple patients in McAllen, Texas,
Dr. Raúl Sánchez was fearful of prosecution, whether he agreed with the claims or not. His ancestral roots were across the border, though he lost touch with any family there as a child.
“It’s time darling,” he told his wife Fernanda, and daughter Sara. “We knew this day would come. This was never our home.”
As the family ventured south along the Gulf, they started to encounter other travelers all heading in the same direction. They all mentioned a place where the land was cheap, the beaches were like postcards and the people were free. Santa María sounded like just the place for Dr. Sánchez to set up a new practice.
Dozens of widows came from across Mexico. Their husbands were killed in the violence and they wanted to find somewhere safe to raise their children without worry. They had left the old world behind, thinking only about the future. They had to. There was nothing but pain and suffering back there. Death and destruction. A tangled web of lies and deceit. Here there was a future. Sunshine, blue skies and plenty to eat. There was hope of building a better world. They didn’t need a man to do it for them. They could take care of themselves and create a new life.
As Pancho Villa and his men marched towards Monterrey, the men of provisional president Venustiano Carranza made a final stand at Ramos Arizpe, outside of Saltillo. As the battle began, the fog set in. The Villistas and Carrancistas didn’t know who was who. They each shot at their own side. They gave opposition forces ammunition not realizing they would be used against them. Ultimately, through the confusion, it was the Villistas that prevailed. Around 3,000 prisoners were taken but released on the condition they would swear with their hand to God that they would never fight on the side of Carranza again. Some rejoined the fight and were killed, while others accepted their release from war. Some fled north across the border, while others found their way to Santa María, singing songs of their freedom.
The plaza was the informal town center, though calling it a plaza was a bit of a stretch. It was really nothing more than the place where the scrub was trampled down or kicked away more than anywhere else. As more people arrived, a more formal plaza began to develop. The cathedral was expanded and took up one entire side of it. Townhouses, shops and restaurants were erected on opposing sides and a fountain was established in the very center. Large stones were laid to pave the square, so at any given moment you were likely to hear the clanking of horseshoes trotting across them, echoing into the abyss. Too hot during the day and lacking shade, the plaza was mostly empty during the daylight hours. In the afternoons, as the sun dropped behind the Sierra Madres, it came alive with activity.
People from every walk of life had all found their way to Santa María for different reasons, but now they were together. Many wanted to do their own thing and be left alone, while others hoped to work together to build a new community. On the plaza, they stood on rocks or crates and shouted out their ideas. Sometimes crowds formed, and people cheered and jeered. Other times no one listened. There was silence. Still, collectively, they were figuring out how to move forward. To establish new viewpoints and connect with others from different walks of life. To connect with people that they would have never met if their circumstances didn’t suddenly align.
As this new community began to form, its residents began to understand they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. Nothing was holding an idea back other than their own inhibitions. There were no gatekeepers in Santa María. There was no one to say no. Anyone with an idea was welcome to follow it to their hearts content. There was room for all.
“I want to paint,” said Blanca Garza Sada, a former house maid that arrived in town with next to nothing. “I will paint houses. I will paint portraits. I will paint the sea.”
For the first time in her young life, she felt motivated to create things. She painted trees and benches. She painted her dreams. She painted her memories. She painted the future of Santa María.
Jose del Socorro Echeverría, a technician from Monterrey, wanted to become a photographer. With the little money he had, he ordered a Vest Pocket Kodak from a catalog. It took several months to arrive, but as soon as he had the film loaded, he started taking pictures of this unspoiled place that he thought had so much potential. The very atmosphere was inspiring. The way the light reflected off of the araña that grew along the beach. Of elaborate designs made with gull feathers and blue crab skeletons. Of a fisherman struggling with a red drum that had nearly as much fight in it than he did. His first commission was a portrait of Dr. Sánchez and his wife Fernanda.
“We’re not just investing in you,” the doctor remarked, “We’re investing in this community.”
Twin brothers Mario and Luis Mezta Balarezo, who hung around the Escuela de Pintura al Aire Libre, an old hacienda turned artist enclave in Coyoacán, decided to start a comedy troupe with a few friends from Toluca. They started working the beaches along the Gulf, hitching rides on boats from town to town. When they reached Santa María, it felt like Coyoacán ten years before. So vibrant and full of energy. There was a sense that this community was about to take off. It was going to grow and change and become like nowhere else they’ve ever been. If they stayed now, they weren’t going to just be a part of it but could help shape it.
Priscilla del Canto, the daughter of Raúl del Canto and Sofía Soto, named after her grandmother, had been in love with the colors and scents of the flora and fauna of Tamaulipas since she was a small child. It was a passion she shared with her father, who took up gardening after his brush with death at sea. An only child, she wasn’t very social and liked to go off by herself on long walks, that left her family worried sick. She was an odd girl, often found wandering through the forest with flowers in her hair, talking to the insects and animals. Her grandparents could often be found in the cathedral, praying to Santa María for her well-being.
“Get your children blessed by Santa María de las Rocas” read an ad in Excélsior, a Mexico City daily. As the town grew, its residents aimed to take advantage of its natural appeal. An entire racket grew up around the Virgin with full involvement of the church. At la Catedral de Santa María, with its neoclassical façade, where the image of Santa María was kept, visitors would come to get blessed. Children came with their parents for their first communion. Newlyweds came for their honeymoon. Grandmothers came to bless their grandchildren. The sick came to be cured. The poor came to be rich. Stands in the plaza sold Holy Water and rosaries. Photographers waited outside the cathedral doors offering their services for official photos.
“Cuanto más das, mayor es la bendición,” or “The more you give, the bigger the blessing,” read a sign on the donation box.
Around town he was known as El Tortuguero, or the Turtle Catcher. He was born into a line of Malpucano hunters and it was said he was once stranded for weeks on an island as a child and drank turtle blood to stay alive. His attachment to them was more than sustenance. He would dream of them. Of being one of them. Swimming across the ocean. Pulling himself on the beach with all his strength, laying his eggs. When he awoke, he knew where to find them. Where to find their eggs. He dreamed of them coming here after the bay was formed and followed them. Loras, verdes, careys and caguamas. There were plenty, but he took only what he needed. In a thatched hut near the beach, tourists would take photos with him as he was salting and drying the meat or cooking it right in a turned over shell set over a fire.
When lovers join
In the falls of above
They say they’ll never
Lose their love
Beyond the shores
Of Cascadas Cien Amores
If you’re ill
Your head or heart
Touch the mist
The airs apart
Come heal your sores
In Cascadas Cien Amores
Escape with us
Near to the sea
Within the trees
The birds and bees
And hear the roar
Of Cascadas Cien Amores
The revolution is over
Its run its course
The time is now
To make your choice
You can find your cure
At Cascadas Cien Amores
Sing our song
Of love and life
Of dreams and hope
Of time and scope
And open the door
To Cascadas Cien Amores
Headmistress González expected the young girls of Santa María to live by the example of the Virgin. They were taught to be refined and loyal. To never speak when not spoken to. To do their solemnly duties with grace and dignity. They were expected to earn the respect of their future husbands and carry a considerable burden. They learned to cook and to sew; to read and write; to care for their family’s finances. And, most importantly, to have proper hygiene, and serve their husbands every whim and desire. The headmistress was not shy about taking out a belt when warranted, which was not an intermittent occurrence.
“Fear God’s wrath,” she was often heard saying to the girls.
For the young men in Santa María, reading and writing were secondary to contributing to their household chores, as there was much work to be done in the fields. They were expected to be productive, even in their youth. To do hard labor and support their families. Indigenous boys, many who wandered to the village alone, children without homes that lived in the forest, were forced to speak Spanish and forget the sorcery of their ancestors. To believe in Christ all mighty, the only true God. Many of them disappeared back into the woods, at least that’s what the teachers said, though who really knows for sure. Those who stayed were broken down and rebuilt into young gentlemen that could build a household virtuously.
Even before the revolution came to a close, the women of Santa María felt liberated. Lacking the complex social stratosphere of Mexico City or even Monterrey, there was little to hold them back and the increasing number of tourists brought in a steady stream of fresh ideas in fashion and politics. The women bobbed their hair, read La Mujer Moderna, and told tales of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. They started their own businesses, shunning the paths expected of them, of raising children and slaving away at a stove. They rode horses and trekked into the hills, discovering stone cities and dancing and drinking mezcal around fires long into the night. The men in town didn’t always approve, nor did the church, but they never relented.
“Come on boys. Santa María’s the place! They say the mezcal flows like rain and the women outnumber the men 3 to 1. There’s game to hunt and fish to catch. Strong men with smarts and good looks can live like kings in this beachside paradise. Find a nice gal to cook for you and build a life. You can learn to paint and sail. There’s no noise or car horns. No guns or loud speakers. No need to fight and divide. All are welcome, they say. It doesn’t matter who your parents were. Silver spoon or dried out gourd. That all gets left behind on the docks. You are who you are today and there’s no looking back. So, come on boys, grab your hats. The boat is ours to miss and it’s not going to wait!”
Despite Santa María’s growth, there were no roads connecting it to the rest of Mexico. While long horse journeys were an option, the majority of arrivals came by boat. It might as well have been an island.
“That’s part of the charm,” many would say.
Friends would be made, and lovers introduced on the ferry ride from Tampico, a festive atmosphere where visitors and residents would tip beers and sing songs as the warm ocean breeze tossed their hair. Yet, supply chains were unreliable. Storms could cut off the town from the rest of Mexico for weeks at a time. There were periods of weeks when the shelves in the shops would be empty and families had to ration their food supplies.
The first automobiles began to reach Santa María through narrow cattle and horse trails that winded their way through the forest, but the journey was long and perilous. The dirt paths were uneven and full of stones. Rains would turn small streams into raging rivers. Passengers were expected to get out of the car to dig and push at least a few times during the journey. There was dust and mud and it was a physically trying crossing. Yet, at only an 8-hour drive to Aldama if all went well, it was still much faster than the ferry for northbound passengers. They were willing to pay for the privilege, so the cars plodded along. The more that traveled, the clearer the path became.
An announcement was made for the impending mayoral election in the classified section of the El Porvenir newspaper out of Monterrey. The paper didn’t arrive to Santa María until five days later when a traveler left a copy in a beach front café and a waitress noticed it during a cigarette break a week later. Votes had to take place in the nearest election office, which happened to be in Ciudad Victoria, a full day’s drive. By the time anyone realized what was going on, the votes had already been tallied. Gabriel Federico Henríquez III, the 32-year-old son of a Monterrey department store owner, and the only candidate running, won with just 7 votes, the only votes cast in the election.
Mayor Henríquez didn’t live in Santa María. It wasn’t even clear if he had ever been there. Still, residents were willing to give him a chance. The population was growing steadily, yet basic services were few and far between. With the rough roads, all basic foods arrived by boat, with a generous tax added on, yet supply chains were still unreliable, forcing many to horde everything they could when it was available, leading to further shortages. Wells often ran dry, causing crops to die and water to be rationed. There was nowhere for trash and sewage to go but into the sea. People were fed up. Maybe some help from the government might be just what was needed?
PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company that had recently begun its sweep of the country, was eager to make its mark in the gulf. While more developed cities were less willing to grant access to the company without significant hand wrangling, they found someone eager to work with them in the young Mayor Henríquez. Seeing an easy sell, he reached out to their representatives directly. With no one to stop him, he was open for business, essentially giving the company free reign to do as they pleased. Santa María wasn’t even on their map yet, but the likelihood that there was oil there was quite high. Upon hearing about the results of the negotiations, a PEMEX executive was noted to have exclaimed, “Dios! This imbecile has no clue how much this is worth!”
Oil would change everything in Santa María, but no one expected it. Initially, few took notice of the drill that was set up on Playa Los Camarones, one of Santa María’s more remote beaches. It was just there one day. Standing tall and proud like a tree. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t have realized what it was. Horses outnumbered automobiles by 30 to 1, so few realized the potential of this copious black nectar that was rumored to have been lurking beneath the ground. If gold was found, forget it. All of Santa María – men, women and children – would have been panning the streams and hammering away at rocks. But oil? Just some gabacho fantasy.
Then more equipment appeared. And more equipment. Machinery flooded into town, littering the beaches and plaza. The robot invasion was upon them. There were crates of shovels to dig ditches. Enough pipes to reach Guatemala. Boxes of hard hats. Drill bits. Spools of cables. Tanks of gasoline. Barges loaded with steam and gas-powered drilling rigs. There were pumps and cranks and tanks. Whirligigs and whimmy diddles. They were big, heavy and dirty. They choked out black clouds from within their bowels and left deep tracks through the fields. They didn’t stop for anyone and just went about their business. Why did they need so many machines? What was it all for?
Every seat on the ferries were filled with roughnecks who rented every room in town. They were sold out for weeks. Somebody had bought up all of the tickets for groups of hulking men with hardened faces and tattered clothing. They clearly had a job to do. Wells were dug. Trees were cut down. Buildings were constructed. Piles of coal as tall as houses scented the air where you could once smell jocotes. There were loud booms and bangs. Orange flames rose above the treetops and fat waves of smoke blacked out the sun. No one knew anything. No one said anything. They just kept moving as if they owned the place. What was all of this? Why were these men here? Where did they come from? Who sent them?
A thousand kilometers away, a man in an office was carving up portions of Santa María to the highest bidders. There was oil in this land, and oil, by God, was in demand. They were lucky, he thought. A worthless place, full of pointless trees and impecunious Indians living in the dirt, about to have their entire world turned upside down for the better. Now there was value. Build a hotel! Build a foundry! Build a bakery! Build a mine! Make it easier for others to come and do the same. Growth is good! They will fulfill essential services and make decent scratch. Buy houses instead of building them. Buy food instead of growing it. Let others do the work and live a respectable life. An undeveloped swamp of desolation no more.
With oil flowing from Santa María, El Banco de Nuevo León in Monterrey started giving out money like candy to cunning entrepreneurs that saw their opportunity, despite their legality. With so much development occurring at once, they were insured that most would find success. Without knowledge of anyone in Santa María, the brother in law of Tamaulipas governor Horacio Aguilar was awarded a contract to build a highway to the coast. The governor, alerted to the amount of additional oil Pemex would be transferring to refineries, put money in the deal. Anonymously of course. He nudged the bank to go along with it, hinting at a bank preference for all state transactions that were to take place after the approval.
With its strategic location not too far from the U.S. border, the port was ripe for expansion. An internal memoamong executives atElBancodeNuevo León detailed how increased flow of cargo from the seafront would uplift all investments in Santa María. A nephew of one of those executives, was able to apply for the loan even before formal bidding was announced by the state. All his paperwork was in and stamped. He paid his fees and had crews en route to Santa María while competitors were still waiting on copies of the memo. Before anyone realized what was going on, his hired hands were in place to start the dredging. Complaints began to pour in and motions filed in court, but the governor’s response made clear where the state’s interest was.
“Why stop the progress?” he was quoted in the press.
Every growing town needs a newspaper, so Mexico City media magnate Juan Santiago Arellano saw that Santa María, while still small, had the perfect mix of growing population and expanding infrastructure, not to mention the unusual politics, that a newspaper would not only be critical in the development of the community, but financially significant. ElBancodeNuevoLeón agreed and lent him the money and he quickly gathered a news team, a mix of veterans and youthful recruits, eager for more responsibility. Supported by ads from the oil industry and the tourist trade, La Voz de Santa María was born. For the first edition, the front-page headline read: “The Power of Progress.”
With so much oil being pumped out of Santa María’s darkest depths on a daily basis, it needed a way to get to the refineries in the south quickly. PEMEX built a rail line over the Sierra Madre, cutting through a rare patch of cloud forest at its highest part. A rich biome full of wonderous creatures like black bears and tayra whose habitat had yet to be studied. A group of biologists at the Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo Leon were up in arms with the act, but there were so few people familiar with the landscape that it didn’t go anywhere. Within a year, coal powered trains followed by a chain of tank cars were humming back and forth to Ciudad Madero, leaving a trail of smoke rings that floated up to the heavens.
In what had been a rural backwater with few cars and formal constructions, a rustic hamlet where humans and nature intermingled peacefully, Santa María quickly began to resemble a modern Mexican city. It could have been some town near Guadalajara or Puebla. Electric lines appeared, connected to the grid through the luckless communities that sprang up on the maze of uneven roads that penetrated through the matorral. In the center, a neat grid of streets appeared, adorned with street lights and sidewalks. The buildings around the plaza, home to banks, tailors and the offices of oil executives, were expanded and completely renovated. On the shore, a boardwalk was added, and the mangroves were chopped up to expand the beaches.
Colossal storage tanks were scattered across town to hold all of the oil that was being extracted as it awaited shipment. Authoritative edifices that no one could go near unless they had a PEMEX badge, lingering in the background like shadowy hills. They were symbols of the riches being discovered in this enchanted land, but where was it all going? Once it is loaded up and sent away, how much of that wealth will come back to Santa María? Who gets that money? Will any of it get reinvested here? Or at the very least used to clean up some the mess they made? Despite what the brochures want you to believe, it’s not all sunshine and mermaids in this part of the gulf.
Santa María soon stretched far from the coast and into the hills. The original core of the town became known as the Barrio Antiguo, though it wasn’t really that old. On what was once the outskirts of town, where you would find a tangled mess of ranchos interwoven with patches of trees and scrub, Santa María Nueva began. There was space here to spread out and spread out they did. Shovels dug into the earth, forming it to anyone’s liking. The town’s isolation was quickly disintegrating. Satellite villages appeared, clusters of downtrodden homes and basic services, radiating around the heart of town in every direction. Roads shot out from all sides, arteries of development that spawned new branches, which spawned new branches and new branches upon those, forming a vast complex of streets.
While it took several years longer than expected, and the construction was rife with fraud and mismanagement, the highway from Santa María on the coast to Ciudad Victoria in the interior, shaved the travel time to just a few hours. In the process, the landscape in this corner of Tamaulipas was completely, and utterly transformed. This road was not just a place for a cars and buses to travel, but an invitation for development along its entirety. The harsh topography that once defined it was getting paved over with concrete. Clusters of houses and restaurants and shops emerged. They popped up one by one at first, but eventually formed a long chain of human habitation, dividing the state in two.
This new era of the automobile brought a much greater flow of traffic to Santa María. To support these machines, gas stations had to be built. And garages opened to fix tires and gaskets. And car dealerships opened. Then used car dealerships. Crews were needed to repair the roads. More inns needed to be constructed to host the influx of visitors. Staff had to be brought in to clean the rooms and work the desks and quarters needed to be built to host them. Some of the intimacy of being reliant on Santa María time dissipated. There was less indecision on coming and going. Little was left to chance.
“There’s oil in the fields. Oil on the beaches. What’s next? Oil from the sky?”
“If we are lucky, Señor Camacho.”
“That’s what you and your bosses in Monterrey don’t understand. People live in Santa María. This is our home. We grew up here. We like it here.”
“You like how the stench of your toilets finds its way into the ocean? You like the shelves in the shops empty of goods?”
“Every place has its problems. Are you telling me Monterrey is paradise?”
“At least if there’s a fire, the bomberos have a road to drive on rather than having the entire town burn down.”
“Let the people decide, then. Everyone, do you want to live in a place with clean air and ocean to swim in, or do you prefer black poison running through your veins?
“There you have it, amigo.”
“I’m not your amigo.”
“I know you aren’t”
Despite the doubts of a few, a new era of Santa María was initiated. Most welcomed the progress. No one was worried about having enough food to eat. There were doctors and hospitals to care for the sick. Things were much easier than they once were. No one was stuck here. They could go places! With ease. They could drive to other towns and cities. New ideas flowed in and out. The city was more connected to the world at large than ever before. Santa María started to look like other cities too. It had many of the same shops and restaurants. On some streets, it was hard to tell it apart from anywhere else.
The residents of Santa María, known as Santa Marianos or just Marianos, were considered to be educated and dignified. Oil and tourism brought great wealth to the city, drastically changing the demographics. Young professional moved there in droves. This was the land of opportunity. You could get a good job with a salary equal to what you might earn in the Distrito Federal, while the cost of housing was still quite low comparatively, at least away from the beach. Trained specialists were needed to design buildings, manage staff and file contracts. There was no more mañana, only today. The new residents were more productive, more efficient and they knew how to get things done.
Marianos also knew how to have fun. They were youthful and flush with cash and wanted to spend it. They picnicked in the hills and rowed fishing boats to uninhabited islands. Without families to care for, they liked to drink and dance late into the night. Bars and beach cafés opened along the shoreline and there seemed to be a party every night of the week. They listened to jazz and smoked grass and talked about the universe. They slept with tourists and convinced them to stay around for another week or maybe a lifetime. They were wild and carefree. The world was their oyster (and they ate those too).
The sprawling mansions of oil executives, doctors and businessmen overtook every last empty stretch of undeveloped beachfront outside of Santa María. Many of them lived in Monterrey or elsewhere in the interior and came only on the weekends. Or holidays. And some had so much money and so many other houses that they didn’t really come at all. They complained about all of the turtles that dug holes and left egg shells on their private waterfront each April. Late at nights, unbeknownst to anyone else, they released packs of hungry dogs on the beaches to chase them off. Within two years, the turtles had disappeared completely.
Education soon became on par with the finest schools in Mexico. No longer in the hands of the Catholic church, schools in Santa María quickly modernized. Teachers were brought in from wealthy neighborhoods in the Distrito Federal and in little more than a decade, the literacy rate rose from roughly ten percent of the population to seventy percent. Funding was established so students could compete in dozens of extracurricular activities, not just fútbol, but also basketball, sailing and fencing. Families no longer needed to send their children away for their secondary education, allowing families to stay together and build a life in this vacation paradise. It allowed the city to depend less on seasonal residents and become more of a year-round destination.
Despite all of the good things that came with progress, of how carefree life had become, there was a sense that something dark was lurking underfoot. No, not Dracula. That would be too easy. It was something less obvious. Just a feeling that something was not quite right. Something off balance. Few were able to actualize these fears. As long as things kept moving forward, as long as the money kept coming in, as long as new roads and buildings were being built, the people of Santa María swatted away their concerns as if they were mosquitoes. Life here was rich and fulfilling. If they weren’t getting bit, no bump to itch or dengue to treat, then why worry?
“I’ve loved you since the moment I saw you on the beach. With your red bathing suit with the polka dots.”
“But you were with her then.”
“Only because I had not met you yet.”
“But you kept going back to her.”
“You didn’t want me. I tried and tried.”
“You should have been more patient.”
“Your father told me to stay away from the farm. To stay away from you. He pointed a gun at me.”
“So, you are afraid of guns now?”
“I’m not afraid of anything. You have seen what I can do.”
“Don’t speak so loud. Someone might hear you. They are looking for you.”
Some did know what was going on. They knew where the paper trail went. They knew that nearly everything that was created here, wasn’t really owned by them. If they said something, they would miss out too. When people began to question reality, arguments broke out, but they maintained their silence. They knew what was going to happen, though not necessarily when. They knew those with the authority would use that power to enrich themselves. It was only a matter of time. Those in power didn’t care about the farmers and fishermen. The clerk at the inn or the cook in the cantina. They were just pawns in someone else’s long game. It was theirs to lose, but the game had been rigged the entire time.
Shady characters started to gravitate to this bustling coastal town. They seemingly crawled out of the woodwork like termites. They came quietly at first, and everyone accepted them just as any other visitors, but it was soon apparent that they had no business being here other than to spread hate. An actual Nazi of German-Mexican heritage, Reynaldo von Bismarck, came to Santa María alongside German actress Hilda Krüger, but stayed long after. He was often seen harassing beachgoers or shouting anti-Semitic statements from a bar stool with a pint in his hand. He made a point of showing up to every municipal meeting spouting Nazi propaganda. Each time he was escorted out, shrieking and brawling.
Daniel Flores was eccentric, they said. He was the heir of a railroad magnate some claimed. Others said he lived in Paris for a time. Rumors were that he preferred the company of men. When he purchased a rocky islet off of Playa Tortugas, most assumed he was mad, yet an architect in Mexico City was able to design a structurally sound and aesthetically pleasing domicile for him, as well as facilities for his collection of exotic pets. Flores could often be seen drinking wine on the balconies or bathing in the clear, shallow waters that separated the island from the mainland. He was mysterious, but there were only pleasant things to say about interactions with him.
Flores kept to himself mostly, but late-night visitors could occasionally be seen on small boats paddling to the house through the moonlight. Most of them were other eccentrics from parts unknown. Early one morning, a man was fishing for mojarra 100 meters from the shore and thought he heard a gunshot coming from the island. He noticed shadowy figures paddling to shore and he went into town to report the incident. When the police arrived, they found Mr. Flores’ mutilated body in the lion cage. The official report was that he was killed by the lion, however, that didn’t explain the gunshot that the fishermen heard or the people in the boat. Many doubted the claim.
As Santa María was still grappling with the sudden death of Mr. Flores, hundreds of families in dilapidated oceanfront communities were evicted from their homes. Their belongings were piled in the streets or being dragged across town by mules. Confusion set in. Why was this happening? Why now? Their houses were too close together. Or they were made of mud bricks and thatched roofs and were considered not up to code. Or they did not have the proper paperwork. Entire neighborhoods were cleared out and residents were left homeless. There was no debate about their rights. They were squatters, the bank said. Someone else owned the rights to all of this property.
“Sirs, our families settled this land!”
“But, did you file a legal claim to it with the Office of Land Management in Ciudad Victoria?”
“Well, someone else has.”
Amidst the controversy, the oil companies and new landowners, stepped in to flaunt their power. They sent in bulldozers and demolition crews to clear the tangled network of homes and paid off the Federales to quash any attempts to stop them. They were unarmed peasants, working odd jobs that no one else would take and living in crowded homes, clinging to their few possessions. To those that now claimed the land, they were léperos. El pueblo bajo. Stories were planted in La Voz de Santa María about how they spread diseases, stole and raped. There was no reason to expose any children to their pitiful state. It was a matter of public safety to ensure they were removed from this community as swiftly as possible.
Naval boats were stationed offshore in case things got out of hand. A curfew was established after dark until things calmed down. Sailors loitered in the streets, drinking heavily and being belligerent. The revolution was long gone. World War II had come to pass. They missed out on action and were hungry for conflict. Eager to throw their weight around, they acted aggressively to anyone that seemed like they shouldn’t be there. They shouted, shoved, screamed, yelled, elbowed, bullied, spit, teased and threatened. Unwarranted hullabaloo. Even perfectly legitimate routine walks by residents were likely to be interrupted. It was an uncomfortable situation all around. It couldn’t go on like this forever. Something had to give.
Somewhere, by someone, shots are fired. Violence in the streets. Statues are toppled. Bricks are tossed. The sound of breaking glass.
The dried palms on thatched roof houses are the perfect kindling. They burn and burn. In seconds the flames reach the treetops. Black smoke fills the air.
Crowds of people running. Shouting. There’s tussling. Struggling. Some knocked to the ground and trampled on.
In the sky above three red-crowned parrots holler in unison: “Heeeyo, cra-cra-cra. Heeeyo, cra-cra-cra.”
Is there anywhere safe? Somewhere to go? Into the wilderness? Into the sea?
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Bullet holes in the cathedral walls.
Thunder and lightning.
Wind and rain.
Blood stained sand.
“Who’s side are you on? You have to choose young man. There are those that take and those that have. Some say you have to take to have or else you will never have nothing. Others say the more you have the more you get. Which one are you? Do you have the land? Is it yours? Rightfully yours? Or did you take it? Was it yours to take? This place is wild. This place is free. But not free for all. We either live in peace or we live in chaos. Which way do you want it to be? Which side do you want to fight on? Pick up your gun. Pick up your hat. Your time has come. You’re not too young. They need you, young man. Which side are you on? You must choose. You must fight. Fight for your land. The place you deserve.”
When the army arrived, you could cut the tension with a knife. There were tanks and machine guns everywhere one turned. Sharpshooters on buildings peered from above. Armed guards at every doorway. It was an atmosphere of fear and intimidation. Whispers in dark rooms. Gun shots were often heard in the distance. People disappeared. Dozens of them. No one knew where they went. Just gone. Never to be seen again.
Some families that had lived through the revolution headed for the hills.
“Not this again,” they said.
They were tired of threats and guns. Surely some place must be safe. They could find somewhere else to go. A cousin somewhere. Into the mountains. A cooler climate. Over the border. Anywhere but here.
Others held on to hope that Santa María would become the place that it was. The place that they dreamed it could be. They hoped that there was still some magic left here.
Even before the violence fully dissipated, those that purchased the prime oceanfront property that had been forcibly vacated began to reveal themselves. Teams of architects and contractors arrived to develop the ample swaths of vacated land into beach hotels. There were four of them that would be constructed, all side by side and opening within a year of each other. For Santa María, still quite small and off the radar, these lavish structures were quite out of the ordinary. They had extravagant lobbies lined with marble floors and ballrooms for extravagant parties and dancing. There were crystalline pools and suites decorated with Italian furnishings. With the new highway there was a seemingly an endless parade of new travelers looking to indulge in them, opening up hundreds of new opportunities for employment.
During World War II, the 201st Mexican Fighter Squadron, popularly known as the Aztec Eagles, fought along the U.S. Army Air Forces in the Philippines to much applause. Lt. Jesús Carrillo, who left as an aviation instructor, a single father caring for his two daughters, returned as a war hero. Tales of his deeds flying a P-47 Thunderbolt as he and his squadron dive bombed the port of Karenko flooded Mexican newspapers. Wherever he went there was someone with a camera wanting to take a photo with him. He obliged, but it made him uncomfortable. After experiencing the horrors of war, he didn’t want to celebrate them. He immediately retired from flying and came to Santa María seeking some tranquility for he and his girls. He bought a sportfishing boat and started taking tourists out to catch tarpons and blue marlin.
Raymundo Romero Vázquez, grew up the only son of farmers in San Luis Potosí. After a severe drought, the family fell on hard times andhe moved in with his aunt, the famed singer Paulina Peña. Lonely, wealthy and in between marriages, she treated him like a Prince. He went to the finest schools and had his every need catered to by a team of servants. Well-traveled, he voyaged on steamships to America and Europe and learned to speak four languages fluently. In his early 20s, after university, he took a job at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, just off the zocalo, the grandest of the era. Dapper and well spoken, he hobnobbed with the most glamourous of guests. While hesitant to leave the city, he accepted a promotion as the general manager of a new resort on the coast.
After nearly a decade entrenched in her work at an arboretum near Monterrey, Priscilla del Canto returned home to care for her ailing mother, who was dying with a respiratory disease that local doctors could not quite identify. As she lay dying, she told her daughter she could see the Virgin. She was telling her that it was her time. She said she was following her and then her heart stopped, and Priscilla could sense her soul leaving her mother’s frail body. After the funeral, she decided to stay and help out her father with his garden, and took a job preparing the flower arrangements for all of the new hotels and she was good at it. She often ventured deep into the eastern flank of the Sierra Madre Oriental to seek out maidenhair ferns and rare black orchids.
It was a monarch butterfly that first drew the attention of Priscilla to Raymundo. He watched as it fluttered across the main dining room of the Gran Hotel Santa María and landed right on a bright red zinnia in a pot that she was carrying. She smiled and kept walking, as if she knew the creature. It stayed on the flower and drew nectar from it as she continued on and Raymundo, clearly enchanted, followed her into the lobby and introduced himself. At first, she was unsure about the advances of this smooth talking, debonair gentleman that talked of high society and far off places, but when his humble upbringing disclosed itself, she could not resist any longer.
“You are from the same place as my father. He has always spoken highly of the people of San Luis Potosí, though I have never had the pleasure of visiting. He always wished to return. He left so poor, you know? So suddenly, so long ago. He has dreams about it. Sometimes they are my dreams too. And out walks you. So charismatic. So intelligent. A head full of amusing ideas. Strong, confidant and charming. You are not like the men from here. Or anywhere I’ve been for that matter. It’s as if a flying saucer landed and you got off. What planet did you fly away from my darling? It must be lovely. I’d like nothing more than to know it.”
“What brilliant God made you, you strange and beautiful being. I’ve traveled the seven seas, seen the spires of Notre Dame and strolled the Spanish Stairs, but never have I seen anything quite so enchanting. You remind me of someone from long ago. Is it my mother’s piercing gaze? Quiet, but unafraid. With it, you can see deep down to the depths of my soul. Beyond the suits and shiny shoes. Beyond the gossip and charisma, but the real me. Frightened and lonely. Vulnerable. Wanting nothing more than to be loved. I won’t disappoint you my dear. I’ll be there with you, by your side, until your dying days.”
They were young and in love. Deeply, madly, rapturously in love. A forest of love. Oceans of love. Time no longer existed. There was only time together and when they weren’t together knowledge of the existence of the other consumed their thoughts as if they were still there. The world kept spinning, but they took no notice. That’s the kind of love they had. A love they never expected could be possible but made their lives complete. Within a year, they were married. There was never a doubt. Soon after, they bought a plot of land on the waterfront and built a small home.
Within months of getting married, Priscilla became pregnant. Already well older than most of the young mothers and fathers in Santa María, where it wasn’t uncommon for teenagers to have children, this baby could not have arrived any sooner. Horacio was a big baby, 3.7 kilos, and welcomed into the world with open arms by his parents. Whether through pure luck or the pure wizardry of the universe, they were fortunate to have been bestowed with an abundance of love and they wanted to share it with him. From a young age, Horacio traveled, visiting family and friends in San Luis Potosí and Guadalajara. He was taught how to become enamored with the world around him. To love the flowers and insects in his mother’s garden. The perfection of the tablecloths of the hotel’s dining room. The sound of the waves crashing into the rocks.
Word began to spread about Santa María’s collection of hotels. The price and quality were far superior than anywhere else in northeast Mexico. Newspapers across the country hailed it as the “Acapulco of the North,” as if they had completely forgotten about the violent uprisings of years past that led to the hotels being built in the first place. Reporters raved about local foods like salpicón de jaiba and carne a la Tampiqueña. They applauded the warm waters and swaying palm trees. There was special attention to the immaculate flower collections in the lobbies too. As more and more visitors came, more hotels opened, and they began to expand their offerings to stand out.
Seeing how guests needing a break from the sun and sand were often looking for things to do, locals began offering different excursions from Santa María. There were sailing lessons and boat rides through the lagoons to look for birds and other wildlife. Oddly enough, the favorite daytrip was the mule treks into the mountains to the south. The mostly urban travelers from cities like Monterrey and San Luis Potosí wanted to experience “The Real Mexico,” they liked to call it. While rapid development had caused those living by traditional means to adapt decades ago, the rustic nature of the lives of ranchers and muleteers in nearby villages still retained those sought-after qualities.
Elegant ballrooms and meeting facilities were necessary amenities on many of the hotels. Advertisements were purchased in newspapers and magazines throughout northern Mexico by the Santa María hotel association, mentioning package deals for major life events like weddings, anniversaries and birthdays that included use of the hotel’s full range of amenities. Soon after, there were conventions of commercial tortilla manufacturers and retreats for the Society of Mexican Ophthalmologists, among other groups. At first there would be waves of groups. They would come, and they would go. Then the waves stopped cresting and town was always full of people, no matter the day or the season, testing the limits of just how much the infrastructure could take.
Whensupermarket heir Alonso Wang had a lavish wedding at the Hotel Waikiki, the tabloids, many of which were sold in his family’s stores, had a field day. Mexican high society was out in full force. Everyone from wealthy entrepreneurs and senators to athletes and opera singers was there. Unbeknownst to the media, Wang was the 60 percent owner of the Waikiki, as well as an investor in two others and this wedding was as much as an advertisement as it was for the love of his bride. Regardless, everyone in Mexico began to associate Santa María hotels with fame and excess. Everyone wanted to come.
Most of the resorts in Santa María tried to maintain a family friendly atmosphere. They offered adjoining rooms with space for caretakers, so parents could have their privacy. They could set up birthday parties with towering cakes, clowns and balloons, and childcare specialists to play games, helping release the excess energy of excited kids. There were beach cabanas filled with toys and bracelets, plus huts with monkeys and parrots to take photos with. There were theaters with puppet shows and parks with games and water slides. Butterfly houses, museums and zoos were opened up around town, while roving vendors could be found selling sugary sweets like churros and chocolate candies almost anywhere one went.
There was an element of traveler, especially those from the north, the ones from beyond the Rio Grande, who thought of Santa María more as the Tijuana of the Gulf. To them, the sainted beach town was thought of as debaucherous. There was gambling and prostitutes. Jazz clubs and opium dens. A place built by criminals, by the corrupt. Where hired guns could be overheard chatting drunkenly with smugglers at the bar. Where fortunes were gained, and fortunes were lost. Where the discos never closed, and the Champagne flowed like a river. The hotels didn’t necessarily choose between which type of traveler they were for, so they tried to cater to them all, leading to some awkward situations on the walk to the breakfast table.
Theme nights commonly occurred at Santa María hotels. Not just for holidays, but for full moons or to celebrate the summer or winter solstice. They were reason enough for those with means to drink more, to dance more. To lose their inhibitions while staff was there to cater to their every need. They went all out for entertainment, bringing in musical acts and dance troupes from Mexico City. A young magician, Horacio Vázquez, little more than a boy, was given access to perform through his father who happened to run the hotel. He called himself Horacio the Magnificent and did card tricks and turned forks into spoons to the delighted guests who threw money at him in their alcoholic stupor. He became the star of the show.
Nothing did so much as change the aesthetic of Santa María as much as the airport. With so much demand from around Mexico, it made sense to expand the infrastructure. Why should the people of Mérida or Guadalajara, not to mention those in California or New York, not have a chance to visit? They had money to spend and everyone likes money. Don’t they? There was a plot of land to the southwest of town, just some peasants with their corn and beans, that could land an airliner there with ease. Alonso Wang had the will and El Banco de Nuevo León was there for support. The Aeropuerto Internacional de Santa María de las Rocas was inaugurated with three weekly DC-4 Aeromexico flights to Mexico City and Monterrey, but quickly expanded to include flights to cities throughout Mexico, as well as to Houston, Los Angeles and Miami.
Viva Santa María, a Hollywood romance starring American actress Henrietta Hawks and Mexican actor Diego Infante, told the story of the unlikely love of a humble fisherman and famed singer who comes to the isolated coastal community to escape after a series of career and personal mishaps. Upon arrival, frightened by critters like snakes and bats, she questioned her reasoning for coming, but the bite of a local pastry and the warmth of the people allowed her to finally find some peace. The filming itself caused quite the uproar around town. Nearly every hotel room and restaurant table were full of actors and crew members. The plaza, the cathedral, the beaches and an uninhabited island were used as settings, while locals were used as extras and in small speaking roles, including the young magician, Horacio, whose scene was key in uniting the star-crossed lovers, which upped his appearance fee significantly.
While the film was critically panned, it was commercially successful and attracted a vast new set of travelers to Santa María. Burbank, California based director Ronald Katzman spoke about the experience of filming in the little-known Mexican beach town on the late-night talk show Tonight Starring Steve Allen.
“It was a paradise to film,” he explained to Mr. Allen. “We could have gone some place more glamorous, like Acapulco or Havana, but Santa María had this rustic charm that we would not have been able to manufacture. The plazas, the churches, the lagoons. They aren’t sets we could have designed. We told locals that appeared to just be themselves and they were just phenomenal, absolutely extraordinary, just the way they were.”
While the film portrayed Santa María as a secluded beach paradise, a place lost in time, only pieces of its original charm actually remained. It had been systematically carved up by highways, oil fields and hotels years prior. Still, travelers flooded the city for years to come because of the idea of it that they enjoyed in the film, gravitating to the few vestiges of the city’s earlier days. As demand increased significantly, it gave the hotels the opportunity to add suites and increase their base rates, attracting a more exclusive, wealthier clientele. The international jet set descended on Santa María and on any given day you could find models posing somewhere in town for a fashion shoot or some extravagant happening being held on one of the beaches.
In the dead of summer, in the scorching heat of the early afternoon, so hot that not even the birds would tweet, Roberto Quiñones and Abraham Chávez noticed a dead boar on the plaza. Right in the center, beside the cathedral, in front of the fountain. It was rotting in the sun. They could see that maggots were starting to eat it from the inside out. How long had it been there? The vultures wouldn’t even touch it. How did it die? It wasn’t bloody. There did not seem to be any bite marks or wounds. It wasn’t thin or full of mange. It was an adult, but not elderly. You could tell because the teeth on its lower jaw were not worn down. It seemed like a perfectly healthy boar. What brought it here? What did it mean? It baffled them. They should probably tell someone about it, but they had a lunch to get to.
Seeing an opportunity, the municipality, and later the entire town, started to take advantage of this quaint idea of Santa María that many were imagining. Old stones walls were purchased and dismantled from colonial villages in southern Mexico, transported by ship and reassembled in strategic locations throughout town. Two Zapotec women were hired to grind corn on metetes made from river stones in front of a plaza facing restaurant to entice visitors inside. Artists were hired to paint the old wooden fishing boats in the harbor in bright colors. Small children started to dress up in the traditional garb that was featured in the movie and would adorably pester tourists to take photos of them, then demand money from them.
Other things were pure fantasy. There were some old stone ruins overgrown with vines and cacti about 3 kilometers from town. They were likely all that was left of a long-abandoned rancho from the late eighteenth century. Nothing important, but with a little imagination they became an eleventh century Toltec temple. Stones were piled on top to create a central staircase and exterior walls featured stucco allegedly painted with blood (though it was actually just cochineal). Fake Mayan statues were passed off as authentic Huasteca ones and placed on the top of the structure. After a few months, owners set up daily preparation of cochinita pibil to the side of the temple, so package tours with lunch and transportation raised the net profits by 220 percent.
“If you give them enough tequila, they’ll believe anything,” one of the guides was quoted as saying.
Then there were the dulces de guamúchil. In the film, the lead actress tastes a candy made from guamúchiles, a tropical tamarind like pod fruit with a sweet and bitter flavor, that sends her into a nostalgic trip through her childhood. However, only the white guamúchil could be found anywhere close to Santa María, while it was the red guamúchil that was specifically mentioned in the movie. That didn’t stop a small sweet shop, Pastelería Suzanna, named after the character, from hauling it in from Sinaloa while saying it came from the hills of Tamaulipas. They sold a similar candy to the one featured, as well as guamúchil ice cream and paletas. They claimed to have been using the same recipe since they opened and a sign on the wall stated, “Since 1915.” While the impossibility of all of this being real was obvious, no one ever questioned it. Or maybe they just didn’t care?
As the hotel business boomed, Raymundo was doing quite well financially. Not to mention that his son, still a teenager, was nearly making as much money as he was as a magician. He purchased a property that was just an hour by car to the northwest, a wild terrain, untouched by Santa María’s ongoing sprawl. He overheard a man at the bank mention it at the hotel bar, pushed a couple of martinis in his direction and by the end of the night the papers were signed. This is what his wife had long desired, especially since her father died. It would be a place for the family, surrounded by nature, far from the chaos that had engulfed the town. There would be a garden for her to grow her flowers, aside of space for a few animals and plots papayas and corn for them to tend to in their old age. They would go on the weekends and holidays at first, but gradually make it their permanent home.
This is one of the last photos taken of Priscilla and Raymundo. There they are, standing beside their thriving fields of agave, so delighted with the way their lives had so unexpectedly turned out. They had just got electricity hooked up and a well-constructed at the rancho. It was beginning to feel like a homestead, and not just an empty field devoid of life. The bleating and neighing of the livestock filled the air. Their manure was used to fertilize the crops. Things were growing and blossoming. Bees and butterflies had appeared, followed by the singing quails and red spotted toads. There was life there, different species all dependent on one another, and shepherded along by the sheer force of the boundless love of one couple.
A year later, they were driving back from the rancho when it began to rain. Not just sprinkling but pouring. Thick, heavy rain you could cut with a machete. The mud became so thick that the car would no longer move. The rain became so thick that they couldn’t see out of the windows. As they waited for the storm to pass, the normally tranquil Río Soto overflowed its banks and a wall of water came their way, sweeping the car into nothingness. It was never found. Some say it was swept out to sea. Or it could have been buried in the mud. For those that knew them, however, the consensus was, with little doubt, that angels came down from the heavens and carried the pair away.
Their son, Horacio, moved in with his bachelor uncle from San Luis Potosí, Pablo Romero Vázquez, who his father got a job at the casino a couple of years before. He was a shy and awkward man, who spoke very little. He worked most nights until very late and slept through most days. He wasn’t much support for heartbroken Horacio, who was essentially self-sufficient at this point in his life. Not knowing what else to do, Horacio put his feelings in a box and buried the key deep inside him. He focused on his craft. The art of magic became spiritual to him. All they he had left went into reading about the greatest magicians, such as Harry Houdini and Howard Thurston. He worked on elaborate tricks, things he earlier didn’t think were possible, maybe they weren’t possible, to fill the hollow space inside of him.
Horacio inherited his parent’s pets and he did his best to take care of them in the way his mother and father would have wanted. They had both loved the dog immensely and they treated him like a son. They named him Pollito, because as a puppy he would spend hours and hours chasing the chickens at the farm. After his parents disappeared, he just sat by the door all day long, waiting for them to come home. He didn’t eat. He slept by the door. He whimpered from time to time and nervously wagged his tail whenever he heard a noise. Then one day, during some heavy rains, a gust of wind swung the door open and Pollito ran out as fast as he could in one direction like he knew exactly where he was going. He was never seen again.
His parent’s cat, Tigre, loved Pollito more than anything in the world. She would follow him around everywhere. She would follow the chickens he chased around and hiss at them if they pecked at him or got to close. Her favorite place to lay was beside Pollito and she could often be found sleeping cuddled between his legs. She would lick him and clean his fur as if he was her enormous kitten. She loved Pollito deeply, far more than the hands that fed her. When he was sad, it was almost too much for her to bear. When Pollito ran out and didn’t return home she just laid beside a magazine cover with the image of a dog, which looked nothing like Pollito, and stared at it.
More complicated feats such as escape and illusion became the focus of Horacio’s work going forward. For his first significant act, he had spectators on the beach wrap a chain around him, including around his hands behind his back, and lock it with a padlock. He then stepped inside of a wooden crate and had an assistant nail it shut. Onlookers were shouting at him not to do it. “He’s going to die!” one gasped. The crate was quiet for a few minutes and the audience, which had grown to dozens of people, was increasingly nervous of his fate. The air was tense, and some couldn’t look, assuming he was likely dying inside. Just as a man approached to bust it up, the crate started to move, and the magician busted his way out of the top of it. The crowd was stunned momentarily. Stupefied. Perplexed. An eerie silence soon gave way to thunderous applause.
Inside Dorado Textil, a small factory that supplied the local hospitality industry, there was a celebration among employees for a record year. The women, many of them single mothers or heads of households, grinded out long hours to meet excessive deadlines. Hundreds and hundreds of linens and curtains, thousands and thousands of handkerchiefs and tablecloths.
These women were more productive than any textile manufacturer in all of Mexico, their supervisor told them, though no one was sure if he was being truthful. Still, they appreciated the sentiment as they were pushed to the limits of their physical capabilities.
“You’ve done swell gals. Really swell. There’s more work to do tomorrow, but tonight it’s time for a drink,” he said as he raised his glass.
“All right. All right. Let’s calm down in here,” said the executives on the other side of the room. “We’ve done well thus far, but the orders are getting bigger and bigger. If you thought the work was demanding, it’s about to get more difficult. We need to expand, to add a bigger crew. We need more experience to compete and need to cut our costs or we’ll all be out of a job. All pay increases are frozen, for the months ahead. Don’t get too comfortable. No one’s role is safe at this mill. There are uniforms to sew and aprons to embroider. Don’t rest. Don’t stop. Don’t catch your breath. If you can’t keep up, we’ll get someone new. And if you can’t deal with that than there’s the door.”
As beachfront hotels became more and more exclusive, they sealed off their stretches of waterfront. Armed guards roamed the premises, walking out, sometimes rather assertively, anyone that didn’t belong. Or even just seemed like they didn’t belong. Locals were no longer welcome, even if their cousins or spouses or mothers worked at the hotel. The beaches were for paying guests, which supported the local economy, though mostly just lined the pockets of banks and businessmen in Mexico City, a world away. They were all private. No longer Santa María’s beaches. If local residents wanted to swim in the ocean, they were forced to go further and further away from town, to the wilder, more remote stretches, narrow sandbars full of driftwood and plastic, until even those were developed.
It didn’t matter how much the community grew and changed. Longtime residents put up with it, as many of them were making money too. As long as it was a place to be for the well to do, la gente nice, people were clawing and fighting their way to get there. The actor and crooner Jorge Rodríguez was one of the first but certainly not the last major stars to buy a home there, the old house on the islet off of Playa Tortugas, of which the murky history was wiped clean well before. He had a pier built to it, which divided the beach in half, a major inconvenience to boats and beachgoers, though who would want to be the one to scare off beloved celebrity Jorge Rodríguez?
Horacio had endless opportunities for appearances. Most of the time it was easy. Not so much the craft of magic, but just showing up and doing a few cards tricks. Finding a peso in someone’s sock. Pulling an iguana out of a hat. He was the talk of the town. The little boy from the movie, now all grown up, doing more daring, more unbelievable stunts and building a portfolio. He was invited to every party. While Santa María was brimming with celebrities, he was homegrown. He danced with and bedded the prettiest girls. Most of them were just there for the week and he’d never see them again.
“Sure, I’ll come visit you,” he’d tell them, before moving on to next week’s girl.
He was the man everyone wanted on their team. Tall and good looking. The life of the party. He knew every punchline and was always the center of attention. He knew how to cut up a room. To change its energy. To get the people on their feet and wear their hearts on their sleeve. He was riding a wave that was hard not to appreciate. Sex, money and booze were all at arm’s length whenever he wanted them. Who wouldn’t want that? Inside, however, he was lonely. There was no amount of magic that could change that. No amount of clapping or cheers. No one night stand. No gringa rubia. There was an underlying sadness, a vulnerability that was attractive to the women that came to town, yet it wasn’t enough. He had a hole that couldn’t be filled.
While pleased that hotels in town were routinely sold out, even as they commanded high prices, the local association business owners were disappointed. If there were no rooms left and there were still people that wanted to stay, that meant they were missing opportunities. When they gathered, they drank beer and talked, talked and drank beer. There needed to be even more rooms. And more rooms. And still more rooms. Let’s annex some land for the hotels. Get rid of some houses. Let’s build up too. The sky is the limit. Fifteen floors high. Don’t fear the earthquakes. We’ll build them strong. Let’s open campgrounds too. And how about a marina? The largest south of the border. There will be room for hundreds of yachts. The most luxurious boats in the gulf will make Santa María their port of choice.
“I never thought we would be able to spend our honeymoon in Santa María my love. How lovely it is. I feel just like a movie star.”
“If you want the moon, I’ll pull it down with a lasso. There’s no place too good for you, my love.”
“But how can we afford it? It must have cost a fortune. Your boss comes here. One of the girls in the salon said that Clark Gable was in town this week. Just drinking at the bar with a swarm of girls.”
“Don’t worry. It wasn’t nearly as much as you might think.”
“I am worried. We’re not rich. We have bills to pay.”
“There are new wings at all of the hotels. They keep adding rooms and can’t always fill them up. They are just as good as the old ones. The guy on the phone told me no one knows the difference.”
“That’s a relief. I’m going to tell my sister and the girls from work about it. They’ll all want to come.”
Word got out about how affordable the once unaffordable resort town of Santa María had become and tourists arrived by the bus load from all over northern and Central Mexico and the southern U.S. They weren’t always as glamorous as travelers had been in the past, but they were enthusiastic. They were younger. They drank more heavily. They stayed up later. They spent a lot of time at the beach. Too much time. Drinking and sunbathing. They got sunburnt. Really sunburnt. Red necks. Red shoulders. Red backs. Red calves. They could be seen camping around town, sometimes passed out on benches or just right in the sand. Piss stained pants. They were messy. They resembled dying starfish. The smell of trash and vomit permeated the air for so long that many forgot what it was supposed to smell like.
As long as these types of people were coming, someone, somewhere was trying to cater to them. Poolside bars flourished, and neon orange or pink plastic cups filled with frozen margaritas became as synonymous with Santa María as the dolphins that had long ago disappeared from its shores. Anything that could be done to get more people to town and to spend their money was approved. There were theme weeks, for singles and bikers. Music festivals and food festivals. Package deals with flights or bus fare, accommodations, food and drinks were so reasonable that middle class travelers could easily take advantage of them.
“This is the new democratic Santa María,” stated Mayor Virgilio Guzmán. “All are welcome.”
While prostitution had been around in some form since the first hotels opened in Santa María, it used to be rather discreet. Now it was far more blatant and out in the open than it had ever been. Women of the night now operated in the daylight. They could be found lined up in bars and even jeering at passersby on the plaza. Any inebriated man, and there were plenty to choose from, were their targets. There were sloppy kisses on bar stools. Nipple slips at the roulette wheel. Early one Sunday morning, some pilgrims in town to pray to the Virgin, took a stroll on the beach and found a dead woman washed up in the sand, her face bashed in and bloodied. After the first time, it kept happening, as if it were an epidemic.
His father, who worked so diligently to make Santa María a place of class, a place of dignity, would have been horrified at what it had become. Yet, as the community became more popular, attracting bigger and bigger crowds, Horacio the Magnificent’s fame grew with it. His shows grew in size and logistics, so he was able to hire a team to accompany him when performing. He sawed them in half. Made them disappear. Members of the audience were brought up on stage and they would become a part of it to roaring applause. He was swept away by the emotion of it all. He just let the music flow. He rode the wave of energy and went with it. Letting it take him wherever it leads. Shucking and jiving. Grooving and shaking. He was a bad turkey. Feeling it. Living it. In full color.
Esmeralda Pérez was a sweet, shy elementary school teacher from Montemorelos near Monterrey. She lived a quiet life and liked to read and take long walks. She came to Santa María for her rich cousin Abelino’s wedding and everyone kept telling her to let loose, so she did. She drank Carta Blanca and mingled with her cousin’s swanky friends, though she felt like she didn’t fit in. From across the room, she locked eyes with a tall man with a moustache. They said he was a magician, but she had never heard of him. He instantly put her at ease. She was a small-town girl. A little bit naïve of this world. Jovial and handsome, everyone liked him, and she instantly fell in love. He was everything she wasn’t, as she was for him. They were a perfect complement to each other. When she returned to Santa María three weeks later, they got married.
The legend of Horacio reached mythic proportions and his reach expanded significantly when XEW television channel offered him a 2-hour, Saturday afternoon time slot to perform a major, never before attempted feat: making the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan disappear for two minutes. There was build up for nearly 90-minutes, with legendary sportscaster Pedro Septién doing a play by play as Horacio and his team prepared in the background. When it was time, there was silence for several minutes, and then rumbling as nothing was happening. Then, suddenly, the great pyramid faded away, and only the blue sky remained. Two minutes later, it returned, and hundreds of people rushed to the top to make sure it was still there. To this day, no one knows how he pulled it off.
At the peak of his fame Horacio went to Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. He was invited to perform for a month for the 3pm slot in the Mickey Mouse Club Theater in English, as well as a second show in Spanish, plus impromptu performances at Merlin’s Magic Shop. It was part of a broader outreach by the famed theme park to attract more Spanish speaking visitors. They started offering churros at snack stands and an ill-conceived Pack Mules Azteca, where live mules were ridden through a simulated desert in Frontierland as marauding Aztec warriors attacked them. A collection of other Spanish celebrities with crossover appeal were recruited as well, including ranchera singer Chavela Vargas and salsa Queen Celia Cruz. The experiment was short lived.
As Santa María came down off its peak, the generation of youth in town was aimless. They grew up idolizing wealth and celebrity but had no real path for achieving those things. Maybe their parents did. Maybe they had opportunities for them to work their way up, to follow a trajectory or create one of their own. That was no longer the case. The money and power were all at the top. There was no more room to grow. Nothing left to build. No resources to exploit. For them, the only things that mattered were where they were born and to whom. They were predestined for failure and they knew it.
“You better learn to play fútbol or sing chamaco, cause that’s the only way you’re getting out of here.”
I want to be a comedian. But not just any comedian, I want to be the first Mexican comedian to be on The Johnny Carson Show. My Tío Javier always says I’m so funny. This one time I told him a joke. I said “What do we call the Beatles drummer in Mexico? Gringo Starr!” He laughed so hard he spit tamarind Jarritos out of his nose. He said I should go to one of the hotels and see if they’ll let me go on stage and tell jokes. But I don’t know. I don’t feel welcome in those places. They are for the people from somewhere else that fly on planes and wear fancy suits. I’m just a little girl from Santa María. And why did my parents name me Enriqueta?
No more oil
No more trees
Beaches with fences
Sand with fleas
Got no money
Got no dreams
Santa María help me please
We’re poor and we’re hungry
This place isn’t what it used to be
The fish are all gone
The walls are all crumbling
The tortillas are stale
The tequila has run dry
Nowhere to go
Just sit here and cry
Will put all your money on red
No, make it black
It doesn’t really matter though
You won’t get it back
Don’t matter how hard you try
You do it enough times
You make enough sin
The house already knows
That they always win
Don’t got no future
Don’t got no hope
Nowhere to run
Nothing but dope
There’s plenty of sun
But no time for fun
Santa María’s the place
For your fall from grace
Television provided a much-needed distraction from everything going on in Santa María. There were more channels than ever before. It gave everyone something to do. It gave everyone something to talk about with one another. It was a life they all could share together, while separate. Stop worrying about the things you have no power to control. Tuning in provides all the serotonin you need. No need to go to a show, you can get those belly laughs right from your couch again and again. No need to read the newspaper and figure what’s going on in the capital, someone will explain it to you while you eat your dinner. Children didn’t even need babysitters anymore. The cartoons would run for hours and hours. Just sit them in front of it and they won’t move. It’s good for them. It teaches them things.
After his first wife left him, Horacio tried to get sober. He realized how out of control he had been. He let fame and money get to his head. Esmeralda put up with it for years. She loved him dearly, but enough was enough. He had become arrogant and belligerent. He was fired from hotel to hotel and it was only when he was asked to clean up or stay away from the last place that would take him, El Encanto Suites, was he forced to change. At an obligatory AA meeting, he met Josefina Morales, a counselor and devoted Christian. He fell in love with her almost immediately, though she resisted his advances for months. He followed every piece of advice she gave him, attended church every Sunday and eventually she gave in. Within a year they were married.
As his act began to lose its shine, Horacio could no longer keep Sammy “El Tigre” Velázquez, his longtime assistant. Sammy came from nothing and Horacio mentored him for years and knew how talented he was. He became a star in his own right and much of the show was his idea. Letting him go off on his own was a threat to his own career, yet he had little choice and wished Sammy no ill will. He found his act gimmicky and didn’t consider him a serious magician. A genius with inventions, Sammy designed a wooden box that could take in 14 swords while not killing the human inside of it. It was something he had been working on for years and it quickly became his signature feat. He became the talk of the town and was offered a residency at the Gran Hotel, long a dream of Horacio.
It seemed like there was an invasion of clowns. They were everywhere. On the beach. Waiting outside the cathedral. Piling out of cars by the dozen. Riding on top of tiny cars. Paddling fishing boats. Honking their big red noses. Opening cans of snakes. Squirting children in the eyes with flowers. Walking invisible dogs. Mostly untrained and walking around in homemade, raggedy costumes that often smelled. They were cheap laughs. Just kinda there. Stubble on their faces. Not even smiling. Sometimes a smirk. Everyone assumed they were there for a week for some kind of event, but they dawdled around town for months. Years later, a casino executive admitted that they were hired for next to nothing to bring down the rates of other performers who started to lose their audiences.
“Step right up ladies and gentlemen. Step right up. Come get your tickets to see Santa María’s own Horacio the Magnificent. The mustachioed marvel. Houdini de la Playa. El Mago Mexicano. This storied illusionist will wow you and disembowel you. Just kidding. Everyone that he has ever split in two with his enormous sword has been swiftly put back together. You have heard of how he charmed the crowds of Disneyland or how he made a 213-meter-tall pyramid vanish into thin air. Now see him live and in person at the Santa María Princess Resort & Casino. Come for a delicious dinner of prime rib and a show for just 75 pesos and it includes tickets for two free drinks. Shows are at 6 pm and 8:30 pm. If you come for the early show, we’ll even give you credit for 10 pesos worth of chips at the casino. It’s like we’re paying you to come!”
“What the fuck am I doing here,” Horacio whispered to himself as he stepped on the stage of the Rothstein Bar Mitzva at the Caracoles Ballroom at the Tortugamar Resort. “None of this makes sense anymore.”
He came to the realization that he was no longer practicing his craft. The idea of magic, of making the impossible possible, had been traded to earn a living. He was getting paid because of who he was before, not what he was at that moment. It didn’t matter what he did on stage. They would still hoot and holler. Drunken teenagers shouted and jumped on the stage and took the microphone out of his hands.At the end of the show, he raised a glass of wine, shouted “l’chaim,” and took a fast, angry gulp as the red juice ran down his face and dripped all over his shirt.
Horacio met his third wife, María Guadalupe Ayala, shortly after his divorce from Josefina. Things weren’t going as he would have liked. His fees had dropped considerably, especially after he started drinking again. He also discovered cocaine, which made him feel like a young man again. It gave him manic bursts of energy that he felt picked up the tone of his performances. It made him enthusiastic to go on stage, something he hadn’t felt in a long time. He kept telling María, his assistant at the time, that he never felt this good. He was going to make a comeback and be bigger than ever. He was once a man on top of the world, and might be again, and she thought that maybe she would feel like that too. She didn’t.
When María caught Horacio sleeping around with another assistant, Verónica Becerra, she nearly killed him.
“You’re never going to change. You’ll never be anything again,” she shouted at him, still in bed with his lover.
She grabbed a kitchen knife, a sharp one, and threw it at him. It missed, clanking against the wall, and she walked out. After she divorced him and went to live with her mother in Laredo, he immediately latched on to Verónica and told her she was the only one for him. She was divorced as well and looking for any man that would have her. He seemed alright. A little rough around the edges, but he used to be someone. As soon as his divorce was finalized, they were married. It lasted two weeks.
As Horacio’s star faded further, Sammy’s continued to grow. Seeing the recognition he brought to the Gran Hotel, management was willing to invest heavily in his act. They bought two Bengal tigers, Mario and Matilda, and built an elaborate indoor/outdoor habitat with lush jungle foliage for them to live in. The second act of the show featured the tigers performing in various tricks and illusions guided by Sammy and always received a standing ovation. His shows commanded the highest prices of any theatrical performance in all of Mexico and he became the face of Santa María. He appeared on brochures and often traveled abroad to represent Mexico at tourism fairs. When someone stepped off the plane at Santa María International airport and walked into the terminal, they would see a giant poster of Sammy and Matilda.
Horacio tried to resurrect his act at theHotel Coral. They offered him the stage for a one month run, with an option to renew if he could fill enough seats. He hired a new assistant, The Great Ronaldo, who was just his friend Juan José that needed some work. On the second night Horacio attempted Houdini’s milk can escape but filled it with tequila instead of the usual water. It was a trick he had done a thousand times before, but he became so intoxicated that he couldn’t open the locks. Ronaldo had to kick the can over and let the tequila run out, so he didn’t drown. Laying on its side, he was eventually able to open the lock and came out stumbling, dripping with tequila. Only a handful of people attended the next performance and the show was pulled after 3 nights.
The men in suits didn’t care about anything other than money. They had no attachments here. They never knew what it once was. They didn’t care what it could be either. They weren’t even going to visit more than a day or two. They bought this distressed utopia for pocket change. They were extractivists. Paper-handed miners, carving out the landscape and its people for any pieces of silver or gold they could chip away at. Vultures feeding away at the leftover scraps. How much more could they squeeze out? Highrise towers. Cruise ships. They opened it up. They opened it all up. No stone would be left unturned. McDonald’s and Suburbia. Ferris wheels and alligator farms. Roller coasters and booze cruises. Everyone could come. Santa María was open for business.
The number of hotel rooms reached their peak for the 1968 Summer Olympics, which were held in Mexico City, however, Santa María was chosen to host the Sailing events. The moment was set to usher in the town’s new era as a global destination. Facilities were improved throughout town, especially the Club de Yates, which undertook a massive expansion, adding tens of thousands of meters of new docks. While organizers sunk more and more money into the games, residents in Santa María, not to mention elsewhere in Mexico, griped about how many lacked basic services like water and electricity and their voices were being continually suppressed. Peasants and farmers, the poorest of the poor, often disappeared whenever they tried to question the status quo and organize. In the weeks before the event, as the world was watching, student protestors gathered together and met on the plaza, shouting: “¡No queremos olimpiadas. Queremos revolución!”
After the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, the Olympic Games went off with few issues, however, the Guerra Sucia, the Dirty War, would linger for years to come. While the core of the violence was elsewhere, Santa María was not immune to it. Tensions flared around town as unemployment started to rise. The viciousness never reached the intensity of other regions. A few Che Guevara t-shirts here and there. A few road blocks that were swiftly broken up. There was one major incident, or at the least the appearance of one. A laid off Blackjack dealer, Guillermo Hernández, protesting in front of the Grand Hotel, was grabbed by several men and pushed into a van and blindfolded, leading to a confused atmosphere for the following 12 hours. It turned out to be his birthday and his friends were playing a prank on him. They surprised him with a party later that evening.
After the Summer Games, all of the newly expanded hotels couldn’t fill their rooms. The Dirty War left a stain on tourism across the country and no one was traveling. While Santa María remained safe, Americans and Canadians associated the violence elsewhere in Mexico that they saw on the news with it. Paired with a downturn in the Mexican economy, no one wanted to come. Entire wings of hotels, many of them still quite new, were closed off and unmaintained. There were so many empty rooms, the Tortugamar Resort practically begged the Northeastern Mexico Model Airplane Club to come. They were considering postponing their annual getaway, but the hotel offered them rates so low, which included meal tickets and a private event space, that they couldn’t resist.
Santa María had fallen on hard times. Several of the hotels laid off their staff. They said it would be temporary, but as time went on, it became clear that they would never reopen their doors again. Prickly pears found their way into the cracks and coatis squeezed through the windows. The wilderness soon swallowed the buildings up whole. No one knew what to do. They became reckless and made outlandish gestures. Some ate San Pedro and wandered into the mountains, hoping that some revelation would come to light, but the earth goddess was so foreign to them. They had turned their backs on her for so long. Long ago they had hunted all of the animals and cut down the trees, then introduced others from somewhere else in their place, throwing the entire ecosystem out of whack. There was a growing sense that Tonantzin would soon take back what was hers.
In desperate times, the Cathedral became a last resort of hope. The Virgin had helped this town before, so why not now when her divinity was needed the most? Lines stretched out the door and visitors waited for hours to get a glimpse at her. Tears rolled down their cheeks as they told her their sad stories and said their prayers. Even those who never truly believed in her power came. They were a broken people. Depressed and damaged. When the collection baskets were passed around and the donation boxes emptied, there was little money there. When it became clear that this was more than just a passing phase, the priests were reassigned, and the Cathedral was left in the hands of a single caretaker, who would unlock the doors for a peso or two if you could track him down.
“Why can’t we go back to the way things were? Was it that bad? We were happy, weren’t we? We had enough to eat. A cozy bed to sleep in.”
“That place never really existed. Your memory only wants it to be that way.”
“Maybe I’m reflecting too fondly of the old days, you might be right. But we had good times. We smiled and laughed. We had friends. We had family. We had careers. We had a reason to get up every morning.”
“We didn’t understand what else was happening. This happiness relied on never-ending growth. On exploitation. On corruption. On slaves that didn’t know they were slaves. It was always unsustainable.”
“But there was magic, wasn’t there? I felt bliss. I know I did. Didn’t you feel it?”
“That wasn’t real magic. It was just the illusion of it.”
The fish are all gone
Trawlers swept them up by the ton
Scraping away the sea floor
To get every last one
The corn won’t grow
The beans won’t either
The soil’s been poisoned
No life beneath her
The lagoons have been filled in
No animals to hunt
Paved over with concrete
For hotels and bedsheets
Oil rigs, long abandoned
Their black gold still there
Leaking into the ocean
Why didn’t anyone care?
Roads are crumbling
Shops are closed
Jesus won’t save you
Better find something new
The boom is over
No one prepared
To invest in a life
That could be shared
The tentacles of the Great Earthquake of Orizaba traveled across the landscape and up the coast, before reaching Santa María in the dark of dawn amidst heavy rain. People awoke to a particularly loud noise. A big bang. Some were thrown out of bed and thought that their house had been struck by lightning. Or that the noise was thunder from the storm. But the noise didn’t stop. It rumbled, cracked and roared. Buildings shook and swayed. Ceilings cracked open and bricks sprung out like grasshoppers. Roads transformed into roller coasters, then crumbled into pieces. Trees were pushed out from their roots and their trunks crashed onto cars. The entire town was engulfed in gray. The cathedral’s bell tower loosened and started to lean. It stayed that way for hours, hanging in the balance, finally shifting further until falling over, it’s bell ringing one last time before crashing into the debris.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, much of the infrastructure of Santa María was impaired. The ruins of a place that was once so vibrant and full of life. Piles of rubble were strewn about in every direction. Rotting flesh and food. A wedding dress tattered and torn, laid on a bench in the plaza. Sweeping away the mud revealed endless pieces of broken glass and stone. Vultures circled overhead as they awaited those creatures whose time was about to expire. The scent of death thickened the air. It resembled a war zone. It would remain that way. The battle was lost. It was the shell of a town. The highway, the only artery into the interior, was gone, melted into the landscape. With more people leaving than coming, there was no bother to repair it? Once again, Santa María became an island.
It was only weeks later that a landslide occurred beneath the ocean. Fifteen miles east of Santa María, down at the bottom of the sea, rock and sediment that was loosened by the earthquake finally gave way and fell into a trench, displacing what was beneath it and causing a 20-meter wall of water to head towards Tamaulipas. Much of the coast was spared any damage, except in Santa María, where the mangrove forests that once grew along much of the coast were removed to make room for more beaches, as well the sand dunes that were flattened for beach clubs. They had protected the interior from flooding well before a settlement was created here. With them gone, it was an open invitation for the Atlantic to wash away any last hope of rebuilding.
The ocean climbed onto land and took almost everything it could touch. The fragments of buildings and broken machines, most of them still in piles strewn about town, and many of the people that had refused to leave their remaining possessions, were crushed by the awesome force of the water. They were swept further into the interior, a raging river of mortality and trash, engulfing everything in its path. The wave lowered itself as it reached far beyond Santa María Nueva, and then sucked everything back out to the Gulf as the water rapidly receded as if from a straw. The statue of Santa María became warped and pieces started to flake off and disintegrated like sea foam blowing off the crest of a wave. The feathery velvet rope it once hid behind, slithered out to sea like a storybook serpent.
Little of Santa María remained. There was no town. No people. Just a box that had washed up on the beach, and a magician, who woke up in a fishing boat in the sand, as if in a dream. As he rolled out of the boat, he noticed the box and opened it. There were photos, hundreds of them. Lost memories, once relevant to someone, but tossed in a bin and forgotten. As he flipped through them, he saw familiar faces. Friends. Loved ones. He saw his mother. She was fishing. The time they went to Los Cabos maybe. His father always told the story about how the fish wouldn’t stay off her line, yet he never got so much as a bite. She was seasick from the waves and should have been miserable, but she always said it was one of the happiest days of her life.
And he saw his father. He was much younger than he was. His hair was slicked back, his face cleanly shaven and he was tastefully dressed in a suit and tie. This was well before he was born. Before he met his mother. He always wondered what he was like at this age. On first impression, there wasn’t much difference as when he was 40. He always had an air of confidence around him. He had so few doubts about anything. But when he looked into his eyes in the photo, going down deep, into the soul of the man that raised him, that taught him everything and was his best friend and confidant, seeing everything that came before and everything after, he could see fear. Just a hint of it. Flawed. Vulnerable. He saw him as human and it was comforting.
He saw them together. They were older now. In the fields that they so adored. It was not long after they bought the rancho, a dull pasture waiting to be tilled. Waiting to be appreciated. To them, it was an empty canvas and they were going to paint their dreams on it. To convert it from a monotonous grassland to a rich ecosystem of plants and insects. They were creating something beautiful. Something alive. Whatever happened going forward would be ok. They were glamourous. They had accumulated considerable wealth. They had respect within the community. They achieved everything they could and were ready to embark on a life of pure joy. They were happy and in love. He was a part of that love. He felt it. It radiated inside of him. Numbing him to the collapsed world around him.
And he saw himself as a mischievous kid. He could remember that day in the park. It was not long after school had ended and he and a friend were joking around with a camera. They laughed as they took photos of each other. There was a warbler singing in the trees above. The smell of pineapple sage coming and going with the breeze. An old man calling out to sell paletas. He was happy then. He had not a care in the world. He could remember the thoughts that were in his head. He had been practicing magic for a few years, but he had yet to appear in the film. It was still so new to him. He was still learning how to wield it. It wasn’t a career. It wasn’t about money or fame. Just pure enthusiasm for the craft. Love for the art.
Then there he was, older. An image of him from not that long ago, though it felt distant now. It was a strange flyer for one of his last shows. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to perform. They didn’t want to see him or to hear what he had to say. Why bare your soul if all they want to do is laugh at you? He gave them what they wanted so he could get paid, but nothing more. Where had it all gone wrong? Then he was younger again. This time a baby in his mother’s arms, drinking her milk. And older again. In his 20s now, after a show at a casino, when he slept with an older, married woman from the audience. And then he was younger. And older. And younger. And time lost all meaning. He turned into pure energy.
Time and space seemed to take on new meaning. The box grew in dimension and new images appeared. It seemed that everyone that ever existed in Santa María was represented in these photos. Pieces of the entire town. It’s history. He saw their stories and the stories within their stories. The bad times and the good. There was the birthday partyof little Verónica Bernal. She was a sweet girl. Smart too and would later become the first female dentist in all of Tamaulipas. Everyone knew she was special. Aunts, uncles and cousins from as far away as Sonora came just for the event. All the children sat around the table, feeling so grown up, as they drank hot chocolate and ate cake. Tío Carlos drank too much beer that night and made a fool of himself as he always did. He threw up on the dog and everyone at the party laughed. Except the dog.
There was that time that Gustavo Montalbán stole the game. The save to end all saves. Some said Jesus himself was there to lift him in the air to catch the ball. They all felt it. They all made the save. Even the opposing team, who clapped their hands and cheered. It wasn’t a big game. No one was watching. Just some friends playing together on a Sunday afternoon. The world kept spinning and the game meant nothing to it. There were other games and other teams. Wins, loses, goals, saves, whistles, broken legs. But to those on the field that day, this was a moment that they could not ever forget. It lived on in their hearts like a song. An instant where everything was right and all the gloomy and depressing things going on in their lives went away, even if just for an hour or so.
They sought answers to everything. There was no amount of knowledge that would satisfy their hunger. It was never enough. Something compelled them to question everything. Even the ideas they could never understand the wanted resolution. As much as they tried it wasn’t even possible. It was beyond the scope of humanity. Their bodies couldn’t physically contain it. To comprehend its will. The all-powerful. The higher plane. The all-knowing. The know nothing. Whether it was God or the wind. Why were they here? What was their purpose in this place? To find happiness? But the idea is so vague. If they were happy, could others be happy too? One’s joy was another’s hate. They were opposing forces. Yin and yang. Fire and water. Without one there was not the other. Without darkness there was not light. Was it not enough just to exist?
Sometimes the grass was greener on the other side. Sometimes it wasn’t. They didn’t always know what was lurking behind them. Beyond the wall. In the background of the photos you could see the evils that would later disrupt their peace. The hurt that was being laid that could only be seen with time. The shady deals and documents. The money changing hands. The disappearing landscape. Moving too slow for anyone to notice. They just saw the dead birds and bees. Was it a disease? It was indeed. But not the one they thought it was. A monumental shift. An algorithmic recalibration of all the earth’s functions. No one gave them permission. Especially not the earth. There was no democracy in what they did. Their voices were not heard. They didn’t even know they needed to raise them.
There were times when it seemed there was no affection to be found. The dark times when things got really bad. When they took an unexpected turn for the worse. When the sadness seemed unbearable. When they felt forgotten. Or neglected. Or unwanted. When they were miserable and distraught. When the whole world seemed against them. When all they needed was a helping hand. Someone to lift them up and empower them. Or even just acknowledge them. They kept holding on to hope for acceptance. They found the courage buried inside of them and searched for the tiniest sliver of optimism. For the love that they knew endured somewhere out there in the world. Even if it seemed silly. If it seemed unimportant to everyone else. They searched for something to believe in. And for someone to believe in them.
He laid out all of the photos side by side in the sand and looked at them. Portraits. Holidays. Parties. Events. Houses. Buildings. Trees. Beaches. There were hundreds of them. No thousands. Maybe tens of thousands or more. Different people from different eras at different moments in their lives. Being born and growing up. Changing and evolving their hearts and their minds. Discovering who they are. And who they are not. Getting older and fading away. The pictures were like puzzle pieces. Moments that were tied up and twisted, but there was no way to untangle them and put them in the correct order. All moments in time coexisting together on the beach as if they were always meant to be there. There was no past, present or future. They didn’t flow together like a river. His mind wanted them to. It would be easier to understand.
Everyone and everything was gone. Santa María had ceased to be. Maybe it never existed at all.
There were no farms or fishing boats. No church or plaza. No fútbol games or birthday parties. No hotels or casinos. There was nothing left but water and rocks.
Planetary palpitations. The thunderous roar of eternity. The earth’s breath. It’s piss. Everything. Nothingness.
Just a box of photos and a magician.
He looked out at the horizon. Far out where sky and sea meet. He squinted his eyes and could see the curve of the earth and tears rolled down his cheeks. He saw how small it was.
He looked down at the photos in the sand and paused. He stared at them. It could have been minutes. It could have been days, or even weeks or months or years. Then, finally, he spoke in a voice so loud and boisterous so that all who wanted to could hear him.
“What kind of story do we want to tell?”