By Aurelio Saldaña Jr.
There she is, looking right at us from the stool at the middle of the bar. She shows a smile and a slight nod of her chin. This seemingly insignificant gesture is a “Quiubole” or “Hi, how are you?” here on the borderland. Spanish music and the faint smell of beer permeate the room. You wonder why the alcohol does not fill the nostrils a little heavier. . . maybe because the other senses are being bombarded by so much stimuli. Bar goers move in a constant wave from here to there, voices fighting the sounds of “Conjunto Primavera” for an opportunity to be heard. The lady at the bar has a smile tattooed across her face; nothing seems to be bothering her this night. The way she holds her body says she feels comfortable here; she is in her element.
As they often do, men outnumber the ladies in this place; the waitresses help dress the bar with a feminine touch. “Dame una pinche Bud Light,” the lady at the center of the bar demands with an air of I-do-not-give-a…. Nobody messes with her. Her attire radiates this same toughness to those seated around her. Her long black hair is tied in a ponytail with bangs fixed and hardened with hair spray.
Her ears, adorned with large silver hoops, and makeup are reminiscent of an Egyptian princess as she sits at her stool with a royal confidence. Her slacks, dark-colored Dickies, and her blouse, perhaps better suited on a homeboy, bare the fashion of the barrio. She takes a chug from her mug and turns quickly around to address a gentleman that has now sat beside her. “Que paso?” she almost screams into the man’s ear, “Donde estaba?” The way she rocks her shoulders say she’s no stranger to battle. Her moves are swift but calculated, with hands always ready to protect and respond quickly, the way a boxer would in the ring. She quickly follows the gentleman outside and my friend and I follow suit – my pal, the smoker, has an addiction to quench.
It is unusually cool for this time of year. El Paso’s weather is changing. The lady and her baggy-dressed suitor talk and she keeps that same air of confidence glowing from her brown eyes. The lingo, a rapid exchange of border Spanglish, heavily accented English, and the pachuco caló make up the bulk of her vocabulary. The speech pattern is almost cliché a la Hollywood Latino gangster movies. It appears to me that either this lady frequents the place quite often and she knows the ins and outs or she is from a place that has instilled in her a psyche hard and tough as granite. It is one thing to see a lady sure of herself, navigating within a sphere so often associated with men, but the way this woman moves amongst drinking men is an awe-inspiring sight. With her short, sure steps, tattooed smile on her face, chola attire and the looks of an older Selena, the TexMex queen, she could easily be commanding a group of soldiers into war. Who is this lady? We go back inside to reclaim our place among the other relief-seekers in the bar. The music rolls on: “Conjunto Primavera” and Tony Melendez are popular here. Another song from the famed Mexican group blasts from the jukebox. “Selena” comes back to her beer and takes a seat.
There is another gentleman coming to her side, this one with a more intimate approach, and she welcomes the embrace. The man also sports a “barrio” look: shorts, tennis shoes, baggy t-shirt and the same tough look that his lady carries. The lines on his face show, as do the ones on his lady, the years of life’s hard toil. They make a good couple, I think to myself. The man walks away and the lady again sits alone. She looks over to the small dance floor in the middle of the place right next to the pool tables. There are people dancing this Friday night away. She quickly finds a partner and pulls him to the parquet floor. They dance a cumbia and for the moment, the tough exterior melts away and joy fills her face.
I see a bicultural woman moving between two worlds: a gentle side and a cutthroat, survival-oriented side. This is quite a lady. “Otra cerveza?” the lady bartender drags me away from my thoughts. “Si”, my camarada answers. As the waitress brings our beers, I follow the movements of people: some are uncoordinated and alcohol-impaired, while the newly arrived slide gracefully across the floor with the music as the soundtrack. Meanwhile, our heroine has gotten her fill of dancing for now, and returns to her stool. Her tired eyes look around and once again find us, the two UTEP students, sitting a few seats down. She waves “hi” once more and we wave back.
“Hey, you look like Selena”, I blurt out. With a smile she answers, “No papito, I only look like myself”. I might have offended her. I sure did not want to do that.
The academic conversation my comrade and I have been engaged in has run its course. There is only so much one can say about politics before nausea sets in. Tonight is the time to let go of all stressors; this is why people visit places like The Tap once in awhile to get away and not think of the daily turmoil we live in. Those here appear to have the same thought as I, one glance around the tables and this is very apparent. This Labor Day weekend there will be much to celebrate and reminisce about but then there is also much that needs to be forgotten, at least momentarily. These haze-laden eyes, those desperately trying to out-sing the jukebox might agree with what I am thinking. I hope they get home safely so there can be more escapes for them in the future.
The smiling queen gestures with her mug to us, “Salud”. “Tell her to join us”, I say to my friend. He asks her over, “You join me”, she responds. We move closer to her and she extends a hand with a smile illuminating her face. “I apologize ma’am I did not mean disrespect by calling you Selena”. “That’s okay I get that sometimes. By the way, me llamo Isabel. Nice to meet you guys.”
-Aurelio Saldaña Jr.