Mariachis On The Side
Growing up, I knew my dad was a geek. A nerd. A dork. A dweeb. All of those names that were used unkindly in the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds could easily apply, and often did in my mind.
To start with, my dad was an engineer. Snore. Boring. He worked for Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, one of those research and science places that did development on nuclear weapons during the Cold War.
Yeeks, try bringing that one up casually in the school cafeteria. “Oh, your dad is a doctor? Mine figures out how to make nuclear bombs work better.” Awkward.
To add to the story, when my dad was in his twenties, he was one of those guys out on Bikini Atoll blowing stuff up just to see what it would do. Oh, how he loved to regale the family with the stories, most of which I thought were made up until I became an adult and realized he was serious.
As the cherry on top of this geeky sundae, my dad was also a mathematician. He loved numbers because it all made sense to his brain. As an offshoot of his enduring love for the perfection of math, he had developed a strong fondness for music. Not in the traditional way most people enjoy music, like, hey, those lyrics were meaningful, or wasn’t that a great riff. No, he loved the mathematical precision of it. He believed that musicians were, essentially, mathematicians working the numbers measure by measure.
I’d come to find out later, he wasn’t actually wrong. After spending many years in the company of several professionally accomplished musicians and taking a few guitar lessons myself, I learned there is definitely a sense of mathematical precision, even in the lowest of the low-down, delicious, dirty blues riffs.
My dad also had a really goofy sense of humor that he didn’t always let come out to play. With a little alcohol on board, he might loosen up and let his own well-contained silliness run amok. For my type-A, hardworking, math-loving dad, amok wasn’t his normal operating procedure.
Pops also liked to have a good meal. Generally, he was most docile and calm with a belly full of something good. Aren’t we all?
These traits then came together in a perfect storm each time my parents took us kids out to eat at a Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque named Garduños.
Garduños is something of an Albuquerque institution, having been in business for probably thirty years or more.
Back then it was good food, not terribly expensive, and a lot of fun. On Saturday evenings our favorite Garduños location would offer up a surprise. In addition to amazing green chile and carne adovada, they would feature a roaming mariachi band, complete with sombreros and spangled pants. The real deal.
The musicians would wander from table to table, occasionally stopping to serenade the dining customers with a little Spanish tune.
Fine, great, OK. They were actually a very good mariachi band and rather talented. After a big smothered green chile burrito and a couple of margaritas, and with a light feeling in his heart, my dad would summon the concho-clad gentlemen over to our table to sing us a tune.
As these men strummed the guitarrón and played both violin and trumpet, they sang lamenting songs of lost love way down, Mexico way. My very Anglo father who knew life by way of South Bend, Indiana, would clap and whistle and hoot and holler and try to sing along.
This mortified me.
On one level, it felt really wrong, like he was demeaning these people. On another level, I could see the weary look in the musicians’ eyes as yet another patron of the restaurant ruined their beautiful music. On the main level, it was just flat embarrassing.
I used to think, “Good lord, Dad, get a hold of yourself!”
Since we visited that restaurant fairly often, I’d say at least once a month, I started to get a real phobia for the roaming mariachis. I would try to bolt down my food as fast as possible in an attempt to get my family to finish their plates well before the nomadic band made their way to our table, but my dad was not to be denied.
It became a joke with my family about how much little Karen hated the mariachis. You know what? Karen didn’t hate the mariachis; Karen hated the way her gringo-father acted when the mariachis came to play their beautiful and complex songs.
Plus, how freaking uncomfortable it is when you are trying to tuck into a combo plate and ten Hispanic men are standing there blasting “De Colores” at you?
What do you do? Do you stop and watch them, thus letting your food get cold and feeling awkward? Do you keep eating while they play, thus reducing these talented musicians to a human jukebox and their music to little more than background noise?
All of this made me very unhappy, and I was subjected to this bit of torture with quite some regularity.
Over the years, we three kids grew up, each of us in turn graduating high school and then going away to college in Las Cruces, some three hundred miles away.
During college, all tallied up, I was gone from Albuquerque for about seven years. After receiving my MBA, I returned to Albuquerque for a good job. When I had been back in my hometown for a while, I settled into my single girl apartment and my professional life.
Then came the day I met some work friends for happy hour at the new Garduños location by the shopping center. It was a newer restaurant, more trendy and fun with a warehouse theme and exposed pipes in the ceiling. It was meant to attract young professionals.
As I sipped at their famous margaritas and ate happy hour food, imagine my surprise when I heard the ol’ guitarrón tuning up.
Uh-oh. The mariachis.
My heart started racing. Panic set in. I hate mariachis, right?
Only I didn’t. And I don’t.
The band started playing and I found in my tequila-loosened haze that I kind of liked them. Their music spoke to my soul and made me bounce in my chair. I had grown up in New Mexico with its strong Hispanic culture, and that culture became who I am. Genetically speaking, I am not Hispanic but it is my culture because that is how I was raised.
As the music spoke to me and stirred something in my soul, and also after a margarita or two, I slipped out of my usual reserve. Thanks to the magic of Jose Cuervo, I found myself letting out a loud “ay-yi-yi!” in time with the tune.
Oh my. I may have had a genuine enthusiasm for the culture and heritage of the music, but really, I was no better than my father had been.
I was just another drunk gringa embarrassing herself in a New Mexican restaurant. If I’m honest, I’m a pretty big nerd, dork, and dweeb too, in my own ways. There, I said it. I’m a geek. Like father like daughter?
Many years later, I moved away from New Mexico to chase a larger dream, and now every time I visit Albuquerque, I still go to Garduños.
As an adult, I love the music of the mariachis, but I still am not a fan of a band surrounding the table while I eat. After my first and only lapse into Dad-style behavior, I now keep my “ay-yi-yis” to myself.
The music, the food, the memories, it’s all dear to me and makes me homesick now just thinking about it. I could sure go for a big plate of green chile chicken enchiladas.
Egg and sour cream on top, mariachis on the side.
Copyright © 2014 Karen Fayeth
Born with the writer’s eye and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico complemented by a growing urban aesthetic. Karen now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. When she’s not spinning a tale, she works as a senior executive for science and technology research organization. She can be found on the web at karenfayeth.com.