This is an uncut version of a dispatch which first appeared on Latino Rebels.
I’m pretty bummed they didn’t select one of my questions at the CNN town hall in Vegas. I’d listed my occupation as “Streets & Sanitation Clerk,” hoping they were looking for an everyman—plus the title is a pretty accurate description of the work I do—and I’d submitted some biting questions which were, I thought, pretty damn original. If I remember correctly, I asked Mayor Pete Buttigieg what teachings, if any, were passed on to him from his father, the Gramsci scholar, and which Gramscian concepts he finds useful today.
I’m sure I asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar how she plans to out-Hillary Hillary, when she isn’t even very convincing as herself.
But, alas, the producers at CNN weren’t in the market for any fresh or penetrating questions, opting for the same dozen or so questions we’ve heard the candidates answer a dozen or so times.
And they had the nerve to put me on some waitlist. I got to the Sahara early and met two elderly women, one white and the other black. They were on the waitlist, too. I started chatting them up and it turned out they were both from Virginia—and the black lady, who spoke in the cadence of an elementary-school teacher, was suffering from the early stages of dementia. I know this because I used to work the Alzheimer’s ward at an elderly home for a year and a half, where I had long, deep conversations about life with people who’d lost their minds. So I’m well-versed in the art of chatting with people who don’t know where they are, who they are, or what they’re talking about.
The old black lady, in a long yellow sundress and flats, made it seem like she had worked for the Obama campaign in ’08, as a director of some kind in Chicago—she said she was also from Illinois, too—and later she said she knew Sen. Bernie Sanders personally and “had given him everything he needed,” whatever that meant. She also seemed to think the Democratic Party was in a shambles—the four-day early-voting period in Nevada earlier in the week hadn’t gone so well, with long lines at the polls and a lack of volunteers—and that Bernie’s people were cheating somehow. But who knows. Like I said, the lady was off her rocker.
Every time I tried steering the conversation in a different direction, no matter how separate the issue, the black lady would interject with “That’s what I’m telling you!” and then go off on some long, drawn-out monologue that conveyed nothing and went nowhere. Having dementia must feel like being lost in the woods (which I’ve been a few times, once up in northern Wisconsin): you’re not sure where you are, or where you’ve been, or where you’re going.
Such is life, though.
When the white lady realized the black lady was nuts, she looked like she might puke right there on the casino floor, her face all twisted, glancing furtively down at the black lady sitting on the steps like some slimy, smelly thing; like she might catch dementia herself if she lingered too long. She shot me a few looks to see if I’d caught on to the fact that I was chatting with a senile old woman, but I just gave her a wink.
People who are out of their minds are fun to talk to.
The Sahara’s theater is one of those concert venues with a bar at the back—“the first time we’ve ever done a town hall where there’s a bar,” CNN’s Anderson Cooper would later observe. But they never opened the thing during the whole three hours the event lasted. “They should open it!” said one of two middle-aged soccer moms they sat me next to in the fifth row.
“And they should’ve had showgirls, said the other one. “Why not? It’s Vegas!”
The theater also had bathrooms with a shared sink area that temporarily unnerved most of the older attendees, as at first a frightful rumor spread that the bathrooms themselves might be unisex.
After the stampede to the bathrooms half an hour before the start time, I went in to take a leak and found myself alone with a silver fox. We stood shoulder to shoulder at our urinals, unable to let it flow. “I don’t even have to piss, but I’m pushing anyway,” I said.
“I’m in the same boat,” he said. “You asking a question?”
I heard trickles from his side of the divider. I waited a few seconds before saying, “Who you asking?”
He let me finish before asking, “Who you going for?”
“Ah, Bernie,” I said, almost apologetically. It isn’t a crime to be for Bernie, though a lot of older folks seem to think it should be. “You?” I asked.
He gave me a dead-ass stare as he zipped up. “I’m going for Buttigieg.” He said it like a manifesto, as though I should’ve known better than to ask.
For a second we were like two soldiers hitting the head, only to discover we were on opposing sides of a war. I was for Bernie, for democratic socialism, for workers’ rights—plus I was young(ish), black, and Latino—and this man, as a Buttigieg supporter, stood against all that.
“Good luck,” I said, but the guy didn’t look or say anything back as he walked away.
Such is strife.
To hear others tell it, Bernie supporters are raving lunatics, obsessed with the man and his life’s mission to lift up the poor and working classes. But you should’ve seen all those Buttigieg supporters leap to their feet and applaud after what I thought was another humdrum performance from Mayor Pete. He’s perfect on social justice, and so whenever I criticize him or express my contempt for his campaign, his supporters are quick to label me a “Bernie Bro,” a closeted Alt-Righter who hates gays, women and people of color.
But what you have to understand about Pete is, for all his social-justice game, he doesn’t give a damn about economic justice.
Pete’s a technocrat, a neoliberal, a corpocrat—someone who believes society should be ruled by corporations, or at least governed like one. He’s in the pocket of Wall Street bankers and the social engineers over in Silicon Valley. He and his ilk are willing to let you and me identify however we want, so long as we remain faithful cogs in the machine. Your life will still be an endless slog—forever teetering on a razor’s edge between health and happiness, on one side, and sickness and despair on the other—but at least you’ll get to choose your own pronouns!
Everyone’s a winner. Even the losers.
A couple of other observations from that town hall on Tuesday: Bernie was the first one up—he’s the clear frontrunner, lest we’re made to forget—and he opted to remain seated on stage while Anderson Cooper went off to powder his nose. Bernie took a random question from the audience, and though I didn’t catch what was asked or what was said, Bernie got a warm laugh from the crowd. It looked like he was going to keep engaging with the assembly for the rest of the three-minute break, but some campaign staffer came and whisked him offstage.
From then on, each candidate left the stage as soon as CNN went to commercial, only to reappear 30 seconds before each break ended. As I said in my last dispatch, I get why campaigns keep such a short leash on their people, but it doesn’t inspire much confidence.
I also wanted to mention how well Amy Klobuchar did. She was so personable and straightforward, even funny at times—though low energy as ever. Still, she had much of the audience in tears and sniffling with a response to a question from a survivor of the Las Vegas shooting in 2017, relating the story of how she had to tell Sandy Hook parents that there weren’t enough votes to pass a bill which would’ve required universal background checks for gun purchases. I saw a lot of people in the crowd wiping their faces for a good minute afterward—they felt it; she really connected with them.
I had to look away, though, when she launched into her “snowwoman” anecdote she loves to tell everywhere she goes. I kept my eyes on Anderson Cooper, who was doing everything in his power to keep from scowling.
I’ve been in the audience to hear these candidates speak only a handful of times in the past few weeks, but even then I’m starting to feel like I’m in Groundhog Day. Who knows how many times Mr. Cooper has heard Amy’s snowwoman story, and all the other bits that the candidates have been honing since the 2020 campaign launched in early 2019. Coop must wake up some days and feel the urge to hop into a bathtub with warm water and a four-slice toaster.
On the ride back home, the Uber driver and I got to talking about the Rust Belt and the glory days of the middle class and American manufacturing. Will, a black grayhead from Clio, Michigan, told me how he used to work for Buick there in Flint, after leaving the GM plant. He figured there must’ve been 20,000 workers at that Buick factory—“a small town”—making good money, too. “Maaan,” he goes, “with what they paid, you only needed one person [in a family] working one job”—and you could still afford a decent home in a safe neighborhood with good schools and everything. “But now you need both [parents] working just to survive.”
“I hear Detroit’s on the come-up again, though.”
“They tryin’,” he says. “But every time I go back home and see everything gone… And then I see everything here booming, all these nice houses going up everywhere…”
Every city has its season. Chicago, my sweet home, is currently in the autumn of its years. “All the leaves are brown… And the sky is grey“—at least for the foreseeable future.
“We went from being producers,” Will tells me, “to a nation of consumers.”
“And we won’t be consuming for long if nobody has much money to buy anything.”
“That’s right,” he says, just as we’re pulling up to the gated entrance to my neighborhood.
The next day, Wednesday, promised to be one long march through tedium. First, I had to read the day’s news, making sure I was abreast of the goings-on in local politics. I was meeting with the people at Make the Road Nevada at one-thirty, so I had to do some due diligence on them, making notes, before taking my feisty, ungrateful cur of a dog on a nice long walk to keep him from flipping out and biting one of us for the umpteenth time. (If this fool only knew he’s on his last legs…) Then I had to Uber it to the Strip, to Bally’s to pick up my press badge—the lady at the reception desk sent me on a goose chase—and then I had to Uber it over to Make the Road Nevada’s headquarters on East Bonanza Road, on the very Latino side of Las Vegas.
My Uber driver, a pockmarked black girl named Brianna, ranted the whole 30 minutes. It wasn’t her fault: I’d asked her who she was thinking of voting for. “Honestly,” she said, “I don’t have the time or the energy to worry about politics. Not with my baby on the way.”
I congratulated her, though I’d figured she just had a gut—driving long hours every day softens the core.
Brianna was mad, at all politicians—except the Obamas. “I don’t care what anyone says!” she said at the top of her lungs. “Obama is the best president we’ve ever had!… And Michelle—I’m sorry—but Michelle was classy! She never posed naked or nuthin’. I’m sorry, but she was the best First Lady since…”
“Exactly! But she belonged to the Kennedys. And everybody knew her husband and his brother were fucking that Marylin Monroe! Everybody knew, okay? But Obama, he didn’t have no scandals or nuthin’!”
She carried on with her harangue, screaming—even screaming over me whenever I tried to add something. It felt like we were a couple arguing on the way back from some family gathering, like I’d somehow ended up in a loveless relationship with this girl, and this was our Big Breakup. I felt so bad for her soon-to-be baby daddy, whom she described as “centrist.”
“I can’t stand when people say, ‘Well, that’s just what I believe’!” she yelled. “If you believe I don’t deserve equal rights because of my skin color or cuz I’m a woman, then naw, fuck you. This guy was in here, talkin’ ’bout how he supports Trump and—I’m sorry—but if I know you’re wrong, I don’t give a fuck! I’m really good at ripping people’s arguments up. My tongue goes in, I don’t give a fuck!”
By the time we pulled into the strip mall where Make the Road Nevada has its space, my brain was a rock smashing against the inside of my skull. “I’m sorry,” she said, “But Bernie, he don’t give a shit about any of us either! None of ’em do!”
I gave her a five-star rating, and tipped her five bucks.
The desks at Make the Road Nevada were empty, everybody out to lunch. But Leo Murrieta, the executive director, showed up, and when I told him I’d been communicating with Inarú Meléndez from the Center for Popular Democracy—the national group sponsoring and coordinating with Make the Road and other progressive causes—Leo led me next door to Make the Road Nevada’s community center, a large, mostly empty commercial space with posters and other campaign literature along the walls, big plastic jugs of water, a table with coffee and snacks, a little fenced-off area in a back corner for kids to play, and a table where Inarú was working on a laptop. She reminded me of the PR agent I’d met at the LULAC town hall the week before, the girl from Venezuela who was gaga for Guaidó. Inarú, though, had dark skin, curly black hair, and sprinkled her speech with Puerto Rican flavor. She hails from Morovis, on the island, by way of Springfield, Massachusetts—a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras.
I sat with her for a bit as she ran through the list of Make the Road’s victories, which are many, especially in New York where they began and have their main offices. They were one of the groups behind the fight to keep Amazon from taking a bite out of the Big Apple with its new headquarters. They helped make sure all New Yorkers could get driver’s licenses, regardless of citizenship status. They’ve been pushing the City and State of New York to provide affordable housing and limit pollution. And they pressured Chase and Wells Fargo to divest from private prisons and immigrant detention centers.
Here in Nevada, Make the Road members successfully lobbied for a law that requires paid sick leave for companies with 50 employees or more, a law that removes citizenship requirements for professional licenses, another that addresses the city’s massive homeless problem by giving tenants certain protections, as well as the establishment of an Office of New Americans to help the immigrant community.
Make the Road has been very busy, evident by the handful of times Inarú politely broke away from our 10-minute conversation to answer her cell.
Soon the canvassers started shuffling through the door. Most of them looked like high schoolers, all Latinos, at least except for this one Filipino kid, who fit right in anyhow. Bianca Balderas, the group’s ebullient organizer—with Mesoamerican-styled earrings and necklace, and twin ponytails—gathered all the kids in a circle of foldable chairs. I sat next to a mild-mannered and soft-spoken reporter from The Washington Post, an older bespectacled man who spoke Spanish and said he’d worked at the Mexico City bureau.
At first the kids, and even some of the organizers, were standoffish with me and the guy from the Post. I kept getting asked, sometimes by the same person, “Wait, who are you with?” One kid thought Latino Rebels was somehow connected to UNLV, an easy mistake to make. A lesbian, around my age, didn’t seem to trust me for anything, which is understandable; I wouldn’t trust me either at first sight. When I mentioned to the group how it looked like Bernie was going to win Nevada, the girl huffed. “Looks like?”
Bianca had everyone introduce themselves, give their preferred pronouns, and say who in their life had inspired them the most. The girls gave their names and said, “My pronouns are she/her/ella,” before naming their inspirational person, usually a mom, sometimes a grandma, or even an aunt. The boys did the same, but with he/him/él, though their inspirational people were usually women, too. A few people said we could use any pronoun we wanted for them. I skipped my pronouns and told the story of my grandma: how she came from Honduras with nothing, except three daughters, and went on to open her own fashion boutique, send her daughters to private school, own her own home in Logan Square, and travel the world constantly.
“She’s the matriarch of my family,” I said, raising my hand up high in a claw, palm down, to indicate the power my grandma has held in my family since time immemorial. “And whenever I get the urge to slack off, I think to myself, My grandma didn’t do all of that just for me to be lazy.”
My story earned me some points with the lesbian girl, who looked at me and, nodding her head, said, “I like how we’re keeping this thread of matriarchy going.” I smiled and nodded back. Then she told the story of her own grandmother, how when she finally came out to her, the old lady just laughed it off and said, “Mija, I’ve always known.” There were tears in her eyes when she recounted the story, and we gave each other more nods.
Some kids told the stories of how they or their parents or both had been deported—one kid more than once. One girl, Liz, told how her family had fallen on hard times after her dad was deported when she was 15. The Filipino kid, whose name I didn’t catch, said he could relate to our descriptions of life back in Latin America, explaining how his family had left the Philippines and come over to America for the same reasons: to escape the violence and poverty, for a hope of some kind of future.
There was too much heaviness in their voices—in their faces, in their eyes, their “shoulders falling down like teardrops“—especially for being so young.
Bianca had everyone stand up, and said she had an inspiring woman for us all to keep in mind. She had trouble pronouncing the name—she was reading off her cell phone—but I immediately realized whom she was referring to. I said the name before she could get it out—Assata Shakur—and everyone turned their eyes toward me.
“Oh, so you know about her?” Bianca seemed impressed.
“She’s Tupac’s aunt,” I said, and went into how she’s also a former member of the Black Liberation Army, as well as the first woman to top the FBI’s Most Wanted list, for shooting a New Jersey state trooper in 1973. She currently lives somewhere in Cuba. Washington deems her a terrorist, but Havana recognizes her as a freedom fighter.
My knowing about Assata scored me more points with the group, and after a while they stopped treating me as another member of “The Press,” which I never have been, really, but the movements of my pen against my notepad tend to put other brown and black people on edge.
Again, completely understandable.
The warm-up ended with a chant—“It is our duty to fight for our freedom! It is our duty to win! We have nothing to lose but our chains!”—repeated thrice. Then came a slow, building “unity clap,” used by César Chávez to bridge the language barrier, with the call “Se puede or no se puede?” and the response “Sí se puede!”
The canvassers were paired up and assigned separate neighborhoods. I tagged along with Elena, 18, and Kevin, 19, climbing through the back window of a two-door Jeep—that impressed them, too—steered by a female canvassing director not much older than the other two. We were headed for the neighborhood just east of Rancho High School (which counts the singer Ne-Yo and the disgraced Congressman Rubén Kihuen among its alumni). On the way there we crossed Camino Cesar Chavez, what Pecos Road is named around these parts.
We were dropped off in one of the most God-forsaken neighborhoods I’ve ever set foot in outside Latin America. “You grow up somewhere like this?” Kevin asked me.
“Yeah, kinda”—which sort of true.
Truth is, though, I wouldn’t have been anywhere near that neighborhood without my two young chaperones—especially not on foot. My clothes were too new and too nice, my shoes too white. I looked like the biggest mark in the state of Nevada. Why the hell was I wearing Gucci shades?
“You gonna stay with us the whole time?” Kevin asked. He had on a white windbreaker, grey sweatpants and white Nike sneakers.
“Yeah, why?” I said.
“Naw, it’s cool. It’s just that most journalists just come for like half an hour and leave.”
“They’re just coming for a quote, with their story already to go in their heads. But I come not knowing anything, or what to expect.”
“That’s cool,” Elena said. She was thin, light-skinned and wide-eyed, with skinny jeans and black sneakers. Because Kevin was a year older and had more experience canvassing, he had her holding the tote bag with campaign literature about caucusing and Bernie Sanders—the candidate that Make the Road has committed to this year wholeheartedly.
Elena was soft-spoken, but I’d talked with her in the backseat of the Jeep on our way toward Rancho. She told me how she’d gotten involved with another community organizing group, which introduced her to the people at Make the Road Nevada and the work they’re doing. “It’s crazy how you run into the same people but with different groups,” she said. In the community organizing scene, people wear multiple hats and have a number of affiliations: they make whatever amount of people-power there is on hand stretch a long way.
Kevin, meanwhile, was a talker—and knew his shit and was passionate. During the two and a half hours I was with them, the three of us discussed a variety of topics—history, racism, sexism, classism, psychology, our families, our passions, bears, sharks, dogs, witches, ghosts, music, and so on—with Kevin usually choosing the subject. “What do you think about?… Have you ever heard of?… Don’t you think it’s messed up how?… Would you rather?…”
They were both passionate about Bernie; the other candidates were chopped liver. They feared Trump might win reelection, so long as enough voters stayed home on Election Day. Which is why they were canvassing, going to every door marked on this app—a red dot indicating who was for Bernie—to make sure every last Bernie supporter showed up to the caucus at Rancho High School on Saturday, the 22nd. Judgement Day.
But that app was good for nothing. It was supposedly powered by Google, but it was worse than the Apple one. (I remember reading a few years back how Apple Maps was sending Aussies into the Outback when where they meant to go was somewhere close by, like McDonald’s. The cops had to go rescue the sorry bastards.)
Kevin and Elena spent so many minutes just trying to find the next door to knock on. It wasn’t entirely the map’s fault, though: that neighborhood was so messed up, even the addresses were wonky. We came across two separate apartment buildings, across the street from each other, with the same exact address displayed on them. “Sometimes,” Kevin told me, “a house will have a number on it but the curb will have a different number.”
“Imagine having to deliver a pizza here.”
“Right?” they both laughed.
Most of the time, no one answered the door—and when someone did answer the door, they usually told us we had the wrong house. “They probably moved and the app hasn’t updated,” Kevin explained.
“And they gave a lot of money for this app, too, I think,” he told me.
We also spent a lot of our time on the lookout for vicious guard dogs, which we imagined lurking in every yard, out of sight, and bloodthirsty. “Dogs are smart! Tricky! They wait for you, lure you in!” In the neighborhood of houses just south of the apartment buildings, every home had a dog or two, from pit bulls and huge German shepherds, to chihuahuas no bigger than alley rats, all barking and yapping their mangy necks off. And there were roving gangs of the most savage cats I’d ever encountered.
(“They Lion grow…”)
Nearly every yard was grassless and littered with all sorts of junk, even old, rusted-out cars. One house had its windows boarded up with NO TRESPASSING displayed on each window, but the porch light was on.
“Looks like a trap house,” I noted—I’m from Chicago, so I’ve seen a few bandos in my day.
“Oh yeah, huh?” the two kids said, their wide eyes watching the house as we walked past in silence.
Kevin told me how he got involved in organizing. “I was 15. I had this teacher, Reuben D’Silva, who taught world history”—he’s also a Devil Dog, a veteran of the Iraq War, and a recipient of the Purple Heart (he was shot in the left forearm by an AK-47), with degrees from UPenn and Yale—and he’s also supporting Bernie in 2020. “He was running for office, and he said that if I volunteered, helping out with the election, that it would count toward my volunteering hours. So I did it.”
“And you got hooked, huh?”
I gazed over at the high school. The top half of the building was clearly visible above the rooftops. It looked swanky, with all its glass and steel.
“Looks pretty fancy,” I said.
“What, Rancho?” Kevin asked in disbelief. They both laughed a bit to themselves, shaking their heads. “I mean, I guess it looks nice, on the outside and everything. But the people that go there…”
Elena hadn’t gone to Rancho, but she agreed with Kevin.
It got dark, chilly, and with the debate about to start in half an hour, I ordered an Uber and said my goodbyes to Elena and Kevin. Those kids, man. Who knows how many hours, how many miles they’ve walked in the past few weeks. And on evenings way chillier than that one.
As long as there are kids like them—and there are, all over America, knocking on doors as we sit here—there will always be a few drops of hope left in the tank, enough to get us somewhere.
When my Uber driver, Yolanda, picked me up, at first she greeted me and spoke to me in Spanish. But when she realized my Spanish was shaky, she spent the rest of the ride switching between English and Spanish—and with ease, too. Yolanda had to be in her fifties or thereabout. I asked her how she liked working for Uber.
She didn’t like it that much.
“They leave me with less than half of the fare,” she told me in Spanish. “If the trip costs 12 dollars, they give me five. And they only give me the average of my tips, not the whole thing.”
“And what, for an app?” I said, instigating. “I mean, it’s important, the app. But you’re doing the work.”
“And I’m the one who has to pay for the car, for the gas, for the insurance. No es justo… But what can we do? We have to work.”
I told her how I’d just been with these kids canvassing for Bernie Sanders ahead of the caucuses, and how he was running to make things a little more justo for everybody in America—if not the whole world.
“But Bernie’s already old!” she said with a grimace, shaking her head.
“He’s the same age as el Trump, y Joe Biden! They’re all 70-something.”
“Really?” This bit of news seemed to appall her. “We need someone young though.”
I was going to mention Buttigieg, but she was driving and I’d distracted her enough.
Back at Make the Road Nevada headquarters, the debate watch party was in full swing. In the formerly empty space, chairs were set up in a slight arc. A live feed of the debate over at the Paris was projected up on a wall. Two speakers on stands emitted a loud voice speaking in Spanish; it took me a few seconds to realize that the people gathered were watching the debate with a Spanish voiceover: a man’s voice for the male candidates, a female voice for Lizzie and Amy. On the table against the wall that had coffee earlier, there was now trays of taquitos and sopa de repollo, with a lit Sterno can keeping the soup warm, plus conchas, cookies, and two-liter bottles of Tampico, Squirt and Pepsi—water too, I guess, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The attendees seated in the audience held placards reading FAMILIES BELONG TOGETHER/FAMILIAS UNIDAS. There were mothers with very young kids—a couple babies, even.
Everybody was playing Debate Bingo. Each person had a Bingo card printed on a sheet of paper, with each box reading something like “Student Debt Crisis,” “Citizenship for All,” “Billionaire,” or “The Wall.” The reverse side had each square translated into Spanish. It was an ingenious method of keeping everyone engaged, as every set of eyes remained glued to the wall where the debate was being shown. During each commercial break, José Macías, the lead organizer, would review what was said and which terms were mentioned in the preceding segment: “What are some of the things you heard discussed?”
“Clean energy!” one lady would say.
“The school-to-prison pipeline!” said another.
I was introduced to Natalia Betancur, the director of immigrant justice at the Center for Popular Democracy. She and group of others had unfurled a banner on the pedestrian bridge over the Strip, just south of Flamingo, and she wanted to show me the pictures. The sign read CITIZENSHIP FOR ALL/ABOLISH ICE.
Later I spoke with Daniel Altschuler, who’s the managing director of Make the Road Action—the campaign arm of Make the Road—as well as the director of civic engagement and research at Make the Road New York. Mr. Altschuler is a Rhodes Scholar, holding a doctorate in politics from Oxford. He’s spent time in Central America, namely Honduras and Guatemala, researching the ways in which the people there are trying to regain control over their homelands.
What I remember most about Daniel is that he’s very tall and sedate.
He in turn introduced me to Lalo Montoya, the political director for Make the Road Nevada, who’s not nearly as tall as Daniel but just as mellow and self-assured. Lalo told me his story, a fortuitous journey which has seen him go from snot-nose high schooler to one of the most impressive community organizers in the United States, in the span of a dozen or so years. But I’ll leave that for him to tell when he appears on Rebels Radio (so stay tuned).
The debate ended, people began leaving, saying bye to Lalo on the way to their cars. We were talking out in the chill of the sidewalk, my teeth chattering.
I called an Uber.
Martín was a Mexican man in his fifties, dark-skinned and built like a sack of cornmeal, who loved eighties music. When I climbed into the front seat of his old Honda CR-V, he was listening to “Maniac,” from the movie Flashdance. He started singing as soon as we were out of the parking lot, his thick Mexican accent making it surreal. “Cheese a may-niac, maaay-ni-ac, on da floor…“
Then came Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”: “Is da terror uh knowing what dis world is about…” That Martín all the lyrics, even the obscure ones, shocked me, I’m ashamed to admit.
“He just died, Bowie,” I said.
“Sí, hace poco que murió.”
We talked about how they don’t make music like they used to. Martín was a big fan of Freddie Mercury.
“What talent!” I said.
“Sí, tremendo talento. And both maricones,” he said about Freddie and Bowie.
My asshole tightened at the sound of that last word, landing out of nowhere.
“Yeah,” I said, “but they were so talented, no one even cared—or they pretended they didn’t know they were gay. Same with Elton John.”
Then came something by Billy Joel on the radio, and we talked about the recent Queen and Elton John biopics.
After discussing how good all those eighties action movies are—The Terminator, of course; Predator; Rambo; Die Hard; the Superman sequel; Bloodsport; Universal Soldier (which I now realize came out in ’92); and Cyborg, which I’ve never watched but promised to soon—and after agreeing that the likes of the Rock and Jason Statham will never compare to Arnold, Stallone, Lundgren, Van Damme, etc., we moved on to politics.
I mentioned to Martín that a recent poll showed that a full 30 percent of Latinos support Trump. “Even my own grandma,” I said, “who came from Honduras, she supports Trump, too—the wall, everything.”
This pissed him off. “What’s wrong with your grandma?” he demanded to know.
“I guess she thinks he’s strong. That America was weak before, under Obama. But I think America is weaker now. Everybody’s laughing at us. Even our friends hate us.”
He switched to Spanish, to really say what he meant to say: “What does your grandma think about Trump putting people in cages—even kids! Does she think that’s good?”
“I know, I know,” I tried telling him. “You don’t know the arguments me and my grandma have about the politics here, and the politics in Honduras. She’s with the golpistas.”
“What’s her problem! What’s wrong with her!”
“I don’t know. I guess she watches the wrong news channel.”
I asked him if he liked Bernie, figuring he might.
“No,” he said. “Bernie’s already old. We need somebody young, fresh. I like that one—what’s his name.”
“Sí, me gusta él. He’s young and has good ideas.”
I wondered if he knew Buttigieg was gay, too—how could he not know? But seeing how he loved Freddie Mercury and Bowie and Elton John, I’m sure he didn’t care one way or the other.
So much for machismo—and good riddance!