Loving Pedro Infante: A Novel
by Denise Chávez
Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
"If you're Mejicana or Mejicano and don't know who Pedro Infante is, you should be tied to a hot stove with yucca rope and beaten with sharp dry corn husks as you stand in a vat of soggy fideos."
Teresina ("Tere") Ávila is a divorced, 30-something Chicana working as a teacher's aide "in the hinterlands of life" in Cabritoville, New Mexico, a small, dusty town near El Paso, Texas. The love of her life is Lucio, a smooth-talking ne'er-do-well who will never leave his wife and daughter, but ties Tere's heart in knots with a string of empty promises. Her diversions are few but intense and revolve around her best friend, Irma "La Wirms," and her membership in the Pedro Infante Club #256.
Pedro Infante was an icon of Mexican popular culture, a onetime carpenter whose career in song and on screen propelled him to the heights of fame. He was killed in a plane crash on April 15, 1957 (or was he?), and as secretary of the Pedro Infante Club, Tere is a walking almanac of facts about this tragic hero. When her covert relationship with Lucio begins to consume her life, Tere becomes increasingly dissatisfied with who she is and the choices she has made, until a chance encounter one night at a border-town truck stop forces her to reevaluate her hopes and expectations.
A novel about love's labors lost, Loving Pedro Infante unravels the fictions we weave to justify loving the wrong mate, and confirms Denise Chávez' reputation as one of our most vibrant Chicana storytellers.
The following is an excerpt from the book Loving Pedro Infante: A Novel
¡Híjole! In the Darkness
In the darkness of El Colón movie theater, larger than life and superimposed on a giant screen, Pedro Infante, the Mexican movie star, stares straight at me with his dark, smoldering eyes.
It is here in the sensuous shadows that I forget all about my life as Teresina "La Tere" Ávila, teacher's aide at Cabritoville Elementary School. Maybe that's why I like Pedro's movies so much. They make me think to stop thinking or stop thinking to really think.
It is here that I prefer to dream, seated in the middle of the people I call family. To my right is my comadre, Irma "La Wirma" Granados, and next to her is her mother, Nyvia Ester Granados.
It's dinnertime on a hot July night. I should be at home, and yet I find myself lost in the timeless transparency of El Colón watching Pedro Infante in the movie La Vida No Vale Nada. Pedro plays a melancholic loner named Pablo who keeps leaving any number of possible lives behind, and all sorts of women who might have loved him. He's a good-hearted vato who goes on these incredible life-changing borracheras whenever he feels overwhelmed, which is pretty much most of the time.
Ay, Dios mío.
Pedro's lips part slightly with that naughty nene -- little boy -- grin of his as he breaks into a song.
¡Ay, ay, ay!
Pedro knows me. He knows I crave his arms. His touch. His deep voice in my ear, his knowing hands on my trembling body.
The great flames of my dreams billow up to meet the flickering screen, as a wave of intense light consumes the sweet, painful and familiar song of my untold longing.
¡Uuuuuey! The man has me going. Revved up like a swirling red, green, yellow and blue top, I can barely sit still in my seat. I sit up straight, then shiver, then melt down to hot plastic, trying to find a comfortable position. My legs are itchy, a sure sign of the troubled state of my mind, my restless body. There is no relief. I admit, years after he died tragically in a plane crash, I'm in love with Pedro.
In the movie, Pedro-as-Pablo meets Cruz, the widowed owner of an antique shop in the market and he carries her groceries home for her. He offers to stay on to help and that is exactly what he does, cleaning up, fixing things, getting the shop back on its feet. And he can't help but notice how voluptuous Cruz is, despite her black widow's dress.
After exchanging glances that would have worked on any other woman, Cruz still can't admit she loves Pedro-as-Pablo. But she's thrilled to know he wants her -- his lust naked, unadorned. Only when she's behind closed doors in her room can she admit the terrible truth.
What can I tell you about Pedro Infante? If you're a Mejicana or Mejicano and don't know who he is, you should be tied to a hot stove with yucca rope and beaten with sharp dry corn husks as you stand in a vat of soggy fideos. If your racial and cultural ethnicity is Other, then it's about time you learned about the most famous of Mexican singers and actors.
Pedro was born November 18, 1917, in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, and died in 1957 in a horrible plane crash in Mérida, Yucatán, when he was forty years old and at the height of his popularity. He was the biggest movie star in the Mexican cinema of the forties and fifties, what is called La Época de Oro del Cine Mejicano. Many know him as "El ídolo del Pueblo." Some people even call him the Dean Martin of Méjico, but he's more, much more than that. He was bigger than Bing Crosby or even Elvis Presley.
Pedro's real life was just as passionate as the one he played on the screen. There was his first girlfriend, Lupita Marqués, who bore him a little girl. And then there was his long-suffering wife, María Luisa. Then came Lupe Torrentera, the young dancer he met when she was fourteen and who bore him a daughter, Graciela Margarita, at age fifteen. Lupe was the mother of two of his other children. And, of course, there was Irma Dorantes, the young actress who starred in many of his movies and became the mother of his daughter, Irmita. The marriage to her was annulled the week before his death.
In between these women were many other women, some whose names we remember, many we don't. And one can never forget his mother, Doña Refugia, or Doña Cuquita, as she was known. She was really the first woman who truly loved Pedro. Pedro was the type of man who took care of the women in his life, from Doña Refugio to María Luisa to all of his mistresses. Either he had a fantastically rich and good life or a hell of a complicated one.
If I'd had a chance and been born earlier and in a different place, I might have tried to take up with Pedro as well. But I was born in Cabritoville, U.S.A., on the Tejas/Méjico border near El Paso. The closest I'll ever come to Pedro Infante is in El Colón on a Thursday night. In here time is suspended. In here I want to imagine the impossible, to leave, for an hour or two, my life behind.
Nyvia Ester sits behind a woman who keeps talking when Pedro-as-Pablo does something cute on-screen, or makes ojitos with his beautiful eyes -- which makes us all sticky and hot like the popcorn with butter that we're holding even though we know he's been dead for years.
All I need is a little quiet and a lot of darkness. And for the man across the aisle from me to stop smacking his dry lips and murmuring under his hot breath.
When Pedro-as-Pablo suddenly takes Cruz in his arms there is a profound and sacred silence.
Then I hear a sharp intake of breath from Nyvia Ester. Irma sighs, a barely perceptible sound of pure pleasure. I slide down in my seat, my head momentarily resting on the plastic chair back, then nervously rise with dreaded anticipation of what is to come. This is the scene where Cruz gives Pablo her father's gold watch. I can't take it. I know what's going to happen.
It breaks my heart every time Pedro-as-Pablo leaves Cruz in the middle of the night after she's given him her father's watch. Later, she wakes up to find him gone and she runs down a set of dark stairs calling out his name. But he will never come back.
Pedro-as-Pablo is the type of man who will never be faithful to one woman. It's not that he doesn't want to be, he just can't. He can't stay with Silvia, the prostitute he befriends. Eventually he earns enough money as a baker to free her from the brothel owner she's indebted to, but when she finally finds him to thank him and hopefully spend the rest of her life with him, to her surprise he doesn't want her.
More adventures, more women, a life out of control. Pedro can't stop loving and leaving women.
Now raucous with laughter, the man across from me applauds as Pedro-as-Pablo awakes to find himself in bed again, now with Silvia.
Not even Cruz could stop Pedro-as-Pablo, make him stand still, find a life of peace. He loved her, but it wasn't meant to be. There is no rest for someone as rootless as him. Only drinking will ease his pain. Silvia is someone he pities. Marta? Ay, she's a minor distraction. How can Pedro-as-Pablo love anyone when he doesn't even like himself?
The temperature inside El Colón is ninety degrees. The main floor and the balcony are packed with people of all ages, families hovering close to each other, young lovers, older couples resting like torpid flies near the water cooler. Outside, it's hotter.
The married men wander down to the concession stand to get a Coke and stare hard at the young girls, chiflando in that soft appreciative way with their breath, a small outtake of air releasing the sexual tension, while their wives slink down in their seats, grateful for a little peace as they pull down their bunched-up panties. Someone takes out a much-used plastic bag full of tortas, someone else a crinkly paper bag full of ripe mangos. The floor is testimony to the fierce hunger that the darkness arouses. Candy wrappers stick to it along with chewed-up stalks of sugarcane with mashed fibers that nobody wants to look at too closely. Crumpled soft drink cups and popcorn boxes are tucked between seats, wads of tired gum are glued underneath.
Voices call out incessantly to the actors on the screen, without any hesitation or embarrassment, as if the audience knows them, are friends -- even family.
"Te quiero, Pablo," Cruz tells Pedro-as-Pablo.
The woman behind me tells him as well. "Y yo te quiero a tí, Pedro."
She's getting on my nerves. She knows all the lines to the movie and she repeats them to herself.
I know all the lines, too, but don't say them out loud.
In the darkness of el Colón, Pedro Infante could do it all, and he did. He sang, he rode horses, motorcycles, cars, buses, and he walked away from tragedy unlike anyone else. No one strode away from all these women, those men, their selfish attachments, all those inappropriate and terrible situations as Pedro did in La Vida No Vale Nada. | July 2001
Copyright © 2001 Denise Chávez
Denise Chávez is the author of The Last of the Menu Girls and Face of an Angel (FSG, 1994), which won the American Book Award. She is the recipient of a Lila Acheson Wallace/Reader's Digest Fund Writer's Award and a founder of the Border Book Festival in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she lives with her husband, Daniel Zolinsky.