While north of the border Trump speaks of bad hombres and building walls, Julie Hill befriends a dog named Butterfly.
The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand
Original illustrations by Amane & Me.
Once, this town was called the Place of Dogs, and by night, dogs are all you can hear, their soulful whines and outraged woofs ricocheting around the desert plateau, pinging and ponging from mountain to mountain in the huge black coldness.
Once you finally fall asleep, it’s time for the cock. An unwelcome party guest, he arrives either early or way too early, especially if mezcal has been drunk the night before. As a Mexican rooster, he doesn’t cock-a-doodle-do, he goes quiquiriquí, but the message is universal: I am here. I am amazing. Wake up everyone, it’s 3am.
Then later in the morning, the bells of the cathedral, followed by the bells of a different cathedral, which is out of time with the first one. Swoosh of water, wooden bristles on cobblestone, scraping away our sins, fresh as the second after Confession.
Before I came here, I fucking hated dogs. What I disliked most was the neediness, the drool, the odour, the barking and how they could be a bit scary. Worst of all was how they would eat their own vomit and shit, then try to lick you on your face. But Mariposa is different. A street fighter and a hustler, a black lab mixed with some other stuff, her full name is Mariposa de Tuerca, butterfly nut, on account of her big floppy ears. I admire her life choices, because all she does, pretty much all day, is just lie down under a tree.
She is a dog named Butterfly, a dog of contradictions. While there are telltale grey tufts around her snout that reveal her advanced age, she is young and stupid in spirit. And while she is extremely lazy, she yearns for adventure. Specifically, she yearns to come on the bus with us to town. If she catches wind that we’re off, she’ll pretend to farewell us at the gate, then moments later, squeeze through a gap somewhere and gallop down to join us just before we reach the main road, then try to cross it when we’re not looking.
We have to spend ages yelling at her to go home, often with the help of neighbours, who can shoo her in her native tongue. Because our Spanish is horrible. All we know how to do is repeat things other people just said, in awkward exchanges like these:
Where are you from?
Where are you from?
Ah! New Zealand.
Gosh. Very far away.
Yes. Very far away.
Look over there, it’s a fire.
Oh shit, that’s terrible.
Shit. I actually know those guys. They’re friends with my cousins.
Can I please have the top-up for my mobile phone?
Anything else with that?
Would. You. Like. To. Buy. Something. Else?
Ah! No please.
This morning, an older gent in a white cowboy hat, his elderly mama and some random schoolkids have just helped us cajole Mari into going home when the bus pulls up. Incognito on the outside, inside it’s lavishly pimped out with large portraits of the Virgin of Guadalupe and Jude, patron saint of thieves, hustlers and other lost causes. A red Satan stuffed toy dangles from the ceiling and neon aliens crawl up the wall. The bus driver’s alter ego – Gordito or Little Fatty – is written in swirly purple lettering across the dash.
As always, the bus is rammed and we smush into the back seat, attempting to merge into the huge family surrounding us. We’re the only gringos who take the bus, and everyone knows we can’t talk, so they just smile at us sorrowfully. We find it comforting to count the babies on the bus: today there are five, all screaming their heads off.
A man in a black cowboy hat with a black guitar comes aboard and starts strumming a dreamy love song. He’s entrancing, but not so much that we don’t notice Mariposa as we take off, eyeballing us from the other side of the road, one paw extended into the traffic.
Animal skulls line the entrance to the bad-ass dairy Los Lobos/The Wolves, where sometimes we crawl with hangovers to buy Doritos and cactus-flavoured water. We pass alfalfa fields and furniture stores, then, in the middle of a roundabout, Gordito parks and exits the bus. He disappears into a diner, returns some time later with a tamale, and continues driving while eating it.
After the busker gets off the bus, Gordito cranks up his playlist. The song ‘Mariposa Traicionera’ (Treacherous Butterfly) starts up with its tropical holiday vibe. There are egg shakers. A man addresses a woman. You are like a butterfly, he croons, which seems nice, but he means she’s a whore. After he finishes telling her how much of a whore she is, he wishes her all the best in her life. The passengers hum along.
Outside a party supplies store, a Donald Trump piñata swings in the breeze. We want to get one so we can smash his brains out, but it’s the month before his inauguration, and they’re selling like hot cakes. Even with our limited comprehension skills, we can tell that Mexicans aren’t impressed with Trump’s output so far, considering that he’s called them rapists, not our friends and bad hombres.
While I can’t read the newspaper, I can understand the cartoon that depicts him as a toilet shitting into his own mouth, and another one of him as a Russian nesting doll with Hitler, Kim Jong-Un and Mussolini hiding inside him. On Twitter, ex-president Vicente Fox trolls Trump hard, writing “Mexico is not going to pay for that fucking wall”. My hairdresser pins up a sign showing pictures of badly executed two-tone colour jobs, under the heading Bad Ombrés.
Entering town now, there’s an explosion of frilly pink architecture, the froufrou legacy of 16th century Spanish colonisers. There is a dusky rose cathedral in the shape of a wedding cake, taverns and shops in autumnal reds, rusts, oranges and golds, and hot pink bougainvillea creeping over the walls like a pretty rash. In the cobblestone streets, the paths are too petite for two.
Everywhere, everywhere, we see the Brunette, aka the Brunette Virgin, aka the Virgin of Guadalupe. The supermodel of syncretism, all the stars of the universe are contained in her cloak, in the deep green of Aztec royalty. She blocks out the sun god with her heavenly body and crushes the moon god beneath her feet.
Inside the churches, the angels wear glittery disco boots but Jesus is not doing so well. Far from the blond surfer dude I grew up with, smiling in a blissed-out kind of way, here he’s on his knees, tipped forward, green with nausea and about to puke, his crown of thorns gouging holes in his skull.
Francisco, the guy who rips and sells all the new movies, has been doing a roaring trade selling buttons to Americans that say “Trump, chinga tu madre” (fuck your mother). US retirees have been coming to this town since the 1950s to soak up the beauty, the cheap property and the excellent healthcare. They paint, buy vegan mozzarella from organic stores and evidently visit the same plastic surgeon, who gives them faces that seem to go out of focus from afar.
This morning, he’s telling two ladies in ponchos and expensive jewels his theory that Trump was once molested by a dog. Think about it, he says. When he wants to insult someone, what does he call them? Plus, he didn’t bring a dog to the White House. The first US president with no dog in 120 years. What’s he hiding?
Francisco asks the ladies if they know there are more Americans living illegally in Mexico than there are Mexicans living illegally in the United States. They didn’t know that. So many gringos, says Francisco, we need a wall to keep them out. They laugh. I’m not joking, he says.
Later, we see the ladies again, walking up a path. They zoom past a tiny old woman sitting in a doorway, begging for money. One shouts to the other about how she’s just received a large inheritance and is now in a pickle, wondering what to spend it on.
When we get home, Mari greets us at the gate, jumping in her adorable dorky loops. It’s all bullshit. She knows that we know that she’s spent all day far away from the property she’s meant to be guarding, chowing down on rubbish and getting up to God knows what, and is now pretending to be innocent. But to think that at least one Mexican doesn’t think of us as a couple of idiot tourists fills our hearts with joy.
We’re under strict instructions to keep Mari outside at night, chained to a fence, but there are issues. In the spot we are meant to tie her to, she catches ticks that we have to pull out of her body with tweezers, which is unbelievably repulsive. Also, it’s wintertime in the desert – hot by day but freezing by night – and when she presses her face up to the glass door, begging us to let her in, it’s a sad show indeed.
We wrap her in a blanket to sleep on, but in the morning the polyester fleece has dissolved into a million tiny unrecyclable pieces. We go to a mall and shop for a dog jumper. The only thing in her size is a black polo neck with a white skull and crossbones on the back.
Mariposa stands still as a corpse as we squeeze her into the jumper, which makes her look like an emo teenager. Once she has it on, she leaps around a bit, pretending to be thrilled, but she’s like a listless stripper working a pole. Later that evening, she wriggles out of it and we never speak of it again. Anyway, she’s won. Because, briefly dressed like a human as she was, Mari took the opportunity to come live inside, and somehow, we consented.
I start volunteering at a writers’ festival in a fancy hotel, along with many older ladies. My favourite is Gloria, a graceful Mexican-Texan dame with a black bob, who resembles a slightly more mature Donna Tartt. As Naomi Klein prepares to take the stage to talk about climate change, we stand at the doorway, swiping people’s tickets with a brand new and incredibly temperamental barcode swiper, and Gloria demonstrates how to maintain a glassy, friendly smile while being yelled at by some total arsehole festival goer for being too slow.
As the former wife of a Mexican diplomat, Gloria tells me she had to attend many posh dinners with unbearable people all around the world. Once, a French lady kept telling her about all the presents her husband had bought her, to which Gloria kept responding, “How nice”. “Ow nice,” said the lady, “You say that about everything,” to which Gloria replied in her Southern drawl, “Where I come from, how nice is what you say when you really want to say fuck you.”
On January 22, 2017, the day after Trump’s inauguration, we are in the car on our way to the Women’s March. ‘Mariposa Traicionera’ comes on the radio and we are humming along to the verse. Suddenly, our own Treacherous Butterfly springs out of nowhere and lopes towards us in the traffic. We scream, slam the breaks on, get out and yell at her to get off the road.
But she won’t be abandoned. She hard-out refuses. She wants to come to the Women’s March. So we give up and shove her in the back seat, where she rides along with her head out the window, ecstatically drooling.
The turnout at the Women’s March isn’t huge, and nearly 100% gringo, because it turns out Mexicans have too much other shit going on, and as much as they hate Trump, they hate their own shitty president even more. Peña Nieto’s popularity is currently at an amazingly terrible 12%, suggesting many would rather be punched in the face than carry on having this man at the helm.
Today alone, there’s a protest against Peña Nieto hiking the gas price up by 20%, which he had vowed his government would definitely never do, and another protest about an alleged state cover-up of a police shooting of two local kids. It seems gas is most popular, followed by murder, and women are coming in a very distant third.
But Mariposa is having the time of her life. She jumps in her dorky loops, barks appreciatively all the way through everyone’s speech, and when a man walks by holding up a placard – “Can’t build wall, hands too small” – she whimpers. When it’s time to head home, she’s reluctant to join us. She dawdles, often coming to a complete halt. She’s wistful and distracted. It’s a huge effort to stuff her back into the car.
Just days before her real owner returns, Mari gets sprayed by a skunk. We find a website called deskunkmypooch.com but she refuses to submit to any of the remedies because water is her enemy. We try to keep her outside, but she breaks in and smears her foul odour all over the couches and carpet.
At dusk in the former Place of Dogs, mariachi players work their schmoozy magic on the tourists in the town square, and out on the ranches, the locals dance to trombones and squeezeboxes. Fireworks go off here and there like bombs, because there’s always a saint to be celebrated, and the way to celebrate saints is to blow shit up.
Then night falls and the barking starts once more. The dogs, oh my God, the dogs, crying, keening, lamenting the loss of the day. And one day soon, the dog named Butterfly will take her last chance in the traffic, lose in the game of life, and finally become an angel.
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