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"But .... "
"Sure, it's not the same," Martinez agrees cheerfully. "But you know what they say: without bread around, tortillas taste pretty good! Letty, you don't think it's fair that you satisfy yourself?"
He has a point. "Bueno," Letty says in an upbeat voice. She'll try his advice. "Thank you, Carlitos."
Pulling up to the Atchafalaya Cafe in his green BMW, Carlos Martinez looks like a man for whom being born poor and outside the U.S. was a mere error of fate. With his cell phone, his confidence, his natural inclination to select the most succulent, elaborate dish on the menu, Martinez is one of those people who seem destined to prosper.
Yet when he sits down, places his phone neatly on one side of his plate and politely leans forward for questioning, the 47-year-old Martinez says this: "I am from the border, and the border is what I'm all about." Though a man famous for explicit speech, here Martinez is not talking literally. What he means is that the peculiar laws of the frontier, both physical and intellectual, are what defined his life.
Geographically, the frontier in Martinez's life was his hometown of Reynosa, Mexico. When he was growing up, Martinez says, Reynosa had two major industries: an oil refinery and Boys' Town, a legal "tolerance zone" of cantinas, brothels and theaters that constituted a riotous, 24-hour-a-day mecca for young American males.
This second industry was the one that shaped not only Martinez's family history, but his world-view. It was in the cantinas that Martinez's father conducted one-half his life's work: consuming alcohol. The second half was beating Martinez's mother, who worked as a maid. "It was a full-time job -- tomar and abusar," Martinez says coldly. He seems to have few other memories of his father besides these; at eight, he says, he took over the paternal role himself, supplementing the tiny family income by selling newspapers and shining tourists' shoes. When he was 17, his long-absent father died. Today, Martinez's two sisters and his mother, who lives in Houston, still consider Martinez the head of the family.
The violence and machismo of his home both traumatized him and shaped his mindset, says Martinez. "It's one of the reasons I am so pro-woman," he says. "My father was a macho E I grew up thinking I'd never be that way." Instead, he became what is sometimes the other side of the same coin: a ladies' man. "From very early on, I was always a picaro," Martinez says in his dulcet voice. He loved older women; they apparently loved him as well. Almost predictably, Martinez claims he was a mere boy when he first had sex. But his experience wasn't that of the classic Lothario. Instead, he says, he was ten years old when he was raped by a 30-year-old woman. She was a friend of his mother's, an angry, unhappily married woman who spent an inordinate amount of time at the Martinez household. One day while his mother was working, the woman lifted him onto the bed and said, "I'm going to teach you something."
"I was frightened. I didn't know what was going to happen," Martinez says. "At first, I was interested. But she didn't want to stop. I was scared, and cried E. I was just a little boy, not fully developed. Instead of ejaculating, I peed inside her."
Part of what made the experience confusing, says Martinez, is that he had to admit it was also pleasurable. Thus began a career as a devout womanizer, even as the episode sharpened his perception of how people use sex to exploit others. Not that anyone ever spoke to him of such things. "In our [Hispanic] culture, no one gave us information," Martinez says. "There was, instead, a chain of disinformation. We're educated to think that a woman should be used like a piece of furniture." Traditionally, he says, Latin women are as misinformed as men, taught that they were born to keep house and to breed, that they cannot experience sexual pleasure, that male violence is natural and correct.
Growing up in Reynosa, Martinez soon began teaching himself -- and being taught -- differently. At 12, lured by money and excitement, he settled full-time into the hectic world of Boys' Town. While working as a waiter, a dishwasher and a bartender at places such as the Paris Nightclub, Martinez says, he was "watching how the world behaved." His girlfriends were prostitutes. Since he didn't give them money, he says, they demanded that he learn how to please them, providing him his first instruction in the truism that for men, just as for women, sexual ability is an acquired skill. Boys' Town taught him a respect for women's sexuality, Martinez says -- and a disdain for hypocritical men. He recalls that the brothels where he worked had special private rooms for priests, who called in advance to make sure their visits would go undetected.
"That's why I say abstinence doesn't exist," Martinez says now. "In Boys' Town, I learned not to abandon my faith, but also not to place it on Earth. From the ages of 18 to 23, I explored all kinds of religions, but I always found the same thing: hypocrisy and moneygrubbing."