Addicted to Love

Romance resides at the bottom of a bottle in local cantinas

She's a lower-level cantinera. She only gets paid when someone buys her a drink. Think of her as a freelancer. The other two women in the bar are salaried, although, in essence, that just means they get to draw on commission. But still, they have an attitude that Consuela lacks.

"This is no future for you," Mauricio tells her in Spanish. "You're going to become an alcoholic." She nods her head in quiet, disinterested agreement. And then Mauricio proceeds to talk, at length, about how Rita broke his heart. "She wasn't offering me nothing: no kind of love, affection, or any kind of guarantee that later she would hook up with me," he says, adding that she ended up thinking he had a bad attitude. "She's the one who gave me that attitude, for not being the way she's supposed to be with me. Wouldn't anybody get an attitude?"

At the height of his "romance" with Rita, Mauricio offered to skip the middleman and just start paying regular price for her drinks, giving her a little extra cash each time. Rita couldn't accept, because she knew she'd end up getting kicked out of the bar if she didn't turn in enough tickets each night. (Cantineras are given ducats, not unlike those used in carnival raffles, to keep track of how many beers they've had.) So Mauricio kept paying full price. "Since I've quit -- this is going on two weeks -- I've stayed with more money in my pocket," he says.

Dancing is a fringe benefit of the beer buying.
Daniel Kramer
Dancing is a fringe benefit of the beer buying.
The ability to play pool is an important part of a 
cantinera's repertoire.
Daniel Kramer
The ability to play pool is an important part of a cantinera's repertoire.

Consuela nods on, smiling with capped teeth across the table. She's good company, but it's getting late and Mauricio's got forklifts to drive tomorrow. "She stays here longer and she gets used to it," he says once he's back in the truck, "she's not going to get away from it."

"A cantinera can make $200 to $300 a night," says Lizzie Gutierrez, a social scientist who immersed herself in cantina culture in the mid- to late 1990s. "How can you talk to them about getting a different job?"

During her research, Gutierrez met hundreds of local cantineras. "They came here with the American dream and they were lied to," she says, sipping a Frappuccino in Starbucks on Montrose. She has bright green eyes and looks far younger than 57, even though she's been chain-smoking for years. "I remember this cantinera in particular; she was a nurse in her country and she came here because they lied to her."

According to Gutierrez, your typical cantinera hails from Central America or southern Mexico. Traveling alone, she makes it across the Rio Grande with the help of a coyote, to whom she's then indebted. Then the coyote tells her he's going to take her to a house and help her find a job. "That house," says Gutierrez, "is a cantina." And so begins the cycle.

Next thing you know, the cantinera is making good money, sleeping in, drinking and dancing all night. She's even sending back dough to her relatives, which, after all, was the main reason she came to the States in the first place. But when she calls home, she never has the heart to tell her family she's drinking for a living. She makes up a little white lie, says she's working in a kitchen or taking care of somebody's kids. "But they send a lot of money, so what happens is, the family members over there think, 'Oh, my God, it's so good, I want to go to the United States because I want to make so much money doing that,' " says Gutierrez. "That's the way they keep them coming here."

The only cantina owner who was willing to speak to the Houston Press said, "Our cantineras, we treat them like family," before politely asking us to leave.

"These women are victims," says Gutierrez. "Some people call them prostitutes, and I hate that, because most of them, they are not prostitutes. They work real hard to get money to support their families."

Cantineras are there to sell liquor, not sex. The closest Anglo equivalent would be an exotic dancer. Both jobs require a gal to feign interest in a guy, so long as he's got cash, and both give the guy an inflated sense of self, a feeling that Yes, this woman really does like me. And sometimes she really does.

Hey, it happens.

Mauricio isn't a jealous man. Four years ago, when a random fellow began hanging out around his house, he didn't think anything of it. So what if his wife had a new friend? They'd been married for 21 years and had known each other since the fifth grade. If she wants to dance with someone else, well, good for her.

He still isn't sure how he got cuckolded. "That guy got in her head," he says. And next thing Mauricio knew, she was gone. She often came back to the house, talking about problems she was having with her new man. Once she even had bruises. But when the other guy called, off she went again.

Mauricio didn't get jealous when Rita talked to other guys, either. He knew it was her job, and he knew he'd get his turn. He was her favorite. He once asked her to give up the bar life for him, to which she replied she would do so when he could figure out a way for her to make $500 a week. She's still at the same cantina.

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