Addicted to Love

Romance resides at the bottom of a bottle in local cantinas

And so is Mauricio. The workday's coming soon, but he didn't quite make it home. "Me coming at this time, she's going to be very surprised," he says, walking through the entryway's plastic flaps and sitting down at a metal table in the back of the bar, right by a large speaker spitting out reggaetón. This place is livelier than the last, full of women of all ages, all hoochied up.

Mauricio is staring at Rita, but she's not looking back. With hair cropped short and legs curved together, she's sitting over by the bar, looking extremely bored, without a beer in her hand. She's in her early fifties and pretty slim for a woman who drinks all night, four nights a week.

It's not unusual for a cantinera to have a belly. According to a 2002 report by Maria Eugenia Fernández-Esquer of the UT-Houston School of Public Health, these women typically drink 11 eight-ounce beers a day, although on big nights that number can go as high as 50. In order to cope with so much booze, they often carb up throughout the night or even employ slight swindles, such as filling a beer bottle with tea or dumping part of it out.

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.

Mauricio doesn't think Rita ever tried to trick him, but, hell, you never know. When asked where he'd go to meet a woman who isn't a cantinera, he mentions taxi-dancing clubs, where men pay women a dollar a song on the dance floor. That's where professional ladies go to meet gents, he says. The dollar price tag doesn't make anyone rich or poor, and it helps a guy get over the fear of rejection. But Mauricio seems to prefer a little more bang for his buck, which is why he once again finds himself at this bar on Broadway.

A buxom woman, "Maria," walks across the concrete floor and sits down next to him. A minute later and she's back with a $2 beer for him and a $7 beer for herself. She looks to be in her mid-thirties and says she's from El Salvador. She's dressed casually, in a relative sense, and seems relaxed, even though the tension in the room is far stronger than her buzz.

She's been working here for only two months, she says, and she's not sure if she likes it. She used to take care of her friends' kids. She's got two of her own, a seven- and an 11-year-old. It's not quite clear whether the other cantineras like her.

No matter, because the drunker Mauricio gets, the more he talks about Rita, who's still not looking his way. "I just want a little justification for what happened," he says. He begins pounding beers, placing each bottle sideways on the table after he's done; Maria manages to keep up.

When he gets up to go to the bathroom one last time before the ride home, I ask Maria what she thinks of the whole scenario. "You know what?" she says in Spanish. "She wronged him. He's been coming here for three years, every weekend. He bought her presents. That's just not right."

I tell her I thought she'd have the opposite impression.

"No," she says. "That's not right."

And then Mauricio's back and we head for the door.

"I cannot go there no more," he says. "That woman doesn't love me no more. She never loved me."

Lizzie Gutierrez was six years old when her twin sister died. From then on, her parents sheltered her from the dangers of the outside world, hoping to protect her, and themselves, from further harm. Gutierrez doesn't regret her cloistered childhood in Puerto Rico, but once she grew up, she decided it was time to see the grimier side of things. She got her master's in criminal justice from John Jay College in New York and has been working with high-risk populations ever since.

"She was a very good outreach worker, very streetwise," says 75-year-old Cilia Teresa, who worked with Gutierrez in the '90s. "I am not streetwise per se, but let's put it this way: I have pretty good instincts, and I have a great sense of self-preservation."

Teresa usually left the cantinas by dusk -- "There's no way to stay out of the way when violence breaks out," she says -- but Gutierrez would often stay on, taking chances to find out more about the women who work there. Any dangers she faced, however, were small compared to those of the cantineras she interviewed.

During her time with the UT-Houston School of Public Health, Gutierrez met a cantinera, she says, who had five children. This woman had crossed the border five times and been raped by five different coyotes. She also knew three women who got killed in less than a year. "None of those three cases were reported," she says.

"There's a huge, huge issue of fear and retaliation" when it comes to members of the community calling the cops, says City Councilman Adrian Garcia, a former Houston police officer whose district includes many cantina-filled neighborhoods.

And the violence extends beyond abuse of women by men. Customers sometimes fight with each other for the right to drink with a particular woman, and cantineras do the same for the right to drink with a particular man, or, in Gutierrez's case, one special woman. "One time I started talking to this girl in the bar and then another one was drunk and said, 'Lizzie, I want to talk to you,' " she says. Gutierrez asked the second one to wait until she was done talking to the first, but the second started yelling, yearning to talk to the social scientist who had become her friend. "The one who was sitting down with me took a bottle and threw it at the one I was going to talk to, and they started throwing bottles all over and I was in the middle," she says. "I was with two trainees and I said, 'Let's get out of here.' "

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