By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
He says it's been two weekends since he last saw her, counting this weekend. Today is Thursday. He stands, barely five feet tall, in his gravel driveway in Magnolia, that Hispanic expanse to the east of downtown, between the Maxwell House plant and the Ship Channel. "Dad, how come you keep going over there?" he says his 20-year-old son kept asking. "The lady isn't offering you nothing -- no kind of compassion, no kind of hugs, no kind of kisses, nothing." So he says he's not going to see her anymore, he's finally wised up. He doesn't want his real name used, so let's call him Mauricio.
Mauricio is an addict. Now 45 years old, he began seeing the woman, whom we'll call Rita, about three and a half years ago, right after his wife left him for another man. They'd had five kids, all boys, all dark-haired and strong like their father. Rita was there for him when his wife died a year later, from a brain aneurysm. Rita loved him, or so he thought. Why else would she keep taking his money?
Rita is a cantinera. She works at a bar on Broadway and gets paid to drink. Her job has nothing to do with a scientific study, and she surely didn't find it on the back page of an alternative weekly. Male customers come into the cantina and buy themselves $2 beers. If they want the pleasure of Rita's company, they have to buy her a pony beer (eight ounces) for seven bucks. She splits the difference with the house, often taking in more than $100 a night.
Over the years, Mauricio estimates he's spent about $4,500 on Rita, which is a lot for a guy who makes ten bucks an hour. "It went to the point where she would loan me money and I would spend that same money on her and I would pay her back," he says. "How about that?"
Mauricio went to the cantina every weekend, even if it wasn't the safest place for romance. One time a guy accosted him and accused him of harassing an old man. Before Mauricio could explain it wasn't him, the guy reared back and broke a pool stick over his head. "The good thing is, he used the thin side," he says.
When Mauricio wouldn't show up, for whatever reason, Rita would call him at the house and ask him to come visit her. He rarely denied her. He gave her a bracelet, a watch, a ring -- a promise ring, at that. "I'd invite her to eat at the flea market; you know how they have hamburger stands and hot dog stands in there," he says. "I thought it was great, especially when I had lost my wife. But I thought much more of her than she thought of me." One time, drunk as a skunk, he offered her $300 to sleep with him. She declined.
Mauricio's sons kept telling him to stop seeing Rita, to find a nice woman who would love him for who he was, or at least someone who would give him some affection. Mauricio's friends made fun of him, as most guys do when they see their buddy isn't getting any play. But Mauricio couldn't stop seeing her; that would mean all his effort had been for naught. "You've got your eyes open, but you're still blind," he says.
But now Mauricio says he's had enough. Last time he saw her, he was angry and sauced; he cussed her out, wanting to make sure he would never return. That was two weekends ago, "counting this weekend."
So tonight he's going to other bars, in search of other women.
Consuela sits at a table against the wall, her plump frame resting in a plastic chair. She's the new one of the three. The other two are playing pool by the jukebox, all done up, chatting to one of the bar's regulars. This place is pretty dead for a Thursday night, or at least that's what Consuela's slouch is saying. She's wearing a blue shirt, new jeans and stacked-heel flip-flops. Her pretty face is framed by hoop earrings.
Consuela, of course, is not her real name. She's only been in the United States for two months, she tells Mauricio, who has showered and shaved since we last saw him. This is the second cantina he's visited tonight. The first, although livelier, presented him with a small problem: He had connected with a young cantinera who was very quiet and who didn't know how to play pool. ("To pay $14 for a beer and have her say, 'I don't know how to play pool, can you teach me?' " he says. "I mean, come on.") Rather than finding someone new at the same place, Mauricio headed out and hit up this joint on Navigation, where he's now sitting across from Consuela and a $14 beer.
Consuela is from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, she says. She left her two kids -- an eight- and a ten-year-old -- behind with her parents while she made the long, slow journey across Guatemala and Mexico. Her plan is to send money back to them. A cousin of hers lives in Houston and knows the owner of this bar, so here she came.
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.
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 coyotetells 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.
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.
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.' "
When it came to educating these women, Gutierrez is still unsure whether she made a difference. "Younger girls who were born in the AIDS era, they know about condoms," she says. As for the rest, they usually threw away the rubbers the minute she handed them over. And even for the ones who did know about condoms, when they took on a lover, a sugar daddy of sorts, he usually wanted to keep it pure, so to speak.
"They become the man's pleaser," she says.
A few days later, Rita calls Mauricio's house, although he's not there to answer the phone. He calls the cantina the next day and asks the bartender what she wanted.
"Her ponies," the bartender replies.
Three weeks go by and he still doesn't talk to Rita.
"This past weekend, I went Friday and Saturday, but I wasn't with her," he says. "I was with that other young lady."
He's begun seeing Maria. "She seems a lot more serious," he says. "She even gave me her cell phone number. I called her up and I didn't think it was going to be her actual number -- you know, sometimes they just fool you -- but it was hers, and I was pretty glad of that."
Maria understands him, he says.
"I had, like, $100 of tens, all tens, and I told her, 'Whenever you need a beer, just tell me.' "