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Oaxacan poet Eufrasio Reyes wrote, in a refrain familiar to anyone who’s plunged into a night at the cantina,
In the cantina, a man travels to unimaginable places, but the next day reality is crueler than his hangover.
Reality, legend, legend, reality: the swinging doors of the cantina vacillate between the two.
The cantina was born in the latter half of the nineteenth century, when U.S and French soldiers were attempting imperialistic explorations into Mexico. At that time, establishments serving alcoholic beverages were restricted to wine bars, for upper class Spaniards, and pulquerias (which served the fermented corn beverage pulque), for lower class mestizos and Indians. The two merged into the cantina, which surged in popularity during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz.
Photo: Gary Denness
At that time, cantinas were mostly frequented by upper class men. However, when the Diaz dictatorship crumbled, so did the strict class boundaries attached to cantinas. In the radicalized, revolutionary Mexico of the 1920’s and ‘30’s, cantinas were frequented by bohemians, intellectuals, artists, and revolutionaries. And of course men looking, as José Alfredo Jiménez classically phrased it, for tequila and a song.
They were not, however, frequented by women; not even after 1982, when the law banning women from entering cantinas was lifted.
Mexican intellectual Carlos Monsiváis writes:
The cantina revolves around machismo, around a masculine supremacy of misery, around the ambition to submerge oneself in reality in order to forget one’s frustrations.
This “masculine supremacy of misery” is distinctly Mexican in style—it could include downing copa after copa alone, with sombrero pulled low, or it could involve belting out a ranchera at the top of one’s lungs, wiping tears from one’s eyes, or it could involve heart-to-heart man-to-man conversations about—sigh, groan—mujeres.
Oftentimes, I find, it is “masculine” only because it occurs between men—otherwise, the cantina is a place to release and demonstrate “feminine” emotions. It is a place where men are simultaneously at their most macho and their most feminine.
It is also a place where lower class men can go to release humiliation or frustration related to their place in society, and where they can temporarily abscond from their responsibilities to family, women, work. The cantinas that appeal to such men also tend to appeal to bohemians, intellectuals artists, and those who like dancing along the darker fringes of society.
Cantinas are not always pretty, and oftentimes visiting is walking the knife-edge between vivid joy and release and profound despair. Perhaps that’s what attracts writers. And what attracted me.
Eufrasio Reyes best captured the cantina in his eponymous poem:
A man loses the sense of passing time
His heart takes comfort in its beating
His mind rests in its unconsciousness
In the ultimate refuge of mankind
The cantina is the stuff of legend. And, like so many legends and myths in Mexico, it mixes indistinguishably–sometimes messily, sometimes romantically–with daily life. In the cantina poetry, beer, manliness, death, love, loss, melancholy, misery, and loneliness blend together to sink a man deep down into the soul of life, or yank him out of it.
The cantina is a socio-economic phenomenon, an illustration of Mexico’s political and cultural histories and realities, but it is also something more ethereal, soul-like or ghost-like. Stay at the cantina long enough, and the distinctly Mexican sense of doomed longing, of giving way to the grinning skeletal pull of the netherworld, creeps into oneself. And then, waking up the next morning with a roaring cruda, eating caldo or chilaquiles, one is absorbed back into the fabric of daily life.