This article is from the July 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Serenade Your Special Someone

(When In Mexico, Do As the Mexicans Do)

by Eric Cockrell

Eric Cockrell resides in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Soshana. Eric is also co-owner of Travel with Us, Inc., a tour company specializing in guided tours to colonial Mexican cities. He can be contacted at travel_w_us@hotmail.com

It is 3:00 o’clock in the afternoon, siesta time in Mexico, and I’m sitting at a table within the main courtyard of the Meson Sacristia de la Compañia. The Sacristia is an ex-convent which is now one of the more exclusive hotels in the historic district of Puebla. Sitting with me at the table are Toño and Pablo Bautista. Both are natives of Puebla and childhood friends of my wife, Soshana. While drinking glasses of sangria, we engage in conversation about the history of Puebla and the architectural beauty found in its historic district. The Sacristia’s courtyard, its romantic, dreamlike quality and classic styling, became our topic of choice.

“You know,” Toño said, “this courtyard is picture perfect for a Serenata.”

“Serenata? What is Serenata?” I asked.

Pablo and Toño looked at each other, then back to me with an expression of slight amusement. Raising an eyebrow, Pablo, the older of the two brothers, leaned back in his chair and proceeded to explain.

 “Serenata (serenade) is very special. It is most often used to express one’s true love and devotion to that special someone. In Mexico, it is every girl’s dream. It’s the grandest expression of true love.”

Without missing a beat, Toño says, “You need to get mariachis for Soshana. While in Mexico, you need to do as we do.”

“¡Si!” said Pablo, now leaning forward to pick up his drink. He tells me, “If you love your wife, surely you will not deny her first Serenata. I mean, you’re not afraid are you?”

They each raised an eyebrow and smiled. It was obvious by their expressions that this was a politely masked challenge. Surely I could not let the love of my bride come into question. I considered this unspoken dare carefully. I wondered what John Wayne would have done in this situation. Undeniably, the honor of my fellow Americans, traveling abroad in this foreign land, must be defended!

“Of course I’m not afraid,” I said replied confidently. “Amigos, anything you can do, I can do.”

“Then it’s settled!” cried Pablo, slapping his palm on the table. “Toño and I will make the arrangements. We’ll meet here at 8 o’clock.”

We then pushed ourselves away from the table and shook hands in agreement. As I escorted the two brothers through the courtyard, I felt confident and proud of myself for accepting the invitation to participate in their tradition. Stepping further into the street, I watched as Toño and Pablo walked up the block and around the corner out of sight.

Turning to view the façade of the Hotel Sacristia with its protruding balconies, I stood motionless for a moment, contemplating the affair to which I had committed myself. Suddenly, however, the shroud of romanticism that had enveloped me melted away as I began to scan my mental Rolodex of John Wayne films. It then occurred to me that I had never seen ‘The Duke’ sing mariachi songs in any of his movies. As I exhaled, I could hear a single phrase being pushed passed my lips, “What have I gotten myself into this time?!”

I arranged for Soshana to have a late dinner at the hotel with a few of her girlfriends. As it got later in the evening, I started to get more apprehensive about serenading my wife in the middle of a hotel filled with guests. I tried to come up with excuses for why I should cancel my outing. None of my reasons or excuses seemed reasonable to my wife. She felt it was important for me to go out to “bond with the boys.” I was unable to debate the issue with her any longer, so I sat down with the TV remote in hand and awaited Toño and Pablo’s arrival.

In my experience, the time you are told to be someplace is not necessarily the time you’re supposed to get there. In Mexico, if you are invited to a party at someone’s house and the invitation says 7:00 p.m., expect people to begin arriving somewhere around 9:00 p.m. If you do arrive at 7:00 p.m., you may just find your hostess still in hair rollers. Since Pablo said that we would hook up at 8:00 p.m., in true mañana form, it wasn’t until about 10:00 p.m. that I received the call from the concierge announcing Pablo’s arrival.

Walking down the staircase into the courtyard, I noticed my wife grab Pablo by the arm. She told him something in Spanish. Pablo patted her on the back, responded, they smiled, and then I kissed her goodbye for the evening. Pablo and I stepped outside the gated entrance of the hotel. Turning to him, I immediately asked him, “What did Soshana tell you?”

“She told me not to bring you back stinking drunk,” he snickered.

I asked him, “Is that a promise you intend to keep?”

Looking at me from the corner of his eye, he said, “Eric, sometimes it’s better to tell a woman what she wants to hear and apologize later. Wouldn’t you agree?” We both just laughed as we got into his car.

Our first stop of the evening was at La Leyenda (The Legend) on the zócalo. La Leyenda is a nice place where one can spend time with new amigos and have a few drinks. At night, though, La Leyenda can get pretty packed. There is a house band that plays Spanish rock with a little country mixed in for flavor. During their set everything from U2 to Metallica is played. In between sets, a DJ spins a mix of Salsa, Cumbia, American Disco and house dance music for all to enjoy.

The reason for the name, La Leyenda, is apparent as you walk through the building. The walls are covered with pictures of classic film actors and rock and roll legends. Everyone from the Beatles to Marilyn Monroe adorn every inch of wall space. Walking toward the bar with Pablo, we spotted Toño leaning against the counter talking with someone. When Toño saw us, he greeted us immediately.

“¿Que paso, hermano?” he hailed. “It’s good to see you. Are you ready to get started?”

“Si” I replied, “I’m as ready as I’m ever going to be.”

The band was playing loud, so the three of us took the table furthest from the bandstand so we could talk.

Keep in mind, I’m an American. I know nothing about the serenade routine. My Spanish is limited and, to be honest, I really could not see myself doing the serenade “thing.” I told the guys that maybe here in Mexico it’s customary to do this type thing, but back from where I come from, this just doesn’t happen.

“Amigo...Eric. Don’t worry –  all you need is a little courage,” Toño assured me.

“Courage?” I asked.

“Yes, Courage!” Toño stood up and signaled the bartender over to our table. “Miguel” he said, referring to the bartender, “tonight my friend Eric is getting mariachis for his girl. Bring us three cervezas and a bottle of courage.”

Courage, I discovered, came in the form of a bottle of Los Hornitos Tequila.

Pablo took the bottle of Tequila in his hands and poured all of us a drink. Raising his glass in a toast, he made a proclamation. “Till your courage is ready or this is bottle is empty. Salud!”

Lyrics to a song named “Cielito Lindo” had been handwritten on three little slips of paper. Pablo told me that this song is very important to Mexicans everywhere. When a Mexican is away from his country, “Cielito Lindo” is like a second national anthem. While gaining “courage” we sat together as they taught me how to read in Spanish and we practiced for the performance I’d be giving that same night. Once I had enough courage and had the song down pretty well (not by heart of course), it was time to find the mariachis that would serve as my accompaniment.

We left La Leyenda about 2:00 a.m. Our designated driver took us to the Plaza de los Sapos where mariachi bands gather. Once we had a band, my new friends, my mariachis and I walked one block to the Sacristia where the hosts were expecting our late night arrival.

Our plan was to have the concierge call Soshana down to the courtyard when we were ready.

Lyrics in hand, mariachis in full costume, and my amigos standing at my side, I was ready.

We waited as my wife was called from our room. She was told she had a visitor and she quickly came down. As she opened the zaguan (gate into the courtyard), the music began to play. The power and significance of this moment blew through me like a windstorm. I sang with lyrics in hand, with my wonderful Americano accent and absolutely surprised and delighted my wife. It was like I was seeing her for the very first time in my life.

On one side of me was the mariachi vocalist singing powerfully and passionately. On my left were my amigos Toño and Pablo singing their hearts out. We were doing it together. I was happy to be among them all.

The mariachis played two more songs. I didn’t know the words, so I stood by my wife as Toño and Pablo sang.

Earlier, I mentioned that I didn’t “get” the whole serenata thing. Well, I “get it” now. I understand that serenata is about celebrating life, love and passion. I feel honored to have been a part of this tradition. That very special experience was a major highlight of my first trip to Puebla.