I fell in love with El Chamizal soon after I got to Las Cruces as a grad student, in 1968. It was a small, turquoise-painted adobe restaurant at Main and Amador. It made money because it served a great green chile stew, and because it stayed open after the Amador Bar around the corner closed at night. Patrons didn’t worry about cleanliness because the chile had been cooking for days, killing any germs, and the chile itself would destroy anything it found in the bowl or spoon, or for that matter your stomach. It was my door into the New Mexico.
I was at the Amador one night with my professor, relaxing after a day of back-to-back faculty meetings which had devolved into screaming matches and no resolution. Antonio came in, a student the previous semester in my class. He was with a buddy and they reminded me of Mutt and Jeff, Antonio being tall and thin, his friend short and rotund. My professor left at that point, telling me to watch my back.
Still, I was free to socialize with Antonio. It was understood that we’d stay till closing and then walk over to El Chamizal. He was from Santa Fe, as well as his friend Eusebio, who was being loud about the dance records that had been stolen from him a few days before, supposedly by someone from Las Cruces. Eusebio had given a baile, a dance party, and discovered the loss afterwards. These were LP’s from Brazil, and in those days essentially irreplaceable. Eusebio had been suspicious of his Las Cruces guests from the get-go. It wasn’t uncommon for NMSU students back then to socialize only among the people they knew back home.
We walked around the corner to El Chamizal, and some of those very Las Cruces students, crucenos, were already at a table. I felt a knot in my stomach. My professor had warned me about Latino violence when I began work. Stereotype, of course; still, I had seen Antonio grab my boss by the collar and point a fist at him for using the phrase “dumb Mexican.” And one of the crucenos, Frankie, almost as tall as Antonio but muscular, not thin, was one of my students that very semester. I had had to give him a make-up test when he was jailed for brawling at the Village Inn down the street, though Frankie emphasized that an Anglo had thrown the first punch.
Eusebio made to approach the ‘Cruces table, but Antonio stopped him, and we sat down as far away as we could in the small restaurant. I ordered the green chile, but the santafesinos stuck with the red that was preferred up north.
I could see animated discussion at the other table, and Frankie got up and walked slowly over to us. Oh no, I thought. Here it comes. And I could feel the tension rise around our table, fists alternately clenching and relaxing, chins jutting out and then pulling back.
“It’s good to see you, Antonio.” He was speaking slowly, almost formally.
“Hey, Frankie, ¿Qué pués?” Same restrained style of speech.
“Okay, man, I’m doin’ okay,” Frankie said. “I hear one of your friends lost something.”
Eusebio shot up, but one of the others held onto him. Antonio said, “That’s right. Some records. Eusebio,” he nodded at him, “says they were gone at the end of the party. They’re from Brazil; he can’t replace them. They were really good records, de veras.”
“That’s bad, man. Things like that shouldn’t oughta happen.” Frankie was calm, deliberate.
“You’re right, Frankie,” Antonio said. “It messes things up when stuff like that happen.”
“Yeah, it can really make problems with people. But it doesn’t have to be that way, ‘Tonio. I think it’s going to be okay.”
Eusebio stood up with his fist clenched and butted in, “Oh, yeah, how’s it going to be okay?” Meanwhile, back at Frankie’s table, one of the other crucenos stood up. But at both tables the hotheads were pulled back into their seats, and the dance went on.
Frankie acted as if he hadn’t heard anything. “I’m sure, Antonio, that it’ll all be good in a day or two.”
Antonio answered him, “If you say so, I know it will, Frankie. I know you guys from Las Cruces, and you do what you say.”
“Count on it, man,” Frankie said. They shook hands, and he walked back to his table. The local boys got up without looking at our table, paid their bill, and left.
Eusebio was unconvinced. “You didn’t even make him admit that one of their guys stole them.”
“Yeah, those cruceno boys are pretty crude, aren’t they?” Antonio said. “Let’s just wait and see, though.”
The others at the table nodded their heads, so Eusebio shut up. We finished our meal and left.
The records were at his doorstep when we dropped him off. He brought them back to the car and showed them to us with a satisfied smile. “Nice work, Antonio!”
We congratulated him and drove off.
Later, I thought about my faculty, their stereotyping, and how they themselves behaved at meetings, perhaps not so physical, but with a lot less skill at working things out.