Book Review

Guayse Guy


In the States we expect, even demand a perfect world… For the taxistas, cantineros, waiters and others I knew, a great day in paradise meant: “I ate twice, got laid, have forty pesos in my pocket, two smokes left for bedtime, and some real friends. End of list.”

—David E. Stuart

Through the eyes of the anthropologist he is today, and in the voice of the horny, 25-year-old insomniac and wheeler dealer he was some 30-odd years ago, David E. Stuart reveals a side of Mexico few gringos, and even many Mexicans, rarely get to know.

The Guaymas Chronicles: La Manda-dera is his powerful memoir of a summer spent in this formerly sleepy port on the Sonora coast of the Sea of Cortés. Stuart’s Guaymas is a place of unpaved streets washed away during seasonal nortes, thatched beach palapas, market stalls, and food stands, where he spends his time in the company of cabdrivers, shoe shine boys, hustlers, and barmen, who ply their trade along Avenida Serdán. They call him Güero (Whitey) and guide him through the town’s back alleys and its maze of interpersonal relationships.

Such interpersonal relationships, in particular Stuart’s odd and moving friendship with an 11-year-old street kid named Lupita, whom he describes “like something out of a Dickens novel,” are the focus of his memoir. Abandoned by her prostitute mother when she was five or six—she doesn’t know for sure—she becomes, in time, his errand girl, the mandadera of the title, his teacher, his family, and partner in crime. (Together, they launch a small smuggling racket.)

Lupita, like many of the people he meets in Guaymas, is a social outcast. So, too, is Stuart, a gringo down on his luck. After being thrown from his horse in southern Ecuador, a region so remote “even the Peace Corps didn’t operate there,” he was forced to interrupt his research on a doctoral dissertation. With his arm in a sling and little cash in his pocket, he returned to Guaymas, where he had fallen in love. Upon arrival, he discovered that his Mexican fiancé had betrayed and, consequently, humiliated him. (In Mexico, he explains, nothing is more shameful than humiliation.) As his health deteriorates, his Mexican street pals rally round. (Here was someone—and a gringo at that—who was in far worse shape than they.) Despite their poverty, lack of education, and limited opportunities, they at least had jobs, homes, and families.

Little about Mexico escapes Stuart: He dwells at length on the significance of death, the role of the family, and the close-knit personal relationships that are so much part of Mexican culture. In describing a typical Sunday afternoon at the beach, he writes:

In striking contrast to stateside beaches, many adult couples necked and petted, albeit modestly, while their kids napped on the blanket with them. Babies slept on dad’s tummy. Girlfriends held each other’s hands while they walked, giggling. Adult men wrapped their arms around best buddies, as they sat in the sand and passed a cigarette back and forth between them.

One can’t help being struck and moved by observations such as these because when Stuart finds himself with his back against a wall—close to death, his savings gone—he neglects to contact his own family. In fact, when he mentions them at all—a mother and a twin brother—it is only in passing and not until well on in the book. (His father had died three years before his Guaymas adventures.) That, in turn, adds particular poignancy to his observation that “it takes work to maintain important relationships in Mexico. Simply being dead doesn’t erase one from the family.”

With unusual attention to detail and an anthropologist’s training—Stuart has published three books on anthropology—he focuses on those aspects of daily life that might ordinarily go unnoticed. Although this is a memoir, that does not prevent him from writing about a way of life that is rapidly on the wane: local fishermen who can no longer earn a living, Seri Indians threatened by encroaching civilization, sea turtles hunted into extinction.

Fortunately, Stuart’s own story will never entirely disappear. As he explains in his introduction, he recorded his experiences as they occurred and consequently retained an enormous amount of data. No doubt, much of this was well worth retaining: He describes, for example, a day so torrid one of the taxi drivers wins a 20-peso bet by frying an egg on the fender of a black sedan. As the egg sizzled, a shoeshine boy rushed over and asked permission to eat the egg when it was cooked. (The drivers chipped in and bought him a fried egg sandwich instead.)

Such details contribute an immediacy and sense of place so frequently lacking in “personal” or travel writing. If the details have a ring of truth about them, that’s because they are, in fact, based on truth—with the exception of a few minor alterations in dates, events, and places made to protect several people who still live in Guaymas. However, even the most exciting lives grow tedious. And Stuart’s is no exception.Not everything, after all, is worth recording.

At times, his prose echoes the journal entries and tape recordings he relied on as the basis for this book: “The next morning I got up, put three of my hundred-dollar traveler’s checks into the hotel safe, then went to the bar for my usual Orange Crushes. It was slow, so I wandered back to my room and wrote halfheartedly in my journal, then ambled back to the bar for a short newspaper session.” (He practiced his Spanish by reading the paper out loud to bar habitués, some of whom were illiterate.) As a rule, his days move at a sluggish pace. So, at times, does his prose.

Stuart’s mastery of the language is not equal to his powers of observation. Good writing, whether dialogue or narrative, can be direct and convey a down-to-earth simplicity without being simple. But with the use of expressions such as “She vibrated, then actually started skipping just like a happy little girl”—she is a happy little girl—or “Oh my God that grouper was so good! It was the best fish I ever tasted—sweet and flaky,” the language (unlike the fish) often comes across as insipid. Stuart tends to take refuge in worn-out clichés and phrases such as “ate like a horse,” “sweating like a pig,” “bright eyed and bushy tailed,” “every color in the rainbow,” “shaking like a leaf,” “feeling like shit,” and so on. Though they might work in dialogue, such phrases add nothing to the narrative. The story would have benefited immensely from the elimination of superfluous material and a more careful use of language.

Such faults aside, The Guaymas Chronicles tells a compelling and powerful tale. Stuart is able to resurrect tragic events and confront his personal failings, acts requiring both candor and courage. (In his epilogue he states that it took him some 15 years before he could even speak of his mandadera.) One gets the feeling he was driven to write this book, not only to perpetuate a memory, but as an act of contrition, a way of alleviating guilt. But I think he sells himself short. Whatever his failings—he could be self-destructive, self indulgent, and insecure—he is a most compassionate individual and generous beyond his means.

Much of his account is highly personal, liberally based on Stuart’s diaries. It brought to mind writer Alan Ryan’s introduction to his superb anthology, A Reader’s Guide to Mexico, (Harcourt, Brace & Co.,1995). As Ryan explains, our travels are enhanced when we’re privy to the kind of information that only close friends and relatives—people who know the country well—can impart. Since Ryan had no one to turn to when he visited Mexico he compiled a collection of diary entries, stories, and articles penned by foreigners over the last 100 years.

I don’t doubt that if The Guaymas Chronicles had been available when he published his anthology, Ryan would have included an excerpt. Stuart, like many of those whom Ryan selected, is among the few gringos who have the capacity to express both the pain and pleasure that true communion with a foreign place can entail.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).