The Serenader


in Archive


Tonight, as he does almost every night, Roberto Corroy leaves his house in the Barrio de los Mexicanos and walks through the curving streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas, his jacket zipped up to his neck, his hands stuffed into his pockets, and his guitar tucked under an arm. His thin-soled shoes slap the cobbles in hard, sharp smacks. The walk takes about 30 minutes. Roberto rarely speaks to anyone as he walks; instead, he occupies himself with worries about money and the future.

It is late enough that the windows of most houses are unlit, but not so late that the busier streets are not still busy. Bars and clubs are brightly lit and loud. Reaching the center of town, Roberto crosses the zocalo, the benches still harboring a few tourists despite the ear-chilling breeze, and mounts the steps to the sidewalk outside the town’s central hardware store. Israel and Blind Benny sit on the tailgate of Israel’s Ford truck, swinging their legs and talking. Roberto greets them with an economical gesture, his eyes already scanning the convergent streets for clients.

In one pocket of his cheap nylon jacket he carries the light blue pamphlet given out by the local Seventh Day Adventist church — a skinny book, but one of the few he owns. While most of the other musicians spend the evening telling jokes, gossiping, or talking about fútbol, Roberto usually reads. Although the others do not blatantly exclude him, his reticent and somber nature causes them to be somewhat circumspect around him. He is known as a serious man who feels uncomfortable around flippancy, a good practical joke, or talk about women. He is considered a good man by the others, although not much fun.

Leaning his guitar against the hardware store’s front window, Roberto retrieves the religious pamphlet from his pocket, positions himself under a streetlamp, and opens it. He stands because the concrete sidewalk is too cold to sit on; he can feel the chill through the soles of his shoes. Other musicians arrive and always he greets them shyly, with a quick nod or a brief mumble. Whenever a car approaches, Roberto and the other musicians stop whatever it is they are doing talking, tuning, telling a lie and watch the car the way a group of kids watch an ice cream truck that may be about to turn down their street. The break in the conversation is brief, just long enough to decipher the driver’s intentions, but it is there in the long breath and the raised eyebrows. When the car doesn’t stop at their corner, the men return to what they were doing so quickly and smoothly that it is easy to miss the interruption.

Like many men in San Cristóbal, Roberto holds two jobs. At night he plays and sings the love songs that men use to woo women; in the day he teaches guitar to young men who may someday be his competition. Of the two jobs, serenading is far more lucrative. Roberto makes about $15 for a 30-minute serenade, about five times the daily minimum wage in Chiapas. Serenading, however, is sporadic: Days or even weeks can go by without work. Cold weather affects the number of clients, as does the rain, and for a while, as did the Zapatista attacks.

Roberto looks down to his book, then up again. Singing the serenade is the work of patient men, and generally these men are as patient as pictures. But Roberto has not had a serenading job in almost two weeks, and that makes tonight’s waiting difficult; even with the book, his mind fills the time with worries about the future. How will he pay rent to his brother-in-law, how will he afford food, and how will he educate his children, who need to learn English if they are going to get good jobs? He has considered going to Texas. A friend of his, living in San Antonio, told him that there are no serenaders in America, a fact that he finds hard to believe, but one that I confirm for him. There is no competition, so he would be able to make good money there, his friend said, but Roberto is reluctant to leave his family. Although he won’t admit it, the other musicians also believe he is scared.

“I think it would be good to go,” he says. “But it takes money to go there. It takes a lot of money just to get a passport, and then you need a visa and other papers, too.”

An hour passes. Cars full of young people drive by on their way to or from a party. Several tourists wearing jackets as shiny and brightly colored as apples make long-distance phone calls from the zocalo pay phone. A drunk man un borracho weaves over to the corner and attempts to make conversation with the musicians, who either ignore or tease him.

“There are no serenades without borrachos,” Roberto says. “I do not like them, pero…” and he shrugs. Like most of the other musicians, Roberto does not drink. When he says this he turns and indicates the line of men, pointing at them in turn. “He does not drink, he does not drink, he does not drink. He does, but not much.”

The men who hire them, on the other hand, are always drunk, and when Roberto talks of his customers there is always in his voice the suggestion of disapproval and disappointment. Being around drunk men macho, loud, extravagant men is an uncomfortable but necessary part of singing the serenade. At 38, Roberto has been working the town for more than 20 years, and if there is one thing he would change it would not be the hours or the cold or even the unpredictability of his income: It would be the temperament of his clientele.

“They are not good men,” he says. For Roberto, this is a very strong statement.

I ask him why not.

“They should be at home with their families,” he says.

I point out that if that were true, then he wouldn’t have a job. He nods, then shrugs.

When it is late enough that the bars have closed, a sputtering Volkswagen runs a stop sign and begins slowing down behind Israel’s truck. Several men quickly grab guitars and begin to pluck the strings rapidly. The car still idling, the driver leans over and motions to Roberto, who collars his guitar in the three steps it takes him to reach the window. He holds the guitar behind him to keep it from banging against the car. They negotiate briefly, seven songs for $12, less than Roberto could make, but not too low to turn down, then he steps into the car and the driver floors it.

The driver of the car is Mario Ramirez, a 26-year old anthropology student who works in one of the state government offices. He stinks of beer and drives with little regard for the delicacies of road signs. Several beer cans roll against each other on the floor, clanking as he jerks the wheel around a corner. Roberto sits beside him, stiff and motionless, his guitar clamped between his knees.

Perhaps to compensate for the noise of the engine, Mario talks to Roberto in a shout.

“This is my first serenade!” he declares. “It is for my wife!”

Roberto nods, appearing to be concentrating on the road.

“Do you have some songs you would like me to sing?” he asks.

Mario certainly does. He begins a quick recitation of titles, complete and partial, the same words appearing again and again like a catalogue of love themes: Siempre, Emoción, Mujer, Amor, Corazón, Luna, Solo, Alma, Fuego, Pasión. To nearly all of them Roberto indicates his knowledge of the song with a nod. Mario is too excited to stick to seven songs, but Roberto knows that no decisions need to be made right now, that he will start with one song and they will confer on the next and that Mario will probably change his mind a dozen times, so he sits quietly, apparently content to endure the ride, the driver’s bad manners and worse breath.

Reaching the edge of town, Mario turns down a dirt road passing a circus encampment, the dark shapes of sagging tents and square cages clearly visible in the light of the moon. He stops the car before a locked gate, flings open the car door, and heaves himself out onto the road.

Roberto follows, unsure, but Mario waves at him violently, like a man upset at his dog, so Roberto delicately returns to his seat while Mario unlocks the gate. We drive through and stop, Mario again bolting out of the door as if he is chasing something, then locks the gate behind himself.

The headlights pick out the granulated surface of a gravel road as we enter a housing compound made of single-family homes, all of them built of concrete. Their front yards not full of lawn but of small white rocks look in the moonlight as clean and orderly as Zen gardens.

Near the end of the cul-de-sac Mario switches off the engine, allowing the car to coast to a stop in the driveway of a small stuccoed house with large dark wooden doors and ornate black iron bars over the windows. He turns to Roberto theatrically, placing a finger on his lips, raising his eyebrows, and opening his eyes wide. The two of them close the car doors gently, then Roberto slings the guitar strap over his neck and leans back as Mario whispers beerily into his face.

Roberto nods, stepping toward a barred and shuttered window, standing rigid and still. He blows on his hands. His fingertips are numb, as they are on most winter nights, so he knows his guitar playing will not be perfect. But after playing for so many years he has learned to play well with numb fingers.

Stretching his fingers apart, like the arms of a starfish, Roberto places his hands on the guitar and begins to pluck out individual notes in a steady, rapid beat, interrupting the picking with single strong chords and an alternating bass line that thumps behind the song like a slow-moving train. In a voice surprisingly robust he begins to sing.

Te traigo serenata
Amor de mi vida,

Te Traigo a tu ventana

Canciones bonitas

I bring a serenade
Love of my life
I bring to your window
Beautiful songs —

(Listen to Roberto Corroy sing:)

An objective listener would easily recognize Roberto’s musical weaknesses a limited vocal range, some awkward pauses during a difficult finger-picking section, even a few wrong notes but in this moment, in the white courtyard lit by the moon, who but the coldest of cold fish could be objective? The setting is simple two men standing outside of a house singing to a woman inside. Yet the baggage the moment carries — the message of the serenade, the need for a public display of affection and the use of a specialist to convey one’s feelings, the irony that the men who sing are good family men while the men they sing for tend to be rogues, the hundreds of thousands of serenades that have been performed over the years in the service of love and lust and all the combinations thereof all of that is as complex as a kiss.

Roberto’s long moon-shadow stretches absurdly across the walls of the house as he plucks prettily at his guitar while his drunk client swaggers like a cat a romantic moment to observe until the middle of the third song, when Mario begins to sing.

Roberto ignores him, stares at the sky and his shoes and somehow picks out tunes in the finger-freezing night. Mario wobbles beside him, singing in his dog-like howl, drunkenly off-key and beer-amplified. His song veers about the choral roadway like an out-of-control bus while Roberto steadily drives forward, somehow keeping the rhythm, keeping his tune under control while this madman blindsides him, swerves and accelerates, hums snatches of other tunes, belts out the chorus, swinging arms widely for effect and balance, and generally makes it difficult for anyone around him to maintain their concentration. Nothing about Roberto is more professional or more impressive than his ability to keep singing and playing under these conditions.

The romance of the moment (and to my American eyes and ears it is suffused with romance) is tempered slightly by other serenades that I have seen. In one, we went to serenade a second-story window, in which stood one of the most beautiful young women I have ever seen, gazing down with apparent love and admiration at her suitor, a brash man close to twice her age. After leaving her, we followed the man to a small stone house where Roberto serenaded the man’s unseen wife, who grudgingly opened the door after 20 minutes of singing, let him in, and shut it again. Serenades can seem romantic, but, truth be told, after a husband has spend the night carousing, they are more often utilitarian.

Serenade protocol requires Mario’s wife, Elena, to ignore the noise outside her window for at least one song. And so although Roberto is singing less than 10 feet from her window, it’s almost 10 minutes and four songs before the light turns on behind the shutters a thin yellow line drawn around the dark wood. The two men are in the middle of tackling the next song when Elena opens the door clad in a pearl-colored nightgown, her hair tousled and her eyes heavy-lidded although she has found the time to run bright red lipstick over her lips.

Mario rushes forward and they embrace. Roberto sings with equilibrium, seemingly untouched by the swirling couple. Their hug is intense but brief. When Elena closes the door Mario retreats to his place a few feet in front of Roberto, looking very pleased.

For the rest of the serenade, Mario becomes oddly playful, often ignoring his wife, who leans against the doorway. He talks to me, crouches like a boxer and swats my arms, sings brief snatches of song. Roberto ends up singing eight songs, making an extra $2. When Roberto finally puts down his guitar, Elena thanks him warmly.

Mario is quieter and more thoughtful on the drive back. He says nothing to Roberto other than to ask where he wants to be dropped off. Roberto, perhaps out of shame, perhaps out of fear, never asks his clients to drop him off at his house; he always returns to the zocalo. Sometimes, when it is early enough, Roberto will manage to get another job, but tonight it is late and he is tired. He intends to return home unless another job presents itself immediately.

The monetary transaction takes place in Mario’s car as it idles in front of the hardware store where Roberto was picked up. Mario pulls the cash out of his wallet, counts it out quickly, and hands it over to Roberto, who accepts it with quiet thanks. They do not shake hands. Roberto follows his guitar out of the car, closes the door, and quickly steps back as the car squats down on its haunches and roars off.

The plaza is nearly empty. The other musicians are gone, either to their homes or to a job. The tourists are gone as well. Two Lacandon Indians, striking in their plain white shifts and long black hair, sleep side by side on a strip of cardboard outside the town hall. In a nearby doorway five young girls from San Juan Chamula sleep curled up next to and on top of each other like a litter of kittens. Tomorrow the girls and the Lacandons will continue their business in town selling trinkets to tourists: the girls, arm bands and textiles; the Lacandons, bows and arrows.

The only person wide awake in the plaza is Roberto Corroy, who stands on the corner fingering the money in his pocket with indecision. The cold slips in under his jacket, burrows past his thin socks, and painfully chills his ears. Tucking the guitar under an arm and plunging both hands fistlike into his jacket pockets, he crosses the street, past the huddle of girls from San Juan Chamula, past the two Lacandon Indians, and walks with a metronome beat out of the lighted center and into the dark side streets. His sober shadow careens off the stone walls and concrete corners as he plods through town carrying his $14 toward the house in which his wife and three children are sleeping. He will wake up at 6 a.m. to help get his children ready for school, then he will help his wife around the house and teach a guitar lesson. He may or may not get any sleep before he makes his walk again, returning to the plaza to wait for drunks who buy forgiveness with songs of love. • 6 March 2008