An earlier version of this article was previously published in RUTAS, Forum for the Arts and Humanities, Spring 1994 / Numero 2.
By Miguel Juárez
It was Saturday afternoon. ZaZa and I drove in his air-conditioned car in the 101 degrees towards Copia and Alameda Streets on a mission to comfort our old friend, Alberto, who lay waiting and watching his life unravel like the old movies we used to watch at the Cine Colon on El Paso Street. We arrived at our destination. The parking lot at the Good Luck Café was packed with Chevy’s and Fords, no imports.
We parked on the side of the building. We made our way past a snake of people outside, waiting to be let inside. The snake made its way beyond the swinging doors, people waited to be seated to savor a bowl of the familiar.
I followed ZaZa, a tall huer@ in his late 30’s, as we made our way past the sea of Mexicanos staring at the one gabacho and maybe also at me, a Moorish-looking Chicano with a heavy beard and a black hat. Back then not that many gabach@s frequented the Good Luck, except for people like artist Lynn Johnson and the friends she occasionally brought in from long nights of dancing or soup parties at her loft at the Brewhouse on North Stevens Street.
If the machos holding hands with their girlfriends only knew that ZaZa was the famous drag queen Diva of the local queer scene, maybe they would have asked her for an autograph. They would have stared harder if she was wearing his leopard skin see through Spandex jumper or his Doris Day chiffon gown or his black leather dress with silver chains draped around her make-believe breasts.
ZaZa walked up to the pale green register. She ordered un caldo de res to go for our friend, who had insisted we come here and only here for the special delicacy. Alberto had said if and only if the caldo was not available, then he would settle for menudo, the breakfast of champions or crudos, depending on the time of the day.
The attendant at the register insisted we order caldo for ourselves, yet there were too many other gentes waiting to be seated and from the looks of their faces, there was no place to sit. We stood at the counter momentarily. As soon as the order arrived, we left to deliver the tesoro to our friend, who lay at the hospice on Mescalero Street remembering.
The sol beat down on the road, reflecting el calor de la vida. The windshield reflected our wondering faces. Our eyes saw what would eventually happen to Alberto. From his strong body and his expansive and brilliant mind, each day, the virus was wasting him away.
He had not come to the hospice to die, but to be rejuvenated. To be pumped up with insulin, 24-hour care, to be visited by his friends, ZaZa and Miss Ricky, in drag, on the evenings before their night’s outreach at local gay bars in the name of AIDS prevention.
We arrived with Alberto’s caldo. I placed the white bag on a small table, while ZaZa went to call Alberto. ZaZa helped Alberto make his way from his room and helped him sit on a chair. The nurse brought a bowl for the caldo from the kitchen upstairs.
Alberto unraveled his napkin and plastic ware, preparing for his feast. The two other thin men in the room, looked at the dish momentarily, but eventually their gazes returned to the television set announcing Pepsi’s “Have Fun, Be Young,” advertising campaign.
From the white cup, Alberto poured the soup into a white bowl. Out came the steaming caldo, the succulent meat, the cabbage and bits of cilantro and pieces of potato. Next, Alberto emptied the white styrofoam cup of warm Spanish rice on the caldo and quietly unfolded the corn tortillas which had been heated in the microwave and wrapped in translucent wax paper. Then as a final blessing he squeezed a lime over the soap.
He stopped momentarily to look at the dish. There might have been a time when Alberto may have taken such a meal for granted. There might have been a time when it was only a soup and an antojo, but today the caldo was not just an item listed on a menu, but a celebration of life, of a time less complicated, of a life within a cultura.
Maybe Alberto first tasted his grandmother’s caldo de res when he was a small child in Tornillo, Texas. Maybe his mother cooked caldo de res weekly, as my mother once did. Maybe Alberto treated long lost Paseños like the late José Antonio Burciaga or Carlos Morton to caldo when they visited him in El Chuco. Or maybe Alberto and his friends made it a ritual of visiting the café late night after a boda or quinseñera like Dr. Joe Mendoza and company recently did, and as dozens of Raza often do.
Alberto ate almost a quarter of the caldo, then he put down his spoon, admitting that he could eat no more and knowing it would make its way out of his system, the way all his meals did. Yet, for the moment, he was content. He had just feasted on a delicious caldo de res amid the company of his friends, during the last decade of his life.
Longtime El Paso resident, Alberto Bonilla died on Friday June 25, 1993. He was assistant editor for Style Magazine and was active in community theater, modern dance and Latino arts. Alberto also worked with artist Alejandro Romero in Chicago. He was filled with many wonderful stories about his life and his travels. We miss him.
See also: “1996, Interview with ZaZa Montenegro – !Sas Mija!” https://elpasonews.org/2020/06/21/1996-interview-with-zaza-montenegro/
RUTAS, Forum for the Arts and Humanities, was a semi-annual publication from the Forum for the Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at El Paso, edited by Writer and Poet Zulma Y. Mendez.