by Jorge Icaza (1906-1978)
Translated from Spanish by Richard Gabela.
“El chulla Romero y Flores” is a novel by Ecuadorian author Jorge Icaza, published in 1958. The story revolves around the main character, Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores, a mestizo (mixed-race man) in early 20th century Ecuador. The novel explores themes of cultural identity, social class, racism, and the struggles of working people. It provides a critical portrayal of Ecuadorian society and culture at that time. The title “El chulla Romero y Flores” symbolizes the protagonist’s cultural identity crisis by juxtaposing the term “chulla,” a negative term for a mestizo who longs for wealth and social status, with “Romero y Flores,” a prestigious Spanish name, illustrating the main character’s confusion about his place in society. Set in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, this engaging and thought-provoking novel delves into the tensions between Indigenous and Spanish cultures, and is often considered a masterpiece of Ecuadorian literature.
Jorge Icaza’s “El chulla Romero y Flores,” first published in 1958 by Editorial Casa de la Cultura Ecuatoriana, has been translated into a number of languages, including French (1960), Czech (1963), German (1965), Russian (1966), and Ukrainian (1967). What follows is my effort at the first-ever English translation of a chapter from Jorge Icaza’s novel. I did this translation as a personal project and not as a commercial one. Any comments are welcomed and greatly appreciated.
Several times a day, Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, Chief-Director of the Bureau of Economic Investigation, abandoned his small office to monitor the attendance of the employees in his charge. Don Ernesto was a man of uneven temperament. Entirely uneven. When he was in a good mood, he would exaggerate his Don Juanism, slipping into lewd confidences typical of a chatty market woman, a chola verdulera, or a newly arrived country peasant, a chagra. With the graphic and pornographic gestures of a sex addict, he would whisper in the ear of his chosen confidant: “What a wild night, my dear cholo. I helped myself to three women. Turns out, two of them were still virgins… Heh-heh-heh… And completely free of charge.” However, when it came time to publicly chastise his minions (as he inwardly called his subordinates), he swelled with omnipotence, randomly handing out threats left and right. In these moments, as his authoritarian demeanor exploded, every grotesque aspect of his plump face became all the more pronounced: his cheeks resembled rosy buttocks, his lips quivered like soft clay, bilious drool pooled between his teeth, and his eyes blazed with a demonic flame.
As November drew to a close each year, malignant thoughts brewed in the minds of the most vulnerable and ambitious members of that office, where, by art of audacity and stroke of good fortune, Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores had somehow landed a job. Intrigue, envy, and anonymous letters filled with veiled threats and sordid proposals slithered through the office, like serpents in a pile of fallen leaves. At that moment, Chief-Director Morejón Galindo, swallowing a sort of unconfessable envy, was reviewing the list of delinquent taxpayers, promissory notes, and accounting records. His attention was particularly focused on the names of certain gentlemen—individuals he was supposed to control or coerce but had never been able to. Despite his powerful position, he felt helpless to achieve his goals. Formidable obstacles, surpassing even the strength of his legally vested authority, tethered him to the dread of ending up like others—those whose careers had been abruptly curtailed for placing their faith in the system’s integrity and legal processes. Two of his main challenges were a web of corruption that included embezzlement and nepotism, and his inability to oust certain officials from their positions. But he… He considered himself an honest man. It was the minions, the individual or individuals charged with acting on his behalf, who always complicated the tragedy.
That year, after a great deal of doubt and insomnia, Don Ernesto thought he had finally found the savior, the incorruptible judge he had been hoping for. So one morning, before entering his private office, he appeared in the large room where his subordinates worked—his hat pulled low over his brow, a fierce gaze, and an air of arrogance.
“I’ve thought about you,” he announced, advancing towards the desk where the chulla Romero y Flores worked. “For the annual audit. About you…”
“I said you!”
“Who else? Who else can I trust with this? It’s such a tricky, delicate job. No need for excuses. You’ve got to obey orders; you’re an employee, after all.”
“You’ll go alone. Just you! No more delays. No more out-of-control frauds. No more… Got it?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll do what needs to be done.”
“That’s right! You’ll…”
“I’ll hold every lawbreaker accountable,” Romero y Flores interjected, abruptly regaining his habitual cynical tone, which served to cover up his ignorance and cholo vulgarity. Indeed, in a zealous effort to sound correct and proper, he perfectly rolled out each R and articulately pronounced each double L.
“Very good. There are certain sacred duties, my dear young man. Sacred… We must curb the corruption of payrolled scoundrels, powerful crooks, honored hypocrites, incompetents, cretins. Well… In short, you’ll go,” affirmed Don Ernesto, reluctantly suppressing a bout of anger and insults—a sign of sickly fear. Names of prominent leaders and inaccessible officials bubbled on his lips, like a simmering stew of succulent caucara. These were people who could ruin him at the slightest misstep. People before whom he had to smile gratefully when in public. People who upon rotating in the heights became entrenched in them even more. From one year to the next… The same faces. The same names. The same families. The same methods. And he? No… He had never been able to ascend to… To his goal, to his dream. A ministership… An ambassadorship… Why not, dammit? Ah! Because those at the top clung to the tremendous inviolability of tradition, of custom, of pompous surnames, of bureaucratic heritage. It was impossible to overthrow them. Impossible to betray them without anyone noticing or suspecting the sacrilege.
“I will go. I will go, sir,” affirmed the chulla in a haughty tone of a neighborhood bully, while deep within his ego, the prospect of a strange greed stirred. He had heard rumors of the bountiful rewards awaiting in those positions.
“Thank you. Thank you…” the Chief-Director managed to murmur, softening his expression and offering a friendly smile.
“Ready for anything. I knew my heart couldn’t deceive me. You’ll be… You are… Well… I understand myself… With an iron fist, eh? Of iron.”
“As you order, sir,” concluded Romero y Flores. However, as he surveyed his colleagues—bureaucrats of various ages and conditions—he found himself engulfed in a tide of disapproving glances and hushed murmurs, carrying the weight of discontent that brews within individuals grappling with a job that is insecure, precarious and toxic. In a tide of unspoken outcries: “Why?” “Who crowned the chulla king?” “I … I’ve devoted twenty years, I’ve given my life…” “So, my honesty counts for nothing, my neat handwriting…” “He’s an imbecile, an intruder … He knows nothing….” “A street dog, that’s what he is … I know his type … People like him are just lucky…” “What will he do about the financial statements? How will he handle the audits? I … I just play dumb … Heh-heh-heh … I have an accounting degree … If asked how much is one times one, he’ll answer: I cannot say for sure if it’s two or three….” “Ohh … The children’s pension fund will be ruined … The priests, the nuns, the good people … They’ll have to return to public schools… where cholos go…” “They’re messing with the wrong guy, dammit … I’ll use my power and influence … Anonymous letters to the Ministers, to the President of the Republic…” “I’ll leak it to the press … Since when do you have access to the press, you idiot? It’s owned by them … Money is all that matters … Money … Oh!”
Based on appearances, no one seemed happy with the Chief-Director’s orders: their eyes gleamed with hatred, their lips were dry with bitterness, their skin had a bilious color, and their wrinkles were twisted into sickly sneers. The Chief-Director’s absurd decision left them speechless. Romero y Flores, using and abusing his attitude of “his honor, the big boss” — inherited from his father — responded to the troop’s outcry with a haughty and defiant glare, sending a clear message to all: “What are you complaining about? Nobody better mess with me… I’ll crush you…”
But it was Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo, with his prodigious intuition for deciphering the silence of his subordinates—identical destinies, similar experiences—who foiled the daring attempt and sly protest. With unchallengeable sarcasm and derision, he loudly warned:
“I hope everyone agrees with me. Who? Who can complain? Rise up. Speak up. I know what I’m doing! And I’ll pulverize the first one who complains to me … I … You know me. I can be good, very good… But when I’m bad… Ahhh! Ohhh!”
Immediately, the threatening look on the bureaucrats’ faces vanished, just as it was poised to spew forth its poor venom. This swift change exemplified the fluid nature with which rebellion can turn to deference, and hatred to camaraderie, for those who find themselves under the influence of a powerful yet unseen constricting circle. In its place surged the mask of the innocent, drooling apology: “No… I’m not annoyed, sir… Quite the opposite… Look at me… I’m all smiles… Heh-heh-heh…” “There’s an understanding among whites… With me it’s different, dear boss… You yourself know… With you wherever, whatever…” “The decision is brilliant… Bril-li-ant… A real success…” “He arrived as a relative of the Big Boss. He’s our strongest ally… We’ve never had anyone like him before. So, what?” “We’re all happy… Every single one of us…” “There’s no reason for you to be upset, not in the least…” “Your wish is our command…”
When the magical change occurred — just as he had predicted — Don Ernesto let out a loud snort that sounded like a balloon bursting. He then turned to the general accountant and ordered:
“Yes. Listen to me very carefully. Ensure that Mr. Romero y Flores has everything he needs to complete the year-end audit. Credentials, cadastres, lists, letters. Explain everything to him. He must act in conformity with the law.”
“Very well, sir.”
“He must act on my behalf. I will grant him special powers. Without special powers he won’t be able to accomplish anything.”
“Absolute special powers,” concluded the Chief-Director, placing a reassuring hand on the shoulder of the clerk chosen for such a crucial task.
From the pedestal of a pride foreign to his lifelong ambition of becoming a wealthy and powerful gentleman, the chulla Romero y Flores surveyed his colleagues. And as he looked at them, bent over their work like tiny question marks, viscous and insignificant, he was overcome by a chilling anguish that oscillated between compassionate contempt and the fear of transforming into one of them forever. Recollections of the sarcastic nicknames he’d silently given each of them as he grew familiar sprang to mind—a secret amusement that fed his dreams of nobility. Those dreams often involved marrying into affluence, by which means he hoped to gain an impressive estate as a dowry. He referred to his desk neighbor, an elderly man named Gerardo Proaño, as “The Hungry Longo.” He had sunburned skin, a drooping mustache, and jutting cheekbones, and was known for his humble tendency to help others by covering up their mistakes. Timoleón Lopez and Antonio Lucero, the young calligraphers with fair complexions, he referred to simply as “A Duo of Pretentious Chullas.” This was due to their excessive obsession with dressing well. Their attire was always immaculate, finely patched to address any holes, and they consistently wore bow ties and breast pocket handkerchiefs as a matter of course. He called Don Pedro Castellanos “The Historical Mummy.” His face, resembling parchment paper, bore eccentric eyebrows and wrinkles of commanding expressions—engrained from a glorious military career cut short by a failed coup d’etat. Jorge Santos Pavón was “The Political Mummy,” a man with bilious-colored skin and sneering lips who bore the surname of disgraced senior bureaucrats. Julio Cesar Benavides (the Chief-Director’s confidant) was “The Poor Doggie” because of his fawning, drooling smile, and the evasive eyes of a güiñachisca. Gabriel Montoya, with his tall, dry, and funereal appearance, appeared as if he were carved out of a walnut tree. He was “The Umbrella Case Full of Failures” due to a series of wild and unsuccessful adventures: a tango singer in Buenos Aires, a dishwasher in New York, a one-line comedian in Central America, a smuggler in Cuba, and a bullfighter in Spain. With his fidgety little black eyes and rat-like snout, Nicolás Estupiñán was “The Fox of Gossip and Slander” because he carried the free press in his blood: his grandfather was a typographer, his father a linotypist, and his brother a reporter. Fidel Castro was “A Chagra Aspiring to Be a Minister” due to his polished appearance and constant bowing and smiling, coupled with his never-ending supply of intrigues and letters of recommendation. Humberto Toledo, the secretary, was “The Bitter Dwarf” due to his short stature and frequent outbursts of insults and obscenities. Don Juan Núñez, the general accountant, was “The Drainless Swamp of Grudges.” He had droopy eyelids, sagging cheeks, and nicotine-stained fingers and teeth, and had a penchant for shady bureaucratic dealings. Despite this torrent of mockery, which served to defend and justify his having been selected, Romero y Flores realized with abhorrence that in the eyes of these men, he was nothing more than a poor devil full of inexperience and vanity.
Before leaving for the day, Luis Alfonso tidied up the papers on his desk, caressed the newspaper that he habitually kept neatly folded and tucked in the lower pocket of his blazer, donned his hat, and, with contemptuous swagger in his gait, left without uttering a goodbye to anyone. Later that afternoon, he met with Don Ernesto twice more. He was again lectured on the supreme law, the absolute special powers, the enormous responsibility of his mission, the honesty expected of him, and the public ridicule that his office faced. In an effort to disguise his moral sensibility, which was unaccustomed to such lectures, he widened his eyes in astonishment and indignation, moving his head in a manner indicative of his readiness to launch into a ferocious attack. Indeed, the strange threat from the incorruptible judge was stretched to its fullest height.
Confident that he would triumph over the untouchable scoundrels and high-society fraudsters, the young man received the paperwork, notices, accounts, and orders from the old accountant the very next day.
“A fortune in numbers, my dear friend. Numbers, numbers…”
“Which I intend to convert into money.”
“You must tread carefully. Be extremely cautious!”
“You’ll run into what they call ‘the best of the country’: bankers, land magnates, military leaders, friars, politicians… A candidate for the Presidency of the Republic.”
“I know them all,” proclaimed the chulla, maintaining the sense of importance he’d felt since the previous day.
“Are they friends of yours?” asked the clerk with the droopy eyelids and sagging cheeks, with the awe and respect of an Indian servant, a huasicama, at the scent of “his honor, the big boss.”
“Ah! In that case… Look here… here….”
On the street, laden with files, the newly-appointed tax inspector grew anxious as he considered who his first target should be. “A friend who might… A friend? Heh-heh-heh…” The delight produced by his lie to the general accountant manifested itself in an idiotic, giddy grin. Instinctively, he ran his hand across his face to wipe away the imprudent outburst, feeling it somehow wounded his dignity. “Who then? Don… What’s his name? Ramiro Paredes y Nieto… Candidate for President of the Republic… Ohhh, sweet mama….” He had frequently read in the newspapers (believing everything he read in them) about all the merits and virtues attributed to that gentleman. He thought: “He must be flawless, generous, honest, good… The foremost citizen of the homeland… Oh! But what about the past due accounts? Did they lie to me at the office? Why? For what purpose? Don Ernesto Morejón Galindo… The bureaucrats… Envy… Pure envy… I’ll see, dammit… I’ll see….” He took a look around him. A dazzling sun silhouetted the scenery of old colonial eaves, curved balconies, adobe walls, and two- or three-story houses, on streets seemingly trying to stand up. He advanced downhill on the sidewalk in an Indian trot. Suddenly, he realized how foolish he must have looked, like a young, diligent Indian running errands. He slackened his pace (gradually). His class, his authority, his dreams… And as he crossed the Great Square, his profound disdain for the people who under that sun laid bare their everyday talk of complaints and memories—retired militarists, disgraced politicians, conspirators lurking for the propitious moment in which to climb through doors and windows of the Government Palace—prompted him to stretch and inhale deeply, puffing up his chest like a rooster.… “My importance… My honesty… They’ll take me far… Friend and protector of a Candidate for the Presidency of the Republic … For the Presidency… Heh-heh-heh…”
“Is Don Ramiro Paredes y Nieto available?” the chulla Romero y Flores inquired of the man who emerged to greet him.
“Don Ramiro? Did you ask for Don Ramiro?”
“He’s not in.”
“Well, the thing is, I…”
“I’m here from the Bureau of Economic Investigation.”
“Ah! Oh! My apologies.”
“I’m here regarding the account.”
“I had no idea that you… I… I’m the general assistant.”
“Good, very good.”
“Come, step right in. Just this way, sir.”
“This is Don Ramiro’s office. You see? Abandoned… Practically abandoned…”
“You understand me.”
“I don’t understand anything,” murmured the new tax inspector, inhaling the cellar odor in the air.
“Well… I was hoping to speak with him.”
“That won’t be possible.”
“He comes here only on occasion. I look after the office. I’m here to help you for whatever you may need. Just ask.”
“Only on occasion,” repeated Luis Alfonso reproachfully, with a stern look. He had the special powers, hence the authority to demand that the accused appear before him.
“It’s just that… Well, the boss is the boss,” murmured the general assistant, unable to comprehend the young man’s sense of importance or his bold attitude. Don Ramiro Paredes y Nieto was like a taboo to him, as he was to most others, floating in the hallowed heights of the country’s masters.
“No, my friend. The gentleman is an employee, and as such, he is accountable to the Bureau of Economic Investigation.”
“He’s the official,” corrected the old bureaucrat, staring firmly at his interlocutor behind a pair of iron-framed glasses. His watery, bloodshot eyes had the ability to move with ease from expressions of adulation, malice, and disdain.
“It’s all the same.”
“No. Some obey, others command, give orders. We…”
In order to avoid unnecessary discussion, the chulla, feeling somewhat lost, changed tactics:
“And how is this place kept running without him?”
“I run things around here.”
“Ah! You. Very good. I understand now. So you’re in charge…” he concluded, resuming his tax inspector’s demeanor. And, without another word, he opened the files he was carrying on a large dusty desk of dinosauric proportions that undoubtedly belonged to Don Ramiro.
The young man’s energetic and defiant attitude momentarily disconcerted the old clerk, who, in search of an explanation consistent with his experiences, pondered: “What’s with this guy? Someone seems to be pushing him. Someone powerful: Archbishop… General… Minister… Today he’s at the bottom… Tomorrow he may be at the top… These self-important chullas are all the same. Always fishing in troubled waters for a high administrative post or a wealthy bride… I’ll tell him….” And without even being asked, dragged along by his natural inclination for gossip and veneration, he informed him:
“Don Ramiro is a very busy man. He is said to hold seven posts. Seven major posts. Seven sources of income! He’s a patriot. One of the continent’s greatest patriots. A universal man.”
“It’s the norm among the elite. They’re the best at everything.”
“At every act of abuse… At every display of selfishness…” the chulla thought to himself, observing his informant with a blend of pity and disgust. The man was a small, greasy creature as wrinkled as the instep of the painful shoes he wore. He donned an old-fashioned suit with a dandruff-dusted collar, patches on the elbows, and shiny wear on the knees, and to top it off, he reeked of tobacco, a hangover, office paper and ink — telltale signs of twenty years of complicity and unrest.
“At everything,” the young man repeated aloud.
“On the other hand, his associates…”
“You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“If I tell him what he wants to know, he might…” the nearsighted man thought to himself. “The financial statements. He won’t know… Not about that….” He then rubbed his hands together like a Jesuit before concluding:
“But not in the way you might be thinking.”
“Ah! Better, much better.”
The conversation then moved from excuses to twisted discords. That’s how the chulla discovered that Doña Francisca, the wife of the Presidential Candidate, was the one managing her husband’s electoral campaign finances, along with the office’s accounts and funds.
“She doesn’t come here either?”
“Only on occasion. However, she calls me almost every day. She comes from a prominent family. From the noblest,” insisted the general assistant, eager to demonstrate how difficult and pointless a thorough audit would be.
“I know,” Romero y Flores murmured as he leafed through the evidence.
“You know? I don’t think so.”
“But you don’t know about the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“Well, regarding… Don Ramiro’s love affairs. When it comes to women, he’s a goat.”
“A goat?” asked the young man as he thought: “Just like Don Ernesto. They all act like satyrs. Could it be a mark of nobility?”
“Yes,” affirmed the old man. He was clearly attempting to delay the battle until he could receive orders from his boss.
“I thought he was a serious man.”
“In other respects, he certainly is. In all his speeches, he’s a champion of Christian morality. Haven’t you heard him speak? Ah! Oh! What a gift of gab!”
“The devil has an insatiable appetite. And since he’s so intelligent.”
“Don Ramiro. He writes marvelous love letters. What style! Pure style. They say he’s the best author in the world.”
“In the world?”
“That’s what those who know say. He employs one of his girlfriends as a secretary in the Main Publications Department, where he also serves as the Managing Director. I’m sure you know her. They call her ‘The Nun.’”
“Before she became who she is today, she was a nun at the Sacred Heart Church….Heh-heh-heh….”
“The Nun,” repeated Luis Alfonso to himself mentally, picturing the mouthwatering curves of that woman known to him only by sight. But what did that matter to him? What? His duty…The financial statements…That was the main thing.
“All right, my friend. Let’s get to work. I want the account,” announced the young man, emulating Don Ernesto’s brazen attitude.
“Yes, sir. I want to examine the account, to audit it, to…”
“It’s ready, quite ready. Sixty typewritten pages, all in perfect order,” admitted the old man as he searched for the requested records, nervous by the conversation’s sudden change in tone.
“I’d like to see it.”
“Yes. Here it is,” concluded the Candidate’s clerk, retrieving some papers from a drawer of the dinosauric desk and handing them over to the tax inspector.
With the poise and confidence of a seasoned professional, Romero y Flores settled in an armchair and began cross-checking the data in his paperwork to the entries in the account given to him by the nearsighted man. He was pretending to know what he was doing. Behind his ever-changing mask, which at that moment was one of an experienced accountant — a sullen brow, an occasional pondering pause, a persistent mumbling of monosyllables and quantities — a growing suspicion against the general assistant twisted in his mind: “He wants to deceive me, but I won’t let him! I’ll denounce him. But how? I’m unable to pinpoint the fraud. But the fraud exists! It exists! Where? Wheeere? Don Ramiro and Doña Francisca were duped by this scoundrel. I’m sure of it. Could they be in on it? Impossible. They’re upstanding people. I’ll request an invoice review, as suggested by ‘The Drainless Swamp of Grudges.’ All in good time…”
The old man, timid and nervous as a rat, pretended to be diligently looking over notices and ledgers. He, too, was unable to suppress his mocking spirit. He had discovered from the very outset, by the unusual manner in which the so-called tax inspector had commenced his work, that he had absolutely no clue what he was doing… “He’s putting on an act… No, little guambro… He’s way off the mark… He’s peeing outside the bowl… Heh-heh-heh… The scam… While on the surface everything seems in order, beneath…”
“The supporting documents for account 585,” the chulla demanded abruptly, recalling something he’d been warned about at the office.
At the unprecedented request, the general assistant looked at his interlocutor with wide-eyed astonishment. It wasn’t fear… It was that…. No one had ever dared to request those documents with such nonchalance before. No one! Even the Congress of the Republic, which had made similar requests in the past, had always done so through a convoluted process filled with apologies, secret sessions, and sugar-coated reproaches — like a sinner before Taita God, like a rebellious Indian before “his grace, the big boss.” And in the end, the country’s highest authority conferred on Don Ramiro a vote of applause.
“You heard what I said? I said the receipts for account 585,” continued Romero y Flores, emboldened by the old man’s reaction.
“I’m afraid I can’t do that, sir.”
“What? Are you refusing?”
“Perhaps you’re unaware. That account is for special expenditures. Classified expenditures. Those pertaining to homeland security.”
“According to the law, only Doña Francisca…”
“I meant… That only Don Ramiro… I… I’m just a poor employee. My income…”
“But you just said…”
“You can tell a lot about a man by his income, like an animal by its footprint. And me… You already see how I am.”
In search of an amicable understanding, one free of complications, the old man continued:
“Sacred for us, for the small taxpayer, for the man on the street, for the chagra, for the cholo, for the Indian.”
“It’s not the same for me,” squealed the new tax inspector, thinking of his special powers.
“I used to think the same way about myself many years ago when I was a young chulla like yourself. But work and experience….”
“Absurd,” muttered Romero y Flores, sneering contemptuously. He was hurt by the “young chulla” remark, by the comparison, by that aspect of himself he meant to keep hidden.
“It’s the same thing.”
“Okay, as you wish. But for now, they, the officials… They’ve contributed to the country’s prosperity and made themselves rich in the process.”
“Just to be clear, I haven’t said a word. Heaven forbid I should ever speak of the upper-crust. We should never stick our noses in their business.”
“When something isn’t right, I believe it’s our duty to do just that.”
“No, not in that account.”
“I’ll…” the chulla threatened, chuckling sarcastically as he thought: “I’ll be protected by the law, public opinion, the Chief-Director.”
After interpreting the young man’s thoughts with great intuition, the general assistant replied:
“You believe that the law, that the bosses, that… No. When a man is ruined there is no law nor boss that can save him.”
“Is that so?”
“The law and the bosses are like Don Ramiro’s subordinates. He has seven departments under his command. If it’s not from one angle, it’s from another. It’s a serious thing.”
“Okay. Let’s focus on the last two years. That’s the fair thing to do. It’s the honest thing to do. Don’t you think?”
“I would advise you not to…”
“To fulfill my duty?”
“Not really. Everything can be worked out. ”
“Eh? What are you insinuating? Never!”
“Nothing, nothing, sir.”
Despite objections from the old man, who moved about the room opening drawers and shuffling papers on some pretext, Luis Alfonso commenced his work. But after a few days, covered in dust, and exhausted from rummaging through the archive (a doorless armoire and a stack of bundles piled high on a table) he considered talking to Don Ramiro directly.
“No… You can’t do that, my dear sir,” announced the nearsighted man in a mocking falsetto tone. He was calm and confident. He had received orders from Doña Francisca.
“Why?” asked Romero y Flores, floundering in a sort of impotence that threatened to bury him in the tragedy of his shame, of his humble voice, of…
“I thought I told you. Don Ramiro’s out of town. He’s on an electoral tour. His moment’s drawing near. He’s the official candidate.”
“I’ll speak with Doña Francisca then.”
“Well, that’s different.”
“I’ll go today.”
“The lady has a political gathering at home. Every afternoon… Perhaps tomorrow. I could…”
“Good, very good.” the young man said optimistically. He then feverishly gathered his papers, some notes, and a copy of Don Ramiro’s account. When he bid farewell to the general assistant, he thought: “Poor fool… He’ll die trying to protect his deception… Those wrinkled shoes, ripped elbows, dandruff, and that stench… Oh!”
As he walked down the street, thoughts of his heroic decision began to fade away as he realized he needed to take precautions. He went in search of Don Guachicola, an old drunkard whose photographic memory had enabled him to record a slew of scandalous anecdotes about the posh half-breeds and bureaucrats he’d spent his life among — he also sought out his friends, chullas from the billiard halls, bars, cafes, and backrooms — to learn what more he could about the virtues and miracles of the Presidential Candidate and his family.
In the middle of a drunken monologue, Don Guachicola, savoring vengeance and the bitterness of defeat, gave the young man a biographical synthesis of Don Ramiro:
“He arrived here many years ago from a remote village in the mountains. He arrived, like countless other country boys, with a burning desire to advance and become a doctor. A provincial blossom! However, either because he couldn’t hack it or simply because he didn’t wish to, he never finished his university studies. Instead, he cleverly used his outward appearance to become a highly sought-after bachelor. He was no Adonis, but being a light-skinned Indian, practically white, enabled him to get by with the help of women. Setting true love aside, he tied himself to the dowry of Ms. Francisca Montes y Ayala. They say the lady did it to cover up more than one scandal caused by his fiery temperament. And what did it do for him? He’d suddenly stepped into the world of the patriots, the masters, the minority ruling class. Marriage is the sweet key of destiny. Thousands have accomplished what he did in the same manner. According to publicity and praise from the ‘big press,’ which was the only kind he read, he used his wife’s money to make charitable donations once he was established. He started going to the social clubs. His concubines were many and beautiful. He took exaggerated care of his appearance, paying attention to every detail from his clothing to his cologne. Like you, dear chulla. He’s quite a sight to behold in his morning coat, bowler hat, spats and cane. In fact, you should see him at funerals, weddings, and etiquette visits to dignitaries, bishops, generals and diplomats. He became involved in a number of political parties, and his political influence grew as fast as his cynicism. He formed friendships and discovered kinship among the conservative oligarchy. He expressed his support for a certain left-wing group. He declared himself a liberal in the upper bureaucratic spheres, where his spouse’s illustrious surname guaranteed him instant acceptance… As for his talent as an orator, as a philosopher, as a poet. Oh, what talent! Divine! Newspapers have, on occasion, published articles containing excerpts from his letters or passages from his speeches, and they continue to do so. A friend of mine who knows all about these things describes his writing as ‘academic endeavors of a half-breed trying to pass for white, mere plagiarism from European magazines, a Baroque facade….’ The gentleman’s embezzlements were once the subject of much debate and scandal. What embezzlements! It was a huge deal. But as soon as the authorities realized he wasn’t just an ordinary peasant in a poncho, they treated him with both fear and deference, similar to how an Indian would in the presence of his master: hat in hand, drooling apology… And here’s the kicker, in a show of political courtesy, they called the theft a mere oversight, chalking it up to inexperience… One can only surmise that this fool must have an entire network of criminal associates supporting him.”
“I’ve discovered one of them… One…” Romero y Flores remarked to himself.
His friends too, young adventurers like himself, provided the new tax inspector with an account similar to that of old Guachicola — but a less toxic one, to be sure. Despite a tumult of impulses, he felt no closer to reaching the great role model.
Luis Alfonso felt his courage dwindling, and that his incorruptible judge’s persona was being mocked by the full-length mirrors, damask curtains, silver candelabras, pale porcelain ornaments, and trembling crystal lamps — decor from his grandiose dreams.
In a scene reminiscent of tales of witches and ghosts, a tall lady, neither skinny nor fat, emerged suddenly from a door. She hid the maturity of her half-century old age behind a facade of makeup and an artificial youthful demeanor. Under the spell of the afternoon twilight streaming in through the large windows, the woman’s visage acquired an animalistic aesthetic. “Doña Francisca… She has the face of a horse… The horse from the game of chess… I like The Nun better…” said the young man to himself.
“Mister Tax Inspector?”
“At your service. I was wondering…”
“Good. Take a seat.”
“Thank you. Thank you very much. I must express my regret. Heh-heh-heh… I trust you’ll understand. Duties are duties… I… My superiors…They…” the chulla stammered, trying in vain to be friendly. He wanted to employ his repertoire of exquisite manners from his aristocratic dreams but they remained dormant. He just couldn’t rid himself of the clinging agony that caused his hands to tremble and his legs to tingle. On other occasions (very few, of course), he had found interacting with posh people easy. But he hadn’t felt naked then, whereas now he felt himself teetering on the verge of a stupid contradiction. Was it the Presidential Candidate’s wife’s malicious and domineering demeanor? Was it the enticing murmur (perfume and merriment) that was trickling in from the adjoining room?
“Our clerk informed me over the phone that you refuse to sign off on my husband’s account. Why? Some whim of yours?” asked Doña Francisca, seizing upon the tax inspector’s notable disconcertedness.
In response, the young man made a gesture indicating that he was not at fault.
“Then who? Your….”
“Ah! Complete nonsense. And you believed it. It’s better that you think about the future. Your future.”
“She has no idea… I mean to defend her… Defend them… From the parasites…” Luis Alfonso said to himself with heroic pride. With a pride that dictated his response:
“Yes. But perhaps you’re unaware that your employee has refused to provide me with receipts for several items. He must be…”
“Those documents no longer exist. They could have compromised us, so they had to vanish. They’re simply gone,” Doña Francisca announced with morbid, throat-stabbing cynicism. Romero y Flores furrowed his brow, his jaw dropped. What was speaking to him was neither the face of the horse from the game of chess nor a victim of exploited vulnerabilities. It was a powerful foe, a perfumed demon with stony, cold black eyes, which contrasted sharply with the ladylike delicacy of her pointed fingernails.
“The Tribunal Court of Audit and Finance. Are you familiar with it? It’s the supreme authority on the matter.”
“It burned all of that trash some months ago.”
“Without allowing the legally mandated time limit to elapse?” asked the chulla abruptly, acting on instinct.
“In special cases…”
“When national honor demands it… When politics… When my husband… When a person of great importance, like the President of the Republic, deems it necessary…”
“But what about me?”
“Nothing. You must accept things as they are.”
The new tax inspector, feeling trapped in an absurdity beyond his affectations and special powers, believed that insisting was his only way out:
“Where can I find Don Ramiro?”
“Didn’t our clerk tell you he’s on an electoral tour?”
“He mentioned something like that.”
“It’s so hard to get a hold of him. We… We’re merely chicks. He… He’s the mighty eagle.”
“The museum eagle, goddammit,” Luis Alfonso thought, recalling a joke he’d read in an opposition newspaper about the illustrious personage. The memory of that sarcasm partially appeased the chulla’s disconcertedness. He wanted to say something, to use the audacity that had earned him so much renown among the low-status half-breeds—a boldness that was violent, predatory, and skillful—but before he could speak, she went on:
“If you desire a recommendation… If you want… Well… You understand me, right?”
“Not a word,” murmured the young man, despite being well-informed thanks to the rumors he heard from the gossiping and greedy minions.
“Oh! Really? Scruples… We can discuss that later…” concluded Doña Francisca, eyeing the little bureaucrat with the same curiosity with which someone observes a miserable worm’s venomous outbursts before crushing it underfoot.
“It’s just that…”
“My apologies, your name…” the lady switched.
“Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores,” he replied, emphasizing the R’s in his surname.
“Son of the late Miguel, right?”
“I helped him greatly in his moment of disgrace.”
“In his moment of disgrace,” the new tax inspector echoed, slipping down the slope of the shame produced by the realization that someone knew the secret of the sin of his origin, of his bloodline. If she had been alluding merely to his father’s tragicomic misery, he wouldn’t have cared. But…
“We were once friends. Very good friends. Before… That thing… It was unforgivable. There’s no name for it,” remarked the Candidate’s wife, throwing her hands in the air.
“My mother… She’s talking about my mother… About her… Oh!” the chulla thought to himself. Suddenly, his pride as an incorruptible judge and his grin as a witty adventurer were halted, his face transforming into a mask of anguish and supplication.
“Well… It’s not really worth talking about…” murmured Doña Francisca, letting up on her plan to humiliate the young man. It had taken her just a few words, very few. Due to her rare intuition as a land magnate, she knew where best to strike, where the cholo community’s most sensitive point of embarrassment lay (the shame of being only half-white). Satisfied and compassionate, in a fit of generosity, she continued:
“I understand your pain. I sense your sorrow… But you should consider. You’re young, with your entire life before you. You have the opportunity to form valuable friendships. Our offer isn’t bad. The clerk… Our employee… He must have mentioned something….”
As if dreaming, Romero y Flores shook his head in disbelief. Blurry spots danced before his eyes. He felt wounded, weak, small.
“Come… Let’s go into the drawing room. The city’s very best are here,” invited the woman with the chess-horse face with feigned courtesy, guiding the young man who moved like an automaton.
The room was filled with tobacco smoke and varying degrees of bright to dim lighting. Guests exchanged deep, exaggerated bows of reverence, amidst a procession of gentlemen polished by some secret villainy, ladies draped in silk and jewelry, senior clergy in purple-trimmed cassocks, and high-ranking officers clad in dress uniforms, as if from an almanac. Luis Alfonso’s initial confidence in mixing with the “very best” of the city dissipated as soon as Doña Francisca, acting both sly and benevolent, told him he could enjoy himself as if he were just another one of her guests, and then abandoned him in a corner of the room to fend for himself. At that moment, as if everyone had agreed on a strange game, they openly turned their backs on the intruder. Anxious to make himself known, he made his way through the crowd, swallowing profanities along the way. He tried to smile. He tried to speak. As he passed by, the chatter and candid talk coming from the faces of the “very best” came to a halt. “Who is he?” each insinuated with scornful eyes. “What exactly does he want?” “What’s his purpose here?” And not once but thrice he responded mentally, “I’m the tax inspector, and I want to inspect….” Fortunately, that dialogue died of indifference, it was lost among the mirrors, among the curtains, among the furniture, among the servants who passed around whiskey, pastries, and bacon rolls. Then someone placed a glass in the chulla’s hands, followed by another. His self-perception as a superior figure of justice was fostered by the alcohol. He approached a group of young women chatting and gossiping around a porcelain vase. He tried to say a few words from his gallant repertoire. It was a futile effort. Once again he was met with the contempt of everyone’s damned backs. Contempt… For him! He then remembered that he was “Mister Tax Inspector,” and, as someone preparing his weapon for battle, he pulled some papers out of his pocket—a summary of the Presidential Candidate’s financial records. He made a pointing motion with them and managed to murmur in a strange voice:
“I’m the tax inspector.”
Doña Francisca’s guests, with great prudence, drowned out that declaration by raising the tone of their voices, of their joyous laughter. In the face of failure, Romero y Flores stiffened in a defiant posture and made a valiant effort to shed his anonymity:
“I’m the tax inspector.”
“Eh?” the honorable and distinguished crowd exclaimed, instinctively turning their heads in unison at the brazen man to punish him.
“I’m the tax inspector!” Luis Alfonso cried out helplessly, surrounded by a throng of accusing eyes: “He’s drunk!” “Who does he think he is, yelling like that in a salon?” “A bad-mannered cholo!” “What nerve!” “Why don’t they kick him out?” “Inspect? Who, how, why?” “We’re the masters here!” “To doubt us is to doubt God, the country, everything…!” “Someone should offer him a tip to shut up!”
“I’m the tax inspector!”
Doña Francisca appeared abruptly, with a conciliatory tone. Her chess-horse smile had a lethal and eerie quality to it.
“It’s true,” she announced loudly.
“I forgot to introduce you. This gentleman is the son of Miguel Romero y Flores.”
“Romero y Flores?”
“Poor Miguel. His ruin was the result of his drinking, debts, laziness, and a string of problems with women. His lifeless body was discovered in some alleyway in the neighborhood of Aguarico. Totally inebriated.”
“A gentleman of adventure, of the conquest, of the encomienda, of nobility, of pride, of the cross, of the sword, of…” the chulla said to himself, driven by a desperate urge to hide the humiliating fact that he was the offspring of a forbidden love, a mixed-race man with Indian blood. As he glanced at the onlookers, the foolish expression on his face was evident to everyone.
“We, his friends, forgave him all his faults—except for the last one.”
“His public affair with a chola. With an Indian maid. Isn’t that so, young man?” asked the woman ironically, her words landing like a stinging slap across his face.
“Oh! Oh god! Mom… Momma…” was the soundless lament raging in the young man’s heart.
“Poor Miguel. According to the men who carried away his corpse, he was found shirtless, with merely a tiny vest fastened around his chest with a string. They called him Majesty and Poverty.”
“Oh, of course! Him…” gasped the choir, revealing its astonishment. Under memory’s spell, the honorable and distinguished crowd conjured up an image of the proud wretch in all of his former grandeur, complete with his outdated top hat and greenish frock coat. Despite the worn-out state of his attire—visibly mended at the shoulders, knees, elbows, and shoes—he carried himself with the dignity of a man in the finest garb, with a rigid, military-like posture, skin as coarse as a century-old tree, an upward-curled mustache, hooked nose, and a stern brow that heightened the intensity of the scornful look in his tobacco-colored eyes.
“My grandfather used to say that the moniker ‘Majesty and Poverty’ is traditional.”
“Apparently, a down-and-out Spanish nobleman from colonial times also bore that name. A little man who, despite having ragged clothes and an empty stomach, had the regal bearing of a cavalier in cape and sword, with palace liturgy, and a batiste handkerchief.”
The chorus surrounding the young man then burst into a wave of cruel comments:
“A haunted specter.”
“Like a baroque figure on a church wall.”
“At times, yes.”
“Like a catafalque in the midst of rainy mountains and sunny jungles.”
“Nevertheless, there’s something in him that’s in all of us.”
“In all of us.”
“As for the mother of the distinguished tax inspector, people called her Mama Domitila,” said Doña Francisca, speaking above her friends’ noise, which rose by the minute.
The chulla could no longer bear it. He raised his head to make his escape, to express all of his disgust and anger at the world. But words failed him. He had forgotten about his special powers, his grace, his dignity. He felt exposed, as if his skin had been stripped away. He felt as though the scornful glares from the honorable and distinguished crowd were setting fire to his veins, to his nerves, to his bones. He recoiled, like a scorpion besieged by flames. He desperately wished for poison so he could take it and end it all. As he turned to leave, an embarrassed expression crossed his face, which asked for forgiveness and suggested that everything be forgotten.
Luis Alfonso stood on the street, unaffected by the chilly highland winds and the misty drizzle of the evening. Internally, however, he felt hungover from the disdain he had received from those he admired the most. They had torn open his chest, laying bare his conflicted guardian spirits, all distorted and putrid, especially Mama Domitila’s. Nooo! The revelation of her was unbearable to him. His other guardian spirit, albeit impoverished, at least held noble lineage. It’s just that… He recalled bitterly how the old chess-horse face’s cynicism had made it impossible for him to use his favorite tactic. She had not allowed him, they had not allowed him, as was his custom, to hide the resentfulness, gloom, sentimentality, fatalism, quietness, humility of his mother — an indigenous maid — behind the mask of the arrogance, adventurousness, intelligence, pomposity, fanaticism and brutality of his father — a disgraced gentleman. “Why was I such a coward? Why didn’t I come up with some lie, some joke? Why in the hell did they open my chest to see what’s inside me? Why did I get tongue tied? Why? Why did my mind go blank? Why did my legs…? Why?” the young man berated himself, with self-reproach and loathing.
“Because of your mother!” was Majesty and Poverty’s response. “She’s to blame for the constant embarrassment you carry around with you… For the stupid look on your face… For the way your lips tremble when people like me delve into your past… For your farm worker’s hands… For your high cheekbones… For your green ass… You’ll never be a gentleman….”
“Because in them you saw the fury and evil heart of taita Miguel,” rang Mama Domitila’s soundless wail. “Of taita Miguel when he made me weep like a worthless dog… Because you too, my tender bird, my chased little mouse, despise me… Because you too, my beautiful baby boy, have some white devil in you….”
These distinct, persistent voices and impulses, with their irreconcilable, paradoxical dialogue, had been with him ever since he was a young boy, driving him deep into the desperation and loneliness that comes with being an outcast from two nonconforming races, from an unmarried home, from a people who revere what they hate and are ashamed of what they love. He vowed to take revenge on them. He would destroy, by any means necessary, the old chess-horse face, the Presidential Candidate, and the sneering, all-powerful choir made up of the “very best” of the city. Without even taking his chances of winning into account, he decided to wage a dangerous war. He would denounce their mistakes, swindles and frauds to the four winds. He was armed with their falsified transfers, receipts he’d uncovered. But… where should he go? To whom? How should he get started? He took a look around him. A skinny, barefoot boy was banging on a studded, latched door with his small hands. With the same bravery with which he had once given a deserved beating to a classmate—a stuck up cockroach from a newly-rich mestizo family—who had dared to call him “son-of-a-bitch, güiñachisca,” the young man said to himself, “no matter who or where,” while deftly avoiding his guardian spirits’ attempts at intervention. It’s curious that, ever since that encounter, or maybe even earlier, he found the term “güiñachisca” more hurtful and humiliating than the term “bitch.”
And without giving any consideration to what his colleagues often spoke about at the office (shady dealings, bribes, complicity), Romero y Flores foolishly believed that he could put an end to the scoundrels and crooks. For just a fleeting moment, an anxious restlessness penetrated his anger and threatened to weaken it. But… his special powers… he exhaled menacingly, like a snarling dog. He lifted his head. As he braved the rain and wind under that dark sky, he murmured softly, his thoughts turning to Rosario:
“I’ll fight them, goddammit. They’ll pay for what they did to me.”
Long before meeting the chulla Romero y Flores, Rosario Santacruz, the orphaned daughter of a retired captain who was fatally shot in a drunken soldiers’ brawl, held a steadfast belief: her graceful and captivating physique was her ticket to a secure future. She was convinced that her supple legs—with slender ankles, soft knees, and delectable thighs—along with her rebellious breasts, sensuous lips, firm stomach, and meticulously curled black locks—a miracle achieved through rag-rolls and curling irons—were her surefire path to a prosperous marriage. This belief, which sometimes brought her inexplicable, blush-inducing delight, and at other times agony, left her feeling disoriented, and as a result the biggest liar and sweet-talker had been able to sweep her off her feet with his proposals. It was a small merchant by the name of Reinaldo Monteverde who ensnared her with grand promises of wealth and an opulent wedding ceremony: parchment paper invitations, a fashionable church setting, champagne toasts, a formal wedding party, newspaper photos, and a honeymoon by the sea. However, it’s worth noting that the marvels Monteverde promised never materialized into reality.
That wasn’t even the worst part. The true horror unfolded on their wedding night, during the couple’s amorous union, when Monteverde revealed his cruel and insatiable nature. As he subjected her to a dizzying array of panting and spasms, she felt crushed and isolated, like the hapless victim of some stupid game. A piercing cry erupted within her, reverberating in her temples, throat, and fists: “Nooo! I don’t want to. It hurts! I’m not a beast of burden! Mommy, no… He’s crushing me, he’s suffocating me! Ouch! He’s… My god! How disgusting, his hands, his mouth, his skin, his body! Ugh! Everythiiing…”
And, having lost her first battle as a woman, the bride sat curled up on the edge of the bed, her eyes shut and hands clenched, bogged down by the nightmare of the debased sexual encounter—contemplating running away. But where could she go? How? With whom? To her mother’s house? Impossible! She was afraid that people would deem her attitude and decision unworthy of their honorable sympathy.
The period that followed was rife with a series of baseless grievances and futile arguments. Until finally, one day, the melodrama within the Monteverde home reached its climax. Without any valid reason he could think of to justify the aggression, Rosario unleashed her hatred right before her husband’s nose.
“I don’t love you. I never have. I can’t continue living this lie, as some women do.”
“How dare you?”
“This all seems so cruel to me, so stupid.”
“You’re my wife, my woman.”
“You never knew how to make me your woman… since that first night…”
“For God’s sake, what am I hearing!”exclaimed the man. He couldn’t believe his ears. He couldn’t tolerate her questioning his capacities as a man.
“We should separate.”
“I beg you. I don’t see any other way.”
“But what would people say?”
“People. It’s always about what people might say. Let them say what they want.”
“It’s just that I…”
“Nothing,” the man muttered, feeling utterly bewildered and empty, grappling to make sense of her stance. Words failed him; he was overwhelmed by the revelation. In his imperfect way, he did love her. Abruptly, a naive yet sadistic realization dawned upon him, leading him to assert:
“We are bound before God and the law.”
“I don’t care!”
“Not even that?” Monteverde shouted arrogantly, as if to shatter the woman’s unyielding stubbornness.
“Yes. I don’t care!”
“They’ve corrupted you,” rectified the small merchant, afraid he’d gone too far.
“Who? Who’s corrupted me?”
“I don’t know.”
“They’ve corrupted you. They’ve corrupted you!”
Minutes later, feeling utterly humiliated, he stormed out with a resounding bang, leaving Rosario haunted by the uncertainty of whether his claim about her was true. She stood frozen in place, a taste of disgust in her mouth and her eyes reflecting her shock at what had just unfolded. Finding within herself the resolve to no longer endure what she had until that night, she made her decision to return to her mother’s. Truth be told, Rosario had conflicting emotions towards her mother, Doña Victoria. As much as she loved her, she regarded her with a sense of mockery due to the lady’s old-fashioned and rustic traits. For a woman estranged from her husband, a party-girl to boot, her mother’s home posed a terrifying threat: loneliness, compounded by the dismal and unglamorous hours that awaited her within those two rooms—one serving as a storage space for old furniture and sentimental keepsakes, and the other, a blackened kitchen. “Something… Something must change… Something has to give…” resonated the young woman’s defiance. In the haze of her hopes, the nature of that “something” remained unclear, yet it fueled her desperate desire for escape.
Upon discovering Monteverde’s insults towards her daughter, the widow Santacruz was unable to contain her indignation. With the same gesture and tone that she typically employed when haggling over cents with the cholas in the market, she declared:
“My child, my baby! That scoundrel, that criminal. So, is there no way to make him understand?”
“I can’t bear it any longer.”
“He’s slowly torturing you to death.”
“The scoundrel better not show his face around here! I can be good, very good. But when I’m bad, I’m really bad.”
But when Rosario mentioned the only way out of her predicament —divorce— Doña Victoria’s Catholic spirit emerged in advice and lamentations:
“No, my child, not that. I urge you to think twice before deciding. A woman who has broken the bonds of the Holy Mother Church, a young, pretty woman who lacks the means to support herself, who… Jesus! I can’t even bear to imagine it! Of course, there are some lucky carishinas—promiscuous girls—who, despite their past, manage to find a gringo husband. But gringos aren’t that easy to come by… And as for me, well… I simply can’t help, I lack the means… My pension is barely enough.”
Despite the economic challenge and the moral scruples of widow Santacruz, Rosario left her husband. His relentless efforts to woo her back—through messages, letters, impassioned pleas, and late-night dramatic displays in the street, at times serenaded by an orchestra or under the influence of alcohol—were in vain. A kind of fear and hatred had matured in her heart, distancing any prospect of reconciliation, all hope of self-sacrifice, and any possibility of a loving reunion.
As both a mother and a woman, Doña Victoria was the only one who sensed her daughter’s sexual tragedy—the anguish it caused her daughter internally and the shame it could bring her in the eyes of others. She made every possible endeavor to lessen her daughter’s suffering: taking her to visit old friends, making daily rounds to churches and convents, and even crashing weddings, name days, baptisms, and wakes.
The Santacruz family was never particularly proud of their friendship with Doña Camila. Her liberal ideology, a trait attributed to her late husband, Lieutenant Colonel Luis Ramírez, a staunch supporter of Eloy Alfaro, clashed with their values. Furthermore, Doña Victoria disapproved of the not-so-virtuous lifestyle of Camila’s three unmarried daughters, marked by nonstop parties with people from the lower class, where guests indulged in excessive canelazos, engaged in risqué interactions, and danced until the break of dawn. But since Rosario was facing difficult times, they couldn’t afford to be too picky. That night, the widow of Santacruz and the semi-divorced Monteverde (her divorce was just about complete then) attended the name day celebration of Raquel, the eldest daughter of Doña Camila.
Near the end of the El Cebollar neighborhood, there was a house that most people believed belonged to a devout old man in his seventies who managed it, but, in reality, it was owned by the Curia. He had a reputation for complaining and being demanding, possibly a tactic to silence heretics. Ramirez’s widow rented a portion of the upper floor, which featured a living room with street-facing windows, two bedrooms connected to a corridor open to the courtyard, and a kitchen with a precarious layout and a single cabinet; a space boldly situated high above the rooftops like a watchtower.
Four blocks away from that house, on the uphill slopes of the city’s tutelary mountain, the chulla Romero y Flores suddenly emerged from a door amid a commotion, the dark stench of a tavern and brothel wafting out like a heavy sigh. As he reached the corner, a frail lightbulb flickered, swaying in response to the winds from the nearby páramo. He quickly started fixing his disheveled attire: straightening his tie, buttoning his shirt, adjusting his hat, dusting off his lapels, and pulling up his pants. Then, with a bitter sense of contempt, he thought of Bellahilacha, who had just forcibly shoved him out of her establishment. This had never happened to him before… Such is life… If only he were a wealthy land magnate with bundles of cash, things would have been different.
“Damn it,” he muttered under his breath and continued down the sidewalk, heading downhill. His stride bore the distinction of defiance he’d inherited from Majesty and Poverty. He firmly believed that it could shield him from the harsh weather, the incessant nagging of Mama Domitila, and even hunger. Yes, sometimes, just like on that occasion… Fortunately, within a few minutes, he stumbled upon a lively uproar of joy – there was rustic music, reminiscent of the mournful chants heard at an indigenous wake, and there were hysterical shouts of excitement, the unmistakable kind that cholos make, coming from the balconies of the Ramirez family’s modest parlor.
“A party! Food, drinks, pretty girls…” thought the chulla as he followed the tempting aroma in the air. His path was clear; no one could stop him. He entered through the front door, ascended the stairs, and made his way down the corridor. Displaying his talent for seizing opportunities and understanding social appearances, he arrived at the threshold of the room where the party was in full swing. Taking a deep breath, he adjusted his tie, removed his hat, smoothed his hair on both sides, and raised his shoulders, giving his jacket a more polished appearance. Just like a seasoned actor exiting the stage, he put on a mask of friendliness and smiles. Fate decided to play a trick on him at that very moment – the music stopped, and the dancing ceased abruptly. Everyone in the room reacted with surprised gestures and a chorus of impertinent questions, their eyes shamelessly interrogating him: “Who are you?” “What do you want?” “Where did you come from?” “Are you related to the guaguas, the girls?” “Who are you looking for?” “What are your intentions?” “What are you saying?” “Perhaps you’re a secret friend of Camilita?” “God help us! The foolish daughters with…” “He seems like a gentleman…” “Maybe he’s a suitor for the youngest.” “He could make a suitable husband for the middle one.” “He looks like he could be the lover of the eldest.”
Sensing the scrutiny and indiscreet comments conveyed through the onlookers’ eyes, the young man abruptly halted. He furrowed his brow and tilted his head back slightly, as though he were actually the one surprised. Meanwhile, Ramirez’s widow, who was attending to the phonograph and changing the record, abandoned her task. With determined steps and an unwavering gaze, she approached the stranger, assuming the role of a gracious hostess.
“I’m Luis Alfonso Romero y Flores! Don’t you remember me, ma’am?” exclaimed the intruder, aiming to preempt any potential questioning. He was acutely aware of the weight carried by his surname, associated with the power of conquistadors, the cruelty of encomenderos, the mystique of friars, the brilliance of soldiers, and the cunning of bureaucrats. It held particular significance for those seeking to conceal the sin of their origin.
During a swift pause, everyone proudly savored the lineage and honors they readily associated with that name. Each with their own unique style and perspective: “He’d be a perfect match for my daughter!” “Of course… His nobility is undeniable.” “My daughter’s still pure.” “He seems like a chulla, but a decent one, which is not the same thing.” “A trustworthy friend who can lend a hand when needed.” “He’s got that Romero y Flores blood… You can practically smell it… Heh-heh-heh…” “He’s made for my embraces, my kisses, my desires, my legs. Gosh! I feel like a teenager in love.” “My mouth’s watering. Or maybe more than just my mouth?” “Having grandchildren with the surname Romero y Flores would be wonderful.” “I may be forty-five years old, but I’ve got the money from the store business.” “Let’s get him a few drinks, bring a smile to his face, and see if…”
Upon savoring that surname, the guests collectively established an intangible directive, fostering an atmosphere of politeness and flattery, which caused Doña Camila to adopt a more humble and respectful demeanor:
“In honor of… of the…” continued the young man, not entirely certain what they were celebrating.
“Of the little saint” shouted Ramirez’s widow, regaining her composure of authority.
“That’s right. In honor of the little saint, I’ve hired an orchestra that will arrive in a few minutes.”
“An orchestra!” they all chorused, even though most of them suspected it was a farce.
“It’s really no big deal.”
“Please, have a seat. May I take your hat?” Doña Camila whispered, her thoughts filled with a mixture of delight and gratitude as a widowed mother. She couldn’t help but think, “My dear little Raquel. It’s as if he’s been sent by God. It’s as if he’s a gift from Heaven, bringing the promise of both marriage and salvation. After the scandal… After the scoundrel… After the baby that… May God protect us from the rumors…”
In the end, nobody remembered the young man’s offer. Why bother? It was better to have fun and enjoy his stories, his tales of love, his gallantry. Doña Camila thought it opportune and aristocratic to offer some warm wine. Her silver Christ, a family heirloom and keepsake, as usual, helped her out of this type of predicament. As she handed the jewel to the indigenous cook, who was clad in a messy apron, a shawl over her shoulders, braids tied with twine, and enveloped in the stench of fried onions, she whispered softly:
“Handle it with care, little chola. It’s blessed.”
“Like I haven’t taken it before.”
“Tell Teodoro, the cholo from the corner, if he’s still awake, to please send me four bottles of that fine, consecrated wine, he knows well which one.”
“Four? Will he give four, then?”
“Tell him I’ll pay him with interest on the Saturday of the next pay period. Go quickly.”
After the warm wine, Doña Camila’s heart grew heavy. She had reluctantly come to terms with the fact that Romero y Flores had no interest in Raquel (despite the numerous opportunities and hints she had presented). With a bottle and glass in hand, she found herself in the throes of a generous drunkenness. She began distributing aguardiente to the guests, discreetly murmuring to each one:
“Little one, guachito, drink up without making faces, without spitting, without leaving any secrets behind…”
Meanwhile, the party had become increasingly lively with a mix of dirty jokes, traditional dances, and bursts of hysterical laughter.
“Let loose… Let loose!”
“Those who aren’t cheering, fill their cups!”
“Little guambra, you beautiful thing you. Keep going, keep moving, don’t delay. What’s with me, you’ll see no more, I say.”
“Where’d you get that little verse? Seems like something from Alfaro’s era…”
“Long live the Saint! Long live the lady of the house!”
“When they’re drunk, they look just like Indians.”
“Just like Indians.”
“Let loose… Let loose…!”
From the very first moment they met, the chulla Romero y Flores found himself drawn in by Rosario Santacruz’s spell—a spell both melancholic and alluring, woven by the graceful sway of her figure, the sensuality of her lips, and the prominence of her cheekbones. While she may not have possessed what the cholo class regarded as aristocratic beauty—characterized by traits like light eyes, blonde hair, and thin lips—there was an undeniable allure, something strangely familiar about her that subconsciously, almost mockingly, triggered memories of Mama Domitila’s demeanor and traits in the young man.
Believing he had spotted the prospect for a new romantic interest, the chulla became immersed in confidence and boldness. Without considering how it might jeopardize his long-standing aspirations—namely, a marriage that could secure his wealth and social status—he approached Doña Victoria’s daughter. He grabbed her hand, insisting on a dance without taking no for an answer. As he drew her into his overly close embrace, a tactic that had often worked in his previous conquests, he felt her revulsion at his bold advances.
“I’m not what you think,” the young woman protested softly.
“What do you believe I think?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“So what then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Oh! I get it.”
“What do you get?”
“Not much… just a feeling.”
“A feeling of what?”
Curiously, both hesitated to speak, as though their words might lose their meaning. Yet—despite the deep scars from her traumatic sexual experience with her husband—she felt a distinct attraction to Romero y Flores.
The chulla’s relentless flirtations, lighthearted jokes, and the alcohol—trusted tools of the seducer—worked in tandem to lower Rosario’s inhibitions. As dawn broke—with a gentle weariness evident among the guests and the first light of dawn making its appearance—Rosario experienced a sensation of delightful exhilaration — like a devilish breath whispered to her ear, an insistent fervent caress upon her nipples, her belly, and her legs. Suddenly, as she danced in the chulla’s arms, she thought to herself: “They’re looking at me with hatred… with rancor… They must think I’m corrupted… Corrupteeed…” She opened her eyes as wide as she could, as much as her heavy eyelids would allow. In the gestures and whispers of the older women conversing with her mother, in the way Doña Camila drunkenly poured the aguardiente, and in the mocking grace of the couples dancing around her, she thought she recognized the same criticism originating in her heart: “Corrupted… They’ve corrupted you…” Overwhelmed with anguish, she tried to look around but found it hard to see. Her vision seemed obscured, as if shrouded by the haze of tobacco smoke, human sweat, and beer froth. For a split second, she felt trapped, threatened by the looming specters of ridicule. In a burst of desperation, she broke free from the young man’s grasp and fled from everything: the music, the laughter, the air, the gossip, the smell of scandal. Her escape led her through a corridor to the kitchen, where the indigenous cook stood, nodding off by the stove. As she stirred to wakefulness, she murmured…
“Good heavens! You almost startled me. I thought it was little Camilita.”
“It’s just me,” Rosario replied, struggling to find an excuse to justify both her presence and that of the chulla. He had trailed her—like a sentinel ghost—and now waited anxiously at the kitchen door, restless as a dog in heat.
“Yes, then. I see,” the chola managed to mutter as she sank back into her deep reveries.
“Why’d you run away? Why?” the young man asked, approaching Rosario with a feline step.
“I felt like I was suffocating.”
“We both were.”
“You felt it too?”
“There’s so much I need to tell you, privately.”
“Privately?” she asked, remembering how deceitful Monteverde had been before their wedding night.
“Impossible. Just leave!” the young woman exclaimed, backing away instinctively. She swiftly climbed a petite staircase built into the rear wall, which brought her to a room on the third floor. It was a place where she’d often spent time with Doña Camila’s daughters before getting married.
“Be careful! She’s a woman without a dowry. She’s one of those many little chullitas that… Your future… Your future as a grand gentleman,” the voice of Majesty and Poverty warned, attempting to restrain the young man’s passionate, blind impulse.
“For God’s sake! Don’t come up here.”
“There’s a broken board.”
“On the third step.”
“People might talk… You shouldn’t have…” Rosario chided, gazing through a large, open window that overlooked the neighborhood’s rooftops.
“Something beyond me, something that reminds me of I don’t know who or what, draws me to you,” admitted the chulla, with unusual sincerity. As he grappled with his growing attraction to Rosario and the warnings from his father’s ghostly presence, he added with a hint of regret:
“Understand me, for God’s sake.”
Breathless in her struggle to think clearly, she gazed out in search of solace, of a pretext to calm that imprudent rebellion of the flesh that, at times, ignites us and drives us to madness. Pausing, she immersed herself in the enigma of the cityscape—where houses ascending the hills and descending into the ravines awakened to the caress of the dawn’s gentle light. The sky, delicate as glass in shades of blue and pink, rested beyond the dark silhouette of the mountains. As dawn emerged from the depths of darkness and slumber, the city began to take shape with capricious sounds both distant and near. The city embodied a cholo blend of indigenous and European heritage—like its inhabitants—featuring domes and rooftops, persistent factory smoke and refreshing highland winds, the colors of huasipungos and the ambiance of a morning mass, and an architectural tapestry ranging from humble huts to majestic bell towers. This medley resonated with the lively shouts of muleteers and the haunting wails of locomotives, mingling with the gentle whispers of devout women and the profane curses of landowners. It encompassed rugged and winding mountain trails alongside meticulously maintained cemented walkways. Amidst this, ancient alleyways retained an enduring charm where stones, railings, and colonial belfries had withstood the test of time, creating a picturesque village-like atmosphere. Lastly, the city expanded into plazas and avenues, their surfaces paved with wide urban asphalt streets.
“Yes. Something…” he insisted, attempting to draw nearer to her, she who languidly leaned her body against the window frame, she who, upon sensing the young man’s intention, said to herself with contradictory vehemence: “Let him draw nearer… Let him embrace me tightly… Let him go away… Let him disappear… Let…”
But he had reached the young woman’s back, her ear, to affirm with a warm, caressing voice:
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Go away!” sighed the young woman.
“How? Just when we have the opportunity to talk without anyone watching?”
“Go away! They’ll realize we’re missing.”
“So are we.”
“I am, yes. For you,” Romeo and Flores affirmed, taking hold of the woman’s hands.
“I would like to be like this always.”
“Always?” Rosario questioned, offering trembling resistance to the disturbing contact.
“Perhaps you don’t know the tormenting effect of my husband’s gossip, tales, and lies.”
“Married?” the chulla said with a voice that betrayed his joy: “No danger to my future… No responsibility… No expense… Just a few months, a few days, a few hours…”
“We separated a long time ago.”
“You thought wrong.”
Without knowing how, the intoxicating, long kiss arrived. Yet, despite her passionate desires, it felt slobbery, suffocating, and cruel.
“Let me go!” she cried out.
“Let me go!” Rosario persisted, torn between defending herself and succumbing to the man’s breathless desperation.
“I love you…”
The unexpected—as always in seemingly hopeless moments— came to the young woman’s rescue.
“Rosaritooo. Where have you gone to, my child?”
“It’s mom,” she murmured in the young man’s ear. Upon hearing this, they suddenly both became silent, enveloped by a brief moment of fear and complicity.
“What? What do you want?” Doña Victoria’s daughter replied aloud.
“Where are you?”
“I’m coming down. Don’t shout.”
“Camilita has made a pot of pig’s feet soup to cure the hangover.”
“Don’t you hear me? We have to go to mass.”
Meanwhile, Luis Alfonso had hidden himself beside the window. He found it challenging to relieve the physical tension in his muscles that resulted from his unfulfilled desire and suppressed lustful feelings. Like the sound passing through a hollow wall, he heard Rosario’s footsteps descending the stairs, the voices of Doña Victoria, and the murmur of the women’s dispute as they moved farther down the hallway. Passing his hand over his face and narrowing his eyes, he wondered, “Who is it that she fears? What frightens her? One day, she will succumb… She desires me, I’m certain she desires me… When I kissed her, she trembled… She’s…”
The party concluded at six-thirty in the morning, with guests gathering in a room filled with hats, umbrellas, and coats temporarily converted into a makeshift coatroom. Doña Camila, in her generosity and diligence, was fueled by enough alcohol to blur it all as she attended to her guests, who were retrieving their belongings. Upon Luis Alfonso’s arrival, the old lady found it fitting and somewhat aristocratic to playfully tease him about his little ruse regarding the hired musicians, doing so by lavishing the young man with attention and gallantry:
“Come by whenever you like. You’ve been so intelligent… So charming… So generous…”
“For everything, señora. That was an unforgettable, exquisite party. Truly befitting your social standing.”
“Ah… Ah…!” Doña Camila managed to murmur, genuinely surprised by the gentleman’s praise.
“So refined. So very distinguished.”
“You probably want your coat, don’t you?”
“Which one is it?”
“A… A somewhat gray one,” the chulla affirmed, swept up in the old lady’s generosity.
“Yes, the same one. Thank you.”
The chulla Romero y Flores, a skilled master of budgeted conquests, persisted in courting the chullita, a term used by Majesty and Poverty for women without fortune. Their love—due to its clandestine nature and their limited finances—matured in the alleyways of distant neighborhoods, on the hillsides, and in the small forests near the city. But the gallant’s boldness and attempts were met repeatedly with Rosario’s unexpected disgust, seen in her wide eyes, tight fists, screams, and tears.”
“Why? I don’t understand. We’re young, life commands,” the man cried out, shaking with indignation one afternoon as he had meticulously orchestrated his amorous ambush, employing all his finest resources.
“It seems so poor. So…”
“Amongst the grass…”
“Always the same thing.”
“Like animals… like cholos… Like Indians…” the woman apologized, attempting to mask her rejection with a sweet tone.
“Like cholos… Like Indians,” Luis Alfonso mentally repeated—the words echoing like a shameful reproach—as he stretched out beside her, gazing up at the sky. Then, sitting up partway, he adjusted his hair as he usually did when aiming to impress. His eyes settled on the young woman resting in the tree’s shadow—the exact spot where he had envisioned possessing her. Reflecting on their surroundings, he secretly weighed his earlier plans against the lofty standards of Majesty and Poverty. “She’s right… In those wretched streets, foul-smelling ravines, and open countryside, acting shamelessly under the uncaring sky, amidst the mocking wind and uncomfortable earth, always with the risk of a furtive hunter unexpectedly stumbling upon us. To think of us in her home’s hallway, as if she were merely a servant, a guaricha, or a longa. I too am no common soldier, beggar, nor mere artisan… We ought to be like royalty—like princes and kings… Heh-Heh-Heh… She has her dignity… And I have mine… Damn it!”
With a faint glimmer of uncertainty in his imagination—devilish reveries in his eyes, and a tone of superior intrigue on his lips—the chulla ordered:
“Let’s go. It’s late.”
“Are you angry?”
Romero y Flores put considerable thought and effort into his plan—his new plan. And one day, with an air of disinterest, adopting an elegance that he occasionally imitated from vintage prints, he announced to Rosario:
“I don’t know if I should go to the Society ball.”
“To the grand ball?”
“The ball of the embassies.”
“Of the embassies?” she pressed, peering into the man’s eyes in search of the truth. Never… She could never have imagined that… The most distinguished, the noblest, the most aristocratic of the city…
“Why not? I have the invitation,” the young man murmured, passing an authentic card with golden edges and an embossed emblem to the incredulous woman. He had acquired it through his connections with the bureaucracy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“Indeed. It is… It is…” the girl said as she examined the mysterious card closely. The words “Decor. Formal attire” puzzled and surprised her.
” I don’t like going alone.”
“But… if it’s necessary.”
“We can both go.”
“Both of us! Me too?” exclaimed Rosario, her face showing indescribable surprise and joy.
“Well, it’s just that…”
“I don’t think Doña Victoria would object,” Luis Alfonso remarked, his ironic tone of authority treating the young woman’s hesitations as if they required forgiveness.
“It’s a high-society affair. Diplomats. Generals. Officials. Ladies. Gentlemen. Perhaps even the President of the Republic might make an appearance.”
In a solemn manner, like a priest explaining faith to a doubter, Romero y Flores continued listing the important guests attending the party and delved into the intricacies of that world’s grand paradise.
“So? Are we going or not?”
“If only I could get…” the young woman said, her thoughts focused on the jewelry, dress, and shoes she would need to fulfill the dream she’d had since she was a little girl.
“Oh, nothing. I understand myself.”
“It’s just that if you don’t go, I’d be bored to death.”
“Well, I was thinking…”
“When is the party?”
“It’s on the twelfth, just a week from today.”
“Ah, I see! In that case, count me in.”
“Are you sure?”
“Absolutely sure,” Rosario affirmed, her eyes sparkling with gratitude.
Two days before the social ball, with an overcoat draped over his arm—the very one given to him by Doña Camila—the chulla Romero y Flores ventured into a house where they rented costumes. The establishment had low-set windows, a street door resembling a hacienda gate, an underground vestibule, and a damp courtyard adorned with pots filled with carnations and geraniums. On the landing of a broad stone staircase, he gave a gentle tap on the first door. A pale man, his face etched with the wrinkles of a man in his fifties, wrapped in a black satin robe adorned with golden dragons, cracked the door slightly, enough to reveal his nose. When recognizing the visitor, he exclaimed with great delight:
“Step inside, my chulla. What’s this miracle?
“Just wanted to see you, Contreritas.”
“Well, also wanted to say hello.”
“Thanks, cholito, buddy. Come on in. Take a seat.”
The air inside was thick with the scent of leather, mothballs, and aged fabric, while its ambiance brought to mind some sort of warehouse of historical furnishings. At first sight, the promiscuity of diverse styles and eras felt almost intoxicating in its tastelessness. Next to the skeletal Viennese chairs and alongside the darkened colonial benches and armchairs, there were also modern and simple tables and armoires. Beside the wire cardholders, plaster piggy banks, and paper garlands, the finely crafted glassware and porcelain Chinese vases gleamed with their luster. Nearby, amidst Persian tapestries (though admittedly counterfeit) and oleographs depicting saints and virgins, the canvases by Miguel de Santiago y Samaniego were showing signs of deterioration. Scattered across the floor, amid a layer of decaying leaves and fossilized undergrowth, lay an assortment of carpets, cushions, spittoons, censers, and pots filled with artificial flowers of every imaginable kind, age, and size. Arranged in tight rows and towering pyramids—spanning the entire area—were stools, chests, thrones, and benches with origins ranging from Egypt and Babylon to Greece, Etruria, and Byzantium, intermingled with Gothic coffers, Renaissance boxes, and bargueños, as well as chairs, tables, and beds in the styles of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI.
In a clearing of that exotic wilderness, the man in the golden dragon robe looked intently at Romero y Flores and asked:
“How can I be of service to you?”
“In a matter that benefits both of us,” replied the young man, caressing the potential merchandise hanging from his arm.
“Both of us?”
“I need you to rent me a tailcoat.”
“Yes, for me.”
“It’s hard to imagine my chulla, our chulla, in petticoats and a stiff collar,” lamented the owner of the house, infusing his usual effeminate sweetness into his gesture and tone.
“The circumstances. The commitments…”
“Who cares about circumstances or commitments? That’s fine for some rich fool who hasn’t yet found the right disguise. But… Not for you. You’d lose your character, charm, and personality.”
“You… You have no right…” Romero y Flores cried out, wearing a displeased look on his face as he thought, “I can dress up as anything, damn it. I’m a gentleman. What’s all this chulla nonsense? Sissy.”
“Excuse me. I was just saying…”
“Alright. Let’s get straight to it. Look at this coat. It’s yours. A real bargain.”
“Bargain?” repeated the man in the golden dragon robe, examining the garment that had fallen into his hands without him knowing how.
“The quality of the cashmere. The latest fashion. Six buttons.”
“Tell me something. Where did you get this from?”
“From my father’s inheritance.”
“From your father, and yet it looks this new?” the owner of the house remarked mockingly, drawing a comparison in his mind between this coat and the frock coat and top hat that had once belonged to Majesty and Poverty, which he had previously acquired for his collection of national characters.
“Do you doubt me?”
“I was just asking.”
“It’s just that…”
“No need to get upset, cholito, buddy. How much do you want for it?”
“Just the tailcoat rental and a bit of cash.”
“I need it for the dance.”
“The embassy ball.”
“You… You’re going too?”
“Yes, me too. Here’s the invitation.”
That small card—a ticket granting entry to the Oligarchies’ Blissful Realm—shifted the course of the conversation. The man in the golden dragon robe, while accentuating his sweet tone, accepted the young man’s offer. Finally, he concluded:
“I’m not sure if I have a tailcoat left that’s suitable for you, but I’ll do my best to accommodate you. It’s funny how everyone turns to me when they need something. Every now and then, folks from the countryside show up, bringing with them the distinct stenches of mule sweat, of overseers’ excessive drinking, of Indians, of dung. They expect miracles, thinking I can turn them into proper gentlemen overnight. I’ve got to adjust their ties, pins, and socks. Heck, I even clean their dirty nails, show them how to wear gloves correctly, and give them a crash course on sitting properly. It’s always the same story: fancy parties, dances, weddings… you name it. And don’t get me started on Congress season.”
“Yes, then too. Come into the wardrobe room and see for yourself just how many items are ready for the party you’re attending.“
In addition to the room filled with historical furnishings, Eduardo Contreras (such was the name of the man in the golden dragon robe) had a magnificent costume collection. Grandfather Contreras began this collection during challenging times when old, worn-out clothes and infested garments were common. The wardrobe and the overall business flourished under the guidance of the great-grandson. His domestic efforts, such as crochet, sewing, handwork, and artistic mending, played a significant role in this growth. Like a rural landlord who sees himself as lacking in beauty and prestige, he sought to cover himself with artificial adornments and patches.
The costume room smelled like mothballs, old ladies’ petticoats, and the dust from a tailor’s basket.
“There’s a fortune here,” exclaimed Romero and Flores, overwhelmed by the quantity of skirts, blouses, capes, pelisses, coats, jackets, trousers, frock coats, shawls, corsets, and a hundred garments of different sizes and quality that hung like ragged ghosts from a squadron of stands and hangers.
“A fortune, indeed. Costumes are the discarded shells left by legend and history, cholito… Partially filling the anguishing void in people searching for their true identity.”
“Many believe that what truly matters is the detail, the ornament, the symbol. For kings, it’s the crown. For princesses, it’s the diadem and ermine robe. For saints, it’s the halo. For heroes, it’s the gold cords, buttons, and epaulets. For sages, poets, and artists, it’s the laurels, medals, and titles,” declared the man in the golden dragon robe with scholarly authority. He then disappeared into a foliage of pierrots, columbines, Napoleons, clowns, harlequins, odalisques, Neros, monks, generals, pirates, nuns…
“And this?” Luis Alfonso asked as he arrived at a corner where an assortment of dolls, each dressed in different national folk costumes, were on display.
“My finest creation. Our typical shell. Shame they’re going out of style. People no longer care for costumes that reflect their humble origins. Just a money pit, right?” Eduardo Contreras affirmed while tenderly touching a mannequin clad in the characteristic garb of a Quito chulla woman — a well-fastened cloak framing the face, fitting closely around the bust, a traditional skirt snugly lined above the buttocks, and laced boots….
“The folk costume’s simplicity aligns with the boldness of its forms. This… This used to be our typical chulla woman, my friend. You were born too late… Nowadays, though, the poor thing tries to blend in with the high-society girls… With the high-society girls who emulate the latest foreign fashion trends.”
Contreras continued speaking, his tone filled with both reproach and lamentation, as he described the traditional outfits of various characters symbolizing the nation, each positioned around the central figure of the chulla woman, resembling a museum exhibit. Among them stood the chola, with her intricate bayetilla shawl, satin and lace dress, pabilo braids, and checkered shawl—in roles such as a cook, servant, guaricha, or market vendor. Meanwhile, the rural cholo, wearing woolly zamarros, a fine poncho, a neck scarf, squeaky calf leather shoes, and a gold tooth—in the roles of an overseer, muleteer, partisan, or estate clerk. The urban Indian, on the other hand, with cabuya sandals, a cotona, linen trousers, a soiled poncho, and a wool hat shaped through repeated strikes—in the roles of a street sweeper, mason, or porter. There was also the devout woman, adorned in a long gown and mournful shawl—enveloped in grief, consumed by fervent fanaticism, and burdened by deep-seated prejudices. Finally, there was the dandy…
Suddenly, the host interrupted his monologue when he noticed his friend stumble upon Majesty and Poverty’s greenish top hat and tattered frock coat, to which, to complete the costume, he had added a pair of ridiculous shoes, a patched-up pair of pants, a celluloid collar, and a dirty pocket handkerchief.
“It’s… It’s… Father!” Romero y Flores wanted to cry out, carried away by a turbulent mix of emotions, especially tenderness, so overpowering that it swept aside his sense of pride.
“Father of our disguises, our façades, our small and grand deceptions,” Eduardo Contreras said to himself with a sorrowfully mocking grimace, as though responding to the chulla’s agonizing surprise, as though…
“Ours? He’s my father… Miiine, goddammit… You cholo sissy…” thought Luis Alfonso, furrowing his brow with defiance, tears welling up in his throat. The idea that he might pass down a similar shell to his descendants struck him with the panic of a child lost in the dark, of a sheep catching the scent of blood. Despite his fortune in stinking garments and dilapidated stands, Contreras, who had borne witness to Luis Alfonso’s emotional outburst, found his own origins in humble beginnings. As a half-white cholo himself, deep down inside, he both feared and, with morbid anxiety, revered the vices and virtues of the old Romero y Flores. Discreetly, Luis Alfonso brought his hand to his mouth, as if to… “There’s no need, goddammit. If these people have any worth at all, it’s solely because of my blood, because of what I’ve placed in them,” asserted the ghostly presence of Majesty and Poverty, seizing on one of those rare opportunities when no inner opposition arose (particularly when Mama Domitila disappeared). This assertion filled the chulla with the cynicism and audacity characteristic of “his honor, the big boss.”
“Where? Where’s the tailcoat? My tailcoat!” Luis Alfonso demanded arrogantly.
“Ah! The tailcoat,” Contreras repeated, dramatically moving aside a large folding screen.
Like a magical apparition, before a corner wrapped in mirrors, a row of rental suits for the aristocratic party appeared, standing upright on wire hangers.
“So many?” exclaimed the young man.
“Sixteen gentlemen. Two queens. Four movie stars. One princess,” the proprietor proclaimed with the cadence of an auctioneer, as he proudly showcased the finest aspects of his creation: ornaments, brooches, chains, monocles, golden cords, buttons, veils, sparkles, flowers, and jewels.
“And mine?” Romero y Flores insisted.
“Yours? Of course. You’re right. We’ll give you an English lord.”
“An authentic one, chullita.”
With a magician’s skill and finesse, the man in the golden dragon robe retrieved from a cupboard the rags required to transform the customer.
“This must be your size.”
As he endured the geometric looks and intrusive touches of the fitting, Romero y Flores became captivated by a women’s costume at his side. It was a white dress with a skirt of cascading tulle and a bodice adorned with red velvet flowers, divinely displayed on a headless mannequin.
“Very pretty,” Luis Alfonso murmured, just to say something polite, while turning at the whim of the artist’s technique.
“What’s pretty about it?”
“The tulles on the skirt… Also the adornments…”
“Ah! You’re referring to my special model. It’s designed to transform a chullita into a princess.”
“My princess. Absolutely stunning. I was inspired by a magazine. It’s a depiction of…”
“And how can one tell she’s a princess?”
Well… Some details are still missing: the tiara, the shoes, the shawl, the jewelry, the handbag, and that certain something that makes one’s character believable.
Just past ten o’clock at night, the chulla Romero y Flores pulled up to the home of Rosario Santacruz, a few blocks up from the corner of Cruz Verde, in a rental car. Anxious with the suspicion that his partner’s attire might not be up to the occasion, he got out of the car, carefully folding and unfolding his elongated and uncomfortable English lord ensemble. From the sidewalk, he gazed again and again at his lady’s aged balcony, appearing as a peculiar palace creature misplaced in a slum swamp. Brimming with impatient anticipation, he whistled, like a soldier calling to his guaricha or a muleteer summoning his mules. The echo—a sound of scandal and reproach in the quiet of the deserted street—suggested he should wait. One, two, five minutes passed. Suddenly, she emerged from the shadows of the doorway, wearing a white satin dress adorned with red velvet flowers on her chest. Tulle cascaded gracefully over her skirt, and a tiara of diamonds gleamed amid her wavy hair. In her hand, she held a long sparkling purse.
“The princess! Contrerita’s princess… What should I do? How do I tell her? She looks like something she actually isn’t. But she’s exquisite, truly exquisite… Heh-heh-heh… I must believe… Believe…” But wasn’t that his aspiration, his longing? A princess! With theatrical courtesy and aristocratic familiarity, he murmured:
“You look like a heavenly vision.”
“And you, like a king,” she replied in the same flattering tone.
Festoons of electric bulbs and glaring lamps lit the room in a dazzling brilliance. Ladies—transformed into playing card queens, operetta princesses, and contractless film actresses—engaged in curious whispers amongst themselves. Beside them stood men in white shirtfronts, displaying a veneer of seeming austerity. Among them were loan sharks masquerading as affluent financiers, smugglers draped in diplomatic honors, and autocrats posing as staunch democratic leaders. Collectively, they integrated royal palace etiquette into the sweltering embrace of the tropical heat. The jingling of epaulettes, swords, and medals announced the arrival of the intrusive Napoleons into the main hall. Between reality and farce, there emerged a moment—albeit a fleeting one—where they found themselves grappling with a profound sense of void, their own void. However, a subconscious insight provided the couple with encouragement: “Look, those costumes come from Contreritas’s shop too… there must be ten, twenty, maybe even thirty people… All squeezed into their outfits… With that certain something that makes one’s character believable… Mannequins with raised heads, jittery hands, shiny little legs…” However, it was a reminder of dignity that dispelled their fear. First in him, thanks to the timely and forceful intervention of Majesty and Poverty’s voice: “Come on, boy! What’s gotten into to you? You’re no stranger to all the tricks. They’re all playing the same game… What’s an English lord compared to a Romero y Flores? Not a damn thing… Absolutely none! No one would dare wake Mama Domitila now. I’ve got her subdued, locked away, wrapped up in fancy rags. She simply doesn’t exist! No one dares admit what’s plain to see. They protest, ‘We’re not Indians! Nooo!’ They even reject the truth—that slavery reigns in forests, mountains, and on huasipungos!” The young man, now fearless, moved forward to find a more suitable spot. However, realizing that Rosario still clung tightly to his arm, a behavior that didn’t quite suit the elegant setting and instead evoked the image of a frightened child, he whispered in her ear with a touch of amiable reproach:
“What’s wrong, princess?”
“Princess… I must be a princess… I am a princess… As I am now… A little more so…” the young woman thought, her pride rekindled, thinking about her imperial hairstyle, the majestic tiara gracing her head, and her attire resembling the tulle dress of a village Virgin. Adorned with soft, velvet flowers and a sparkling diamond necklace, she exuded an aura of regality. Even her shoes, which were a bit tight (especially the right one), seemed to enhance her charm. A unique and alluring fragrance enveloped her, and her thoughts turned to her gentleman companion. In her unwavering pursuit to conquer her embarrassment, she finally voiced a question:
“Who are they waiting for?”
“Can’t you see? They’re gathering in defiant groups, unconcerned about others… They’re fearlessly chatting amongst themselves… They’re looking at each other… They’re looking at us…”
As the National Anthem rang out from a nearby room, the initially reserved and indifferent demeanor of the aristocratic cholos gave way to one of exaggerated flattery and fawning sycophancy.
“His Excellency! His Excellency, the President of the Republic,” someone exclaimed.
“Ah! So he’s the one they’ve been waiting for… Him…” Luis Alfonso thought, as he found himself seized by the general restlessness spreading through the crowd. At that very moment, the entourage flanking His Excellency in procession—ministers, bankers, entrepreneurs, ambassadors, landowners, professional patriots—entered the hall, forging a path through a dense thicket of courteous pleasantries.
“The sycophants won’t leave him alone,” remarked an older woman with opulent hips, a member of the group standing closest to the young intruding couple.
“Impossible without them,” said a pale man who seemed to be made of ivory.
“For twenty years, it’s been the same tale.”
“It’s not ending anytime soon.”
“Look at how the opposition wags its tail.”
“They all do.”
Driven by curiosity, the chulla Romero y Flores stretched for a better glimpse. Beyond the cobblestone-like expanse of bald heads, curly locks, buns, and tiaras—his Excellency’s head, tonsured like that of a friar, rose and inclined with the mathematical precision of a puppet. “What dignity… What brilliance… So many decorations… It’s the best costume of the night… Costume? As if he… No! He’s not a chulla like… He doesn’t seem like one… Heh-heh-heh,” said the young man, then turning to Rosario he announced:
“It’s not ending anytime soon.”
“You think so?”
“Ceremonies. Blessed ceremonies.”
After shaking hands with the President of the Republic, the first sips of champagne, and the initial dances, something shifted in the atmosphere. The hue? The fragrance? The stiffness? The manners? The balance?
In the bar’s lounge, improvised in a corner, stood a table laden with a cold buffet, featuring oven-roasted turkeys, lobsters in mayonnaise, tuna boats, shrimp delights, anchovy canapés, asparagus bites, caviar treats, candies, and chocolates. The air was filled with scents of aged cork, pepper, sea spray, and cinnamon as the crowd swarmed the spread like flies over carrion.
Gradually, both the fanciful costumes and those meant to imitate real people began to crumple. Slowly but surely, the garments started to unravel and distort, a lament induced by the accursed alcohol, clearly evident in the wrinkled tulle, silk, lace, and English wool. Amidst ill-timed chatter and boisterous laughter, more suited to a mondongo eatery than an elegant soirée, the atmosphere—rife with tropical jokes and libidinous caresses—unmasked the true nature of these nobility-obsessed individuals, revealing noses, snouts, and ears that belonged to chagras with wealth, half-white cholos, and self-important Indians. As the party waned, guests were strewn about—rolling in corners, sprawled across the floor, draped over chairs and divans, a scene reminiscent of a town square in the quiet aftermath of a bustling weekly fair. Scattered about were the remnants of their festive disguises—shreds of fabric and leather, some easily visible and others less so—representing costumes of figures like Louis XIV, Madame de Pompadour, the dashing Beau Brummel, Napoleon, Fouché, George Sand, Greta Garbo, Bette Davis, Clark Gable, and myriad others from the annals of Western culture and the golden age of American cinema. Only His Excellency had the foresight to depart early. He withdrew before he could feel stripped of his polished veneer, before beginning to reek of a majordomo, a cacique, or Taita God.
Not once did the young English lord neglect his Don Juanesque plan to dispel the woman’s doubts and fears on the path to desire. He told her—in confidential whispers—about the glamorous crowd surrounding them, falsely claiming some of them were his friends and relatives. He compelled her to drink champagne, a lot of it, telling her it was the refined thing to do. He even offered her caviar.
“Caviar,” the girl repeated, savoring it with disgust and pretending not to be repulsed by that slimy paste she had to swallow. He told her it was a delicacy of kings and princesses.
Here at the ball, beside him, she felt the pulse and fatigue of a sweaty, almost dizzying sensation, flushed with rare desires, free from any moral preoccupation. The pain in the calluses of her right foot had subsided, and in that moment, she realized that deep within her, nothing was as potent as the rhythm of her blood, the urgency of her instincts—the joy of the music, the gentleness of the air, the sensation of another person’s presence on her skin, and the warm tickling of pleasing words.
Physically exhausted but confident in her role as a princess, Rosario asked Luis Alfonso, taking advantage of the rhythmic turn of a waltz:
“Tell me, who are you really?”
“Well, that’s funny. Just nobody, really.”
“Lie. You liar!”
“Hey, no need to shout. I’m an English lord.”
“A lord. My lord,” she concluded, burying her head in the young man’s chest with an indescribable surge of emotion. Then she thought, “A gentleman. He’s a gentleman. Smells good. Almost too good. One would want to kiss his naked body, embrace him like a child. A child! I’m not corrupted…”
He didn’t say anything. Why should he? He had conquered her, and proudly savored his victory.
“Come on, princess. It’s not very elegant to be among the last ones. Let’s go,” ordered the chulla.
“Go? Where to?”
“To the castle.”
“To the castle?”
“Our castle hidden in the mountains. Far from the city,” Romero y Flores announced as if narrating a tale.
“Our castle? Ah! Alright.”
They made their exit as if from a scene in a movie. Out on the street—chilly and brimming with offers of escape into reality—they hailed a car. He gave the driver a mysterious address. She, with her eyes shut, shivering from the vehicle’s vibrations, found herself feeling more secure in her disguise, more like a princess, as she drifted on an echo that comforted her, affirming that she was not corrupted. She opened her eyes. The houses passed by…
“Where are we?” she asked, fearing that the spell of her fantasy might break.
“We’re on the road to the castle,” he replied.
“But… But…” murmured the young woman, gazing outside. As she looked down, far down to the base of the hill, she could see a square illuminated by dim streetlights, adorned with domed structures and white walls, all bathed in the fading colors of twilight. Rows of houses nestled closely together within the narrow alleyways appeared as if in a deep slumber. And in these alleyways, the monotonous, rhythmic quiver of the stone fountain’s water flowed as it drained away.
“Do you see? It’s the castle’s pond. The pond where the witches keep…”
“Oh! It’s La Recoleta.”
“No. It’s the castle’s pond.”
“Yes. It’s the castle’s pond,” Rosario repeated with profound hope in a languid voice.
“Our castle… Heh-Heh-Heh… They await us… Who? The… The… For what? Not that! I am a princess. That’s precisely why… He is good… Smells good…” thought the woman, slipping through tumultuous desires. Feeling restless, she gazed among the shadows. In the foliage of a small eucalyptus grove on a hillside near the ravine, the wind snored, as if dreaming of a distant, untamed sea. In this elevated part of the city, amid the damp soil and scattered cane, she discovered the intriguing source of those nauseating odors. On the other side, near the corner of the chaquiñán—a dark zigzag climbing toward the sky—her English lord knocked on the door of a humble single-story house with peeling walls, barred windows, and a slanted roof.
A cavernous voice—the fool from tales of terror—inquired from the shadows:
“Who is it? What do you want?”
“A room, cholito.”
“For five or ten sucres?”
“The best. I’m Romero y Flores.”
“Jesus! You gotta pay something upfront, you know?”
“Take it, you fool.”
“I’m not a corrupted woman. Noooo! I’m young… I can… I must… It burns in my veins, in my heart, in my stomach, in my skin,” Rosario felt. With fervor, she implored herself to banish her fears—a fervor that, when combined with the intoxicating desire left by the dance, the music, the sparkle of jewels, the scent of the people, and the champagne, altered the reality around her. Walls rose before her eyes like battlements of a fortress. The sound of the small door opening sounded like chains and gears lowering a drawbridge. Upon entering the house—a gloomy shadow of a cheap refuge—she mistook scraps of intimate clothing hung out to dry on a line between the pillars of a corridor for banners, flags, and war trophies. She also overlooked the depraved and revealing nature of the furniture, the dimness of the room, the stench of heterogeneous sweat on the bed, and the squalor and repulsiveness of the cholo who had guided them.
When they found themselves alone, she approached him in silence. With provocative tenderness and eagerness, she tilted her head back, revealing her sleepy eyes and slightly open mouth, as though pleading for forgiveness: “No… I’m not a corrupted woman…” Gently—adopting a feline-like approach after drawing from the lessons of his past experiences with Rosario, guiding him to slow down in delivering passionate kisses, caresses, and embraces—Luis Alfonso gradually undressed her. She was… Well… As he lightly kissed her neck, he confirmed:
“I’m whatever you desire,” Rosario whispered, feeling her essence in the scent of wine and tobacco that at moments scorched her cheeks, in the hands that explored her body, and in the enchantment of his mouth, which, upon touching any part of her skin, sedated both past and present.
Intertwined and fused, the lovers found liberation from their solitude—hers rooted in the anguish of female impotence, and his deriving from a profound shame of his ancestral history, a shame resulting in disoriented intimacy. They both shed their facades and lies to be what they truly were—a man and a woman mutually surrendering to each other. A warm and urgent sensation emerged from Rosario’s physical and spiritual tenderness—coursing through her muscles, nerves, and marrow—culminating in a murmur of joy and triumph: “No… I’m not corrupted, oh dear God… I’m happy…” Romero y Flores witnessed a joyous affirmation in her eyes—wide with wondrous ecstasy—and felt it in the trembling of her skin—a strong desire for both life and death—the chill of her lips, and the vertigo that claimed her, all serving to elevate his sense of power and pride as a man.
The widow Santacruz’s scathing rebukes intensified when her daughter Rosario couldn’t suppress a devilish giggle—betraying a hangover from a night of poorly slept yet deeply enjoyed drunkenness.
“God have mercy. It’s the height of cynicism, young lady. How could you, huh?”
“You don’t understand.”
“Only carishinas do that.”
“It was a social event… I couldn’t just leave like a chola.”
“I’d much rather be a chola, to be an Indian. I… I’m a woman who lives her life confessing and taking communion. Who abides by the Holy Mother Church. I don’t want to be burdened with others’ sins.”
“I’m still young, mom.”
“You’re crazy… You’re corrupted…”
“No… Nooo!” Rosario cried out as if someone had poked at a wound that had just scabbed over.
“You just wouldn’t understand.”
“Oh, really? You had me spend a fortune on that dress, on perfume, on everything… Countless sacrifices, thinking it was something honorable.”
Once she was able to lock herself in her room, a noble desire to immerse herself in the secrets of the world and the lives of strangers drew her toward the broken panes of her balcony. Everything felt different to her. The sun’s dazzling brightness intensified the colors and shapes of the nearby hillside, while gusts of wind playfully swept the dust and trash along the streets against the bleak fronts of neighboring houses. Amidst this, the bickering and shouting of poor boys—with dirty noses, pale faces, and bulged bellies, filled with curses and vulgarities—formed a discordant chorus that soared above the myriad neighborhood sounds. A powerful compassion began to fill her with an unfamiliar, selfish joy—a yearning to sing, to rest by a serene river, to hide in a tree, to kiss a child. This wasn’t the ordinary compassion she had for the misery and pettiness of people—an anguish and melancholy borne of a sharp hostility towards the world and herself. Rather, it was a poignant realization of life’s transience, how swiftly it all passes—fleeting, frenzied, and irretrievable. Stretching voluptuously, she lay down on the bed. A sense of guilt made her think of him. Where might he be at such an hour? Would he be thinking of her? Would she see him again? Would she be doomed to solitude once more? Would she be considered corrupted again? Impossible! Driven by an obsession that ignited both tenderness and courage within her heart, she swore to seek him out, to pursue him, to love him, to live with him.
In only a few weeks—merely two or three—a curious lack of understanding between Doña Victoria, her daughter, and the chulla Romero y Flores began to disrupt the daily rhythm of their lives, casting them into a semblance of a cheap comedy. When obstacles—particularly Widow Santacruz’s tears and reproaches—prevented Rosario from seeing the young man, she’d plunge into an acute mutism, a bitter silence that communicated through her eyes: “Why? Why won’t you let me? I’m free, don’t you see that? Freeee! Why shouldn’t I keep seeing him…?”
“It’s for your own good, my child. I’m looking out for you. The world, the devil, the flesh… If only this were something to your advantage. But… It’s not, is it?” her mother tried responding, assuming a look of victimhood that evoked pity.
“I love him. I’m his lover. That’s right! You don’t believe me? His lover, you old fool! I’ll go with him whenever I please… Whenever I truly please… And if you try stopping me, I’m capable of killing myself. Killing myself!” the young woman typically responded. At times, she would express her anger and resentment with violent huffing, followed by her hurling something to the floor or storming off to her room.
“My child, I don’t even recognize you anymore. It’s for your own good,” concluded Mrs. Victoria.
In reality, the biggest obstacle was not Santacruz’s widow. Overcome by her “baby girl’s carishina-like behavior,” she finally relented and let things take their course according to fate’s will. It was Luis Alfonso who put up obstacles of all kinds; routinely telling elaborate lies, frequently getting caught in inappropriate talks with other women, often standing Rosario up for dates, and consistently dodging her questions. Rosario, however, hid her impatience well, pretending to be oblivious to it all. She would quickly and completely forgive Luis Alfonso’s snubs towards her, smoothing things over with persuasive, excessive sweetness. Although he suspected he’d fallen into a trap—one that jeopardized his well-known plan to marry a wealthy fool and secure his future—he continued their illegitimate affair. Was it love? Pity? Habit?
But one night, as they wandered through a distant neighborhood, well away from the city center, she succeeded in keeping Luis Alfonso with her. Their tryst unfolded against a backdrop of unevenly gapped alleys, ghost-like vegetation, foul-smelling ravines, dimly lit environs, and cavernous murmurs. In the midst of this setting, an unexpected scene emerged—key to her plan—with the potential to shift their destinies.
“Nine o’clock,” the young man said, attempting to interrupt a dialogue that had descended into anguished pauses and violent reproaches.
“Do you think that’s late?”
“The front door of my house will be locked. Mom isn’t expecting me.”
“They won’t open.”
“Does that scare you? Remember before, when…”
“When…” the girl insisted, in a tone choked by the first tears.
“Your reputation, your honor, your life,” objected the chulla, echoing the teachings of Majesty and Poverty.
“You are my honor, my reputation, my life. I’ve told you ten, twenty, a hundred times.”
“I’ll go wherever you say. There was that time you begged me to wait to see your place. And then, when the day came, you were nowhere to be found. And another time, you just turned it into a joke. But this time… This time I’m not leaving your side.”
“Is this a caprice of yours?”
“We’ll sleep in the street.”
“My family… My…”
“Yours,” Rosario shrieked, her contempt threatening to shatter the man’s delusions of grandeur: his ancestral home, vast estates, and inherited wealth.
“What’s come over you?”
“I just want to know where you sleep.”
“Well, for now…”
“No, it’s not appropriate for you.”
“What? Nothing scares me. I’m a woman. Your woman.”
“The same demands as always. I must safeguard my future, my bright future. I want to become a grand man, a powerful landowning gentleman. Perhaps for just five or six months. We can shack up like Indians do. But… Where could we go to be together completely, free from fear and shame?” This deep concern plunged the chulla into a closed-off state, a hermeticism defined by rigid boundaries.
“Say something, for God’s sake!”
The murmur of the creek, roaring at the bottom of the nearby ravine, added a kind of tragic unrest to Rosario’s desperation.
“So, you won’t answer? No? I’m capable of…”
“Of what, goddammit? The same trap every time. I’m sick of it…” the young man thought, believing himself invincible in his silence.
“Of killing myself!”
“Go ahead, kill yourself… Go ahead, do it, if you can,” Romero y Flores concluded incredulously.
But she, without hesitating, reached a small mound overlooking the depths of the ravine that ran along the edge of the road, shouting:
“I’ll kill myself!”
“Wait! What are you doing?” Luis Alfonso pleaded, abandoning his indifferent attitude. From the tone of the woman’s voice, he realized this wasn’t just an empty threat.
“Will you take me with you?” Rosario insisted, her voice trembling with tears.
Without further words, an embrace of reconciliation drew them together once more. They fled from that place. In his disconcertedness, the chulla imagined the kind of advice his friend, an expert in navigating such moments of crisis, would offer: “Reveal your misery before her eyes. Show her your loneliness, your abandonment. It’s the only remedy.” The voice of Majesty and Poverty also opportunely interjected: “Control your cholo passions at all costs… Focus on your future, not fleeting pleasures! Her finding out about your living conditions is inconsequential… After all, this isn’t the first time you’ve brought women of her kind to your quarters.” Then, in a painfully poignant counterpoint—an instance of the eternal imbalance embittering his life—Mama Domitila’s presence managed to murmur: “Poor dear… Poor dear…”
Following numerous twists and turns, the lovers made their way up through the San Juan neighborhood, nestled against the slopes of Mount Pichincha. Before long, they were wandering down a narrow, damp street lined with lopsided houses and deteriorating walls — an air filled with conflicting scents reminiscent of both an Indian hut and a colonial jail — a place Rosario had never before been.
“Here!” announced Romero y Flores, disappearing into a dark entranceway.
“To the left.”
“Give me your hand. I can’t see.”
“I have to open it.
“It stinks of dirty socks, tobacco, a urinal and a saddle storage,” the girl thought to herself as she stepped into the room the young man had opened.” And immediately, something stronger than her patience compelled her to ask:
“Where’s the light?”
“They cut off the power a few weeks ago, and I haven’t been able to…”
“A few weeks.”
“Wait,” concluded the chulla, as if to say: “And that’s not all.”
Little by little, as the young man laboriously lit the room, Rosario’s astonished eyes were greeted with papers and cigarette butts scattered across the floor. A step stool was positioned near a dilapidated window. In place of a chamber pot was a grimy tin can, with a basin of soapy water beside it. The room featured a worn-out three-seat sofa with its stuffing spilling out, a chair missing a leg, and a bed with moth-eaten posts and crumpled blankets. Looking up, Rosario noticed the ceiling showed signs of leaks, and the tapestry on the walls bore smudges from dirty hands and fossilized spit stains. In the shadows of a corner lay a neglected pile of old sticks.
“She’s going to leave… I’ll run after her to make it more convincing. I’ll reproach her. At least that way… For her cowardice, for her lack of…” thought Romero y Flores, sneaking a sideways glance at the girl’s astonishment as she absorbed the room’s squalor.
“What am I to do, my God? I am… I am part of the same farce, too… I understand the extent to which we all pretend… But this, this is beyond anything… Why am I not shouting? It’s been all lies… Liiies!” said Rosario to herself as she sank into the abyss of an awkward commitment. Fortunately, she found within herself, just in time, that which occasionally blossomed in her blood—a feeling evoked when her father died, when she felt like a woman in the chulla’s arms: a profound maternal compassion—for herself, for him, for the entire world. Trembling under the tight and intimate grip of a revelation more shocking than any before, she leaned back against the wall, her face tear-streaked and flushed.
Attempting to both pacify her and offer an apology, the chulla drew nearer, whispering one of his customary lies—his inheritance was still in litigation, his relatives were feuding. Rosario, however, gently declined his attempt at comfort and, in a hushed tone, proposed:
“Shall I make the bed?”
“Okay…” he said, a sense of defeat making him feel as though hypnotized. As the rhythm of the scene unfolded before him, he thought simultaneously as both spectator and critic: “She’s not fleeing… She’s taking off her coat… Shaking out the blankets… Searching for sheets… No, there are no sheets! Yet, she doesn’t seem to care… What does she care about, then? Will she leave? She will go, someday! She’s now sitting by the pillow… My pillow… Heh-heh-heh… She’s caught a whiff of the putrid jar by her feet, but is pretending not to notice the smell, and… She’s taking off her shoes, socks, blouse, skirt, shirt… She’s looking at me as if… Godammit, what does she want? What is it that she’s after? My skillful hands, my lips, my skin, the fervor of my blood… She’s waiting for me without… Calmly… Naked… I am…”
In that moment, he was merely a pawn to the same diabolical impulse that had once driven Majesty and Poverty to lay with Mama Domitila and many gentlemen of the Conquest and the Colony with indigenous women—without regard for the transgression, the sin, or the future. Romero y Flores, once again, united with his lover—their union marked by an intensity of possession and surrender that eclipsed the ghosts of the chulla’s past.
When the next morning dawned, she quietly slid out of bed, careful not to make a sound. As she got ready in the dark, gingerly feeling for her things, she mentally reviewed the details of the plan she had hatched the night before to transform the young man’s room into a decent place to live. “Mom will be making her rounds to the churches until nine. The key, as always, will be hidden under the brick by the kitchen window. What if she hasn’t gone out? Well… I’ll weep at her feet… I’ll beg for forgiveness until… I’ll tell her… Whatever it takes… I need the oil lamp, a table, two chairs, the chamber pot, some plates, the sheets… The clothes… And the money from the piggy bank.”
After Mama Domitila’s death, before meeting Rosario, and well before his bureaucratic career, Romero y Flores learned to skirt life’s demands in various ways: through borrowing money, pawning items, mooching off others, facilitating debauched escapades for scions of wealthy landowners, and engaging in clandestine business schemes like embezzlement and smuggling. At that time—Inspired by Majesty and Poverty—he crafted his gentlemanly image. He took to wearing spats—an accessory brought from the London winters by a chagra-turned-tourist, which cleverly concealed the patches and dirt on his socks and shoes. He also donned a doctor’s hat, frequently dyed and reshaped, along with a dark cashmere suit in the latest European fashion, which he kept looking neat through a marvel of patching, ironing, and brushing—a deliberate departure from traditional attire like the Indian cotona and cholo poncho.
The young man consistently adjusted minor details of his attire to suit the perceived preferences and tastes of the victim or accomplice he targeted for business dealings or romantic liaisons. When aiming to intimidate officials and bureaucrats with political gossip, he would tuck newspapers, whether new or old, into his jacket pocket. On occasions when he faced a particularly steadfast young lady, he adorned his lapel with a carnation (secretly plucked from public parks or neighbors’ flowerpots), positioned the corners of a silk handkerchief into his chest pocket, and affixed a faux gemstone pin to his tie. In his hand, he carried a roll of receipts and invoices from prominent financial institutions during his more dubious transactions with moneylenders or usurers.
More coming soon…