In November 1961, just a few weeks after my 27th birthday, I gassed up my Mercury Comet and headed southwest. Destination – Monterrey, Mexico, my first Foreign Service post. The infamous day-long Foreign Service entry exam and the grueling three-on-one orals long behind me, and countless other bureaucratic obstacles more recently overcome, I was at last embarking upon my chosen career.
But I also had misgivings.
Mexico was not my first choice. I had joined the Foreign Service, for God’s sake! A town less than 150 miles south of Laredo, Texas didn’t sound particularly foreign to me.
Moreover, the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey was notorious within the Service as a “visa mill” – a place where junior FSO’s “paid their dues” by spending eight hours and more each day at the necessary, but mind-numbingly tedious, job of grinding out visas. Adventure had figured more prominently in my visions of Foreign Service life than had tedium.
Still, these were secondary concerns. My main qualms were more personal than professional. Like most Foreign Service entry classes, mine had consisted mainly of married officers; by definition, couples carried their own morale-support systems with them. I, on the other hand, was single. What's more, despite an intensive four-month course in conversational Spanish at the Foreign Service Institute, I was still speaking and understanding at no better than sixth-grade level. To top it all off, the Mexican culture was reputed to be old-fashioned in the extreme as regards relationships between the sexes. “Nice girls”, I was told, did not go on dates unchaperoned. What had I let myself in for?
I needn’t have worried.
Yes there were cultural differences, and learning to navigate them did take time, but they were neither as stark nor as pervasive as I had heard. For example, except for the teeny-bopper set, chaperones had pretty much been replaced by the familiar American custom of double-dating. My main stumbling block was communication. It need not have been, because most of the girls I met spoke at least passable – and more often, excellent – English. Some of them had even gone to school in the States for that express purpose. But I was determined to master Spanish, and insisted upon practicing it, sometimes with spectacularly embarrassing results. One day, while chatting with several of the very attractive girls who worked in the Consulate file room, something I said set off a round of giggling and blushing. Puzzled, I asked – in what I thought was perfect Spanish – “did I embarrass you?” The blushes instantly turned deeper red and the giggles became guffaws; I had just asked them “did I make you pregnant”?
Actually, most of the cultural differences I encountered were innocuous or even enjoyable, like the popular custom of hiring a guitar trio to stand under a girlfriend’s window late at night and serenade her with fifteen minutes or so of romantic songs, perhaps to mark a birthday or other occasion. Some customs however, did present problems, if only because traditional Mexico was rapidly moving into a more modern mode. And since the views of any given family could fall anywhere along that transitional line, nobody could give me reliable “one size fits all” guidance.
One such difference involved the American preference for “playing the field” and dating widely, at least until we found some special person with whom we might want to “go steady”. The prevailing Mexican practice, however, was nearly the exact opposite. Dating widely, either chaperoned or as double-dates, was acceptable for some unspecified period of time, but – after perhaps the third or fourth date with the same person – the male was expected to declare his intentions and formalize the relationship into one that approximated an “engagement to become engaged.”
At first, this was a bit nervous-making; I wondered if I really wanted to ask any girl out a third time. After a while though, it turned out not to be quite as dicey as it sounds; most of the girls I dated were far enough along in the cultural transition that it never really became a problem.
Monterrey, despite its 1.5 million population and its position as the #2 business and industrial center in the country (after Mexico City), was in many ways the world’s largest small town. In the circles in which I was fated to move, everybody knew everybody else -- and what’s worse, they reported back. I learned very quickly that, whenever I went out on a date, all the girls in the Consulate knew the next day with whom and where I had gone, how late I had gotten her home, and anything else of interest there was to know. One of my older and more widely traveled colleagues called this the “jungle drums” effect; in Monterrey, it was known – less colorfully perhaps, but just as accurately – as the “Radio Station”. This was simply a fact of Monterrey life. There was no getting around it. You just acknowledged it, shrugged your shoulders, and moved on.
As a Vice-Consul and Immigrant Visa Officer, I shared supervision of eight “Document Checkers” – young, well-educated Mexican women whose job it was to review each applicant’s supporting documents for completeness, and to alert us to any inconsistencies they might see. One day, after I had been on the job only a few months, one of these girls – Maria Luisa by name – mentioned casually that her sister, who had been living in Mexico City, would shortly be returning to Monterrey. “Would I be willing,” she asked, “to accept an invitation to dinner at their home”, as she believed her sister and I would get along well. I was no fan of blind dates, but what else could I say? “Of course”, I responded. “I’d be happy to meet her.” Weeks passed, then months. No invitation, no explanation. Obviously, the sister was no fan of blind dates either. OK, no biggie.
Some months later, Maria Luisa and her fiancé set a July date for their wedding, and she resigned from her job, as was the custom. Our boss began interviewing prospective replacements. Passing the boss’ office one day, I caught a glimpse of one of them – skinny as a rail, not particularly well-dressed, kind of tomboyish. But something about her caught and held my attention, something that hinted at a lively and vivacious personality. Maybe our boss thought so too, because he hired her.
Or maybe the whole hiring process had been “cooked”, because she turned out to be Maria Luisa’s sister.
Her name was Elsa.
We became casual workplace friends, but nothing more. Well, maybe just a little bit more, but nothing romantic. I had a satisfactorily varied social life by that time, and she wasn’t sending out any hints that she might be interested. Life went on.
In July, I attended Maria Luisa’s wedding, along with all the other officers at the Consulate. Elsa was one of the bridesmaids, and – dressed for the part – she was strikingly attractive. And in the post-ceremony mingling on the church steps, her personality shone brightly for all to see.
Still, nothing happened on either side. Summer eased into autumn, Thanksgiving came and went. And soon it was nearly Christmas, when the Consul General hosted his annual staff party a few days before the big holiday. The Mexican employees – especially the women, who were heavily in the majority – did almost all the planning and preparation. The agenda included live music, cocktails and hors d’ouvres, a few skits, dancing and a buffet dinner.
As a way to keep things moving smoothly between the skits and the dancing, the principal organizer had arranged for two of the girls and the two single males on the staff to demonstrate the “Twist” – the popular new dance craze that was then sweeping both the U.S. and Mexico. Partway through the “Twist”, the two couples were to separate and bring four additional persons to the floor, repeating this maneuver until everyone was dancing.
At least three things were wrong with this plan. First, the only two single males included me. Second, since my feet were completely devoid of grace or rhythm, I never, ever ventured out on a dance floor until it was crowded enough to give me adequate cover. And third, the organizer never bothered to tell me that any of this was going to happen. The cherry on the cake was that she asked Elsa to be my partner for this incipient travesty, and led her to believe I knew all about it.
You can guess what happened. The Twist “demonstration” was announced, Elsa came to lead me to the floor, and I said something like “Are you out of your bloomin’ mind? I’m not doing any dance demonstration!” Elsa was offended, humiliated, and angry as hell. And she let me know it.
Luckily, with the intervention of the organizer and other mutual friends, we were quickly apprised of what had happened. We buried the hatchet and had a few nice dances together. At the end of the evening, Elsa came up to me and said, “Mr. St. John my family always has a party on Christmas Eve; if you haven’t anything else planned that night you would be welcome to join us.” I thanked her, and gave a polite but non-committal response. In fact, I certainly hoped I would not be spending Christmas Eve alone, but I was still finding it difficult – sometimes painfully so – to carry on conversations with complete strangers in Spanish. With a bit of luck maybe I would receive one or two additional invitations from which I could choose.
By early afternoon on Christmas Eve, the only other invite I had received was for the following day, so I had a decision to make; do I opt in favor of lethargy and a perverse concept of comfort, at the cost of having to spend the holiday alone at home? Of course not. I got up off my lazy ass, phoned Elsa, and asked if her invitation was still open. It was. I then patted myself on the back for making what was obviously the only decent, mannerly and proper decision.
I had no inkling that I had also just made a life-altering decision.
* * *
From the moment I walked in the door that evening, I sensed I was the subject of speculation and behind-the-hand commentary. What should we make of this new friend of Elsa’s?
As Mexican families go, Elsa’s was on the small side. Nevertheless, the house was fairly crowded. It included Elsa’s Mother; her Sister Maria Luisa and husband; her brother Alfonso and his girlfriend; four elderly Aunts; and especially Elsa’s cousin Antonio, an ebullient and gregarious businessman from Mexico City, together with his wife and twelve-year-old daughter.
Toño, although only in his mid-forties, had filled the role of family patriarch since the untimely death of Elsa’s father some years earlier. It is Toño who, with his huge personality and fluent English, dominates my memories of that evening. He saw to it that I felt welcome and that my glass was never empty. I sensed the latter was a test, but I didn’t know whether it was my capacity or my moderation that was being assessed. Wisely, as it turned out, I opted in favor of moderation.
I didn’t learn until months later that, when Elsa told the family there would be an extra guest that night, Toño had asked her, “Do you like this gringo?”
She started to reply, “Yes, but…”
“No buts,” Toño interrupted! “Do you like him?”
“Well, yes” Elsa replied, “but…”
“OK”, said Toño with finality. “We’ll get him for you.”
As the evening progressed, a guitar trio appeared, and began singing old Mexican songs interspersed with Christmas music. Then, different sets of friends and cousins arrived, shook hands all around in the Mexican custom, had a drink, and after a half-hour or so moved on to the next party. Their identities quickly merged into one large blur. Through it all, Toño seldom left my side, making sure I was included in everything.
After a while, Elsa excused herself to visit the powder room. Paty, Toño’s young daughter, seeing this as an opportunity for which she had been waiting, made a beeline for me, took me into a private alcove and asked – in Spanish and with great seriousness – “Sr. St. John, do you like my cousin Elsa?”
I knew at once I was in trouble. There is no way to answer a question like that in anything but the affirmative, which leaves it wide open to misinterpretation. I replied, also in Spanish, “Yes, of course”, or words to that effect. Paty responded – and I translate this literally – “then why don’t you declare yourself?” In an earlier paragraph, I alluded to the relationship known as the “noviazgo”, which can mean anything from a formal engagement to a much looser “engagement to become engaged”. Neither of these were anywhere in my plans at the moment, so I was relieved when Toño rescued me by whisking Paty off for a private father - daughter discussion.
From everyone’s point of view (except perhaps Paty’s) the evening was a resounding success. I had a great time, enjoyed Elsa’s family, and appeared to have made a favorable impression on them. More to the point, I decided I wanted to see more of Elsa.
And see more of each other we did. During the first month of 1963 we had at least three dates and, with Maria Luisa’s active assistance, I became a regular guest at Elsa’s home for Sunday dinner. In February, we attended three consecutive performances at an annual theatre festival in addition to our weekend dates. I realized with some surprise that I had never before had three consecutive dates with any one girl, much less on three consecutive nights. And I noticed, again with some surprise, that I was enjoying myself more with Elsa than with any two or three others. Something different was happening, for both of us. Well before the end of the month, the subject of marriage began to creep into our conversations. Things were clearly getting serious. So much so that anyone overhearing us might have assumed that marriage was a foregone conclusion.
But this was far from the case. The distance from where we were at that moment, to a point where I would be ready to propose, and she ready to accept, still seemed a long way off. We were both Catholic, and although this might be expected to facilitate a decision, it also meant that we both looked upon marriage as a lifelong commitment. Did we really know each other well enough to sign on for this? I didn’t know, and neither did she. This uncertainty, and the tensions that accompanied it, followed us into the first half of March.
On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th, the American Society of Monterrey held its annual ball. This was a “command performance” for all officers at the Consulate General. Elsa, of course, was my date. By that time, it was common knowledge that we had become “steadies” in the American sense, but we had not let others know how far our thinking had progressed. It occurred to me that this dance might be an appropriate time to “pop the question”, but – even as we took the floor for the first dance, and the second, and the third – I was still undecided.
We were about an hour into the affair when I suggested that we go out on the terrace to watch the sunset. There, as the sun slipped slowly behind the Sierra Madre, the realization struck me hard and sudden that this was the moment. If I did not act now – this second – it might slip away, never to return.
I chose now. And so did Elsa.
* * *
Now here comes the truly weird part.
After Elsa’s acceptance and our celebratory kiss, as we stood at the terrace railing looking down on the street two floors below, a Volkswagen bug turned off the Plaza Zaragoza a half- block away and stopped directly beneath us. A formally dressed guitar trio stepped out, turned towards us, heads tilted upward, and began to sing – out of all the thousands of possibilities – the tune we had designated as “our song”, a romantic Italian ballad called “Al Di La” from an otherwise forgettable recent movie. Our song!!! Then, the moment they finished, they climbed back into the car and sped off.
Elsa turned to me in amazement and asked, “How did you arrange that? With such perfect timing?”
Nearly speechless myself, I put on my best approximation of a modest expression, and repeated a line from another dimly remembered film.
“Stick with me, kid”, I said; “You’ll wear diamonds.”