Wednesday, November 25, 2015

El canto del gallo: The Rooster's Song

At age eighty one, Joel Garcia Leyva (El Pollo) is completing forty five years as the owner and cantinero (barman) of the only cantina (tavern) in el barrio Xochimilco. He has been intent on keeping his establishment, Pollo's Bar, in el estilo antigua (the old style). Not much has changed since he first opened it in 1970. Walking through the curtained entryway is walking back in time. His shiny, red "rockola" no longer plays three 45' vinyl for ten centavos, but it still retains the look of the one he first bought in the 70's. Pollo himself retains a classic look dating back to the 40's. At eighty one, he is the oldest, if not the only, pachuco in Oaxaca!

El Pollo is a nickname that Joel has had since birth. He explained to me that everyone en el barrio Xochimilco had a nickname, mostly animal names. He has one brother called el Chango (the monkey) and another el Caballo (the horse). Since he was the youngest of nine children, he was called el Polluelo (the little chicken). "I may be a rooster now, or even a turkey", he joked, "but to the people of this barrio, I am still "el Pollo".

While I was interviewing him recently, a customer came in for a beer. El Pollo told him to help himself because, Manuel, his right hand man, was sick. We continued our interview, the man walked behind the bar, grabbed a Corona, opened it, and handed twenty pesos to el Pollo when he was done. Just like old times, the friendly flavor of a neighborhood bar.
El Pollo como joven gallo

El Pollo did not start out as a cantinero. After finishing sixth grade he decided he did not want to continue with formal schooling. As was the tradition at that time, that meant that he had to take up a trade. He chose to be a tailor, and for several years he worked with relatives and in time became a talented designer of deer and goatskin jackets for men and women. 
He was thirty six when his mother died, and he returned to his family home, set up his tailor shop, and cared for his ailing father. With his workshop in his home, his neighborhood friends began to stop by and compliment el Pollo on his success. In return, Pollo offered them beers and sat down to share a few with them. And before he knew it, Pollo was partying with his friends more and making jackets less.

In short time, he came to the realization that he was having a very good time, but he was not making much money, and he was giving out free beer to his friends. So during one of the drinking sessions with his compañeros he told them, "desde mañana amigos, van a costar las cervezas (from tomorrow onward, my friends, beers are going to cost you)." And so began the history of "Pollo's Bar". 
Welcome to Pollo's Bar
Pollo made a deal with Corona to buy beer exclusively from them, and in return they would deliver. He would go to a nearby ice factory in el Llano with a wheelbarrow and buy enough ice to keep his beer nice and cold. He started out selling only to his four drinking buddies, but word soon spread, and others began to come to see if they also could join in. A friend told Pollo that he know a woman who had a liquor license to sell, and Pollo bought it from her for 100 pesos. He was now a legal cantina! 
El Pollo has always tried to run a reputable establishment, but told me it was not always easy, especially in the beginning. "Men from other neighborhoods came over looking for a fight because someone from Xochimilco (his neighborhood) was dating a girl from theirs". Something that obviously had to be settled! But he managed. "I have never been shut down or fined since I opened", Pollo boasted. 

Not only did he manage to keep his cantina a reputable establishment, but he was elected "presidente del barrio" four times!  During his time in office, he made major improvements in the local school, built a basketball court and soccer field, and renovated the church in Xochimilco, including a new paint job, new bells for the bell tower, and a new fence for the cemetery.

When Pollo was 36 years old, his only sister died. She left six children behind, and their father left and did not provide for the children. So Pollo adopted them and took them into his home. It took some rearranging to accommodate six young children in a neighborhood cantina, but he succeeded. He raised all six, gave the three girls away at their weddings, and paid for all of their education. "All six are professionals now", Pollo told me. "Gabriela, who lives in the States, is the official translator for Pope Francisco", he shared with me proudly. 

And so at eighty one, Pollo's Bar is still a Oaxaca landmark. He can no longer serve and drink with his clients as he used to. Age has made that too dangerous. So he sits in his chair, converses with his clients, and collects the money when they leave. He is seldom dressed as he is seen here anymore. He now is often covered with a wool blanket and is drinking a watered down Coca Cola instead of a Corona. But his gold necklace and gold bracelets are always in sight, and if given a chance, he will gladly don his favorite garb. Once a Pachuco, always a Pachuco!

The author as patron