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La Turca…

20 May 2019

Herbierto Frias (1870 – 1925) was the best kind of journalist… a fuck-up who could write with sympathy and understanding.  Best known for his anonymous novel, Tomóchic, published serially in El Democrata in 1893, a novelized version of a  military atrocity — the raid on dissident Tarahuma villagers in 1891 in which he participated as a young officer — he wrote extensively, both straight reporting, and history (La guerra contra los gringos) during his “exile” to the backwater seaport of Mazatlan.  Where, when he was sober, he mentored another scapegrace, cub reporter, Rafael Buelna.

Buelna’s wealthy Cuilican family had packed young Rafael off to Mazatlan after he managed to get expelled from his Jesuit prep school for organizing student protests against the state governor.  Rafael and Frias met not just to discuss journalism, but the need for systemic change in Mexico, and — in various cantinas around the port — Frias advised Buelna on strategies for quietly organizing pro-Madero rallies which they both could then cover.  Buelna would eventually return to finish his education… after a stint as a colonel in the Constitutionalist Army and political chief of the then territory of Nayarit, rising to become the youngest general in the Mexican Army, in between finishing his studies for a law degree.

Frias would become the dean of Mexican journalists, and a diplomat.  Not bad for a near-sighted clumsy kid who unfortunately had hit on the bright idea of supporting his family after his father died when he was 15 though burglary.  On his maiden voyage as a second-story man, he dropped his glasses, resulting in a stay in prison (adults and minors were not separated in those days) which is where, as the only educated person in the cell block, he learned his trade… writing everything from love letters to pleas for clemency for his fellow inmates.  People he never forgot.


La Turca (my translation)

This feminine nickname was that of a man, an old man, but what a man, what an old man! Among the incalculable crowd, already stirred up and amid the hustle and bustle, although without the without the least acknowledgement of the uncouth prisoners doing hard time, in the courtyard called Talleres, La Turca came and went, rhythmically moving his body, joined by the joyful Cubans or Spaniards  from the Calle de Rebeldes or La Concepción, wiggling with disgusting coquettish hair long curly head with Chinese artifacts, long gray hair smeared with ointment (gray hair).

La Turca went from one workshop to another with her horrible face of a perverse indigenous man crossed by knife scars, dressed in a calico shirt, very white, with embroidered collar and cuffs and with little pickets, a woman’s shirt; very white trousers and fitted to the foot to a perfect point high heeled shoes.  Marching, yes… almost with dance rhythm, jumping, stopping before the groups of prisoners to greet them if they where chatting, or observe them at their labor.

– Oh, Jesus, Don Mercedes, why the long face! Your skanky girlfriend must have forgotten about you; How long has it been since you got a crap basket anyway?1

– The bad guy, Turquita, he already made me …

When you stopped La Turca he talked with his eyes, languid eyes, trembling with their little hairs of gray, bristly and sparse hair. He was a man of fifty.

These effeminate men abound in Belem in the Patio de Talleres where, despite being despised, they live with feminine customs. They speak in melodic tones, and  give to their phrases the intonation of a picky or scary woman; They affect nervous tics  – oh, many have them by nature! – dress as close as possible to women’s suits; they have the aliases of prostitutes, calling themselves La Diabla, La China, La Pancha, etc., and they are dedicated to ironing, washing, knitting, embroidering and cooking. Among themselves there is great affection, perhaps a bond of common disgrace:  they help each other with rare companionship. Before, during the day, they stay in the patio or workshops, and at night they locked with each other in their cells.

Perverse and depraved beings, sunk in the depths of irritating ignorance, they are ferocious and perpetrate terrible revenge against those who insult or despise them.Their manly faces belies their mellifluous gestures and voices.

One of those unfortunates was Juan Gonzáles, alia La Turca. He was from Guadalajara, where he had a small inn; He came to Mexico, fleeing from the authority that was persecuting him for killing a prostitute one night of drunkenness and jealousy. Here, in a pulquería de Santa Ana, he found an old enemy, to whom he proposed a reconciliation sealed in a tub of pulque. The other accepted gladly; They asked for a real’s worth of that liquid, and La Turca lifted the wooden receptacle into her mouth, drinking loudly, her head thrown back, draining it over her chest. He drank until half emptying the tub; then, his new friend, who looked at him with astonishment, decided to undertake it, with the second part, raised it and began to drink …, drank, drank … Suddenly González took out a small knife sank it into his side, and took off running…   “I killed him!”

When the murderer was apprehended, he was condemned to death; but it was his sentence commuted to twenty years in prison.

In Belem her feminine customs became more and more like a kind of disgusting invasion, all the more disgusting when her age whitened her Chinese hair and wrinkled her face like a highwayman. He was extra clean and wore women’s shirts embroidered by himself. He earned daily royal crap and cenco* washing the clothes of good-natured employees and those prisoners who had no wife to make them candy, some of which La Turca also made and sold, along with stews.

Jealous and angry, when the other prisoners found his affectations boring, he got ferociously drunk on rotgut brandy smuggled inside, and attacked everyone.  More than one unfortunate who crossed his path had his face slashed with La Turca’s fearsome razor.  But, on May 5, dressed in a china poblana gown, with a red beaver hat, slippers with golden sequins, a velvet reboza and silver-plated earrings, he danced the tapatio on a platform that his fans placed him.

The general enthusiasm of those sentenced in the Patio de Tallers erupted in laughter, applause and whistling. It was a great triumph for La Turca.

But as he continued in his drunkenness slashing faces, until the warden transferred Juan Gonzalez, alias La Turca, to the prison of San Juan de Ulúa, where he probably died.

* Crap and cenco.  Mexican convicts then and now generally received at least some of their food and other necessities from the outside, and are permitted to engage in commercial activities while in prison.  “Crap” was the slang term for food baskets brought in, generally by the convict’s wife or mother.  “Royal crap” was the small food basket provided by the prison to convicts.  “Cenco” is slang for the money or other goods exchanged for convict to convict sales.

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