Elena Hiatt Houlihan
© 2011 All Rights Reserved
We've all waved her away as we were chatting outside Andale's, laughing over margaritas while old rock music rolls out onto the sidewalk, and baby boomers writhe to the beat inside. She is so tiny and frail that she seems like a small bird pushing her way through the overfed Canadians and Americans who tower above her. Pressed to her chest are four or 5 round flat cakes on foam plates, each in a clear plastic bag.
"Bread?" she croaks in her almost inaudible voice. She puts the plates on the table or proffers them toward the waist of an adjacent drinker standing by the door.
"I've got four flavors," she says hopefully. "Orange, pecan, coco, and banana. Only 50 pesos."
It was my first week in Puerto Vallarta, and I'd already been besieged, interrupted and tapped on by peddlers on the beach hawking colorful sarongs, mothers carrying babies asking for milk money, and four-year olds holding up boxes of Chiclets. I didn't buy a cake. I don't need the calories, and if I'm indulging, it will be in ice cream, French pastry or flan, not cake of unknown quality.
Still I kept seeing her, slipping among the crowd on the sidewalk, or making her rounds in Nacho Daddy's while Sean wailed the blues in the background. Sometimes she had three cakes, sometimes five, four held close to her body with her left hand and one dangling at her side from her right. Several of us began speculating on whether she made any money.
"Five cakes a night at 50 pesos a cake, that's only 250 pesos. How can she support herself and buy the ingredients?"
I tried to forget her, but my curiosity and my conscience nagged me into investigating her story. One night, I saw her outside the sophisticated sushi bar on Olas Altas. Her sleeveless dress with blue and green flowers was crisp enough for a garden party, though it was 10 PM. I introduced myself, bought an orange cake and asked if she would talk to me.
"My name is Alicia," she revealed, peering up at me, "but, honey, I can't talk now. I have to go over there." She gestured down toward Café Vayan, "I'm working."
"Do you mind telling me how many cakes you make?"
"Eighteen, honey. Every day. I have to go now."
"How old is she?" I wondered as she walked away. She had to be at least 80, and she couldn't weigh more than 90 pounds. Her tiny legs looked almost too thin to support her, and she was wearing a stretch bandage around her left ankle.
One night after I trailed along, observing her many stops along Basilio Badillo, she finally disclosed bits of her story. Because she has light skin and speaks English well, I mistakenly thought she was a gringa who had perhaps married a Mexican when young and lived here ever since.
"No-o-o, I was born in Pachuca, Hidalgo, a mining town far from anywhere. They had many Canadian and American engineers then, so there was an American school. I studied English from the time I was little until high school."
By then it was 11 PM, and she left me on the sidewalk to make her way through the tables at Nacho Daddy's while strains of Tex-Mex blared over the dancers. Approaching the listeners, her demeanor was as hopeful and springlike as the pink and white flowers on her dress. From the stage, Joe "King" Carrasco addressed the crowd, "Hey, everyone, this is Alicia. She's 90 years old! Buy one of her delicious cakes. I get one every week."
That thoughtful gesture brought another sale; then an American couple followed her onto the street asking to buy a cake. "I have more, right over here," she said gesturing toward Café Vayan. They patiently followed her inside and paid with a five-dollar bill, as well as offering her additional money, which she didn't take.
Within Puerto Vallarta, she confines her route to the Zona Romantica, leaving her cakes in a wire cart that she parks inside the café, while she slowly walks up Olas Altas, onto several side streets, back along the Malecon, and then up Basilio. She does this for two to three hours every night, returning to Vayan to pick up more cakes if she sells the five she is carrying. Then she repeats her path, often stopping at the same place twice, in case she missed a potential customer. On Sundays she takes her cakes to the Marina.
"What propels her dedication?" I asked myself, marveling at her stamina.
Because she never has time to sit down, I bend over to listen as we walk along, hoping not to miss a word.
"After school, I left home and went to Mexico City where I had a good-paying job. I met my husband there and we married when I was 19.
"My husband was very very handsome! He was a big worker. We had a big house on a very good street. He liked the horses, and he went 'gaming' several times a week, but he was a great man. After 7 years I had a girl and after 7 years again, I had a boy."
Then her husband died, and she sold her house. "Honey, it was the biggest mistake of my life."
"I was in Cancun with my husband once, and it was very beautiful. After he died, I went back with my youngest son. He married a girl there and had 2 chil-dren." In the way she draws out the word I hear a bit of an accent.
"But his wife left him with the chil-dren. So I had to take care of them. My son started drinking."
Because he did not want his children to see their mother with another man, her son moved to Vallarta. Alicia came too. Then while drunk, her son had an accident, and now he can't walk.
"He used to play football, but in the accident, something happened to his leg. Now he's too fat. Sometimes he works, but the money is too low. The children can't work, so I pay for everything. I like to do that because I love the chil-dren."
In Cancun, Alicia had a laundry, but she had to start over in Vallarta. A neighbor suggested she bake banana bread to sell in the apartment complex where they lived out by Walmart.
Her day starts about 9:30, when she gets up and has her favorite peach yogurt, then starts baking the eighteen cakes she must sell that evening. In between, she prepares food for the family. For the past fourteen years, since the age of 75, long past most people's retirement, this has been her routine and her mission.
In the evening, her granddaughter who is 15, brings her into Vallarta in their red pickup truck. Sometimes it malfunctions, and Alicia is late or has to take a taxi. After her nightly rounds, Alicia waits patiently for her ride. They have no phone, so if the red truck doesn't pull up alongside the café by 11, she has to pay 50 or 60 pesos from her profits for the ride back.
"So what time do you get home?" I ask.
"I go from here to Walmart and I get all my things for the breads, and then I go home about 1:30." I picture her struggling with huge bags of flour. "No, honey, my granddaughter helps me."
The cost of her ingredients is between 400 and 500 pesos every night, or 12000 P per month, much more than her rent of 3000 pesos.
"I need to sell at least 700-800 pesos a day," she says, to pay the rent, light and water. That's 14-16 cakes. How is she going to do that with the tourist season ending, I wonder?
One night, from across the street I watch her small slightly stooped form approach three fair-haired women, and I find myself praying that one will buy a cake from her. At least they pause and listen, but they continue their stroll empty handed, and she shuffles up Basilio Badillo to the next restaurant.
At the corner taco stand, she embraces a chubby waitress twice as big as she is. Few people who buy her cakes can resist her genuine affection, and she rewards most of them with a hug and a kiss.
Yet late on Monday night, she told me about a disturbing incident. "Today I went to a table, and there was three men and two women, American. I told them 'Maybe you need bread for breakfast?' and one of the gentlemen, he was not a gentleman, he pushed me and he said 'We don't want you here!'"
"And I told him, 'Sir, it's my job. I'm just offering my breads to you. You don't need to get mad. So be careful!' And the others laughed at him!"
To me she explained, 'I'm protect by the association of old people and nobody is going to do anything to me because I'm so old. Honey, I'm 89 years old. They protect me. It's because of my age."
Despite her dedication and the seeming innocence that she exudes, not all establishments welcome her presence. I notice that she walks by without stopping at the busy taco restaurant, and the always-packed Café de Olla. And in contradiction to Carasco's hearty recommendation, one waiter up the street, laughed and said,
"Oh, yeah, those cakes? Buy one if you need a doorstop!"
After buying several, I admit they are a bit heavy, yet I hesitate to upset her or her system by suggesting improvements.
Though she has no extended family in Puerto Vallarta, she has another son who is 62 and has 12 children, and a daughter in Mexico City, who has invited Alicia to come live with her. Since Alicia's doctor thinks the altitude might not be good for her, she stays and continues supporting her son and granddaughter. Her 18 year-old grandson is now in Cancun, hoping to play football with a big league.
"Honey, I love my work," she said as we stepped up the curb to the Café Vayan. I was stunned. It was after eleven o'clock, and she could have been sitting calmly at home resting or reading, instead of keeping to this compulsive schedule.
"I love my work because I love my chil-dren," she said in her crackly little voice. She squeezed my hand and looked up at me, a glint of satisfaction in her eyes; then she trundled off to get her cart and head for home. But first she had to go buy flour and sugar.