The “kids” reading this (there ARE young people reading, aren’t there?) may think THEY invented clubs and night life. Like, HOW could those of us over, say, 60 appreciate clubs, drinks, dancing, and hot Latin music?
Well, we did, once. We didn’t invent it either. It was here, near the Lower Rio Grande Valley, many years ago. It was centered in the “Emerald Zone,”—La Zona Esmeralda, in Reynosa, in ta-ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipas, Mexico. (It was before the shooting started, when one could, did cross over easily and often.)
The Zona (no, not THAT “zone,” lest some of you old-timers were thinking of “Boys Town,” with its social class-specialized bars—or so I’ve been told) was so-named to rival the famous Zona Rosa of Mexico City. Our Zone was hot in the hey-day of the 50s through, to some extent, the 80s. (Whoops, those dates belie the “over 60” reference mentioned above.) It featured great bar-hopping (Lion’s Den, later, the Alaska), even shows rivaling Vegas at Fonda del Sol.
I am talking about the clubs and restaurants right as one crossed the River. Walk or drive over, there we were met by the lights and sounds of Treviños and the dancing waters of the great Imperial bar and restaurant. Choose Mariachis on one side, or more reflective, romantic cascades of water on the other, playfully waltzing to sophisticated organ music. Both places had, as per Mexican policy at the time, “store-front” shop looks. Inside, however, fabulous gold, silver and turquoise jewelry was for sale, even Lalique and Waterford crystal and fine marble statuary amidst fragrant packages of café and lovely huipiles or rebozos.
Of course those who remember will recall the more “family” restaurant, Sam’s, the off-track betting, and, impossible to forget, the elegant “La Cucaracha,” (proprietress, Doña Argentina, one of Reynosa’s truly grand dames.) Yes, we remember the jokes associated with that name, but we also remember its famous wild game—venison and frog legs. One could choose cabrito or elaborately prepared chateaubriand, lights dimmed for the flambé effect, as with the finale of Baked Alaska or Café Diablo. Aficionados remember the statue of Miguel Angel’s “David” that stood near the entrance.
Today, how times have changed. There is still “Dutch’s” with its walls (even ceilings) covered in patrons’ autographed Mexican or U.S. currency. I was discussing those “good ol’ days” recently with a good friend. We lament the passing of an era. We miss it terribly. We despair, as so many do, of the violence, the cartels, the changes we could not control. We wax philosophical over the loss. Yet, some might suggest our drinking and spending helped to bridge that change. More likely to blame: U.S. policies, permitting the flow of guns southward and serving as a magnet for a northward flow of drugs.
However, my friends and I are returning (especially to Progreso, but also, the more adventurous, to Reynosa). Sure, we now have Arturo’s, even La Fogata on this side of the border (often, with some of the same solicitous waiters and maître d’s). But somehow, it is not quite the same. I will never be able to replicate the experience dining at El Pastor, when cabrito was affordable, and before it remodeled. The parking was right across the street from the plate glass windows. Trucks with the cute baby goats would be hoisted up in boxes on sturdy shoulders as they were brought around to the spits in back. The diner would have to gulp and try to tune out the bleating (and the guilt) as they passed by.
Reynosa became one of the obvious, first places I took my students for field study and conferences (meeting with university professors and students from the other side). Many had only been to the Zona Esmeralda. (Or to the other Zona; you knew who had been to the edgier one by the tell-tale presence of white caliche on some foolish boy’s auto tires.) My students had no idea of the immense size of Reynosa, nor had they seen the upper class homes, or the poverty. They learned a lot, formally and sociologically. They even took the train for the first time in their lives, as we set out from Reynosa to Rio Bravo, to have lunch at the Zebra Club with its chef from Austria. We felt quite cosmopolitan.
It is time for re-establishment of better ties between our two sides of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. Fortunately, the University of Texas—Rio Grande Valley, as reported earlier in the Rio Grande Guardian, is making overtures with institutions in Reynosa for that to happen. The glory and grandeur of the past may not be easily recaptured. Retro memories such as these are ephemeral, but important mile-stones in my past and the Valley’s past. Surely, we are headed toward a new relationship, to include, if not Treviños and Imperial, at least the superior Mexican Margaritas. Remember how they always taste better over there? The best ones are prepared with real lime, not sweet, fake bottle mix.
However, we don’t have to depend on food, drink and vague memories. The new relationships will hopefully be founded on increasingly firm educational, social, cultural and political ties. Those relationships cross generations. I trust my generation can help. I am trying with these fond stories. Those of us of la tercera edad need the young. They need us. Our two generations and our two great cultures need each other. Viva el pasado–la antigua Zona Esmeralda y Viva el futuro–la nueva Frontera!