By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The woman I met when I first arrived spoke only a little English, and she asked if I was having fun. It seemed like she'd glued on her smile; as we talked about where she was from in Mexico and what she does in Dallas (sewing and dressmaking from her home), it felt like we were at a Junior League tea party exchanging pleasantries far from the warehouse sprawl of Harry Hines. She may have left everything behind in Mexico to come to the United States, but at about 40 years old, she has educated herself well in the upper-class art of moving one's mouth without really saying anything. (The estimate of her age is only approximate, because asking the women at Fiebre Latino how old they are would cruelly shatter the illusion they work so hard to create.)
When she asked if I wanted a beer, it was obvious she was asking if I would buy her one, too. When the change came back, I held out my hand to receive it from the bartender, but she held the change to the side of my hand, toward the woman I was talking to. I'd entered an awkward rite without knowing it: I thought the bartender had made a simple mistake by thinking the woman had paid for the beers, but the women at Fiebre Latino aren't chatting with you out of the kindness of their hearts. Their time--and the glamour they bestow upon you--is something you must pay for.
When we met, Enrique was wearing Wranglers, rattlesnake boots and a Texas Tech cap whose bill he'd shaped into a strict semicircle, just like frat boys do. He didn't know what a Red Raider was when he bought the hat; he just liked the way it looked. Enrique doesn't go to Fiebre every weekend, only when he can find a friend who has a car, and even then he doesn't always go. Fiebre is more like a bizarre and guilty pleasure to him. On Columbia Avenue in Old East Dallas, where he lives in a one-bedroom apartment with seven other immigrants from rural Mexico, he can walk down the street and spend what little money he has on women. Natural-born women. The first time he went out to the bars on Columbia Avenue, he was surprised to learn that a beer costs $4 if you're a man, but $15 if you're buying one for a woman. He'd been talking to a woman one night and offered to buy her a beer. He is 20, thin and shy but good-looking, and women wanted to talk to him, he says. He handed $4 to the bartender, who said, "You need $11 more."
"They say they aren't prostitutes," Enrique says in the sharp, sing-songy accent of rural Mexico. "But you're paying for their time." He doesn't have to pay for sex with men, however, something in which he occasionally indulges. He was careful to point out that he doesn't initiate those encounters, but he's still in charge: "Sometimes I let them give me oral sex," he said, and shrugged his shoulders.
Enrique wires home half of the approximately $600 he makes each month and pays $90 in rent, all bills included, for the tiny apartment he and his roommates live in with seven twin beds plopped down in the living room and bedroom. He has been lucky to find regular work for the past month; not all of his roommates have, so he loaned them money last month to make rent. "It's more or less like a family," he says. The men work together in construction, laying cement or brick; they carry their lunches in little coolers, which saves money. But even then, he doesn't have a lot to spend, and although he talks about wanting to learn English, he often zones out at the end of the workday to one of the Spanish-language TV stations whose names he doesn't know: "Twenty-three, 26, 29, 39, 44 and 49 are my favorites," he says.
Enrique has lived in Dallas since May. Last October, after he got a ride to the Mexican city of León, where his girlfriend lives about an hour away from his tiny hometown, he took a bus north to the state of Sonora, just south of Arizona, with seven guys he knew from his neighborhood.
He precisely remembers crossing: The group left Sonora at 3 p.m. on a Wednesday and arrived in Phoenix by Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon, he'd hopped aboard a truck that took him and one other Mexican to the border between Oklahoma and Arkansas. For eight months, once or twice a week, he was able to scrounge up work digging rocks from the earth and loading them onto trucks for use in home construction, but he'd heard there was more steady work in Dallas.