Ricardo Jose gonzalez-Rothi


When I stepped through the lobby of the Hotel Marlowe, and saw the half-inch wide cracks and uneven edges of the sidewalk, I knew that the trembling bed and rattling lamps in room 223 the night before was no bad dream: I had been in an earthquake.

It was April 29, 1963. The day marked my first morning in Mexico City. My first day of freedom as a Cuban refugee had begun as a truly earthshaking event. The evening before, I, along with my parents, my younger brother, my grandparents and uncle had arrived on a bumpy flight from Havana. Besides the clothes we wore, we carried canvas suitcases containing no more than the allotted two changes of clothing for each traveling passenger.  The militia at the Havana airport had strip-searched us prior to boarding the Aeromexico flight. I remembered how they sneered at my abuelo (grandfather) because he wore suspenders and a belt. Mr. Castro’s rules were simple: “expatriates-to-be” were allowed no money, no jewelry, and no personal belongings upon leaving the country. Any such luxuries would be confiscated by his soldiers, and might have given them reason to hold a passenger, even a thirteen year old boy like me, from leaving the country.  The soldiers didn’t know about the capsule I had swallowed earlier that morning.

It was a beautiful Saturday morning in Mexico City. My parents were trying to make small talk, being matter-of-fact and upbeat, as they all stood in the lobby, treading air. I waited for my father to direct our first activity in this unknown city, on this most unusual day. I pictured myself and my family as not unlike a bevy of quail raised in captivity, now suddenly released into an open field to fend for ourselves. We had not eaten anything since the dinner served on the plane the day before. At thirteen, I was mature enough to recognize when my parents were feigning tranquility in the face of dire angst. The truth was we had no money to eat. We had no money, period.  My uncles in New Jersey had pre-paid the first two nights at the Marlowe and were to have cabled a money order to the hotel, but it was Saturday, and according to the manager, the money had not arrived. My brother, Miguel was barely seven years old, and he tugged incessantly at my mother’s skirt, begging for breakfast… My father just stood there, hands hanging idly at his sides. The reality of the moment immobilized him.

“Senor…” came a soft voice from across the lobby.  “I know where yew can haf’ some bery nice coffee and tortillas for yewr whole family…Please come with me,” motioned the bellhop, hands pointing towards the street. My little brother shrieked, and urged everyone to follow the little man wearing the ill-fitting uniform, out of the lobby and down the street. My father’s face blanched with embarrassment as we turned the corner and were escorted into a narrow alleyway through double doors above which hung a  peeling, hand-painted sign which read, “Cantina de Angelita”. I remembered the large red clay pot outside the entrance, and the multicolored flowers that hung from it. A nutty aroma of fresh corn tortillas wafted from inside the door.

Before my father could speak, “Victor”, as the bellhop introduced himself, interjected, “You dun’t haf ‘to pay for thee food today if you weesh, Senor… I can make it so you can pay Angelita at thee end of the week for the whole week of breakfast.”  My father exhaled, cold drops of sweat coursing down his temples. With an approving nod, we sat down to perhaps one of the most welcomed meals my family ever had.  Hungry as I had been, my mother reminded me about the capsule and how I was to only have liquids till it “passed”… I watched my family eat tamales and egg omelets and resigned myself to sipping on sweet lemonade.

Victor was an odd-shaped little man who looked like was in his fifties, but was probably fifteen years younger. He had a large head, with thinning jet black hair which he combed back from his forehead, and which always looked wet. His head smelled of cheap brilliantine. He had a kind, self-effacing smile, which he shyly displayed in between soft sentences. Victor walked with a peculiar waddle, exaggerated in its oddity by a slight hunchback posture. His ample-fitting navy bellhop uniform was clearly not tailored for him. The pants’ legs were sewn with light colored thread which surfaced in skips around the dark cloth. His shirt, though white, looked slept-in, and the shirt cuffs which extended about three inches below the sleeves of his epauletted jacket, were frayed on the edges. He wore a ribbon-thin bowtie which hung unevenly from a rumpled collar.

Victor had never met us until that morning, but introduced the family to Angelita like we were his long-lost first degree relatives, exalting the fact we had just arrived from Cuba and didn’t know the city and assuring us that Angelita would welcome us to Mexico City and show us the neighborhood. Angelita was a woman in her late seventies with olive skin, ample arms and a lovely smile. She, despite being dressed humbly, exuded the simple elegance of a woman who had probably turned many heads in her youth. A gold crucifix hung around her neck. My father explained that Cuban food was traditionally not spicy. Angelita accommodated us by agreeing to prepare meals according to our preference, and without chilies. My father delegated my grandmother to share recipes. Angelita would make breakfast and a daily mid-late afternoon meal for an agreed-upon price, and we could pay her on a weekly basis. Victor’s face-saving maneuver reprieved my father of conjecturing some money by the end of the week…

Two days passed, and the money from my uncles in New Jersey had not arrived. We could not afford a long distance telephone call. The hotel manager was not sympathetic. My father became frantic. All he could think about was the money they would owe Angelita in just a few days…and the hotel bill. As a grocer in Cuba my father had been an honorable man. He never borrowed and he always believed in keeping his word.  My father fumbled nervously with the empty wallet he had rescued from exile, somehow thinking that if he opened and closed it repeatedly, money would materialize. There would be no sleep for him that night.

All our hopes were now dependent on the capsule. My uncle, who had originally conceived the idea of fashioning a rubber capsule by joining the cut tips of two baby nipples, placing them one into the other, and heat-sealing them with rubber glue had experimented with similar “prototypes”.  At first, feeding the date-size capsules soaked in mineral oil to their dog on several occasions provided a challenge. As long as the dog was allowed only liquids, the capsules seemed to “pass” uneventfully.  I was elected by default to “carry the package” as they referred to it during public conversation. Castro’s men would never suspect a thirteen year old boy of smuggling American dollars out of Cuba. Besides, my mother and father explained  that my uncle, an epileptic, might vomit if he had a seizure, thus giving them away, that abuelo was a brittle diabetic and too feeble to swallow, and that she and my father  were both too anxious and might give themselves away. My grandmother, I knew, was too proper a lady to suffer the indignity of the task. 

It was the only time my parents ever urged me to lie. If for some reason I was to have been caught, I was to tell the authorities that I found the money, was afraid to tell my parents about it, so I swallowed it. I had rehearsed and practiced the routine many times, by swallowing grapes soaked in mineral oil. I recalled the nauseating taste of the oil and the tactile sensation, the choking feel of the grape as it descended through my mid-chest and eventually into my stomach.  I knew that in resorting to use me as a “mule” my parents must have been desperate.  When desperate, I would learn, one did desperate things. At the time this was a challenging adventure to a thirteen-year-old who didn’t know better. I would never realize until many years later how precarious an act this would be, both physiologically and politically speaking.

The following day, just past midnight the capsule finally exited my gut. “Papi, look!!” I shouted from the toilet, awakening the whole family. The two tightly-rolled, American hundred-dollar bills inside it were extracted, dry and completely intact, much to everyone’s great relief.

Over the next several weeks in Mexico City, we settled into a routine: Angelita showed us where the open air market and the cathedral were. My grandmother visited the church every day. She said prayer had no side effects, and it didn’t cost money to pray. Victor entertained me during his shifts at the hotel by allowing me to shuttle bags of arriving guests into the elevator while my parents would spend time shopping for bargain fruit and days-old bread, which became our late evening “filler” meal. Victor would always make it a point to allow me to share his tips, which made me feel that much more important. I prided myself in giving what little money I “earned” to my father, which I knew would guarantee Papi’s approval to continue to “work” with Victor.

The Marlowe was a “one star”, rent-by-the-week hotel on a side street just one block off the famous Alameda drive in the heart of Mexico City. It was frequented by budget travelers, itinerant ballerinas who danced with the Ballet Folklorico, and by “The Koreans”, as Victor called them. This was a group of four Asian men who came to Mexico City and stayed at the Marlowe often. Victor thought  they owned racehorses, and he could tell when they won big, because the Koreans would pull up to the hotel lobby in limousines  and he would help them load cooking utensils, exotic vegetables and garlicky-smelling meats and liquor bottles on the elevators. During these “victory parties”, the Koreans were usually flanked by high-heeled, beautiful Mexican “palomas” bejeweled and smothering in cheap perfume and tacky facial rouge. They would party at the penthouse way into the late hours. Victor had pointed out that although the Koreans and their ladies were probably not living as “good Catholics”, they always treated Victor well, and so he treated these men and their escorts likewise, with respect.

In the ensuing weeks, I became Victor’s unofficial apprentice. The hotel manager didn’t seem to mind, recognizing the difficult situation my family was facing, not being allowed to enter the United States until our immigration papers cleared. In Mexico, it was not unusual for children to work at an early age, so a thirteen year old bellhop’s assistant would not have seemed out of place.  For me, the opportunity was a blessing. It was a way to pass the time, and any time I earned a few pesos from carrying luggage, I felt like I was contributing to my family. Besides, at thirteen, and weathering the surges of pre-pubescent hormonal storms, I was thrilled to escort the shapely ballerinas who stayed at the hotel to-and-from the elevator into their rooms. I loved the smell of perfume when I entered their rooms. I would at times visit them while they sunbathed on the roof under the pretense of asking if they wanted refreshments from the restaurant. I marveled at their slender, pearly thighs. I think the ladies perceived me as cute because of the attentions I lavished on them.  All along it was my tacit assumption that this was just not friendliness on their part, but that they were all in fact, secretly and irresistibly in love with me…

The family would have to stay in Mexico City for the next several months. I noticed that my mother’s face became gaunt. She had always been a pretty woman, but now it seemed as if her beauty was consumed by worry. Papi‘s clothes hung loosely. I knew they purposely went with little food so that my grandparents, my brother and I, along with my frail uncle would have enough to eat from week to week. I developed a Mexican Spanish accent, and learned many idioms and curse words from playmates in the park. Victor would often tell me stories about his wife and his two children, and how he would arrange sometime for our families to meet and visit. It was always odd to me that after shifts ended, Victor would almost miraculously vanish from the hotel, and when seen leaving, always appeared in a hurry to be somewhere. Victor was usually vague about his whereabouts, and would tell me it was because he worked two jobs. Victor had indicated he lived near the plaza but never volunteered a street address.

On Sundays, even when he was not on duty, Victor would bring bags of fruit or rolls of freshly baked bread which he left with the concierge, and which he expressly noted were for “the Cubans”. It was difficult to know how Victor could manage this, and when I or my father would find him during the week, and thanked him profusely, Victor would always acknowledge that it was no trouble and it was his pleasure.  Victor always maintained that he and his family had more food than they needed and that if they didn’t use it, the fruit would spoil and the bread would get stale.

The three months my family spent in Mexico City were beyond idle.  I had been stalked and nearly kidnapped by a child molester at Alameda Park, had it not been for my newly made friends who intervened. A shop owner of a leather goods store directly across from our hotel was found brutally murdered and neither the killer nor a motive was ever found. My family had befriended the victim and his wife two weeks earlier and was questioned incessantly by the police on more than one occasion. Our family’s entry into the United States was hampered by my father having had an abnormality suspicious for tuberculosis on his chest x ray and by the interminable iterations of Mexican bureaucracy. My uncles in the United States would write that their “assistance funds” to cover our living expenses were rapidly depleting. Papi’s wallet was stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded city bus in broad daylight. My seven year old brother’s asthma was flaring and we had neither medications nor the funds to buy medicine. But, we had Victor, and Angelita. We had my grandmother’s prayers to Our Lady, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Victor had the Koreans. I had ballerinas falling in love with me on a daily basis. I learned to play soccer on the same soil where Aztec warriors battled centuries earlier to protect their major temple, just blocks off the Alameda Park.

On a Friday morning in June, our family received notice from the American Consulate that our entry to the United States had been approved. My uncles sent funds to cover the cost of the flight. We were to fly from Mexico City to La Guardia Airport in New York the following Sunday.

We said our good-byes to Angelita and to Victor that week.  My grandmother visited the cathedral one last time, and gave thanks to the saints and to God for our freedom. She told God in her prayers that she appreciated that God never gave anyone in life more than they could handle, but that she perhaps wished He had not had so much confidence in her! Victor apologized for never having had a chance to have us over to meet his family and visit his home. We had no words to express the kindness Victor and Angelita had shown us for the past three months. My father took his black dress belt and his coin purse and had my mother wrap them in colored paper, with a ribbon and a note of thanks. I gave them as a gift to Victor. My mother brought carnations for Angelita.

I remembered being wedged into the back seat of the taxi van that Sunday morning on our way to the airport. We were all silent, glad to be finally joining the rest of our family in the United States, yet sad to be leaving the people that gave us a home when we lacked one, and the beautiful souls whose path we crossed during our tribulations in a foreign city. The van had traveled about three blocks from the hotel. We stopped at a traffic light. From the window of the taxi, I glanced towards a nearly empty parking lot on the far corner of the intersection, typical of the many such facilities throughout the city, which were often staffed by live-in attendants.


I had walked past this parking lot many times, but had never noticed that built against the back wall of a tall building was a shabbily-constructed wood and cardboard shack whose roof was made of rusted corrugated metal sheets anchored by bricks. There was a small charcoal stove outside the door, and I could make out the backside of a woman leaning over it, cooking tortillas. She held an infant in a shawl wrapped around her hip. Outside the door of the shack was a man in a rumpled white shirt and dark jacket. He was cutting the hair of a young boy who sat shirtless on a wooden crate. The man looked like was in his fifties, but was probably fifteen years younger. He had a large head, with thinning jet black hair combed back from his forehead. He stood with a peculiar posture, exaggerated in its oddity by a slight hunchback. His ample-fitting bellhop uniform was clearly not tailored for him.


An academic physician for over three decades with a primary emphasis on a career of scientific writing, this represents  Ricardo’s first foray into fiction. Silver hair and a busy career have not deterred him from his love of the written word and the magic of the tale.

The Seventh Angel