The Skin and the Phoenix

Narrative by Carlos Escutia

Tenancingo 1988

Andres Lopez was riding his motorbike. The city was flooded by the darkness night. The only light was the one illuminating the statue of Cristo Rey on the top of the hill. His stare was not steady. His breathing was hasty. His lips were chapped. His breath revealed his state: the aroma of alcohol was in the air. His trembling hands turned the throttle of the motorbike while his heartbeat quickened. His reflexes slowed. The adrenaline rushed throughout his body. Suddenly a woman popped out from between a pair of parked trucks. It was too late to hit the brake.

Andres was 20 when he started drinking alcohol, and he couldn’t control it. “I was the black sheep of the family. I drank with no limits.” For more than a decade he had been involved in car accidents, bar fights and family arguments. He bottomed out. “I ran over a person and I ended up in prison,” he says flatly. Behind bars, the world he had known was left behind.

Life in prison is like playing paintball. You have to look out for yourself. Someone might shoot you in a second. “You often think about killing yourself,” Andres says. “There is no way out. I didn’t believe in myself.”

Inside the prison it was a war for survival. “Some people don’t like you and they make your life harder,” Andres says. “Everything has to be paid for there. I had to earn all the privileges. I had no way to pay, so I had to wash other prisoners’ toilets. I was like their gofer.”

Survival in prison is a daily struggle. “You have to earn privileges for space, for a bed,” Andres says. “You have to look after yourself at night because you can even get raped.”

Living in anguish turned into a way of life for the Lopez family. He spent two months in prison in Tenancingo and six in Almoloya while his father sought ways to bail him out. He had to sell a piece of land. Andres is humbled. “I’m free again thanks to him.”

After spending eight months in jail, Andres entered a rehabilitation center where alcoholics and drug addicts get help quitting their old ways. “It was there where I started to understand,” he says. “People who come to that place are a human waste. We are not loved at home anymore. They would prefer that we die instead of living the same way.”

He lived in that center for 100 days (90 days were compulsory), but the inmates wanted him to stay longer. They were inspired to overcome their addictions by Andres’ pep talks and his thoughtful manner.

Edith, his wife, was an important key in his recovery process. “She supported me, she believed in me, and I felt love and companionship again.” Andrés looks at her, and their eyes meet for a few seconds. Edith takes his hands for a moment. They met each other 25 years ago. They have been married for 20. She praises God for the two decades that her husband has not drunk any alcohol. “It is as if he were among the living dead,” she says, “but I was always there, always to support him.”

“She believed in me when I did not believe in myself. She inspired me to live again,” Andres says. She gave him the strength to work with what he has loved since he was a child: leather.

For forty years, the Lopez Saddlery has been part of his life. His father was the founder of the store. “My father was the pioneer,” Andres says. In Tenancingo his father is known as “Maestro Don Clemente Lopez Millan.” He died ten years ago, but he still has a strong presence in the store. Andres keeps dozens of pictures of him in a box. One of them hangs on the wall: Don Clemente working with leather as he smiles.

“I was always with my father,” Andres says. “He bought a horse for me. I made a saddle for that horse, and I used to ride it. I went to school but I was not interested in it. I wanted to be with my father.” Don Clemente taught his son to work with leather when he was a child, and he has not lost any interest in this job.

Andres travels 35 miles from Toluca to Tenancingo every day to open his saddlery. Every full moon, when the natural light is more intense, he cycles there before sunrise. The store prospered when Don Clemente was still alive. Tenancingo was a small town then. People had horses and used machetes or leather sheaths for the knives they kept handy. Men wore leather boots and kept their tools in bags made by Don Clemente or his son. As time has passed, the city has modernized, and demand for leather has waned.

The traders set up their stands. They hang up fake Lacoste t-shirts, Cumbia records and Blue’s Clues backpacks. It’s after 10 a.m. and Andres has not opened yet. His store is located in Epigmenio de la Piedra, a trading street beside San Francisco de Asís parish. His neighbors are about to cross themselves with the money they’ve earned from the first sale, but the graffiti-covered gate that protects Andres’ store is sticking. The clock reads noon. He wrestles the gate open in a few minutes.


Toluca, 2013

Twenty-five years later, the past reappeared in the saddler’s life. Andres Lopez was driving his car. The city was flooded with the darkness of night. His stare was steady, his breath slow and steady. One hand was firmly on the steering wheel and the other on the gearshift. He was driving at more than 55 miles per hour. The avenue required it. “It was a similar situation, because this person also popped out from a pair of trucks,” he says. Again it was too late to hit the brakes.
Andres inhaled. His hand approached the gear shift. His foot reached the accelerator. His heart rushed. He perspired. “At first I tried to run away.” He looked through the rearview mirror. A man had witnessed the accident. Andres got out of the car. They helped the woman. She couldn’t move. She was in a very bad condition. They helped her and hurried to the hospital. The woman’s spine was broken.

Now, he has to pay all medical expenses. “I had to turn over the title to my son’s truck in order to be free,” he says. “I’ll get my possessions back when the woman is cured.”

The past and the present joined. “In the first accident my parents helped me. The only suffering was being in prison. This time I have to solve everything myself,” Adres says. “I value everything more. I am stronger and I have more experience. I changed for the better. Thank God it didn’t turn serious and I didn’t set foot in prison. I have to be more careful. Now I have to be alert in my life”.

Working in the saddlery doesn’t provide him with enough money to pay for the injured woman’s therapies and medical expenses. Business has been very quiet recently. “Now, there are not many horses,” he says. “Everything is modern. There are tractors and machinery. Horses are now a luxury.”

The future of the store can be read in the poster that Andres put up some weeks ago: “This establishment for rent.” Forty years of history will get trapped in that space in Epigmenio de la Piedra Street. “It hurts so much to leave the store and clients. People look for it and they are told that this is the only place where saddlery is practiced.” Tenancingo will lose its last leatherworker.

Andres intends to work as a driver in Toluca. Edith says, “It’s going to be a little difficult, but we’ll get by with God’s help. Both at work and in life we have always supported each other. Always, in both good and bad times.”

Ever since they married, Mr. and Mrs. Lopez have helped each other. “My love for him is unconditional,” Edith says. “We can trust each other with anything. We love each other so much. I give him everything I can.”

Edith holds Andres’ arm and they laugh. Their stares show mutual understanding. Edith lays her head on the saddler’s shoulder. “Now I believe in myself and in the love of my family,” she says, even though his future is headed into a new direction. Andres still intends to go back to the past. “I want to rent the store out for one or two years and then come back because this is my life,” Andres says. “This is what I love doing. I’ve always worked the leather because I love it.”

After a seven-hour workday, Andres closes the saddlery. During the day, a few people came in to look and very few to buy. Andres returns to Toluca hoping the future will provide him a new path. On Epigmenio de la Piedra Street, the stands and stores close. It is time to take the t-shirts down, along with the records and backpacks that were hung up more than eight hours ago. There is a full moon. Andres mounts his bicycle and leaves Tenancingo. Amid the darkness the light illuminating the statue of Cristo Rey spills also onto Andres.

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