Club music pumped and bodies bumped on the top floor of the packed cantina. Girls wore miniskirts, tight tank tops, and lots of hairspray. Colored lights spun and lasers twirled. But suddenly the music stopped. The house lights came on, and a slow, twangy beat started up. The dance floor parted like the Red Sea. Everyone got in line, hands on hips. The music picked up. Country! And line dancing! We could be in Texas, or Kentucky. But we were in the heart of Mexico City.
Finally I recognized the song, a Spanish language version of Achy Breaky Heart. I stood back from the dance floor and spotted my Mexican friends right in line, following the steps perfectly. I almost spilled my cuba libre.
By some measures the largest city in the world, Mexico City (called D.F. in Spanish, for Distrito Federal) doesn’t lack nightlife. Booty clubs are abundant, along with all kinds of bars, from greasy dives to sports bars with pool tables and flat screen TVs. But for a real mind blowing experience, head for a big cantina.On this occasion, I was in Mexico City for work. Unless they are taking bribes from students, a university teacher in Mexico isn’t exactly rolling in dough. Few English teachers just work at one school. They have a class or two here and there. I work at two schools and supplement my income with writing and translating work. Not only that, but now I am also a school agent.
Before I moved to Mexico I lived in Vancouver and worked at an ESL school there called inlingua Vancouver. Students came from all over the world to study English in one of the most beautiful cities in North America. We had students from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America, including Mexico.
Not long after I moved to Mexico, when I was just starting to speak passable Spanish, my former boss in Vancouver asked me if I would like to represent inlingua at a study abroad fair in Mexico City. Being Colombian he was quickly able to assess my Spanish. But my bilingual ability wasn’t the main reason he wanted me. As a former teacher I understood the programs well, and as an immigrant to Canada (from the US) and someone who has lived as an expat for some time, I had a pretty good idea of what the students could expect culturally.
So I agreed. Mexico City is only a few hours from where I live in Toluca. A final bonus is that these fairs are a great way to see some old friends from Canada, agents who used to work at my school and others who still do.
So the night after the fair, Saturday night, we went out – three Mexicans, a Canadian, a German, and me.
The cantina loomed large over a busy street in who-knows-what part of Mexico City. We climbed the steps and entered the first level. Big sombreros and colorful paintings of dancing skeletons covered the brick walls. People sat at tables overflowing with tacos and beer while banda music played. Banda is the bouncy, woodwind and brass music that Mexican radio stations in the US tend to play. The singing is passionate, the lyrics are realistic and raw, and the bass is a tuba.
The host took us up to the next level. The lights were brighter, the ceiling high and the walls decorated with saddles, whips, and head-mounts. Everyone sat at tables with big beers, salt on the rim and lime at the bottom. Wooden bowls of botanas – peanuts or chips – spilled off tables to the floor. Black-and-white waiters hustled about while a seven-piece cumbia band played.
We sat down and ordered beers. Cumbia is dance music, something like a simplified salsa, with a strong drum and bass beat. You know it’s cumbia if the rhythm sounds like a horse galloping. We danced and talked and drank beer.
After midnight we took our beers up to yet another level on top. Here was the nightclub pumping out the popular hits of the day – I’ve Got a Feeling, I Know You Want Me, and eventually country music and full on line dancing, without a redneck in sight.
Now I’ve been living in Mexico for a little more time and know that Mi Pobre Corazon (Achy Breaky Heart) and country line dancing are a fundamental part of big Mexican parties, like weddings or a girl’s fifteenth birthday party. You might even catch me out on the floor, right in step. But really I’m just hoping for more cumbia.
Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.