In the Laguna Madre, a vast area of salt water that crosses the dividing line between Mexico and the United States and comprises a dozen communities in Tamaulipas and Texas, an army of fishermen caught over 17,000 penaeid shrimp so the local government could organize a Festival del Mar at La Carbonera beach, and prepare a shrimp cocktail weighing 2,257 pounds. The aim was to change the negative image of San Fernando, where, in 2010, on an August afternoon, 72 mostly Central American migrants were massacred in the storehouse of a ranch, and where one April morning in 2011, the tortured bodies of 196 people were found buried in the shimmering green pastures. In the following weeks mass graves were discovered containing an as yet unverified number of corpses, which some local authorities estimate to be around 500. A macabre joke circulated on Facebook and Twitter at the time: “Come to San Fernando, we’ll welcome you with open graves.” During Holy Week 2014, in this place where Mexico’s most awful 21st-century massacres have occurred, the governor of Tamaulipas state, Egidio Torre Cantú, accompanied by a dozen regional mayors, would stand around a monumental glass tumbler to celebrate a new record: the largest shrimp cocktail in the world.
Along with agriculture, fishing was one of the main economic activities in San Fernando until the war between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, plus the military and naval presence, brought life in the town to a standstill, and caused the cessation of mass celebrations between 2009 and 2013. And that is why the Festival del Mar became an important event for the people of the region, some of whom could not believe they would have the opportunity to see in the flesh Mariana Seoane, an actress on the Televisa channel who once posed in the nude for gentlemen’s magazines and has a single entitled “I’ll Be a Good Girl.” Seoane would be the festival queen and, at the behest of the euphoric crowd, would sing her three hits, turning to give the crowd a view of her figure. Another important moment would be the appearance of Sonora Dinamita, among whose members were two “mulattoes” who, according to the mayor of San Fernando, would give the women of the town a visual experience equivalent to that offered by Seoane to the men.
But the star of Good Friday would be the penaeid shrimp, a small crustacean whose bulging black eyes contrast with its curved, cylindrical body from which sprout two pairs of antennae—one long, one short—and five pairs of legs. Its body ends in a pointed tail that, along with the head, is removed before it is eaten. With just ten or twelve of these crustaceans, water and ketchup, it is possible to prepare a small seafood cocktail, although in Tamaulipas and many other places it is usual to include avocado, garlic and lime juice; in neighboring Texas, they also add cucumber and serrano chili. When oysters and clams are added, this hangover cure is generally known as “Back to Life,” a name that in present-day San Fernando is not particularly appropriate.
During the festival I had a discussion with a man who was convinced that shrimp had been created for no other reason than to be ingested in a cocktail. According to him, when placed in a glass tumbler, they have a better flavor than when deviled, cooked in chipotle sauce, or garlic, or butter; served with Philadelphia; or wrapped in bacon and cheese; or a la Veracruzana. Or even when served with that chili pepper water they make so well in Mazatlán, Sinaloa, which once held the Guinness record for the largest shrimp cocktail in the world. In northeast Mexico you can find this expensive delicacy sold dried by the highway at incredibly low prices. The roadblocks installed by the military in the region, supposedly to reduce violence, have benefited this small sector of the economy, since the shrimp vendors are able to sell their product to the lines of impatient, fearful motorists. On the journey from Reynosa to San Fernando, I came across one of these roadside vendors, and asked if his shrimp were from San Fernando, to which he replied in the affirmative; they came from the Laguna Madre. He uttered that toponym in such a solemn, respectful tone, it was as if he was referring to some species of Aridoamerican deity. The same tone was adopted by the announcers on regional radio stations every time they mentioned the lagoon. Between the Ramón Ayala corridos and Julión Álvarez ballads saturating the airwaves, there was no mention of anything but shrimp, and the great feat about to be accomplished in San Fernando. On the morning of Good Friday, just outside the center of town, caravans of pickup trucks crammed with families formed in the Loma Colorada gas station before heading off together for La Carbonera, less than 30 miles distant. The sound of Banda Sinaloense music filled the whole place, because the quick workers in the convenience store adjoining the gas station had decided to install huge speakers to liven up the morning. A mile or two farther on, three state police patrols were waiting for a group of men armed to the teeth: the latter were the governor’s bodyguards and had arrived the night before by road, without their boss. The governor was coming by helicopter but needed his security team for the three-minute drive from the soccer field that formed an improvised heliport to the venue at which the feat of prowess was to take place.
The police officers agreed to pose for the photojournalist Victor Hugo Valdivia while they waited for the governor’s bodyguards, whom they themselves would escort along with a naval patrol, just in case. “There’s a lot of movement,” said the head of the police squad with an enormous smile, pointing his machine gun toward the highway—toward a former cattle ranch that a few years before had been requisitioned by the Navy as its local headquarters. It was also in this spot that both the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, and even some equis—as greenhorn delinquents are disparagingly known—set up roadblocks to keep watch over who was entering and leaving San Fernando. On Good Friday it was the police and soldiers who had mounted the series of checkpoints. For the occasion, the Army decided to roll out its most recent acquisition from the arms market: the SandCat, a very fast, highly armored truck with a diverse array of weaponry. It is the vehicle with which the regional military forces hope to confront the monstruos: vehicular monstrosities designed by the Zetas that have already been operating in the area for some time. The lieutenant in charge of the group was carrying a 7.62-mm MAG rifle, and didn’t allow many photos to be taken of his SandCat, “because the criminals will copy it.” “How can they when the vehicle’s designed in the United States?” I asked with not a little naïveté. “They kidnap the people who can, and make them do it.” While we were talking, the governor’s security team passed, escorted by the state patrols, in turn escorted by the Navy patrols.
At the entrance to La Carbonera there was an old boat, on which a number of workmen were hanging a banner advertising the presence of Mariana Seoane. The event was scheduled to start at 10am; to hold it in the afternoon, or worse still after dark, would have been too risky, however many bodyguards, police officers and military roadblocks were in place. La Carbonera is a shrimp-fishing village with a single, unpaved main street, and this was packed with cars waiting for a parking space. Very soon a long line had formed, advancing at a snail’s pace, thus allowing some of the drivers to get out of their vehicles to buy the dried shrimp sold by fishing families outside their houses. These fishermen use a trap known as a charanga: a net attached to a V-shaped structure, which is dropped in the marine channels through which the shrimp are expected to pass. Some fishermen work at night, when the crustaceans are most active.
When we reached the shores of the Laguna Madre, where a buzz of anticipation was already running through the crowd, a bunch of youths wearing T-shirts with the message “We are all Tamaulipas” passed by. These mass-produced tees, and plastic glasses with shrimp-inspired designs, were being handed out at the entrance. By walking along the estuary, you arrived at a pavilion, with the first rows of seats occupied by government officials dressed in shrimp-orange T-shirts, and a smattering of army bigwigs in field dress. The show had not yet started, but the emcee took the microphone from time to time and, in a guttural voice, mouthed such historic comments as: “A beautiful crystal clear tumbler that will draw the eyes of the whole world, with a shrimp cocktail weighing more than a tooooon.” If his aim was to animate those present, he didn’t achieve it; after his interventions, the buzz from the crowd remained unchanged, and his words evaporated into the warm morning air. Only when a couple of municipal workers removed the plastic wrapping that had protected the tumbler from accidental scratches during its journey from Mexico City did the crowd quiet a little, perhaps because everyone thought the governor was about to arrive on the scene; he did in fact turn up, approximately two hours later than initially expected. But the emcee took advantage of the silence: “Today, more than ever, we are proud of the resources provided by the waters of our Laguna Madreeeee.” Around ten yards away, sitting with a quasi-scientific air behind an aged laptop, the notary who was to adjudge the record was explaining that the glass tumbler weighed 825 pounds.
Of all the shrimp-orange T-shirt wearers in the first rows, the most euphoric was Mario de la Garza, a dentist who was also the mayor of San Fernando. While waiting for the governor, he spoke with five reporters, one of them from the state press office, who asked the prearranged questions. “This is going to be highly beneficial for San Fernando,” the mayor insisted several times, after admitting that lately the economy had been going from bad to worse; and all this without ever mentioning the words violence, kidnapping or war, much less narco. When I spoke to him, and confessed that despite living in Monterrey, I’d had no idea San Fernando produced shrimp, the mayor cordially replied that San Fernando’s shrimp were highly valued by Mexican experts but were not widely known on the commercial market: “That’s why we want the whole world to know about and eat San Fernando shrimp.” The mayor was extremely enthusiastic about preparing the largest shrimp cocktail in the world; he also promised that in the coming years San Fernando would become a powerful Mexican energy producer. The municipality, he vehemently explained, was already the largest extractor of natural gas from the rich Burgos Basin that runs through Tamaulipas, Nuevo León and Coahuila.
In addition the mayor triumphantly informed me that the special guests included Thomas Mittmasht, a man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a wide-brimmed sun hat who was leaning back, idly inspecting the gigantic tumbler before the 17,000 or so small crustaceans were poured into it. Mittmasht is the United States consul in Matamoros, and when faced with questions from reporters about whether his government would now advise its citizens to visit Tamaulipas, he asked them to kindly read the information on the consular website. The document found there warns US citizens that if they should need to travel through Tamaulipas, it is recommended they do so during daylight hours, and avoid “displays of wealth that might draw attention.” I asked Mittmasht when he had last visited San Fernando, and he replied that he had passed through the year before on his way back from the Governor’s Report in Ciudad Victoria. “I guess you’re more relaxed on this occasion,” I commented, with a glance at his beachwear. “Well, less formal,” he answered. He had made the journey with an escort of only four armored vehicles.
The day before the San Fernando Festival del Mar, Gabriel García Márquez had died, but it was perfectly clear that the magic realism attributed to that writer was not going to disappear quickly in either Mexico or Colombia. I mention this because an official from the Tamaulipas tourist office insisted I interview two men wearing snow-white pants and guayaberas, topped by traditional Colombian vueltiao hats. They were Arnold and Plácido Verera Murillo, restaurateurs from Cartagena—owners of the Ostería del Mar Rojo—who assured me they had been drawn to San Fernando by its good shrimp, and had experienced no problems in terms of personal security. The official bulletin issued later by the Government of Tamaulipas quotes the two men as saying, “Cartagena is a wonderful city, but it cannot equal what we’ve seen here; it’s like a dream, I never imagined I’d have the chance to come to the Gulf of Mexico and visit the Laguna Madre, the Queen of Shrimp.” In addition to comparing San Fernando to what is considered one of the world’s most beautiful cities, the official bulletin noted that the two Colombians were overjoyed that “the governor and the municipal president were regenerating the beach resort, because that doesn’t happen everywhere, and the authorities often just forget about a place, which isn’t happening here.” What the bulletin never mentioned, although some Colombian newspapers did, is that the Verera brothers were on an expenses-paid trip to Mexico to learn how to prepare the largest shrimp cocktail in the world, since Cartagena was planning to make a bid for the same title within a few years.
When I approached to interview them, the Colombians were talking to Arturo Ponce Pérez, one of the two chefs overseeing the preparation of the cocktail. Despite his worried expression, Chef Ponce said he was feeling highly motivated. Perhaps he was nervous, because he couldn’t remember the last time he had made a small shrimp cocktail. While he preferred meat to seafood, he told me he had spent the last two weeks taking courses in preparation for the Guinness record bid, and now had everything needed for the event: just over a ton of frozen shrimp, 40 gallons of ketchup and 26 of clamato juice; neither lime nor avocado is included in the Guinness World Records rules. While the chef was coordinating the work of his 20 assistants on one side of the main pavilion, some youths with maracas passed; it had been announced that the governor was finally about to arrive, and their task was to provide a party atmosphere to welcome him. They were joined by more youngsters with tambores, and when the official claque had assembled, the assistant cooks were given a pep talk by the second chef. The most excited of these assistants were two men carrying giant spoons to stir the tomato sauce in the cocktail tumbler. Dressed from head to toe in white, including their face masks, they were like nurses about to concoct a dish of high-quality protein, vitamins, minerals, a lot of cholesterol, and phosphorus, an aphrodisiac.
A local official came to inform me that the San Fernando shrimp was unique, and that its exquisite flavor was without compare. He then said, enthusiastically, that thanks to the shrimp and natural gas, his hometown would once again be an economic powerhouse. He spoke of the 18 million cubic meters of natural gas shipped to Reynosa, and from there to the United States, and in a low tone, as if trying to ensure few bystanders overheard, added that two more large fields had been discovered: Trión 1 and 2. After that he began to complain that Pemex hadn’t offered a peso toward the shrimp cocktail celebrations, and that the same was true of the other 28 energy companies in the region, excepting Geokinetics, which had donated a sum he preferred not to specify. The Tamaulipas authorities had paid 20,000 US dollars to Guinness just for the use of its logo in the publicity campaign. True, they had been, however, spared the travel expenses of the international team of judges, as none of the Guinness employees were willing to travel to San Fernando, given the high risk such a journey entailed. The official thought this was a shame, and said it was just an image problem, “all because of those 72 dead undocumenteds there on the border with Matamoros. They come dumping them on us here, and what can you do?” When I asked about the clandestine mass graves and shootouts of recent years, he fell silent, and then picked up his eulogy to the exquisite San Fernando shrimp where he had left off. “They really are the best in the world. I’ve eaten shrimp in San Francisco and Europe, and they don’t even come close.”
We had to break off conversation as the levels of activity increased in the pavilion. The governor’s helicopter had landed. One of the bodyguards took a moment to joke with another who was helping a man in a shrimp costume to get into place. As they were passing, he said, “Hey, don’t let that shrimp get too close.” (In Mexico, camarón—shrimp—is one of the many euphemisms for the male member.) Meanwhile, the governor’s head of logistics was arguing with two young organizers: “The governor is going to have his cocktail served up there on the stage. No way is the governor going to any cooler to pick it up himself.” Surprisingly, the governor decided to walk to the pavilion through the crowd, occasionally waving to those present. When he came to the row in which the two Colombians were sitting, he stopped to receive the presents they had brought from their native land, and had his photo taken with them.
In the front row the mayors of Méndez, Valle Hermoso, Burgos and other regional towns were awaiting him in their orange T-shirts; also present were the colonel and captain in charge of the San Fernando military detachment. The governor, who was also wearing the requisite T-shirt, had not brought his wife; but his father, Egidio Torre López, had accompanied him, and when he took his seat in the front row, was heartily welcomed by the mayor of San Fernando, who then took the microphone to announce that very soon “we’ll be in the news as an example of perseverance. They’ll be talking about ordinary people who have done something extraordinary.” The civic dignitary then thanked both Mother Nature and the governor for having made it possible for San Fernando to prepare the largest shrimp cocktail in the world.
Once the mayor had concluded his speech, the emcee announced they were going to show a video sent by the Guinness World Records executive committee in London. Absolute silence fell over the crowd, and on a giant screen the image of a young blond woman with a big smile and a discreetly low-cut top appeared to whistles of appreciation from the male public. In a kind of Tex-Mex Spanish, she first thanked Governor Egidio Torre (pronouncing the double “r” of Torre with great care), and while she was, with equal care, listing the names of other officials, a couple of refrigerator trucks pulled up behind the screen, and the two chefs plus their germ-free assistants dressed in white began to unload the 50-pound packs of shrimp. When the assistant chefs had thrown in pack number 22, the San Fernando cocktail weighed 1,120 pounds, and had officially beaten the previous record set by Mazatlán, Sinaloa. Jubilant cheers echoed around the venue, but this time the emcee held his tongue. The event reached its climax at the moment the tumbler weighed 2,300 pounds, and Mariana Seoane appeared, walking toward the seat allocated to her in the front row.
The cries of excitement resounded throughout La Carbonera, and the emcee could contain himself no longer; in his absolutely unmistakable tone he bellowed, “Tourism doesn’t come beeeetter.” Seoane had only just taken her seat in the front row when she was exhorted by members of the audience to stand and show off her body. “We want to see you, Mariana,” they chanted. And she stood, turned around, and said, “What a lovely audience.” She then ascended to the stage to assist the governor in sampling the dish. When they got a view of the actress’s shapely body from a better angle, the audience exploded into even louder outbursts of euphoria. The mayor and his wife also appeared to pose with the chefs, Seoane, and the governor beside the tumbler of shrimp. In the midst of the excited celebrations, the governor gave a speech that lasted less than two minutes, and concluded with, “This is our Tamaulipas. We work hard every day. And what do we do on our days of rest? We break world records.”
After his anticlimactic intervention, the governor gave an impromptu press conference with the small number of reporters present. He made absolutely no mention of the marches in which up to a thousand people demanded peace in Tampico, nor of the petition organized by the Parents’ Association suggesting classes should be suspended after the Easter vacation until there was evidence that the situation was under control, and their children’s safety was guaranteed. He then walked through the crowd for a minute or two, paused for a few photos, and less than an hour after his arrival was on his way out of San Fernando. He didn’t even stay for the shrimp. For her part, Seoane was besieged by fans at every step of her way to the performance stage, and then left before two in the afternoon. While she was singing, hundreds of San Fernando residents were lining up for their portion of the largest shrimp cocktail in the world. On the beach, the party was being equally enjoyed by families making giant sombreros from cardboard Tecate beer boxes and participating in impassioned games of volleyball. There were also ad hoc lifeguards, people selling mosquito spray, fathers carrying beers and tricycles, cowboys in shorts singing Norteño songs at the tops of their voices, and groups of friends in camouflage gear noisily drinking beer until four in the afternoon came around, when Sonora Dinamita finished their set, and the festivities were over. At that exact moment, I went back to the main stage. The tumbler containing the shrimp was completely empty. Over 17,000 small crustaceans were being digested by some 4,000 human stomachs on La Carbonera beach.
That Good Friday afternoon, after spending the day on La Carbonera beach, I returned to the center of San Fernando, where dozens of houses and businesses were empty or abandoned, some of them ransacked or in ruins. The night before the municipality achieved its shrimp-cocktail feat, a youth had been kidnapped from his home by one of the warring factions still operating in the area. A week before, a taco vendor had been arrested for acting as a mafia spy. Three weeks before, the Navy had shot down the daughter of an evangelical pastor, accusing her of being an assassin. A month before, there had been an almost hour-long shootout in a nearby valley. Two months before, the local parish priest, who in exceptional cases acted as a hostage negotiator, had been beaten up after handing over a ransom. Three months before, a group of young people had been kidnapped by another armed commando group; they are presumed to have been forced into slave labor. Four months before, 20 people had been kidnapped in the space of a week, and then freed in exchange for sums of between five-hundred thousand and a million pesos. None of these events were covered by the press.
The feeling of those who spoke of them was that San Fernando hadn’t yet seen the worst; in fact, the worst was a day-to-day occurrence. Some of the residents I interviewed were annoyed about the Guinness record. Just as with any other human beings, the arrival of spring brought a smile to their faces, and they were pleased that a public space like La Carbonera beach had been reclaimed—if only for a few hours—but the fear of being kidnapped or murdered prevailed. The mayor’s and the governor’s idea of the largest shrimp cocktail in the world as a means of removing the stench of death from the town—more a public image exercise than a daily reality—was looked upon with skepticism. For the residents it was a smoke screen, more pathetic than naive. “You can’t cover up the reality of San Fernando with a shrimp cocktail, no matter how big it is,” one said. Another added, “Well, when we’ve got a governor who hasn’t even solved his own brother’s murder, how are we supposed to believe he really wants to solve the security problems the rest of us suffer? This is a no-man’s-land.”
As the sun went down, a small Good Friday procession made its silent way through the center of town. All the parishioners were dressed in white, and it was easy to imagine that what they required from their government was not a gastronomic world record. Early the following morning, as we drove out of the San Fernando valley, with its shimmering, green pastures and beautiful grasslands stretching to the purple-tinged horizon, it took an effort of will to believe that while Tamaulipas remains a pool into which Mexican democracy is sinking, its authorities are attempting to wipe out the horror with a shrimp cocktail.
–TRANSLATED FROM THE SPANISH BY CHRISTINA MACSWEENEY
The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The new issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.