"Richard Burton Stole Our Dreams of Mexico" by Anthony Gomez III

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Richard burton stole our dreams Of Mexico

Anthony Gomez III

“Year After Colosio Slaying, Mystery Still Roils Mexico . . . Despite arrests, truth remains elusive. Probe focuses on internal party struggle, drug cartels.”—Sebastian Rotella and Juanita Darling, The LA Times, 1995

“In late March of 1994, Mexico’s leading presidential candidate was assassinated by a gunman. Conspiracy theories about his death still abound.”—Rachel Martin, NPR, 2014

Donaldo Colosio came into my life because he worried about a soft accent that needed erasure. His application for my language class stated he was a decade-plus citizen of the city and ready to seem a natural speaker.

The fact was that I helped some from start, but many of those who passed through the class already demonstrated a wonderful grasp of the language, albeit through archaic slang picked up from eighties and nineties television. What most complained about was what brought in Donaldo—how others heard them.

“I’m sorry, Donaldo,” I said. “Unfortunately, there are no classes left. The city put an end to this. I just wanted to apologize and let you know your payment was never processed.”

“Well,” he said. “That’s a shame.”

Each word was clear and precise. Sure, a low gruff was there, but that seemed simply a development of age. His voice possessed

an ease to it. Odd inflections hardly touched a word. I watched him leave as his words replayed in my head. Well, that’s a shame.

Those first few weeks without work were a series of sneaking looks at my dwindling savings and completing routines I never could enjoy when working. Then, burnt out of these trends, I thought to return to one irksome place—the beach. It was not the sun or a dip in the ocean that I wanted, but the sound of the waves, the sound of life functioning to its own changing rhythm.

A Carlos Fuentes book in my hand, I was soon kicking sand and questioning my decision to come. In the middle of the week, and a month before the season began, the beach was largely empty. The wide shore existed solely for the three or four of us there. I tried sitting on the sand and the result was a wind that bullied my book’s pages.

That was when I saw Donaldo, standing with a chair and a small cooler in his right hand. He seemed to stare at the few others there as if he expected one to suddenly spring up and attack. Coming or going, I did not know when I walked up to him.

“Hello, Donaldo.”

“I’m surprised you remember me.”

“It’s not often I hear English spoken so well. Especially when it’s from a student.”

The statement was true then and true now. Traces of his accent, if they existed, were buried. One almost had to listen for it.

“I think you’re lying on that one. But tell me, what have you been up to since your class ended?”

“Honestly, nothing. Sometimes, I take a moment to try to figure out what’s next.”

“Ha!” He shouted out this laugh. “Come then. I’ve got some time.” If he was leaving before, he was staying now. He unfolded his chair. It sank into the sand and then sank further when he sat.


“You seem uncomfortable?” he asked.

“I’ve never liked the beach; I honestly question why I came.”

At the side of the chair was the cooler. He opened it to remove two beers. He handed me one and started quickly on his own, the can almost halfway gone by the time he remembered to breathe.

“You learn a lot when you notice someone’s uncomfortable.” Donaldo said the maxim like it was a common and cheerful platitude, his mouth both wide and stern. “Where are you from?”

“Not far from here. A Californian, though.”

“I see.”

“I saw on your application you’re from Mexico. You know my grandparents—on my dad’s side—are from down the island. Baja.”

“Is that right?”

With little else I could think to add, the conversation died. I started to sip the beer and part of me felt an American guilt for what I was doing—nothing on an early afternoon.

Reminding myself that this was unusual, that this was an unplanned effect of being jobless, and that it was unusual to encounter students from outside the classroom, I let myself enjoy this languid dream. Each reason disappeared. I simply watched the shore, and Donaldo’s shadow hung over me.

A woman walked where the waves struggled to pass, a camera dangled from her neck, bouncing forward and back in harmony with her steps. Hanging at the edge of two fingers were her sandals. Slight and with dark hair, she put her other hand on the camera, stopping it from moving just as she stopped walking directly below us. She was doing nothing I could see, but Donaldo sat up and leaned forward. He reached over to touch my shoulder, and a surprising tone emerged:

“Would you like to walk with me back to my car? I think I’ve had enough sun for the day.”

The beer finished, I turned and pressed it down into the sand so it might stand at a slanted angle without falling. We stood and


when we left the site, I could see the same woman had turned around and was staring toward us. Donaldo met her look several times. During one exchange, when both of us stared, she reached for her camera and snapped a photo.

I could gather no further detail because she soon fell under the sun’s protection.

Any stranger could guess which car was Donaldo’s—the lone grey vehicle parked sideways across two spaces. I helped him to his trunk, putting away his things, and then I helped him to his driver’s side, where he more so crashed into his seat than got into it.

“Are you walking far?”

“Just to the bus at Highland.”

“Shit! It’s not far off my route; want to join?”

Out on the road, he did not relax until the beach was blocks away. Although, I admit, I broke the silence by returning his technique:

“You seem uncomfortable?” I asked.

Donaldo smiled at the question.

“You’re learning. Yes. It’s just that woman . . . She was like an old ex-wife.” Even then, the answer felt odd—incorrect because it presumed a certain familiarity to her that was not present on the beach.

“Was it a horrible split?”

“Yes. And I hoped I wouldn’t have to see her again. For a moment, I thought I had . . . But tell me, what was your grandparents’ connection to Baja?”

“My family traces itself there. To Tijuana. We used to visit older relatives, but the truth is our family is mostly up here. Been that way since my grandfather settled in Pomona.”

“So he was gone long before it changed? It’s a strange place to know as a home. It never leaves you or your family. I suspect part of you carries what is happening there in you.”


“You mean the violence?”

“Violence? Yeah, I suppose that thought is what people jump to.”

“What were your referring to?”

Donaldo turned the car onto Highland, and we were already close to where I needed to be dropped off. If he heard the question, he ignored it in favor of his own.

“What do you think you’ll be doing? Nothing for work lined up?”

“Not at all.”

“Well, I’m going to offer you a temporary one? Don’t get the wrong impression. I’m not a wealthy man, but I also cannot keep driving and doing things on my own. I need help. You were kind not to say anything. But you noticed: I can hardly get into a seat.”

He slowed down to pull to the side. The bus stop was crowded. People lined up. They passed the minutes by looking at lit screens. Donaldo handed me a card with an address.

“I grew up miles from the ocean, you know,” he started to say.

“Far enough that it was hard to see or understand. But I remember Baja well, and I like to see the shore as much as I can. Try as I might, it’s impossible for me to understand this American coast as connected to Baja. That this stretch of beach disappears and reappears . . . well, someone on the shore down there is thinking the same about us. Anyway, consider the offer. But I do have to let you in on one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t have an ex-wife.”

Assignments for Donaldo were simple: picking up groceries, driving him to the beach, to the doctor’s office, to a bookstore, or to wherever was occupying his mind. Trips were also few and far between. In fact, there were many days when I would wake up, take the bus down, and sit outside his simple grey car for a whole


shift without moving or hearing a word. I got into the habit of expecting no interruption.

On the first day I was left alone I snooped. Yet there was nothing to find, and little to develop rumor. In the glove compartment one loose paper attributed the vehicle to a Luis Donaldo Colosio. In the back trunk was the same beach chair he liked to drag around and nothing else.

Further, there seemed no need for me—even with his growing infirmities. Surely it was more expensive to keep paying me than to hire a single service when needed.

As Donaldo hardly called and he seldom wanted a task completed, I tended to spend time outside the car, sitting on the hood and wanting to take up smoking just to give my hands something to do. Instead, a healthier habit prevailed.

I remember an author, a favorite of mine, who once wrote how the minor works of literature were sadly in favor because the grand classics were too real a reflection of our lives as broken, dissatisfying, and longer than we might realize. Yet, on those endless days as a stationed driver, it was the minor works that held my focus and renewed attention. It was the journey of the weak and minor that led me to the unfinished. Incomplete dreams. Always short and always unsatisfying, these works taught me to embrace the incomplete, the beauty of a fractured whole. Nothing might be ruined so long as its end was never reached.

While I was finishing a work from Henry Dumas, Donaldo emerged from the house late into the evening. Weakened since the first day at the beach, he moved with a cane. I helped him to a seat then lifted and stretched his legs over the back row.

There was no destination—he merely requested I keep him on a street that was busy. But not too busy. What he wanted was people moving, getting on with their lives, to look out the window and see individuals who would never think about him.


Red lights appeared to greet us at every intersection, and I got into the practice of going slow. An abandoned cinema approached—the Pacific. Having been a frequent guest at the place, I could catalogue what was slowly vanishing: the red and purple neon sign, the casino lights underneath the marquee, and the box office booth out front. Facing the street, the marquee read Touch of Evil. In the rearview mirror it displayed nothing.

“Curious film.” It was Donaldo’s first words since we started on this drive, and I doubted I heard them until he continued. “Have you ever seen it?”

“Once, yes.”

“I was a kid when it came out. It was a glimpse into the Mexico I was raised in.”

“And does that include Charlton Heston as a Mexican, or . . . ?”

Donaldo smiled, a grin so large I caught a glimpse of a younger man.

“That was progress for Hollywood at the time! Normally, that would be some blue-eyed Italian up there. With Welles in charge, we at least got represented by a biblical man. Charlton Heston was Moses, then a Mexican. Talk about a downward trajectory.”

“Beautiful film, though.”

“Yes, it is. In a sad way. The Mexico I grew up into . . . ” The final line fell behind a whisper, a loose thought that had momentarily escaped the mind.

Out of the city we were back on the dark streets. The one car on the road, we floated to the house. This uninterrupted stretch invited Donaldo to remember the Mexico of his youth and contrast it with the current perception of the nation. It was this comparison that led him to want to delve even further into the past. He asked:

“Tell me, did your grandparents ever describe Mexico to you?”

“Mainly Baja.”


“Of course. What did they say?”

“Well . . . you saw Touch of Evil. Do you like movies?”

“The old stuff. Why?”

“That’s all my grandfather liked. He was obsessed.”

“Even better.”

“I heard my grandfather describe all this a long time ago—so hopefully I can remember this right. You know how in those old films, the old film noirs, people are always talking about going to Mexico.” In a poor Humphrey Bogart impression, I uttered some cliché lines. “Get the money and cross the border. I found her in Mexico. Hurry to Mexico!”

“Yes,” Donaldo said. “I remember always noticing that. They all wanted to escape there. Like in Out of the Past.”

“Right. I mentioned that same film once and my grandfather laughed. He also told me Rita Hayworth made her name by coming to Mexico.”

“That’s true, I have seen photos of her and others. Gary Cooper would come. Errol Flynn. Orson Welles. We would hear about them. Stories like that had already started to gather dust when I was young.”

“Yeah, my grandfather would agree.”

We were turning a corner, just a few blocks from the house. All the streets were quiet, all the neighbors’ houses dark.

“But what else?”

“My grandfather lived at the top of Baja, and a friend on the other side of the border told him a rumor. A new film to be shot near Tijuana. There seemed little of that happening those days.”

Donaldo, still leaning in his seat, nodded along in agreement, as I spoke.

“A new film with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.”

“Really? Which one is this?”

“There wasn’t one. Well, not exactly.”


I pulled forward into the driveway. We were there before the story had ended. I didn’t know if I should continue or should help him back inside. Donaldo made no move to leave.

“You know,” he said. “I’m not tired and we are parked. You saw how difficult it was getting in. It would be worse if you helped me inside so soon.”

“You want me to keep going right here?”

“Why not? There’s no distraction. Just tell it as it comes.”

And so, we sat in the car, the lights inside off, the low beams casting a weak glow that hardly stretched out beyond us. It was still early in the night, yet it felt so much later. Nonetheless, I continued.

Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were not starring in a movie together. Turns out, Burton brought her down amid one of their affairs. Before my grandfather hears this update, he expects that production should be starting soon, and hears it has moved to Cabo. He decides he must find his way there. The Elizabeth Taylor he knew was young, titillating, and seductive. Everything he wanted out of life seemed to live in her scandals. He worked his way down, finding it funny that the Hollywood he loved was moving in the opposite direction of where everyone he knew was going. Quick jobs that could be done in two days were finished in one in exchange for a ride and food. Enough work and travel existed that he was there in less than a week. There was just one problem: the film was not in Cabo.

My grandfather almost gave up right there. Endless movement brought him near exhaustion. All he can think to do is rest in the one cinema in town.

But it’s not a movie theater at all; it’s a single projector that faces opposite a blank wall on the side of a closed grocery. ‘It’s


too soon,’ someone tells him, ‘you need the dark for it to work.’ Yes, he thinks. The dark is always needed to see those dreams on the wall.

Another rumor reaches his ears from the workers nearby. They’ve lost men to the town over the gulf. He assumes it’s another story about friends and countrymen fleeing north—but no, it’s not. He hears a name—Ava Gardner.

The news is enough to make him mad. Taylor and Gardner in one place. They were at a town called Puerto Vallarta. I hear it’s much different now. A resort. Back then, my grandfather insisted it was nothing, a small fishing village with a name he had never heard aloud. He promises the same group of men lamenting a shortage of workers that he can offer his services if they promise to carry him across the ocean to the same coast.

Even more than Taylor, Ava Gardner represented the fine sophistication of decadence, the allure and also the downfall that could afflict any person. Was my grandfather placing the woman’s characters onto real life? Yes. He knew so too. He would mention the photos of them, on the beaches in California and France. He even admitted, perhaps regrettably, that Gardner was in a photo he kept in his room during life in the military.

They get him there. In a small village where, like before, movies were shown outside. In fact, the chairs are arranged in what should be neat rows and columns. Whether from the people or the uneven road, many chairs are instead fallen over. His mind can’t offer a clearer image because he soon hears the names. Burton. Gardner. Taylor.

The production team was working to appease Richard Burton, constructing a whole town around the very identity that brought the actor there. He joined their effort.

He built buildings, carried equipment, and helped prepare food all while he kept an eye on the object of the cameras. A


fantasy world he held for so long was unfolding upon itself to become reality.

My grandfather saw Richard Burton emerge from the waves. A young girl he didn’t recognize walked beside him. He was still handsome in his own way, yet when the waves crashed, he simply saw a man shudder from the cold. The director yelled cut and they repeated the scene, and they repeated it again. Of course, the waves can break anyone, yet, for a time, my grandfather thought there were those on Earth whose lives were magnetic and powerful enough to stand up on their own—to withstand the sea.

“And Gardner? Taylor?” Donaldo asked.

I had told the story in one go, in what felt like a single breath, so that the subsequent pause seemed to put a halt to the memory. I had to remind myself to remember.

“Disappointed at the observation, he left the set and walked away. Time to think about what he saw was cut short. Hearing about a missing worker, the crew demanded he go back to work. At the bar and hotel there was one white woman sitting alone in the middle of the square outdoor courtyard.”


“No. It was Taylor. She was sitting there in a white sleeveless top, orange cigarette pants, and a purple bandana around her head. Yes, my grandfather thought, she was older. There was no reason to think otherwise. Her beauty was all there, and in the eyes they always would be. More severe and colorful than anything film could capture, they almost needed black and white to leave them as the dream they were. Yet, the world was in color, and he needed to remind himself to look at things as they really were.”

“But that can’t be it. Did your grandfather say anything more?”


“He said he saw her, and he was sad that he searched all that time, and he didn’t see Mexico.”

Donaldo was nodding, his hands on the chair before him.

“I think I understand,” he said.

The interior light of the car brightened. Donaldo struggled to free himself. I hopped out and managed to hold the door before it could strike him. With my back to it, Donaldo used my arm to steady himself.

“Thank you. I can make it.” I dropped my arm somewhat hesitantly. “Your grandfather’s story reminds me of a film, and I want to remember that first before I tell you.”

With that, I watched Donaldo slowly vanish into his house. As the light from the car dwindled and died from lack of activity, a single one near his home’s front window came alive.

Tired, but feeling a restlessness all the same, I waited out the discomfort in the car. It was in the middle of this waiting—just when Donaldo’s front light finally dwindled and died—that I saw a white van slow down. The driver was missing from view, but I recognized the passenger as the woman from the beach. In her hand, with the same camera, she disappeared behind several burning flashes.

When I next returned to Donaldo’s house, the sun was still rising, but the man was waiting for me in his front yard.

“Sorry for being late, I . . . ”

“Stop,” he said, and he held up a hand. “There’s no need. Honestly, I just couldn’t sleep. That happens you know; you get older, and you realize a single thought about something at the wrong time can keep you awake all night. In this case, it was your grandfather’s story and Night at the Iguana—the John Huston film.


I knew it was familiar and I remember seeing it once years ago. I found it online and sat there.” He grinned his infectious grin then narrowed his eyes. “Now, what do you think: did I watch it or not?”

“Did you?”

“No. I only thought about what your grandfather saw. But come; drive me around.”

“Anywhere in particular?”

“No. Why not repeat what we did yesterday? Or even better, drive with the traffic. I think I have a story of my own I can tell if you can keep us moving.”

We were silent until we were in a crowded part of downtown. The first rush of people were underneath a red light. They flooded the crosswalks. From the rearview mirror, I caught Donaldo smiling at the corner of his mouth. It was a private look, the kind noticeable only by reflection.

Soon, that too faded out, and Donaldo spoke while looking out the window:

“He saw European and Hollywood beauty in Mexico.”

I didn’t know if I should respond. His next words were slow but deliberate, derived from his conscious and unconscious night.

“It wasn’t Mexico’s beauty. That’s a shame. A beautiful place wherever you are but ruined and covered. An escape for decadence and an escape for Americans in those films. They didn’t know it— how could they? Those images and films hurt us. Beauty was never ours. We could never see ourselves taking it all in. We could never enjoy it. And you know, I used to love films too, I fell for them— even the one’s after your grandfather’s time, the one’s during my young adulthood.”

There was a roadblock up ahead and I had to turn around. It was perhaps a blessing to change directions. Down the road we would have encountered the Pacific cinema again.

“I thought things would change. I thought people from home wanted change.”



Nothing was there on the side of the road, no car passed, and the sidewalk was currently devoid of people. He kept on:

“No. That is unfair. They did want change; they just didn’t think they deserved it. The crowds were fierce. The crowds were ready. They were close. Hope and charm could be ours. Puerto Vallarta—a beautiful place. Tijuana and Rosarito—both beautiful places. They were stunning. The crowds came to cheer. The crowds came. But it’s all stolen. It’s all up here.”

“I’m not following, Donaldo.”

“Don’t you remember? No. Our own people forget. Luis Donaldo Colosio. He was it. A glimpse into something better. Back in 1994, there was a rally. Huge support shown for a new candidate. Then a shot rang out. The crowd scattered and the body lay in one spot with a head wound bleeding out for some time. Tijuana was appalled, the murderer later showed up in police arms. He looked little like the suspect described by the crowd. People whispered cover up. Did they shout? Did they riot? No, they went quietly to sleep. The cheers were for the day. After, it was forever evening in Mexico.”

“Can I tell you something?”

“Yes; what is it?”

“I’ve never been to Tijuana. I’ve gone across several times with my family and alone when I was older. Each time I stopped short at Rosarito. My parents feared going eventually. I was never scared; I just held onto that fear.”

“It’s okay. I hold onto it too.”

“Should I keep driving?”

“No, let’s head home.”

The sun was against us that morning. High and bright, it was uncomfortable to drive towards. I tried putting the front mirror down. It didn’t help, and my sunglasses were too dark to see through. A white van slowed and followed behind us.


Once again, we were soon sitting silent in the car. However, this time, we did not have the privilege of nightfall to keep us withdrawn.

“My name was and is Donaldo Colosio. Luis Donaldo Colosio. Born in the same place and living in the same town where that man died. I seemed to follow him. Or he seemed to follow me. When the gun went off a few people in Tijuana refused to believe Donaldo the politician had died. Because of that belief they found me. I evoked the last shadow of their hopes and dreams. But some people do not want even that to exist.”

“I’m sorry, Donaldo.”

“For what?”

“I lied just now. I have been to Tijuana. I went down there with the goal of reconnecting. Rosarito was supposed to return me to the family I lost over the years. Tijuana was then the next step before Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, a retrace of my grandfather’s movements.”

“What happened in Tijuana?”

“I never felt like I could leave. The first day was fine. I walked throughout the city and returned to the hotel before the night fell. I flirted with the hotel receptionist the first two days and thought there was a chance for something to happen on the third. Then, I woke up with an odd taste in my mouth. I smiled in the bathroom light and saw my front teeth contained an odd colored plaque. Near the same spot, my gums started to bleed. I picked up a water bottle and dumped it over the toothbrush and started brushing. I tried to clean it away. The taste and feeling were still there. I tried to wait until morning but the sensation worsened. I tried again. I couldn’t shake it. Yellowing teeth were happening in sight. I didn’t talk to the receptionist. I didn’t want to go out. I waited for the reservation to die out and went straight to the airport.”

“That’s what Tijuana does now. It decays. It seemed we both discovered the same thing—the country was something more once.”


That was the last we spoke for the day. I left the car to help him up the path, this time shouldering his weight until we reached the front, and he went inside his home. As I walked back his story came to mind. All those people who were in Tijuana that day in 1994 saw nothing unusual. They were used to the fantasy of improvement falling apart around them. Was there surprise at how they took it?

I wanted to argue that we should commend them for their ability to survive.

Tired, I pulled the car away, passed the parked white van, and started for home.

The roads I returned to were filled with a slowness. Red lights, cars, and people crossing. I reflected on my grandfather’s story, preferring it to Donaldo’s or my own. Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Richard Burton. That was the Mexico I dreamt about.


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