Can a beer that has brought so much refreshment, joy, and nourishment have been steeped in such cruelty and violence?
Antonio Salazar Guzman entered the port of San Diego, California in 1900, a stowaway aboard LA JOYA DEL OESTE, an old three-masted tub with a cargo of lead and copper she had sailed from Callo, Peru where Guzman had grown up. The port of Callo was rough, filthy, and dangerous for anyone but doubly so for an orphaned dwarf. His mother, a prostitute, raised Poco, as he was called, in the ramshackle whorehouse near the Embarcadero until she died in one of the city’s regular yellow fever epidemics when the tiny boy was but twelve years old. The boy then survived shining shoes, running errands for ships chandlers, saloon keepers, and whores but mostly and by no small amount by thievery. The Indian women with the food stalls were always generous with the boy as it was a general belief that to spurn those touched by the gods, idiots, madmen and the deformed would bring bad luck.
Eventually the boy settled in living in the grain shed of Maca Yupanki an Indian who brewed fermented corn beer, chichi, which he sold to the saloons and whorehouses. Maca Yupanki had abandoned his lover, a street hawker whose sister, a bruja, exacted revenge for her by cursing Yupanki with blindness. As his visual acuity diminished week by week, the brewer depended more and more on tiny Poco. Within a few months it was Poco who once a month rode the maestro’s horse up to the mountains to buy sacks of corn from the old Indian woman Nieves who spun marvelous tales for the boy. From this wise woman he learned of Pachamama the ancient goddess who blessed grains and vines and who blew the magic into their brews. “Listen to me boy, whenever you prepare the chicha, it is Pachamama who blows the wonder into the brew. Think of her, Poco, when you work the beer and she will be kind to you. Your chicha will be sweet and full of satisfying dreams. Forget Pachimama and the opposite occurs. A little prayer to the goddess, boy, that’s a good thing. Just a little prayer, I tell you this, little one, the ancient ones offered blood to Pachimama. Yes, blood!”
As Maca Yupanki’s vision darkened further, it fell to Poco to carry out all the varied tasks required to transform kernels of corn into the frothy beer chicha. Never forgetting to honor Pachimama he would whisper his oration, pour a little beer into the ground, genuflect then cross himself. Yupanki in his darker and darker world stayed drunker and drunker. Thus, it was easy for the young Poco to skim coins from the old man. This he did for several years until the old man died.
When he was eighteen he bribed a sailor to outfit a box within LA JOYA DEL OESTE’s cargo hold. The sailor was paid $40 to sneak Guzman aboard, hide him in the box, bring him water and food daily and to empty the slop bucket. Guzman promised the sailor another $40 upon safe arrival. In the dark stowaway box little Poco slept most of the time, but quickly attuned himself to the bells and whistles that marked shipboard rhythms. When the sea and anchor detail was set for entering San Diego’s harbor the dwarf slipped from the confines of the box and eased his way stealthily to the main deck while the crew busied itself with entering port. With his small bag of clothes wrapped in oilskin and his pouch of coins safely tied to a cord around his neck he dropped overboard clasping an empty rum keg and paddled ashore onto Point Loma.
San Diego appeared to him much like Callo, a dirty collection of saloons and whorehouses. He had long heard tales of the ease with which fortunes were made in the United States and had dreamed for years of the gold fields he had heard of in California. Keeping a wary eye out for the sailor he owed, he skirted the saloons and whorehouses walking north for three hours then sleeping under the range stock tank of ranch. The next morning a rider approached as Poco stood washing his face.
“Muy buenos dias, señor.”
“Quien es usted, chico?” asked the rider thinking Poco a child.
He told the cowboy he was a poor traveler seeking the fabulous gold fields of California. Could he direct him?
The cowboy thought for a bit, shifted his weight in the saddle then advised him that most of the gold had probably already been found. But that if he was of a mind he might try the higher slopes of the mountains, probably the only places not already trampled by thousands of prospectors from all over the world.
“Cuidado, chico. California etas llena con criminales y esta muy peligroso. Tienes armas? Are you armed?
He had the six-inch knife he’d carried under his shirt since he was seven years old, but this he kept secret.
“No señor, nada, no tengo nada.”
The cowboy offered to sell his own pistol to Poco if he happened to have gold. A deal was struck. As Poco withdrew a coin from the pouch suspended from his neck the cowboy pointed the pistol at him and said he would be pleased to take that entire bag contents and all.
Having been robbed many times, he well knew how pointless it was to argue and passed his purse up to the mounted rider who took it, hefted its weight and smiled.
Now the cowboy holstered the pistol to open the little pouch for a peek. Chuckling he raised his hat in a grand gesture of salute.
“Gracias chico, y adiooooooo” as in a flash Poco hurled the knife which found easy passage through the cowboy’s Adam’s apple on into the neck. Blood shot over the mare’s head as the rider grappled for the knife, tumbling to the ground where he lost consciousness, the crimson pulsing from his wounded neck diminishing until shortly he lay dead a few yards from the water tank.
Poco stood over the form watching the last of the cowboy’s lifeblood seep into the dust and he mouthed his little prayer. “Pachimama great mother of the corn and the grape, with this spilled liquid I honor you.”
After genuflecting and crossing himself he threw a loop from piggen onto the dead cowboy’s wrists he managed to hoist him across the back of the horse. He covered the bloody spots with dust and rocks, brushed out the tracks and ambled up an arroyo where he spent an hour wedging the body into a crevice then topping the site with large and small rocks, covering the irregular, unnoticeable cairn with sage brush and cholla skeletons then finally gracing the site with a short prayer to the Virgin Mother for the soul of the foolish vaquero. By late afternoon he was south in old Mexico, now possessor of a horse, saddle, Navy Colt and a fine cowboy hat. In Tijuana he found a livery stable where he traded the cowboy’s mare for two burros. The knowledge that the trade was grossly in favor of the stable master bothered him not as the stolen horse presented great risk. The stable master had turned such deals many times and soon the horse of suspicious origin would be traded with others to ranchers from far away Sonora and Chihuahua.
Killing the cowboy caused Poco but little grief. Living among the forgotten in the underworld of Callo’s waterfront he had witnessed many acts of violence and had sometimes assisted in the disposal of victims. He felt satisfaction at having defended himself against a much more powerful enemy. Big people nearly always underestimated the capacity of little people. So, it was with the dead would-be robber. But the killing placed him in jeopardy. Were he to be found out he, a stranger, a small person with no power, would surely hang. The dead one would be missed. Perhaps the big birds would lead searchers to his remains who would then turn their search toward the killer. However, he was certain there were no witnesses and he had taken care to cover his tracks and across the border. In Mexico he felt safe.
In Tijuana he purchased his grubstake and extra water bags then headed east with his two burros, careful to remain on the Mexican side of the border. Reaching outskirts of Mexicali, he detected a vaguely familiar odor of yeast and malted grain. He was near a brewery. Poco hitched the burros to the rail and entered the brewery’s yard where he encountered an old man who sprinkled water from a warming kettle onto thin sacks of rice arrayed on planks. Behind the old man a large rattlesnake lay coiled, buzzing its tail angrily, following the movements of the old man who was near deaf. Poco seized one of the wet sacks of rice deftly, casting the bag atop the snake, then with his knife cut the offending serpent in two. The parts writhed in the dust for minutes as the old man and Guzman watched its death.
“Mil gracias, Little One. I am in your debt. What brings you to my brewery? Surely my Guardian Angel, no?”
“Simply curiosity, Maestro, nothing more. As I passed by I smelled the rich aroma and, well, was drawn in. You see, I was for many years apprenticed to a brewer in far away Peru. But Maestro, our beer called chicha is brewed not from rice but from corn, so you see I find this most interesting.“
“I am Luis Santiago, sir, this is my brewery, and yes we brew our fine tasting beer from grains of rice and sometimes from the grains of wheat. As you can see I am, this morning malting this rice. Since you have some familiarity with the trade please come inside and taste my beer? Yes, yes, please come inside, my little friend.
Luis introduced Poco to two or three batches of beer from barrels in his small bodega. Unlike the foamy, cloudy purple mixture he knew so well in Peru, this beer was smooth, clear, and sweet, the best he’d ever tasted.
“Ah Don Luis, I am quit of chicha!” he exclaimed.
And so, the friendship was formed. Luis hired Antonio Guzman and under the old man’s expert tutelage he learned to brew fine beers from the grains of rice, wheat, and barley, whatever grain was in season and least costly. Later when he brewed a batch chicha from corn for Luis Santiago to try, the old man spat the finished beer from his mouth exclaiming that it tasted like the sour piss of infected cats.
“I feel a great sadness for the poor people of your country. Perhaps one day they will become civilized, but only if this chicha fails to kill them all.”
The old man’s business grew, his beer much in demand and he saw the arrival of the savvy little Peruvian as providential. Poco’s burros were traded for a donkey and cart which delivered beer to the cantinas, restaurants and whorehouses of Mexicali. Business grew rapidly and soon Don Luis and Poco hired laborers to malt the grain, to brew the beer and to deliver it, and a cooper was hired to finish his own barrels and buckets. As the old man aged he became completely deaf and the scales on his eyes reduced his vision to nothing more than blurs of light and darkness. As Don Luis faded the management of the brewery was assumed completely by little Poco, now the formidable maestro of the yard and Baumeister extraordinaire, as well as equal partner of the Mexicali Cervezaria, a braumiester who finished every batch of beer with his prayer to Pachimama.
By 1910 Poco had begun bottling the beer now known as Oro del Monte and shipped by wagon loads throughout Baja California and across the border into California. Then in 1911 rebels in opposition to both the Federal Government and the army of Pancho Villa captured the town of Mexicali. Skirmishes ensued almost daily, and rebels seized the brewery. Don Luis and Poco bribed a number of sergeants and officers for an audience with the commandante to petition him to remove his men from the grounds of the brewery where they had done much damage, breaking the expensive bottling machinery, taking horses, vehicles, and grain. His headquarters were in the office of the alcalde. The commandante was a young man in a bad temper who confronted Don Luis and Poco with arrogance. unwilling to listen to their pleas exclaiming that he was too busy to dry the tears of every peasant in Mexicali, he ordered the two to leave. Poco led Don Luis by his hand toward the door, but the old man tripped on the spittoon by the commandante’s desk. Poco tried to get the old gentleman to his feet as the dark contents of the brass spittoon slowly spilled. The commandante in a fit of rage kicked the old man, breaking the brittle old back of gentle Don Luis who cried in pain and as the eyes rolled back in his head he passed from this world there on the floor of the cuartel. Now the rage passed to Poco who plunged his knife into the neck of the brash officer.
Instantly he assessed the situation. The love he held for his old mentor tugged at him to stay beside Don Luis’ body, however his mind urgently pushed him to flee as fast and as far as possible. There would be time for grieving only if he escaped. Leaving the two dead men on the floor amid the mingling spilled blood and tobacco spit, he took just a moment to utter his little prayer, “Pachimama, great mother of the corn and the grape, with this spilled liquid I honor you.” Then he simply walked out of the office, closing the door behind him, telling the sleepy guard that the commandante wished not to be disturbed. He quickly returned to his quarters at the brewery, removed the money box from the safe and fled with two horses. He had crossed the border into California within an hour even before the alarm was sounded.
For weeks he remained on the American side of the border, his heart ached, full of grief for the old man whom he had grown to love. The rebels were driven from the town of Mexicali, but there was the stigma of the killing of the commandante. He would never return. When the two lawyers he’d contracted to negotiate the sale of the Oro del Monte Cervezaria handed him the proceeds of the sale he realized he was a wealthy man. He had more than enough money to live comfortably the rest of his life. But he was a young man with experience, skills, and cash. In the months following the sale of the brewery he travelled to Monterey, then Tampico, and finally Mexico City.
There he purchased a large lot where a row of warehouses had burned. It was said that the Aztec emperor Moctezuma’s summer palace had once been on this very site. For the next year all his energies directed the construction of the new cervezaria, a brewery with state-of-the-art coppers, plumbing, and bottle works. From across the sea a Bavarian Baumeister was hired and the Cervezaria Pachimama opened for business in 1914. The beer that would make the brewery famous the world over was called Dos Estrellas. No one knew the secret of those two stars, save Don Poco. You see each star represented a necessary killing. Later there would be a darker beer called Tres Estrellas. The third star? Ah yes, but that’s a different story.
©Gary Ives 2017