The Fisherman from Chihuahua

by Evan S. Connell Jr.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

“The Fisherman from Chihuahua” takes place during the off-season in a waterfront Mexican restaurant in the resort city of Santa Cruz, California. The restaurant is owned by an American named Pendleton, from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. Pendleton, who does not speak Spanish, has learned to prepare Mexican food from a short, light-skinned Mexican mechanic whom he thinks of as “the Toltec” because he feels his face resembles one of the carvings done by the ancient Toltec people of pre-Columbian Mexico. As his reward for teaching Pendleton to cook, every night the Toltec is given dinner at the restaurant, after which he likes to listen and dance to the restaurant’s nickelodeon.

The story depicts a singular episode in the life of Pendleton involving the Toltec and his companion, a man from Chihuahua, Mexico. For a brief period of time, the Toltec is accompanied on successive nights by this tall, dark Mexican, whose good looks are accentuated by his oiled hair and romantic clothes, especially his white silk gaucho shirt, which opens to reveal an enameled crucifix. However, what is most singular about the dark Mexican is his tortured and mystical singing, which for Pendleton suggests not the songs of Mexico but those of the Arabic or Moorish peoples.

The next night, when the dark Mexican once again fills the restaurant with his uncanny shrieks and cries, his audience includes a man and wife from Iowa City, Iowa, who have been shaken by the dark Mexican’s performance and, as a result, try to reduce it to manageable terms; the wife suggests that perhaps the dark Mexican has been unlucky in love. Pendleton, although also disturbed by the sound of the singing, finds he is contemptuous of the couple’s unimaginative and small-minded response. He turns away from his customers and toward the sound of the rolling night sea outside his restaurant. Even though Pendleton resents the reaction of the Iowa couple, his own ambivalence about the singing leads him to quarrel with the Toltec and to request a cessation of the dark Mexican’s performance. However, when the dark Mexican persists in his powerful outpouring of mysterious emotion, Pendleton discovers that the dark Mexican is drawing more customers than he alienates.

One night, however, the dark Mexican fails to appear with the Toltec. Pendleton, disconcerted and curious, pumps the Toltec for information about his companion and learns that the mysterious man is probably actually a Gypsy from Spain. He also informs Pendleton that the dark Mexican, whose name is Damaso, likes to stand by himself on the seawall as if considering suicide and that currently he is on a drunken bender. In addition, the Toltec informs Pendleton that he is certain that, contrary to the opinion of the Iowa housewife, Damaso’s tortured emotional life has nothing to do with a lost love.

When Damaso returns a few days later, the restaurant is full of people waiting for him, but he refuses to sing, instead bowing his head down on his arms, which allows his crucifix to drop out of his shirt and to swing to and fro, glittering in the light. The next night, the Toltec returns alone to announce that Damaso is gone. Pendleton’s dismay at suddenly realizing how much he had depended on the presence of the mysterious Mexican is indicated only by his sudden awareness of the desolate slap of the waves of the sea and by his going to the door to look and listen for the slim possibility of the man’s return. Using the epithet “Jesus Christ” to signify his frustration with Pendleton’s inability to let go of Damaso, the Toltec advises him to forget about the mysterious stranger, that he is gone for good.

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