The Long Road from Tampacán to Monterrey

Rodolfo Ramos in the kitchen

Rodolfo Santiago

 It’s a long road from Tampacán to Monterrey–415 miles–but Rodolfo Santiago’s journey has been much longer. Santiago, 42, describes his hometown of Tampacán, San Luis Potosí (population 15,000) as “a small town with a plaza, a church and a city hall.” In other words, like almost any small town in Mexico. His father worked the fields to support his wife and seven children. Money was tight and a basic education was deemed sufficient. So after elementary school, it was time for Santiago to join his father in the fields.

“As I matured, I had a dream that began to take shape,” Santiago says. “That dream was to go to Monterrey.” With the enthusiasm of youth, he bought a bus ticket and bid his family farewell. His only connections in Monterrey were a sister working as a maid and some acquaintances who offered to let him stay at their place.

Rodolfo Ramos in kitchen 2With little education and only field work experience, Santiago couldn’t find a job, and the living situation, “didn’t work out,” he says. “Some nights I slept at the bus station or on a bench in a plaza. That was back when people still respected each other,” he adds, meaning before the rise of narco crime and today’s insecurity.

Finally, Santiago got a job as a dishwasher in the cafeteria of Vidriera, one of the larger companies in Monterrey. Six months later, he moved up to washing dishes at an Italian restaurant. A year later, in 1990, his sister mentioned that her employer had a friend who needed help in the kitchen and yard. With that job, Santiago was working in the nice area of town. He had his own room and bath behind the main house. His employer, an exceptional cook, began to school Santiago. Between the good job and the girlfriend he’d recently met, things were looking up.

Five years later, he and the girlfriend married and rented a small apartment. Meanwhile his employer’s health was declining, and Santiago was taking over more responsibility including maintaining the house inside and out. Eventually, the family sent him to driving school so he could run the errands now involved. The Señora had been an exacting teacher and Santiago learned well. When the extended family gathered on Saturdays, he could plan a meal for fifteen to twenty, drive to the grocery store and have everything ready to go by one p.m.

Rodolfo Ramos and keyboardsOver the years, Santiago allowed himself two modest luxuries: nice clothes and music. He often comes to work in a neatly ironed dress shirt and slacks with shiny leather shoes. In his former room behind the main house, he changes into older work clothes. Then he pops in earbuds and starts the outside maintenance. “Music is my vice,” Santinago says. It makes his daily bus commute of 1½-2 hours enjoyable. Mopping floors or sweeping sidewalks, he’s plugged in. “I listen to everything—regional, tropical, ranchera, boleros, corridos,” he rattles off. “I like them all.”   

Eventually, all of Santiago’s siblings migrated to Monterrey. Several share his passion for music. Once they got a little money, they bought instruments—a keyboard, a guitar, a bass, drums. More and nicer instruments followed. Rodolfo, the keyboardist, also plays synthesizer. To relax in the evenings, he practices. Sunday’s when the clan gets together, the band practices. They’ve played at weddings, quinceañeras and other events.

When I ask about musical training, Santiago says one brother had lessons. “We’re all pretty good at playing by ear, and we learn as we go along. For example, the keyboard tells me I’m playing in the key of ‘D.’ Everybody else falls in. So now if I say, ‘Play it in D,’ we all know what to do.” He gets enthusiastic talking about using his laptop and the controller hooked up with a midi cable.

In 2009, the Señora’s children helped Santiago arrange a bank loan to buy his own house. With careful budgeting, his wife has been able to stay at home with the kids. Santiago grins talking about his 5-year-old whose kindergarten teacher requested a conference and asked what the parents were doing that made him so advanced compared to his peers. He beams as he describes his daughters who both have the highest grade averages in their classes. The 13-year-old wants to be a teacher, and the 7-year-old says she wants to be a doctor.

Santiago suspects he won’t be able to help his oldest with her academic work for much longer. “She’s already gone further in school than I did.” Today, Santiago speaks with a quiet confidence. The shy 17-year-old who boarded that bus twenty-five years ago had no idea how far his dream would take him.

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