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Lessons in Largesse At a Mexican Birthday Bash

On one my first weekends living with a Mexican family outside Villahermosa, Tabasco, I was invited to a fiesta: a quinceanos or girl's 15th birthday party and her debut in society.

It had rained all day. The fields had been saturated by hurricanes of a few weeks earlier. Undaunted, my landlord, Julio, and his wife, Cucha, their children, some cousins, and I put on our best clothes at dusk. Cucha lined up the boys for a requisite squirt of cologne.

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Cucha's brother Alfredo drove us to the party in his school bus. After about a mile, we turned onto a muddy side road. The bus smeared forward, pitched perilously from side to side, and at intervals slid unstoppably toward the lush vegetation around us. Alfredo struggled with the wheel and urged the vehicle deeper into the forest. We lurched into a clearing before a concrete block house, where the band was setting up.

The passengers trooped off the bus, and Alfredo began the unlikely process of turning around in the swampy mess of the front yard. After a valiant effort, he was undeniably stuck. The band leader, Johnny El BonBon, and his roadies stripped off pristine party shirts and went to work with shovels, cheerfully yelling instructions to one another as they threw gravel under the tires. The engine raced, the wheels spun, and gobs of mud arched through the drizzle. With a roar, the bus finally crept forward and started back down the same road.

We staked out a plastic table under a temporary roof of corrugated metal and rammed our umbrellas like javelins into the soft earth. Gradually, other families trickled in. Then everyone rushed over when a Volkswagen bus pulled up and a handful of tuxedoed adolescent boys spilled out. She had arrived.

The quinceanera - wearing a frothy pink gown, a corsage, a and tiara - stepped daintily onto the soggy ground. Her escort of brothers and cousins whisked her inside. El BonBon played a synthesizer fanfare, and the crowd closed in around the doorway to watch.

Julio, the community poet, stepped up to the microphone to make the presentation, speaking eloquently about the young lady. We raised our plastic cups of cider in a toast. The quinceanera then danced her first waltz with a young man; and her family joined in for a second.

When the essential rites were completed, El BonBon fired up his keyboards with a tropical cumbia, and the guests cleared a space for dancing outside. The slippery mud dance floor remained empty for the first few numbers, and Cucha pressured me to get things going: ''Dance! Ask somebody!''

I was shy, but dancers began to take the floor, and I relaxed - no ballroom postures or fancy salsa moves, just stepping back and forth. I could do that. Playing it safe, I asked Cucha's 13-year-old niece, Carolina, to dance.

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As soon as we made it to the edge of the bobbing crowd, El BonBon kicked into double time. ''El Caballito!'' Carolina shouted, grinning, and she began to jog in place. Taking my cue from the other men, I grabbed my belt buckle with both hands and hopped from foot to foot, bowleggedly, as if on horseback. In a matter of seconds, I was winded, sweat pouring off my brow and neck. A great clod of mud quickly collected on each of my boots. The song galloped on.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned to see Alfredo. With the eloquence of Tabasco sign language, he indicated I was to learn from him. He commenced a quivering shoulder shake, simultaneously stepping a complicated tattoo with his feet. I didn't even try it.

My shirt was soaked through, and I could barely lift my feet from the mud. As I thanked Carolina, I was pulled aside by Beto, Alfredo's brother, who offered some advice. ''If you see a woman you like, do this.'' With a suave, commanding gesture, Beto presented his hand. ''Bailamos.'' We dance.

''I've asked some people already,'' I offered.

''What did you say?''

''Would you like to dance?'' This sent him into a fit of laughter.

''No, no. Like this. Bailamos.'' It was not a question.

I didn't get to try the new way; the children were sleepy, and it was time to go. The party would go until morning. And Alfredo was still ruling the dance floor, so some of us started out on foot.

We picked our way through the banana trees, some hoping against steep odds to save their white patent-leathershoes. We made it back to the comfortably solid asphalt road and found a neighbor with a car. Women and young children piled into the backseat. The men walked on.

The sounds of the party faded, and the night was still, other than the occasional belching of frogs in a nearby marsh. Nine-year-old Juan slipped up beside me and took my hand. ''Amigo,'' he whispered, and we walked home, confident in our new kinship.

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