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Painted donkey

Suffering for the sake of our entertainment


Tijuana is a lot different today than the last time I was really here. For example, back then I don't think it would have occurred to anyone to cross the border to buy drugs other than the bunk street variety; now every other shop front along Avenida de Revolución is a pharmacy with billboards touting the cheaper, Mexican-made equivalent to Zoloft, Xanax, Vicodin and any other crutch the American public can't do without these days.

Things look cleaner, too, and the smell of diesel fuel is no longer prevalent, and the tacky plaster statues are hardly anywhere to be found. It took an extensive search to finally uncover a skull wearing an old army helmet, which was a common theme for Mexican pottery back in the day when I lived two miles north of the border, but there was no rattlesnake writhing through the eye sockets, and no swastika emblem emblazoned above the ears.

Lary says Tijuana is still the dirty, teeming swill pit it always was and swears the last time he was there he could have, if he wanted to -- all it would have taken was a hefty bribe in the oily palm of an alleyway sideshow barker -- been privy to an actual Tijuana donkey show at a speakeasy whorehouse in the barrio.

I doubt it, but be that as it may, there were plenty of donkeys in Tijuana. On every street corner they stood, hitched to makeshift "wagons" with no wheels, with their bodies, for some stupefying reason, covered in painted-on black-and-white stripes. The whole scenario was festooned with paper flowers, colorful serapes and other cheerful deckings that belied the misery of the painted beast underneath it all. There were even bedazzled sombreros to complete the photo op for the American tourists who clamored over each other to get an authentic Polaroid of themselves in an authentic Tijuana setting with an authentic Tijuana donkey, given that donkeys painted with black-and-white stripes -- paint covering their actual hides, in the heat -- are authentic to Tijuana, which, sadly, it looks like they are.

My friend had her picture taken with one and showed it to me afterward. "I asked the man if he took good care of the animal, and he swore to God that he did," she insisted, "Otherwise I wouldn't have done it."

"Well there you go," I said as sardonically as possible, "I'm sure anyone who swears to God has got to be telling the truth." I peered at the Polaroid. The animal was so thin it could have been an antelope.

I remember the first time I ever saw animals suffer for the sake of our entertainment. It was at a small circus in Zurich. The animal trainers brought out an elephant, which they claimed could skip rope. I had taken my seat earlier with no leanings one way or the other on animal treatment. I was your basic brainless twentysomething out for an afternoon of distraction, and the last thing I expected to do was run from the tent, collapse on a curb and spend the rest of the show wadding up the hem of my peasant skirt so I could stuff it into my sockets to stop the geysers my eyes had become.

It all really caught me by surprise. I was two beers down, clueless, and halfway through my third wad of cotton candy when the trainers had led the elephant to the center ring. I'd never seen a performing elephant, so it hit me with the force of a cinder block: the incongruity of this animal under a tent pitched in the center of a busy platz in the middle of a metropolitan European city. Then, when the trainers began to whip at the elephant's feet until it hopped around in awkward timing to the jump rope that passed beneath it, I couldn't bear to watch and ran outside. I waited until the show was over then reconnected with my friends, who laughed at my sensitivities all the way to the train station. I endured their ridicule with gamesmanly aplomb, went home and commenced being haunted by that animal for the rest of my life.

I know there is cruelty in the world. I know souls suffer in quiet dignity every day, and I know me with my skirt wadded into my eye sockets doesn't change a goddamn molecule of that. But I was changed, at least, and maybe that matters.

Which is why I recoiled from the painted donkeys of Tijuana. Each one, without exception, stood still as though frozen in its own misery, and you just wonder sometimes whether you might have more in common with these beasts than you think. They endure this wretchedness with silence until the day their carcasses are traded for something fresher, and then the process starts over again. I empathize. In fact, I don't even have to try very hard to see the comparison. It comes to me with the clarity of a cowbell.

There I am, harnessed, painted, connected to dead weight and ridiculed. Unlike with the donkey, though, there are no chains. In fact, there is nothing -- nothing at all -- that is keeping me from leaving it all behind.

Hollis Gillespie is the author of two acclaimed books. Her website is

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