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Ten Years Ago Today: Paco del Barrio Happened

A Simple Vacation...?

In January of 2013, my brother-in-law’s first cousin Kit invited me to spend a week at her house on Isla Mujeres, an island off the coast of Cancun. Kit is an animal activist and she helps run an animal clinic with Delfino Guerrero, the resident vet and owner. The afternoon I arrived they were in the middle of a free two-day spay and neuter clinic to try and control animal overpopulation on the island. I walked in the main entrance to cages stacked from floor-to-ceiling. In the next room there were two tables with dogs spread out, in the middle of surgery with several green-gowned individuals leaning over them. I saw Kit’s eyes twinkling at me past her surgical mask as she introduced me to Delfino, who waved before getting back to his patient. There were two American vets Sherri and Jennifer, from South Dakota at the other tables performing surgery. In an adjoining room, Mariela, the surgical assistant, folded linens in preparation for upcoming procedures.

On every open surface there were cats. Cats in cages, cats on the floor, cats on desks, spotted cats, Siamese, white cats, grey cats, every combination imaginable. There was a whole congregation of black cats in one corner, as if conducting a seance. As I was turning to cross the room and say hello to Kit, I suddenly felt a thump on my shoulder and cried out. A striped grey tabby with light green eyes was perched on my right side, staring at me. I stared back, waiting for him to make the first move. After sniffing my head and brushing his tail through my hair, he leapt onto a chair and darted off.

“He just claimed you” said Kit, smiling as she walked over to me.

“What do you mean” I asked.

“That’s what cats do when they like a human. He was brushing you with his tail to establish territory. You belong to him now.”

I was a little bewildered. The possibility of owning a feline had not occurred to me. I had a wonderful shi-tzu named Chiquita at home and felt like she could use a companion, but a cat? Kit led me to the back of the patio and introduced me to volunteers holding cats bundled up. Several animals lay on wide tables wrapped in towels. It was a little unnerving to see them with their eyes wide open.

“Are they ok?”

“Yes,” responded a volunteer. “They look like that because they’re still under the influence of the anesthesia. They’ll come around once it wears off.” I went searching for my new feline friend. After an hour, a cat with a stripe wrapped around his thigh like an ankle bracelet brushed past me. Bingo. I tried to pet him but he kept darting just out of reach. I helped fold towels with Mariela. Glancing down, I noticed ankle bracelet strolled nonchalantly passed us.

“Mariela, what’s that striped gray cat's name?”

“Oh, we call him Tigrillo.” (wildcat)

“Does he bite”?

“Oh no!” Mariela laughed. “He’s a love bug! He’s just a little shy.”

"The possibility of owning a feline had not occurred to me. I had a wonderful shih-tzu named Chiquita at home and felt like she could use a companion, but a cat?"

The Question Asked

That night we had dinner at Mango’s, a quaint cafe with family style tables and some of the best quesadillas I've ever tasted. I was obsessed with my new feline admirer. Mariela had given me his family history: he’d been found on the street, spayed at the clinic, adopted by a young man whose girlfriend couldn’t stand cats and then let go. So,Tigrillo had been abandoned twice. I asked so many questions at the dinner table that Sherri turned to me and said “Why don’t you just take him home with you?”

“What? I can’t do that!” I squeaked.

“Why not?” Jennifer piped in.

“It’s not that hard,” said Kit. You would just need paperwork proving he’s been spayed and had his shots to take him on the plane which Delfino can give you.” Delfino nodded.

“Ok, but how would I take him on the plane with me?”

“There’s an extra cat carrier in the clinic somewhere,” Kit answered.

Oh no. I had spoken my desire out loud. I had never expected the universe to answer me so quickly.

“What if I can’t take care of it?”

Jennifer scoffed. Of course you can. You have a dog don’t you?” Kit leaned over and patted my hand.

“We’re leaving tomorrow for Valladolid to set up a clinic. You’re welcome to join us or you can stay here in Isla Mujeres. In any case, you don’t have to make the decision right away.” I exhaled. I would sleep on it.

The Contemplation

The next day the troupe left, and I stayed in Kit’s house. I read and swam in the pool, trying to get my mind off what I was about to do. At noon, I could stand it no longer. I took a taxi to the clinic. Mariela was cleaning up when I arrived.

“Have you seen Tigrillo?” I asked.

“Oh yes, he’s around here somewhere.” We went outside on the patio. There were two almost identical tabby cats sharpening their claws on the trunk of the tree in the middle of the yard. I looked at their legs. Sure enough, one of them had an ankle bracelet. Mariela went over and petted him, then took him in her arms.

“Is this the one you want?”

“Yes.” She handed him over to me. I held him for exactly 1.5 seconds before he squirmed and jumped down and ran away. “How do you keep track of so many cats?”

“Oh, they’re like family even if they’re only with us for a little while.” Mariela said. “People come from all over the world and adopt our kitties but I always remember them.”

I thought about what it would be like for Chiquita to have a playmate. They could accompany each other but would they get along? Mariela smiled reassuringly at me. “Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.”

“Alright, I’ll take him right now but if it doesn’t work out, can I bring him back tomorrow?” I asked. I felt bad, like I was at a car rental.

“Of course, not a problem.” Mariela got a carrier from the top shelf, dusted it off, expertly caught Tigrillo, and shoved him in the carrier. She gave me a litter box, litter, a bowl and some kibbles to take with me. I hailed a cab, took him back to Kit’s house and set up his litter box and food in the bathroom. He spent most of the afternoon lying on top of my pants. Between the purring and his little sighs, there was no question: I was taking him back with me.

It Just Got Real

Tigrillo meowed quite a bit the next day while we took a ferry then a shuttle to the airport to catch the flight back to Miami. At security, I was told I would have to carry him through the x-ray machine. As I was taking him out of the carrier, the cat slipped out of my hands and escaped. I dropped everything and sprinted down the escalator, finding him crouched underneath a policeman's legs in the cafeteria. Scooping him up, we went back to security, both our hearts pumping. A group of tourists were standing guard by my luggage. Nothing had been touched. I thanked them and continued to the gate. About an hour into the flight a pungent odor began wafting from the carrier. I leaned down for a closer look. Thank God for the towel I'd bought to keep him warm or his mierda would have been all over my shoes. The stench was overpowering. “Sorry”, I apologized to my seat mate. and silently willed the plane to go faster. The customs agent in Miami took pity on us and barely looked at either of our documents.

When I arrived at the apartment, I left the carrier in the middle of the living room as I’d been instructed to do for the animals' first encounter. Chiquita was excited to see me but then she started sniffing and looked at me in astonishment. She turned her head when I tried to kiss her. Oh God, what had I done?

I cleaned the cat as best I could, threw out the carrier and kept a close eye on both animals, praying they would get along. I named him Paco del Barrio for his Mexican heritage and since he'd been found two blocks from the vet clinic. Over the next few days, Paco and Chiquita very slowly started sniffing and getting to know each other. By the end of the month, they were chasing each other around the apartment. I was so relieved they'd become playmates.

Last month I had a writing assignment, a 'tiny gratitude letter', no more than 100 words. I chose to adapt a prayer:

Thank you for what you have given me:

Striped feral Paco del Barrio kitty who constantly shrieks for food, rubs against me, kneads my stomach and over time has relaxed into becoming my portable energy heater,

What you have taken away:

My darling Chiquita, who slept every night at the foot of my bed, who didn’t care when I went bald and licked my head anyway, who I held in my arms while they put her to sleep,

And for what you have left me:

The experience of living with fierce, uncontrollable, exasperating, genuine, all-consuming, unconditional, 24-7 love. Twice.

Pilar Uribe
Pilar Uribe is an actor and voice talent, known for Yo soy Betty, la fea (1999), Wonderguy (1993) and Second Extinction (2020). Catch Pilar in video games, feature films, and tv shows + follow on Instagram and YouTube for more...


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