Meet the 97-year-old goddess of Haitian dance.
Arturo Benitez no longer has any teeth. He says he lost his first when a van crashed into the taxi he drives for a living. The others have fallen or been knocked out in the years since.
Each day, the 68-year-old drives his taxi across Mexico City until his gums hurt. That’s usually at least a 12-hour shift.
As we sit in the morning rush-hour traffic that paralyses this city – with workers traversing it along the main artery that runs from the north to the south – Arturo runs his tongue over his gums and begins reminiscing about some of his more colourful passengers.
There was the one with a gas canister who tried to persuade him to help kill his wife’s lover.
“This guy told me: ‘I am asking you for a favour. I’ll kill the man who is now with my wife. I will kill him and we will run away,'” Arturo remembers.
“I told him: ‘I can’t, because if someone sees my number plates, I’ll be accused of committing the murder.'”
The passenger offered him 500 pesos (around $33) for his assistance, but Arturo says he politely declined then dropped the man off a few blocks from his destination.
The bank robber
“All the grumpy passengers hide something,” he concludes.
But not everyone he drives is miserable.
“People confess their crimes in here,” Arturo explains. “Once a bank robber told me: ‘Hey, I don’t have anyone else to vent to.'”
“He looked like an easy going guy. He told me: ‘I was unemployed and my pal, who is a police officer, offered me work as a bank robber and I said yes.'”
The passenger went on to reveal that he had just returned from a robbery.
Arturo says he asked him how it went, and the man explained that it had run so smoothly they hadn’t even had to wear their ski masks.
Arturo relays his account of the robbery: “We arrived in the patrol [car] of my pal and just got out normally, holding our weapons. After we got inside [the bank], we threatened the guard and asked everybody to cooperate. The cashiers went pale and were frightened and some of the women fainted. Then we just left as though nothing had happened, as if we were the guards. We threw everything in the trunk [of the car] and disappeared.”
He used to clench his teeth, he says, and nod his head as he listened to his passengers’ stories. Now he makes do with just nodding.
And that is what Arturo loves about being a taxi driver: he is a collector of confessions, the person with whom everyone seems willing to share a secret.
“All kinds of passengers travel in my car,” he says.
“Bank robbers, burglars, house robbers, pickpockets, purse robbers. They choose to disclose their stories in order to feel some relief; a ride in the taxi is like medicine for them.”
It is also a tonic of sorts for Arturo – albeit one that comes with an array of harmful side effects.
“At first I enjoyed driving because of the speed,” he explains.
“In the past, you could drive at 90 miles per hour because there were not as many cars as there are today. I miss that speed.”
Now he has a permanent stoop, eyes plagued by the Mexican sun and feet that are almost always swollen.
His feet function like a Swiss clock while he is driving.
Accelerate, ease off for the speed bump, accelerate again, brake, stop at the light, accelerate, brake and swerve to avoid the dog darting across the road, accelerate, brake for the pedestrian who decided not to use the official crossing, accelerate, brake to avoid the street vendor, accelerate, spot a potential passenger by the side of the road, stop abruptly to pick them up.
And all of that takes a toll on them, which is why he now wears socks and sandals rather than shoes.
Back at the 82sq foot apartment he shares with his wife, Beatriz, she explains: “His feet hurt because of the stop and clutch. Recently, his foot was hurting and he couldn’t walk.”
Before he drove a taxi, Arturo was a bus driver. That was how he met Beatriz.
“It was 1973,” he begins. “She caught my attention because of her seriousness and patience. She always waited for her dad, who used to lend me the bus [that I drove]. She was very quiet then.”
Things have changed in the years since, he insists.
“Now she’s like a parrot,” he says. “I can’t stand her. She tells me ‘leave the taxi cab, leave it.’ It’s like she only knows that one phrase.”
Beatriz talks at the same time, telling her version of their story.
“He was kind,” she says. “He was not a bad boy, as all the guys were at that time.”
“I liked his blue eyes, which reminded me of my grandfather’s.”
“Once he asked me out to dance and took me to a place known for having a good view and asked me to marry him. It wasn’t very special as it is for brides today, and my family didn’t like him because he was a bus driver, but I said ‘yes’.”
The couple discuss their life as though it has been one perpetual accident.
“As soon as we got married, we had Oswaldo,” Arturo explains. “He’s 40 now.”
Their other two children – Omar and Diego – came shortly after. They were sent to a private school. Beatriz says she wanted them to become useful men, so both of them studied Business Administration.
“But today they are in their thirties and neither of them have managed [to establish] any enterprise,” she sighs.
Still, Oswaldo was the rebellious one. He didn’t graduate from high school and would sometimes borrow his father’s taxi to go and buy drugs. Then, one day, exhausted and despairing at his son’s behaviour, Arturo asked him to leave. So their firstborn moved away. He now works in Cancun, repairing pistons and carburetors.
A few years ago, Beatriz discovered that she had a benign brain tumour. They didn’t have any medical insurance, so she had surgery to remove it at a public hospital. Since then, she wakes early every day to have massage therapy.
She sends her husband off to drive his taxi with a lunch of fruit and a sandwich. The two say goodbye with the surly expressions of those long married.
Then, as Arturo goes to check that his taxi still has its tail lights and wing mirrors, Beatriz lies on the sofa, from where she watches television for the rest of the day.
A candle flickers above the fridge. Beside it is a prayer card with a picture of Saint Judas Tadeo and the message: “Lord, I am before a wheel, which helps me to bring food every day. Make it my joy to serve all my passengers and do not allow me to be absorbed by rancor or, even worse, by speeding.”
Back in the taxi, Arturo takes deep drags on a cigarette, oblivious to the cancer warnings on the packet. As he exhales, smoke fills the car.
“I’m enslaved,” he says. “I don’t have free days. [As a taxi driver] you have to work 365 days a year. There’s no other way. And we work at least 12 hours a day.”
On an average day, he makes 700 pesos (around $45), but sometimes it can be as little as 100 pesos (about $6). He spends 250 pesos ($16) a day on gas and 3,000 pesos ($195) on his monthly car payment.
But, occasionally, he has been left with nothing for all his hard work.
“I have been robbed three times,” he says. “Once, I was left with just the skeleton of the car. Another time, I had a gun pointed at me for just 200 pesos ($13). The last time, a lady got into the cab and asked me to give her all my money and said that if I didn’t she would go to the police and accuse me of raping and kidnapping her.”
But the dangers do not only come from thieves. “Driving a taxi cab is not a good business,” he says. “Uber [the mobile app that connects riders with drivers] is just one more step towards the privatisation of public resources.”
“Mexico is being sold one piece at a time,” he says, shaking his head. “The only reason the air isn’t for sale is because that isn’t possible.”
Arturo has plenty of time to think about politics while he drives.
“When I don’t have passengers, I think about the despicable politicians we have,” he says.
“If I charge a passenger five more pesos than the rate showing on my taxi metre, the passenger will argue with me. But they don’t say a thing about all the money that Mexican ex-presidents have stolen from us. People are grouchy about the small things, but that’s how a typical Mexican is: submissive.”
He prefers to talk about his passengers. Two, in particular, always stay in his mind.
“Once this gay guy told me his story. Poor guy; everybody beat him up, abused him. His life was really sad. That’s why I can’t forget it.”
“Then there was this drug addict, who yelled at me to speed up because we were being chased by the police. He didn’t want to get out of the car because he was scared of the police. But there wasn’t anybody after us,” he remembers with a shake of the head.
It is 9pm and Arturo’s gums are beginning to ache. It’s time to head home, and get ready to start all over again tomorrow.
“There are more than 20 million people living in Mexico City,” he concludes, looking thoughtful. “I have never come across the same passenger twice.”