Amor Detras Barres – Love Behind Bars

Dating, romance and intimacy in a changing Mexico

by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner

One Summer in Mexico – Part Five

Calle Guanabana, Colonia Nueva Santa Maria, CD México

Tuesday – July 7, 1970 and Saturday – January 2, 1971

The Secret History of Birth Control in Mexico 

During the late 1930s anthropologists discovered that the women of southern Mexico used very effective herbal medicines to both prevent pregnancy and cause abortions. These drugs were made from the Wild Sweet Potato.  The Wild Sweet Potato also grows in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

In 1700,  explorer John Lawson, discovered that the Creek Indians alone practiced birth control, using herbal medicines, the wild sweet potato being the primary ingredient.  The social structure of Creek young people was entirely different than all other tribes in North America.  Beginning around age 15, they literally went on dates, had boyfriends or girlfriends, couples would be intimate, but neither live together nor marry for at least five years.  Parents encouraged their children to have multiple sexual partners before marrying so they wouldn’t have wanderlust.  Married Creek women often delayed the birth of their first child until their mid-20s.  Whereas it was typical for women in other tribes to produce many children, most whom died before adulthood, the Creeks had much fewer children. However there were taller and had a much lower death rates.

In the late 1930s anthropologists discovered that the women of southern Mexico used very effective herbal medicines to both prevent pregnancy and cause abortions. These drugs were made from the Wild Sweet Potato.  Chemist Dr Carl Djerassi synthesized progestin from an extract of Mexican wild yam root in the late 1940s, and the concept of arresting ovulation in women became reality.  However, at the time there was a federal law, which prohibited the public discussion of birth control, so Djerassi continued his research and eventual manufacture of the primary ingredients of birth control pills in Mexico. 

In 1970,  all of the birth control pills manufactured in the world were processed from the Mexican Wild Sweet Potato, yet it was illegal for a married woman to obtain birth control pills or any other contraceptive device without the written permission of either her parents or her husband. Doctors could only prescribe the pill for “therapeutic purposes,” not birth control.  Even then, the government created an artificial shortage of the pills, by forbidding their manufacture in Mexico and drastically restricting their importation.

Single Mexican women could not be legally prescribed birth control pills by a doctor, period. Some doctors did sell them illegally, if enough money was placed in their pocket. Also, señoritas from wealthy families merely went on “shopping trips” to Texas or California, where doctors there could furnish them with a six months supply. 

In 1968, Mexico’s representative to the United Nations, Antonio Martínez Báez, voted for an amendment to the UN Charter, which made family planning a basic human right.  He lost his job over that issue.

Since the year of the 1968 Olympics, there has been an exception in Mexican law for women with passports from other countries.   The Mexican government had been informed by the International Olympic Committee that virtually all female athletes, 14 years old and up,  from Canada, the USA, Europe, Red China and the Soviet block countries were on special high-powered birth control pills, so that their monthly cycles would not interfere with athletic performance.  Eastern Airlines stewardesses from New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami quickly learned that they could make a small fortune by smuggling birth control pills into Mexico.

In 1974, Mexico radically changed its laws that forbade family planning.  Initially, pills could only be obtained by single women with the permission of her parents, but once birth control pills were being manufactured in Mexico as a major export item, they readily became available to any female, who wanted them . . . if she had the money to pay for them.   However, to this day many devout Roman Catholics in Mexico consider the use of birth control pills a sin – even though their teenage daughters may be secretly on the pill!  LOL  Nevertheless, the birth rate in Mexico has dropped drastically to be about the same as in the United States.

In 1970, the traditional values of Mexico said that a man should be about 10 years older than his bride.  Young men were supposed to treat proper young women like nuns.  They were supposed to frequent brothels so they wouldn’t be tempted to deflower proper young women.   Women could expect to be the focus of their husband’s physical affections for about 3-5 years then be ignored for the rest of their lives as their husbands took on mistresses or frequented brothels.  Sra. Soto was very worried about me (and told me so) because I didn’t get drunk and frequent brothels.   The Soto Family was relieved when I came in very late one night from Teotihuacan, looking tired.  They assumed that I had been to a brothel.  Actually, I had climbed a 10,000 mountain without a canteen! 

Encantado por Alicia

Alicia at Cuicuilco

If readers recall from Part Two of this series, after the graduation ceremony of Queen Mary High School, Ruth Soto introduced me to an older friend in the neighborhood, named Alicia.  I am going to leave out the rest of her names, because she now has children, perhaps even grandchildren.  Alicia was an intellectual with a lot of rebel in her.  She was 19 and a student at Universidad de Anahuac, which was a prestigious private university near Chapultepec Park. Alicia was fluent in Spanish, English, French and Italian . . . plus was a talented artist and adept in accounting.

Alicia couldn’t wait to get out of Mexico to see the world.  I wouldn’t describe her as a fire breathing political radical, but rather as a free-thinker with a brilliant mind in an eye-candy quality package.  She felt imprisoned by her family’s conservative traditions about women.

Universidad de Anahuac

Her mother’s family were ethnically Sephardic Jews, who had converted to Catholicism in France in order to escape the Nazi’s by immigrating to Mexico. Those members of her family, who did not convert died in Nazi concentration camp gas chambers.  However, Alicia’s father was an American citizen. Alicia had been born in San Diego, but it was not clear how long, if at all, her parents had been married.

Long ago the family has lived in Spain until being expelled in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela.  They had next moved to Morocco then to Turkey.  They had fled to France from Turkey at the end of World War I, when the Turkish Muslims had begun persecuting Jews and Christians. None of the family attended mass with any frequency, but they had become “diehard” Catholics in Mexico, while retaining many Jewish or Turkish family traditions.

I had been warned by the Mexican Consul in Atlanta to be cautious in my contacts with the fairer gender in Mexico.   The times were changing, so there radically different attitudes among parents concerning appropriate conduct of young, single men and women.  He told me to go slow in any contacts with las señoritas.

On July 5th,  Alicia dropped by the Soto house briefly while they were having their weekly Sunday afternoon potluck dinner.  She asked permission from Sra. Soto to come by again to practice her English with me. I really liked her, but heeded the consul’s warning and did not try to have a long conversation with her.

Then on the evening of the 7th . . .

Oh my gosh!   I have a date with a real live Mexican señorita.  I walked back into Gionela’s room and asked for advice. While I was staying at their house, Ruth also slept in Gionela’s room. Gionela suggested that we go to my room, since Ruth’s boyfriend had dumped her the day after high school graduation and she was still very depressed about men.

Gionela told me that it was best to take a Mexican gal out to a restaurant on the first date and to bring her flowers. Under no circumstances invite her to a movie that involves sex, because she would think that I thought that she was a prostitute. I should not try to touch her. Gionela added that she really liked the custom among Atlanta men of opening doors for women. However, when she was working at the Mexican Consul in Atlanta, she got tired of men trying to kiss her goodnight. She did not let men kiss her on dates unless they had been dating for many months. I rolled in the floor laughing on that one. Gionela got mad and went back to her room.

June 8 – I had already invited Alicia to go to a movie with me, before talking to Gionela, but I told Alicia that she could pick the movie. Alicia stopped by the Soto house to tell me the movie’s name and show time. Sr. Soto invited her to stay for dinner. He really liked Alicia because she was the only female there, who could carry on serious, intellectual conversation with him. Most Mexican men, however, in that era, would have preferred gals, who were not inclined to discuss political opinions, environmental pollution, complex issues or technology.

Alicia suggested that we go see “John and Mary,” staring Dustin Hoffman and Mia Farrow. She said that it was about two young people on their first date getting to know each other. Well, not quite. The two meet at a bar then became extremely intimate then the next morning got to know each other. So much for not discussing sex or seeing a movie containing sexual encounters on a first date. Well, Alicia suggested the movie, not I.

Our first date was awkward for a reason, totally unexpected by both us. Our two brains began chatting with each other without us speaking. We were telepathic! It had never happened before and never happened again. It was a state of total honesty. She is the only woman I have known, who never kept secrets from me or told me a lie. This also meant that our passions accelerated at a much faster pace than would be expected of two people from such radically different backgrounds.

From the moment that I was with Alicia that first time, I wanted to embrace and kiss her . . . but dared not. Normally, when a gal on a first date says, “I can’t stand this any longer,” it means that you are about to get dumped. Not so. She pounced on me and propelled a kiss that sent electricity through both our bodies. So much for the advice about being reserved with Mexican senoritas!

The bars were a metaphor for love that was impossible to fully express.

The last night of Christmas with Alicia

When you are young and in love, every moment together has an intensity that . . . if it was true love . . . burns a permanent memory in your brain that can last forever.

Georgia Tech’s registration for Winter Quarter was on January 4, 1971.  My return flight to Atlanta left early on January 3rd.   This was our last night together.  We decided to go to our favorite place of romance, a small Italian restaurant in the Zona Rosa for gourmet pizza, chianti wine and candlelight.   At the end of this series, you will learn the great irony about that choice.

When we got back to Alicia’s house on Calle Guanabana,  there were some tears in her eyes.  As you see above the entire frontage of the house was a painted steel fence.  After I opened the gate for her like a true Southern gentleman, she gently stopped me from following her and said, “Wait!”   She shut the gate and stood against the fence.  She said, “Come hold my hands through the fence.”  I did.  She then said, “ Now kiss me with the same passion as the afternoon, we watched, “Butch Cassedy and the Sundance Kid” then we walked in the rain to the fountain at Plaza Insurgentes.   I did.

Plaza Insurgentes in 1970. The speakers on the plaza began playing the theme song of “Butch Cassedy and the Sundance Kid” as we emerged from the Teatro Insurgentes into a light rain shower.

She said, “You see, this is how we are now . . . amor detras barres . . . love behind bars.   We can talk, kiss and hold hands, but cannot be a woman and man, whose souls have melted together.   I dream so much about you at night, I often ache inside.  You must finish architecture school, but I think that you are very smart and will be more than an architect.  I think that you will be going back to the university.  For me, I must finish college and want to travel before I have children.   These are our bars.

She pulled away from the fence and added, “Right now, there is nothing I can do, but please just wait for me.  I am working on something. There may be a way for both of us to continue university, but be together.  The first thing I will do when I get to Atlanta is go to a doctor to get pills.”

After entering her house, she steered me to the kitchen.  She pulled a bottle of “Los Amantes” cidre  (fermented apple cider) out of the fridge.  We toasted to our love and to each other, then preceded to consume the whole bottle.*  It was the traditional drink of eternal lovers in Mexico.  We kissed then went to our separate bedrooms.

*Never, ever try this experiment when you are staying in the home of a senorita and her mother is also sleeping in the house. Because back then, mothers were ignored by their husbands after age 30, the mother’s were extremely jealous of their daughters having a “life.” It caused them to go rabid. Even today, late night alcohol consumption can cause extreme emotional trauma, when the clock strikes 3 AM.

Some time during the night, I half-awoke to silky black hair flowing across my face.  Was it a dream or reality?  I uttered, “Alicia?”  She put her figure to my lips and whispered, “Sh-h-h, don’t make a sound or my mother will throw me out of the house. I want you to fly back to Atlanta with a very special memory in your heart that you will never forget, during the months that we are apart.”      I never forgot.

In this series, budding romance with Alicia will be woven into the overall plot. It continues long past my first three months in Mexico. Although this romance disappeared tragically into the mist like the plot of the movie, “Dr. Zhivago,” those memories of a happier time have been an emotional bulwark for me to this very day.


    1. This is just the beginning of the story. It was longer so readers would understand the context. From now on there will mostly be just short passages from my journal. Alicia takes center stage in my second trip to Mexico, when together we climb the pyramids and then the mountain where thousands of children were eaten by super-tall humanoids.


  1. She moved to Italy. I have no idea if she is even alive. She was married though, because in 2000 I met her daughter in Rome, GA – That’s a strange experience that will be described later in the year.


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