Illustration by Bob AulI was wrapping up an interview with Serge Dedina, director of the California-based environmental group Wildcoast when he said the most amazing thing.
"Eating turtle meat," he said, "is a Mexican family tradition that has morphed into a power issue where the wealthy eat turtles and the poor fishermen work to satisfy the hunger of the rich."
We had been talking about his organization's successful effort to get Pope John Paul II to issue a papal edict forbidding the consumption of turtle meat on Fridays during Lent. Apparently, according to Dedina, turtle eating during Lent is very common in heavily Catholic Mexico, which came as a surprise to me, a Mexican-born Catholic.
Frankly, the Marxist Mexican Catholic in me wasn't buying his class warfare interpretation of the depletion of Mexico's sea turtle population. I asked him just how much Mexico's Lenten turtle appetite was annihilating its sea turtle population.
"No other place on the planet," Dedina said grimly, "is there more turtles being killed than on the Mexican coast. There are more than 5,000 sea turtles killed during Holy Week alone."
"But how easily available is turtle meat?" I asked, knowing that killing sea turtles is punishable in Mexico by 12 years of prison.
"It's just like cocaine," he said. "If you want it, you'll know where and how to get it."
I've heard of expensive monkey brain soup, but turtle meat as drug? Shell-shocked, I called what would logically be an Orange County peddler of fine turtle meat, Reptile Island in Yorba Linda.
"No, we don't sell turtle meat" offended store manager Robert Walter said when I asked if I could score some off him. Walter informed me of his store's turtle-vending policy—"We don't sell them unless we're sure they're going to be given a good home"—and how he doesn't have a problem with people eating farm-grown turtles for meat. Endangered sea turtles?
"Anyone who eats a sea turtle should be shot."
Undaunted, I approached my neighborhood dealer in ocean contraband: El Rey del Marisco No. 3 in Anaheim, one of the finest Mexican seafood restaurants around. I asked the waitress under my breath if they offered caldo de cahuama (turtle soup). She said no, but her eyes said, "Call us later." Excited, I phoned about an hour later and asked again. "Sorry, we don't sell it" said the man. "Since they're on the verge of extinction, the Mexican government really protects them."
"How about if I offer you $40 per pound for the meat?" I asked. Dedina had told me that the going price for a pound on the black market was half of what I was offering.
My ear still winces from the subsequent slam of the phone.
It seemed that everyone knew of this mythical meat, but no one was talking. I needed a fix. I needed a junkie, an addict who wasn't afraid to direct me to a score. I was desperate, so I did what any lowlife would do: I shook my parents down.
"I was 8 years old when I first encountered it," my mom confessed after I persisted. "They used to sell it all the time down in Ensenada."
"Did you ever try it?" I asked, now a fearful child ashamed of his parent's experimentation with illegal substances.
"¡Dios mío, no!" she cried. "Cooked turtle meat is the most disgusting odor I've ever smelled. I still have the smell right here," she said as she pointed to her brain. Hearing this, my father quickly chimed in.
"It's the best food ever made! I used to eat it all the time when I lived in East LA. It was so popular that restaurants would always sell out."
Here was my turtle junkie—my own father. I asked him the question I had asked so many people already: Can you get me some turtle meat?
He kept quiet as my mom went outside to grab something from her car. He looked around to make sure no one else was around. "Give me some time," he said, "and I'll get you some."
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