A word that crops up quite frequently in Mexico during election seasons is palero.
The official meaning of the word is one who makes or works with a shovel or spade – pala – but in Mexico it more often means a stooge, someone who acts in place of another, or pretends to be something he is not. Why palero is anyone’s guess (unless someone actually knows). One guess is that it implies stick man, or straw man—hombre de palo.
In Mexican politics, a palero used to be a candidate or party fielded by the single ruling party to create the impression of opposition. Or later, when there was actual opposition, one launched to divert votes from it. In modern political usage, palero can be used to try to discredit any candidate not liked, and is therefore more or less meaningless.
The real paleros crop up in the fairs and market places, working alongside the people who operate a game called “¿dónde quedó la bolita?“—where did the ball go? This usually involves variations of a small foldaway table covered with a cloth on which three cups (some use plastic bottle tops) are placed, with a pea-sized ball under one of them. The person running the stall will visibly put the “bolita” under one of the cups and then start quickly and very ably moving the cups around. Your job is to keep your eye on the cup with the ball, and when they come to a halt say which one it’s under.
Barring sleight-of-hand, which can’t really be ruled out, your chances are one-in-three of choosing the right one, as following the cup hardly ever works. The bets are even, so if you bet 10 pesos, you get your 10 back and 10 more. Therefore if you decide to have a go, you are playing against the odds.
The role of the paleros as hustlers appears to be twofold. First it’s to get people to play, as they are frequently seen winning. The other is to raise the stakes, as they appear to exchange reasonably large amounts of money.
These very mobile stalls invariably attract a lot of people, the curious, and of course the stooges who are always present. Even people who know the score occasionally think they might have a chance to win, and so play.
In any case, if you do decide to play, or watch, also keep a close eye or hand on your wallet or purse, which can also disappear along with the bolita amid the hustle and bustle.
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