Carlos Victorino clutches a stiff brown briefcase and clinks together two metal rods as he wanders the dusky streets of Mexico City’s historic centro. He eyeballs the families and revelers out on a busy Saturday night, beckoning them to approach with the clink-clink-clink of his hand. For a small fee, he’ll fill them with enough electricity to knock out a small dog.
“It feels like adrenaline,” says Marco Antonio Camacho, who just received a jolt from the rods that link back to the battery in Carlos’s briefcase. Marco Antonio and his family sit together, still shaking out their arms after paying for Carlos’s services, while mariachi music rings out nearby.
In Mexico, paying for a shock—called a toque, or hit—is an enduring pastime. Carlos is about to turn 60, and he’s been at it since he was 14. It doesn’t pay much, but it’s enough to get by. So far, he’s earned about 130 pesos (USD 10) from the Camacho family, plus a quick USD 8 from another group earlier that night.
Carlos’s setup seems fairly inconspicuous at first glance. Most of what’s visible in his flipped-open briefcase are cigars: Cohibas of dubious provenance and some cheap ones that mainly serve as decoration. Tucked in the bottom-lefthand corner is a power switch and a one-to-ten dial emblazoned with a flashing skull and crossbones, alongside inputs for two electric cables, which connect to two cylindrical metal handles he holds between his fingers.
Inside a little box are six rechargeable AA batteries, an inverter, and a transformer that controls the voltage, which can reach up to 100 volts. The toque is the more controlled version of sticking your finger in an electrical outlet.
Carlos learned how to build a toque box as a teenager and has outfitted several briefcases throughout his career. The technology hasn’t evolved much, and most of the remaining toqueros still use an old-school setup like Carlos, making the crafty mechanics work with rusty parts.
“It’s tough—you can’t get these parts anymore,” he says. “If you were to find them, you would have to invest 8,000 pesos (USD 600) to make one.”
Adventurous passersby can do toques alone or in a group. If you’re going solo, grasp one handle in each hand—the positive and negative charges. See how high Carlos can ratchet up the voltage before you scream out “Ya, ya, yaaaaa! Enough!” This costs USD 1. Your friend can pay another dollar to try to beat your voltage. If you’re out with friends or unwitting children, form a semicircle and grab hands; two people at the end will each grab a handle. Carlos dials up the voltage until someone breaks the human-conducted current. This costs about USD 2 for every turn.
Before the toque begins, the metal handles are cold and dull. Then Carlos flips the switch, and you hear a buzz. You get nervous and start speaking higher. You giggle. The dial is still at zero.
“It starts out feeling like tickles,” says Sergio, a tipsy 20-something who reached five out of 10 on the dial. “Then your arms almost begin to cramp up. And then everything tightens up. You can’t move. You can’t let go. You’re stuck.” He’s still buzzed and giggling after the shock.
Sergio says the toque is a classic Mexico City experience. “It’s a tradition thing: come see mariachis, drink, do the toques. It’s fun.” Plaza Garibaldi, where Carlos hustles his shock sticks, is the land of the mariachi, and dozens of musical groups still gather at the plaza every night. Part festive and part melancholy, they’re paid per song by starry lovers, bellowing drunks, and nostalgic families.
Carlos sees himself as part of Mexico’s old-school toquero tradition, though the trade predates him. He says it probably began in the Mexican cantina culture of bravado.
“If there were four or five of us sitting here, we’d start placing bets to see who pays for the drinks,” he explains. “So we do a few toques and whoever gets the least pays the tab.”
Plaza Garibaldi used to feel like the boisterous cantina itself. It’s been the city’s mariachi plaza for almost a century and, for most of that time, it was a plaza of debauchery and petty crime, given its proximity to Mexico City’s roughest barrio, Tepito.
A couple years ago, however, the city government “rescued” Garibaldi, banning open containers of alcohol and clamping down on crime. While families and tourists welcomed the changes, Carlos had thrived in the unfettered mess of old Garibaldi.
“It was a very abrupt and ugly change, mostly for those of us who work here,” he says. “20 years ago there were 25 of us.” Today, just four toqueros remain, and Carlos is the oldest.
His wife, Juana, became a toquero a couple years ago when Carlos’s work took a dive. On a good night, they can make USD 50 together. Since Garibaldi was cleaned up, he only works Thursday through Sunday. They still make enough to support their four children.
Despite working until 5 a.m., putting up with drunken insults, and pacing around a still-raucous plaza, Carlos can’t see himself moving on from Garibaldi or the toques.
“If I were to get another job, I’d be told to do this or do that, and I’d have to do it,” he says. “With the years I have, I don’t think I could get used to a boss.”
He wanders off under the fluorescent streetlamps, the tinny clinking of the handles fading with him.
Running electrical currents through the human body has its practical, though sometimes questionable, uses. Here’s how they stack up:
Electroconvulsive Therapy: Induces seizure for relief from mental illness — 0.8 amps over several seconds
Electrosurgical Unit: Induces a small current to help cut skin — 10 amps at high frequency
Taser: Stuns aggressors for personal defense — 0.003 amps at high voltage
Electric Chair: Injects lethal doses of electricity — 6 amps for 30-60 seconds
Turn it up
Here’s what happens at each stage when a toquero cranks up the zap:
1: Your palms tickle
2: Your hands reflexively grip the handles
3: Your wrists curl inward and you laugh
4: Your biceps contract and arms hug your chest
5: Your arms are mostly immobile and laughing turns to grimacing
6: You yell and grunt uncontrollably
7: Your arms are completely immobile and your mind is stunned
8: You scream and your body holds on for dear life