David Werner - Copyright by David Werner - 1966
It has been my original intention to remain in the village of Ajoya only long enough to arrange for a burro train to transport the medicines to the high country of the Sierra. But Nature has had her surprises waiting for me, and my friends back in Palo Alto have had theirs. The result has been that now, some eight weeks later, I am at last getting my small cavalcade in motion. But perhaps it is better this way, not only have I come to know and love the Pueblo of Ajoya, but by now each little village and rancho along the way has extended its invitation to me, and has offered to transport my cargo to the next. Already many villagers have come for medicines from as far away as Jocuixtita, Verano, and Caballo de Arriba (up to 40 miles by burro trail into the mountains). Wherever I go I know I will be welcome.
However, to be honest, it is not easy for me to leave Ajoya. In the relatively short time I have been here I have made friends with many, many of the villagers, I have been inside 60 of the 91 casas of the village, and have dined in nearly as many. When I arrived there was an enormous amount of sickness here. Although now there is noticeably less, there is still a fair share. This is to be expected in a village with over a thousand inhabitants, mostly children, and not a single escusado, where the drinking water comes from the river below, and where the average campesino, with 10 to 12 children, has a daily wage of l0 to 12 pesos (less than a dollar) with the result that many meals are composed of puras tortillas, without even frijoles to supplement the diet. Yet when I walk through the streets I am not aware of sickness. I am aware of friendliness, warmth, the enormous vitality of the people. I do not mean to say that the village is lacking in cruelty or in closed-mindedness. But never are these elements directed at me. I am loved here and cared for, as perhaps I have never been before. The people still have trouble in understanding why I give so much of my time and energy and medicines without asking for one centavo, and my explaining to them only increases their wonder. Yet in truth they have already given me far more than I would be able to repay in a lifetime. I am grateful to the villagers here for their acceptance of me, and to all those people back in the United States whose assistance has helped to make my project here possible.
The following report is in the form of a more or less chronological journal... in short, it is just as I wrote it, from day to day, or more accurately, from night to night, whenever I could snatch the time to write. Fortunately the nights are long, and in a village where there is no electricity and even coal oil is a large expense, the villagers bed early. Fortunately, also, a girl named Ramona - about whom the town’s people like to kid me as being my novia - has made available to me a room and a kerosene lamp where I can work into the night. Thus poco a poco I have assembled this rough account. I regret that I have not had time to polish and rewrite, or even to round out the portrait of the village here, but every day has been filled with new events and discoveries which seem urgent to record, and now that I am leaving Ajoya it seems a good time to dispatch the first number, ready or not.
January 29, 1966
To arise in Ajoya in the morning and go to the river is to emerge from a cocoon. Life inside the village is so human, so animal, so much a thing of the soil, so full of suffering and of relief. But at the river, life becomes magical, ethereal, enchanting.
This morning the river is rising after the rains. It has turned a yellow brown. It has long since risen above the spot where yesterday the women came to bail water from a hole dug among the rocks at the river’s edge, and I wonder what the drinking water will be like during the days to come. Will it be the yellow, muddy water of the river? There is already so much sickness in the village, so much diarrhea. What will this water be like, washing over the very soil where the people go to defecate? In the night old Micaela, the abuela of the casa where I stay, put a bucket under the tile eves to catch the rain -- good clean water from the sky -- but it will never last until the river clears.
Now, upstream, I see two women, one with a square, 5-gallon, metal drum, the other with two ollas wading out into the rushing yellow waters. There is a rocky bar still protruding from the center of the river, forming an island. They wade out onto the bar, letting their skirts drop. One of the women, about two feet from the edge of the bar, makes a hole by removing rocks and gravel and sand. Then they stand, waiting. I look beyond the river, to the dark mountains.
At last it has stopped raining, and the clouds are beginning to break over the mountains. A few white puffs of lower clouds stand out like strips of cotton against the dark slopes.
In the stringy tree growing from the high bank on which I stand a chestnut colored titmouse alights, then flits to a lower branch in search of insects, his bright eye tipping this way and that. Beneath me, near the rushing water, a spotted sandpiper darts from one protruding mud bar to another.
One of the women, taking from her bucket a scoop made from half a gourd, carefully dips water from the hole in the rock bar. Little by little she fills the buckets and the drum. Each woman helps the other place the containers on their heads, and slowly they wade into the rushing water, barefooted, feeling their way for purchase on the rocky bottom, while the balanced buckets of water sway perilously but never fall. Reaching the near bank of the flooded river, the women have to pick their way through the thicket on the steep slope, for the rising waters have covered the path.
Behind me an old man, legs bowed from much riding of mules and burros, and perhaps from scarcity of milk in his childhood, approaches, eyeing me with curiosity, as I stand on my perch overlooking the river.
“Está subiendo,” I say, nodding to the river. The old man comes up to where I stand and looks down at the turbulent waters, then eyes the two women sorting their tray among the rocks and underbrush.
“Está muy feo, el río,” he says extending a dark, wrinkled hand.
“Sí,” I reply, and think to myself, “pero muy hermoso, también.”
The women now pass us, winding their way up the steep path toward the village. The old man nods to the older woman, who, being the first to emerge from the brush onto the path, is now well ahead of the younger. “Muy feo, el río,” he says.
The older woman, perhaps a little annoyed by so self-evident an observation, scarcely glances up from beneath her bucket and replies, “¡Pués claro!”
The half gourd floats on top of the full bucket. The water looks clear and clean.
The village of Ajoya is the link between the lowlands and the Sierra. It is 27 kilometers from the town of San Ignacio, but the road that connects it is so poor that one can walk the distance in twice the time it takes to cover it in a motor vehicle, and few are the vehicles that can make it. Most travel over the rough road is undertaken on foot or on horse or burro-back, and the majority of the residents of Ajoya make the journey seldom, if at all. In many respects the village is nearly as isolated as that of Jocuixtita or Verano.
The day we arrived in Ajoya (Dec. 8) the weather was muggy and hot. Winter had still not arrived. But it was closer on our tails than I realized. In the afternoon as we drove in a strong wind suddenly arose, shaking the few leaves on the trees and billowing clouds of dust. Mike Garbett, who had made the trip down with me to take my Jeep back to the States, asked me if such wind was normal here, for there was something strange, even spooky about it. I said I had not experienced it before.
We arrived at sundown, and José Vidaca, who had helped our Pacific High School group so much the year before, invited us into his home. During the night the sky clouded over, and in the-morning it was dark and ominous. The people of the village kept looking upwards and saying to each other, “Va a llover,” or simply, “¡Ya viene!”
And then it came: a few fat drops exploding in the dust, then the downpour. As we stood in the portal of the casa looking out into the street the water streamed down as from a hundred hoses from the tile roof, forming a giddy curtain.
You’d better take off for the highway pronto, I said to Mike, or you’ll never make it! And sprinting through the waterfall he scrambled into the Jeep and departed... I assume he made it all right, as no word has come back to the contrary.
“No va a salir por unos días,” said José as he watched the rain pour down and I nodded...
Now it has been raining off and on for six days. The river has risen a good two feet, and still there are heavy rain clouds in the mountains. José and everyone else assures me that travel at this time is impossible, and that the trails will remain precarious for a week or more after the rain stops... if it stops. For now the cabanuelas -- winter rains -- have begun, and if it proves to be a wet season, they may continue as late as the end of January! The entire village is praying for a lot of rain now, not because it will help the crops (for there are no winter crops, the cabanuelas being at best too brief), but because the amount of rain that falls in the cabanuelas is thought to be proportional to the amount that will fall in las aguas (summer rains) on which the harvest depends. This last summer, despite the floods in Mazatlán, there was a very low rainfall in this stretch of the Sierra Madre, and the harvest was scant. The poor families, who farm small patches upon the hillsides, will once again have to sell their few chickens and pigs to the wealthy holders of the river-basin lands, in order to buy enough corn to subsist upon, and to plant next summer. Or they can borrow corn from the rich, which has to be paid back in triple the following harvest. No wonder the degree of malnutrition among the poor is startling!
With the coming of the rains the temperature has turned abruptly cooler. It is now quite pleasant here. If I am to be stuck in Ajoya for many days longer, I shall probably have to wait until the Wolfs arrive from the States with the other portion of my medicines on December 28th, for it seems rather pointless to make the long burro trip to Verano if I am to stay there only a day or two before starting the journey back again.
I do not mind waiting in Ajoya, however. It is a beautiful village with its closely grouped, tile-roofed, adobe cases and its thick-walled iglesia which I am told dates back four or five hundred years. (The village of Ajoya – or, more completely, Ajoya de San Jerónimo – was first settled by the Spanish long before Mazatlán existed. Before the Spanish came, it is said to have been a pueblo de indios. There are still some old-timers in Ajoya who speak some Cáhita, or Mexicana, as they call it here. Cáhita is a Uto-Aztecan language spoken by the Mayo Indians of Northern México.)
Mayo Indians today in Northern México.
Also, I have grown very fond of the villagers, who have made me feel very welcome here.
SICKNESS AND SENSE OF HUMOR
The morning after I arrived the rain continued to pour down. The muddy calle in front of the casa was barren of both people and pigs. I stared at my huge cargo, mostly medicines, stacked against the back wall of the portal (front veranda). I felt a little ridiculous with all those cartons and boxes piled between the calabazas and corn.
But when the storm slackened, the people, remembering me from our Pacific trip the year before, began to arrive for medicines. They came like the rain itself, first a sprinkling and finally a deluge.
The vast majority of the sicknesses here are related to either poor hygiene or malnutrition, usually both; children with head lice (piojos) where dirt and scratching has caused secondary infection and sores (granos); festering ulcerations (llagas) of the skin with gaping cavities up to half an inch deep; boils (nacidos), especially on children; pellagra-like bruising (manchas) of the skin; large, suppurating, spreading unhealing sores (lepra), especially on children; rickets; mouth ulcerations (postemillas); irritating ringworm infections (jiotes), especially on children around the eyes; muscle cramps (calambres); arthritis, rheumatism, sciatica (all called reuma) sometimes beginning in children, and present to some degree in almost everyone from middle-age on; hemorrhaging, especially in women; scaly infections (tiña), probably fungal, of the face or scalp; ulcerating varicosity and tissue degeneration of the lower legs; stomach ulcers and painful hyperacidity (agruras); persistent dizziness (tarantas) and/or ringing (zumbido) of the ears; and an endless variety of aches and pains and organic disorders coupled with anemic conditions and general debility. Breastfeeding infants are typically scrawny, for the mothers of the poorer families have a scarcity of milk in their own breasts, and lack the con qué (where-with-all) to purchase fresh or prepared milk. (The infant mortality rate is very high. Rare is the mother of a large family who has not lost one or more children, and on the average, a mother here loses one fourth to one third of her children, frequently more). Dysentery, both bacterial and amoebic, causes much suffering and takes many lives, especially of young children.
The list of ailments I have already encountered goes on and on: eye and ear infections; festering cuts (heridas) and scratches; chronic bronchitis; la gripa; rashes (ronchas); vaginal and urinary infections; etc. Of less frequent occurrence have been the stings (picaduras) of scorpion (alacrán) and centipede (ciénpies). More common are reactions to the bites of bedbugs (chinches), fleas (pulgas) and ticks (garrapatas). Plant poisoning has included a child who chewed on the bola of Jimsonweed, and a severe poison ivy-like reaction to a plant called hierba de truncha (herbal poison for fish, so called because it is used to poison fish in the river, including a knife-shaped fish called the truncha, a colloquialism for trucha, meaningtrout). The leaves of the plant are margined with stiff, sun-dew like bristles, each bearing at its tips tiny droplet of the oily poison.) Other injuries have included dog and rat bites, and cuts of varying severity from machete and hacha. An epidemic of mumps (here called coquetas) has now begun in Ajoya, and promises to be severe, for apparently, it has never struck Ajoya before, and isolation is impossible. Not only do entire families sleep together in a single room, but the children group in threes and fours under a single blanket, because no more blankets are had.
I have been doing my best to treat the people who come to me, but for many ailments I am at a loss. I have had to turn many persons away, saying that I lack both the knowledge and equipment to make a proper analysis. For others, it is apparent that the only reasonable treatment is surgery. Yesterday, I gave a father fifty pesos to take his small daughter to Mazatlán to have an enormous and rapidly growing shin tumor removed. And I have provided others likewise, but there is a limit to my funds, and none to the need. Frequently I have to make blind guesses as to the seriousness of a condition I have little or no understanding of. It is easy enough to say, 'You should see a doctor.' But most of the people can no more afford the journey to Mazatlán than they can to New York. I alone have to make the decision -- for there is no one else to do it -- as to whether to provide the trip-money to this person or that. Usually, if I am not fairly certain that the need is critical I do not provide the money, for there are more than enough cases where there is little question, even to a layman like myself. At times I am forced to play the role of a blind god, whether I like it or not. My limitations are enormous, but I have got to accept them.
And how fast this supply of medicines -- which at first struck me as so huge -- is diminishing! Especially those medicines which are in greatest demand.
I can now see that I will have to get many more medicines if I am to have anywhere near enough for a year. Vitamins seem by far the most critical. I am already gently refusing them to all those who do not manifest chronic deficiencies, and am doing much consulting as to diet. I fear, however, this is of minor import, as most of the more nutritious foods are beyond the means of the vast majority of the people. Nonetheless I am emphasizing the importance of many of the wild fruits, like guayabas, arrayanes, and the peanut-like seeds of pochote, which are now coming into season, and are free for the gathering.
The first two or-three days, I must confess were rather hectic. I arranged my medicines according to categories on the floor of the portal of the casa where José Vidaca lives with the family of his wife. There is not so much as a table available, and occasionally the family rooster parades across the boxes of medicines, or tips one over as he leaps with a squeak, trying to escape a pursuing child. José Vidaca and a little boy named Goyo have become my assistants, and are a great help during the periods of rush.
But rush is never quite the right word here. There is a friendly leisure about all activities which I am coming to accept, and even enjoy. When meal time comes and I am called, those who are waiting seem to enjoy waiting. (Many of them, it seems, have spent their lifetime waiting.) They chat with each other or we chat together as I eat. There is always a great deal of laughter and kidding.
As for the ailments of the people, rarely are they so severe that the patient cannot joke about them himself. The people have evolved an enormous amount of patience--or better, resignation--about their infirmities. They have learned to lighten them with humor, and are rapidly teaching me to do likewise.
Sometimes, however, the leisurely approach goes too far. One evening as I was writing a boy came, apparently to chat, and we chatted. Shortly someone else came and the boy stood quietly in the background. Then I turned to him again he told me that his little sister, age 7, had just been stung in the back by a scorpion, which had crawled out of the burning firewood onto the floor where she had been lying. As we hastened up the steep hill together, I told the boy that if ever there was another such an emergency to please let me know a little more quickly... We had lost only about five minutes... but at times that can make the difference.
HOGS AND HYGIENE
Hats off to the hogs! They are sure to conquer the world. When the advanced nations have blown each other to pieces and the impoverished nations have perished in a sea of disease, it will be the pigs, fat and healthy, who survive!
What a failure are we human beings by comparison -- physically at least. How careful we have to be with our diet, with our hygiene, not to collapse with diseases.
After a day of treating the sick, when I go to the monte (in this case, the bushes above the river) to relieve my bowels I am impressed by the unvanquishable health of these shit-eating swine. One day when I met José returning from the river I asked if he had been bañando, and he replied, no, he had been batallando con los coches. There could not be a more apt phrase to describe going to the bathroom here where there are no bathrooms. The process is always a battle. If one does not carry rocks with him to fight off the hungry hogs they are apt to knock one over where one squats, so impatient are they for their dinner! If the grown men of Ajoya carry slingshots in their pockets, it is not to shoot at birds but rather to defend themselves from the hogs when at stool. (On my first trip to México, before I had learned better, I hurried out one night in the dark, and was nuzzled in the backside by the wet snout of an over-eager pig.)
The, hogs in Ajoya perform the function formerly assigned the Harijan or Untouchable class in India. It is hard to imagine what a stench there would be in the alrededores of the pueblo without this self-appointed and ceaselessly active clean-up crew. Yet when I see infants with distended bellies and worms coming out of their nostrils, or children whose stools are bloody with dysentery, while the pigs returning from el monte wander happily into the casas and into the cocinas, I cannot help thinking that somehow there must be a better solution.
It has not been my intention to try to change any major factors in the village life, but I have found myself making an all out campaign to construct escusados. So far it has done no good.
THE CASA CHAVARÍN
Although José Vidaca says “Soy muy pecador,” and he ought to know, he is one of the kindest and most generous of men I have met. When our group from Pacific High School arrived last spring, he, more than anyone else in the village, put himself out to help us, and secured for us the burro train which carried our medicines into the Sierra. This year when I arrived he at once invited me to stay in his home, refusing absolutely to accept any payment for room or board.
José, who is now about 40, lives in the casa of the parents of his 20 year-old bride, Sofía. Sofia’s parents are Ramón Chavarín, now blind (with cataracts) for some 4 to 5 years, and the old but fiery Micaela Lomas de Chavarín. Also living in the thick walled adobe house are Federico (Lico), 24; Florentino (Tatino), 23; Everardo (a mentally slow youth with quick sense of humor); the nearly mute Julieta la inocenta, 22; and Asención (Chon), 17. Another daughter, María, 22, sleeps with her husband and her two children, Veneranda (Vene), 3, and Belén, 5 months, in a nearby casa, but spends most of the day with her children at the casa Chavarín. The only remaining member of the family is the 4 month-old daughter of José and Sofía, Eustolia (Toya).
Although the Familia Chavarín is far from well off, they are considerably better off than many of the families of the village: and especially of the smaller ranchos and villages surrounding Ajoya. Nevertheless the majority of meals consist of nothing more than tortillas and frijoles, and sometimes the frijoles are not even refried because at the moment no one has the con qué to buy manteca (pig fat). And there are not enough blankets to go around without sharing, but no one seems to mind.
Now that Ramón is blind and unable to work, the family relies on the boys for its sostencia Most of the days when nothing else turns up to do they go to one or another of the small milpas (cornfields) in the surrounding hills, to piscar (pick the dried corn), haul in fodder on the backs of burros, or clear new slopes for planting. The little spending money that the family has comes from what the boys earn by chopping leña (firewood) in the hills and hauling it on burro-back to sell in the pueblo, by fishing for camarones del río (crayfish) in the river, or by hauling oranges and limas from La Palma (a wealthy estate owned by Jesús [Chuy] Vega about 2 kms. up the river). The boys also supplement the diet by hunting wild game and hives of wild bees in the hills.
The entire family has welcomed me with the same enthusiasm as has José, and rather than resenting the chaos which has resulted from transforming the portal into a dispensary, seems to enjoy it. Everyone who arrives is always greeted with a friendly, ¡Pásele! And if there is a seat to spare, offered a seat. The blind Ramón stands quietly in the corner, staff in his heavy hand. He does little all day except turn the molino in the morning to grind the corn, listen acutely to everything that is going on (he rarely misses anything) and talk. Yet his life is rich with tales and anecdotes and reminiscences. He has a warm, happy laugh, which is almost a giggle. Little Vene enjoys leading him around by pulling the end of his staff. (Vene, like the rooster, is not housebroken, and as I move from one box of medicines to the next I have to watch my step.) Frequently there will arrive an elderly campesino -- like 71 year-old Cayetano, whose trade is to castrate and remove the ovaries of hogs for fattening -- to ask for some medicine or another, but who will end up staying half the day or into the night swapping tales and chuckling with the blind Ramón. They talk of ghosts and gold, of the Revolution and of Tino Navaro, who was the local Billy the Kid. My head is full of their tales.
ESPANTOS AND ESPIRITUS
The discussion of espíritus, espantos and el diablo began with the price of cheese, which has recently gone up in Ajoya. We were in the dark kitchen where the cooking fire, lit in the dark, took the chill out of the dawn air. Sofía was grinding masa on the stone metate while the abuela Micaela patted out tortillas in her old but strangely graceful hands. Blind Ramón, the jefe de la familia, stood, as ever in the mornings, in the corners supported by his staff. Chón had already left for the milpa, accompanied by the dogs; Tatino had gone to the river to water the burro; but Federico and Everardo still stood around the earth covered pretil, hands in their pockets, absorbing the heat from the horno.
The abuela Micaela asked me the prices “para allá” (in the United States). I answered, translating the figures into pesos. Federico asked if we had pesos as well as dollars, and this started the discussion of currency. Money may be a big thing to those who have much, but it can be an even bigger thing to those who have little. How frequently conversation turns to gold and silver, to lost mines and tesoros escondidos. But to the poor, this money is a thing of dreams, not of reality, and is inevitably associated with spirits and ghosts and the devil.
In the days before banks were secured to store and expand the gains of los ricos, it was the custom to bury for safekeeping one’s gold and one’s silver. Often el dueño alone knew where the money was buried. Sometimes he left maps and clues as to the hiding place, but more often he died, sometimes suddenly, leaving no trace of the dinero enterrado. It is the dream of los pobres of Mexico to win a lottery or discover one of these buried treasures. The folklore is full of tales of such treasure, and of the spirits who guard them.
Looking across the river from Ajoya one sees a dark, rugged group of mountains known as Los Viejos. From the highest of these mountains rises a huge tooth of white rock, and on the far side of this rock is said to be an old mine, muy rica to which no one dares to go because the mine is encantada - and whoever finds it dies.
The spirits of those who have buried gold now lost are said to wander through the pueblos on moonlit nights, searching for their loved ones in order to lead them to the buried money. In Ajoya the ghost of a woman has frequently been seen. Everardo once saw her sitting on the doorstep of the casa. She was dressed in black, her body invisible, so that he saw no more than her clothing and huaraches. Tatino has seen her, too, and so have many others. Sometimes she appears as a skeleton, dressed in black, at other times only her teeth are visible, huge overgrown fangs; and sometimes her long sharp fingernails. Sometimes she tries to catch hold of people with her long nails, to lift them up and take them to the fortune. But the people always flee her, for they are afraid. She has been seen also by the river at night. But she never harms anyone.
The devil also appears at night, assuming different forms. Most frequently he assumes the form of a black dog, which suddenly grows in size and frightens people, and which enjoys, it seems, blocking narrow trails and forbidding passage. At night children, and sometimes grown-ups too, will return from errands unfulfilled because el diablo in the form of el perro negro was blocking the way.
One night, when old Ramón was young, he was riding past el panteón (cemetery) when his horse reared in fright and threw him. When he picked himself up he heard an enormous thundering, and the devil in the form of 50 black horses galloped across the graves of the dead, raising no dust.
The devil, it is said, only harms those who make a compromiso with him, selling their souls. The devil has unlimited gold and silver, and will make rich anyone who compromises with him, but in the end he will take his soul.
In San Ignacio, continued old Ramón, there lived a man named Milán whom the devil had made rich, and who built for himself a huge three-story house on the hill above the town. “¿No ha visto el palacio en la loma de San Ignacio?” (Yes, I had seen it.) Well, the devil had supplied the gold to build this, mansion, but Milán had sold his soul to the devil, and when the time came to complete the contract and turn over his soul, Milán had told in secret to San Dimas in the mountains. But he could not escape the terms, and one day his body was found, smashed upon rocky ground. The devil had caught him in the night, snatched him around the waist in his huge garras and carried him high into the air. High up, the body slipped from the clutch of the devil and fell upon the rocks below, but the soul of Milán, still pinioned on the devils long claws, was carried off forever into darkness. At the time of Milán’s death, the mine through which the devil had supplied the gold to Milan became flooded by a brackish spring which suddenly sprang from nowhere, and a landslide of giant rocks obscured the entrance.
The conversation turned to ways of finding hidden treasures. It was pointed out that at certain times of year the air immediately above buried gold se alumbra or bursts into flame. Nearly everyone in the village has seen these llamas in the hills. I asked if these flames were seen only in the rainy season. “Sí, al comienzo de las aguas,” replied Lico. “Cuando habían las nubes grandes y negras sobre los cerros altos.” The flames from buried gold, said old Ramón, would shoot up three times before they disappeared. 1 asked if the flames burned the vegetation. No, was the answer. They were cold.
This morning as I returned from the west side of town, having purchased a can of talco for the very raw bottom of a baby with severe diarrhea, I passed the small shop of Gregorio Alarcón. From the doorway, Federico hailed me to share with him a pan de huevo he had just purchased. As ever, a chair was at once brought for me, and although I had many enfermos awaiting me, I found myself sitting and chatting with the owner of the shop and several of the vagrant young men who always appear wherever a conversation starts. Gregorio Alarcón, the rotund and aging shopkeeper, prides himself on his English, which is negligible. He taught himself from a book many years ago and still remembers a miscellaneous collection of unrelated words. As we talked I noticed a dark, healthy girl of perhaps 18 years in the shadows behind the counter. Someone asked how to say Ramona in English and so it was I learned the name of Gregorio’s granddaughter. Federico grinned and said that Ramona had offered to give me lessons in Spanish if I would give her lessons in English. Then he gave me a lascivious wink. I said I would be glad to teach her some English, and was always eager to improve my Spanish.
After a few more minutes platicando, I took my leave and walked on down the wet stony street toward the casa of José Vidaca. (As I walked, I heard someone behind me saying, “Mira, el tiene parálisis en sus pies también.”) About half an hour later a small boy appeared at the veranda of the casa of José Vidaca bearing a snowy white rooster upside-down, by the legs. He handed it to me, saying, “Es de Ramona.” And so our friendship has begun.
Chon, el Mudo, lives in a world without sound. He has been deaf since birth, and lacking the power of hearing, his other senses have grown keen. When he looks at me with his deep-set eyes I feel that he is reaching inside of me, feeling with the fingertips of some secret vision the very contours of my soul. I am grateful that I pass his inspection and that he accepts me as a friend.
The degree to which Chón the Mute manages to communicate without hearing or speaking is extraordinary. His manner of expression is beautiful. He is tall and slender and his arms are long and thin. His large dark hands he moves with the grace of a dancer. He expresses himself with his hands, his arms, his face, his entire body, the gestures of the one leading and flowing into the motion of the other. With no other teacher than necessity, he has evolved an art of pantomime parallel to that of Marcel Marceau. He is a marvel to watch.
Yet pantomime is an art more or less native to the village of Ajoya. Where other people would hablar en secreto, the villagers frequently express themselves with gestures. For instance, when Everardo, the playboy and clown of the Familia Chavarín, inquired of me whether I would supply him with aphrodisiacs, he used no words at all, and yet it was imminently obvious what he was talking about, and the effect he desired from the girl he sought to seduce. Similarly when he asked me to bring opium down to him from the mountain, his gestures portraying the opium and procedure of opening the poppy head were dexterous and precise, almost ritualistic, with a wild grin on his face. One afternoon when Everardo motioned for me to follow him into a back room of the casa, making strange and covetous gestures, I had no idea what was in store, but it was to show me some rocks from a secret vein in the cliff he had discovered, and (because most Americans who put a foot into the Sierra Madre are miners) he wanted my advice as to whether his stones were gold bearing, I told him I had no clue.
When “talking” with Chón the Mute, the villagers automatically fall into a sort of sign language, throwing in an unheard word here and there for emphasis, and almost any subject matter seems to be quickly and simply communicated. I found myself talking with Chón in the same way.
Chón has taught himself to read and to write. He is obviously very bright, and has not wasted his mind with superficial chatter. The family he comes from is the poorest of poor and Chón earns his living making jaulas or birdcages and trampas or traps for rats, from logs which he splits and from sticks. He also makes handsome children’s toys out of wood, carving the pieces with his long, agile fingers. In addition he makes hamacas (webbed hammocks) by carefully knotting string.
Chón loves animals. When he first saw a pet squirrel of Ramona’s he fell in love with it. (Ramona told me this tale with some irritation.) Chón asked Ramona if he could borrow the squirrel for a couple of days. Ramona lent it to him, but Chón refused to return it, and when Ramona asked for it back, Chón insisted that it was his now and that he had paid her 10 pesos for it. (He had previously offered her 10 pesos, but Ramona, also fond of the squirrel, had refused to sell it.) Chón even went so far as to take Ramona before the síndico (ejidal police) about the squirrel, and when finally the decision was made in her favor, Chón wept like a little boy, not for losing the contest, but over losing the squirrel.
Today on the way to the river as I passed by the casa behind that of José Vidaca, a stumpy little boy with bright agate eyes called to me, “Gringo, gringo,” followed by some words I could not make out. I nodded and shrugged and continued on my way to the river. Returning, as I passed the same casa, the little boy called to me again, running his words together, but this time I understood, “Gringo, gringo, no tiene nada para catarro?”
“¿Para quien?” I asked.
“Para mi,” he replied.
“Pués, vamos a hablar con tu mamá,” I replied, and he led me through the gate and into the casa.
“Buenas tardes. Pásele,” said the mother. She motioned to a chair. “Siéntese.”
“¿Es que su hijo tiene catarro?” I asked.
“Ay, muy mal catarro,” replied the mother. She also pointed out the boquillas (open sores by the mouth) and llagas (sores) on the legs of the child. I told her I had medicines for these, too, and stressed the importance of eating fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs, milk, and the like, in short all those foods that were difficult to come by and the family could scarcely afford. The mother asked next if I had anything for lombrices, and told me sometimes this same little boy evacuated giant round worms como así, and she held her hands more than a foot apart, indicating the length. Now the worms were not as bad as they had been, she said. During las aguas (the summer rainy season) the child’s body had wasted away while his paunch had become distended with the bulk of hungry worms. Not only had he passed the giant worms in his caca, they had emerged from his nose and mouth as well.
I told the mother that I had medicine for worms as well, and if she would step around the corner with me to the casa of José Vidaca I would give them to her. She hesitated, and then said, “Es que nosotros no vamos allá.” I could not resist asking “Por qué” but got no more answer than, “Estamos enojados con ellos. No hablamos.” I told her I would bring the medicine.
Similarly I encountered another family, living not far from the house of José Vidaca who wanted medicines but were annoyed with the Vidaca household and refused to go there, even to pick up medicines. When I asked why, they mentioned something about one of the girls there striking one of their children, but the annoyance seemed more deep-seated than that.
Back at the household, I asked about this annoyance between the families but could get no more specific responses than, “Es que hay gente que le gusta pelear” or simply, “Son tontos” or “locos.” I asked how long these annoyances had been doing on.
And how long were they apt to continue?
But never could I obtain any specific reasons for the annoyances. I think they have long since been forgotten.
Perhaps the, old abuelo is right, “Es que hay gente que le gusta pelear.”
Sofía told me that la mujer of one of the families that is annoyed with her family was spreading the word in the village that “las medicinas del gringo son malas. La gente que las toman van a morir.”
But until someone dies - and it can happen (sooner or later it is inevitable) - I am not worried. The people still greet me with welcome as I walk down the street, they still call me onto their verandas to give me a couple of eggs, or a handful of peanuts, or a piece of cheese, or a lima. They still send their children with a plateful of conchitas or of buñuelos. And where there are mumps, or fever, or boils, or mouth ulcers, or arthritis, or dysentery, or hemorrhages, or cuts, or pellagra, or rickets, or epilepsy, or stuffy noses etc. etc., they still come if they can, or send a child to fetch me.
This morning I walked as usual to the casa of la Teresa. Teresa is a woman in her mid-thirties, with four children and another on the way. At one time Teresa was so fat that she startled the people, but now, since her illness, she has become nothing but skin and bone. For three years she has been suffering from chronic bronchial asthma, and has gradually wasted away. Unlike most of the sick in Ajoya, there is no joy left in her. Every time I call on her she says, “Diós sabe que estoy muriendo,” and I have heard it said by the neighbors that she wants to die. I think there is something of her that wants to die, but that there is also something that wants desperately to live, not only for her children but also for herself.
I have tried one medicine after another, and together: bronchial constrictors, antihistamine, antibiotics, vitamins. For a while she seems to be improving, I think, as much from my interest as from my medicines, but after a few days she relapses. When I come she sits on her cot in front of the one room adobe casa and tells me how she has fared. Sometimes she coughs little, and sometimes she coughs frequently, almost gagging on the phlegm, which she spits into a rusted pan of dirt beside the bed. Today while we were talking, her two-year old daughter soiled her panties outside the gate and promptly shed them. An enormous hog, on the spot to take advantage of the meal, in an instant was chewing on the loaded panties, with its moist snout. Teresa, noticing what was happening, sprang to her feet and chased the hog, which bumbled down the trail bearing the panties. I threw a rock, and the pig dropped the panties, which I quickly recovered. But the sudden excitement threw the poor Teresa into a coughing fit such as I had not seen before, and it was many minutes before she recovered, and sat droopily on the edge of the cot panting for breath.
Teresa then proceeded to tell me of her trials. Three year she has suffered with this illness. Last spring she was taken by her mother to Culiacán and spent some three months in the state hospital, presumably at state expense. There she had seemed to recover fairly well, but had fallen ill again almost as soon as she left. A state doctor had provided her with medicines for a while, gratis, and these seemed to help, but when she failed to respond sufficiently the doctor gave up on her, and refused to give her any more. The summer rainy season had put her in very bad stead, and with whatever money she could get hold of she had purchased medicines, mostly injections of vitamins, which did little good. She said that when she was in Mazatlán and eating meat she had been stronger, but that in Ajoya meat was, of course, seldom available, and costly. I asked her if she drank milk, and she said yes, that her mother brought her some most every day, at considerable sacrifice, and that sometimes she herself bought meat and other nutritious foods, but that on 10 pesos a day, which was what her husband earns working in el campo, and with four children to feed, they could not afford very much. Furthermore, work in el campo was available regularly only in las aguas. (The price of milk is 2 pesos a liter. Beef is 6 to 8 pesos a kilo, lard is 10 pesos a kilo. Medicines are exorbitant. For a bottle of thirty high-potency vitamin capsules Teresa paid 42 pesos. Antibiotics are even more expensive, and injectable medicines more yet.)
The problem in Ajoya, unlike in the more remote villages, is not that medicines are unavailable but that (1) medicines are so expensive relative to the daily wage that for the majority adequate medication is an impossibility, just as is adequate nutrition, and (2) there is incredibly little discretion in the use of medicines. Any medicine, from the most innocuous to the most dangerous, is available over the counter. Dr. Oseo, the village quack, vends, as nearly as I can make out, prescribes the most costly medicines possible for whatever provocation. A myth has spread in epidemic fashion through Ajoya that injected medicine is necessarily far more effective than medicine taken orally. Dr. Oseo sells injectable vitamins at 22 pesos a shot. La Teresa bought enough for three shots for 66 pesos (she could have purchased a month supply of capsules for the same amount) and after she had purchased and paid for them, Dr. Oseo did not show up to inject them, and the vitamins, as they were in solution and could not be kept cold, have probably deteriorated.
FOLK FEARS, FOLK CURES
I am wary of anyone who comes to me asking for a specific medicine, rather than to relate their symptoms. Today a woman came insisting that I give her some penicillin tablets. I asked for what, and she replied for dolor de cabeza. I told her that penicillin was not a painkiller, but the old woman would settle for nothing short of penicillin -- so she had to settle for nothing. (I thought of giving her aspirin and calling it penicillin. I am sure it would have done her more good than aspirin alone. But I decided against it.)
Another complication in Ajoya is folklore. I am convinced that many of the local cures and medicinal plants, of which there are hundreds, are of value. But there are also myths which definitely impair health rather than enhance it. For example, it is a common belief that citric fruits are extremely bad for the common cold, and for other ailments, for which Vitamin C would be of great benefit. Now that cold weather has set in after the winter rains, and the river is high for crossing, sniffles and colds and coughs are rampant in the village. This is the season when oranges and other citric fruit are available in great number. Everyday there are men and children passing through the streets, vending oranges at 10 centavos (less than a penny) a piece. One of the biggest health campaigns I have at present is to combat the anti-orange myth. It took me half an hour of constant persuasion to talk a boys mother into letting him have limas when he was febrile with the mumps and begging for them, Now the boy is one of my chief protagonists in the campaign, telling all his friends as one by one they come down with the mumps, that limas y naranjas cured him of the mumps. This is not strictly true, but it does help to counteract the popular myth.
There are other popular cures that are far from hygienic. For snakebite one of the recommended cures is to place still warm cow manure over the bite. This is supposed to draw the poison, and perhaps it does, but as infection is one of the frequent complications of snakebite, I cannot but believe that there might be safer cures, such as, for example, damp tobacco leaves, which are also recommended. (I first heard of this latter cure in El Naranjo, from an elderly gentleman who swore that he had applied it to a youth recently bit by a víbora de cascabel and that the bite cured with no swelling or reaction whatever. I asked if he himself had seen the snake and he said no. There are many species of non-venomous snakes which, vibrating their tails in dry leaves simulate the sound of a rattlesnake, thus frightening their enemies. I suspect the cure was so effective because the víbora de cascabel that bit the boy was in reality of a non-poisonous species.)
For a broken arm the use or human feces is advocated. Cayetano Fonseca, now 71 years-old, relates the time he fell from his mule as a boy and broke his right arm above the wrist, so that his hand flapped back against his elbow. His father treated it by stewing human excrement (“mierda de hombre, de mujer o de niño, cualquiera que haya”) together with the leaves of a plant called Cimbriadora until a paste was formed which was then applied to the broken arm. The arm was placed between two tablas de madera carved with a machete from pieces of wood and bound firm, and in two weeks it was completely cured.
I do not know whether human feces were used to treat my little friend Goya when he fell from the Huamuchil and broke his arm, but certainly the infection which finally led to the loss of the arm was rapid and severe.
In the afternoon as I returned from batallando con los coches, among the undergrowth which grows atop the cliff above the river, I passed a young man, built like a short bull and of no great intelligence, on his way in the direction from which I had come. With the hesitance and awe with which a monk approaches his god or a little boy approaches a policeman, he made a motion for me to stop. His eyes were wide and looked frightened. With a strong chunky finger he pointed to the side of his throat.
“Mire,” he said.
I looked, but didn’t see anything. “No veo nada,” I replied.
“No, nada,” said the young man with a tremulous half-smile. Then I remembered. Three months before, among the crowd of people who had come for medicine and treatment, had come this young man, complaining of an infected ear. I could not but notice his neck, swollen to half again its normal size on one side. When asked him if he would not like something to try to cure his buche (goiter) also, he looked at me as if I had suggested he sprout wings. But after considerable coaxing and reassurance from members of the household he took the pastillas de yodo, along with an antibiotic for his infected ear, and departed. Now three months later, there is no visible trace of the goiter. No wonder he suspected me of magic. I am a little awed myself.
HEX MARKS THE SPOT
Today as we passed a house opposite the plazuela, Goyo said to me, “Aquí vive la mujer que fue golpeada.” We went in, and I found there an old woman I had already been treating. For nearly a year since she was beaten she has lain huddling on a cot, suffering from broken bones that have healed out of place and from internal injuries that pain her constantly. But the ailment I have been treating her for at present is a persistent diarrhea, perhaps related to the injuries, which has gradually robbed her of all strength and flesh, until now her skin is stretched over her gnarled bones.
Until today I had not known who had beaten the old woman, or why, and had been told simply, le golpearon. (They beat her.) However, we were invited to lunch at the casa of Jesús Vega, having that same morning patched up the head of his young son who had fallen from a mule. I asked Jesús about the beating.
“Es un asunto de brujería,” he began. Nearly a year ago a woman in a neighboring house had fallen –ill, and, as no explanation for the illness could be found, the family decided that the old woman and her daughters had worked an hechiza (hex) against her, or given her the evil eye (mal de ojo). Four men of the family entered the house in the middle of the night, dragged the old mother and her two middle-aged daughters out into the dark, and les pegaron -- beat them with their fists, with kicks, and with the flat of a machete. The two daughters eventually recovered, but the old mother will doubtless die of the injuries. If she were younger I would send her to Mazatlán for treatment.
I asked if the men were punished. Well, yes, two of the four were taken to San Ignacio where they spent diez o quince días en la cárcel.
Here there is much talk of witchcraft. But Adrián’s mother tells me that por la Sierra, especially in Verano, there is much more brujería than here. She relates of a time she was talking with an old woman who, as the sun set, floated into the air and flew to a distant hilltop. She says that such things frighten her.
Two days ago Rafael Ramírez, whose son Cisto I had taken to Mazatlán to treat the infected dog-bite, came to Ajoya from Carrisál to beg for money to bury el ciego, Marcelino Cristín, in the panteón. Marcelino was already little more than a ghost when I had first seen him the evening I went to cure Rafael’s son. Bones covered by dark skin, his grey hair and beard having been cut for the last time years ago, he squatted on his haunches as motionless as a totem in front of the small hut, his boney arms clasped stoically about his knees. At night he sleeps on a small platform out of doors elevated about four feet above the ground. He coughed an asthmatic cough much of the night and I had brought him a medicine to calm it.
Marcelino was born blind, but had learned to make his way along the trails without eyes, and as a man had planted and harvested his own milpa a kilometer or more from where he lived. He had never married, and as he grew older lived with his sister only. A year and a half ago his sister was said to have committed a hichizo (witchcraft) against a member of the village, and was dragged from her house and beaten to death, leaving the blind and aged Marcelino alone. But el Síndico took no action against the offenders, who paid him off. Rafael Ramírez, although not related to Marcelino, took the blind man into his home out of compassion, and there he lived until he died. Now Rafael is raising the money to bury the old man in the panteón outside Ajoya. It costs about 100 pesos.
Ironically enough, at the very time I have been writing this, I have been confronted by another incidence of witchcraft, this time closer to home. A short while ago I was interrupted by a call to come quickly to the Casa Chavarín where a man was bleeding severely from a machete cut. The cut proved less severe than I expected, and was quickly cared for. However, while I was at the casa, the old Micaela called me aside and said she wanted me to talk with her daughter Sofia, wife of José Vidaca, about a skin condition she had. We went together into the yard behind the house, where, lowering her voice, Micaela proceeded to tell me that she suspected that Sofía’s illness was due to hexing. Furthermore she knew who was responsible... an old woman by the name of Cecilia Torres who lives in the casa next to la profesora of the school. According to Micaela, Doña Cecilia is well known for her witchcraft. “¡Y ella mató a mucha gente!” She had already hexed to death two relatives of her Ramón. Furthermore, she had a strong motive, for she was a cousin of the woman with whom José Vidaca had lived for many years in Verano, and with whom he had seeded children, and finally abandoned to marry Micaela’s daughter Sofia. The profesora – of all people – had told Micaela of the Doña Cecilia’s hechizos: how the old woman went at midnight to the panteón to gather earth from the graves of the dead, which she carried again to her house and molded into monos resembling those she wished to hex, how she would light four candles at the four corners of her bed and lying there in the candle light cast her magic... Furthermore, continued Micaela, her own son Chón had been in her house and seen the monos, dressed in clothes of colored cloth.
Micaela said she was telling me this now while José was away, because José refused to give the matter heed, saying it was nonsense, (Micaela said this as if it were José who was mis-educated.) The blind Ramón also thought it was nonsense, but Micaela was quite sure, and poor Sofia, reared on her mother’s tales, was inclined to agree.
As for the old Cecilia, I, too, have been in her house. I have treated her and her children and her children’s children for a variety of simple illnesses. And the old lady, in turn, has invited me to meals and has frequently given me eggs or a cup of atole when I have come to the house. She is old and she is wrinkled, but she is kindly, and no more of a witch than is the old Micaela.
Micaela told me that the last time I went to Mazatlán she had wanted me to take Sofía with her, so that she could go to a curandero there in order to cure the hex, however, that José had forbid it. Now she had hopes of sending her along, first to a curandero and then, if the cure proved unsuccessful, for a blood test. She said she hoped if the doctor gave her a receta for medicines I could supply them. I assured her I would if possible. In response to her insistence of witchcraft, I said very little. There seemed little point.
In the night as we were unfolding the beds to prepare for sleep the message was brought by a tall, thin man that a child was ill on the hilltop, in the casa of Candelario. Federico offered to guide me there, and we set off together, following a rocky trail which led between the casas and up the side of the hill behind the village. The mother, a stout, large-breasted woman met us at the door and ushered us to the bedside of her son, a boy of 16, small and young-looking for his age. The sides of the boy’s face and beneath his jaw were swollen, and covered with a bandana which was tied at the back of his head. I put my hand against his brow and it felt hot. This condition with the swelling behind the ears was described as coquetas. I thought it might be mumps, but I had already encountered a variety of hinchazones or swellings and facial infections, and was not sure. I went back down the hill and returned with a thermometer. The boy’s temperature was 104º. I gave him aspirin to help reduce the fever, and Vitamin C for good measure. I waited for awhile after giving the aspirin to see if the temperature would drop. All the while the mother hovered about the boy like a moth, full of worry. At last she stopped long enough to pour out the tale of how, three months before, her eight-year old daughter had fallen ill with a similar high fever. At first she had attempted to nurse the child with natural remedies, and then had called on Doctor Oseo -- actually not a trained doctor at all, but the closest thing that the village has. The doctor, she said, prescribed one costly medicine after another, and charged exorbitantly for every visit and every injection. The family had to beg, barrow, and sell their animals to pay for the treatment. In the end the child died.
The mother began to weep as she enumerated the ways in which Doctor Oseo took advantage of the poor people in their infirmity, and swore before Christ that she would never patronize him again.
A half hour or more had elapsed since I had given Adrián the aspirin. I took his temperature again, and it had already dropped to 103º. The frightened mother was enormously relieved. Adrián had been ill already for three days, and she was terrified that she might lose another child. I was deeply moved, overawed, by the intensity and immensity of her feeling.
The following morning I went to see Adrián again, and was delighted to find, on taking his temperature, that during the night it had dropped to normal. His mother, too, was delighted, but in spite all the evidence of improvement continued to worry and fret that he might have a relapse. That evening, in fact, Adrián did have a relapse, and I was sent for again. This time his temperature had soared to almost 105º. His head ached, his stomach ached, and although the swelling beneath his ears and jaw was mostly gone, a new, acute pain and swelling had developed on his right side roughly in the position of the appendix.
I thought it unlikely that the boy had appendicitis, but all the same I put him on Tetracycline. The mother had somehow obtained an injectable solution of Dicrysticina, a combination of Penicillin and Streptomycin, which she was bent on having me inject. I did not look forward to injecting, particularly in such unsterile conditions as a village casa the night before, the mother explained, a rat had fallen from the roof onto the boy’s face) but the mother was near hysterics in her concern, and the evident faith in the healing power of the needle seemed to be so great that I finally decided to inject, if only for the psychological benefit. It seemed to work. We sterilized the needle and syringe by boiling and no sooner had I injected than Adrián broke into a sweat. In a few minutes his fever had dropped to 103.
The next morning Adrián’s temperature was still about 103º, and that evening it rose again to over 104º and the pain in his abdomen was worse. I gave him another injection of Dicrysticina. Adrián’s temperature again began to drop. He had not eaten since the day before, although he had drunk much water, he developed a passionate craving for limas, and it was all I could do to convince his mother that this was precisely what he should have. Finally she sent her younger son out to get some, and Adrián consumed the sweet fruit with a relish.
It was another two days before Adrián’s temperature finally dropped to normal and stayed there. His infirmity, which I am sure a physician would have realized from the first, was a classical acute case of mumps. The virus had traveled from one to the other of his glands: from the salivary glands it went apparently to the pancreas and finally to the intestines, which enlarged to some three times their normal size. Also affected were his eyes and C.N.S.
Adrián’s case was one of the early incidents of the mumps which at present are striking nearly every family in Ajoya. Everywhere one goes, one sees persons, especially children, but grownups as well, with bulldog jaws swaddled with panuelos holding compresses of colomo leaves, an arum lily which grows wild in the moist ravines. So far, thank heaven, few people have been afflicted with high temperature, and I have been doing little more than prescribing bed (a recommendation seldom heeded) and giving aspirin. There would be little point in suggesting quarantine. Most of the houses have no more than one or two rooms, and the children have to sleep together anyway, for lack of blankets.
I am not sure I would make a good doctor. I tend to become too emotionally concerned about my patients. With Adrián for example, in the process of seeing him through his illness, my very mood seemed to vacillate with the highs and lows of his temperature. His recovery became a matter of dire importance and concern to me. I began to fear for him and to love him even as his mother does. The link I felt with him was that strong feeling which Walt Whitman conveyed toward the wounded and dying whom he attended in the hospitals during the war. A fearful compassion.
Both Adrián’s mother and father were enormously grateful to me for my services, and one evening, in trying to express their gratitude, they said they wished they were wealthy so that they could repay me, but that they didn’t possess anything of value... except children.
“De estos tenemos muchos,” said the father, Candelario. “Le regalamos uno para llevar consigo,” and laughing, he pointed to his son, Adrián, “Le regalamos esto, cuando se alivia.”
“Que bueno,” I said, and at the moment could not have thought of any riches I might have preferred.
Now Adrián is well, and stronger again with the vitamins. Yesterday we went out over the hill to the ravine which leads toward Naranjo, to photograph birds. He explained to me the names of different plants and birds, and led me to a secret guayaba tree he knew of, but the fruit were still green.
A mother came to me yesterday with a child, one year old, what looked like an emaciated 3-month old baby. The limbs were tiny and fleshless, the belly distended. The scalp of the child had a condition which I have now seen a score of times, called lepra by the villagers -- large, oozing, itching, unhealing sores. This condition, less aggravated, extended onto the child’s back. The silent, moodless child stared at me with enormous dark eyes ringed with crystallized pus. The mother’s complaint was that the child refused to eat.
“Won’t she even drink milk?” I asked.
“Si,” replied the mother, “pero leche no hay.”
She said it as if it were a god-given, unalterable fact.
“Pero ahora sí hay,” I said, and filled with fortified powdered milk a large coffee can with a plastic top. It was one of the cans which the spring before we had given away as a first aid kit, and whose contents having been long since used, a boy had returned to see if he could get a replacement...
I gave the milk to the mother, with instructions, and gave her also a supply of chewable children’s vitamins. I dusted an antibiotic powder on the child’s scalp, put an ointment on her back, and told the mother I would come soon to check on the child’s progress.*
Something strange happened to me as I was treating this child. I asked myself, why? Why was I treating it... a child so miserable, so impoverished, so near the easy door of death? Was I doing it a service or a disservice? What life lay ahead of it? What suffering? What illness? And finally, what death?
The mother, who had dismantled the child to show it to me, carefully rewrapped it, and folded her shawl around it in the cradle of her arm. Then she picked up the milk, the vitamins, and the ointment I had given her, and stood before me a moment, hope on her face, and embarrassment, not knowing how to thank me.
“Gracias,” she said, “que Diós le page.” “Por nada,” I said, and she left.
It was clear to me then why the child should be treated, and why it was right to do so. It was the mother’s concern, her love, that justified the child’s life. It was not just any child, miserable and sick with a hard life ahead of it, if it survived. It was a specific child, loved by a specific mother, and for this it deserved to live. It was love only that justified that child’s life. Unloved it might as well have died. Love can be cruel, possessive, unreasonable, but it cannot be denied. It is as real and as desperate in its demands as life itself. Perhaps love is the only justification any life has, or needs.
I do not know what is wrong with Julia, but I love what is right. Julia is what the people call inocente. Her speech is restricted to the vague sounds of a deaf-mute, although her hearing seems intact. She has more than twenty years behind her yet has all the sweetness of a little girl: all the sweetness and none of the meanness. She likes to hold Sofía’s baby in her arms and rock it back and forth, like a child with a doll. In the morning she carries water from the river on top of her head, like her sisters, but she is not strong; sometimes she fills the bucket too full, and her aging mother, Micaela, has to help her. As the sun rises she frequently takes the broom made of long willowy sticks tied together at one end, and sweeps clean the dirt calle in front of the casa. When the villagers come for medicines she stands in the background, watching intently as I prepare and give them remedies or treat the injured. When I glance at her she always smiles, bashfully but happily, and I smile back. She is simple and homely. I have never seen her angry or resentful. I don’t think she is capable of hate, but I am convinced she is capable of love. I don’t know if she loves everyone -- I think not -- but I feel that she loves me: with the open, complete and bashful love of a child for her hero. To her I am the epitome of what is good and right, and when I frown she frowns and when I laugh she throws back her head and laughs also. Her image of me is surely innocent and naïve, but the last thing in the world I would wish would be to shatter it.
DEATH OF A CHILD
A small girl met me on the calle and asked me to follow her to her house, which was near the river on the west end of town. I was ushered into a dark room where a number of figures stood silently around a cot on which sat a young woman, a white cloth bound tightly around her head, and in her arms a tiny baby wrapped in pieces of cloth. The shutters of the single window were opened partway to allow enough light to see. The baby had a high fever, and had not urinated for more than 24 hours, nor had it taken its mother’s milk. Earlier it had had diarrhea, first yellow, and then green. It had been born with a congested condition, and for this the family had acquired from Dr. Oseo a variety of antibiotics, including Chloromycetin. The fever had commenced some 24 hours after the injection of these drugs.
I did not know what to do. I returned to the Casa Chavarín and hunted through my manual of pediatrics and the Merck Manual but still I lacked both the equipment and knowledge for sensible treatment. I was afraid to give more antibiotics for fear the child was already suffering from drug fever or the like. Yet for all I knew a high dose of antibiotics might be what was required to save the infant’s life. One thing was probably imperative, and this I had no means of providing: intravenous feeding. On the off chance that the failure to urinate and fever were associated with heat exhaustion I prescribed a small quantity of electrolytic salts, together with a very small dosage of salicylic acid to lower the temperature, and pediatric vitamins.
As I left the house I was again caught by that uneasy feeling of questioning the value of life itself. This baby is so small, so sick, so soulless and still. It is far from beautiful to my eyes at least. My sympathies are more quickly aroused for a dog, or a squirrel, or a bird than for such an incompletely formed creature that has never lived, nor loved, nor known fear. As for its need in the large world, there is none. One more mouth to feed in a land already teaming with malnourished children.
But there is a need, an instinctive need, on the part of the mother and the family to keep this helpless creature alive. The mother and the family have lived and have loved and have known fear; and it is for them that the child must be saved.
I learned from the family of Ramona that the mother, up to now, has no living children, Already she has lost two, with similar illness, in the first week or so of life. That the child live was of great importance, not only for personal reasons, but for social as well. In Spanish countries a woman’s self-worth is in great part measured by her ability to bear and rear children. To be without children is to be abandoned by God.
But God, if there is one, abandoned her. In the night I was awakened from a dream of love-making by the howling of a dog... a high, painful wail, and I knew. In the morning, before the sun had risen the news came. I have still not gone to the house to make lamentations, and I don’t know if I shall go. I wonder what I could or should have done. I wish I knew more...
TWO BOYS, TWO HANDS
In spite of the fact that Ajoya is technically an Ejido (government-sponsored cooperative village), a tremendous amount of inequality remains. As in the days of feudalism there are still the few haves and the many have-nots. One can frequently estimate the relative wealth of a citizen of Ajoya by the measurement, of his girth. The haves are overweight, the have-nots underfed. While the have-nots suffer the hundred plagues of malnutrition the haves -- like Jesus Vega, the wealthiest landowner in town -- suffer from obesity, alcoholism, and resultant heart trouble. One can guess which type of family a child comes from by the rate at which he recovers from an injury. Nutritional deficiencies make infected, and even non-infected, injuries difficult and slow to heal.
For example, one very thin, pale little boy, named José María, mashed and lacerated the tip of his finger 8 days ago (3 days after I arrived) but in spite of the fact that I cleansed, sterilized and bandaged it carefully, an infection began. I applied topical antibiotic and gave him additional oral antibiotics and daily vitamin supplement. Today, when I re-bandaged the finger there was no more sign of infection. But there was also little sign of healing. At the rate it is curing, it will be a month before the finger can be finally un-bandaged.
By comparison, the day after José María damaged his finger, Ramiro Lomas, a larger, chubbier and better-fed boy from one of the more prosperous cattle and land owning families of the village, came to me with a badly lacerated hand. That morning the burro he was riding had bolted, and Ramiro, attempting to hang on, had closed his hand around the blade of his machete. The cut extended from the topside of the thumb, where it all but removed a large slab of skin and flesh, around and between the thumb and fingers and into the palm of the hand. Fortunately, no tendons had been severed. Several hours had passed since the injury, and the flap of flesh over the thumb had already turned grey and begun to shrivel. I thought it advisable to inject with Xylocaine before cutting away the flap. (The first injection I gave in Ajoya had been to a mule that same morning, and I was glad for the practice.) I injected in several places, excised the flap, and patched together the cut, using butterfly bandages rather than sutures. After applying antibiotic ointment I bandaged the hand firmly and put it in a sling. Five days later the deep cut had already knitted cleanly, and the decapitated section had gone a long way toward healing. Another two or three days and we will be able to remove the bandage altogether.
I can’t help wondering how much the difference in time of healing relates to the difference of the nutritional state of the two boys.
I have charged not one centavo for the various medicines or first aid treatment I have given in Ajoya. Yet I have not gone without reward. The biggest reward is the people’s response, their welcome, their acceptance of me. Constantly their appreciation is expressed in their salutations and their gifts. A boy brings me a cup of arrojada de chiva (whey from goat cheese); Caytano’s wife calls me into her house and gives me some freshly made requesón (salt-cheese) and a cup of Chocomil. A young man comes shortly after dawn with freshly roasted venado (venison) from a deer he shot on el cerro the day before. A little girl stumbles through the rain with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn.
Now, as I am writing here, an old man approaches from behind as I sit at my typewriter, and watches silently until I pause, touches his rheumatic knee and smiling a toothless smile says, “Ya me alivié mucho.” Then he reaches into a bucket containing three oranges and hands me the fattest. “Yo me guardé ésta para usted.”
And again this afternoon, as I pass the house of José el Cazadór, he calls me in, his wife gives me a seat, and places a saucer full of freshly roasted chunks of meat, “A ver si le gusta.”
I ask what kind of meat it is, but, he says again, grinning, “A ver si le gusta.” I try it and assure him it is delicious.
(In fact, it was one of the best meats I have ever eaten.) “¿Pero qué es?” I ask again, and he replies, “Es solitario,” which tells me nothing. (So far I have learned of el solitario only as the giant tape-worm, which afflicts some of the children in the village.) From José’s description it appears this solitario is some sort of groundhog or marmot, with large incisors, living among the rocks high in el monte. *[*I learned later that solitario is an adult male coati mundi, or tejón, which habitually separates from the pack and remains ‘solitary’.]
Every day there are gifts such as these. They are never given as pay, or with a sense of debt. Rather the gifts are given as tokens, as symbols of welcome and appreciation; I do not know much of what is said behind my back. I am sure I must seem a strange kettle of pescado to many in the village. I don’t dance, I don’t smoke, I don’t drink, not even coffee, I stumble sometimes walking over the rocks, I frequently bathe in the river in the middle of the night, I don’t wear a sombrero except to protect my head from the rain or from the sun, I don’t even shave every week or two like everyone else. And most un-accountable of all, I give away medicines free. But I am sure all these aberrations the people account for by my being a Gringo, and forgive.
The people as a whole seem to place great trust in my powers as a medicine man. I have to say again and again, to remind them, that I am not a qualified doctor and that my knowledge of medicine is greatly limited. But they seem to put down such statements as modesty. Already some of the medicines have had some spectacular results, and this tends to confirm the people’s faith.
I have, however, also made some blunders, none of them, so far, thankfully irredeemable.
My first goof (that I know of) was semantic in origin. I gave a young man a laxative for a stuffy nose. He came complaining of constipado and a bad headache. I fished out a small jar of Sal Hepatica from my laxative box, and in somewhat uncertain Spanish explained the dosage and effect. As he listened his eyes became wider and wider, especially when I told him that if he didn’t have a bowel movement within half an hour after taking the Sal Hepatica he should take a second tablespoonful. He kept insisting that he had no other ailment than constipado and mal de cabeza and I kept assuring him that his mal de cabeza was in all probability a result of his constipado and that, with the sure, gentle action of Sal Hepatica both symptoms would find swift relief. He remained wide-eyed and amazed, but at last I got him to assure me he would take the medicine...
I have not seen the young man since, but it was reported to me that he had been plagued by a sudden attack of diarrhea. However, as the cases of diarrhea in Ajoya are so numerous, we shall attribute the attack to natural causes.
My second error in treatment proved to be of far more serious nature than the first, and I regret it much. One day Chón, the deaf-mute came to call me to see his mother, María, who was evidently in great pain. I found the old lady lying on a cot and moaning with pain. She had a fever, and said she had been suffering this way for more than a week. She complained of pain in urinating. I returned with tablets of Azogantanol, a sulfonamide designed especially for genito-urinary infections which I gave her according to the dosage in the P.D.R. The next day around noon I was met once again by the deaf-mute, who indicated to me that his mother was worse, and that I come at once. The poor woman was weeping with pain, which seemed to have extended to other portions of her body. Her husband, as old and wrinkled as she, sat on the cot beside her, pressing and massaging her back in a vain effort to relieve the pain. She complained of blood in her urine, having started since the commencement of the medicine. (As I learned later, it was only the red dye in the medicine, but it frightened us both at first.) I gave her a strong analgesic, which did little good, and at last had to put her on sedatives, which finally gave some relief. Not knowing what to do, I stopped all administration of sulfa, and little by little she improved.
As ever, troubles seem to come in numbers. The day that the old María turned for the worse with the medicine I’d given her, was the same day that Adrián, whose temperature the day before had dropped to normal, suddenly took a turn for the worse, soaring to almost 105º. I feared it might be some sort of reaction to the medicine. (It wasn’t.)
The combination of these factors filled me with a sudden and stunning sense of failure. It seemed to me the inevitable nemesis for presuming to practice this art for which I was utterly untrained. I kept trying to reassure myself that if there were two or three patients who had taken a turn for the worse as a result of my administration, there were 100, 200 who had been relieved. But I could not reassure myself. What if one of these patients died? What if two or even three died? ... and the fault was mine. I was afraid.
I tried not to let my fear show, but as I made my way up the trail to see a woman on the east side of town who was stricken with severe bronchial asthma, an enormously ugly, stumpy, dirty-white, one-eyed dog which previously I had passed a dozen times before without disturbing, sensed my radiating fear and darted out suddenly, closing its jaws around my leg. Fortunately it was malnourished, and did not bite very hard.
GOYO AND HIS FAMILY
If there is one child in Ajoya that my heart has gone out more than all the rest, it is Gregorio Reyes. Goyo is eleven years-old, sprite-like, with a complexion fairer than most of type children here. His eyes are not the characteristic dark, dark-brown of the other children, but hazel. Goyo can see with only one of his eyes, and he has only one arm. Yet Goyo can hold his own with almost anyone. My heart goes out to him not because of his deficiency but because of his surplus, because he is so alive, so mischievous, so responsive, and --like many eleven year olds-- so unfathomable.
The first time I saw Goyo was some eight months ago when our group from Pacific High School first brought medicines to the Sierra Madre. Accompanying us at that time was a kindly, middle-aged Mexican, named Antonio, also with only one arm, who had worked as gardener for the mother of one of our students.
Our group was sitting in one of the casas waiting for our burro driver when Goyo first appeared. Unlike the other children who crowded the doorway to stare mutely at the strange group of Gringos, Goyo stepped inside and greeted us individually with a radiant and welcoming smile. From the start, Antonio and Goyo, each missing an arm, identified with each other like brothers, and as we walked through the village, or stopped in a tienda or along the street to talk, one could not help but smile at the big man and the little boy, each with his single arm affectionately around the shoulder or waist of the other.
Although very poor himself, Antonio bought Goyo soft drinks and dulces in the tiendas, and the boy beamed at being so pampered. Goyo quickly appointed himself our guide and helper. In the afternoon when the blazing sun of the Spring droughts burned down upon the dusty village, Goyo led us along a trail and across the hot rocks to a beautiful green swimming hole in the Rio Verde. Then Goyo stripped off to swim I noticed that he also had long ugly scars on his thin thighs, a result of the same accident in which he had lost his arm and his eye.
This December when I arrived again in Ajoya, Goyo was quick to make his appearance. The first heavy downpour of my first day in the village had gradually subsided. Little by little the word of my arrival had been spreading and people were beginning to appear for medicines and treatment. Goyo arrived, his thin shirt and trousers soaked. He greeted me ecstatically, remembering my name. We shook left hands, and as I proceeded to examine the ailing villagers and parcel out appropriate medicines, Goyo was constantly at my side. He would fetch pillboxes for me and put the lids back on bottles, holding the bottle between his knees. There were some things he could do better with one good hand than I can do with my two bad ones. At one point when I was fumbling to untie a difficult knot on a carton of medicines, Goyo held out his hand and said, “Dámelo.” Quickly and deftly he untied it with his teeth. I have seen Goyo use his mouth, his knees, or his feet as a second hand. Single-handedly he can saddle, halter and mount his family’s black burro, called Canijo. To get the tight rope halter over the animal’s head, he takes Canijo’s long ears in his mouth and tugs them under the strand.
At first I was hesitant to talk with Goyo about the loss of his arm or his eye. I could see his jaw muscles tighten when people referred to him as el mochito (Little Stumpy), and when we would stop in Ramona’s store or at the houses of the sick, and some well-intending person would begin to sympathize about Goyo, calling him pobrecito, or describing the tragic loss of his limb three years before, Goyo would stand silently, looking down, or drift to the doorway, staring into the distance. At times he would disappear altogether, to join me again when I left the abode...
(Sometime I want to tell him that I know how he feels. I can remember only too well how, as a child, other children imitated my strange gait, and how they nicknamed me Rickets. I want to tell him also that I understand the cruelty of sympathetic words at a time when one is eager to be appreciated not for what is wrong with him, but for what is right. But as yet I have not found the occasion to say these things to Goyo, and perhaps they are best left unsaid.)
The first time that I visited at Goyo’s casa someone asked what was the matter with my hands. I explained quietly that it was an inherited wasting away of the muscles. Up to this point Goyo had made no reference to my condition, but now that the subject had been raised he took hold of one of my hands, examined it carefully, and cried out, in joy, “¡Mira, Mamá, David tiene parálisis en las manos!” His mother, continuing to roll out the dough for coricos with an empty bottle as a rolling pin, said simply, “Sí, hijo, sí.”
Goyo and his family live in Las Chicuras, a small settlement of six primitive casas in the hills on the far side of the river from Ajoya and about three miles away. A small spring, or aguaje, in a deep arroyo provides year-round water for the families who live there. Every day Goyo and his 14-year old brother, Martín, walk the three miles to school in Ajoya, wading across at a shallows in the river.
One morning I was sure that Goyo would not arrive, for it had been raining off and on for three days, and the evening before the river had begun to rise. At dawn the river was swollen and tumultuous. Its waters were yellow and the islands I had seen the day before were covered. But Goyo appeared as usual, wet and beaming. I have since seen him cross the river, stark naked, holding his clothes over his head in his one hand, while the yellow waters swirled past him up to chest-deep. Now, every time it rains and the river rises, I find myself fearing for what might happen to Goyo should he lose his footing in midstream. But so far he has never lost it, and he is fearless.
The home where Goyo lives together with his mother, father, aunt, and six brothers and sisters, is a small one-room adobe but on the crown of a hill. Inside the hut are a large corn crib, two hand-hewn, rope-strung cots, and a crib suspended from the middle of the roof. In addition to the doorway, which can be blocked with a pole frame covered with pieces of cardboard, there is but one small window. The room is used for little more than sleeping and the storage of grain. The parents sleep on one cot, two of the older boys and one girl on the other cot, and the rest of the children curl up on deerskins on the floor, sharing a common blanket. The room is also frequented by rats and literally thousands of chinches or bedbugs, as I can testify from the three rather sleepless nights I have so far spent within its walls.
The earth pretil with its stove and dome-shaped oven are in front of the casa, beneath a tiled canopy. Here in the open air is where the meals are cooked and eaten. Each day the girls carry water on their heads in earthen jugs from the aguaje an eighth of a mile away while the bays scrounge wood from the surrounding hillsides and chop it for the fire. I have watched Goyo chopping wood on a rainy morning by placing the handle of the heavy axe in his crotch in order to hoist it with his thin arm over his head. Once, when he was struggling with an especially obstinate log I offered to split it for him, and he gladly turned the axe over to me. The entire family held its breath as I raised the axe over my head, and when I cleaved the log neatly in two they all laughed with relief and delight, saying that they didn’t know I knew how to chop wood. Because I have already demonstrated myself as utterly ignorant of horsemanship they wrongly assume that I am ignorant of all other physical skills.
Goyo’s family, like many of the other families in el campo surrounding Ajoya, is very poor. During the rainy season they raise a little corn on a hillside high above their house, and during the rest of the year Goyo’s father seeks what work he can, at 10 or 12 pesos a day, from the local ranch owners. The food is often inadequate. The first day I arrived at Goyo’s invitation his mother was mortified because she had nothing whatever to provide me (or the rest of the family) for dinner except puras tortillas. Not even frijoles. The family does have a few chickens which seldom lay, a pig, and two, thin dogs. What meat they eat comes mostly from the wild game; venado, cüiche, armadillo, and sometimes javelín, which they manage to kill in los cerros. But even this meat is little and far between, for the game is wary, the rifle is old, and frequently they don’t have money to buy ammunition.
Milk and vegetables form no portion of the diet. Goyo’s mother, Jesús, through deficiency in her own diet, has very little milk in her breasts for her hungering baby, whose diet she supplements with sugar water and bean broth. I was quick to present her with a gallon jug full of vitamin-fortified powdered milk, but she is one mother out of hundreds in the same boat. (My impression is that the average mother loses one quarter to one third of her offspring in infancy.)
For all their poverty there is a tremendous warmth and radiance about the entire Reyes family. There are tears enough but there is more laughter. Food, even the most meager, is always a source of delight, the small children fairly glowing as they stuff the hot tortillas into their mouths. The children invent games with stones and sticks, and bits and pieces of anything they can get their hands on. But soon they learn, in half play, half work, to help maintain the household. Goyo’s younger sister, one morning took great pride and pleasure in repairing the earth pretil (cooking platform) which the burro, having broken into the enclosure, had damaged during the night. She mixed mud and water to the consistency of dough, patted it into the places where pieces were broken out, and then carefully covered the new surface with ashes from the fire.
As for myself, I felt completely welcome and accepted in the Reyes family. Soon after my arrival we were laughing and swapping tales like old friends. From the first, even the youngest children had no fear whatever of me, would bring things to show me or would stand quietly beside me, leaning their heads against my legs or gently taking hold of my hand.
I marvel most of all at the mother, Jesús, as she works tirelessly and buoyantly, gossiping and laughing as she works. It occurred to me as I watched her, that it is the women who hold together the family in a Mexican village. The newlywed bride is frequently timid and unsure while the groom is assertive and possessive, but as the years go by, and the men lose their strength and their courage, the women seem to grow stronger, more certain, and the household begins to revolve about them. I have noticed that in virtually all the families where the heads of those families have reached their middle years or beyond, the house, or the family, is not referred to as that of the man, but of the woman. I have learned quickly enough when asked where I am staying in Ajoya to reply, “En la casa de Micaela.”
By the end of my first evening in Las Chicuras I knew that I had once again found a family that I could consider mi familia and a home that I could consider mi hogar.
GOYO AND HIS FALL
I have been making an effort to learn the local names and uses of the native trees and plants, and Goyo as well as many of the other children and young men of the village enjoy teaching them to me. One day as Goyo and I were making our way to Las Chicuras, taking turns atop the black burro, we passed under a large huamuchil tree -- one of the commonest trees of the open swales and grasslands at this elevation (about 1.500 feet) -- and Goyo proceeded to tell me that it was from one of these trees that he had fallen when he had lost his arm and his eye. He had been balancing on one of the highest limbs, reaching out to pick one of the long twisted fruits, when he slipped. His right eyebrow and right arm had struck the rocks below. The optic nerve was severed in his right eye, and his arm broken above the wrist. He was carried to his house, a small, one room adobe structure on top of the hill. The compound fracture was treated crudely by his father, with a make-shift cast made by soaking the oiled juice of an arum-lily called solde-con-solde into a flannel cloth, wrapping it around the arm, and letting it harden. But as the fractured arm swelled up, circulation was cut off, causing dry gangrene and finally infection. In two days the swelling extended all the way to the body. The boy’s father, Remedios, went into Ajoya to try to raise money to take Goyo into the city for treatment, but those who had money in the village did not wish to share it. By the third day the arm was rank with putrefaction, which extended nearly to the shoulder. The right side of the child’s body, neck and face had begun to discolor. Again Remedios petitioned for money, and managed to scrape together a few pesos from relatives. On the fourth day he and his wife, Jesus, carried the boy on burro-back to Ajoya, and from there took the truck to San Ignacio. They went from door to door of the merchants and landowners, asking for the wherewithal to save the life of their son, but received little response. They proceeded to Mazatlán, bearing the delirious child in their arms. There, at last, they encountered a doctor who agreed to treat the child gratis, and arranged to have a special medicine flown in from the States. Goyo lived, but it was too late to save his arm. It was severed near the shoulder. He remained two months in the Hospital Civil, while his parents wandered the streets of Mazatlán, scrounging their sustenance, and visiting their son whenever possible.
The accident left Goyo with many strange scars. One of the strangest is his present attitude toward money, and correspondingly toward people. Money! More than most village children his age he has been made painfully aware of its power. His life has been placed in the balance with it. He has witnessed his parents, frantic efforts to secure it to save his life, and he has seen his mother’s eyes as request after request was refused. The tremendous love of his parents for him has somehow become associated with their effort to get the money to cure him. Money and love in his mind have become confused: his instinctive need for love has become a compulsive desire for money, and he has come to measure affection in terms of material gifts. A gift alone is of course a poor measurement of affection and he constantly seeks to reassure it: his appetite is insatiable. He begs, and continues to beg until, sooner or later, the donor, no matter how fond of him, has to draw the line and refuse him, and then he is hurt and feels rejected. Old Micaela, who has little patience with Goyo, tells me that he has already begged to the limit every person in Ajoya who would give him a centavo, and when the limit was reached he invariably has become angry and abusive, frequently threatening to do damage to whoever has previously befriended him. Now, she says, he has made the habit of cornering and bleeding to their limit every newcomer. She also says that he is muy ambustero and I confess the boy has already demonstrated himself to me as a compulsive and inveterate liar.
As for myself, I have a weakness when it comes to certain young boys such as Goyo. Their youth, their curiosity, their crude grace, their candor, their reactivity appeal greatly to me. It is easy for me to like them, to enjoy them, and to tolerate their misdoings. Goyo is a perceptive child when he wants to be and has been quick to spot, and take advantage of this weakness of mine. When he asks me for something, I have great difficulty in not giving it to him. To date I have given far more to him than to any other child in Ajoya. I have also refused him far more. The first thing I gave him was a sweater I had brought with me from the States. Next I bought him a pair of huaraches (he arrived the first day wearing only one sandal, having lost the other crossing the river some weeks before). Next I bought him a sombrero, next a shirt, next a belt. But he would react to each gift as a drug addict reacts to a shot in the arm: ecstatically, head in the clouds, romping and dancing with delight -- and then, frequently after only a few minutes, he would explain to me that he needed some other item of clothing (the need was usually obvious) or that he had not eaten, or that his mother had asked him to buy some lard but had forgotten to give him the money, etc. etc. -- and could I, would I...?
And if I would, he would be up dancing on another cloud, for a few moments until he would ask for something else. And if I wouldn’t, he would trail after me, pouting, hoping that I would soften and give in, or disappear in a huff, sometimes refusing to speak to me when I would greet him the following day. I do not know if it is good for me to give Goyo as much as I have. But it is difficult for me to refuse, and he knows it. One complicating factor is that Goyo is frequently present when old Micaela calls me to lunch, or when during a home visit to a sick person I am invited to a meal, or to partake in some delicacy. In such cases, I am invited at the good grace of my hosts, and am in no position to ask if Goyo – who is in much greater need of a good meal than I – can join me in the feast. So Goyo will stand quietly in the background, thin and hungry, while I dine on meat, or eggs, or cheese, or other foods which he almost never has the chance to enjoy. And I know all the time that in my pocket is the money for him to dine likewise. I try to tell myself – and at times I try to tell him – that it’s not fair for me to give to him when I don’t have the wherewithal to give to all the rest of the malnourished children in the village. But somehow such an argument is not sound. Could I not argue similarly that it is not fair to help the people of Ajoya when México and the whole world are full of equally deprived villagers? The fact is that I am closer to Ajoya than other villages, at the moment, and by the same token I am closer to Goyo than to the other children. Is not his welfare, then, more my personal responsibility?
The problem that remains is what is really best for Goyo: to continuously give in to his compulsive need, or to refuse. It is very evident that it is not so much the gift itself, but the fact that it is given, that is important to him. Yet I know how he feels. The food offerings that are presented to me every day – the orange from the orange vender, the platter of suero from the wife of old Cayetano, an egg from little Ramón, a chunk of tough beef from Fidel – these are what I depend upon for my diet and my health, but their value is far more to me than nutritional. Given spontaneously, with a sense of appreciation rather than debt, these gifts are to me a testimony of the peoples’ welcome and concern for me. They feed more than my body. The same I’m sure is true of gifts for Goyo, except that Goyo presses the giver to the point that he gives grudgingly or not at all, so that the gift becomes hollow, little more than the thing itself. The result is an enormous deflation of value and consequent panic to make up by the accumulation of sheer numbers, Goyo’s whole sense of personal worth seems dependent on his success or failure in hitting someone up for a peso.
Whether Goyo’s accident, with the loss of an arm and an eye, is what led to his present behavior I am not sure. Old Micaela insists he was the same way before the fall. I do not know. When it comes to persons she doesn’t care for, Micaela is a more inveterate liar than Goyo himself. However, Micaela points out that Goyo is different from all the other children in the village, even from those in his own family, and this is indisputable.
With his younger siblings it is as yet difficult to say, but certainly Goyo’s two older brothers appear as modest and stable as Goyo is presumptuous and flighty. Goyo’s 16-year old brother, Camilo, never had the chance to go to school. He is quiet to the point of being taciturn and enjoys nothing more than wandering alone through the bushy hills in search of game to help feed the family. Goyo’s 14 year-old brother, Martín, tends also to be quiet, but when given the opportunity and attention becomes exuberant. Both he and Goyo began school at the same time, two years ago, when the family moved to their present shelter only three miles from the village. There is no question that Martín is bright. He soon skipped a grade, and at present can read and write better than many a child his age in the United States, although he is still in the third grade. Other than his school books, he has nothing to read but a now tattered copy of La Lámpara de Aladín which our Pacific group presented to Goyo last springtime. He knows the story by heart.
Goyo by contrast, has done very poorly in school. Where Martín has skipped, Goya has flunked. He is still in the first grade, and still has difficulty in distinguishing certain letters such as b and d, and minding his Ps and Qs. Part of the difficulty is that in writing with his left hand he completely inverts his paper, writing upside down. I have been trying to get him to correct this by making lists for him with drawings of animals. Goyo is certainly not stupid, and may even be brighter than Martín. His endless foils and pranks and deceptions demonstrate enormous cleverness. But at school – when he goes – he is inattentive, and with his handicap has acquired the attitude that he can achieve only through trickery, if at all. Yet now he tells me he has aspirations of going far in school, and eventually becoming a doctor.
But Martín is the scholar. He never tires of picking my brain in matters of astronomy, geography, other languages, etc. Sometimes when I am working with Goyo on his readings, Martín will drift quietly in and begin reading over Goyo’s shoulder. When this happens, Goyo suddenly discovers something else to do that requires his urgent attention, and takes off. Martín picks up the book and proceeds to read aloud.
I had not realized quite how strong was the rivalry between Goyo and Martín until one day, while I was visiting, I overheard a conversation between Martín and his mother. Martin’s pants were wearing through in the seat, exposing his bare bottom. “You sit too much!” exclaimed his mother. It was one of those drizzly days of the cabanuelas and Martín was about to take off for Ajoya to get a few supplies with the centavos that he had earned selling his mother’s coricos at the practice for Los Pastores the night before. He and his mother were debating as to whether to take one of their hens, which wasn’t laying, to sell for the price of a pair of pants. “Pero no se puede comprar pantalones con seis pesos” pointed out Martín. “No”, agreed his mother, “No alcanza.”
“¿Cuanto vale un par de pantalones?” I asked.
“Pues, como 18 pesos, por ahí.”
I took a twenty-peso note from my pocket and handed it to Martín, saying, “Para comprar pantalones.” He gasped, then grinned, taking the note with trembling fingers. “Diós le page,” he said, and grinning at the note in disbelief, again, “Diós le page.” He took off down the muddy hill in the rain.
I had not thought about or even noticed Goyo during this transaction, but now I turned and noticed that he was standing bareheaded in the rain, some distance from the shelter, his back turned. I walked toward him, but when I drew close he walked away. Sensing his predicament I followed, trying to reassure him, but he turned to me and said in a short burst (if I am translating correctly), “I’m not going to saddle the burro to take you back across the river. Martín can take you.”
“You’re upset because I gave him the money for pants?” I asked. “No,” said Goyo, “I don’t care.” And then, “It’s better that you go back with Martín.” I struggled to find the right words in Spanish, and then said, “Look, because I help your brother to buy a pair of pants doesn’t mean I care less for you. You know I like you much.”
Goyo shrugged his small shoulders and the rain trickled down his face and sparkled in droplets on the green knit sweater I’d given him. “All that doesn’t matter to me at all,” he said. “But I need a pair of pants more than Martín.”
I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. Suddenly my Spanish, with which I have so far managed to express myself tolerably well, seemed grossly inadequate. I put my hand on Goyo’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. “Come on,” I said. “We’re getting wet. Let’s get out of the rain.” I turned and headed back toward the shelter. Goyo allowed me a considerable lead, and then slowly followed.
The rain began to slacken and finally all but stopped. “Vamos a mirar a los pajaros,” I said to Goyo, taking up my binoculars. “No,” said Goyo. “No me gusta los pajaros.” “Como quiere,” I said, and set out.
But soon Goyo was behind me, saying, “Vamos por el Arroyo Grande.” “Bueno,” I said, and we went down into the meadow below to catch and saddle the donkey.
We started on our way riding double, I in the saddle, Goyo behind swatting the burro’s backside with a piece of rope and shouting, “¡Apúrete, Canijo!” We followed the winding trail to the aguaje and then started up the sandy arroyo, stopping every few steps to look at the exotic birds --squirrel cuckoos, magpie jays, painted buntings, motmots, and many others -- which flew up in front of us. Goyo knew the names of some of them, others not. Once on our way, Martín and the need of new pants were forgotten, and we enjoyed the countryside surrounding us.
We followed the arroyo for about an hour and a half, then climbed abruptly over a ridge and dropped down into a deep arroyo on the other side, flanked by giant fig trees and guácimas, through which ran a sizable stream. Eventually we came to a small hut, some fifteen feet square, the walls of which were made of branches woven in basket fashion. The hut was enclosed by a pole fence, and inside the yard were papayos and lemon trees and many flowering shrubs. Goyo knew the name of every one of them, for this had been his birthplace and childhood playground... It was as beautiful and primitive as the Garden of Eden.
Goyo led the burro inside the enclosure, and we were invited into the small hut by Goyo’s uncle, Timoteo. Timoteo was a young man, 24 years the younger brother of Remedios. His young bride, already with her third child on its way, still had all the freshness and wondering innocence of a child, and could not have been more than 17 or 18. They insisted I sit in the single chair, and the girl began to grind corn on the stone metate to prepare a meal for us. For more than two years since they had lived there she had been grinding her corn thus, for they had never been able to afford the thirty pesos for a molina.
While his wife prepared the tortillas and skewered pieces of venison to braze over the flames, Timoteo asked me to look at his first-born. I had already looked. She was a heavy set, dull looking child of two years, with thick skin, large head and neck, tongue lolling out between swollen lips. Totally deaf, the little girl was retarded both physically and mentally. (I recognized the condition at once as cretinism (hypothyroidism), the incidence of which is high in the villages of the Sierra Madre, as is that of goiter and other thyroid deficiencies. One of the sons of Gregorio Alarcón, now about 15 years old, also has many of the symptoms of cretinism. He looks like and seems to have the mentality of a gorilla. He does what he is told, and is good for bringing water from the river. For many days I greeted him with a friendly, “Buenos días,” but (although he can talk a little in a weak, high-pitched voice) he has never responded, and now when he stares at me I ignore him. When I think of the amount of suffering and unhappiness a little iodine in the salt here in Mexico might avoid...)
Timoteo took his son in his arms and hugged him lovingly, asking if there was any medicine which might help him. I said I would try to do what I could with thyroid tablets, but that there was little hope for his ever being normal.
“¿Pero con la medicina él puede andar?” asked the father anxiously.
“Yo espero que sí,” I replied.
“¡Ojalá!” cried Timoteo, and smiled at his young wife.
I felt like walking most of the way back from the Arroyo Grande, and Goyo rode Canijo. The blanket of clouds had begun to break, and the late afternoon sun streamed in horizontal rays through the dripping short-tree forest, giving a golden hue to the droplets of water which clung to the lacy leaves of the chinito bushes. On the downhill stretch the burro broke into a run, and I too, suddenly feeling young and alive, ran also, bounding precariously down the steep muddy trail. Goyo, twisting around in the saddle to watch me, laughed with delight and whipped the burro into a faster gait.
When we arrived back at Las Chicuras, Martín had already returned from Ajoya with his new pants, but was distressed because they were already snug on him and his mother, knowing how untreated cloth shrinks, insisted that he take them back. Before Goyo had time to ask me, I told him to try on the trousers. They fit him well, but loose enough to allow for shrinkage. I told him he could keep them. Goyo danced with delight.
I gave Martín another 20 pesos to buy himself a larger size. He took the money and thanked me courteously, but there was a hurt look in his eyes and I realized that for him, too, it had been very important that he, this once, be the sole recipient of my gift.
NEVER CRY WOLF
Today (December 23) Ramona’s little brother came running up to me full of excitement, crying, “¡La Ramona dice que venga!”, and as I set off down the road I was met by other children, shouting to me, “¡Hay noticias!”
The letter had been brought by Pancho, a juvenile friend of Ramona, on his return from San Ignacio. It was from my friends, the Wolfs, whose arrival with the other portion of the medicines I have been eagerly awaiting. They were to arrive December 28, but their letter tells me they have decided not to make the trip all the way, but to send the medicines by mail from this side of the border. They say the medicines ought to arrive by the day they planned to be here.
Let’s hope so! It has not rained now for four or five days (although nearly every day it threatens) and the river has fallen nearly to normal. I am eager to get on my way, for each day I stay in Ajoya binds me closer to the people here, and makes leaving more difficult. Some of the villagers have even threatened, good-naturedly, to amarrarme (tie me down) if I try to leave for Verano. I have assured them that I will leave some medicines here, and will return de vez y cuando.
At the beginning of December when we passed through them, the cities of Sonora and Sinaloa were already busily decorated for Christmas, loud and cheap embellishment, in imitation of the commercialization of Christmas in the United States. Here in Ajoya there is nothing of the sort. Today is Christmas Day and the village bears the same quiet face it wore the day or the week or the month before.
This Christmas day I have received many gifts. Shortly after noon I set out toward the far end of town to call on a boy with an acute case of mumps. At last the swelling of his testicles was subsiding. The grandmother of the youth, dark and crumpled as a leaf in primavera, presented me with an armful of maíz rosero with which to make palomitas or flores de maíz (popcorn). As she was loading my arms, another woman, who had seen me enter the casa, arrived and presented me with three small eggs, which she placed on top of the corn. At the gate a thin boy, about 10 years old with a reddish mancha or birthmark on his face was waiting for me. His father, in a casa on the hilltop, was ill, and he asked would I go with him. As we cut across the churchyard and followed a small trail behind the houses on the main street we were hailed from a tiny window at the back of one of the houses. On turning I saw two thin arms, shiny with age extending from the window. In each hand were several limas. “Que las ponga en su bolsa,” said the little old woman. Pockets bulging with fruit, arms with corn and eggs, and my assent up the steep hill was restricted. The boy led me to his house. I recognized his father as a man who a week before had summoned me to feast on guayabas he had just gathered. Now he was lying on a cot and covered with a blanket. The mumps had struck again, and struck low. He was in considerable pain. I told him I’d dispatch a sedative for him, and the boy accompanied me to take the tablets back. Two houses further along the way I was hailed again, this time by a woman who wanted me to look at her husband, who on examination seemed to be developing some sort of a large tumor of the abdomen. He has no pain nor any other symptoms than this large, hard, swelling in his belly. I have no idea what to do for him and recommended he see a doctor. I continued on my way, still accompanied by the boy. On the way back down the hill, one of the women I had treated for kidney infection, and apparently had temporarily made worse, summoned me inside to give me an aguinaldo (Christmas gift). Seating me under the lemon tree from which the golden fruit had been gathered, she gave me a saucer-full of conserve de limones which had been prepared by rasping off the skin of the lemons, boiling them with spices, drying them in the sun, and then boiling them with sugar. They were delicious.
One function more than any other – and in the village of Ajoya there is no other – makes Christmas, Christmas. This is a musical skit, repeated in ritual form each year, and called Los Pastores (The Shepherds). The presentation of Los Pastores in Ajoya was composed many years ago, I was told, by a man in the neighboring village of Güillapa, and enacted every year on Christmas Eve in Las Chicuras, and on Christmas Day in the iglesia of Ajoya.
Practice for Los Pastores begins weeks before Christmas. Every Saturday night the band of 12 men, one woman, a boy and a girl, plus prompters, assemble at one or another of the casas in Las Chicuras, across the river some two miles from Ajoya. The wade across the cold river and the night walk does not prevent a crowd of people coming from Ajoya to view the practice performances and returning in the wee hours of the dawn. The villagers enjoy the use of flashlights or carbide lamps if available, but if not, stride along the precipitous and rocky trails in pitch darkness with apparent impunity.
I first witnessed Los Pastores two weeks before Christmas, on the invitation of Goyo to spend the night with his family in Las Chicuras. It must have been eight or nine o’clock when the practice began. All afternoon and evening Goyo’s mother had been making coricos -- flat, unleavened doughnuts made from ground corn (masa) and raw cane sugar (panocha) -- to sell at 20 centavos apiece at the practice. She placed these in a pail and gave them to Martín, who was coming down with the mumps, to vend. Then we all set off along the steep trail to a very small house on the flat below. In front of this adobe was an oblong pavilion, a roof made of branches covered by corn stalks, supported by poles, under which Los Pastores was conducted. At one end of the pavilion stood a crude table, at which sat a heavy-set, elderly woman. Her round, puffy face and circular eyes behind enormous wire-rimmed glasses gave her a magical, owl-like appearance as she hovered over the script, the wavy flame of the cachimba (coal-oil lamp) painting her yellow and black.
Los cantantes, each bearing a long staff, arranged themselves in two lines, facing each other, on either side of the small pavilion. One line was headed by a boy representing an angel, the other by a girl. At the tail end of the lines were el hermitano and two diablos. The hermit wore an impressive mask, cut from the corner of a cardboard carton and bearded with the mane and tail from a white horse. The devils wore cardboard masks with long red tongues hanging from the mouths and cuernos of tinfoil which dipped downward like the horns of bulls.
The performance began with a repetitious song, slow in cadence, which had something of a chant quality. This song, with new verses and modifications in tune, was repeated at intervals throughout the 4½ hour performance, in which it was frequently continued for 15 or 20 minutes at a stretch, while the participants either stood, knelt, or trailed each other in a figure-eight pattern, led by the children. Between the song episodes were periods of dialogue, in which the speakers, usually two in number, paced back and forth between the two lines. The pacing, one-way and then the other, coincided with the speech, to form the effect of strophe and antistrophe. The entire performance with its chanting, two-person dialogue, monotony, and formality of movement reminded me of the early Greek drama, or a Noh production in Japan.
The monotony of the long performance was broken by the interplay between the devils and the aged hermit. The devils sought at every opportunity to distract, trip-up, or tempt the hermit, who in turn sought to ward them off with his cross or lash at them with his frayed piece of rope. This comic action, which added considerable relief to the otherwise rather monotonous performance, frequently verged on slap-stick and induced much laughter, from young and old alike. At times one of the devils would pick up the hermit, standing back to back, twirl him around, and send him flying. The hermit would pick himself up, grumbling oaths, and lash out with his rope at the retreating devils.
As nearly as I could make out the performance has little or no plot. It portrays the shepherds and the hermit following the star (another cachimba), and the major action takes place between the devils and the hermit.
I thoroughly enjoyed Los Pastores – if enjoyed is the right word. There was something enchanting, primitive about the enactment. Innocent, and at the same time, profound. The experience was something less and something more than entertainment. The average American audience would have yawned and gone to sleep (had there been comfortable seats) or walked out after the first half hour. The performance would not have been startling or varied enough to suit it. Perhaps frenetic societies require frenetic pastime. But how much they miss of the quiet of the night, of the chant of insects hidden in the dark, and of the song of man sung not so much to divert as to commune.
Sometime after midnight Goyo’s five-year old brother, Benjamin, affectionately called Chaparito, gradually slumped against the arm of a husky campesino sitting next to him, and fell asleep. The air grew colder and colder as the night wore on, and eventually Goyo, who had been sitting beside me and shivering (the sweater I’d given him was still wet from the rain) got up and lay down beside a fire which had been built a few yards away. Back to the cold, front to the fire, he slept soundly, and when at last the performance was over we had a hard time waking him.
The Wednesday before Christmas I went again to the casa of Goyo’s family to witness Los Pastores. That evening the performance was held at their home, and again Goyo’s mother had been busy preparing coricos, together with a hot drink made from chocolate, spices, vainilla, panocha and water. In the middle of the performance I excused myself and set off down the trail toward the arroyo to relieve my bowels. The night was much warmer than it had been before, and rich with stars -- that maze of stars of all sizes and brightness that one sees only when hundreds of miles from the lights and smoke of cities. Having relieved myself, but still welcoming the dampness and the darkness of night, I continued on down the trail toward the aguaje. Reaching the arroyo, I was startled to see what seemed to be the reflection of stars in the depression before me, brightly shining throughout a broad strip where, during the daytime there had been but a trickle of water. As I stared at the dark strip below me the points of light, unlike the stars overhead, turned slowly off and on, forming and reforming undiscovered constellations. The glow-worms or gusanos de luz were confined to the bed of the arroyo where the sandy soil was kept moist through seepage from the water from the aguaje. I settled myself under the huge spreading form of an higuera (giant fig tree) and there, suspended between glow worms and stars, lay back and listened to the song of Los Pastores, which now came to me across the harvested cornfields through the night.
After half an hour Goyo came looking for me with a light, but I did not move and he did not see me, nor did he call out. He continued on as far as the aguaje and then returned toward the casa, the light disappearing over the rise. The night and the music continued.
A SAD DECISION
Today a father came with a boy, perhaps 10 years old, from the village of Colompo, about 20 km. away. They carried the boy on burro back, the father on foot. When the child was a baby he had fallen ill, with much fever, and his parents had taken him to a doctor in San Ignacio, who had injected the child in the backside. Immediately following the injecting the right leg of the child began to tremble and cramp. The doctor told the parents it was infantile paralysis. Who knows? In any case, the child’s leg remains partially paralyzed, with considerable muscle degeneration in the lower thigh.
What do I know about such conditions? Almost nothing. Is there hope in repairing the damaged nerve? – if it is a damaged nerve? I told the father and child I did not know what to do, and I doubted if there was anything to be done, but recommended that he take the boy to the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán.
The boy’s face fell with the news, and the father, in reply to my suggestion to take him to Mazatlán, said, “Un die, si Diós quiere...,” which meant that he didn’t have the money at present -- and may never.
I debated with myself as to whether to supply the money for the trip. Needless to say, I sympathized strongly with the child. But my guess is that the trip would prove futile, that no cure would be available. Better, then, to save the money, for an emergency, or when I am sure it will do some good. I made the judgment on little more than a guess.
“Si Diós quiere,” I repeated, and bid them a good trip home.
NOSOTROS AND ELLOS
Last night the people of Ajoya saw the Old Year out and the New Year in. As elsewhere there was much laughter and dancing, drinking and fighting. The main dance was held in El Salón, and there people of all ages danced to all hours. As everywhere, the little girls danced with each other. There was much drinking and blubbering and embracing. Goyo was there, and climbed a tall ladder against the wall to get a better view. Shortly before midnight, having reached my saturation point, not of liquor but of turbulence, I made my way out through the crowded doorway and into the moonlit street. There I met Tatino, thoroughly borracho with a group of other young men. He staggered up to me and invited me to join in the drinking. I laughed off his invitation, saying that I didn’t need alcohol to get drunk. A worried look came over Tatino’s face and he begged me “No diga nada a mis jefes.” (his parents). I assured him I would say nothing.
I made my way by the light of the waxing moon to a quiet spot overlooking the river. The night was growing colder by the hour, and as the river poured over its rocky bed it exhaled a silver mist into the moon-rich night. Faint now in the distance was the music of the village, drowned by the chanting of crickets. Alone, once again and glad to be alone, I sat quietly while the one day and the one year changed to the next.
When I returned to the Casa Chavarín it was well after midnight. The half moon had set behind la loma but the rocky trail stood out clearly in the star light and I made my way back without stumbling. At the portal of the casa a small group was gathered, talking quietly. José Vidaca had returned from Verano in the early evening, and was handing out oranges from a huge burlap sack full. None of the men were drunk except for Tatino, who at the moment was asleep on a catre.
I sat for awhile listening to the conversation. It was apparent that the family had found out about Tatino’s behavior and were displeased, not so much with his drinking as with something else he had done, which I had difficulty in making clear.
Everardo in his characteristic sign language informed me that he was going to bed; I followed suit. The abuela Micaela, as was her custom, had already laid out my sleeping bag. I unrolled it, slipped off my pants, and climbed in.
At that moment Tatino, whose cot was next to mine, made the mistake of waking up, and immediately everyone’s attention was turned his way. He was still drunk, and it seemed to me pointless for the family to reprimand him at that point, but everyone began to scold. After a few minutes, Jesus Alarcón, the wise one and a close friend of the family, was tacitly appointed to talk out the affair. He sat on the edge of my cot, facing Tatino, and embarked on a long lecture that dealt with honor and duty, pride and insult, and the breach of trust of his parents and family. Several times he pointed out that whatever Tatino had done with them was no big thing to him personally, but that it was a disgrace and discourtesy for the family. Jesús’ voice was stern, but his tone always mild, almost gentle. Occasionally Tatino blubbered a meek apology or excuse for what he had done. I wondered more and more what it was. And I wondered who could be the ellos, so frequently referred to with such hostility, but never named. When at last Tatino finally fell asleep -- in the middle of Jesus’ lecture -- my curiosity became too great, and sticking my neck out of my sleeping bag I asked what the fuss was all about.
Micaela quickly replied, “Nada, nada,” and the blind Ramón echoed, “Nada.”
Unsatisfied, I stuck my neck out further and asked, “¿Quien son ellos?” Jesús turned to me, a look of surprise on his face, and said, “¡Pues ya no sabes tu! Ellos son los que tienen; son los ricos.” And thus started a discussion which extended into the night and continued in the kitchen the next morning.
On the surface Ajoya is a quiet village sleeping in the sun on the banks of the Rio Verde, isolated from the trafficked world, by miles of prohibitive dirt road. The traveler, stopping for a few days, as I have done before, sees little sign of friction, tension, or hostility. He sees only laughter and singing, hardships and sickness. People greet each other as they pass through the streets, or stand in small groups under the ceiba trees, talking and dreaming. One has the sense of friendship and peace. And if one asks casually if the village has any special problems or struggles, the reply is apt to be, “No, nada,” or at the most, “Es muy pobre aquí…” For some reason the village is reluctant to expose its most vital conflict to the light of day. (I was surprised at the reaction of Ramona when I tried to sound out her views on the conflict in Ajoya after having had at last an account of it from her grand-uncle Jesús Alarcón. She asked in turn what I knew, and I told her. Her eyes widened more and more and at last she sprang to her feet and cried out, “¡Mamá, papá! ¡Ya sabe todo!” Her grandparents showed parallel surprise, and I asked if it were bad that I knew. Ramona hesitated a moment and then replied, “No, es bueno. Es mejor que tu sepas.” But I could see that they were still a little disturbed.)
The conflict in Ajoya, which, according to Jesús Alarcón, is paralleled in virtually every ejido in México, is this: the village of Ajoya is split into two factions. The one is comprised of the rich landowners, whose domains go back as far as 300 years. The other is comprised of the campesinos or poor farmers, who traditionally have worked as peasants, oppressed and controlled by the landowners. Theoretically, this feudal system was changed over 50 years ago with the people’s revolution, but the results have been slow in reaching the remoter areas.
In Ajoya almost all of the best land -- namely that of the alluvial flats in the river valley -- is still in the hands of 7 or 8 families, who have a variety of crops, orchards, and up to 500 head of cattle, each. The vast remainder of the families live on a subsistence level, going out into the hills surrounding Ajoya to clear and plant patches of corn on the rocky slopes. They seldom harvest more than to barely supply their own family, and frequently not even that. Some of them have part time trades which bring in a few pesos, and some seek employment on the ranchos of the wealthy, at l0 pesos a day. But even at the best they never earn enough to feed and clothe a large family properly, and their families are invariably large.
The poor are at the mercy of the wealthy, who for the most part exploit them at every opportunity, in order to become wealthier yet. (Why they should need or want to become wealthier is something I have never been able to figure out.) If the summer rains are not adequate and the corn crop of a campesino does not feed his family until the next harvest, or if he has to obtain more grain for planting, one of the wealthy landowners like José Celis or Ricardo Manjarrez will loan him what he needs. But the interest is steep: the following year the campesino has to repay 3 costalles of corn for each one borrowed. So he repays, in triplicate, with the result that he runs out even earlier the subsequent year, and must borrow so much more. The debt compiles, and when the point is reached where the poor farmer cannot return the corn due on the given date, what few animals he has are confiscated.
(One night as we sat around the fire Goyo’s parents told me how they had had their single cow taken from them to pay a corn debt. Now they have no cow, and Goyo’s mother has not the milk in her breasts to feed her skinny baby, nor the money to buy milk. At present Goyo’s 14-year old brother Martín, who loves school and was skipped a grade because he did so well, has dropped out and is working to pay off a corn debt as a cow-herd from dawn to dusk, at a credit of five pesos (40 cents a day.)
If the poor campesino wants to buy food or clothing on credit, this he can also do, at the store of Raúl, brother of one of big land and cattle owners. But at the end of a year he has to pay back his debts, with 100% interest!
The poor man, once he is down, hasn’t got a chance. The wealthy bleed him to his last possession, though his children are hungry or dying of disease. And it is not that the rich are cruel or heartless persons. I have been in many of their casas, have eaten at their tables, have treated their children and seen how they love them. It is simply that the well-to-do have grown up with things as they are, and have come to accept them without questioning. They do not regard their treatment of the poor as exploitation, but as good business.
It is not the landowners that are bad – points out Jesus Alarcón – but the system is bad, and the system has got to go. The irony, however, is that with a little less dishonesty on the part of government officials, the system would have gone long ago. Ajoya is legally an ejido, and in an ejido each family supposedly has equal land rights.
The system of ejidos was originally established some 35 years ago by Lázaro Cárdenas, then President of the Republic. The intention was to redistribute the land equitably among the poor by establishing government-aided villages, called ejidos, in which the usable land was to be parceled out equally to each family. Provisions were also made to aid ejidos with loans and certain farm equipment, etc.
In theory, the ejidal collective land tenure has much in its favor. But in practice there have been endless snags. The biggest barrier has always been graft and greed: greed on the part of the wealthy to perpetuate their large holdings, and greed on the part of corrupt officials to get their hands on fistfuls of the wealthy’s money.
In Ajoya, the villagers petitioned for status as an ejido as early as 1930. Provisional consent was granted in 1938. A Presidente Ejidal was chosen. But when he tried to precede with applications for restitución de tierras he was met with violent resistance from the Latifundistas, (lords over large tracts of the good land). In 1940, the local Presidente Ejidal, José Velázquez, was assassinated, and an attempt was made to terrorize the other leaders of the Nucleo Ejidal, with the result that most of them fled. When later that same year, a comisión arrived to redistribute the land there was no one left to speak, or who dared to speak, in favor of redistribution, and the commission returned to its urban headquarters, leaving things as they stood.
And so things remained, without much protest, until, in 1958, Jesús Alarcón himself spearheaded the organization of the Comité Ejecutivo Agrario the function of which was to further the Via Ejidal. All this time Ajoya had remained, technically, an ejido, although in effect it remains a feudal village.) To counter and try to squelch the Comité Ejecutivo Ejidal, the Latifundistas organized the so-called Nuevo Centro do Oblation Agricola. So doing, they managed to install and receive federal recognition of their own Presidente Ejidal … whose purpose is, of course, to deter rather than to further the equalization of land.
Jesus Alarcón showed me a letter, signed and thumb-printed by 56 heads of families in Ajoya, which he had written to the President of the Republic explaining and protesting the above. He also showed me the reply telegram he had received, saying that an investigation would ensue. That was the last he heard. He wrote letter after letter without result, and has made several trips to Culiacán (capital of the state of Sinaloa) to protest. Twice new government representatives have come from Culiacán to investigate, but have both times been met by spokesmen for the Latifundistas, and been convinced (with the aid of a few thousand pesos) that everyone was happy with the way things stood in Ajoya, and that no investigation was necessary.
I asked Jesús if his own life was not in danger, considering what had happened to José Velázquez. He smiled his gentle, bemused smile and said, “¡Pues, sí! Tengo que tener cuidado.” He and José Vidaca proceeded to tell me of some of the recent violence.
Three months ago one of the leaders in movement for land reform, a poor campesino who had worked for many years to acquire a team of mules with which he earned his living, arose one morning to find all five of his mules poisoned to death. I at last found out how the mule of José Vidaca, which I had injected thrice with penicillin for infected wounds, had received its injuries: it had been clubbed in the head and muzzle on two consecutive nights – for José, too, is one of the leaders of the campesinos.
“You mean to say the landowners have done these things themselves?” I asked.
“No,” replied Jesus, “They pay others to do it.” And he proceeded to explain how the poor campesinos were split down the middle, one part struggling for the land rights guaranteed them long before by the government, the other part opting to remain in servitude and win the favor of the wealthy landowners. This latter group – who, as Jesús puts it, “Les gustan barbear a los ricos,” – is mostly the employees of the landowners, whose jobs depend upon their subservience. The independent campesinos regard these poor servants as traitors, as cowards, and the servants are equally resentful. The dos partidos do not associate or even talk with each other . . . This then, is the reason why, when I suggest to some families that they go to the Casa Chavarín for medicines they wave their finger and say, “Nosotros no hablamos con ellos.” Or, “Estamos enojados.”
Several nights ago ellos poisoned one of José Vidaca’s dogs (or at least ellos were blamed). Both José and Jesús Alarcón have to take special care in traveling alone. When José returned from Verano he left in the mid-morning. When I asked him why he left so late he said so that he would arrive in the dark.
“¿Por qué?” I asked naively.
“Porque ellos no…” and he finished the statement by pointing an imaginary gun at his head and pulling the trigger. And he laughed.
Jesús went on to tell me many accounts of how the wealthy manipulate and take advantage of the campesinos... Or if they wanted to add to their already large holdings by taking over the small plot of a campesino, they simply moved in and told the campesino to move out. The campesino can’t complain to the síndico (ejidal police) for the síndico is con ellos. As is the Presidente del Municipio in San Ignacio. Nor will it do the campesino much good to appeal to the state government, for there, too, the officials listen to money.
And if the campesino refuses to turn over his land? I asked.
“He may be killed,” said Jesus, “or arrested on a charge of robbery, or rape, or smuggling goma (opium).
It seems pretty hopeless, I said to Jesús Alarcón.
“No,” replied Jesus quietly; but emphatically. “It is not hopeless. We will succeed in the end. For centuries we have lived like slaves, exploited by the wealthy. But things will change. The laws are already set for the change. But laws are like springs: they can be stretched and bent by the individuals who apply them. The present laws are ineffective because there are many people in government positions who seek nothing but centavos. But God willing, one day we shall have the liberty that our present government boasts of.
I asked about the selection of the police and village officials in Ajoya: whether it was by election, and whether the landowners controlled that too. There are two different governing bodies here in Ajoya. The one that concerns the land, and its use, is a branch of the federal government, and its representatives are in theory chosen by election. The other concerns itself with civil and criminal matters. Its representative, el síndico is appointed by the president of the municipality in San Ignacio. The rich, to be sure, seek to have one of their own for síndico, and they petition to the Presidente in San Ignacio. But they are not always successful. For this new year, which is beginning today, a new Presidente will begin his term, and by him a new síndico will be appointed. “There are at present some 7 candidates for Síndico under petition for Ajoya.” said Alarcón. [We hope José Vidaca will be chosen.”
‘‘Why? I asked.
“Because he is honest.”
THE BRUSH OFF
Despite petitions from the campesinos, José Vidaca was not appointed Síndico, but rather one of ellos. No one was surprised.
This morning I arrived at the home of Ramona to find her abuelita, Rosaura, fuming. It seems the new síndico has started the New Year off with a bang. He called Rosaura to his home and gave her orders to sweep the street behind her house every day. Rosaura was fit to be tied, for it has always been each family’s responsibility to sweep the section of the street toward which their house faces, and this she has done with diligence. Along the street behind the house there is only an adobe wall. It is obviously the duty of the family across the street from the wall, whose house opens onto that street, to sweep their frontage.
But that house happens to be that of the new síndico. Rosaura was fit to be tied.
I asked her what would happen if she refused to sweep it.
She threw her calloused hands into the air.
“Me lleva a la cárcel en San Ignacio.”
“¿Y va a barrerla?” I asked.
“¡No!” she replied emphatically. But Rosaura was not carried off to the cárcel... Ramona swept the street.
In Ajoya life, for me, has in some ways been easy, and in some ways very challenging. I have been enormously busy, sometimes frustrated and uncertain about the treatment of certain people, mildly plagued by the change and inconsistency of diet and lack of hygiene, (I have already had four attacks of diarrhea and got over three of them), irritated a bit by insect parasites (fleas, bedbugs, etc.), and occasionally disturbed by the utter lack of privacy. However, personal tensions have so far been minimal. I find myself consequently endowed with enormous energy and patience. I’ve discovered I can handle the most upsetting of circumstances fairly rationally, for I do not feel personally threatened.
The only time my patience really breaks is with drunks. One of my reasons for coming to live in a Mexican village was to remove myself from the emergency of time, from the need to fill each unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run. Yet, ironically I find that time is more precious to me here than ever. A very large portion of each day is consumed in attending to the sick and injured. Another considerable portion is consumed in small talk and visiting. This seems to be an integral part of the life in a Mexican village and I am learning to accept and at times even welcome it. But I find little time is left over for study and writing, or for wandering in the hills. When I am cornered by a borracho, as frequently happens these days following New Year’s, my patience wears thin.
Drunkards are both leeches and bores. They hang on you and breathe on you and tell you how much they care for you. And no matter how carefully and courteously you try to extricate yourself, they end up taking offense and spewing abuse. There is a dicho in Spanish that ‘los borrachos y los muchachos siempre dicen la verdad.’ Well enough. As for myself, when I seek the truth I would prefer to listen to los muchachos. Why drink vomit when there is so much nectar?
It is a comfort to me to realize that in Ajoya there are a very large number of persons who feel as I do about drunkenness, and are frank to say so. Nevertheless, the drunkenness during and following New Year’s Day has been conspicuous. For some reason – or no reason – there has been less fighting this season than others, but there have been a number of accidents. Yesterday no sooner had I finished bandaging up a stout, middle-aged man who had tumbled from his mule in a stupor and broken two ribs, when I was called to the other side of the square where an old man from El Naranjo (an uncle of la Cuca), had kneeled over and bashed in his nose on the sharp edge of the brick banqueta. He was streaming blood from both the outside and inside of his nose and his mouth. I did my best to check the bleeding and keep him from gagging on the blood. We carried him to a home where he could stay, bedded him, and I gave him a sedative, which he promptly threw up on me. For nearly an hour I stayed beside the bed, at times holding him down with physical force, at times letting him hold my hand, which seemed to quiet him, until at last, with the help of sedation, he blanked out. He had got drink on vino medicinal (an alcohol-spiked tonic). In the morning he was better, and came to have me bandage his nose. But by noon he was drunk again.
I have little respect for those who drink a lot. I have seen too much damage done to others and to oneself, and to animals, by drunks. The day I went to La Palma at the invitation of Jesús Vega I was accompanied by a large young man, completely stoned, who rode his poor mule like the devil incarnate. The beast’s mouth was a froth of blood and saliva from yanking on the bit.
Nevertheless, I marvel at the staying power of some of Ajoya’s drunkards. Most conspicuous are the músicos. It is at present Monday night, the 3rd of January, and outside in the street the músicos are going as strong as ever: drums, cymbals, trumpets, guitars, accordions, full blast. For four days and nights now they have been marching up and down the calles playing and singing. During this time I don’t think they have remained silent for as much as ten minutes. Perhaps they take shifts, but every time I see them it’s the same group. At this point whether they are reeling more from booze or drowsiness is hard to tell. They are all stone drunk, and have been since the first night. They can scarcely talk, and stagger as they walk, but their music, if anything, has become livelier and wilder, if less in tune. They always greet me enthusiastically when I pass them in the street, and sometimes they stop me and ask me what I would like to hear. Last night they came to a standstill, sometime after midnight, in front of the Casa Chavarín, and remained there for about two hours, playing one shrill number after the other, with intervals just long enough between for me to doze off...
Also in the night came two drunken men, making a racket, and asking for me. I pretended to be asleep, and old Micaela rose and told them to go away. They said that one of their compadres was muriendo and demanded that I come to the rescue.
I wondered if anyone really was ill. It sounded to me like a wild goose chase. If someone really is desperately ill they had best send someone who is sober, I thought. I still pretended I was asleep and Micaela continued to fight them off. They were very drunk and very noisy. But after about 15 minutes they left, trailing a cloud of abuse, and saying that if their friend died it would be Micaela’s fault. But in the morning there were no reports of a death, and I heard no more about it.
LA CAÍDA DE LA MOLLERA
With the rising and dirtying of the river following the heavier storms of las cabanuelas there has been an increase in diarrhea and dysentery -- especially in infants -- in Ajoya and the surrounding pueblos. The small village of Güillapa, some five miles up-stream from Ajoya has had the highest incidence. Every day two or three worried parents came in on foot or by mule to ask for treatment. One of the greatest problems is to distinguish infantile ‘loose stools’ and colic from bacterial or amoebic dysentery. The majority of the afflictions appear to be bacterial in origin (liquid green stools, intestinal cramping, and fever) and I have been treating accordingly. So far, every infant but one has found relief from the illness within one or two days of treatment. The one exception, tragically enough, has been the young daughter of José Vidaca and Sofía.
The baby, now about 5 months old, was born immature, very small and weak, and miraculously enough had managed to survive on the scanty breast milk that Sofía could produce. When I first saw the baby it was undersized with somewhat underdeveloped bones. On the dietary supplement of vitamin and mineral-fortified milk solids that I was able to provide the baby has been growing fat and healthier. A week ago, however, it developed high fever, liquid green stools, and loss of appetite. I treated it for bacterial dysentery. The fever subsided and the stool color changed from green to clear, but still liquid. The infant continued to refuse food, and for several days now has grown weaker and paler, crying much of the night.
Yesterday morning I noticed that an ashen cross had been placed on the child’s forehead para el susto (to repel whatever demons and spirits might be frightening the child). I tried a new anti-diarrheal medicine which had been recommended to me for infant diarrhea by a doctor in Mazatlán, but as the day came to a close still there was no improvement.
Shortly after sundown a group of three women arrived. The oldest was María Concepción Bueno, the old woman I had treated a month and a half ago for urinary infection, with so much resultant pain. But she had never borne me malice, and as a native curandera (healer) herself she is well aware of unexpected reversals in treatment. The three women hovered quietly around the lantern light, and at first I thought they had come for medicines, but when I asked Sofia told me that they had come to cure her child.
Old Hilaria took the infant in her arms and ran her gnarled fingers over the child’s scalp. Then she put two fingers in the baby’s mouth, feeling las barillas (its palate). She knitted her face and nodded somberly to Sofia and José, confirming the suspected ailment. The child suffered from la caída de la mollera: the mollera, or soft spot (fontanel) on top of the baby’s still incompletely calcified crown, was sunken inwards. I’d noticed that myself. According to the curanderas, there was a corresponding sag in the baby’s palate. The verdict was that the baby’ brains had slipped or fallen downwards. This was said to be the cause of the baby’s diarrhea. If untreated it was frequently fatal.
The women set about making preparations for the treatment. First the seeds of cilantro (coriander, an herb grown locally for seasoning) were boiled and the aguita placed in a broad pan near the baby’s crib. Next to the pan was placed a small pile of red-hot coals, upon which was set a small platter of cooking oil, to heat it. Various bits of cloth were made ready, and then the curación began. The baby was held completely upside down over the concoction, the top of its head immersed, and the old woman struck three solid blows on the soles of the infant’s feet. The baby was returned to an upright position. The old woman then dipped her fingertips into the hot oil and inserting them in the child’s mouth pressed upward on the child’s palate. Next, taking some of the concoction in her mouth, she put her lips on the sunken area on the baby’s skull and sucked. After this she placed some of the hot cooking oil on the sunken fontanel and pulled on the hairs at the centers of the depression. Then the hot oil was rubbed gently on the child’s chest and along its spine. Finally a piece of cloth with a mixture boiled egg yolk and alcohol on it was tied against the soft spot. After the treatment the child was spoon fed the mother’s breast milk to prevent the mollera from falling further with breast feeding.
I was invited to watch the treatment para aprender come hacerle, and I watched with fascinating attention. I thought that if on top of its illness the baby survived such treatment it was indeed hardier than I thought. The infant howled throughout the process, especially when dunked, but after all was over it grew calm very quickly. It slept quietly all night long and this morning actually seems better. The diarrhea has still not subsided, but to completely raise the mollera the treatment must be repeated again this evening and tomorrow, and then, I am assured, the diarrhea will subside. “Vamos a ver.”
CURACION PARA CAÍDA DE LA MOLLERA
1. Mete la mollera de la cabeza en agua hervida de cilantro (tibia).
2. Le pega tres golpecitos en la planta de pie.
3. Se levanta con el dedo las barrillas de la boca con aceite de comer calientita.
4. Después, de la misma agua de cilantro se chupa con la boca en la mollera.
5. Se unta aceite de comer calientita en la mollera.
6. Se estire los cabellos en la pura mollera.
7. Se unta aceite de comer en el pecho y en la cadera (cintura).
8. Se pone un parche (trapecito doblado) con aceite de comer o con yema de blanquillo
cocido con alcohol en la mollera. (Pone la yema primero en el trapecito, entonces eche
OSEO Y SU NEGOCIO
Perhaps it is because I grew up in a family where lack of money was seldom a real problem, that the systematic acquisition of wealth at the expense of brotherhood lies beyond my comprehension. I have now traveled in many countries where the rich are very rich and the poor very poor. I have seen forms of exploitation that, if not criminal within the laws of the land, are surely criminal within the lairs of the heart. I have seen those in position to help their fellow men turn their back and pretend not to see, or look and see but still nothing, or worse, take advantage of the situation for their own personal gain. I do not know how such persons can confront themselves alone and in the darkness. Perhaps they never do.
One of the biggest exploitations that I have yet come upon in Ajoya is in the field of medicine. Little by little I hear more and more about the operaciones of Enrique Oseo, the man who has set himself up as pharmacist and doctor in Ajoya. Oseo has no degree whatever, but his brother is a physician in Mazatlán. His brother sends Enrique all the non negotiable muestras or physician samples which he gets from the drug companies. Enrique in turn sells these to the villagers in Ajoya at prices up to double or triple of what those medicines sell for in Mazatlán. Worse yet, he consistently sells certain medicines for afflictions for which they are not indicated, and will do no good. Perhaps he does this through ignorance, or perhaps simply because they’re what he has in his bag.
Ramona’s brother, Francisco, had a severe llaga or ulcerated boil on his ankle. His lower leg was swollen and feverish. When I first saw the sore the opening of the infection was half an inch across and half an inch deep, and had been that way for over a month. Dr. Oseo had been treating it for more than two months with injections and a variety of pills, the total charge for which so far had come to 95 pesos. But the infection had only got worse. When Francisco came to me a week ago I cleaned out the pus with cotton and merthiolate, applied a bandage with Achromycin ointment, and put him on oral penicillin. Today the infection is completely gone, and the sore is rapidly healing over. Who knows what Oseo gave him?!
For another infirmity Oseo sold Ramona’s grandmother vitamin capsules for as high as 4 pesos (30 cents) a single capsule. At present he is curing simple cases of mumps with injections of streptomycin at 70-80 pesos a shot. (Mumps, a viral infection, is not treatable with antibiotics). Such useless and potentially risky medications hit hard a family with eight or nine children and an income of 10 pesos a day. Particularly when the medicine is of no service whatever.
Oseo also sells non-negotiable samples of ophthalmic ointment... for cataracts!
Just how much of Oseo’s misuse of medicines is intentional and how much is due to ignorance is hard to say. I know he warns people against eating oranges when they have colds and against drinking milk when they have stomach ulcers, but I can scarcely believe he does this to prolong, and hence keep treating, their symptoms. (I would estimate that over half the villagers have perpetual colds, stuffy noses, and coughs that commence with the winter rains and last until the spring heat.) One series of expensive injections given by Oseo turned out to be nothing but sterilized water! But he has done worse.
At times Oseo has unquestionably gone too far. Last year a boy in Güillapa (8 km. upriver from Ajoya) was developing signs of appendicitis. He was brought to Ajoya on muleback and Oseo, applying a general anesthetic, went through the motions of surgery. He made an inch-long cut in the skin and stitched it up again. Certainly he did not remove the appendix. He charged the family 1000 pesos and sent the boy home. Two weeks later the boy was brought in again, complaining of the same pain, but more severe. Oseo repeated the operation, charging another 1000 pesos. (To pay, the family had to sell its pigs, its single cow, and borrow from relatives. (1000 pesos would be equivalent to 1000 dollars of a farm laborer’s earnings in the States.) Again the phony operation was a failure, and the family returned again with the boy, this time imploring Oseo to write a letter of recommendation to a doctor in Mazatlán. This Oseo did, for a small fee, and the boy was taken to the city, his appendix removed, and, with the grace of God, he recovered.
Ramona’s abuelita, Rosaura, tells me how she had provided lodging and cooked and scrubbed for Oseo when he first came to Ajoya, baking him cookies to take to his friends. Yet when there was sickness in her family he had sold her sample medicines at the same outrageous prices he charged everyone else, and gave her injections at his standard charge of 70 or 80 pesos. And the medication frequently did no good. A number of patients, she said, had taken sudden turns for the worse after he had injected them. She named three who had died. She shrugged her strong shoulders with an air of resignation.
“Es cierto que ya ha matado muchos.”
I could not help recalling how Adrián ‘s mother had wept as she told me how they had sold their few possessions and borrowed and begged to scrape together the money to pay Oseo for the array of medicine with which he treated her eight-year old daughter, who this autumn died.
How thankful I am that I am in the position to give my medicines. I have made mistakes already and will no doubt make more. Every day I become increasingly aware of my ignorance. But of one thing I am sure, and thankful for: I have given the best I know how, with care, and have asked as compensation nothing but kindness. Whatever returns I have received -- and every day has been rich with them -- have been given as gladly as they have been received.
But Oseo, alas, is far from the only person to exploit the practice of medicine. It seems that San Ignacio, in spite of its so-called Centro de Salud has a similarly corrupt practitioner. The following is one account of many I could tell:
A week before Christmas I was called to a home toward the south end of town, to see a middle-aged woman named Cuca who was suffering intensely from pain and swelling of her abdomen, extending down her legs. She also complained of asthma-like attacks and shortness of breath. Having been treated for months by Oseo with no improvement, she had just come from seeing a doctor in San Ignacio. She showed me the medicine he had sold her. One was an antacid for which she had paid some thirty-five pesos (for 20 tablets). The other, for which she had paid 40 pesos, was a brand of meprobamate. Both packets were clearly stamped as Muestras. No negociable. I had difficulty in imagining what earthly good either of these medicines might provide to a condition that had all the symptoms of excessive salt retention associated with heart failure. But, inexperienced as I am, I told her to try the medicines for two or three days to see if either benefited. Several days later a messenger came from El Naranjo, where la Cuca had been transported to the home of her mother, telling me that she had got progressively worse, was in so great pain that she could not sleep, and would I please send a sedative. I sent a container of Darvon capsules together with a relatively safe diuretic, with the instructions to commence a salt-free diet at once. Three days later, when I hiked to El Naranjo (about 3 miles) on Christmas Eve to attend the oraciones y canciones held there, I learned that la Cuca had responded quickly to the medication. The swelling had disappeared, and with it the pain. She had been bed confined when I had seen her, and now she was romping around the garden like a little girl. She still has some respiratory symptoms, but this is clearing, and now she sleeps well...
If I ever doubt the gratitude of the villagers here, I have only to pat my belly. Today, for New Year’s Eve lunch, I dined with the familia Chavarín on a caldo prepared from a white rooster sent yesterday from El Naranjo. I have had four different invitations for dinner, but will dine at midnight with the family of Ramona. Tomorrow, I have been promised another pollo from another family. And yesterday, when I stopped in to see Adrián’s mother while visiting a neighbor’s child with febrile mumps, she gave me two eggs. (She also told me that Adrián is working during the Christmas vacation as a blacksmith’s assistant in order to buy me a New Year’s gift. It is very hard work for such a young boy, she added, smiling and shaking her head.)
THE MEDICINES WEREN’T SENT!
Tonight (January 3) I received noticias from my friends In Palo Alto, saying that the medicines I have been awaiting day by day in the mail are probably not going to come, or at least not until the end of winter when the Pacific students arrive. This period of cold weather, winter rains, and rising river, when the amount of sickness and infection and malnutrition is at its greatest (surely I hope it is at its greatest!), I must start turning people away. Already with certain medicines I have been giving out quantities enough for only a few days, telling the people to return after Año Nuevo when I would have received replenishments. If I had but known ahead that those replenishments -- already worked for and sorted or purchased -- were not coming, I would have allotted the supply I arrived with differently, dispensing the precious medicines only to those in direst need. But now of the medicines in greatest demand I have little or none. I was conservative from the start, but I should have been more so. If only I had known! How far reaching will be the disappointment! The word of my medicines has spread far into the mountains ahead of me. Villagers have arrived from Güillapa and Chilar and Bordontita and Jocuixtita petitioning me to come to their villages and offering to bring burros and mules to carry me and my cargo. I have told them I will start on my journeys when my replenishment of medicine arrives. They are waiting for word from me. They will have to wait a while longer.
AFTER THE NEWS
When the news first came that the medicines were not going to arrive as expected I was angry and upset. I am still upset. It is not that I am unaware that the medical aid I am giving, or at best would be able to give, is but a drop in the bucket when considering all the hundreds of similarly impoverished villages in Sinaloa, much less in México or in the world. From the larger viewpoint my small assistance is almost insignificant, and at best temporary.
But I am not dealing, nor able to deal, with any total picture. I am residing now in a particular village, and the people I see daily I have come to care for and they have been kind to me in turn. They are no longer mere ciphers in the tragically large number of impoverished peoples in this world. Rather they are individuals, living and working together like the notes in a much loved symphony that I have come to know by heart. The sense of family here is very strong here, and already the families welcome me, feed me and take me into their homes as if I were one of their own. They have assumed a responsibility for me as I have for them.
Ramona’s grandmother, realizing how upset I was last night on receiving the news that the medicines were not coming, insisted I come for breakfast, and this morning gave me one of the finest feasts I have had in Ajoya so far.
Sometime the medicines will come, and when they do, they will be of great use. But it is now that I am here, and that I witness the immediate need.
Today (Jan. 6) a rather ambiguous telegram arrived saying, IF NO ARRIVALS IN SAN IGNACIO BY JANUARY 10 CONTACT FARMACIA BELMAR.
I wonder what, or possibly who, is going to arrive. I hope it means the medicines are coming. So I will wait and see.
CISTO AND THE MURDERS
Thursday Jan. 6 I set out from Ajoya in the direction of Mazatlán. I did not look forward to entering again so soon the world of roads and automobiles and ciudades. It had been one of my romantic whims to spend the entire year without leaving the Sierra Madre; without once putting my foot in a motorized vehicle. But already several of my most necessary medicines are nearing depletion, and there seemed no reasonable alternative.
I set out from Ajoya on foot with the intention of walking the 27 kilometers to San Ignacio, for Antonio had not arrived that day with his camión. It was late in the afternoon when I left the village, for the word of my departure had spread through the village, and people who had been putting off their visit had been arriving one after the other. I was advised by all to put off my departure until the following morning, in order to arrive in San Ignacio by daylight, but I had hopes of meeting the Reyes family in San Ignacio and traveling with them to Mazatlán, and they were to leave the following morning. (I had provided the funds to take Goyo to an oftalmólogo in Mazatlán to see if anything could be done for his blind eye, and at the same time the family was taking the baby to be baptized.) It was about 4:00 in the afternoon when I finally set out with my sleeping bag and a few odds and ends in my backpack. I realized I would be walking well into the night, but the moon should be almost full, lighting my way. I looked forward to the long walk alone.
My plans soon altered, however, in the small village of Carrisál, about 3 miles from Ajoya. I sought out the casa of Rafael Ramírez, who had come the day before for medicine for his nine-year old son, Cisto, who had been bitten by a dog. From the father’s description of the bite it had seemed none too serious, and I had provided bandages, merthiolate, and oral penicillin. Now, on seeing the child, my heart sank. The boy had been bitten on the right cheek, and the whole side of his face and neck were greatly swollen, so that the skin was pulled down from his right eye, which was already discolored from the infection. Inside the boys puffed mouth the gums around the teeth had already begun to blacken. The child stood before me mutely, a dull, vaguely resigned expression on his distorted face. It was as if the last ounce of his childhood had oozed out through the wound.
As I removed the bandage my stomach knotted and I nearly gagged, not so much from the sight of the deep, gaping wound, grey-green with rotting flesh, but from the smell. It was as foul as I have ever encountered, and strong. I had noticed it faintly even as I approached the casa. A swarm of tiny flies, attracted by the odor, hovered on the boy’s face and landed on the outward turned edges of the wound.
I at once gave Cisto a quadruple dose of penicillin, which was the only antibiotic I had with me at the moment, and set about trying to clean out the rotten material with bits of boiled cloth on the end of hand carved probes and boiled salt-water. Meanwhile, I sent the father in search of some hydrogen peroxide (he thought a neighbor in the village had some) but he returned empty-handed.
I told the boys parents that it would be best to take him to Mazatlán for adequate treatment. They hesitated a moment and then looked at each other.
“Es que no tenemos dinero,” said Rafael.
I told them that I had sufficient funds to cover both the trip and the treatment, and would gladly do so. They finally accepted my offer, somewhat embarrassed and nonplussed. We decided to wait through the night to see if a truck should come from San Ignacio, and if not, set out at daybreak with the boy on the back of a borrowed donkey.
The sun was already setting, but I decided to walk back to Ajoya to get some peroxide to try to disinfect the wound. I had scrubbed my hands with soap and water after attempting to clean the wound, but still the awful smell of death clung to my fingers. The smell seemed to follow me all the way back, yet I still took pleasure in the delicate pink and gold sunset.
Once in Ajoya it was a long time before I could get away again. Several persons, seeing me pass in the dusk, followed me through the village to the casa, where they explained that they had learned too late of my departure and could I please cure them before I set off again. One of the women brought with her three eggs, which Micaela quickly scrambled for me, and while I was dining on these (after another vain effort to scrub the smell from my fingers), the pale girl from the house next door, whom I had treated for mouth ulcers, arrived with a plateful of tamales de res. I ate only one, being nearly full, and shared the rest with the household.
I found I was not the only one preparing to set off into the night. When I had arrived at the casa Chavarín I had to pass through a group of campesinos, obviously upset, talking in low, bitter tones. Among them were José Vidaca and Jesus Alarcón. José asked me if I had heard about the murder of two men in San Ignacio that same afternoon. I said that I had, for the word had reached Carrisal as I had been attending to Cisto. It had spread like fire, leaving not conversation but a hush.
José explained to me that the two men had been close friends of his, and were muy buena gente.
“¿Y porque los mataron?” I asked.
José and Jesús looked at each other and then Jesús replied, “Por la miasma razor de que hablamos antes.”
Ramón Valverde, one of the men killed, had been the major force behind the land reform movement in San Ignacio and the entire region. He had spent much of his time traveling from one pueblo to the other, helping to organize the campesinos and encourage them to struggle for their rights. He had been for the Municipio de San Ignacio what Jesús Alarcón is for the village of Ajoya. He had no official position with the government, yet he was feared and respected by government officials and wealthy landowners alike, for his voice was that of thousands of struggling and angry campesinos. His murderers remain undetected, but there is not one ounce of doubt in the minds of the campesinos that the assassins were paid off by one or another of the wealthy landowners in the area. One rumor has it that Jesús Vega, the wealthiest landowner in Ajoya, gave the mandate, but Jesús Alarcón suspects that this rumor was started by other landowners, who are angry with Jesús Vega because he has sometimes showed sympathies with the campesinos. No one knows for sure, but the rumors and suspicions expand and contract like sheet lighting, whispered from one friend to the other. Yet in the light of day the village is as sleepy and contented as ever.
Everywhere I go the remorse expressed for Ramón Valverde is enormous. He was much loved, and evidently had loved much in return. He had left behind him 28 or 30 children (no one is quite sure) and five widows, one of whom was legítima, and the remainder natural.*
The illegitimate child, in turn, suffers little or no disrespect because of the fact of his birth, although his inheritance rights are legally somewhat curtailed.
Also, it seems that the father of a daughter who has been raped does have legal right to press charges, for this is just what happened to José Vidaca. José, now nearly 40 years old, lived with a woman for nearly twenty years at his father’s home in Verano. Although never married to her, she bore him three children, now grown. When a year ago plump and pretty Sofía Alarcón began to grow yet plumper as a result of José’s rather forced affections, José high-tailed it to Culiacán, but Sofía’s father, the blind Ramón, had him followed and arrested. He threatened to press charges for rape if José refused to marry Sofía. José married her, and as Sofía was unwilling to move to Verano, where José was from, the married couple settled, happily and amicably, in the household of Sofia’s parents. José’s common-law wife in Verano was and understandably somewhat peeved by this state of affairs, but every few weeks José makes the journey to Verano to visit her and his parents.
To view things on the surface, one would never dream such a history had taken place. Certainly within the Chavarín household no word is ever breathed of it. Were it not that Ajoya, like every other village on the earth, has its sowers of gossip, I would know almost nothing of the village but its sleepy smile.
“How about the church?” I asked. How does it respond to the maintenance of several women and illegitimate children under the same roof?
Gregorio Alarcón shrugged his fat shoulders. "The church doesn’t care," he said. "Why should it?"
FIRST TRIP TO MAZATLÁN
It was well after midnight when I arrived again at the small casa of Rafael Ramírez in Carrizal, but Rafael and his wife were still awake and waiting for me with the light of a cachimba they ushered me inside to where Cisto lay on a cot together with a small brother and sister under one blanket. Rafael tried to shake the boy awake, but with no success, and for a few dread moments I feared he had died. But at last the boy groaned in his sleep. We decided not to wake him, but to start directly with the cleansing of the wound. The hydrogen peroxide sizzled and foamed. I worked over the putrefied bite for nearly an hour, during which time Cisto awoke and passively accepted the treatment. I removed gobs of rotten flesh, but the infection had spread deep and in several directions, and it was impossible to do much. When I finally stopped, the smell was less potent but still evident. I filled the wound with sulfathiazole powder and placed over it a light bandage. I was pleased to see that already, with the high dose of penicillin, the swelling was subsiding. Cisto also came to life a little more, and for the first time that day asked for something to eat.
As we were preparing for sleep we heard the sound of a truck on the road below. Rafael took off at a run, and several minutes later returned with the news that the truck, which was headed toward Ajoya, would be returning at dawn, and would give us a ride to San Ignacio.
We set off in the morning without breakfast, as the truck arrived earlier than we expected. Rafael came also, as Cisto was frightened to go to the city -- where he had never been before -- without a member of his family.
We arrived in San Ignacio about 10:00 A.M., where we had breakfast. The morning sun was still cutting the chill from the air. The village was quiet and peaceful in a dreamy sort of way, and except for the excessive number of soldiers who lounged in the streets or leaned against the walls, there was no visible sign that the afternoon before two men had been shot down in these very streets. Nor was there any sign of José Vidaca or Jesús Alarcón…
At one point, however, when Cisto and I had temporarily separated from Rafael, a policeman stopped me and ordered me to follow him to the office of the Presidente, Ignacio Castilla. A big man with a crippled right hand, the Presidente requested me, rather curtly, to remove my sombrero as I entered. (I had forgot it was on my head.) He proceeded to ask me my affairs in San Ignacio and in México generally. I told him I was living in a mountain village because I liked the life, and that I was on my way to Mazatlán to get more medicines to give to the people. He had a hard time believing me. But when Rafael appeared and assured him it was so, he became a little friendlier, and after inspecting my visa and passport, and asking why I wore a beard, he let me go.
The same truck took us on to Coyotitán, near the junction of the main highway. We had to share the truck bed with 14 fattened hogs. In Coyotitán we climbed down and unloaded several heavy burlap sacks full of panocha, which Rafael was vending for Jesús Vega on commission. Rafael sold 26 pesos worth of the panocha to a woman in Coyotitán, and leaving the sugar there we hiked the half mile or so to the main highway. After about an hour we secured a ride with another truck, which took us at breakneck speed the rest of the way to Mazatlán. In Mazatlán we set out first for the Botica Belmar, to get advice from my friend Javier Ponce de León as to where would be the best place to take Cisto for treatment. Passing the Mercado Público we were hailed by Remedios Reyes, who had arrived with his sister, his wife, the baby, and Goyo only a short time before. We accompanied them to a rooming house where we obtained a room next to theirs for 12 pesos, with an extra cot for five more. Then we went back to the Botica Belmar where Sr. Ponce de León recommended that we take Cisto to the Cruz Roja.
We all took a taxi there together. Cisto, his father, myself, and Goyo, who manages to get in on everything, followed a nurse into a treatment room, and watched as the nurses removed the bandage and shrank back at the sight of the injury. They asked Rafael why he had not brought the child in at once when the bite had happened. They seemed to have little comprehension of either the remoteness or the poverty of the back country. It was apparent that the nurses were baffled as to what to do. They called in a doctor who shrank back similarly, but gave instructions for cleaning out the wound and trying to remove the rotten material. To my great disappointment there was no suggestion of operation to excise the putrid flesh. Instead the wound was packed with antiseptic cotton, and Cisto was instructed to return in 8 days after the infection had subsided. The doctor prescribed injections and tablets, which we were to purchase at a pharmacy. (The Red Cross, like the Hospital Civil, provides free services but not medicines. Either the family comes up with the money for the medicines or the child goes without. Fortunately, in this case I was able to help. We purchased the medicines for 55 pesos from Javier Ponce de León, who gave us a 5% discount. The following day Rafael took Cisto back to the Red Cross for the first injection, and the subsequent injections -- every eight hours -- I gave myself.)
As I watched the treatment of Cisto, which struck me as clumsy and inadequate, a feeling of nausea and despair crept over me. I had believed that once we brought the boy to Mazatlán good treatment would be available. Perhaps somewhere in Mazatlán it would be available, but certainly the Red Cross nurses did little more than I had already done in the field. The packing, which was to be left for a week, fell out after one day when the bandage fell off. I had to re-do it myself, and in doing so managed to clean out a great deal more of the rotten material. The packing the nurses placed had not even extended to the inner extremities of the wound.
We left the Cruz Roja, and I, still feeling somewhat sickened and restless, set out alone toward the ocean, telling my friends that I would meet them later. I walked along the ocean front for more than an hour, watching the huge waves crash upon the rocks. Then I returned to the Botica Belmar to purchase the medicines I needed. Javier Ponce de León gave me discounts – from 10 to 50% -- on all the medicines I purchased, and then presented me with a large carton of samples most of which were medicines I could put to very good use. He stayed with me past closing time, and then in his car delivered me and the medicines to the rooming house. A good man.
The following morning after baptizing the Reyes baby in the cathedral we set out across town to take Goyo to an ophthalmologist. The results were disappointing. The ophthalmologist, after examining Goyo’s eye, said that the optic nerve had been severed during the same fall that had resulted in the loss of his arm. There was no hope whatever of restoring its sight.
We all took the bus back together as far as Coyotitán, where Rafael got off, leaving Cisto in my charge for the remainder of the journey. In San Ignacio we stayed with the family of Esteban the broom maker, a friend of the Reyes’.
The following morning Cisto and I, and Goyo as ever, set out to inquire when the camión would be leaving for Ajoya. On the way Goyo stopped at the mansión of the “Presidente”, somehow managed to get admitted, made his way to the big man’s bedroom (he had not yet got up), and came back out, face gleaming, waving a five peso note. Within a few minutes it was all spent.
Goyo bought pan and queso to take back to the family for breakfast, and he also bought bananas and candies which he split between the three of us. That morning it struck me that Goyo was at his best. With one arm and one eye he had twice the life and three times the mischief of any other child I have seen in México. His radiance was contagious. San Ignacio is a bigger town than Ajoya and the people tend to be less open or friendly. But when Goyo shouted happy greetings to the villagers as they stood in doorways or along the street, they would look up and laugh and return his greeting.
Goyo never moves in a straight line or at a steady pace. One moment he lags behind to stare in through someone’s window. The next he darts ahead to examine a cart or hurl a stone at a hog.
When we reached the truck that was headed toward Ajoya (Antonio’s camión was broken down) Goyo managed to talk the driver into letting him bum a ride. (I had thought of paying the fare for all the Reyes, who were planning to return the fifteen miles on foot, but their oldest son, Camilo, had brought the donkey from Las Chicuras, and it seemed unfair to send him back with it alone.)
As we continued back to the house of Esteban, Goyo frolicked through the streets with Cisto at his side. Little by little as the infection has subsided Cisto’s childhood has been returning, and now he is making up for lost time. He and Goyo ran this way and that like wild animals, whooping, rough housing and prying into everything.
On the ride back from San Ignacio, Cisto and Goyo fell asleep a number of times, but Goyo always managed to wake up whenever we passed a rancho or traveler, to wave and shout a friendly greeting.
In Carrisál I saw Cisto to his home, and we continued on our way.
A MYTH IS AS GOOD AS A MILE
Man needs answers in his world, whether they be the right cues or the wrong ones. He is the great inventor of myths. He desires the truth, but is frequently too lazy to seek it, and he happily settles for some drummed-up explanation. He can live in terror, but he cannot live in doubt. If someone is sick for no apparent reason, a reason is hastily supplied. It was the witch in the house next door, or the orange he ate the day before, or the egg before he went to bed.
I am an enigma to the people in Ajoya. They are so used to being exploited that they find it hard to believe that anyone should come with a montón of medicine and simply give it away with no thought of profiting by it. I tell them I profit plenty, but that I value friendship more than currency, and a full heart more than a full stomach. I tell them that ultimately I have to live with myself, and that if I should take from those who have less than I do I would be doing a disservice both to those others and to myself. Then someone insists that I take money for the medicines I tell them, No, you need it more than I. If you feel you must pay for the medicines, give your money to a family who needs it more than you do.
All this tends to throw the people into confusion. Because they know and see only one side of me -- my good side -- I strike them as being too good to be true, and there are always those soothsayers who would unveil my ulterior motives. I have supplied a reason in my terms, but they must have one in theirs. I am frequently asked what group, or party, or creed has sent me here with the medicines, and I say, None, I have brought them because there is a need. The idea was my own. This is too much. One rumor after another has grown and then slowly died for lack of sustenance: so far I have come as an F.B.I. agent, as a miner, as a seeker of buried treasures, as a Communist, or as a propagandist for some vague cult or creed, and heaven knows what other reasons which have never reached my ear. As is witnessed by the following tale, there are those who will literally be clutching at straws.
During the journey to Mazatlán and Ajoya from the United States, I purchased a cheap sombrero. On opening the glove box of the Jeep, I noticed that a bottle of bright red fingernail polish had spilled inside it. Absent-mindedly I put my finger in the still-moist polish and painted a peace symbol on the top of the sombrero. I have subsequently been asked several times by curious villagers what the red marking atop my straw sombrero signifies. I say it is the symbol of peace, and tell them that this symbol is worn in the United States by some persons who are not in accord with the present war in Viet Nam, or with war in general. This has led to a discussion of the reasons for the war, and. the consequent question of communism versus capitalism. The more alert campesinos, now struggling to obtain their rights and a degree of equality, are quick to sound me out as to where I stand. I tell them that I am an adherent of no party and no group smaller than the human race, that I cannot condemn communism en todo as does the voice of my country, nor can I sympathize completely with the system of capitalism as practiced in my country. I tell them that I do believe that while there is enough food in the world to feed its inhabitants and enough medicine to treat its sick, or at best enough wealth to provide that amount of food and medicine, that the conscience of no man with a peso in his pocket can be clear until such food and medicine are provided.
Returning from my recent trip to Mazatlán, while staying in the casa of Esteban, the one-legged escobero, I awoke in the morning twilight to overhear a conversation, concerning myself, which began with the peace symbol on my hat. The conversation, roughly translated, went something like this:
“…Yes, ‘peace.’ It is to show he is not in accord with the war.”
“They are great warriors there, true?”
“But he doesn’t like the war? No. He says it is between the forces of communism and capitalism, and that his government has gone too far to protect its name and its ideals.”
“Then he is a communist?”
“No; he says he isn’t one thing or the other.”
“But he believes in the rights of the poor, true? All the communists wear beards like that.”
“And they carry back-packs like that, too.”
“Well, who knows?”
“Then, that is why he gives away the medicines!”
This final “¡Claro que sí!” uttered with authoritative finality, was more than I could take lying down, and I sprang out of my sleeping bag and pulling on my trousers cried, “¡No es verdad!” I tried to make it very clear that I was no more a communist than I was a Christian. That I neither represented nor was sent by any party or creed. That the idea of my bringing medicines had been completely my own, and had arisen out of the obvious need which I had seen with my own eyes when I had first wandered through the Sierra Madre.
My little speech was received with embarrassed silence. I think everyone was a little disappointed that, having finally made things clear in their own minds, I had once more confused them. They had had great difficulty in understanding why I have come to México, and why I am giving free medical aid. To see a need and respond to it seemed not reason enough. I cannot blame them for inventing more probable if less respectable explanations.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD
Today, nearly a month after the sad event, I was called again to the house where the eight-day old child had died. I had never mustered the courage to pay my regrets, and am now relieved to find that the family holds me in no way responsible for the child’s death. They were now seeking advice as to other ailments. Nearly everyone in the house had one affliction or another. But this did not deprive them of a sense of humor.
“Este hombre tiene víbora,” said the mother-in-law of the girl who lost her baby, pointing to the girl’s young husband.
“¿Vivas?” I asked, surprised that any villager would be keeping venomous snakes.
“¡Vivísimas!” replied the husband, and stretching his arms to full length, added, “Y grandes, ¡como así!”
“¿Puedo verlas?” I asked eagerly, and everybody laughed.
The young man waved his finger and pointed to his gut, “Están aquí. Adentro... siempre mordiendo, mordiendo, mordiendo... Son solitarios.” And he followed with a vivid description of strings of segments from the tapeworms in his intestines.
“Y ésta tiene otros lombrizes colorados así,” said the mother again, holding her fingers over a foot apart to demonstrate the size of the giant round worms in her eight-year old daughter.
“Y en ésta andan los chiquititos,” said the young husband, pointing to his wife.
“¿Y no tiene vitaminas o algo por ésto?” asked the mother-in-law, indicating the infant at her breast, which was very pale and frail. “Es que ya se acabó la leche,” she added, pointing to her sagging breast.
“Yo soy el primer hijo suyo,” said the young husband, and pointing to the infant, “Este es el número catorce.”
“Y éste tiene mal de estómago,” said the mother-in-law again, referring to an old man who had just come inside. “Es mi padre.” And she proceeded to describe how some twenty years before the old man had a stomach ulcer that had burst (se reventó) and the old man had vomited more than a liter of blood. He had been in a remote part of the mountains at the time, where there were cattle, and his aunt had cured him on a diet of nothing but milk. The condition had abated for many years, but recently had again become aggravated. They had called in old Dr. Oseo, who put him on a milk, egg, and meat-free diet and sold him a medicine which they later discovered was for post-partum mothers. The old man’s condition had continued to get worse, and again he had vomited blood. In desperation they had gone back to the milk cure, but there was one big hang-up: “Es que leche aquí casi no hay… Y no hay con que…”
The young husband turned to his wife and said, “Y éste también tiene dolor de hijar.” (A persistent pain in the flank associated with menstruation.*)
We talked for a while longer of other things. Then I made a mental note of the various ailments and returned to the casa Chavarín to select appropriate medicines and to write recetas. But it was quite some time before I made it back to their house, for as usual there was a group of persons awaiting medical aid at the casas, from villages near and far.
AT LAST THE MEDICINES
By January 13 I was still waiting for the arrivals which the telegram had said should come on the 10th. Around noon a little girl came running up to me as I was returning from the river, saying that there was a telephone call for me from San Ignacio. I went to the casa of Narcisa Zepeda where the single telephone of the town is located, and there talked with an American by the name of George Jenkins, whom I had never, met, but who had brought some of the long awaited medicines from the States. There was little chance of his making it in his Volkswagen over the impossible road to Ajoya, and as Antonio has not come that day in his camión, I set off on the 27 km. hike to San Ignacio. I started with my backpack empty but for my sleeping bag and a few first-aid supplies just in case. I took no food, but by the time I had reached the far side of town people had provided me well for the journey. Ramona’s abuelita gave me four hard boiled eggs. Someone else gave me some salt beef. Someone else, an orange. In the second to last house of town a woman called me inside and gave me several empanadas (pastries with calabaza inside).
It was a good thing that I had brought the first aid supplies, for as I passed through Carrisál I was hailed by a man who the year before had helped our Pacific group get our car around a broken-down truck which was blocking the narrow road to Ajoya. We had given him one of our home-made first aid kits, but now it was completely used up, and the week before his young daughter had burned the bottom of her foot. Now it was swollen and infected. The mother boiled water, and I cleaned and bandaged the foot. I was invited to lunch, made special by some dulce de guayaba, and then set out on my way again.
Mile after mile I walked, at a fairly rapid pace, for there would be no moon tonight and I did not look forward to hiking the rough road and crossing the fords in the dark.
After the first two or three miles, I wondered how I would ever make it, for I was just getting over a fairly severe attack of dysentery, with accompanying fever and kidney pains, and which had lasted nearly a week. I now I felt very weak, and my legs and back grew tired after only a few miles. But I kept up my pace... there was no choice now that I’d started, and little by little I began to feel stronger. Another 2 or 3 miles and I felt refreshed and strong. I recalled my long bicycle trip to the Orient, how after the severe attacks of dysentery, which had hit me as a rule every three or four days, it had taken every ounce of will I had to start on my journey again... how I had been plagued by the temptation to lie down by the side of the dusty road and call it quits. But then, little by little, as now, my strength had returned until at last I felt light and strong, and all the countryside took on new beauty.
Now I walked and walked, swiftly, feeling I could walk forever. I crossed through arroyos heavily shaded by the shiny-leaved higueras and by the huge, lacy guanacastles. I climbed abruptly up slopes flanked by Palo Blanco now bright with white morning-glory like flowers after the winter rains and the angular pochote (wild kapok) with their large fruit hanging heavily like the testicles of a bull. I emerged upon mesas carpeted with the tall filmy tepeguaje and mauto and with the smaller, spiny binole and vinorama. Flanking the hillside to my right was a graceful arbor of amapa prieta, which, with its profusion of delicate lilac-colored flowers called to my mind the plump blossoms of springtime in Japan. I walked and walked, and was now no longer in México or North America or any specific place or time or season. How good to be alone and healthy and surrounded by trees and flowers!
Suddenly, ahead of me, I heard the sound of hoofs on the rocky track, and around the corner came two horsemen. They drew rein as they came up, greeting me warmly. I was about to continue on my way when one of the men, whom I knew from Ajoya, said, “Espérete un momentito,” and reaching into his saddlebag withdrew three letters for me. I thanked him, and continued on our way in opposite directions. I continued on a short distance until I came to a comfortable-looking stone, and there sat down to read the letters. One was from a forgotten friend in France, one from my parents in Ohio, and one from a dear friend, Bob Wallace, in California. How strange, to discover that the middle of nowhere is everywhere, that without even reaching out I was suddenly in touch with four points on the globe, each over a thousand miles from the other. Things sometimes happen like that.
I arrived in San Ignacio shortly after dark, sore-footed from the long walk. Three times I hiked back and forth through San Ignacio, following instructions of those who knew where the otro gringo was before at last I located George Jenkins in the home of a man called Pepe, who has spent several years in the States and speaks good English.
I accompanied George to his hotel room, for I was eager to see which medicines he had brought. (Being leery of passing through customs with such a large amount, he had brought only a portion of those which the Wolfs were to bring.) I became aware that George was concerned and upset about something, and as soon as we were alone he proceeded to pour out the gist of a discussion he had had that afternoon with el Presidente of the Municipio, Ignacio Castilla, who had summoned him to the Presidencia as he had summoned me the time before. Pepe had interpreted.
I learned that the Presidente, bless his heart, had told George that he had strong reason to believe that I was located in Ajoya for no other reason than to obtain amapola (poppy, which previously was grown extensively in this region of the Sierra Madre, and is still grown illegally to some extent) for the purpose of smuggling the drug back to the States. To support his suspicion, the Presidente had uncovered the fact (I had willingly shown him my passport on request) that I had traveled extensively in many countries, and was therefore very wealthy. (He had, of course, not troubled to ask me how I had traveled.) If I had come by my wealth legally, he conjectured, I would be living fatly on it in the States, or traveling from tourist resort to tourist resort in México, like other wealthy Americans. Therefore, he concluded, I had come by my fortune through illegal traffic of drugs, and for this purpose was now residing in Ajoya. If I was giving medical help to the poor, it was a cover for the crime.
I was flabbergasted. I asked George if he had believed this tale. He shook his head doubtfully and said he had not known what to believe. For his own peace of mind he had decided that if I was obtaining opium it was probably for medicinal purposes.
I assured him that I knew nothing whatever of the opium traffic, and had not even realized that poppy was cultivated in this region before I had come; that the only conversation concerning poppy I had had, was with a young man (Everardo) who asked me to bring him some poppy from the highlands, and that I had told him that I would not bring it because it would be a disservice to him if I did. As I told George more and more about the conditions in Ajoya, and what I was doing, all doubt left his mind as to my conscientiousness. He became increasingly upset at the callow incrimination of the Presidente. I explained to him that there had been some pretty unsavory Americanos in San Ignacio. (On our passage through San Ignacio in December we had met a tall, smooth, and self-assured American, a relic hunter, who had marched through town as if he owned it, showing such contempt for the “fucking Mexicans,” and instilling such hatred, that I had dreaded it when he strode up and clapped us on the back as fellow Americans, offering to buy us a beer. Doubtless the actions of such persons do not engender ready trust in other Americans. But this reason was not enough for George. As an American Negro and juvenile parole officer in Los Angeles, he knows only too well what damage is done consistently by unfounded judgments, and by the assumption of guilt because of race, or birth. I explained to that there might well, be another reason for el Presidente’s incrimination of me, and told him something of the history of the struggle between the campesinos vs. the landowners and the politicians and officials whose pockets are padded by them; how only the week before the two leaders of the campesinos in the municipio had been murdered here in San Ignacio, with a machine gun -- available only to or through federal officers -- and that no investigation, by the Presidente or by the soldiers stationed in San Ignacio, followed the murders. (For some reason el Presidente preferred to investigate a charge against me that apparently he himself had drummed up. Why? The only reason I can imagine is that my mail arrives in San Ignacio, addressed c/o José Vidaca, and José Vidaca is one of the persons most active in the campesino movement in Ajoya, and among those who marched into San Ignacio the day following the murders.) From the President’s point of view, then, I am probably on the wrong side, and therefore a potential threat to the wealthy, and those whose palms the wealthy grease, namely his own.
Actually, as far as my own involvement goes, I have assumed a moot -- or more correctly, mute -- position in the struggle, and have provided medication and treatment as quickly to the landowners as to the poor. The landowners and their servants, for their part, have been as quick to request my services, although rarely will they show face at the casa of José Vidaca. If el Presidente in San Ignacio ever actually took any action against me, the rich in Ajoya and their servants would be as quick to come to my rescue as the poor -- and it would be the rich who would buy me out; actually, all the Presidente needs to do to put himself at ease is ask a few people from Ajoya about me, but so far he has not troubled himself to do this.
I am somewhat disturbed with the position that the Presidente has taken toward me, partly because it is utterly unreasonable, partly because here in México I like to feel that everyone is friendly toward me, but most of all because of the potential difficulty that el Presidente could cause in my securing medicines from the States. For this reason I have advised my friends bringing medicines to pass through San Ignacio as inconspicuously as possible.
In spite of the views of the Presidente I have already made many friends in San Ignacio, and against my wishes I have slowly but surely been acquiring a clientele there also. Old Santo Ríos (appropriately enough, the ferryman) now gives me free passage across the river. The one-legged Esteban, who is a gentle person with great compassion, has taken me to a number of enfermos who have been unable to receive medical aid in San Ignacio. One of these is a boy of 20 years named Angelo. Angelo lives, day and night, in a small chamber separated from the rest of the adobe house of his parents by a cloth curtain. He has a sallow complexion and enormous, deer-like eyes. He has given up trying to be cured. He says, “Voy a morir aquí en este cuarto.” His left foot is badly and painfully infected, a condition that apparently started as a fungus disease and has subsequently become secondarily infected. Now, after three years, it is badly swollen and distorted, and when he tries to move about the foot commences to bleed and becomes extremely painful. A number of attempts have been made to cure it, but always the money, and hence the medicine, have run out before a satisfactory cure was effected. Angelo made a painful journey to Mazatlán last spring to have his foot cut off, but the Hospital Civil, which theoretically gives free treatment, told him it would cost him 2000 pesos. Angelo returned to his room and his bed, and it was there that Esteban took me.
On my last trip to Mazatlán I called at the federally operated Centro de Salud, told the doctors there what I was doing in the villages, and they in turn invited me to send any seriously ill patients there for treatment, that they would give free treatment, free hospitalization, if necessary, and perhaps most important, free medicine. It took quite some coaxing on my part and the part of Esteban and the boy’s parents before Angelo finally accepted the 100 pesos I offered him to cover the passage for him and his brother to and from Mazatlán. Angelo has little faith in the medical institutions of his country, and has resigned himself to his fate. I think he is a little afraid to start hoping and struggling again for a good life. Now, when he looks ahead, he finds it easier to see only the end, to say, “Voy a morir aquí.” I had to challenge him, and finally all but shame him into accepting the challenge, before at last he closed his hand around the hundred peso note.
Angelo cannot be blamed for his skepticism. Esteban proceeded to tell me that last year a delegado of the government had presented to the doctor in the Hospital Civil in San Ignacio 15,000 pesos worth of medicines for charity treatment of the poor, but that the doctor, who had a deal going with the local pharmacist, turned the entire lot over to the pharmacist, where they were sold at the standard, exorbitant prices.
“But didn’t anybody do anything to prevent this?” I asked Esteban.
“And did the Presidente of the municipio know about this?” I asked.
“Certainly. Everybody knows.”
“But he didn’t do anything either?”
Esteban looked at me as if I should know by this time. All he said was, “Pues...” and moved his fingers back and forth over his upturned palm. The same old story: Money.
I was still unsatisfied. “But I thought the president was elected by the people themselves! Why don’t people elect a president who will represent them, and help them?”
“Es que...,” Esteban shrugged his shoulders and sighed, explaining to me that the elections were little more than a charade between two candidates, both selected by those in power and wealth, and that the choice for voters was usually between the lesser of two evils. (I could not help reflecting on how little conditions vary from country to country, once stripped of the superficial propaganda. I have never thought of myself as an anarchist, but I am beginning to understand how one can become one.)
“¿Y nunca ha habido un presidente aquí en San Ignacio que quería ayudar primero a la gente?” I asked.
Esteban shook his head. “¡Nunca!’
OTRA VEZ MAZATLAN
As I had received a letter from my friends in Palo Alto saying that they had sent a money order to the Banco Nacional de México in Mazatlán with which I might buy more medicines, I spent the night with George Jenkins and in the morning drove into the city with him.
I received the money order -- not without some difficulty -- and purchased another $200 worth of medicines from the Belmar Pharmacy. Although Sr. Ponce de Leon gave me a l0% discount across the board, the cost was still incredibly high for the medicines I obtained.
I had another reason for going to Mazatlán, however, and this was to talk with experienced doctors about some of the diseases (particularly skin diseases) which I encountered here. Most helpful of all was Doctor Carlos López Liza raga, head doctor at the Cruz Roja, who gave me more than two hours of his time, discussing analysis and treatment of various conditions. He also volunteered to correspond with me relative to any other problems I should encounter. What a gold mine I have discovered!
It is so refreshing, here in México, to encounter someone with either education or money who is dedicated to something more than the acquisition of the latter!
I stayed with George Jenkins only 24 hours in Mazatlán, and he, traveling alone, continued his journey toward the south, and I returned to Ajoya. George is a clear-thinking, gentle person, and I tried to coax him to come to Ajoya for a while, for I knew he would enjoy people and the village, but his time was limited.
THE DEAF GIRL
So many times I want to do so much more than I am able. Grown-ups and infants I help gladly, but children I help joyously. Tonight, as I was writing in the little room provided by Ramona, Chón, the deaf man, came to tell me that a friend of his mother was ill, and would I come. I was about to leave when Ramona entered, accompanied by a frightened-looking girl of perhaps 15 years who timidly offered me her hand. Ramona told me that the girl, like Chón, was muda, but Ramona has kidded me so much that I doubted her word, and simply nodded and smiled at the girl. I went with Chón to visit the woman who apparently has a monilial infection of the vagina. I visited her in private and she begged me not to divulge her infirmity, saying, “Usted entiende que esos son cosas vergonzosas.” I nodded, and later, when several persons questioned me as to the woman’s ailment, I avoided reply.
When I returned to my writing chamber after about half an hour, Ramona and the frightened-looking girl were still there. I discovered that she was indeed deaf. She had come with her mother and brother from a small village above El Naranjo, for her brother was suffering from ronchas (welts) on his hands and feet, and they had come to me for a cure. (It proved to be an allergy of some kind, readily relieved with antihistamines and a cortisone ointment.) The mother explained to me that her daughter had been born deaf, and that she, who herself knew how to read and write, had been teaching her the alphabet. But still the child, who seemed bright enough, had learned no more than the vowels.
I took a piece of paper and began to draw figures: a man, a woman, a boy, a girl, a cow, a burro. Each one labeled in Spanish. The girl matched me with spellbound attention. I put a bucket under the cow, labeled it, and then drew a stream of milk entering the bucket, labeling the milk. Then I drew a glass, labeled it, and then drew another glass with milk in it and wrote, un vaso de leche. The child’s attention and will to communicate was enormous, and my heart went out to her altogether. She seemed so ready, eager and able to learn. I wished that somehow I would be able to teach her every day, to watch her learn, and finally to see her delight in discovering that she could actually talk with pencil and paper, using the same words as everybody else. But she lives in a rancho miles away from Ajoya, and even were she here, I would have little time to teach her... I had to satisfy my wish by showing her mother the drawings and words, and how she might build simple phrases, and encouraging her to take over.
Why is it that this little deaf girl, with her black probing eyes and her hesitant handshake fascinates me so, while the buxom beauties that sidle up to me asking for medicine to cure pimples bore me with their assumption of my response?
THE POWER OF THE PESO
Two evenings ago when I arrived at the tienda to write, Ramona told me that her abuelita, Rosaura, had something for me to apuntar con la máquina. (Rosaura is a dynamic woman with a shrill voice and keen mind, and as she knows I am interested in recording as complete a picture as possible of what is going on in the pueblo, she has frequently made a point of informing me of affairs. Although her husband, Gregorio Alarcón, as the keeper of a small tienda, is in rather a mid-way position between the landowners and the campesinos, Rosaura, who has very much a mind of her own, is passionately on the side of the campesinos.)
She proceeded to tell me, and I have already confirmed it with José and with Remedios Reyes, who lives nearby, of the attempt to dispossess of his small piece of land a poor campesino by the name of Pedro Gandarilla. When Rosaura first settled in Ajoya 23 years ago, Pedro already lived with his family in his small casa near Las Chicuras and planted corn for his family on the land surrounding his casa. A year ago one of the wealthy landowners, José Celis, who lives in the large, cement-floored house next to that of the Chavaríns (I have been invited to a meal there, and have treated his pale daughter of mouth ulcers) decided he liked the land surrounding the small homestead of Pedro. He proceeded to put up a barbed wire fence covering a large area, inside of which was the small property which Pedro farmed. This autumn Pedro was advised to leave his land. He refused, having settled and possessed and lived on the land long before José Celis ever thought about it. At his refusal, José Celis paid a gunman to kill Pedro. (This was discovered when the gunman, who had already murdered five persons in the vicinity of Ajoya and San Ignacio was arrested by a judicial (state policeman). The gun which was taken from the gunman was found to have been given him by José Celis, who had apparently paid for some of the murders already performed, as well as the uncompleted murder of Pedro. The gunman is now in a state prison, but José Celis paid a multita, (small fine) – and probably a considerably larger bribe – and was not further disturbed.) The latest development has been that two day ago el síndico (police chief) of the Municipio de San Ignacio, under the mandate of my friend El Presidente) called Pedro to San Ignacio, ordered him to leave his land immediately. If he refused, said el síndico, he was to appear to be arrested and imprisoned in San Ignacio on the 27th of January (today). If he declined to appear, the síndico had told him, “le van a matar.” (You will be killed). In desperation Pedro left yesterday for Culiacán, to protest to officials at the State level. But it is doubtful if he will be successful.* For the State government to interfere with the action of the municipal government is sticky business, and besides Pedro has no money, while José Celis has lots.
“And what are the other campesinos going to do?” I asked. I said it as much as a challenge as a question.
“They will go into San Ignacio and protest,” said Rosaura. She and I both knew that that would be the end of it. But we shall see what happens.
This morning as I was packaging pills for some early arrivals (who sometimes come before it is fully light and stand quietly and at respectful distance until I climb out of my sleeping bag and pull on my pants), Everardo came up to me grinning his enormous grin and saying, “¡Vamos a las colmenas!”
¿Cuando regresamos?” I asked.
“Por mediodía,” he replied.
“Bueno,” I said. “Vamos.”
The burros were already saddled and waiting, but it was another hour before we succeeded in making our exit, for no sooner had I finished caring for one patient than another would arrive. At last there was a lull, but when we took up machete and axe and were about to make our exit, a little old lady arrived to have me treat her ulcerated leg. I have long since given her the medicines and bandages to treat herself, but each day she arrives asking that I do the re-bandaging, saying that when she changes the bandages herself it is always very painful, but when I do it “no me duele, y estoy muy a gusto,” because “usted tiene buenas manos para curar.” I was in a quandary, for Everardo and Chón were growing impatient, but the little old lady solved the problem by offering to come back in the afternoon. I know that she enjoys coming and as this gave her one more opportunity I took her up on her proposal. If ever her leg heals - which at its present rate of progress seems doubtful -- I am sure she will be secretly disappointed, or, which is more likely, discover another ailment. She is very fond of me.
At last we set off, the two burros, Everardo, Chón, and I, taking the back calle out of town to avoid being cornered by other patients. (It is always a struggle -- if a reassuring one -- for me to leave town.) At last we left the town behind and drifted slowly along the trail toward la loma, taking turns upon the two donkeys. After about two kilometers we left the main trail and took progressively smaller ones, climbing up a steep hill and down the other side. The donkeys were saddled only with carrying pads, and at one point I felt sure I was going to pitch forward over the head of my animal, but somehow managed to stay put. At last, in a remote spot in the hills, we came to a spot where Everardo had been chopping and piling firewood. (In a village as large and as old as Ajoya, the acquiring of firewood presents quite a problem, and one must go far afield.) Everardo had worked several days to compile the two burro-loads of leña which he and Chón were about to cart into the village and sell at three pesos fifty centavos a load.
We left the burros to graze near the wood pile and set out up the precipitous hill toward a colmena which Everardo had spotted while cutting wood. (A colmena is a hive of wild bees in which the honey is stored in large irregular pouches of dark wax, as distinct from an enhambre, in which the honey is stored in combs.) At last we located the colmena, in the base of a tall tepeguaje tree (Lysomloma Watsoni) growing from a slope that lacked little from being vertical. Chón and I perched on the horizontal trunk of an enormous pochote at a respectful distance, while Everardo took up the axe to chop open the hueco. Before beginning to chop he tore bits of leaves from a nearby shrub and plugged his ears. Chón and I followed suit.
With the first stroke of the axe the angry bees came bumbling out of the opening in the trunk, inspite of Everardo’s efforts to plug the hole with leaves. In a moment his hair and face were covered with the insects -- tiny, hairy little fellows, about half the size of honeybees. Fortunately for us the avispas de colmena, as they are called, have no sting. They only bite. But when two or three hundred are biting at once, and scrambling into one’s eyes and nose, it is a little like Gulliver in Lilliput. I, too, took my turn with the axe, and at first found the invasion a little frightening, but soon got used to it. The bites are less aggravating than those of mosquitoes or bedbugs, for they do not itch afterwards.
At last we cut through the hard wood to the cavity containing the colmena, but before we could reach the honey the axe handle broke, the head remaining stuck in the tree. For some reason this struck us as enormously funny, and we laughed so hard that we nearly rolled down the steep slope. Chón offered to fetch another axe (mine from Ajoya, and returned with it an hour and a half later. Meanwhile Everardo and I climbed to the top of the hill and sat looking out toward the winding river below us and the village of Ajoya in the distance, while a small, blue hummingbird busily visited the mass of lavender flowers of an amapa prieta which shaded the spot where we sat.
When Chón returned with the axe we continued our projects and were at once covered again by the angry bees. But now the sacs of honey were exposed and we gathered them with sticky fingers, sucking the honey from the sacs as fast as we withdrew them. The colmena, although disappointingly small, went deeper into the trunk, and Everardo, attempting to chop it more open, swung-a glancing blow and cleaved his big toe open as far as the base of the nail. Dropping the axe he examined the severe cut and then, shaking his head and grinning his huge, perennial grin, said, "¡Chingado!"
I at once applied direct pressure to the toe, and Chón quickly cut the top off a nearby cardón (a tall, thin cactus very common to this region) and applied its juice directly to the cut. Almost instantly it stopped bleeding. I took a moderately clean handkerchief from my pocket and bound the toe. I was all for returning immediately to Ajoya to treat it properly, but Everardo wanted to continue on to another colmena he had spotted, and as it was his toe, and I could not dissuade him, we set out.
The second colmena was in the base of a huamuchil tree in a broad valley. This time the bees were so fierce that none of us could take more than a few strokes without dropping the axe and retreating to brush the bees from our eyes and necks. The colmena was very deep and we chopped for nearly an hour before the honey sacs were sufficiently exposed to remove, but this time there was more honey. We plucked out the sacs and deposited them in a small bucket we had brought with us for the purpose. Then we withdrew some distance from the hive, and squatting round the bucket, feasted greedily, while the bees continued to scramble through our hair. We were by this time a sticky mess, but deliriously happy with our treasure. The most savory of all were the sacs of tamalilla or pollen, some yellow and some orange, which we had withdrawn from the bottom of the colmena. In all, I do not think there was more than a pint of honey, and we polished it off in short order. The dark wax was soft with a pungent, sweet taste, and more delicious to chew than any gum I have tasted. (It is also used for candles in the church.)
We washed our hands with some water we had brought for the purpose, and returned to the woodpile where we loaded the donkeys (an art) and set out back for Ajoya.
After Everardo had sold the leña I cleaned and bandaged his toe, clamping the wound shut with butterfly bandages, and today (the day following) it already appears to have knitted.
Yesterday, shortly after Everardo, Chón, and I returned from las colmenas, my little friend Goyo strode into the portal of the casa Chavarín bearing a heavy suitcase, and with that sparkle in his eye that let me know I was due for a surprise.
“¿¡Que es ésto?!” I asked in astonishment. Goyo grinned, and the next instant appeared, of all persons unexpected, Antonio! The same one-armed Antonio who had accompanied our Pacific High School group the previous spring.
Antonio! I cried. And when I had gotten over my surprise I asked him what brought him here to Ajoya.
Antonio told me that he had been sent by my friends in California, who were frightened about my welfare as a result of my last letter. I laughed and shook my head. Imagine anyone worrying about my welfare, here, where I have made more friends than I have ever had in my life! For all that, I am delighted to have Antonio here with me.
I will have to be more careful with my letters. They are invariably written in a rush, on impulse, and as result of a recently realized need. In the letter that precipitated Antonio’s arrival, I had advised that any more medicines brought from the States go through San Ignacio as quietly as possible. I had then tried to give a brief sketch of the situation involving el Presidente, the landowners, and the campesinos, and how for one reason or another el Presidente had decided to suspect me of opium smuggling. To add emphasis I mentioned the recent murders. My friends took fright and sent Antonio to my rescue.
Truth be known, I am probably in less need of being rescued than I have ever been in my life. I am conscious of good and evil, both in myself and my surroundings, but for the present feel on top of them both. I have little to fear, at least of physical harm or death, for I have discovered that it is possible to be human and happy, to be surrounded by suffering, injustice, and misunderstanding, yet remain awake to beauty and be conscious of the enormity of love and human kindness. No. I do not need to be rescued and cannot be rescued... All the same, it is a wonderful feeling to know that my friends back in California care about me enough to try. And how I am enjoying Antonio!
THE SMALL CEMETERY
It is a refreshing thought to know that somewhere on this earth there occur situations where money is not wasted on the dead -- even if it is because there is no money available to waste.
Yesterday afternoon Antonio and I accompanied Goyo to his home in Las Chicuras. The night was very cold, and at the first sign of dawn the members of the family rose and built a fire in the yard around which to warm themselves, for the blankets are too few to keep warm on such nights. We all sat around the fire, talking and laughing and watching the sky grow light. With the coming of dawn came the parrots, as they do every morning, from the direction of the rising sun. Then, among the high-pitched screams of the pericos, were the hoarser and deeper cries of the guacamayas.
“¡Mira!” cried Goyo, as a large flock of these enormous macaws, trailing their long tails, wheeled through the silvery sky. As the birds flew over the casa, they spotted the adjacent grove of habas (spiny trees with large, heart-shaped leaves). The macaws turned and suddenly dropped, in twos and threes and fours, into the upper branches. Goyo and I set out, approaching the grove as silently as we could, and succeeded in reaching within 30 feet of the beautiful green birds with their red faces, azure wings, and long magenta tails. They chuckled among themselves and feasted greedily and with impunity on the same large, wheel-shaped fruits which two years before I had barely tasted and suffered severe stomach pain and dizziness. Trying to approach yet closer, we pushed our luck too far, and with a communal scream the entire flock rose in the air and continued its morning flight westward.
Beyond the grove of habas was a gentle slope overlooking the broad river valley, and, drawn by the spell of dawn I walked on down the slope into the clearing.
I suddenly realized that we had entered a tiny cemetery. The graves of the dead were marked with the simplest of crosses, hand-hewn by machete, and grooved to fit each other where they crossed... Such crosses disintegrate quickly, even as fades the sorrow for the dead. The crosses were in all stages of disrepair. One of the simplest was still quite fresh, made of two branches of tepeguaje, with the bark still on, the one branch having been split down the center to receive the other. Goyo explained to me that this was the grave of an infant who had died two months before. He showed me the graves of two of his brothers and sisters. Some of the crosses were grayed and lichened with age. From others, the horizontal cross pieces had fallen, and we picked them up and put them back in their place. Over other graves, however, the entire cross had fallen; and of others, little remained but decaying fragments, returning to the substance of the earth like the bodies of those they marked.
There was a beauty, a charm and simplicity about the scene. Somehow it put death in its proper place, as something intimate and temporary, like life. There was none of the vain attempt to perpetuate so conspicuous in more costly graveyards marked with gravestones. Here the grasses and the weeds grew wild, and there was a sense of the continuity, not of that which was done, but for that which gently continued. Nor had the living been denied for the embellishment of the dead. The deaths of those buried here had cost their loved ones no more than the loss that they had suffered. It was apparent that the dead return to dust.
And is this not correct? What memory lasts forever? Is a stone more eternal than a stick? Surely if there is such a thing as immortality, it lies in the act of life itself, from day to day, in the succession of events in time, and not in the wilting bloom of recollection.
When I die, if I am to be buried at all, I would like to be buried in a spot like this . . . and may the tears dry quickly.
Now -- as I live among the villagers in Ajoya, sleeping in a room with six other persons, on a cot infected with bedbugs and fleas, as I accept for my food only what the villagers bring me, buying no surplus for myself because I would feel wrong about it, and because the villagers, always short themselves, provide me with ample, as I work and rest amid so much need and so much generosity -- how strange it is to reflect, upon my recent life and the lives of my friends in the States.
The vast differences between conditions here and conditions there are, at this time and place, hard for me to accept. Here the need is so evident, so ubiquitous. My heart cries out in response to it, as it cries out in joy to the blooming trees on the hillsides. Can the United States really be so far away? Two day’s drive in a fast car!
And then I remember that the same differences that now I think of as between here and there also exist there in the United States, and even within the community of friends of whom I am thinking. There, too, are those with surplus and those with nearly nothing. Who is to blame another for his misfortune? And who is to withhold what he has from the children of those who have less? We! We all withhold! We all give something, those of us who can see and, can respond, but we all withhold too much, and judge too quickly... because we are afraid. Perhaps it is an outdated instinct from some brutish period of our genesis when to survive meant to grasp. But our world has changed and is changing, and we are lagging behind. Now, in the world today, to survive means to share! And, the sharing must not be a tithing, but a splitting down the middle, and down the middle again, and again, not through the compulsion of government but through the strength of understanding, through the ready response of one person to the needs of another.
But I had better be quiet.