David Werner - Copyright by David Werner - 1966
THE TOLL OF THE RAIN
Earth, air, fire, and water are still the basic elements in the barrancas, but the most momentous, most prayed for, most fearful of these, is water. Earth can be tilled or molded into homes. Air is forever and is of little threat; the worst wind storm this year was in May, and while it felled trees across the trails, ripped tiles from roofs, and raised a sea of dust which coated the casas inside and out, it caused little irreplaceable damage. Fire is people’s servant, obedient if treated with respect, more readily managed than a mule. Although sometimes it escapes from burning milpas and destroys whole mountainsides, or drops hot coals from cooking fires to sear the surprised feet of children, on the whole it is little hazard.
But water! Water obeys no one in the barrancas. One day it serves, the next it reneges, and the next it masters. While it consents to follow roughly predictable seasons, its hour and extent come as it chooses. It is a sorcerer who can change the face of the landscape or the fate of a village overnight. It can be as fickle or, as faithful as a lover; as tempestuous or as tender as a drunk; as delightful or as cruel as a child. Water, in fact, is as creative and as destructive as man himself.
Man is the victim of the water’s whim. If the summer rains are scant, the harvests fail. If the summer rains are bounteous, the trails wash out and the river and arroyos become impassable. In either case the water takes its toll.
This summer in the barrancas has been as exceptionally wet as last summer was dry. Those weather-prophets, who, when it rained more than normally in las cabanuelas, predicted heavy rains during las temporadas, were right. Except for the water-logging of some of the more level milpas and of those higher in the sierra, the relentless rains this season give promise of a boon harvest, for the corn has grown fast and fat. Heavy rains mean hard work, a constant battle to suppress the prolific weeds that shoot up even faster than the corn in response to the pounding raindrops. But the people do not mind this extra work, which means at the same time more food to come, except that many are hungry and underfed as a result of the crop failure from last year’s drought. It is not easy for a man and his children to work all day on a mountainside with their stomachs empty.
From the time I arrived in Verano in early July, until now in mid-September, there have been only three days when in the afternoon it did not cloud over and rain. Yet not one day during the whole summer has passed without sunshine. Usually the days dawn clear and fresh, with fluffs of thin mist rising from the crevices of the lush and dripping hills. The temperature rises with the sun until, by noon, the day is hot. Then, sooner or later in the afternoon, usually between three and four o’clock, great billows of black rain-clouds come rolling down from the higher sierra, flashing lightning and grumbling like a convention of giants. With magic speed the clouds radiate out over the heavens, pushing a foreboding wind ahead of them, and the rain, in a grey, sibilant curtain descends from the head of the valley. From mid-August on, the rains have tended to come later in the afternoons, sometimes not beginning until after dark, or holding off into the wee hours, so that the dawn steals in through a misty drizzle. Invariably before noon, however, the sun breaks through, and the cloud banks dissolve within minutes to leave only a few silvery swirls of mist cavorting in slow motion through the steep ravines of the green and rocky mountains.
Sometimes the afternoon rain comes in sprinkles, sometimes in showers, but more often with a force so violent that --like a rainbow, or a lovely face-- it demands one’s attention no matter how often one has seen it. How many afternoons – as the sky, like a dam, has exploded under its overload of water and, booming thunder and lightning, descended in a torrent toward the earth – has a tremor of awe, a mixture of fear and delight, passed through each one of us, young and old, sheltered under the streaming tiles of the stout Casa Vidaca! Dropping our chores of the moment, how often have we hurried to the edge of the portal to stare out at the silver sheets of water pelting the dark leaves of the habas and palos colorados converting the yellow-red soil of the hillside into a cascade of soupy mud. In the deluge the stoic burros stand with their ears folded back, streaming water; the chickens poise tall and stiff on rocks and logs on higher ground, their tails bent down in a straight line with their bodies to better shed the water; while the invincible, oblivious hogs root on, as hungry as ever! How often, peering over each other’s shoulders, have we watched the thrashing arroyo rise, inch by leaping inch, sweeping logs and boulders in its surf, or waited to see if today’s flood would exceed the level of yesterday.
The flooding of the arroyos is a special problem for those who live on one side and go each day to work their milpas on the other. The Arroyo de Verano is constantly playing games with such villagers, who drop their tlacuaches at the first raindrops and race down the steep mountainside to try to snake it across the arroyo while they still can. Frequently, the water rises slowly and they have no difficulty, but if it has been raining hard farther upstream, the arroyo may rise as much as a foot a minute. I have seen it rise six feet in half an hour, covering the deeply-fluted base of the huge higuera on the bank below the casa Vidaca. I watch with suspenseful fascination as Bonifacio and his children, boys and girls alike, run by on their way from the milpa and dash fearlessly into the muddy, surging water.
One day a stout youth named Pablo returned late from his milpa. He came springing down the mountainside like a deer, a small sheet of plastic clutched over his shoulders in a vain attempt to shed the hammering rain, his pants rolled up above his knees. The arroyo was already a dangerously churning wake.
“¡No se puede pasar ahorita!” warned Irineo. (You can’t pass now!)
“¡Como no!” cried Pablo with a sunny laugh, “¡Lo paso volando!” (I’ll pass it flying!) Which said, he turned and bounded into the avalanching water. A moment later he emerged on the other side, gave a triumphant whoop, and made his way up the muddy trail toward Verano.
“¡Que valiente!” (How brave!) I commented.
“¡Que tonto!” (How foolish!) retorted Irineo. “Hay muchos que han perdido la vida así.” (There are many who have lost their lives that way.)
One day I myself had a close encounter with the arroyo. This was the day I went with Enrique and his son, Chon, over the high ridge and down to the Rio Verde to see them cross the flooded river on a wire cable stretched above the rushing water. On my return trip, welcoming the solitude, I had poked along, pausing here to look out upon the rugged scenery, there to watch the insects and flowers by the side of the trail. The afternoon rains, with brief warning, broke loose as I was descending the steep trail toward the canyon below El Rancho del Padre. This trail winds down the side of a steep ravine and enters the canyon about 400 yards downstream from Irineo’s house. The rain was falling in a torrential cloudburst when I reached the canyon. The water had already begun to rise noticeably, and I debated whether I should risk wading upstream through the steep-walled canyon, or should weather the storm where I was, which might mean spending all night in the wet ravine. Had it not been for my camera, I think I would have stayed, but there is a limit to how much rain the thin leather case can shed, and I decided to take the chance. I splashed into the rising water. Now the rain was falling so hard it blurred vision a few feet away. I hurried up the canyon as fast as I could, stumbling through the deep, rushing water and sinking at times into thick washes of mud. The churning torrent rose steadily until at the deeper points it was waist deep and I had to battle to keep my footing. I arrived at the casa Vidaca drenched and tired. Irineo laughed when he saw me, not so much at my bedraggled appearance, as with relief. When it started to rain and I had still not returned, he began to worry, and with reason.
Beremundo Vidaca and his family had an even narrower escape in the same canyon late in July. In El Tule, near the junction to the Arroyo de Verano with the Rio Verde, Beremundo had built a small hut of poles and thatch so that he and his family could pass las aguas near his cornfield on the adjacent slope. The jejenes (no-see-‘ems) however, proved unbearable. In the late afternoons the clouds of these tiny insects were as thick as mist, and the skin of his children was peppered with bites. One of the little boys had scratched so much that one ear and the side of his face had become seriously infected, and at last Beremundo decided to bring his family back to El Rancho del Padre where the jejenes, if bad, are at least bearable. Unwisely, he decided to take the shortcut through the canyon, for the trail over the ridges is nearly two times as long.
Again the rain came early and suddenly. Quickly the water rose above the capacity of the children. Their parents had to carry them, Eulalia bearing the smallest child, Beremundo the other two, one piggy-back, and one in his arms. They arrived frightened and exhausted, but safe. I could not help but marvel at how they had made it through the rushing water, rolling rocks, and quagmires bearing their children as they did. But the people in the barrancas are as sure-footed as goats. They have to be.
Sometimes, however, the villagers overestimate their capacity to cope with the floodwaters. I have already related how Dimas Lomas narrowly escaped drowning while trying to cross the flooded Rio Verde. Over the years the Rio Verde has taken its toll of lives. One of the fords below La Amargosa, for example, is now called “El Vado del Inocente” because several years ago, a brother of my host, Solomé Macías, in Huachimetas, was drowned at this spot, trying to make a crossing when the river was in high flood. Late this August, word came back up to Verano that the body of a man, hooked on a snag in mid-river, had been spotted by a child. The body was retrieved, but was already too far-gone to be recognized. Around the dead man’s neck was an empty bule (gourd) stoppered with a corn cob, which evidently he had contrived as a life-preserver in his attempt to cross the flooded river.
The Rio Elote, north of the Rio Piaxtla, whose tributaries we crossed on our journey into the high sierra, has also taken its toll of lives this summer. A man and his wife were trying to make the crossing to their casa when the woman slipped and was swept downstream. Her husband swam after her to try to save her, but the woman clutched at him and they were both drowned.
A few days ago Florinda Alvarado paid me a visit. She had come to ask for medicines to calm her sister, who, she said, “volvió loca” (had gone out of her mind). Her sister, she explained, lives on a relatively small tributary of the Rio Piaxtla between Tayoltita and Verano. The family’s milpa is on the far side of the arroyo. One afternoon, a little over a week ago, it began to rain unusually hard, the arroyo rose suddenly out of its banks. The worried mother went to the water’s edge to await her husband and 12 year-old daughter who were weeding the milpa. By the time they arrived on the far side, the water had risen dangerously high and the mother shouted to them not to cross. But the father hoisted the little girl onto his shoulders, and despite his wife’s cries of protest, waded into the flooded arroyo. Halfway across, with the water up to his shoulders, he stumbled and the little girl fell into the swirling current and was swept quickly downstream. Neither she nor her father knew how to swim, for during the dry season when the water is quiet enough for swimming, the stream is too small to permit it. The father himself narrowly escaped drowning. Four days have now passed since the drowning, Florinda told me, and still her sister remains hysterical.
Florinda also confided to me that now, after the drowning of her niece, she is more worried about the safety of her own children. Their milpa is also on the far side of the arroyo, and ever since her husband died “because he ate guayabas when he had a cold in the chest,” her young sons have had to care for the milpa alone. Each day they must cross the arroyo, which in a normal rainy season rarely rises enough to be dangerous...
“But yesterday it was so deep we had to swim across!” asserted 14 year-old Pancho, a note of pride in his voice.
His mother shuddered visibly. She said she would like to forbid her children crossing the arroyo, “¿Pero si los niños no traspasan el monte, que vamos a comer?” (But if the children don’t go through the weeds, what will we eat?)
And so, in mid-September, the rains continue to fall. How long they will last no one knows for sure. The weather-prophets say that because the new moon entered with water the rain will continue until the moon goes out. Nearly every afternoon the arroyos continue to flood. The river below remains high and -- but for the one cable in the barrancas -- is impassable except at great risk. The trails connecting the higher country with Ajoya -- although re-opened -- remain treacherous. The time is overdue for me to send off the third “Report from the Sierra Madre” (this one) and to do so I must return to the lowlands. I would have preferred to wait until the arroyo and the river were less flooded, and the trails more easily traveled, but I have other reasons for wanting to return to Ajoya. During the rains, communications have been all but severed between Verano and the world beyond. On September 7th I received two letters that had been mailed from Palo Alto on June 28th! I have also received a hurriedly written note from Old Micaela, in Ajoya, saying, “Tenemos la Sofía muy mala. Favor de venir para curarla.” (Sofía is very ill. Please come and treat her.) But the note did not arrive until two and a half weeks after it was dispatched, and as Micaela did not mention what sort of illness Sofía has, I have no idea whether by this time she is better, worse, well, or otherwise. So I am eager to get back to do what I can, for the Chavarins have treated me like a son. Also I have heard nothing from Goyo’s family, and although I may be unable to cross the river to Las Chicuras, I would like to see if it is possible. And so, although somewhat delayed, this third Report should soon be in your hands, si Diós quiere.
AHEAD OF THE RAIN
After I returned to Ajoya from my brief visit to California in early June, it took me several days to get underway to Verano with my cargo. Dimas Lomas had once again offered to transport my supplies, but at first I could not locate him, and then, as ever, he could not locate his mules. As the days passed I began to become more concerned. First, the weather! It was my hope to get all my supplies for summer and early fall up to Verano before las aguas began, and there were all the signs that the rain would begin early. Nearly every afternoon for more than a month dark clouds had built up over the mountains to the northeast and sometimes they had covered the entire sky. It was reported to have already rained hard higher in the mountains, and even in Ajoya there had been days of preliminary drizzles, called agüita, as well as several short showers. There were nights when the flashes of lightning were so consecutive that one could easily walk over the roughest terrain without a light. Everyone was delighted, and said, “¡Habrá mucha agua en esta temporada!” (There will be a lot of rain this rainy season!)... Yet if the heavy rains came before I got my supplies up to Verano, not only would the short-cut via the Arroyo de Verano become impassable, requiring me to make the loop past Jocuixtita, half again as long and with more hard climbing, but I would run the risk of soaking my cargo in the cloudbursts or the flooding river. The medicines I had in water-tight cases, but not so the clothing, blankets, school supplies, and milk… Another cause for concern was that on June 24th, “El Día de San Juan,” Dimas and everyone else who owned mules would be turning them over on rent to campesinos for plowing when the rain softened the soil. Past June 24th, therefore, it would be almost impossible for me to secure the animals I needed to transport my cargo, and that date was now approaching fast.
At last, on June 21st, Dimas turned up in the morning with five mules. Three were his, and as he still had been unable to track down his remaining mules, he had borrowed two machos (males) from Chuy Manjarréz. But now there was a new hang-up: Dimas apologized and said he would be unable to go himself, as he had to attend the funeral of an aunt who had just died in Culiacán.
With this news, Goyo’s brother, Martín, who had arrived early from Las Chicuras with Goyo to help me pack, took off on the run to see if his father would help me drive the mule team to Verano. Although Remedios had been planning to leave himself that day for Candelario to hunt for a mule for plowing, in less than two hours he arrived in Ajoya, all set to go with me. As we had only one mule with a saddle, we quickly set about looking for another, so that we both might travel mounted. We called at half the houses in Ajoya, apparently with no success, and Remedios was resigning himself to go on foot when two mules were sent simultaneously from two different casas.
“Whoopee!” cried Goyo, “I can go too!” His father hesitated, then nodded his consent. Martín, who was quietly helping lash the cargo on one of the mules, ducked his head slightly, but said nothing.
“¿Y Martín?” I asked Remedios, “No puede ir también?” (Can’t Martín go too?)
“Pues, como no,” said Remedios, “Pero tiene que ir a pie.” (But he’ll have to go on foot.) And turning to the fourteen-year-old he asked, “¿Quieres ir, Martín?” (Do you want to go?)
Martín could not conceal his delight. “¡Sí!” he grinned.
It was nearly noon by the time we set off. We decided to go only as far as Bordontita, spend the night, and continue on the next day to Verano, returning all the way the following day (June 23) to Ajoya--a hard push, but we had to have the mules back by the 24th. Our pack mules were not the most manageable. One of them, a huge black macho, took off on a side path before we were even out of Ajoya. It crossed the river and traveled some distance downstream before Martín succeeded in circling ahead to herd it back. Martín rejoined us, dripping from the waist down with river-water and from the waist up with sweat, for the temperature was near 100º F. One of his sandals he carried in his hand, the cord having broken during the pursuit. Goyo, atop his small palomino mule, laughed with delight at his brother’s appearance. And so did Martín, for he was glad to be of help.
Leaving Bordonita the next morning we might have made an early start, but again the black macho with his headstrong homing instinct escaped from us and took off at a gallop back in the direction of Ajoya. Remedios and Martín chased after it while Goyo and I rounded up the remaining mules and tied them securely. Hours later the mule was retrieved, and we continued our journey up river.
In Bordontita we were warned that it had rained in Verano and the trail following the arroyo down to the river was muy feo in places. However, we were told, it was still passable, as long as it didn’t rain again. We determined to chance it, for, if we were to get back by the 23rd we did not have time to take the longer route.
Although the river was muddy with the runoff from the hills we stopped for a swim and a bath before entering the Arroyo de Verano. The water level in the arroyo had dropped since the rain, but some of the stretches where the trail followed the stream bed were made difficult by washouts or deep deposits of soft mud... Martín was walking on foot. Part of the time he had been riding en ancas behind Goyo on the mule, but he became irritated because Goyo had several times made the mule rear so that Martín, on the rump behind the saddle, had to hang on for all he was worth. Martín said that if he fell, the mule might kick him, and it was safer to walk. So walk he did, one foot sandaled and the other bare, for miles, and was a little proud of himself for doing so.
At one point along the trail when I was bringing up the rear, Goyo suddenly reined in his mule and turning to me with a grin asked, “¿No quieres leche?” at the moment we were passing a number of range cattle, and one of the cows had an udder temptingly full. I was debating whether to say yes or no when Goyo, a piece of rope in his single hand, bounced off his mule and tore after the cow, which bounded away in the opposite direction. The cow circled around a thorny clump of bushes and headed back in my direction, Goyo close behind. I swatted my mule so that it danced forward, causing the cow to stop for an instant in wonderment. That instant was all that was needed. Goyo caught hold of one hind leg, and a moment later, using his feet, teeth, and single hand, had managed to bind the baffled bovine’s two hind legs together. The cow and I looked on in astonished silence.“¡Bájate pa’ tomar leche!” shouted Goyo, looking enormously pleased. I laughed and climbed down off my mount. I knelt by the cow and Goyo squirted the warm milk into my mouth, laughing all the while. When I’d had my fill I went to the stream to wash my face, beard, and hair, for Goyo -- rather intentionally, I think -- had been none too accurate with his aim... After he drank, Goyo untied the cow and we remounted, setting off at a gallop where the trail allowed, to catch up with the others.
We were approaching a spot where the stream plummets in a narrow, spouting falls for some 40 feet into a deep pool, and were going slowly of necessity because of rocks and mud, when Goyo, looking ahead, cried, “¡Mira! ¡Se cayó un macho!” (Look, a mule has fallen!) There, ahead of us to the side of the falls was the floundering mule. Remedios was standing beside it looking worried. Goyo whipped his animal to hurry, and I followed suit.
“¡No puede levantarse!” (It can’t get up), said Remedios as we drew rein. I asked if the mule had broken a leg. Remedios said he didn’t know, and added, “¡Se atascó!” (It’s stuck!), and pointing to the soft mud in which the animal lay wide-eyed, said, “¡Una ciénega!” (Quicksand.)
The small bog was only a little wider than the laden mule, and flanked on either side by protruding boulders. Perched on the stones we managed to unlash the cargo--which included two 50-pound duffels of powdered milk and two other sacks of clothing and blankets--and lifted them to the side. Then, pulling the halter, Remedios tried to make the mule fight its way out of the loose mud. The mule made a few feeble efforts and then remained quiet, its head thrown back and the whites of its eyes gleaming with fear.
Remedios began to beat the animal unmercifully with his leather pial. Harder and harder he beat it, until he was streaming sweat and the mule was rearing its head from side-to-side in agony. At last, with an enormous, thrashing effort, the mule managed to stumble forward and out of the quicksand. We led it, dripping mud, up over the rough stretch to a small clearing, and there re-lashed the cargo.
For more than are hour now, the sun had been concealed behind fast building clouds, and as we were repacking, a crash of thunder announced the oncoming storm.
“Va a llover.” said Remedios, looking up at the dark sky through the narrow slit in the high canyon walls flanking the arroyo. “Tenemos que apurarnos.” (We must hurry.)
And hurry we did, as much as we could over the rugged trail. We splashed through the stream, plowed across mud deposits, and scrambled our mules up smooth channels of rock down that the stream cascaded. The thunder continued to rumble and the sky to darken, although it was still only mid-afternoon. Our concern, now, was not only for our cargo. If the storm came quickly and was heavy, we might well be trapped in the narrow canyon by a flash flood. I remembered Irineo’s account of how this same stream, now so small, had left its banks, uprooting giant fig trees over a meter in diameter, and carrying in its tumultuous wake “un chorro de reses ahogados” (a torrent of drowned cattle). On the rock walls to either side of us, well over our heads; we could see the high waterline of the floods from previous years.
At last the canyon widened to form a steep valley, and we arrived at the rancho of Irineo Vidaca. No more than ten minutes after we had finished unloading the animals the storm broke. The rain streamed off the tiles of the roof in a translucent curtain of water, gushed down the mountainside and around the house and poured into the arroyo. Within fifteen minutes from the start of the rain, the arroyo had risen over two feet, here below the casa where the banks are wider. There in the canyon, who knows what it was like! We had been lucky.
As we sat in the portal looking out at the deluge, old Irineo told us of a time, several years ago, when a group of children followed by their mothers were making their way down the arroyo toward the river some 8 km. below to wash their clothes, for it was near the end of Las Secas and the arroyo was reduced to a few puddles, scarcely enough to provide drinking water. Although the sun was shining brightly where they left, higher up in the mountains an early storm had hit the headwaters of the arroyo, and the run-off converged on the arroyo. At the moment when the waters came rushing past Verano, the frolicking children had strayed far ahead of their mothers into the canyon. The mothers, who had entered only a short distance into the steep-walled part of the canyon when the flash flood hit them, managed to fight their way back upstream to where they could climb out to refuge before the water rose beyond coping with. There they waited desperately for the waters to subside. But at dusk the arroyo was still flooded and the terrified mothers returned to their casas to seek the aid of their men folk. They had no more than arrived, however, when the children came running up, laughing with the excitement of the day. As luck would have it the flood had caught them at a point where the canyon widens and a small, precipitous trail scales its flank and leads off in the direction of Las Calaveras and Pueblo Viejo. The children had scampered up the trail to the top of the canyon and slowly made their way back to Verano por los altos (via the ridges).
As we stood in the portal, looking out, the rain continued to pelt down, the arroyo continued to rise. Irineo told us that another time, a few years ago in the month of May, an arriero (burro driver) and his two sons were driving a train of ten burros and two or three mules up the arroyo when a freak flood came rushing down the arroyo at them in a wall of water two meters high. The father and his sons caught hold of
descending roots of a Tescalama (type of fig) growing from a crack in the rock cliff, and hoisted themselves out of reach of the flood. Five minutes after the flood the arroyo was again seco de atiro (stone dry), but the entire train of donkeys and mules had been drowned. The arriero and his sons spent the next day hunting up and down the arroyo for the bits and pieces of their cargo, and recovered the parajos and gamarras from their dead animals. “¡Se pone muy feo a veces el arroyo!” (It gets pretty ugly at times!) concluded Irineo.
The rain continued to pour down. This was the first violent storm in Verano this rainy season, and it was good luck that I happened to be here when it came. Although I had been assured that the grain shed, where I had my medicines arranged on improvised shelves, did not leak, when I entered it during the cloudburst it was like entering a cold shower. I called to Irineo’s nephew, Alvaro, who scrambled onto the platform under the roof and begin re-shifting the tiles, while I hurriedly rearranged my belongings to keep them as dry as possible. With luck we caught the leaking just as the downpour began, and nothing was seriously damaged.
After half an hour or so the rain subsided to a drizzle. On the opposite side of the arroyo the children of Bonifacio ran out into the muddy yard to play and shout. Their frolicking was too much for Goyo, who set off to cross the arroyo to join them. Martín and I both called to him, for his father was out back at the moment. We warned him not to cross, for although the rushing brown waters were at the moment only waist deep (no threat to Goyo who is used to crossing the flooded river at Ajoya), the arroyo might continue to rise, and he might not be able to return. Goyo, however, paid our warnings no heed, and taking off his sandals and his pants, waded out into the rushing stream. Feeling his way among the rocks and roots of the bottom he passed the swirling water with utter fearlessness. Remedios arrived on the scene just in time to see Goyo trot out on the far bank, was about to shout to him, and then shook his head and let him go...
Where Goyo goes excitement frequently follows. A short time after he crossed the stream, in the dusk, we heard triques and cohetes (firecrackers and rockets) being fired off on the far side. The arroyo continued to grow as night fell. It had risen at least another foot from the time Goyo had crossed. And now the rain began to fall again, more heavily. Still no sign of Goyo. Remedios stood in the portal looking out into the dark, a worried but resigned look on his thin, scarred face. Bringing up Goyo had not been easy!
I remembered some weeks before in Ajoya when Goyo, lying to me, insisted that his parents had given him permission to spend the night in Ajoya, and I loaned him a blanket on which he curled up on the floor in the casa Chavarin. Back in Las Chicuras, his worried parents waited up for him until after midnight, and then Remedios set off to look for him, fearing he might have slipped while crossing the river or fallen in the night from the narrow cliff trail ascending from its banks. Remedios arrived at about two in the morning, found Goyo asleep on the floor, and shook him to waken him. Goyo either did not wake, or, more likely, pretended not to waken. Remedios, above all else content that Goyo was safe, left his son without disturbing him further, and made his way through the dark night across the river to Las Chicuras. The next day it was I, not his parents, who scolded Goyo for his mistruth. Since the loss of his arm Goyo has been, without question, spoiled. His parents are frank to admit it, and to explain their lenience tell the story of another child they knew about who, like Goyo, had had his hand amputated. Two years afterward, “because the child’s parents had continued to spank and reprimand him”, “le cayó cancer” (cancer struck him) and he died.
Because of their dread fear of cancer, Goyo’s parents are hesitant to raise a finger against him. “Cancer”, it seems, is one of those mysterious modern diseases, the news of which has come up from the cities below. No one is too sure just what it is, and for this reason it is all the more terrifying. The villagers know that people die from it, and deaths that are unaccountable in other terms are therefore quickly accredited to it. As the undoubtable cause of otherwise unexplained mortality, cancer is the enlightened villager’s substitute for witchcraft. However, the cause of the cancer must also be known before the people can sleep easy, for they must know what precautions to take. Luckily there are always knowledgeable persons to make up sensible-sounding teleologies – as, in this case, the spanking of the amputated child. The unquestioning acceptance of such explanations by Goyo’s parents is typical.
As the night in Verano grew darker and the rain continued to fall, Goyo’s father became increasingly nervous. At last, unable to stand still any longer, he walked out into the wet darkness and made his way toward the still rising waters of the arroyo. As he neared the stream I heard him call back to me, “¡Hijo de la fregada! ¡Aquí esta!” And sure enough, Goyo had just emerged out of the tumultuous arroyo atop a mule he had borrowed from Bonifacio, and was trying to chase it back to the other side. The mule was already in the water again, and Goyo was hurling rocks at it to make it hurry. Bonifacio, standing on the other side in the rain, was waiting to receive it. Remedios and Goyo returned to the house arm in arm, both of them wet and laughing.
That night Remedios, Martín, and Goyo slept on the floor of the portal under a single blanket. Neither Martín nor Remedios slept much, for an incisor tooth which Martín broke a year ago, and which had subsequently turned bluish, was hurting so much that he wept most of the night. Previously, the pain was checked frequently with aspirin I had given him, but this time even Darvon proved inadequate. By morning a side of Martín’s face was badly swollen. I started him on tetracycline, and determined to take him to San Ignacio to get the tooth extracted at the first opportunity.
In the morning, the sky was clear and the water in the arroyo had dropped nearly to the level of the day before. Although we had no idea whether the river below would be flooded, we decided to chance going back down the arroyo. There were some new and difficult washouts, but the trail was not much more difficult than it had been coming up, and we traveled more quickly for lack of cargo. When we arrived at the river some two hours later we found that it was indeed in flood, but not so much as to be impassable on muleback. At this point Remedios borrowed one of the mules and left on a shortcut for Candelero. Now that the heavier rains had begun, he was afraid if he put off going any longer he would not be able to make it, and he was counting on securing a mule for plowing from his father there. Remedios set off upstream, and the two boys and I, downstream, driving the empty pack mules ahead of us.
The river crossings were fierce enough to make the trip great fun. Of the thirty-two fords from the arroyo junction to Bordontita, many were so deep as to come half way up the bodies of the mules. At each vado, Martín, who was balanced atop the broad parejo (pack-saddle) of one of the pack-mules, hung on for all he was worth, grinning quietly. Meanwhile Goyo -- hoisting up his feet as the swirling brown water reached nearly to the back of his small, strong mule -- could scarcely contain himself, and whooped and shrieked with laughter.
The pack mules gave us no problems this time, as they knew they were headed homeward. One of the mules took off ahead of us and arrived nearly half an hour before we did. In the afternoon it clouded over once again, and a kilometer or so before arriving in Ajoya we were caught in a downpour. The mules began to run and we let them. We arrived tired and laughing.
SAINT JOHN’S MADNESS
In a village like Ajoya, where there is little entertainment other than the self-provided, people are always on the lookout for an excuse to celebrate. For instance, everyone effectively has two birthdays each year. One is his cumpleaños, the anniversary of the day he was born. The other is his día del santo, the day of the saint whose name he bears. Thus, on the 19th of March, “El Día de San José”, everyone named José is celebrated. On the 9th of September, “El Día de San Gregorio”, all the Goyos are celebrated, and thus, for nearly every day in the year. Each village also has its own patron saint. San Jerónimo is the patron saint of Ajoya--the full name of the village being “San Jerónimo de Ajoya”--and when September 30th rolls around people come to share in the festivities from as far away as Caballo and Verano, in spite of the river which is frequently still flooded at that time. In Campanillas the big fiesta is on August 4th, the day of Santo Domingo, who is patron saint of that village. In addition to these saint’s days for individuals and villages there is an array of national holidays to be observed, such as “El Cinco del Mayo”, celebrating the Battle of Pueblo; the 10th of September, which is Independence Day; and the 12th of October, commemorating the discovery of América. Apart from Christmas, Easter, and the other standard religious occasions, there are of course the days of the more notable saints, which everyone in all villages celebrates. No sooner had the villagers finished feasting “El Día de San Juan Bautista,” June 24th, than they were again feasting “El Día de San Pedro”, June 29th, and I was invited to a chicken dinner in the casa of Pedro Celís. And so on, ad infinitum.
There is an element of jovial madness in all the days of fiesta, but Saint John’s Day on June 24th is the maddest of all. It is the Day of Baptism in every sense, for, in the minds of the villagers of Ajoya, it is the day that demarcates the commencement of las aguas. In Verano the rains begin somewhat before the 24th of June, in San Ignacio somewhat later, but whatever villager you ask in Ajoya will state that “Las aguas empiezan el día 24 de junio.” This is the day when the owners of the mules turn them over to the campesinos for use in plowing during the rainy season. This is the day when every spirited soul in the village -- devout or not, and most are not -- rises before dawn to plunge, clothes and all, into the river. This is the day of parading and of horse racing in the dirt streets. But most of all, it is the day that demarcates the new season of water and of growth, of the plowing and planting, of the sowing of the coming year’s food. The weather on this day is an omen for the season. From before dawn people watch the sky saying, “¡Ojalá que llueva bién!” (Oh, that it rains well!) In short, the day of baptism has taken the form, as much as anything, of a ritual to the rain-gods.
This year, long before dawn -- it must have been about 3:00 AM -- there were the sounds of explosions in the streets. People were setting off firecrackers and skyrockets. A few minutes later the big drum of los músicos began to beat, first slowly, then in crescendo, until it was rolling like thunder. The sky was lightly overcast, dimming the stars, and the cagüite (fine mist-like drizzle preceding las aguas) put a chill in the air. After several emphatic thunder-rolls of the drum, the “Banda de Ajoya” began to play. From the central plazuela its players slowly made their rounds through the streets, blaring forth in a wild, Latin beat. Doors opened as they passed and sleepy tenants, mostly children, stumbled out and followed. As they gradually woke up they began to shout and frolic, calling out others to join. The stream of villagers behind the musicians grew and grew, and with it the pandemonium. At last “La Banda”, like the Pied Piper, left the village and made its way toward the water. The people swarmed after. When the musicians reached the dark river, flooded by rains higher in the mountains, they stepped aside, still playing furiously, and the villagers plunged like lemmings into the churning water, landing on top of each other, striking heads, smashing into hidden rocks, shouting and dragging themselves out, only to be knocked in again by those to follow, laughing, shrieking! Never short of the Ganges itself was there as frenzied a “baptism” as this.
As dawn crept in slow and red from the east, I commented to little Goyo -- who had spent the night in Ajoya so as not to miss the festivities, and was now standing at my side -- that I marveled how apparently no one had been injured or drowned. Goyo replied that some years there had been serious injuries. He added that, “Ahora cuando zambutió un chamaco, le quebró un diente contra una piedra.” (Today when a boy dove in he broke a tooth on a rock.) It was not until later that afternoon, when Goyo suddenly burst into a grin, that I realized that the chamaco he had referred to was himself; he had cracked off the end of one of his canines in the morning’s mad plunge! I was far more upset about it than he.
There was a lull of events during the morning. The haze cleared and the sun rose, sweltering hot. Every female in town from tiny tot to tottering viejita was busy bathing and primping and dressing in her best. María put three clean costumes on little Bene, who promptly piddled on each one of them. “La Banda de Ajoya” continued to mosey through the streets blasting forth, and now there were other groups of guitarists and singers as well. Men folk with enough money to afford to drink -- and many without -- were beginning to get drunk. But still it had not rained.
Shortly before noon there was a crash of thunder over the mountains upriver, and everyone gave a whoop and cried, “¡Va a llover!” (It’s going to rain!) The clouds built up with surprising rapidity and drifted, black and billowing, toward Ajoya. Slowly, like the eyelid of a big owl, the cloud-front closed off the sun and the sky. The thunder and lightning grew closer, louder, and more frequent. Around one o’clock the storm broke like a dam! Water poured from the sky flooding the street. Children danced in it.
La Aguas had begun! And on the day they were supposed to! Before then there had been a few brief showers, but nothing, nothing like this. Although the storm did not reach even as far as San Ignacio, from Ajoya to Carrisál the road was obliterated within hours. When the rain started Antonio Manjarréz was in Ajoya with his four-wheel drive truck, and he tried to make a run for it. But where the road passes the arroyo the rain had already washed it out so badly, unburying boulders up to three feet across, that Antonio had to spend several hours hacking a new trail up through the village and cross-country back to the road again.
The heaviest downpour lasted only about an hour and a half, and then shifted to a shower which varied in intensity as the cloud mass varied overhead. The people in their fine clothes, impatient for the rains to stop, began to appear in the streets regardless, on horseback, on mule-back, on burro-back, and those who had no mount, on foot. They went this way and that, the rain pouring down on them, and then slowly began to amalgamate into a group. The músicos fell in ahead, and the wet but happy parade began. At times a child atop a burro or riding horseback would challenge one or two others to a race. The competitors would line up at the far end of town. Someone would give the word, and they would splash neck and neck down the muddy street.
The Casa Chavarín is the last house on the lower side of the main street. At a right angle with it and blocking the end of the street is the house of Carlos, the barber and butcher. As I was standing in the Chavarín house watching events, two valiant horse racers, both drunk, came galloping down the street in our direction. They had started at a given point but had neglected to establish a finish line, and here they came, lickety-split. Women screamed and children jumped out of the way. One of the horsemen had a slight lead on the other. They dashed past the Chavarin house and straight at the house of Carlos. Just as the lead horse was entering the portál full-speed, the drunken rider noticed the overhang and ducked sideways just in time to avoid decapitation. As the horse suddenly braked, he went flying through the air and landed with a hard thump six feet ahead of the bewildered beast. I held my breath, expecting another tough medical repair job, but the inebriated jinete staggered to his feet, and leading his bruised horse back out of the portál, he looked up at the other contestant who at the last moment had succeeded in drawing a crowd and cried drunkenly, “¡Le gané!” (I won!)
Suddenly, with the coming of summer, ‘springtime’ arrives in the Sierra Madre. The flanks of the mountains -- which from March to mid-June are as lean and leafless as an Ohio woods in winter -- explode into life. In the awakening trees, luminous green leaves unfold at the touch of the falling raindrops. Even the earth, which has looked like a yellow-white powder baked by the harsh sun, is transformed into a dark sponge, carpeted with an eager vegetation that each day reaches higher toward the light. The air – which in the dead days is misnomered primavera hung in a heavy haze of dust, and then of smoke caused by countless burnings in the hills – becomes so clean that the most distant peaks appear but a day away on foot. Birds begin to carol with new vigor. Butterflies are rampant. Even the tropical heat, so stifling back in May and early June, is eased by the pounding cloudbursts. Each day since the first tempestuous storms, new flowers have burgeoned forth. On the shaded slope near Goyo’s casa in Las Chicuras, a delicate garden springs up, of wild ground orchids called cebollín, whose slender petals give them the look of soft, white spiders. And all along the cliffs overlooking the Rio Verde, the waxen, candle-like buds of sacalosuche -- a tree rhododendron -- curl open into white bouquets...
Now that the soil of the newly-timbered milpas has been well soaked and softened by the rain, the campesinos have begun to plant their corn. A few are tilling with borrowed mules or oxen, others with teams of burros, but the majority still sow their corn with a planting stick, or güica (pronounced ‘gweeka’), as did the Indians before them. Already the first pale shoots of new corn are breaking through the wet soil with their promise of next season’s harvest...
Surely, all these awakenings are the signals of springtime. I must remind myself that the first days of July have already passed.
To a norteamericano like myself, the seasons of the Sierra Madre seem all mixed up. When I arrived in Ajoya in early December, the weather was hot, like Summer. But almost at once the winter rains, or las cabanuelas, set in and the weather turned cold, like winter ought to be. Yet within a few weeks many of the trees, such as of amapa prieta and rosa amarilla burst into a profusion of bloom, giving winter the aspect of “Indian spring”. Then spring came, or at least the months of spring, and everything died. Leaves fell from the trees as in autumn; and March, April and May passed with the lifeless look of winter coupled with the sweaty heat of summer. Then finally, in late June, summer came, with its rain and its rebirth of trees and flowers, its cooler temperatures, and the first sowing of grain, a renaissance for all the world like spring.
A REAL DOCTOR
On June 26th, Dr. Price, pediatrician from Palo Alto, together with his wife Joan, and three small children arrived in San Ignacio according, to schedule. I was there to meet them with my jeep. This took some doing as mine was the first vehicle to travel from Ajoya since the storm of “El Día de San Juan.” As the road was now impossible for the Price’s microbus, we transferred their gear into and onto my Jeep and returned over the rough track to Ajoya. Helped and hindered by a troop of village children, the Prices pitched camp on a hilltop overlooking the pueblo. Every day for the eight days of their visit, and without being asked, one villager or another -- sometimes a child, sometimes a woman, sometimes an old man, on foot or with the aid of a donkey --brought up water for them from the river.
The greatest number of patients that Dr. Price examined during his visit were children with diarrhea. Now that the rains had started there was scarcely a house in the village where children were not stricken with el chorro. Dr. Price informed me that recent studies indicate that supportive treatment for diarrhea is more helpful than is medicinal treatment. Bed rest and a liquid diet with adequate salt intake are the most important. We ran into some real problems, however, in trying to apply this course with our patients. A mother would come with a child with diarrhea and we would tell her, as simply as possible, to prepare the child a drink by mixing one teaspoonful of salt and three tablespoons of sugar in a liter of boiled water. We would repeat the instructions several times and the mother would assure us she had understood. Then we would ask her to repeat back the ingredients and she would titter with embarrassment and say “Ya se me olvidó.” (Now I forget.) We would repeat again and again until she had it straight, or would write out the formula if she knew how to read, which was rarely. Then the mother would leave, showing obvious disappointment. She had hoped for some magic potion from the new white doctor and all she had got was the advice to give ingredients she already had and knew were not magic at all. I think it was for this reason she found it so difficult to remember. Two or three days later the mother would return, entreating us to go to her house. There we would find the child, or children, still stricken with el chorro and the mother would entreat us again for “una medicina buena” or better yet, in her mind, “una inyección”. We would ask her if she had followed the formula and she would assure us “¡que si!” But on asking her again to repeat the proportions, more often than not we found she had confused them.
Dr. Price and I concluded that the solution was to give out the sugar and salt mixed in the right proportions and ready for adding the boiled water. We thought to include baking soda as well, for apart from its own value, it is fizzy and therefore more like medicine. In addition, when we went to Mazatlán we purchased a batch of Kool-Aid, strawberry-flavored because “medicines are red”, to add taste and character to our new magic powders I have since been giving out the “red fizz” to mothers to add to one liter of boiled water for their stricken little ones, and have been having better results.
Another discouraging battle we had was over the question of boiling water. If the water is for mixing with medicine, the people will boil it religiously. But for everyday use, no. They will nod in agreement that much of the diarrhea comes from “los microbios en el río.” They will concede that every year many children die as a result of this water. They will even concede to boil the water, saying it is “muy importante.” But when we return a few days later to see if they have really been boiling the water, they will say, “Pues, no... Es que nosotros no estamos acostumbrados hacer esas cosas.” (Well, no... It’s that we’re not used to doing these things.) Nevertheless, here and there, there is a family that has begun to boil their water regularly, and I suppose that’s a start.
One of the most critical patients we examined lived “en la loma” (on the hilltop) not far from where the Prices were camped. The family is pobre de atiro, for Juan, the father, has been too ill to work for more than two years, and before that most of the money that came his way he used for drink. From his drinking has come his illness, namely cirrhosis. His abdomen is bloated to three times its normal size, while the rest of his body has become emaciated in extreme. He lives on the hillcrest in a tiny shack, together with his wife and children, ranging from fifteen down to less than a year. (Although too ill to work he is still well enough to have babies.)
We gave Juan medication and powdered milk, advised him as to diet, and told him to remain lying down or moving about but not to sit with his legs hanging over the edge of the bed as he was accustomed to do all day long, for his feet are also swollen. His wife informed us that they had scraped together 200 pesos and were thinking of taking Juan to Mazatlán for examination. We told them Juan stood a better chance of recovery if they were to spend the money on protein-rich food, perhaps buy a flock of chickens to provide eggs. I had already sent Juan and his wife to Mazatlán two months before with a cover letter to the Director of the Centro de Salud, providing 100 pesos for the trip; but they had spent the money on a curandero (healer of witchcraft) instead of going to the health center. Juan had not improved.
One evening while the Prices were in Ajoya, the baker woman, Rosaura, Ramona’s grandmother, made a social call at their camp. With her came old Nicolasa, the lavandera (washer woman) who lives on “la loma” in a hut next to that of little Goyo’s great-grandmother. We began to chat, and in the course of the conversation mentioned that we had been to see Juan.
“¡No me gusta nada esas gentes!” (I don’t like those people!) cried Old Nicolasa in her sharp, scratchy voice. “¡Tienen la lengua larga!” (They have the long tongue.)
I tried to draw from Old Nicolasa what she was referring to, but she was non-committal. She added only, “Les andan con las mentiras como los mayates andan con la mierda!” (They move along lies like dung beetles move along shit!)
We could not account for Old Nicolasa’s vehemence until Rosaura explained to us that Juan’s family had spread rumors that Nicolasa had placed a hex on him, causing his bloated condition. They claimed she was a witch!“¡Chismosos!” cried Nicolasa. (Gossipers!)...
I recalled that old Micaela had told me that Nicolasa had killed a man years ago with a hex which had made him panzón (pot-bellied) and that now she was hexing his son. It suddenly dawned on me that this must be Juan.
“¿Como murió el papá de Juan?” (How did Juan’s father die?) I asked.
“Pues, de la misma enfermedad,” (Of the same illness) replied Rosaura.
“¿Tomaba mucho tambien?” (Did he drink a lot, too?) I asked.
“Mucho!” asserted Rosaura, and by way of explanation added, “¡Pues los dos eran músicos!” (Both of them were musicians!)
Rosaura defended Nicolasa, saying that Nicolasa had been working in her house and doing her wash for years, that often she worked until after dark, and then went straight home, where she cared for her grandchildren. There was no conceivable time that she could be sneaking to the graveyard to make clay monos and cast hechizos.
“Yo no creo en las brujas.” I said (I don’t believe in witches.)
“¡Yo tampoco!” (I don’t either!) creaked Old Nicolasa, and she threw up her gnarled hands and cackled.
Before his departure from Ajoya, Dr. Price had begun to gather a reputation he had not gambled on, that of a witch doctor, a curer of witchcraft.
One morning while the Prices were breakfasting, María, the old woman who cured Jose Vidaca’s baby of la caida de la mollera (sunken fontanel), brought on her head a bucket of water for the Prices, and proceeded to inform Val of a transient paralytic cramping she suffered on one side of her body. To demonstrate she crooked her right arm in a grotesque fashion, recalling the seizures of Dr. Strangelove. Neither Dr. Price nor I had a clue to what might be the cause, unless psychosomatic, and after hinting around a bit, María volunteered that she thought she might have been hexed by an old witch in Pueblo Viejo. We decided to give her vitamins and assured her, as a kind of psychotherapy, that soon she ought to be feeling better... Word spread fast that the American doctor was now curing hechizos. That same afternoon Old Lupe, Micaela’s sister, although she had not bothered to come all week, made three visits to the casa Chavarín in the hopes of having her hex lifted. She is loquacious, fat, and has an endless series of complaints. For over two months I treated her for a necrotic buttock that had resulted from an injection with an unsterile needle. Lupe blames all of her ailments down to the deaths of her children, of which she has lost all but two of her eight, on witchcraft. Micaela insists that it is the work of either Old Cecilia, Nicolasa, or both. Unfortunately (or fortunately), when Lupe made each of her three visits we happened to be out on house calls, and next day the Prices left for Mazatlán. Hence Dr. Price was denied the opportunity of providing a cure for Lupe’s manifold hexes.
• • • • • •
Up to the time the Prices left Ajoya, Val and I paid several calls on Juan, the man with cirrhosis, and, in spite of our advice, each time we found him sitting with his swollen feet hanging over the edge of his bed. The morning of the Prices’ departure Val passed by Juan’s shack, and neither Juan nor his wife was there. The day before we had heard rumor that they were preparing to leave for Mazatlán, and we had stopped by to advise them once more against it. They had assured us that they had given up the idea.
In my jeep, I drove the Prices to where they had left their microbus in San Ignacio. Sure enough, half way over the rough 27 km. stretch of dirt road, Val said “There they are.” And there they were, Juan and his wife, trudging along, Juan laboring under the load of his swollen abdomen, his wife laboring under a large suitcase she carried balanced on her head. We stopped the car. They were embarrassed to see us. We asked where they were going, and they said to the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán. We told them again they would do better to go home, and spend their pesos to buy chickens.
Our advice, of course, did no good. They were probably on their way to see another curandero to have the hex lifted. Perhaps they even suspected us of wishing them ill, for had not Old Nicolasa spent an evening with us in the Prices’ camp? … Juan will probably die of cirrhosis. When he dies people will say the hex killed him, and in part, alas, they will be right. Or at least their fear of his being hexed will have contributed to his death.
MY KINGDOM FOR A MULE
To assure that one is well provided for in his old age, it is advisable to have a goodly number of sons. Next best is to have a goodly number of mules. A man with half a dozen tiros (pairs) of mules can live off the income of his mules alone. Old Manuel Gallardo, with whom I stayed in Caballo de Arriba, has as his only effective capital, seven tiros of mules. Now in his seventies, he is too old to work the milpas, and his sons have spread out in various directions. Yet as long as his mules outlive him, he is secure. Each June he rents them out to campesinos for the duration of las aguas. Renting is no problem, for the demand is always greater than the supply. Not only can the farmer -- where his land is level enough -- plant his corn better and quicker in a plowed field than with a güica, but if he is to sow ajonjolí (sesame), which is the major cash crop in the foothills, a plowed field is imperative. A mule team, far better than horses, can pull a crude wooden plow over a remarkably steep slope. At the steepest, I have seen one man working mules on a slope of nearly 45º. Nevertheless, most of the country of the high sierra is still too steep to use anything but the güica, and each June, Manuel Gallardo drives his fourteen mules some 50 miles to Espinal, in the flats below, where he has long-standing contracts for rentals. Mule rentals are almost invariably paid off later in corn, once the sun-dried grain is harvested each December. The seasonal rent for a team of mules is usually ten centílitros of corn (about 200 lbs.), and while the selling price of corn at harvest time in December is only 50 pesos the centílitro, by June its value has doubled. A young mule will cost from 1200 to 2000 pesos, depending on its size and manners. At this rate, a mule, which has a working expectancy of from 25 to 30 years, can pay for itself in three or four years. Or, if the owner also rents out his mules (10 pesos a day), or uses them transporting cargo during the dry season, a mule can pay for itself in as little as one or two years. For the man who can afford it, there is no better investment.
• • • • • •
In order to travel mounted during the rainy season, it became apparent that my only solution was to buy a horse or a mule, for all my friends who during the dry season were so ready to lend me animals, and to accompany me, I found had contracted both themselves and their bestias during las aguas.
I debated for a long time whether to get a horse or a mule. My experience – limited as it is – with horses has been good and with mules, bad. Horses, like dogs, have an exaggerated respect for human beings. They tend to be not only more manageable, but compliant. The better you treat them the better they respond. Mules, like cats, are more independent. True, if you condition mules by feeding them corn every day, they will mutter when you approach the corral, and come trotting. But they never get to like you, to trust you, no matter how friendly you try to be. They are constantly eyeing you as if, for no fault of their own, you are going to put a pin in their backside. And, alternatively, they are always waiting for that moment when they can, plant a hoof in your forehead. I have treated nearly as many “patadas de mula” as I have “hachadas de machete,” and the kicks from mules have been worse. Between Carrisal and Platanar is a small wooden cross where a 15-year-old boy was kicked to death by a mule; on the way to Las Chicuras lives a young man, partially paralyzed and unable to work as result of a kick to the spine; and such examples are endless. Yet I know of no one here who has suffered such abuse from a horse.
Another advantage to a horse is the price. A good horse can be purchased for as little as 600 pesos, one half to one third the cost of a good mule. Nevertheless, all my friends have insisted I should go with a mule. A mule is stronger: important if I plan to carry equipment, in addition to myself, which I usually do. A mule is surer-footed than a horse; for the narrow, precipitous trails of los altos (the ridges) that I must follow now that the river is flooded, and for the treacherous crossings of the river and flooded arroyos, a mule is safer. Furthermore, if a spot is too dangerous to cross safely, a mule will stop automatically, while a horse, relying doggedly on the judgment of its master, will barge straight ahead, be it to destruction. A mule is easier and cheaper to care for than a horse, for a horse is more chiquión (picky) about its diet, requiring corn and good fodder regularly. A mule, like a goat, will eat most anything, will browse in a weed patch where a horse will starve. A mule can go longer without food or water; it has more endurance. Finally, although the initial cost of a mule is greater, when the time comes, a mule is easier to sell than a horse.
I decided on a mule, although I insisted on “una mula mancita” (very tame.) I hunted high and low but to no avail. I went as far as Agüines and Campanillas on a wild goose chase. Benigno Ríos had three mules to sell, but the only reason he had not already sold them was that they were still “broncos”, too wild to be hitched to a plow. His father, Daniel, also had a mule for 1000 pesos, seat and all, which he admitted was “un poco flojo” (a little lazy). However, my friends insisted that this mule was well over 20 years old, and while it might hold up for the time I needed it, no one would buy it from me when I wanted to sell it. Next, the bartender, Fidel, sent word that he would sell his mule. The mule, like Fidel himself, is quite fat. “Por la misma razón,” says Dimas Lomas, “No trabajan.” (For the same reason: they don’t work.) Dimas advised me 1000 pesos would be a good price. But when I went to see Fidel, he told me that “just for me” he’d sell his mule for only 2500 pesos. “¡Mi esposa va a llorar!” he added sadly. (My wife will cry!) His price was just for me all right! He wouldn’t dare ask that much from anybody else. I told him that I would buy it at once except that I didn’t like to make women cry.
Both Dimas Lomas and Chuy Manjarréz have mules which are about as tame as they get, and they offered to swap with me for the duration of las aguas if I obtained a mule which would be suitable for plowing, if not riding. The problem still remained to locate one.
The day before I had planned to leave for Verano arrived and I still had no animal. I had too much luggage to make the trip on foot, most notably my typewriter. I thought of borrowing Caytano’s horse to take my things, bringing it back and then returning to Verano on foot. Then, about noon, Dimas arrived with a broad smile, and said, “¡Ponte tu sombrero!”
“¿A donde vamos?” I asked.
“Vas a ver,” he replied. “¡Vamanos!”
Dimas took me to his corral, saddled his mule for me to mount, and he mounted another which was standing, already saddled, nearby. We set out in the direction of Las Chicuras. When we were a short way out of town, we both dismounted and Dimas handed me the reins of the mule he was riding, saying, “¡Esta es...!”
It was the funniest looking mule I had ever seen. Its color was pardo rayado, a dark reddish-brown with strange fuscous blotches and stripes, which made it look moth-eaten and therefore old. But Dimas insisted that it was only seven. He said that it was supposed to be half zebra. He had never seen a mule of that color before.
The mule took my fancy at once. My own coloration is unusual for the region, and it seemed to me fitting that my mule should be a little odd as well. At least I would have no trouble recognizing it. Dimas said that it was “muy mancita.” I mounted, and the animal responded well. It was more lively than Dimas’ mule. We rode to Las Chicuras, and hunted down Remedios and his sons, who were planting with güicas in their steep milpa. Goyo at once hopped on behind the saddle, and the mule did not protest. I dismounted and tried removing the saddle. The mule suddenly kicked, but Dimas said that was because I was inexperienced and had tickled it in the backside.
I was pleased with the mule, and yet was not quite sure about it. It seemed more nervous than many of the mules I have handled. I would have liked to try it out for another day, and under a wider variety of circumstances, but Dimas had to return that evening to his rancho and had all the papers for the sale. The mule had been sent from San Ignacio, where news had reached that I was looking for one. The price, although it included saddle, bit, bridle, and the works, was 1800 pesos, which I thought was high. Dimas assured me it was a good price, and I trust him. At 1800 pesos I would have to cut deeply into the money I was keeping for the “Agua Potable” project, but as the collection would not take place until after the rains, I decided I could resell the mule if necessary. And so I bought it.
No sooner had I completed the purchase, however, than the mule began to give me trouble. It needed shoes, and Ramona’s grandfather, a blacksmith, made them for me specially. The next morning the Sindico helped me shoe the mule, which I had decided to name Albóndiga (Meatball) in memory of a canoe that we had once brought into Mexico. Albóndiga was not happy about being shod, and with a sudden kick, nearly made “Albóndigas” out of the Sindico. Next, I took my mule to the water, but I could not make her drink. The river was in flood, dirty, and deep, and she was apparently afraid that I was going to make her pass it. All I wanted was for her to put her nose in it, but she was not about to get that close. She reared and bucked, and I pulled the reins and swatted her backside, but she wouldn’t enter the water. At last I had to take her to a quiet, shallow spot, and there she drank, thirstily.
“What,” I asked myself, “am I going to do in the rainy season with a mule that is afraid of water?”
My search for a another mule led me at last to the village of Campanillas, some six miles to the west of Ajoya, and linked with the Ajoya-San Ignacio road by a dirt track which apparently had not been navigated by a vehicle in more than a year. I managed to get my jeep in to the village, but not easily. It involved towing fallen trees out of the way, filling in washouts, and lumbering across freshly plowed fields that obliterated the remains of the roadway.
This was my first visit to Campanillas, although many of its villagers had come to me for medicines, and I had a long-standing invitation to go there. It is an attractive village with about 20 loosely scattered, whitewashed adobe houses. I was hailed at the first house and invited to enter and to eat. My arrival was celebrated; I was conducted from house to house. I encountered an overabundance of patients, but no mule! In truth, it was what I expected.
Nearly all of the citizenry of Campanillas belong to one or the other, usually both, of two large and interbred families, the Manjarréz and the Arriolas. One stout woman complaining of epileptic fits asked me to go with her to see her aged father who, she said, was going deaf and blind, and was partly paralyzed and arthritic. The house was full of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of various shapes and sizes. The old and declining patriarch of the family, hunched and grizzled, was perched on the doorstop of the inner house. Eighty-two years before, Domingo Manjarréz had been christened after the patron saint of the village, Santo Domingo.
I examined the old man. One hand especially had a shrinking, strangely stumping degeneracy, especially of the outer joints of the fingers. His daughter explained that this had resulted from an infection with persisting sores that had resulted from a golpe (blow) he had received while working the milpas. One of the old man’s feet, also, was considerably more shrunken and deformed than the other, and the big toe was entirely missing. This the daughter related to a severe machete cut on that foot some 40 years before. I asked the old man when and how he had lost the toe.
“Se me cayó sólo hace dos años.” (It fell off by itself two years ago.)
“¡Sólo!” I exclaimed:
“Sólo, mi hijo, sólo. Yo lo enterré ahí atrás.” (By itself, my son, by itself. I buried it out back,”) And then he added, stoically, “¿Pues, que le hace? Ya no me duele... ¡Son las rodillas!” (Well what does it matter. Now it doesn’t hurt. . . it’s my knees!) And he touched his knees tenderly with his shrinking fingers and said, “No puedo andar.” (I can’t walk.)
Looking at old Domingo was to me like an experience of déja vu; I had seen those hands, those feet somewhere before, myriad feet, as in a nightmare. Suddenly I remembered with a shudder: hundreds of such hands, young and old, on the rocky road to Luxmanjula, lining the ancient pilgrim route of the Himalayas, near Rishikesh; hands reaching out to me as I passed on my way to the Ganges, hands of the diseased and starving, begging, entreating for the wherewithal to hang on a little longer to the last worn thread of life.
I asked the old man if he could feel anything in his hands and feet, any pain or sensation at all. He said he could not. His daughter explained that he had burned his hand with a cigarette not long ago and had not felt a thing. I nodded and quietly asked the daughter if I could talk to her alone. There was little doubt left in my mind.
The term lepra (leprosy) is used indiscriminately by the villagers of the Sierra Madre to describe any condition characterized by large, persistent, suppurating sores. From my first days in the villages children have been brought to me with a so-called lepra is actually staph or strep skin infection that for the most part have responded readily to soap, water, and antibiotic ointments, sometimes with the addition of systemic antibiotics. But the term “lepra” worried me. During one of my early visits to Mazatlán I asked the chief doctor at the Red Cross if there was any chance of true leprosy (Hanson’s Disease) in the region, and he assured me there was, and that there was a preparation for testing for it that I might be able to obtain at the Centro de Salud. However when I checked in at the Centro (my first visit) the Director told me, with a chuckle, that if there were, God forbid, any leprosy in the mountains of Sinaloa the entire Department of Health would be up in arms about it. I went away somewhat relieved, and wondering how the Chief Doctor of the Red Cross could be so mistaken.
However, as I resided longer in the mountains I heard the people refer at times to a disease which they appropriately called lazarín, and which seemed to have all the earmarks of leprosy. One day a man named Pedro Nuñez from a small distant village high in the sierra came to me with his body, particularly hands and face, eyelids and nasal passages covered with large, strange, purplish sores. Unsure of his condition, I sent him to the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán, together with a “carta de recomendación” to the Director suggesting the possibility of leprosy. That was the last I heard of Pedro until, a few days ago, Dr. Price and I visited the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán and I asked the Director if by chance the man’s disease had turned out to be the “enfermedad de Hanson.” The Director, reflecting back, replied that yes, he thought it had been. Ready at last to take us into his confidence, he announced that in México one out of every 1000 persons is a leper! The region where I am located is an area of the highest concentration.
In Campanillas I found myself in a dilemma as to what to do about old Domingo. Leprosy is a contagious disease, although mildly so. Outside Guadalajara there is a federally operated leper colony. By rights, the old man should be sent there until he dies. But he loves his family dearly, and is loved and venerated in return. In talking to the old man’s daughter I found that, although she had attempted to explain his condition in terms of previous injuries, she was not surprised when I suggested lazarín, and admitted that for a long time they had been keeping his dishes apart from the rest of the family. I learned from another resident that Campanillas has a long history of leprosy.
If there is anything I dislike it is playing the villain, even for a good cause. I was not eager to have old Domingo, as result of my reporting his disease, hauled away to Guadalajara with the family protesting. I asked his daughter to consult with the family, explain the danger of leprosy to the others, especially to the children in the house, and then, if they agreed, I would inform the Health Department and they would likely see that Domingo was cared for in a place where his disease would not be a danger to others. Domingo’s daughter agreed to this. She said that when the men folk came back that evening she would talk with them and send me a note to Ajoya as to their decision the following day.
The following day a child came from Campanillas to pick up medicines I had agreed to send to various patients, but he brought no note. Day after day I waited, and finally, the night before I left for Verano, I sent off a letter to the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán, advising of Domingo’s condition.
Albóndiga and I left for Verano fortified by Ramona’s parting gift of a bundle of oven-fresh bread. To avoid fording the river I took a roundabout route through Chinacate. The trail passed an isolated cornfield where I was hailed by a man named Juan, who asked me to stop at his home in Güillapa to see a sick daughter. His seven year old son, who had brought Juan breakfast, led me to the house. Ironically, when we arrived I found that Juan’s wife had left with the sick child for Ajoya that same morning, to take her to me for treatment. She had taken a shorter trail (which I had not heard of) and so we missed each other. However, I gained a traveling companion: Juan’s brother, Toño, was leaving for Jocuixtita the next day.
We set out a little after dawn, I on Albóndiga, Toño on foot. Toño said that the first two fords of the flooding river were still shallow enough to pass easily, and after that we would have to take to “los altos” – the ridge trails. I arrived at the water’s edge with Albóndiga, but she refused to pass. I coaxed her, yelled at her, beat her on the backside, but she kept twisting and bucking, refusing to enter the water. Finally, with Toño taking the halter and leading the way, while I swatted her rump, she stepped gingerly into the fast current. Once in, she crossed in good order. On the other side, however, we had to pass a drainage ditch with a little water in the bottom of it. Albóndiga balked, bucked, backed into the fence, and even with Toño hauling on the halter, she stubbornly refused to step down into the ditch. At last -- deciding she had no alternative--she made a sudden leap, which took me by such a surprise that I nearly fell off backwards into the ditch.
“¡Mañosa, la mula!” said Toño. (Ornery, the mule!)
After yet another battle we crossed the river again and ascended the trail for “los altos”. It was here that I learned that Albóndiga was also afraid of heights. Not that I blame her much, for at points the steep trail was no more than six inches wide, overlooking a straight drop of ragged rock to the churning river 200 feet below. At such spots I had to beat the mule to get her to budge. Thus we struggled along, crossing several high passes and the deep arroyos between.
In Bordontita, where we spent the night, I described my exasperating experiences with Albóndiga to Victoriano Murillo. Victoriano said that he had a mule that was “muy mancita” (very tame) and good for the water and for rough country, but was useless for plowing because it kicked the other mule in the yoke. He offered to trade his mule for mine. I, however, have learned my lesson in mule trading. I offered to accept Victoriano’s mule on a two-week trial, he doing the same with mine. And so it was that I left Albóndiga with Victoriano and continued my journey mounted upon “Hormiga”, which means “ant.”
Victoriano explained to me that he named his mule “Ant” because of its reddish color, but now, having covered many tedious miles with her, I think he named her that because she is so slow. On an uphill grade she heats up and stops like an old car. And that is just her problem: age. Victoriano assured me that Hormiga was no more than twelve years old, while Albóndiga, instead of being seven, was at least ten. Yet whomever I have asked has assured me that Hormiga is as old as she acts, namely twenty or more. Nor is she quite as “mancita” as Victoriano claimed. In any case, he was right that she is “muy bueno por el agua fea and she is a gem going downhill. Unfortunately the trail to Jocuixtita was uphill all the way.
I saw the clouds forming over the mountains to the north-east, and wanted to get away from Jocuixtita early, in the hopes of reaching Verano before I was caught by the afternoon rains which promised to come early. But last-minute sick persons kept arriving, one after the other, and it was nearing 11:00 by the time I got old Hormiga saddled and ready to go. The “camino real” over the high pass between Jocuixtita and Verano was said to be completely zanjonado (washed out) by the rains, and I decided to go via the less used trail that passes the beautiful and recently abandoned rancho of Higuerita. As I had only been over this trail once before, and remembered the maze of forks and cross trails connecting with it, I expressed uncertainty, and 13-year-old Josué Valenzuela offered to guide me to the ridge top.
The slope, which had been leafless and parched when I had last traversed it in March, was now a verdant tangle. There were many species of plants I had overlooked. Josué explained to me that a prevalent small tree with delicately scalloped compound leaves, called Copalillo (Bursera sp.) is used to cure asthma, a tea being brewed from the bark. A tall brushy plant with sleek, laurel-like leaves, called Jarilla, is excellent for firewood, burning well even when it is green. And a small white-flowering species of Lantana, called confite blanco would, in August, produce numerous white fruit that the villagers of Jocuixtita will gather by the liter, grind on the metate, and use to make gordas (thick tortillas).
Josué accompanied me to the top of the ridge overlooking Verano, pointed out the course of the narrow trail as it wound its way down the mountainside, and bid me farewell. As we were parting the first drops of rain began to fall, and I put on my poncho, spreading it over my cargo as well. The rain at first fell lightly, and was refreshing. Hormiga wound her way down the mountainside among the oaks, reaching out here and there to chomp at the delicate, freshly sprouted grass. Her pace slowed as she did so until she came to a complete halt. I had to remind her frequently with a cluck or a swat on the backside, of her man-given duty.
A third of the way down the mountainside, as I was approaching a recently planted cornfield, a blue-clad figure came hurrying in my direction, hailing me. This was 68 year-old Esteban Sanchez, who insisted I stop for lunch at his “casita” before continuing on my way. I was eager to get to Verano before the rain got heavier, but Esteban’s insistence was irresistible, and I followed him across the sprouting field to his home. The homestead was comprised of three small structures, with walls of closely-spaced poles and with roofs of grass thatch. The smallest building was the troja or corncrib, the next largest for the family, and the largest – but still not large – was for the storage of fodder and for pigs, of which at present there was but one.
Arriving at the hut, Esteban introduced me to his young wife Juana and seven small daughters ages, the oldest seven years old, the youngest an infant. Like Esteban, Juana is trigeña (wheat-colored), has a round face, an impish, upturned nose, and a figure that makes her look perpetually overdue. “I hear you visited my homeland”, she said, and so it was that I found she is the younger sister of the músico Pedrillo, next door neighbor of Goyo’s family in Las Chicuras.
Juana is Esteban’s second wife. Formerly Esteban lived with his first wife in Coyotitán, where he raised seven children, all girls. He also started a small store that in time became the most successful in the village. Then one day without warning, he left the shop, his wife and his daughters, and made his way to Verano where, on the mountainside 1000 feet above the village, he built a thatch but and planted his corn and calabazas. He named the isolated rancho “Los Pinos” because of a pine-covered ridge back of the house, and lived there completely alone for nearly three years, grinding his corn on a stone metate, making his own tortillas, and hauling his own water. During the rains he brought water from the arroyo near the house but during the dry season had to go to a larger arroyo half a mile down the mountainside. Then, some eight years ago, when he was 61, he met and married 23-year-old Juana, whom he took to live with him in “Los Pinos”. Each year for seven years they had a daughter, always hoping for a boy child. But then Esteban se secó (went dry). The older girls, slender and alert, already are big enough to help Esteban plant and weed the corn fields beside the house, and to carry stones to the edge of the field.
“A veces las pisan las brotas y a veces no” laughs old Esteban. (Sometimes they step on the corn-shoots and sometimes not.)
Juana, as she worked the stone mano back and forth over the metate to make tortillas explained to me how relieved her husband was en la barriga (in the belly) since I had given him medicine. Esteban had first come to me some months before in Verano with a weathered piece of paper dated 1942 in Mazatlán, documenting a stool analysis positive for amoebae. Typically, Esteban’s treatment had been inadequate, and for the last 24 years he had been suffering from amoebiasis of the liver, along with chronic headaches, loss of appetite, and, more recently, spells of incapacitating pain in his abdomen. I treated him with chloroquine, entrovioform, and vitamins, and now his pains had disappeared and his appetite returned.
As we lunched it rained harder and harder. The downpour made the daylight wane, and the air turned cold. For lack of warm clothes or anything to do, the little girls curled up under the burlaps on the single bed and went to sleep. Gusts of wind carried sprays of rain into the hut, and there was no escaping them, as the narrower stick walls were only eight feet apart. Yellow-brown puddles formed in the rough dirt floor. I shivered in my damp tee-shirt. I had neglected to carry a jacket with me, as the temperature had been stifling in Ajoya below. The thatch roof began to leak here, there, and then everywhere. No one minded. Things could be dried in the sun the next morning. Juana put buckets under the major leaks, not to prevent puddling, but to obviate the trip to the arroyo for water. Esteban noticed that the pumpkin seeds that hung in a half-gourd from the low roof were getting wet, and as he had already planted all that he was going to for that season, we decided to make a feast of what were left. Juana built up the fire and spread the seeds on the 50-gallon drum lid above the flames. When the seeds were “bien tostadas” she scooped them into a wooden bowl and we began to crack and eat them –a slow and painstaking process tolerable only on a rainy day in a leaky hut. For two hours we shelled and ate pumpkin seeds, and talked.
Finally the rain slackened to a drizzle, and I began to think of continuing on my way. Esteban, however, pointed out that not only would the trail be muddy and slippery, but that the arroyo would probably be too flooded to cross. He suggested that I spend the night, and I agreed.
There is so much ordinary beauty in the universe that we are in constant danger of becoming inured to it, much in the way we lose consciousness of the ticking of a clock or the chant of crickets in the night. We are like an old man I once knew who when asked by an excited youth to look at the sunset over the lake grunted, “I’ve seen it before.” It is a good thing to have our senses stretched and awed now and again by a spectacle so entirely new, so penetrating, that we suddenly feel we have left the old world behind and stumbled into a wondrous new one.
I had agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to spend the night with Esteban and Juana in Los Pinos, for I was eager to get on to Verano. But my reluctance was short lived. As the rain slackened and the view slowly opened again, I witnessed a spectacle such as never before: the transformation of the Sierra Madre! It was as breathtaking as that of any northern mountain range the morning after the first heavy snowstorm. Yet here the mountains were not cloaked with snow, but with white billowing and streaming clouds. The cloud-cloaks opened and closed and opened again like dancers in slow motion, and with every shift they revealed what seemed a new and strikingly different range of mountains. Like the multiple curtains on a modern stage -- but how much grander in scale! One misty veil after another rose and descended. The effect was Japanesque. Jagged, green-fringed monuments of stone lunged silently out of the mist in random yet emphatic harmonies. One instant they would stand out harsh and dark against the clouds, the next be muted by a diaphanous veil, or engulfed by an opaque billow of white or pewter-grey. This was indeed like leafing through an album of mountain scenes by the great sumi masters, only here the album was four dimensional; the medium was earth, air, water and lightning; and the master... well... who knows? I stood, rooted, for one hour... two... under the thatch overhang of the hut looking out at the moving mist in the mountains, while the dipping fringe of grass blades formed the upper frame of my vision. The silver-bellied droplets forming on the overhanging grass tips would swell little by little like mosquitoes feeding, until they vanished downward. Generations passed in seconds. Now in the mood to see, to me the dried and dripping grass blades seemed strangely as beautiful and astounding as the kaleidoscope of cloud and mountain.
So this was the Sierra Madre! I looked and looked and looked. And the more I looked the more I seemed to see. New peaks, new pinnacles, new canyons and new crags. Silhouettes against the fleeting fog. I could not cease to wonder that the mountains I now saw were the same I had so often seen -- but never really seen before. Where, then, I asked myself, lay the transformation? Here or there?
Suddenly, perceptibly, night began to fall. The contrast of white mist against dark mountain became less sharp. The green of the ridges and of the large higuerilla (castor) leaves close to the hut began to soften into grey. The drizzle had stopped now, but more rain was moving in from the high sierra. With increasing frequency lightening lit the panorama, returning for instants the full color of the countryside. Thunder grumbled. Ground crickets began to chirp, and were accompanied by the high, drone-like calls of their tree-dwelling cousins. Between the sudden flashes of lightning, occasional fireflies flicked on and off their tiny taillights as if competing. With a whirr a large longhorn beetle, his forewings hoisted in a “V” over his head, his heavy abdomen dipping at an angle, and his long antennae sweeping up and back, flew close by through the descending night.
“Ya esta la comida,” announced Juana, and realizing my hunger I went in to eat.
EL RANCHO DEL PADRE
The house of Irineo Vidaca, with whom I am passing las aguas in Verano, is not located in Verano proper, but in a much smaller community called El Rancho del Padre some two kilometers down the arroyo from the main part of the village. It is thus called because nearly a hundred years ago a “padre” -- a missionary of some sort -- is said to have lived here on the small flat at the head of the canyon.
When Irineo’s father, Magdaleno Vidaca, first moved to the flat in the huge valley eighty years ago, there were no other houses. But as his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have married and made new cases the little community has gradually expanded, until now there are six dwellings in El Rancho del Padre. On one side of the family or the other, the occupants of each of the six casas are related. The households are as follows:
(1) Irineo Vidaca, age 75, lives with his wife, Eustalia Gonzáles, age 70, in an enormous adobe case he built with his own hands some 50 years ago. Occupying the same house is his hard-working grandson, Alvaro Vidaca, age 28, and Alvaro’s taciturn, temperamental, and pregnant wife, Evodia Soto, age 19.
(2) Across the arroyo from Irineo are four more widely-separated dwellings. In the closest -- that built by Irineo’s father 80 years ago --lives Bonifacio Santos, husband of Inéz Vidaca, Irineo’s niece, together with their ten children (one adopted) and a tontito (simple-minded man) named Fernando. Bonifacio is father of the little girl, Herminía, who burned her leg badly at the sugar-cane mill last year. Most recently, this spring when the mother, Inéz, failed to void the afterbirth of her tenth child, Bonifacio, José Vidaca and others carried her for 30 miles downstream, and across 40 river fords on an improvised stretcher, until the afterbirth shook loose passing Güillapa.
(3) Behind Bonifacio’s house is that of Lino Madriles, age 28, the hijo natural (illegitimate child) of Irineo’s son, Pastor, who left for Tijuana after killing a man in Verano when borracho. Lino lives with his young wife, Alvina, and their single very malnourished child.
(4) The third house on the far side of the arroyo is that of Beremundo Vidaca, age 27, half-brother to Lino, and a somewhat more “legitimate” son of the same Pastor. (Legally, Pastor married neither woman, but he lived for a while with the mother of Beremundo and only slept with the mother of Lino). Beremundo, light-hearted and energetic, lives with his delicate 20 year-old wife, Eulalia Pereda and their three sons. Eulalia was an orphan girl , whom Beremundo “rescued” -- married -- when she was 14 years old.
(5) The fourth house on the far side of the arroyo is at the moment vacant. When I came to Verano last February it was occupied by Juana Soto, age 36, and her eight children. Juana is the wife of Leopoldo Campo, a nephew of Irineo and brother of Chavelo Campo, the assistant comisario of Verano. When I was in Verano in February, Leopoldo had many months before abandoned Juana and the children after a scrap they’d had, ostensibly because Juana had got drunk in a dance in Verano. Thus, Juana and her 16 year-old son were working to support the family, planting and harvesting their own milpa. Juana also washed clothes for better-off families in Verano. Sometimes, when the arroyo dried up in las secas, she would carry the bundles eight kilometers down the arroyo to scrub them in the river, this at a wage of 20 centavos (less than two cents) an article.
(6) The sixth house in El Rancho del Padre is a tiny, one room adobe structure which Jose Vidaca, (one of Irineo’s 12 children) built adjacent to his father’s house 15 years ago when he married Angelita Flavela. In this little house were born six children, three of whom are alive at present: the somewhat retarded Concha, age 14; Maruca, age 10; and Juan Jose, age 6. A year and a half ago, when José Vidaca, under threat of a prison term for rape, abandoned Angelita to “marry” Sofía Chavarín in Ajoya, Angelita continued to live in the little shelter adjacent to the big house, and her parents-in-law took over their support. Rearing of grandchildren is no new experience for Irineo and Eustalia, as they have already raised the abandoned children of two other of their eight sons.
The little house next to Irineo’s big house was still occupied by Angelita and her children when I came to Verano last February. Now, on my return this July, there has been a change. Without Jose, Angelita got lonely in so remote a spot, so she and her children moved into the house of Eustalia’s sister, next to the tienda in the center of Verano, where she could be near the dances and the ruido de la gente (noise of people). The little house remained vacant until about two weeks before my arrival this summer. The morning of “El Día de San Juan” Juana Soto came from across the arroyo with the side of her face swollen and bleeding, and begged refuge for herself and her children in the small house. She explained that her husband, Leopoldo, after abandoning her and the children for more than a year, had returned to the area and wanted to live with her again, but she had refused. Now, on the eve of San Juan, after Juana and the eight children had bedded down on the floor of the hut, Leopoldo had come and angrily demanded some old doctor’s prescriptions that he had left in the house. Juana had replied that she had no lamp to look for them, and suggested he come back in the morning. Leopoldo had kicked her with all his might in the side of the head where she lay on the dirt floor. He had told her that she had better decide to live with him again or he would deal her “un golpe que ni Dios Padre le quitará.” (a blow that not even God the Father could remove) When she didn’t reply he had stalked out. For fear he might fulfill his threat, Juana had come the next morning to ask Irineo if she could stay in the small house that Angelita had vacated. Unlike her house across the arroyo which has no door at all, the small house has a door that can be locked from the inside, and she said she would feel safer there. Irineo granted her permission, and that same morning Juana and five of her children moved in. The older three children went to Tayoltita, a large mining village about 40 miles away, two of them to stay with relatives, and the 16-year-old boy to try to get a job to help support the family.
So it is that Juana and her five children, Chicha, age 15; Pedro, age 14; Nuñe, age 10; Marina, age 4; and Teresa, age 2, are my closest neighbors.
My dispensary, the grain shed attached to the side of the main house, is separated from Juana’s tiny dwelling by a narrow path, and I therefore hear almost everything that goes on there. Little Marina, a bright-eyed quizzical child, sings almost all day long, sometimes softly to herself, more frequently at the top of her lungs to the entire world. She has a large repertoire of rancheros and almost perfect pitch. She is the only one I ever hear singing in the house, and I find myself wondering where she learned all those songs. I imagine that Juana used to sing, but that now, with the constant fear of assault, she has stopped, like a cricket when a stick snaps. A big woman with a strong, Indian face, she has tremendous fortitude, she also has her frailties. She is usually gentle –although firm as a rock -- with her children; but sometimes, triggered by a relatively minor incident, she breaks down and strikes them cruelly. For example, late one afternoon little Marina was sitting on the pretil in front of the grain shed, watching me type, when her mother called to her. Marina jumped to run toward her mother, but in her haste tripped and fell hard. She got to her feet and started to cry. Juana shouted at her to be still and come at once. Marina continued to bawl, whereupon Juana snatched up a leather strap, leaped over the pretil, and began to beat the little girl. Each time the child screamed Juana hit her harder, until poor Marina and Juana were both nearly hysterical. Then Juana grabbed her wailing daughter by the arm and dragged her up over the pretil and into the house, where she continued to beat her. Such incidents are rare, however, and for the most part Juana is very good with her children.
The more I see of Juana and her family, the more profound my respect for this woman grows. Each dawn she puts on a pair of patched trousers under her skirts, and she and her two small sons, Pedro and Nuñe, climb up the steep mountainside, carrying a bule (gourd) full of water and a few tortillas wrapped in a cloth. From six in the morning until mid-afternoon when the clouds form and it begins to rain, she and her sons work in the hot sun on the steep corn-patch which they have cleared and planted, swinging their talcuaches and pulling up the weeds with their hands. Each afternoon, as the tropical rain pours down, they come trudging back to the little one room house where all day long 12-year-old Chicha has been embroidering and taking care of her younger sisters. Juana and her sons arrive tired and soaked to the skin, their hands heavy from the hard labor and stained black from the weeds. But there is a glow of accomplishment on their faces. Each day they see the weeded section increase in area, and each day the shoots of new corn are an inch or two higher. The rain has been good, and this year promises a good harvest.
One day when Juana and her sons returned from their mountainside corn patch high above the houses, I asked her “¿Le gusta trabajar en la milpa?” (Do you enjoy working in the corn patch?)
“¡Sí!” she said, with an emphatic smile, “¡Me gusta!”
She always returns to the house more relaxed and happy than when she leaves.
No sooner do Juana and the boys arrive from the milpa, than they set about preparing for the evening meal. Pedro and Nuñe go in search of firewood -- they have to go some distance -- and when they return, they take turns chopping with a big axe while the rain teems down upon them. The rain itself they don’t mind for it is warm and refreshing. It is the period after the rain stops, if it stops before dark, that becomes an ordeal. For it is then that the jejenes (no-see-ems, or sand flies) come in droves to eat people alive. In El Rancho del Padre, all who can do so retreat inside their casas, where they perch around a smoldering a hunk of dried muñega de vaca (cow dung), stored since las secas for just the purpose of smoking out the jejenes during las aguas. On moonless nights the jejenes retire with the dark, but on moonlit nights they bite all night long, or at least until the air becomes too chilly for them. I know, for I am the only one who sleeps outside. This is the first time in my life that I have not looked forward eagerly to the coming of a full moon.
The present census of El Rancho del Padre, then, is 12 grown-ups --13 with myself-- and 20 children (or, often as not, 23 children, for the youngsters of José Vidaca often come to spend a day or two, or three or four, with their grandparents, who enjoy having them).
The members of the five households are not only all related, but on good terms with each other. Irineo’s house is a common meeting place, as all three families on the far side of the arroyo have their hillside corn patches on the slopes on this side. In the mornings the men folk stop by on their way up the mountainside, and at midday, the womenfolk, as they take the men their lunches, stop and chat. In the afternoon, when the rain has begun, the returning men and boys stop by for a more leisurely visit... unless the arroyo is rising rapidly, in which case they run to cross it while they can. Sometimes the arroyo rises too quickly and they are trapped on this side until it goes down again; other times they are forced to spend the night. There are times when the arroyo rises too high even for a mule to pass, carrying boulders and trees in its tumultuous wake. Then everyone, grown-ups and children alike, runs in the teeming rain to the water’s edge, to watch the spectacle.
TONTOS Y INOCENTES
If the villagers of the Sierra Madre are at times unkind to animals, they compensate for it by their considerate treatment of the feeble-minded. I have never yet in these villages seen a simpleton scapegoated or made the public laughing-stock as I used to see in passing through villages of Turkey and Iran. Tontos and inocentes are treated, for the most part, with more forbearance than are other neighbors. Even children accept the simpleton as he is, and rarely harass or take advantage of him. In fact, of all the villages, only in Ajoya is there a facsimile of “the village idiot”. This is Ignacio, half-brother of Ramón Chavarín, who is nicknamed, with reason, “Nacho Zorro” (Nacho the Fox). He is razzed and kidded a good bit, not because he is defenseless, but because he defends himself so well. Indeed, there is something so wily about him that I wonder if he is really as much a fool as he appears. In those chaotic days when I was giving out clothes that the Wallaces had brought, Nacho arrived, dressed in his usual tatters, and I gave him a change of clothes that he put on in the back room to see if they fit. They fit, and Nacho, greatly pleased, asked for another change, which I refused to give him. He went away, wearing his new clothes and muttering abuse. That same afternoon he reappeared, dressed again in his tatters, and asked for a new shirt, saying “¡No tengo más que eso!” (I have no other than this!) When I protested that just that same morning I had given him both shirt and pants he cried out, deeply offended, “¡A mi, no!”
“¡A usted, si!, Nacho” I replied.
Nacho grinned and said “¡Chingada! Ya sabe hasta mi nombre.” (Damn! You have my number.) And then, drawing very close to me, he blurted, “¡Pero ya los perdí!” (But I lost them.)
“¡Cuénteme otro!” (Tell me another!) I replied... And he did:
“¡Me robaron!” (I was robbed!) he cried.
I shook my head. “¡No, Nacho, no!”
“¿Entonces no me das otra camisa?” (Won’t you give me another shirt today?)
“ No.” I replied.
“¡Pero un pantalón, sí!” (But pants, yes!) he cried eagerly!
He looked at me sharply and grinned again. “¡Entonces vuelvo mañana!” (Then I’ll return tomorrow.) And he did.
One of the reasons that people are so accepting of the simple-minded is that there are so many of them. This due probably to the high incidence of inbreeding, and perhaps malnutrition during pregnancy. The incidence of epilepsy is correspondingly high, as is that of vitiligo (piebald skin). The greatest incidence of slow-mindedness seems to be among women. There is usually one inocente to every three or four families. In the Familia Chavarín it is La Julia. Among José Vidaca’s children in Verano, it is Concha. Both girls are physically a little odd, hear and speak poorly, and can fulfill simple tasks. They are eager, friendly, and gentle, retaining the mentality of small girls, even when they grow up. The term inocente describes them well. It was Concha who took pity and nursed back to health the dog her cousin threw over the cliff. Julia I described in the first report. In other cases, however, simple-mindedness reaches the point of imbecility, with extreme functional lack and frequently total deafness. Cretinism is sometimes responsible.
Whatever the degree of simple-mindedness, the inocente or tontito is generally cared for tenderly throughout his or her life. If for one reason or another the family is unable to care for him, another family will take him in.
One day I looked up from my typing here in the portal to see Fernando, a “tontito,” watching me in rapt wonder. As our eyes met, Fernando burst into a noiseless laugh. His enormous nose and oversized mouth made him look comical. He was all happiness, without an apparent worry in his silent world. Now in his 60’s, he has been an orphan from the time he was an infant, both of his parents having died in an epidemic of viruela (smallpox). Irineo’s father adopted him and brought him up. When he died and Bonifacio moved into the old Vidaca house, he discovered that Fernando came with it. His family generously took over caring for the tontito. With ten children Bonifacio already has twelve mouths to feed and one more doesn’t make that much difference.
The vast majority of simple-mindedness is congenital, but upon occasion it is acquired later in life due to other factors, and then it seems more tragic. This morning at dawn there made his appearance a tontito named Lino. Everyone was polite to him but it was difficult to communicate. Lino’s physical control, hearing, vision, and speech are all failing and he no longer thinks clearly. Eustalia says, “When you talk to him in a low voice he doesn’t hear and when you raise your voice he gets offended and shouts, ‘¡No soy tonto!”’
As a boy Lino was completely normal, and even of above average intelligence. He attended school, learned to read and write, and from then on read everything he could get his hands on. (That wasn’t much. Even two years ago before our Pacific group brought books, the school had a library of two books.) It is said that when he was 15 years old, Lino got his hands on a book of black magic, which somehow affected his humores (vital fluids). In any case, from his fifteenth year on Lino has been subject to severe and frequent epileptic attacks, and little by little his mind has become weakened. The people ascribe it to mal de corazón.
DEARER BY THE DOZEN
One day near the end of July, Eustaquio, the father of Pipi, the little boy crippled by polio, came to Irineo’s house to get more corn for planting. More than 50% of the corn he planted at the beginning of las aguas has failed to germinate, and the vast majority of that which has germinated has scarcely grown at all. While other mountainside plots already have corn waist high, most of Eustaquio’s patch is only 4 or 5 inches high. He has been resembrando (re-sowing) where the first corn did not sprout, and praying that the rains will hold out long enough for the late planted crop to produce. But he is discouraged.
A good yield is of critical importance to Eustaquio because less than half of the corn he plants and harvests will be his. He is working en medias for Irineo Vidaca. This is an arrangement whereby, when one person runs out of food, and has no money, another agrees to lend him corn, lard, and frijoles to tide him over till the next harvest. The borrower, in turn, agrees to plant and harvest a mountainside corn patch and give half the yield to the financer. This half-harvest is effectively the interest on the loan, for the accumulated debt must be paid off in corn from the borrower’s half. Thus Eustaquio, when he harvests, must turn over not only half of his harvest, but a considerable part of the remainder. If his yield is poor he may have to turn his entire harvest over to Irineo.
“¿Y que van hacer entonces?” I asked him. (And what will you do then?)
“Pues, quien sabe?” Eustaquio replied with a slow smile. “Quizas nos vamos para la costa.” (Perhaps go to the coast.)
All of his neighbors like Eustaquio. One can’t help liking him. There isn’t a streak of meanness in him. He has a slow, warm smile, and speaks with a kind of a drawl, yet he is a spellbinder. He would rather talk than work. When talking, he stands as if he were leaning against a wall or a tree, even if there isn’t any. When working there is something about him that is still very relaxed. His gentle passivity has a tenderizing effect on other people. He is the sort of person who – if single – could just wander through life being nice. But Eustaquio has a family of twelve to support.
The day before yesterday, Irineo and I went up the mountainside to Los Pinos to see Esteban, who was ill. Gregorio Robles was there, and we got to talking about the sad condition of Eustaquio’s corn patch, which we had passed on our way up. Goyo commented that there were entire rows where only half a dozen grains had sprouted. Esteban speculated as to whether this might be due to the prevalent güicos -- small lizards which are thought to dig up and eat freshly planted grains of corn, or to the sapos -- big toads -- which are said to dig up the kernels and plant them in other parts. It was finally agreed that the failure of Eustaquio’s corn was more probably due to the infertility of the land. Not enough years have passed since the last time it was left fallow, re-timbered and planted.
“But why,” protested Gregorio, “didn’t Eustaquio start reseeding before now? Here it is the 3rd of August. He’ll be lucky if his plants don’t dry up on him before he gets a crop.”
“He just kept hoping that if he let it go another day it would all sprout.” scoffed Irineo. “If I hadn’t pushed him he’d still be waiting!”
“He’s just like a little boy,” commented Esteban. “This morning, for instance, his dogs take off up the mountainside, barking like crazy, and Eustaquio takes off after them. In these days! When every grain counts that he gets in ahead of the next rain! And does he even take a gun to shoot a deer or possum if that’s what the barking’s all about? Oh, no! Just drops his güica and dashes after his dogs. He’s like a kid, I say.”
Everyone laughed, shaking his head, and said, “Es cierto.”
While we chatted, the sky was clouding over, and Irineo and I decided we’d better get started back. Returning down the mountainside, we stopped in at Eustaquio’s hut. Pipi, who was sitting by the hut, greeted us with a huge smile. Just as we arrived, the first drops of rain began to fall. Eustaquio appeared from his field a few moments later, together with his wife and six children who had been working with him. The rain fell more heavily now, and Irineo was anxious to continue on. But Eustaquio and his family invited me to sit out the storm; I accepted their invitation. Irineo, on mule-back, went his wet way.
Eustaquio and his wife, with Pipi and the other nine children, live and sleep in a single room 18 feet long and 8 feet wide. The walls, as in many of the poorest houses, are of upright poles planted in the ground. The roof is part thatch and part baked-earth tile, with a few pieces of corrugated tin left over from some defunct mining operation. The pretil with the cooking fire is at one end of the room. There are two collapsible burlap cots that are folded up during the day to allow some space. At night, to accommodate all twelve, every spare inch of the dirt floor is occupied, including the space under the cots. The baby’s crib hangs from the mid-beam.
There is no table, and there are no chairs, save for two crude stools made from a split log with two forked sticks stuck in holes in the bottom. At mealtime the members of the family sit on a bed, on a log, or on the ground, putting their plates on their laps or on the log stools. As with most campesino families, no more than two or three persons eat at one time, not due to a shortage of conviviality, but of utensils and space. When it rains, damageable articles are shifted from one side of the room to the others depending on which way the wind is blowing.
When I learned that the family had only one blanket plus a comforter of old rags sewn together, I asked what all the children do on a cold night.
“Pues, todos se meten en una bola, uno arriba del otro, y así duermen.” (They all get together in a ball, one on top of the other.) laughed Eustaquio. And all the young ones laughed too.
I looked at the children’s faces, one after the other. Their complexions were dark like their mother’s, yet somehow delicate, like their father’s. Their dark eyes were bright like sparrows. All the children except Pipi were extremely thin. Clearly, they were not getting enough good food. Yet I saw no sign of suffering in their faces. There was a radiance of joy in each face. Juana, their mother, showed a quiet and enduring strength. And it was apparent that their father, Eustaquio, if he could not always provide enough food, did not stint on love. They all looked hungry, but happy. And Pipi looked happiest of all, though I know there are times he must suffer.
“¿No quiere comer?” asked Juana, handing Eustaquio and me each a plate of frijoles de la olla (boiled beans) which we ate while the children looked on and waited their turns.
At last the rain slackened, the clouds opened, and warming sun burst through, doming the sky with a slender rainbow. Before taking my leave I asked Eustaquio once again about the crutches for Pipi, and again he assured me he would make them. But like a true carpenter, he said he would need the right kind of wood, which was jútamo, and that it would have to be cut during las secas when the wood was drier and less apt to warp.
“Las secas!” Good God! Did he mean next spring? He has already let this year’s secas pass without making them!
During the time I was in the hut, I had noticed again the strength that Pipi has developed in his arms and chest from hauling himself about with his legs dragging. I decided that las aguas or las secas, jútamo or no jútamo, Pipi deserves crutches, and now.
CRUTCHES FOR PIPI
Yesterday I rose at dawn, borrowed a half-broken machete, and went into the hills in search of two slender yet sturdy branches, sufficiently long and straight, shaped like wishbones but with narrower forks.
“¡No vas a encontrarlos!” (You’re not going to find them!) was Irineo’s none too encouraging counsel as I left.
For a long while it seemed he was right. I hunted high and low. The first likely-looking branch I cut from a low, spreading gualamo tree, but the fork was too wide. Next I cut a fork from a small tree called cucharo, the bark of which strips off in shapes like spoons, but one branch of the fork was crooked. Next, palo dulce, but it proved too brittle. The palos blancos with their heart-shaped leaves had many suitable-looking forks, but their wood is as soft as ailanthus. Sacalosuche, the tree rhododendron, proved spongier still. I climbed high into a tepeguaje tree that arched out over a cliff and cut two promising forks -- although somewhat thick -- yet I found the wood was heavier than green oak. I continued my search.
At about 3:00 pm, when it was threatening to rain, I stumbled across a patch of mahuto, a multi-stalked, fan-shaped tree of the legume family. I spotted two forks that looked perfect, but a little thin. I cut them anyway, and to my delight found the wood amazingly strong. Crutches from these forks could support my weight! ...and Pipi’s easily. Returning to the casa, Irineo led me to a güinole (acacia) with many serpentine branches, from which I selected two short, curved sections to use as armpit rests.
This morning I went up the mountainside with the sections of branch and a chisel that -- fortuitously -- I had brought from California. In less than an hour I arrived at Eustaquio’s hut.
Eustaquio and the two oldest girls had left for a meeting to discuss recent cattle thefts, to be held in Jocuixtita, but eight of the children were there to meet me. Pipi, out in the corn field near the casita, was crawling along cutting weeds with a talcuache. When I arrived he hurriedly dragged himself over to greet me… a little too hurriedly, for when he arrived the top of one of his feet was cut and bleeding. But he looked up at me, smiling broadly.
The construction of the crutches was simple, and went quickly with both Pipi and his younger brother helping. We chiseled a pair of square holes five inches apart in each of the short, curved sections of guinole; then we squared off the long, forked ends of the mahuto poles, and bending the forks closer together forced their tips into the square holes of the arm pit rests. To form a hand-grip we inserted, half-way down each crutch between the forks, a thicker, four-inch rod cut from the same mahuto. To fit snugly around the forks, we had to carve rounded grooves in the ends of these short rods of very hard mahuto, and lacking a vise, we punched holes with a güica in the hard-packed soil next to the hut, and inserted the rods in these holes. Thus with the simplest of tools, we constructed the crutches of three components each, without the help of nails, screws, wire, cord, or glue. We found the crutches held together rigidly by themselves, and I tried them myself before turning them over to Pipi. They held my weight easily.
Now, came the big test. One of his brothers hoisted Pipi upright, and I placed the crutches under his arms. Pipi struggled and did his best, but could not even manage to stand upright alone. He kept toppling over, and I kept catching him. The smile that had remained on his lips from the moment I arrived, became a strained grimace, and tears formed in his eyes. He struggled to maintain his balance... At last he succeeded in holding himself upright. But he was exhausted.
“Bastante para ahorita.” (Enough for now) I said, and helped Pipi to his hands and knees again.
“Con la práctica aprendes bien.” (With practice you will learn well.)
And I am sure he will. Before I left, Pipi tried the crutches several more times. By the last trial he was already able to move about a little with the new crutches falling now and then. “Poco a poco” he will learn. Polio can’t be conquered in a day.
A SURE CURE FOR LEPROSY
Today, in Verano, another leper came for treatment of the pain he suffers in his back. Now in his 60’s, Guadalupe was a childhood friend of Irineo Vidaca, and the Vidacas invited him to lunch. He explained that the bronze, flaking sores on his hands and legs began after a prolonged fever some six years ago.
“¡El médico en Tayoltita me envenenó!” muttered the old man.
He blames the doctor in Tayoltita for his present skin condition and bone absorption of his fingertips, saying that the doctor injected him with a poison when he had his severe fever, for following the injections his whole body broke out with sores. (Evanescent skin lesions are a frequent accompaniment to leprosy fever).
Following Guadalupe’s visit Irineo and I got to talking about lazarín.
“No se la causa del lazarín,” said Irineo, “Pero se puede curarlo así:” and he proceeded to tell me that a sure cure for leprosy was to put a víbora muerta (dead rattlesnake) in the bottom of an olla (earthen jug), to fill the jug with water and to keep drinking it until there is nothing left of the rattlesnake but the bones. When the bones are clean, kill another rattlesnake and do the same thing. And then a third. By the time the third rattler has been consumed, the disease is completely gone and will not come back.
“Se le cura también con Zopilote,” (You can cure it also with vulture) contributed Irineo’s wife Eustalia.
“¿Zopilote?” I asked, wondering if she meant the bird, or the vine called tripa de zopilote (vulture’s guts), which I know is used in the treatment of broken bones.
“Esos que vuelan,” she answered. (Those that fly.)
She told me how an accordion player called Maramiliano, who had come from high in the Sierra but had resided in Ajoya, had developed lazarín. His cejas (eyebrows) had fallen out and “se cayeron las puntas de los dedos.” (the ends of his fingers fell off.) But he cured himself by eating the meat of vultures. “Se sanó completamente.” (He became completely well.) Now, she said, he lives in Ciudad Obregón, where he continues to play the accordion... Who knows?
THE CORN IS RUNNING OUT
Day by day the drought of last year’s summer weighs harder on the families of the barrancas. From Güillapa to Caballo de Arriba and Verano there is scarcely a family that has not run out of the corn they harvested last winter. Those who could do so have long since purchased more. For many this has meant selling mules, donkeys, hogs, chickens, radios, whatever they have. But now – even as far as San Ignacio – there is no corn left for sale. In Ajoya several of los ricos still have their trojas full of grain, but this year they have not made their normal “corn loans” (except to their medieros, or tenant farmers) and from mid-May on they have flatly refused to sell “un grano de maíz”, apparently as part of the plan to squeeze out the poor campesinos. The only rico who has broken with this plan is Marcelo Manjarrez -- of whom it is said “le gustan más sus centavos que sus amigos” (he likes his pennies better than his friends) -- who in August began to sell at 1.30 pesos/liter the corn he had bought up from the poor farmers in December at 50 centavos/liter. Yet Marcelo’s supply of corn, although large, ran out within days. In Ajoya – already before I left in early July – families who could afford to do so, like Ramona’s, were beginning to make tortillas of Maseca, a packaged corn flour brought in from Mazatlán. But the cost of Maseca, two pesos per kilo, makes it prohibitive for the majority.
Here in the higher barrancas, a further problem has been added by the rains, which – although they promise of a good harvest – have been so heavy that the rivers and arroyos have been in almost constant high flood, and the perilous ridge trails that avoid the fords have been washed out. At present, and for the last month, no communication between the upper villages and Ajoya has been possible, except at great risk, and travel with pack animals is inconceivable. Teófilo’s little store in Jocuixtita, which normally supplies needs as far as Caballo, Verano, and La Tahona, very quickly ran out. (Although Teófilo foresaw the desperate shortage, he could not stock ahead because Raúl Padilla, in Ajoya, discontinued his credit.) Until the first elotes (ears of corn) ripen in September, the villagers here -- isolated as they are and short of food -- must hang on as best they can.
This morning, early, as the sun was beginning to appear above the misted ridges, I heard a rifle shot nearby. I gave it little heed, for I supposed it was only Alvaro shooting another lizard. Even when, an instant later, I heard a woman shriek with pain, I did not put two and two together. I did, however, spring to my feet, and run to see what had happened.
I met Juana Soto coming up from the arroyo, whimpering and gripping her arm. At first I thought she had fallen, but then I saw the stream of blood.
“¿Que pasó?” I asked.
“¡Me tiró!” she wailed. “¡Mi maldito hombre me tiró!” (My cursed husband shot me!)
She had gone to the arroyo to wash my clothes when Leopoldo, hiding in wait for her on the hillside, had fired on her. If she had not made a sudden movement to wring out some pants at the instant the shot was fired, chances are she would have been killed.
The bullet had passed nearly through the center of her right upper arm, although it seemed to have missed the bone, or at least not to have broken it. The damage may well prove permanent, however, as the bullet apparently severed a portion of the nerves to her hand. Three fingers and the thumb appear paralyzed.
A major vein was also cut, for blood came faucetingout of the two holes. At once I tied a tourniquet above the wound and bandaged tightly the two points of exit. I had Juana lie down on my cot in the Portal and gave her Demerol to quiet the pain. She complained of the burning pain in her paralyzed fingers more than that of the wound site itself.
“¿Como voy a cuidar a mis hijos? ¿Como voy a cuidar a mis hijos?” (How am I going to care for my children?) she said over and over.
There were no other men folk on hand at the time. Even the boys, Pedro and Nuñe, had taken off up the arroyo to gather mangos. Juana’s daughter, Chicha, crossed the arroyo and went up the brush hillside to hunt for the spot where her mother had been fired upon. She reported that the gunman had stood behind a palo blanco tree about 40 yards downstream from where Juana had been washing. She saw where he had broken twigs in order to get a better view. In the moist earth she had followed the fresh tracks through the brush to a small ravine that cuts up the mountainside. She recognized the tracks as her father’s.
About half an hour after the shooting, José Nuñez arrived from Jocuixtita to ask for medicines for a sick child, and he offered to go upstream to report the shooting to his cousin Gregorio Robles, Verano’s comisario. Gregorio did not make his appearance, however, until the middle of the afternoon. The assistant comisario, Chavelo Campo, a brother of the gunman, did not come at all.
The two little girls, Marina and Teresa, did not know how to react to their mother’s injury. In the first few minutes, as Juana wailed and groaned, they stood silently beside her, their eyes wide and wondering, the littlest one clinging to Juana’s dress. After about half an hour, little Teresa let out with a siren-like wail, which was at once accompanied by Marina.
When Pedro and Nuñe arrived with the mangos and learned that their mother had been shot, they accepted the news quietly. But when someone mentioned that Leopoldo, their father, had done it, Pedro said hotly, “How do you know?” To this, Juana replied, “And who else would have done it?” and Chicha said she had recognized his tracks. Pedro knit his young brow and looked darkly at the ground in front of him for a moment, then turned and stalked silently away.
When Juana’s pain had eased and the bleeding had lessened, I cleaned and re-bandaged the wound. I injected her with tetanus antitoxin, and we escorted her to the cot in her house next door. The boys left for firewood, and Chicha took the little girls to the arroyo to give them a bath. I stayed for a while to keep Juana company, for she was still shaken.
Juana told me that she’d met and “married” Leopoldo 17 years before in Tayoltita, where she had been brought up and where he had come from Verano to work. For their first seven years together she had been happy with him, although Leopoldo showed little affection for the children and made little effort to provide for them. He frequently struck the children quite harshly, even for minor offenses. But Juana did not oppose him, and he did not mistreat her. Most importantly, he did not drink.
With the passing years, Juana’s biggest grievance with Leopoldo was his indomitable pride, his unwillingness to take the slightest abuse from anyone, combined with his violent temper. Although he did not provide Juana with money enough for even sugar and lard, he always wanted things just so in the casa, and if they were not just so, he would explode.
Leopoldo’s pride and violence extended beyond the casa. For several years he had a feud going with a man named Aguir, who owed him a sum of money and refused to pay. One night Leopoldo was talking with two friends in the street when Aguir staggered past, stone drunk. Leopoldo, as ever, shouted at him about the money, and Aguir, being drunk, made the mistake of laughing at Leopoldo and saying he didn’t owe him anything. Leopoldo stabbed Aguir to death on the spot.
Aguir had many relatives in Tayoltita, who pushed, or rather paid, for Leopoldo’s arrest. Leopoldo was sentenced to an eight-year prison term. But the relatives of Aguir were still not satisfied, and talked about carrying their revenge yet further. As many of the young men in Aguir’s family drank a lot, and Juana feared for the lives of her children, especially that of her oldest son, she moved her children to Verano, where the family of her husband lived.
Twice Leopoldo escaped from jail due to the carelessness -- intentional or otherwise -- of those guarding him. The first time he was sought and recaptured, the second time not.
“Why not?” I asked Juana.
“Porque los familiares de Aguir ya no quisieron pagar,” she replied. (Because the relatives of Aguir now didn’t want to pay.)
Their anger had evidently quieted.
In all, Leopoldo was in jail less than a year. When he escaped the second time, he rejoined his family in Verano, and they set up their household in El Rancho del Padre. This was about ten years ago. From that time on, things became worse. Leopoldo had been suspicious of Juana during the time he was in prison, and began to accuse her of having affairs with other men. As time went on, his jealousy --completely unfounded, according to Juana-- became worse, and he began to beat her. He consistently provided less for the family, and Juana had to wash clothes for other families to try to keep her children fed and clothed. Yet he continued to sleep with Juana – and then, yes, he still showed her some gruff affection -- and Juana kept having more children.
After enough years had passed for things to quiet down, the Campos moved back to Tayoltita, and Leopoldo, although he had escaped jail and only completed a fraction of his prison term, was not rearrested. The climate, however, proved hard on the children, who had got used to the milder weather of Verano. Three times Chicha “se puso a morir” (nearly died) and at Juana’s insistence they moved back to their house here in El Rancho del Padre. Leopoldo had not been in favor of the move, however, and refused to work, saying he would have worked if they had stayed in Tayoltita. He accused his wife of using the children’s illness as an excuse to come back because she had a secret novio in Verano. This Juana denies.
At last, a little more than a year ago, they had an argument, and Leopoldo stormed out, saying he was leaving for the coast. He evidently found work, and for the first month or two sent a few pesos back specifically to his older sons, but nothing at all to Juana. Juana and her children, the oldest of whom was then 15, planted and harvested their own corn, and with Juana doing other families’ wash during the dry season, and her older son taking what jobs he could get, she found she could keep the family fed and clothed better than when her husband had been there.
“¿Entonces, para qué sirve tener un hombre?” she asked me. (Then what’s the good in having a man?)
This April, Leopoldo arrived back on the scene and wanted to move in with his wife again. She refused to have him. She said that he had neglected them, would probably do so again, and that now she didn’t want any more children, which was the obvious concomitant to his returning to live with her.
Leopoldo, grumbling, withdrew. He made his way to a rancho called “Sapotito” (Little Toad) on the headwaters of the Rio Verde, where he found lodging with friends. After a while he got a job nearby, in Pie de la Cuesta, working as milpero for Chuy Alvarado. But in Sapotita and Pie de la Cuesta, Leopoldo found no woman, and little by little his desire for Juana kept growing. He sent her a letter, half apology and half threat, asking her to “live” with him again.
“¿Y porque voy a vivir otra vez con el?” demanded Juana. “¿Que me ha dado más que puros golpes y niños? ¡Ya no quiero más golpes! ¡Ya no quiero mas hijos! Yo los mantengo mejor a mis hijos sola.” (And why should I live with him again? What has he given me apart from beatings and children? I don’t want more beatings! I don’t want more children! I can provide better for my children alone.)
Juana did not answer his letter, and as time passed and Leopoldo waited for a reply, his anger and insult grew. He dispatched another letter with his son, Pedro, who had come to Pie de la Cuesta on an errand. This time there was no apology, but an angry charge that she had taken on another lover, and an open demand, “¡Vuele conmigo, o verás!” Juana sent back a note saying that she neither had nor wanted a lover, but that she was happy alone, and begged him not to molest her. Some time passed in silence. Then Leopoldo came, on the eve of “El Día de San Juan” after Juana and the children had bedded down, as I have earlier related, kicked Juana in the face when she refused his demands.
And so it was that Juana and her children came to live in the little casa adjacent to my dispensary, which has a door that can be locked at night. That was about six weeks ago. In these six weeks nothing happened, Juana saw neither see hide nor hair of Leopoldo, and little by little she began to relax. The only one who saw Leopoldo during this time was Pedro, who two weeks ago went to Sapotito on an errand. But he scarcely spoke with his father at that time.
A week ago word filtered back to Verano that Chuy Alvarado in Pie de la Cuesta was angry with Leopoldo because Leopoldo had swiped his rifle. But people supposed that he wanted it to hunt deer.
And this morning Juana was shot.
About 3:00 in the afternoon of the shooting, José Nuñez returned with the comisario, Gregorio Robles. They had me remove the bandages (which were bloody and needed changing anyway) so that they could take measurements of the point of entry and exit of the bullet, to send a report to the Síndico in Ajoya. They asked Juana various questions to determine Leopoldo’s motive. José Nuñez, especially, was interested in establishing whether Juana, in his point of view, had deserved to be shot. After hearing Juana’s account, however, José decided that in this case Juana was in the clear, and that Leopoldo had acted with a “mala cabeza” (bad head).
“And what did Leopoldo gain by “revenging” himself in this way?” I asked, still unable to accept the shooting.
“¡Pues, nada!” was the reply.
“It’s an act of ignorance!” exclaimed Inez Vidaca, who had come from across the arroyo to do what she could to help. “Pure ignorance! It doesn’t serve a thing.”
I asked Gregorio what would be done to apprehend Leopoldo. He assured me that an attempt would be made to catch him. He pointed out, however, that with so many trails and places to hide, it is almost impossible to track a person down.
“But they’ll catch him!” affirmed Irineo, “They’ll send out word to all the ranchos and pueblos. Sooner or later he’s got to show up somewhere. And when he does...” and he made a grab at the air with his hand.
But in truth, nothing! Nothing will be done... Ironically, while we were still preparing the report to send to Ajoya, a boy named Pancho arrived from Santo Domingo, a rancho on the Rio Verde a little below Sapotito. When he learned that Leopoldo was being sought, he cried out, “He’s right there in Santo Domingo! He arrived about mid-day.” So what did the comisario do? Nothing! He hemmed and hawed and said he guessed he would have to go after him. But he never did...
Now, (two days later), I have received word that Leopoldo is back with his friends in Sapotito. This very minute I was talking again with the Comisario, Gregorio Robles. “Aren’t you going to go after him?” I asked.
“Well, no” said Gregorio. “It’s that we’d need three persons, and one alone... “ and he threw up his hands.
“And you can’t round up another two men?” I asked.
“No,” said Goyo. “The assistant comisario is Leopoldo’s brother and… well...”
“Has he refused?” I asked.
“I haven’t talked with him. I’ve been meaning to ask.”
“And will the authorities in Ajoya or San Ignacio do anything about it?”
“No,” said Goyo, “What can they do?”
“You mean Leopoldo gets to shoot his wife and go right on living where he was as if nothing had happened?” I asked.
“I suppose so.”
“And who knows if he’ll come to finish what he’s already begun?” I asked.
“Well, who knows?” said Gregorio with a big shrug. “¿Quien sabe?”
AFTER THE SHOOTING
The morning after Juana was shot I woke up before it was fully light to find her 14 year-old boy Pedro perched silently on the pretil opposite my cot, looking at me.
“Buenos días.” I said.
“Buenos días.” said Pedro.
“¿Como amaneciste?” (How did you awaken?)
“¿Y tu mamá? ¿Como amaneció?” (And your mother?)
“Así, no más.” (So-so.)
And we both fell silent for a while. There was something sad about ‘this young curly-headed boy sitting there alone in the dawn. It occurred to me that although, with good fortune, he had not lost his mother with the shooting, in a sense he had lost his father. I swatted a few jejenes which had come in droves with the dawn, and asked, “¿Como trataba tu padre a ustedes?” (How did your father treat you children?)
“Pues, malo.” replied Pedro. “Siempre nos pegaba. Nos dió castigazos y garrotazos pa’ cualquier cosita. Nos hecho la culpa pa’ cosas que no hizimos. Pegó a las niñas y las hizo llorar. Pero...” (He was always hitting us. He punished us and beat us with a stick for every little thing. He blamed us for things we didn’t do. He hit the girls and made them cry. But...)
“¿Pero qué?” I asked. (But what?)
“Nada.” said Pedro, turning to look out at the chickens that were beginning to flap down from their roosts in the twisted gualamo.
“¿Nunca trabajaste con tu padre?” I asked. (Did you ever work with your father?)
Pedro looked back at me and very emphatically said, “Sí.”
“¿Donde?” I asked.
“Ahí arriba en la milpa.” (Up there in the corn patch.)
“¿Y ahí trabajando, tu papá no te maltrató?” I asked. (And up there
working your father didn’t mistreat you?)
“Pues, me regañaba. Siempre me estaba regañando.” (Well, he scolded me. He was always scolding me.)
(Did you love him?)
“Pues... creo que si.” (Well. . . I think so.)
“¿Y todavía lo quieres?” (And do you still love him?)
Pedro hesitated a moment. “Pues... siempre.” (Well... still.) he said, and smiled weakly.
In the days following the shooting, Juana had many visitors. Some brought sugar or rice and others volunteered to carry water and help with the wash. Everybody who came had his own special formula for recovery from a bullet wound. Some wanted to pack the wound with pieces of cardón (cactus) and give her to drink a concoction of the same.
Some wanted wash the wound with leaves vara prieta boiled in cooking oil. Some suggested a tea from the flowers of cacachila de gallina etc.
The greatest struggle I had was convincing the people that Juana should have nourishing food. The afternoon that Juana was shot, Eustalia offered to cook some rice for Juana, and I suggested that she mix in a little of the powdered milk I had brought.
“¿No le hace daño, la leche?” asked Eustalia. (Won’t milk do her harm?)
“¡Le hace provecho!” I replied. (It will do her good!)
“¿Pero pollo, sí es malo, verdad?” insisted Eustalia. (But chicken is certainly bad, true?)
“¡Tambien hace provecho!” I said. (It too will do her good!)
Eustalia tilted her gray head and looked at me skeptically. “Pues, nosotros creemos que cuando uno esta balazado, que todas esas comidas son malas.” (Well, we believe that for a gunshot wound all of these sorts of food are bad.)
I asked Eustalia what they did give to eat, if all these things were bad.
“Arroz cocido.” she said. (Cooked rice.)
“¿Y que otra cosa?” (And what else?)
“Mejor, nada.” (Better, nothing.)
I tried to explain to everyone present the importance of food with protein and iron to make up for the lost blood and repairing the damaged tissues. But... well… Ideas that have lived for centuries do not die in minutes. It takes years.
ON VIOLENCE AND OTHER RELATIONSHIPS
I would be doing a gross disservice to both the villagers and the Sierra Madre if I were to emphasize the violence, the injustice, and ignorance, and at the same time to under-stress the tenderness, tranquility, and the sage-like wisdom that characterize these remote parts. Yet I find myself in danger of doing just that. These latter, more lovable aspects are such pervasive, day-to-day phenomena that -- as with the music of soft wind in the forest or the glad songs of insects in the night -- one is disposed to note more the harsh interruptions than the gentle continuum. Secondly, violence is easier to write about than is tenderness. It gives both writer and reader more chance to feel righteous. Then, lastly, because I have the means of treating injuries, I see more than my share of violence and its results, and I listen to more tales of woe.
I cannot deny that the incidence of physical violence is high here in the Sierra Madre. Is it because the villagers’ lives are less buffered from the elements -- from hunger, heat, cold, wet and dry -- that, as do children, they tend to give immediate, physical expression to their feelings? Or is it that human relationship here is more immediate, simpler, more direct? Here, for example, if a mother is angry with her children, she does not resort to insidious psychological reprimands; she does not seek the professional counsel of Reader’s Digest or Dr. Spock; she does not pretend she isn’t angry because she thinks she shouldn’t be; rather, she screams at her children and whacks them! In a similar manner, her husband may dispose of his anger toward her. And no doubt she would do the same toward her husband if she thought she could get away with it.
The point I would like to make is this: that the use of physical violence in a human relationship is not necessarily indicative of a paucity of love, warmth, or even tenderness in that same relationship. It took me a long time to learn this. I still remember my disillusionment on my first visit to this stretch of the Sierra Madre two years ago, when I stayed for the night in a tiny, isolated casa called Jiote (which means Ringworm). The family, one of the poorest I have encountered, consisted of some seven members living in a stick shack, the roof made of chunks of wood and bark. I arrived as dusk was settling into the steep ravine, and with nothing to eat. As almost any family of the Sierra would have done, they took me in – a total stranger – and although they were short of food themselves, fed me the best they had and wanted nothing in return. But the thing that impressed me most was the enormous bond, the warmth, the evident trust between the members of the family. Everything I saw was indicative of a kind of intra-family harmony that is so rare a sight in the family of the modern American city. I fell asleep that night with a very romantic image of the family life of the impoverished campesino.
But I had a rude awakening. The next morning the little four year-old child committed some minor mischief, and his young father -- the same father who had so lovingly cradled the little boy in his arms from three o’clock that morning until dawn because the child was cold and they lacked blankets -- flew into a fury. He picked up a rawhide belt and laid into the boy, raising an ugly welt with each blow, while the child howled and trembled. It was all I could do to keep from springing to the youngster’s defense... The incident left me bewildered.
Since then I have got used to this kind of contradiction within the family. In Ajoya one morning when I went to the house of Alicia Torres to see her two children with diarrhea, I found she had a black eye. “My husband gave it to me,” she said, “because María Lomas is angry with me because I scolded her children because they threw stones at my children. She told my husband that Alfredo, the man who goes from house to house trying to seduce the women when their husbands aren’t home, had made several calls here, the bitch! I told my husband she was a liar and if he believed her to go ahead and hit me. So he did. He tells me not to tell anyone how I got the black eye, but I don’t care who knows.”
One day in Las Chicuras, little Goyo’s mother, Jesús, said to me, “Gracias a Diós que me pegó la suerte casarme con un hombre que no me pega y que no me dejó.” (Thanks be to God that I had the good fortune to marry a man who doesn’t hit me, and who didn’t leave me.) And she is lucky indeed, for the percentage of men who strike their wives is high. Next door to Goyo’s family, little Pedrillo, the musician with the voice of a thrush at dawn, who can be as gentle with his wife as a flower, also beats her unmercifully. But Mona says she is happy with him, and is grateful he doesn’t drink, a rare virtue for a músico. (Now, I have learned, he is beginning to drink.)
Yet even in Goyo’s family, which I have come to know better than any family in the villages: where I have come to marvel at the bond between its members; at the devotion of the children toward their parents; at the enormous courage and endless sacrifice -- especially of the-mother, Jesús: at the tender appreciation of the father, Remedios; at the uncrushable joy and sense of play which radiate from parents and children alike; at the bounty of spirit even when corncrib and pockets are empty, even here in the family Reyes where love seems a substitute for food itself – I have see Jesús or Remedios strike out at one or the other of their children with a stick or a leather strap, with a sudden violence that makes me shudder to think of. I have almost come to accept these outbursts as a kind of proof of love. Life is not easy, even for the best.
Here in the villages, the percentage of men who leave their wives and children is also high, although – as with Remedios and Jesús, Blind Ramón and Micaela, Irineo and Eustalia – the relationship of couples who do remain together is frequently extremely close. This is not surprising, for, apart from love or a sense of responsibility (the former being more common than the latter) there is little by way of law or social pressure to keep a man from deserting his family if and when he pleases. By contrast, of course, a woman almost never abandons her husband, knowing that if she does so she will likely be beaten or killed. Especially in the more remote villages, most couples don’t marry by either of “las dos leyes,” civil or ecclesiastic, nor do they see any reason why they should. Like Old Ramón and Micaela, when the Padre came to Ajoya over Easter and wanted to wed them, they consider formal marriage as just another gimmick to “sacar los centavos de los pobres” (to take pennies from the poor). In any case, there is no legal recourse when a father deserts his family.
Of those mothers who lose their husbands, or are abandoned by them, there is, in turn, a high percentage that abandon their children or turn them over to their grandparents. Most of the mothers do this more of necessity than of desire, for if her children are small and she has no one to help her, it is almost impossible for her to maintain herself and the children alone. Juana has been able to do it only because she has children large enough to care for the smaller ones and to help with the hard labor in the fields. Even so, women like Juana are rare. While an obvious solution for a woman deserted by her husband is to remarry, exceptional is the man who is willing to take on the maintenance of children not his own, especially if the woman is young. For birth control is an idle dream, and he knows full well that in a few years he is apt to have 8, 9, or a dozen youngsters of his own to feed, clothe, and pack at night into the floor space of his hut, without the additional burden of those who have not been the fruit of his pleasures.
So frequently do grandparents take over the bringing up of the children whom their own offspring have abandoned, that this has almost become a cultural pattern. Jesús Mercado, Goyo’s mother, was taken in by her grandmother after her father was killed and her mother abandoned her at the age of 10. Irineo Vidaca and Eustalia, having already raised the abandoned children of two of their sons, have now taken on the support of Angelita’s children after their younger son, José Vidaca, abandoned her for Sofía Chavarín in Ajoya. And so it goes. Rather than considering the addition of these grandchildren a burden, the grandparents frequently regard them as a blessing. Not only do the young ones provide entertainment in a house without television, newspapers, or books, but they can help with the chores. When the grandparents’ own children have all grown up and left the house to take up their own – if transient – partnerships, who will be left to carry water from the arroyo, to turn the corn-mill, to hunt for firewood and cut it, to carry messages, and most important, to help the aging father in the milpa.
Where would Old Irineo be without his grandson, Alvaro, to do the heavy work? For although Irineo, at 75, still goes up the steep mountainside each day to swing the tachicual and rip out weeds, he returns early, exhausted, before the rain begins each afternoon.
Likewise, what a blessing it is to Eustalia when José’s abandoned daughter, Concha, hauls water and grinds the corn; such work is hard for a weathered woman of 70.
And little Juan José, at six years old, has already begun to cut firewood with the axe. Perhaps he will take over where Alvaro leaves off. Where would they be without these abandoned children of their sons?
Children are the only servants of the poor – but young children beyond adolescence are no longer free. Girls may be expected to marry from 14 on, boys from 17 or 18. Children, young children, are the only security that the poor campesinos are apt to have in their old age. Grandchildren are not always available, and one solution, conscious or otherwise, is for a man to keep on having children in his later years. I think of old Higinio Gonzáles of Chilár, who at 64 still climbs each day 2000 feet to his mountainside corn patch with his 13 year-old son Crecencio. His two younger daughters, ages 6 and 8, carry water and help his wife in the house. Higinio’s next youngest son, 19, lives in the house next door. The bond is still very close between him and his aging father, but now, with his own wife, one child, and another on its way, he has his own corn patch to plant, and his own struggle to provide. So Higinio has to rely on the younger children. In fact, I hate to think what would happen to Old Higinio if anything happened to Crecencio. He has no younger sons to look after him.
A mistaken conception that students frequently have about underdeveloped communities with low life expectancies, is that nearly everyone dies young. If the “life expectancy” for these villages is, say, 35 years of age, it might be assumed that people, on the whole, don’t grow very old. This isn’t true at all. However, life expectancy is low because it is dragged down by the enormous infant mortality, and to a lesser extent by epidemics. While a child, at birth, may have only a 60% chance of surviving to the age of five, if he does survive to five his chances are nearly as good of surviving to age 65, maybe even 75. There are many elderly people in the villages, especially men, for the women tend to use themselves up having children. Many of the oldest people are in their 70’s, 80’s and sometimes 90’s, if the age they state is true. Frequently, however, it is not. Ramón Chavarín, for example, thought he was nearly 70, yet when we figured it out using his age at the birth of his oldest son, we found he is only 56. But many people, such as Irineo Vidaca, are definitely in their 70’s or better, as testified by their activities in the Mexican Revolution and other historically dated events.
If a man is to continue having children into his 60’s, it is obviously necessary to have a wife considerably younger than he. Here in the villages it is not exceptional for a man’s wife to be 10, 20, or even 30 years younger than he is. Esteban in Los Pinos is 64 years old, while his wife Juana is only 31. She has borne him girls only – seven of them – in the eight years they’ve been married, and now he is too old to cut the mustard. He misses a boy (having had another seven daughters by a previous wife), and will miss a son even more as the years progress. Now that he has been sick, his wife and the little girls have been doing their best to weed the corn.
As in the United States or anywhere, there is considerable variation in the attitude of men toward women. Those who have been out of the sierra for variable periods to work along the coast or in the cities, frequently pick up a much looser attitude toward women than those who never leave their mountain homes.
Apart from Irineo, the men folk of the Vidaca family who are great travelers seem to be more than usually cavalier. José Vidaca brags that he has had children by at least five different women, including a child by an American girl when he was working as a mojado (“wetback”) in the States. As nearly as I can make out, he neither regrets his passing impregnations, nor feels any responsibility toward either the mothers or their children. Yet with his most recent child, Toya, that of Sofía, he is nothing but tenderness and concern. I have seen him stay up all night with the child when she is sick – and do the same with Sofía. And he was apparently equally good with his three abandoned children in Verano, at least if their love for him is any measure. When José shows up here – as he used to do at regular intervals until he left with Sofía and Toya for Tijuana this June – his six year-old son, Juan José, goes wild. He follows his father, imitates him, sleeps with him, and José enjoys the attention and gives it in return. (And then José leaves, again.)
On my visit to Verano in March, when I left with José for Ajoya, young Juan Jose concluded that it was I who was taking his father away from him. For a long time after I returned he avoided me, and stared at me with a hateful superiority, but little by little his attitude toward me has mellowed until finally Juan José has decided that if Daddy isn’t here, then maybe I’m the next best thing. He visits me frequently when I work, brings me round stones, chatters at me irrepressibly, and reaches his small hand out to brush me when he pleases.
Irineo’s younger brother, Pedro, who lives in a tiny rancho appropriately called Las Calaveras is 55-years-old, solid as a rock, and is at present living with his fourth wife, who is 19, with whom he has two little girls. He has borrowed the 12-year-old son, Chon,
from his previous wife, who lives with relatives in La Cienega, to help work in his milpa and to companion him on his long hikes over the mountains. Pedro told me that he has been living with his present wife for three years and “¡Ya estoy listo para otra!” (And now ready I’m for another!)
Pedro is a gentle person with a big heart. Even the dogs are happy when he comes with Chon to see Irineo or ask for medicines. Unlike anyone else I have seen in villages, he caresses the dogs and shares his tortillas with them when he eats. “No me gusta que maltraten a los perros.” he says. “Me han protegido muchas veces.” (I don’t like to see dogs mistreated. They have protected me many times.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF CHILDREN
Everywhere in the ranchos and villages of the Sierra Madre, in a very good kind of way, grown-ups are dependent upon their children. Children, in a sense, are the predecessors of modern commodities. While the villages do not have running water, they have running children to fetch it; while they do not have telephones, they have children to take messages; while they do not have gas stoves, they have children to hunt and chop firewood; while they do not have electric lights – or frequently even lanterns – they have children to scamper into the pine forests to bring back ocotes (pitchy pine splints) to use as torches; and while the campesino has neither tractor nor mechanical reaper, he has children to help him in the milpa. Life is clearly not as mechanized nor as efficient as in many parts of the world in the Sierra Madre; the child is not yet obsolete.
Children, especially boys, are expected to work and work hard, from the age of seven or eight on. As with the men, the hours of work vary greatly with the seasons. The hardest is the timbering of the fields in springtime, the planting and in early summer, and finally, the harvesting of late autumn and winter. The in-between periods – for boys and men alike – times for play, for lazing in the shade, for swimming in the deeper pools of the arroyos, for doing odd jobs and repairing the casas, for hiking to other ranchos to visit relatives, etc. The women and the girls usually work less hours and less exhaustingly each day, but day in and day out all year, hauling water, washing the clothes in the stream or river, grinding corn, cleaning up after chickens and infants, preparing meals, and –during las aguas – taking lunch to the men high on the mountainside. In between their chores, they find time to embroider pillowcases and to gossip. In a family of ten or twelve persons there is, of course, more work to be done, but there are more hands, large and small, to do it.
How do children react to having to perform a substantial part of the work in a campesino family? Like this:
(1) When I went to Las Chicuras shortly before I left for Verano, I found all the men of the family Reyes, from Remedios through Camilo, Martín, and Goyo, down to little Chaparro, out on the steep milpa cutting and tearing out weeds, which were growing like weeds. Little Chaparro, age six, was swinging his broken-off talcuache with fury, while the sweat dripped from his stubby nose and chin.
“¿Te gusta el trabajo?” I asked him. (Do you like the work?)
Chaparro looked up, wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the back of his small, filthy hand, and with an enormous, laughing grin, said, “¡Si!” He was turning to go back to work when a big, green, iridescent dung beetle came buzzing by close to the ground in a drunken zigzag.
“¡Mira, David!” cried Chaparro, “¡Un mayate!” Dropping his broken sickle he went jumping over the sprouting corn shoots and pounced on the hapless beetle, shrieking with delight as he did so.
“¡Chaparro!” boomed Remedios from higher up the slope, “¿Viniste pa’ aca pa’ jugar o pa’ trabajar?” (Did you come here to play or to work?)
“¡Pa’ trabajar!” replied Chaparro hurriedly.
“¡Ándele pués!” shouted Remedios, “0 mañana no vienes.” (Get going then, or tomorrow you won’t come.)
With all his might, Chaparro flung the handsome dung beetle high in the air, and ran back to his broken-off talcuache.
(2) Since Juana, my neighbor here in Verano, was shot in the arm, 14-year-old Pedro and 10 year old Nuñe must go alone each day up the mountainside to weed the cornfield, for if the weeds on el monte are given a chance to get ahead of the corn, the precious harvest will be lost. The boys leave at dawn with their bule and tortillas, and come back when the rain starts in the afternoon. Sometimes Pedro goes alone.
One day when Pedro returned from the milpa, tired and dripping, with his hands black from the stain of the weeds, I asked him, “¿Te gusta trabajar?”
Pedro looked at his tough, black hands, turning them this way and that, and then smiled at me. “¡Si!” he said, “Me gusta.”
(3) Back in Chilar last February, when old Higinio Gonzáles and his 13 year-old son, Crecencio, escorted me up the mountainside toward La Cienega, they stopped to point out the spot, some 2000 feet above the village, where the two of them were felling trees and shrubs to clear for planting in las aguas. I turned to Crecencio and asked him, “¿Te gusta trabajar?”
Crecencio, with his laughing eyes, glanced up and said, “Con mi padre, ¡si!” (With my father, yes!)
Chuckling, Old Higinio threw his arms around his son and hugged him.
(4) Here in Verano a few days ago, Pedro Vidaca arrived with his young son, Chon, from Las Calaveras, some five hours of steep climbing away. They had come here to take back frijoles and mangos. They’d come on foot, for the river as it rushes through the mountain gorge is at present too flooded for burros or mules to cross it. They have to cross on a 100-foot cable stretched from a tree on one side to the face of the cliff on the other. Suspended from a small iron ring that slides along the cable is a loop made of tough vine, in which the person sits to work himself along over the rushing floodwater. Pedro always carries with him a pulley attached to a piece of rope, to facilitate the process, and he and his son pass in tandem.
“¿No le da miedo?” I asked Chon. (Doesn’t it frighten you?)
“No.” replied Chon. “¿Porque?”
Pedro had brought Chon along in part to help him carry back the beans and mangos, and in part, I am sure, for pure companionship. Almost always when a man travels in the sierra he takes along his 7 to 15-year-old son, walking beside him on foot, or en ancas (on the rump) of his mule. A man without his boy feels the lack, like a man without his sombrero.
I returned with Pedro and Chon as far as the river – a climb of 2500 feet up over the ridge top and 3000 feet back down into the valley – for I was curious to see the cable crossing. On the steep climb, Chon struggled along under a heavy load of mangos. When we reached the ridge top, we paused to rest, although the zancudos and jejenes (mosquitoes and sand flies) made it impossible to sit still. As Chon set down the sack of mangos he gave a grunt, shook his small, sweating shoulders, and grinning at me, said, “¡Mucho trabajo!”
“¿Le gusta trabajar?” I asked him. (Do you like to work?)
“Me gusta comer.” he replied.“Si no trabajamos, no comemos.” (I like to eat. If we don’t work, we don’t eat. ) And he and Pedro laughed.
(5) As for the girls, I think at once of 11-year-old Inez, Goyo’s younger sister. One night when the Reyes family was at their old house, the burro broke through the crude stick fence and got into the “kitchen” in front of the casa, breaking several chunks out of the earth pretil. The next morning before the sun was up, and without being asked, Inez went to the digging spot by the side of the trail leading to the spring and got some good, red earth. This she kneaded carefully with a little water and patted into the broken-out areas of the pretil. Then she scooped some ashes out of the large, domed, earth oven and worked them into the surface of the mud, shaping it as she did so to the form of the pretil. The entire time she worked she sang to herself. When she was finished she stood back from her work, eyeing it with approval. An accomplished mason could have done no handsomer job. No one thanked her. No one even commented on it. I did not bother to ask her if she had enjoyed doing it. The answer was obvious.
Another time when I arrived at Las Chicuras I found little Soco (Socorro) age 5, sitting in the dirt with her little sister, La Cuata (Angelita), age 3, pretending to grind corn on the metate with two stones, and making mud tortillas. Inez, at the outdoor kitchen, was busy grinding real corn with no less enthusiasm. Her little sisters look forward to the day when they, too, at the age of 7 or 8, will be able to do “el trabajo de las personas grandes.”
Already little Soco carries a small pail of water from the spring, which is a help, and protests if she is not allowed to do so.
So far, I have asked 20 or 30 children in various villages whether or not they enjoy working, and the answer almost invariably is yes. There are, of course, times when children would rather be doing other things, and times when they complain. But for the most part – except when they are sick or suffering from an uncared-for injury – the children demonstrate a joyousness that rises, I think, from a deep contentment. In spite of the harshness and uncertainties of their environment, the frequent and severe beatings they receive, the times when they must go to bed hungry because there is not enough to eat, and when they shiver through the night because there are not enough covers to keep warm, the children of the Sierra Madre display a security and a self-confidence which is rarely seen in the modern youth of America. From as young as the age of six or seven, they begin to play a role in the maintenance of the family. They are not alienated from the soil and the source of their livelihood. They do not need a boring and exhausting “preparation for life”, divorced from their immediate needs, in order to qualify for the adult world, nor do the endeavors of adults seem pointless to them, nor incomprehensible. They begin to work alongside their parents from an early age, at, first as imitation and as play, and they are proud when, at the age of six or seven, they are big enough to help, and to be needed.
In the Sierra Madre the sense of play is an important element, even in the life of the adult. Any work, I suppose, becomes play if approached in the right frame of mind: that is to say, with child-like enthusiasm. This enthusiasm toward their work is a characteristic of many of the villagers, young and old alike. I remember when I was talking with Cipriano Santos, of Güillapa, a short, stocky, very dark-skinned man with a combination of face so ugly and eyes so benign that I think of Ramakrishna every time I see him, that he said to me in his mellow, exuberant voice. “Sabe que estoy contento solamente cuando estoy trabajando ahí arriba en el cerro, tumbando, barbechando, sembrando, taspanando, de la madrugada hasta oscurecer, ¡así estoy a gusto! El día que muero, me muero ahí arriba en la milpa, trabajando, ¡y trabajando con ganas!” (Know you, that I’m content only when I’m working up there on the mountain, felling, plowing, planting, and weeding, from dawn till dark. So, I am happy. The day that I die, I die up there in the cornfield, working, and working with a will!) I looked into his quiet, happy, playful eyes, and I believed him.
Sometimes I think that the children are not afraid to grow up because, in a sense, they never have to. There is something about the approach to work, the moods, the abandonment, the curiosity, the fears, the humor, the spontaneity, the cruelty, the open-heartedness, the irresponsibility, the impressionability, in short, the naïveté of many of the grown-ups which retains a sometimes refreshingly and sometimes discouragingly childlike dimension. Like children, the villagers tend to take their play seriously and their work playfully. Like Pipi’s father, Eustaquio, they will take off on a lark at the slightest excuse, when the corn-crib is bare and the children hungry; or they will work for months to try to pull their family out of the hole, as did Remedios with his sons picking tomatoes on the coast this spring, only to turn around and blow their savings on a cheap radio and fortune-telling canaries, as Remedios did also.
In the Sierra Madre much of the everyday work of maintaining a family is the sort of thing that children of every land will invent and do for the fun of it if they have the chance. In the Reyes family, much of the labor in making their new casa was done by the children. (They were evicted from the old casa in May.) Camilo and Martín made the clay tiles, while Goyo stamped the clay up and down in the pit they had dug, squishing it and squashing it between his toes to give it the proper texture. To fire the tiles the children built an enormous bonfire in the evening. The frame of the house they built with poles, lashing them with vines, and their father helped them. It all had a sort of game aspect, and they enjoyed doing it. Yet it was more than a game, it was life! For now they live in the house they built, and it keeps them dry when the rain pours.
I think I am not exaggerating when I say that the child living in the austere and beautiful Sierra Madre, on a subsistence level, often not knowing where the next meal is coming from, is more secure –certainly more emotionally stable– than is the typical child of the 20th century American suburb... And he has reason to be.
What, for example, would the children of a suburban family do if one day both their parents were called out on an emergency, leaving them with no money, with food for only four days, and the parents did not return or manage to contact their children for more than a month?
This is exactly the position that Goyo’s brothers and sisters found themselves in when Goyo lost his arm. There was enough corn in the troja (corn crib) for only three or four days, a few chickens, and that was all. The oldest child at that time was Camilo, then 14. He rose each day and went high into the hills to hunt deer, quail, opossum, armadillo, squirrel, chachalacas, whatever he could get. He had his father’s old rifle, but they had to sell a chicken in Ajoya for cartridges.
Martín, then 11 years old, ground the remaining corn, and his sister, Inez, then 8, made the tortillas and hauled the water on her head from the arroyo. Martín did most of the cooking when there was anything to cook, and he and Chaparro, then only four, brought fire-wood; Chaparro, however, was more a nuisance than a help. Inez fed, changed, and washed the clothes of the two year old twin; Socorro. Martín, between preparing the meals, ranged from casa to casa trying to beg corn, offering to gather wood or anything he could to earn it. But the other families were also short. Sometimes Martín or Camilo managed to run down a stray range cow, and bring back milk for Socorro. But the main food the children ate consisted of guamúchiles. These are large, bumpy pods which hang in proliferation from the filmy, spreading guamuchil trees at that time of year (May). The children ate the bitter-sweet, whitish, pulp between the pod and the seeds. It was climbing one of these guamúchiles that Goyo had fallen and broken his arm. It takes buckets-full of the pods to provide enough food to fill one small belly, but given enough time and ranging far enough afield, buckets-full can be gathered, and this is just what the children did. Many times they were hungry and had stomach aches, and the younger children went to bed crying, but the children supported themselves, they took care of each other, and they stayed together. When Remedios and Jesús returned with Goyo six weeks later – his gangrenous arm having been amputated – they found their children thinner but happy. There were still some of the chickens left...
I asked Martín what he thought of the experience.
“It was fun,” he answered. “Except that we were always worrying about Goyo.” (Jesús tells me that when she and Remedios arrived with Goyo and Martín saw that Goyo’s arm had been cut off, he wept for two days.)
Part of the intrigue to American children of a book like “My Side of the Mountain” – the tale of a youngster who runs away and fends for himself ingeniously in the wilderness – surely lies in its presenting such a vision of independence in a less complicated world which, at least in their imagination, they can cope with and understand. The children of the Sierra Madre actually live in that kind of a world. It is a hard life, but in a way I think they are lucky. I find it easier to live here myself.
MOUNTAIN OF FLOWERS
From his earliest beginnings, perhaps, man has been curious as to his origin. Here in the barrancas, for the vast majority of the people, the Bible remains as little read as the works of modern science. Ideas from both sources have filtered through to form a part of the common lore, and some odd hybrids have resulted. One day, for instance, Beremundo Vidaca came up with a delightful solution to the conflict between the Church and Evolutionists.
“Is it true?” he asked me, “that God made the first man from a monkey, and cut off its tail to make the first woman?” Then laughingly he proposed this as a reason for why las muchachuelas waggle as they walk.
José Saucido, being a Jehovah’s Witness, is more sophisticated about the opposing theories. I had accepted his invitation to spend a day or two with him in La Piedra, a rancho an hour and a half to the west of Jocuixtita, and José met me in Jocuixtita at the crack of dawn, to guide me back to his home. As we were leaving he asked me (Lord knows why!) if I thought man had evolved from the ape. He insisted that this was impossible because the Bible says that God made Adam and Eve out of earth and placed them in Eden. He went on to emphasize that in the Seventh Millennium, which is not far away, man would again enter into a Garden of Paradise, here on this same earth, “donde la Tierra no niega su fruta como ahora” (where the Earth does not begrudge its fruit as now.)
Suddenly the trail we were following left the ridge-top and plunged down the slope of the mountainside toward the sinuous arroyo 2000 feet below. The early morning sun cut through the filmy dawn clouds and flooded the enormous valley with a golden glow. The entire slope was festooned with blossoms of a hundred different plants, tucked in among the tangle of ferns and foliage; a natural garden of exquisite tenderness and charm. I could no longer concentrate on speculated Edens, past or future, nor seemed there any need. We turned our eyes upon the world about us.
This was no solid sea of flowers blooming so close one upon the other as to paint the folds of the landscape, as do the poppies and lupines of the California foothills in spring, or as do the yellow and the lilac flowers of troza amarilla and amapa prieta trees on these slopes here in winter. Now, in summer, these majestic hills – seen from a vantage point across the valley – lay snug beneath a blanket of lush foliage which sparkled in the morning light like green snow; while from the verdant slopes burst dark and glancing outcroppings of stone, in whose interstices gleamed like white cotton threads the tumbling runoff from the daily rains. The single plant whose inflorescence was thick enough to daub the distant hillsides golden yellow was a composite called chivatillo (little goats), so named because of the fluffy, dandelion-like seed-heads covering the bushes in springtime. The rest of the many flower types were blooming not in mass but in small coveys, at first glance randomly, but on careful inspection, according to the fluctuations in. terrain, in shade, in drainage, rock and soil.
How great, and yet how subtle, was this mountainside of flowers! How many beauties hidden within beauty! Some of the flowers were so large and bright they seemed to be shouting for attention to the bees, while others, small and delicate, whispered of a nectar more divine. The largest single flower heads were of a strange, trifurcate lily called calcomite, rich apricot with maroon flecking toward the cup shaped centers. Smaller, but still more striking to the eye, was a large daisy called mirasol (the sun watcher), the flaming crimson of whose petals was made more vivid still by the flower’s tendency to grow in dense shade at points where the early morning sun peered through the maze of foliage overhead, igniting the scarlet petals against the deep-shadowed background. The only other form of life on the entire mountainside that matched the brilliance of these mirasoles was a large leaf-hopper abounding in the leaves of legume bushes, whose flattened back was striped with crimson fire.
On the fern and moss clad embankments where water oozed and sparkled, bloomed a lovely, nasturtium-like flower called jocoyol, with white or pale pink blossoms opening like delicate clam shells, and with a succulent, translucent quality to the entire plant. In these spots, too, grew a tiny, pansy-like flower with two bright, magenta eyes, its petals edged with a wooly fringe.
The dominant color range of the flowers was lavender to bluish purple, as seen in a variety of figworts, godetias, asters, and monkey flowers. Yet there was a wide range of other colors. In the more barren spots and rocky outcroppings blossomed a small, bright-orange composite called yerba de ponsoña (venom-wort) so-called because its dark-green, stocky stems are used in the treatment of scorpion stings. In richer soil at seepage points twined a species of morning-glory, called manta del monte on whose giant, white trumpets were feasting fuzzy grey blister beetles which, far from destroying the beauty of the blossoms, left them in tatters more charming than before.
One of the strangest and most subtle of the flowers was a sedge-like lily growing among the moss clumps on shelves of wet rock; the long petals of which were no wider than grass blades, pure white toward their centers and tipped with green. A close relative of this plant, with slightly broader petals, and dark red replacing the white, occurred less frequently and on higher, drier ground.
The air and flowers were alive with hummingbirds, and with petal, pollen, and nectar feeding insects. Butterflies of a wide range of form and color filled the air, spun in dizzy circles round each other, sipped with thread-like tongues the nectar of the flowers, and sunned themselves with outstretched wings upon the leaves and blossoms. A few were of familiar species from the States, but many were more tropical forms, such as the narrow-winged tiger butterflies and the long-tailed skippers. One large species of wood nymph, its grey wings speckled with sky-blue and chocolate brown, caught my eye each time it fluttered up, yet when it settled with flattened wings against the rough trunk of a stunted oak, it vanished as by magic. A big, noisy bumble-bee, bright metallic blue, was a frequent visitor to the prolific yellow blossoms of the chivatillo, as were a variety of slender-waisted wasps and pollen-feeding click beetles.
We continued to wind our way down the flowering slope. The oaks of the higher reaches thinned and at last gave way to a flowering tangle of stunted guayabas (guavas). Then we dropped into the more heavily wooded floor of the arroyo itself, with its giant figs, zalates and higueras, with the maroon, exfoliating trunks of the palos colorados and the big, stinging, poplar-like leaves of the tachinoles. Beneath these larger trees, and arching out over the rushing water of the arroyo, were the boughs of negrito, an azalea with large, spatulate, deep-green leaves and bundles of miniature, cream-white flowers.
We crossed the rocky stream and drew rein at a shaded adobe house trellised at the side by bougainvillea. An eight-year-old boy, José’s son Samuel, came running to greet us, beaming. We had arrived at La Piedra.
RELIGION: LOST AND FOUND
Twelve years ago Jose Saucido, of Las Piedras became a “Testigo de Jehova” and his sister and his mother, then 74-years-old, followed suit. I asked why.
The answer was simple: “because Jehovah’s Witnesses are those who try to follow the will of God as recorded in the Holy Bible, and maintain hopes of everlasting life in the Paradise to come.”
When I asked, however, how this differed from Catholicism, no one seemed to know. Though each of the three had spent most of his life considering himself a Catholic, none had much of an idea what Catholicism was all about. Old Anita had taken her children to be baptized -- which is more than most of the families of the barrancas do today -- had taught them to say the “Padre Nuestro”, (Lord’s Prayer), and to use the names of the saints in vain. That was as far as it went. God had been someone to cry out to in times of death, but not a significant factor in their lives.
Old Anita pointed out that Catholicism seems to have faded out in the barrancas little by little. For many years now, there has not been a resident priest any further into the mountains than San Ignacio. The ancient Church in Ajoya was going to rack and ruin, and the people were not moved to do anything about it, until grandpa Bañuelos – a rich cattle owner – finally underwrote the entire restoration. In Verano there used to be a small capilla (chapel) next to the Robles house, where Gregorio’s father, up to the time he began to wither, used to conduct simple services. (He died a few years ago at the age of 95.) But 14 years ago the capilla fell down and no one has cared enough to rebuild it. Throughout the barrancas the villagers characteristically express belief in God, and if asked, state that they are Catholic, yet they confess they do not know why. They all emphatically believe in the Devil, which helps to explain the strange powers of witches, but many doubt – or have never given a thought to – there being an afterlife, except, of course, for the spirits of those who guard over buried treasures. As for priests and other officials of the church, many villagers regard them with the same distrust they have for government officials, law enforcement agents, and soldiers.
“Les gustan mucho los centavos.” (They like the pennies.) The majority of the people today do not consider either marriage by the church or even baptism worth worrying about. Formerly the villagers used to pay priests to come up to the mountain villages to conduct wedding services and baptisms, but it has been at least 4 years since the last priest ventured beyond Ajoya. Whether this is because the villagers’ piety has diminished or the padres’ prices have gone up, is hard to say.
One thing is certain: there remains very little missionary zeal stemming from the Catholic Church that reaches this stretch of the Sierra Madre. Perhaps the Church does not realize that it is losing its adherents by attrition. In any case this “zeal of yore” has gradually been replaced by other sects, still compassionate and clean with the first bloom of youth. Notable among these are the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
There has been a stronghold of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Jocuixtita for over 12 years. The first proselytes came from San Rafael, higher in the sierra, in Durango. Mencho Pereda, the “medicine man”, was one of the first to join in Jocuixtita, and many others followed. A “Sierbo de Circuito” (effectively, a traveling minister, usually from Mexico City) began to visit Jocuixtita at regular intervals, to conduct baptism ceremonies for adults in the arroyo and to preach the word of Jehovah.
“Y vienen por su propio voluntad, sin cobrar nada! No como los padres,” pointed out Tomasa. (And they come of their own will, without charge! Not like the priests.)
Mencho Pereda was appointed “Sierbo de Compañia”, with José Reyes as “Sierbo Auxiliar” to take his place when absent. The Witnesses began to subscribe to the Atalaya (Watchtower), and every two weeks would take turns going to San Ignacio to fetch the new issues. Every Sunday in the “salón” they hold meetings, where they discuss the material presented in the “Atalaya” for the particular week. When I ask the Catholics –or those who more or less consider themselves Catholic– what they think of the Witnesses they reply, typically, “I don’t see that there’s anything so good about them. The Jehovah’s Witnesses talk about doing everything as God commands, but I don’t see that they’re any better than the rest of us, They go on drinking and fighting and screwing, same as we do.”
José and Juana admitted that for some of those who had been accepted as “Testigos” this was true, but said that such persons were reported to the “Sierbo de Circuito”, who excommunicated them if necessary. But José and his sister insisted that many of the “Testigos” now lead better lives for having made the change.
“For example” said Tomasa, “My brother, José, before he became a “Testigo” used to drink himself blind, he used to beat his wives, and sometimes even his children, and he used to smoke. Now, no.” And then she added with a smile, “There are those who say he has simply sobered with the years.”
“The Witnesses aren’t supposed to smoke?” I asked.
“No”” she replied, “The Bible says, ‘God did not create man to be a chimney.”
“Good for the Bible!” I said.
It is hard for me to imagine that José Saucido ever drank a lot, and harder still to imagine him beating his wife or child. He now seems such a stable-tempered person, fiery and energetic, but tender. Of many of the Witnesses that I have come to know in Jocuixtita and its surroundings, much the same is true. Among both the women and men Witnesses I find an intensity and sincerity which is refreshing -- although I could do without all the God-talk. There are many minor differences between the creed of Jehovah’s Witnesses (which they call Cristianismo) and Catholicism, all relatively insignificant. The big difference that I can see is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses give their believers the support and the example which Catholicism, at least in the Sierra, does not. This may seem strange in a Catholic country, but so it is.
The corn shortage here in the barrancas has been rapidly getting more severe, and –to make things worse– until recently there has been no getting through to Ajoya. At last, in mid-August, Teófilo took a crew of men from Jocuixtita and opened up the trails again. He managed to transport back five burro-loads of Maseca, which he sold out within days of his arrival, at 3.20 pesos/kilo. Yet while Teófilo has made two subsequent trips to Ajoya, he cannot possibly supply the total needs of the villagers who pour in from up to 25 km. away; and even if Teófilo could bring far more Maseca, the majority have not the money to buy it. Teófilo must sell for cash in order to buy for cash, and right now cash is as scarce as corn in the barrancas. Men by the dozens wander from rancho to rancho begging a day’s work to buy Maseca to feed their children; but no one has the cash to pay. Nor can relatives be counted on for help. Everyone is in the same bind.
In the upper barrancas – unlike Ajoya – there is very little hoarding of corn, and therefore very little ill feeling. This summer not one family has surplus. Even Irineo Vidaca, who normally is one of the best stocked persons in Verano, has at present (Aug. 26) not a centavo left to his name and only 30 liters of corn in his troja – enough for 10 days at the most for his own household. But Irineo is in a special bind; he has the maintenance of those working for him en medias to consider. Irineo previously agreed to supply these families with their corn needs throughout las aguas in return for half their forthcoming harvests. Now the fathers of these families have been making almost daily calls to beg Irineo for more corn. But little by little the quantity of corn which that Irineo has been able to allot to them has grown slimmer, until now he can give them nothing. The two families this hits hardest are those of Casimiro Díaz and of Eustaquio Castañeda, the father of Pipi.
Fortunately, I have managed to accumulate a little corn myself. Earlier this summer I began to ask patients for one liter of corn per consultation if they thought they could afford it. I had started doing this in order to have feed for my mule, so that I could keep her tethered and ready in case of emergency calls. Also, I had hoped that the corn contributions might encourage people to be a little selective in their requests for medicines, for here, as anywhere, there are those who would take advantage of a good thing.
The quantity of corn I have accumulated over the weeks is not great. Firstly, I have left the giving of it completely to the option of the people, refusing medicines to no one. From patients more seriously injured or ill I have asked for nothing, or if they come from the distant villages. Instead of corn, many patients have brought eggs, chickens, bananas, mangos, avocado, and, rarely, venison, armadillo and javalín. These food items not only provide a welcome variation to the day in, day out tortilla-frijoles diet, but also make it possible for me to help maintain the Vidaca household, which in turn is maintaining me.
In spite of the hundreds of patients I have supplied with medicines, by the latter part of August I have managed to accumulate only about 60 liters of corn. (about 120 lbs.)
Several days ago one of Irineo’s medieros, Casimiro Díaz, the man who turned up one day from his milpa with the dead rattlesnake, came to Irineo begging for just enough corn to last him until he finished “limpiando.”
“If I and my children don’t finish cleaning the cornfield,” he said, “the weeds will take over and we’ll lose the harvest. With everybody working we should finish in a couple of weeks, but work without food – how? If you can just give me a few liters! After
that we’ll manage best we can until the first elotes. We’ll pick fruit and dig tubers, and eat green squash. I’ll hunt, or maybe go to the coast for a few weeks and try to get a job. But if we don’t eat this coming week, we’ll lose the harvest.”
“I’m sorry,” said Irineo, “I can’t!” He said that in these days he had been counting on elotes from the corn he planted early by the arroyo, but that the crows had been picking the ears bare as fast as they ripened. “I don’t know what we’re going to do for corn ourselves in a few days,” he concluded.
I loaned Casimiro 100 pesos of the little I had left. (In Ajoya as well as in the barrancas I have already given and loaned out far more money than I should have, cutting deeply into that which I had laid aside for emergencies, as one campesino after another came to me with the same problem: no corn. As long as I had money in my pocket I had not the heart to say no. As result, I have at the present moment in Verano only 72 pesos and 80 centavos – about $6.00 – plus a Canadian one dollar bill.) Casimiro thanked me and, as Teófilo was expected back that day from Ajoya, hurried toward Jocuixtita to buy Maseca.
Another frequent visitor among Irineo’s medieros has been Eustaquio, whose son, Pipi, little by little is learning to move about with his home-made crutches, but who – I find – still needs some kind of braces for his legs in order to make full use of the crutches. Eustaquio’s family of 12 has likewise run out of corn. Frequently they go without meals or eat nothing more than stewed calabasa buds and wild berries. Everyone in the family is getting thinner. Pipi’s radiant face is not as full and moon-shaped as it was a month ago, though his smile seems yet bigger.
Nearly two weeks ago, on the day that Irineo at last flatly refused to Eustaquio more corn, I gave Eustaquio 50 liters (nearly all) of the corn I have been accumulating, plus a liter of frijol I had also been given, and a gallon of powdered milk. Fifty liters of corn in a family of 12 normally lasts about 5 days. By making watery atole (mush) instead of tortillas, and omitting meals, Eustaquio’s family managed to stretch the corn to almost double that period. Then Eustaquio appeared again. His story was familiar:
“If only I can find food for another two weeks -- maybe three -- the first elotes will begin to ripen and we can squeeze by!”
“Does Esteban still have corn left?” I asked Eustaquio.
“Some . . . not much.”
“Have you tried to borrow from him?”
“I’ve begged him over and over, but he says no.”
Esteban Sánchez, Eustaquio’s closest -- and only -- neighbor in Los Pinos, swears to everyone he meets that if it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t be alive today, and he may be right. Esteban, in spite of his 68 years and diseased liver, is one of the hardest working campesinos I know. He clears and plants a milpa more extensive than most men half his age, and his family is almost always provided with enough corn, though they live in the most miserable of pole-and-thatch huts a half a mile from the closest water in las secas. I climbed the steep mountainside to Los Pinos and found Esteban busy planting frijol.
“Do you remember when you insisted on paying me for the medicine last March,” I said to him, “and I told you ‘no’, that you needed your pesos more than I, but that if you thought you must pay, to put the money aside and give it to some one who was as desperate as you were for help when you came to me?”
“I remember,” said Esteban.
“Your neighbor, Eustaquio, and his 10 children right now are desperate for corn,” I said and waited for Esteban to respond.
“I have only 200 liters left myself,” replied Esteban slowly. “You can look in my troja if you don’t believe me. But I’ll give you anything you say.”
“Anything you say.”
“How about 50 liters?”
“It is well.”
And so, if meagerly, Eustaquio and his children will eat for another ten days or so. Casimiro, also, will get his corn patch weeded. But there are hundreds of others in similar straits and worse. Some have had to sell – on promise of future payment – their nearly ripe corn, and leave with their families por la costa (for the coast). A few have taken to stealing. Just today an old woman with a huge goiter and four orphaned grandchildren came to ask me for a medicine for látido – a rhythmic twitching of the stomach that, according to Dr. Feliz in San Ignacio, is more correctly termed hambre (hunger). She apologized that she had not been able to bring a liter of corn because a few days ago when she went out to the crib she had found it empty – robbed!
“And what can I do?” she complained in a cracked voice. “One all alone and with these little creatures.” I gave her vitamins, powdered milk, and a small hunk of cheese which had been brought to me from the high sierra.
But such thieving is rare. Most of the villagers would starve before they would steal a grain. Families stumble on as best they can, supplementing their diet on native herbs, fruits and tubers. In Juana’s family, next door, corn is also running out, and every afternoon the children roam up and down the banks of the arroyo, gathering the long, furry pods of a tree called vainilla. On returning, little Nuñe never fails to hand me several of these tawny vainillas, saying “¿No le gusta éstas?”, for he knows I like them... the silver white meat between the shell and the seeds is the closest thing to ice cream – both in texture and taste – that I have sampled in a long time.
There are many other wild fruits and tubers which the people hunt and eat at this time when both corn and cash are scarce, but, at best, pickings are slim. Similarly, wild game has become scarce because of over hunting. Venado (deer), javalín (wild pig or peccary), cüiche (chachalaca), and other game animals are now too infrequent to form any substantial part of the diet, except for the most skillful of huntsmen. While México does have laws regulating a season on deer, there are no authorities on hand to enforce them. The laws are therefore ignored, this, to the ultimate detriment of the people themselves, not to mention the deer.
One way and another, the families of the barrancas struggle on. “What,” I keep asking, “will you do when the last of your food runs out?”
The answer is accompanied by a resigned shrug. “Nos aguantamos.” – We bear it.
LONG TREK FOR CORN
It was already late in the afternoon, the last Saturday of August, when 10 year old Rubén Reyes, son of Daniel, arrived at El Rancho del Padre from Jocuixtita, to tell me that his father had finally located the missing burros and planned to leave the next morning for Huachimetas, Durango, a village high in the sierra some 80 kilometers away. Both Daniel and his wife have many relatives in the neighborhood of Huachimetas, and he and I had talked for some time of making the expedition this August “para comer duraznos y tunas” (to eat peaches and prickly pears), for Huachimetas is renowned for both. But in truth, I had an even greater appetite to fill my lungs again with the pitchy incense of dense pine forests, to walk again on soft, needled carpets, and to perch again on rocky outcroppings overlooking the heavy-sculptured crags and pinnacles of the high sierra.
If Rubén and I were to make it back to Jocuixtita before dark we would have to hurry, for dusk was only two hours away and the trail is steep and feo. Irineo saddled my mule for me while I whipped together some medicines and other items I wanted to take. Rubén and I set out, I tugging at Hormiga from in front, Ruben switching and hooting at her from behind. As we had been preparing to leave, the sky had suddenly blackened and begun to thunder. No sooner were we on our way that it began to rain. We were lucky, however, for only the edge of the cloudburst caught us, and after the initial, brief soaking we suffered no further rain. It was almost dark when we arrived at the house of Daniel at the upper end of the deep ravine behind Jocuixtita.
Daniel apologized for having called me on such brief notice, but said that he was in a hurry to leave because word had just come through that corn was available for sale in Huachimetas. His own supply of corn had long since run out, and in early June he had had to sell his last remaining mule in Ajoya, at a great loss, in order to buy corn in La Amargosa. Now the purchased corn had run out also. The family had been eating tortillas of Maseca, but now the Maseca, in turn, was running out, and although Teófilo was on his way for more Daniel did not have the funds to buy it. In a village called San Francisco, near Huachimetas, a friend owed him some money, and he hoped to collect the debt to buy corn to bring back to his family. Another reason for his immediate departure, he explained, was that now that word was out that corn was being sold in Huachimetas, the supply would not last long, for many people would be making the long trip in spite of the hardships and hazards.
We bedded down early, and I passed most of the night squashing bedbugs, which were ravenous, because the catre I was given had not been occupied in some weeks. Daniel rousted me before dawn, and at once we began preparing the animals and luggage, while Daniel’s mother, Paula, made gordas (thick tortillas) for us to eat along the way. Our party consisted of five persons: Daniel; his 7 month pregnant wife, Jacinta Macías; his aunt, Angelina Vidaca, who is a niece of Irineo; Marta Elena Reyes, a sister of Daniel; and myself. Daniel took two burros and his horse. We would have borrowed two mules for the trip also, except that he lacked the funds to shoe them. Angelina took her son’s mule, and I took Hormiga. Daniel regretted not taking his two sons, Ruben; age 10, and Matías, age 8, but they were needed to carry on with weeding the milpa while Daniel was away.
Dawn had just broken as we were setting out. Nevertheless, three other parties had already set off ahead of us on the long trail to Huachimetas, also to hunt for corn. In the lead was 66-year-old Natividad Calván from Verano with his 8 year-old grand-son and a train of five burros. Natividad, having no funds to buy corn, was making his second journey to a village called Las Truchas, farther still into the sierra, where he had relatives who would make him corn loans. The round trip is more than 150 miles over miserable trails, a hard journey indeed for so old a man, on foot, but hunger is harder yet to withstand. Natividad’s corn ran out by the end of June, and he and his family spent the entire month of July eating little more than mangos, which ripened in abundance in Verano during that month.
The other two parties ended up traveling together. One consisted of José Reyes, an uncle of Daniel, accompanied by his daughter, Elodia, age 14, and his son, Cachúl, age 7; the other was comprised of two brothers, Aurelio Gonzáles, age 30, and 17 year-old Ricardo.
Many persons, including Irineo, had advised me against taking the trip. The long journey across the sierra into Durango is rarely undertaken during las aguas, especially with laden animals. Even in dry weather there are stretches of glazed, slanting rock, where the pack animals have to be helped from slipping, on the downhill run, by pulling backwards on their tails. In the rainy season the journey is notoriously miserable, for while in the barrancas during this period it rains almost every afternoon, in the higher sierra it frequently pours or drizzles all day and night for days on end, while the soaking forests are shrouded in cold fog.
The morning, however, dawned clear and bright. We set out rapidly, pushing our animals as fast as we could up the steep, winding trail, for we knew that the afternoon in all probability would mean rain. If possible we wanted to make it before the rain to the first caves, where we could seek shelter for the night; yet these caves were, at the best, eight hours away.
For the first three hours we wound our way up the first big climb, which took us to an elevation of roughly 5500 feet above sea level. This long climb is known as “La Subida de los Escalones” (The Ascent of the Big Stairs) because of the large, sloping “steps” of granite which the trail traverses. The “Escalones” rim a broken escarpment nearly 3000 feet high overlooking the village of La Tahoma, nestled at the head of the Arroyo de Verano. Further downstream lies the settlement of La Quebrada, where the boy, Pancho, was knifed.
Circling the ridge a hundred yards below the “Escalones”, we were presented with another fabulous view. Through an opening in the oak leaves and pine boughs, the long twisting valley of the Rio Verde spread out below us. We could make out, as tiny reddish dots, the tile rooftops of Bordontita, from where we stood only seven or eight miles as the crow flies, though by trail, nearly twenty. Either side of the deep, winding river valley, the blue-green, cloud-tufted ridges of the foothills gradually receded into a sea of haze.
At this point the ridge we were following leveled off considerably. The womenfolk took turns on the horse and mule, while Daniel continued to prod along the two burros and I to tug Hormiga, onward and upward.
The pines, which had begun to appear, spindly and scattered, between the oaks when we were only a few hundred feet above Jocuixtita, here grew in tall, thick groves, especially on the long, shaded slopes. As we continued to rise, these conifers gradually became taller and more majestic, and the penetrating scent of their resin filled the sun-streaked air. I found myself breathing deep, not from the exertion –for my body was in good tone at the time– but from sheer rapture, the better to delight in the scent, which, for me, was as rich in gentle memories of the past as it was full of the surrounding beauty of the present.
The two dominant species of pines here were both of five-needle varieties. The frailer species, called pino moro, is more prevalent at lower elevations and has filmy needles which perpetually droop, giving the trees a sleepy, even wilted look. The more robust species is called pino real, occurs more commonly at higher elevations, and has longer, spikier foliage. The oaks – so prevalent a thousand feet below – were now restricted to the more rocky outcroppings and ridges, and were partially replaced by two species of madrone, madrona de agua, with grayish, scaly bark, preferring the moister pockets, and madrona de la sierra, whose deep-red bark exfoliates in large sheets, like birch, preferring drier outcroppings.
We came to an outlook where, on the far side of a deep chasm, we gazed across at an impressive mountain of sheer rock called Cerro de Los Chivos, overlooking Jocuixtita. Daniel explained that the celebrated bandit, Heráclio Bernal, had stored stolen gold and rifles in a cave in the side of this great wall of stone.
Hiking on, we crossed a saddle where there was a large cairn of boulders said by some to mark the state line between Sinaloa and Durango. The boundary, however, is subject to considerable debate, and many of the ranchos of the upper reaches of the Arroyo de Verano and Rio Verde are unclear as to which State they lie in. The rancho of Rincón has been requested to pay taxes to both States. For some reason, government officials refuse to be specific about the actual location of the state line. The story has it that when José Gonzáles, who is working to establish an ejido in a rancho called Rio Verde, went to Culiacán to ask which side of the state line the land in question fell in, he was scolded and almost thrown in prison for asking. Caballo de Arriba is another village thought by many to lie entirely or partly in Durango, though its school teacher and other contacts come from Sinaloa.
A little before noon we began the second steep ascent called “La Cuesta del Yescero” (The Rise of the Tinder-gatherers). At the crown of this ascent, enveloped as it is during the rainy season in almost continuous mist forming in the rising, moisture-laden air from the coast, there grows a unique species of bright red fungus, called it yesca in the rotting clefts of the gnarled oaks. This yesca, Daniel informed me, is very limited as to where it will grow, and back in the days before matches, it was cultured and harvested here on this remote ridge for its use as an ideal tinder with flint and steel. With the growing prevalence of matches, the use of yesca as tinder has become obsolete. It is still used, however, in the treatment of nosebleed and other hemorrhagic disorders, being red.
At the top of “La Cuesta del Yescero” we cut our way far several kilometers across a steep, yet thickly vegetated, stalus slope at the base of a series of broad spires of deep-red volcanic rock. From this stretch, called “El Faldeo de la Montosa” (The Hillside of Underbrush) we began our third steep ascent, called “La Cuesta Mojada” (The Wet Rise), a shorter climb this time, but more difficult because of the loose broken rock mixed with spongy, sodden earth, and the sea of undergrowth that invades the trail from both sides.
Emerging on a rocky crest after the long climb, billows of cold mist opened and closed about us, revealing our last glimpses of the towering cliffs and dark ravines of the barrancas which fell away behind us. Now, at some 6500 feet above sea level, we had truly risen out of the steeper barrancas and entered the sierra proper. Our long climbs were over, although the trail continued to dip steeply up and down through the pine-madrone forest. A species of juniper called talixte, with grey-green leaf scales, began to appear among the rockier protrusions. In the moist, thickly forested valleys we began to note the first cagüite (fir), the bark of which is highly prized for making a pungent and delicious tea. A large, spreading species of alder, called aliso began to appear among the madrones. I am told that the leaves and especially buds of aliso are effective against hinchazón (swelling, edema), the astringent juice having apparent diuretic properties. At the sides of the trail in more open spots spread a tangle of low-growing peppermint, called poleo, the boiled leaves of which are said to be good for constipado (sinus congestion).
The sierra at this season was not abundant with flowers, yet in small clearings a note of color was added by scattered blossoms of a large, violet-petaled, yellow-centered daisy, and from the moss-carpeted rocks and cliffs glowed cheerfully the flaming blossoms of penstemon and scarlet gilia. All in all, the dense pine woods had much the same look, feel and smell as the more northern forest of California’s Sierra Nevada. Yet here there were unique features which added a haunting, other worldly aspect to the scene, otherwise so familiar. The oaks and dying branches of the pines, as well as, at times, their trunks – in lieu of the festoons of trailing, grey-green or crinkled, chartreuse lichens so familiar in the northern pine forest – here were embellished with green pelts of filaform epiphitic ferns, with hoary bromeliads that sprang from the trunks and branches like miniature pineapple plants, and with a wide variety of tree-growing orchids, one grass-like species of which was in bloom with spiky racimes of small chocolate-colored flowers. Here and there on the forest floor, and especially in pockets among rocky outcroppings were giant magueyes (century plants), the huge, succulent leaves of which formed spiky hemispheres up to eight feet across and six feet high, looking like mammoth, prehistoric hedgehogs, and seeming so utterly out of place in a present day pine forest. The giant flower stalks of these huge maguey grow up to 18 feet tall and a foot across, and the flower buds (bayusas) of one stalk can feed a large family for several meals.
The trail, still following the ridge, dipped into a saddle called “Alto del Difuntito” (Hill of the Little Dead Person). Many years ago a simple-minded youth was dispatched from Bordontita for Verano with the hind-quarter of a cow, but instead of crossing over the ridge dividing Jocuixtita and Verano, he had continued on, for hour after hour, up the winding trail into the sierra. Being winter, a snowstorm caught him in this pass, and he perished of exposure.
We trudged on and on. It was approaching 4:00 in the afternoon, and we had been hiking since 6:00 in the morning with no other halt than a 10 minute lunch break at a small stream-crossing, for we wanted to get as far as we could before it rained. The gods were with us, however: but for one insignificant sprinkling, we had no rain the entire first day’s journey.
Shortly after four, at a spot called Las Lajitas (The Slanting Rocks) because of the polished granite slope we had to traverse, Daniel announced, “¡Ya llegamos!” (We’ve arrived!) We left the main trail and started down a precipitous, slippery track through the moist forest until we came to a great boulder. Some 30 feet high and 40 feet across, it was crowned with a dense garland of mosses, ferns and shrubbery, and beetled out toward the heavily wooded valley to form a shallow but dry grotto. Here we met José Reyes, his two children, and the Gonzáles brothers, who already had a fire going. We set about preparing dinner, which would have consisted solely of reheated gordas of Maseca with a tea we brewed from the leaves of laurel (ground laurel) we had gathered along the way, had I not brought a large cheese given to me in Jocuixtita, and a tin of sardines from Ajoya. As it was, we ate fairly well.
Although the sun was shining at the moment we arrived, the sky quickly clouded over again, and before dusk it began to rain, though not heavily. The ten of us crammed up against one another in the narrow shelter of the grotto, and, wrapped in our blankets, passed the night.
An hour before dawn we were up again, preparing to continue our journey. Breakfast was scanty, as we had devoured nearly all the gordas the evening before. We had not brought more food with us in order to leave a little with Daniel’s mother and children in the house in Jocuixtita. We set out at dawn, still hungry, with more than 25 miles ahead of us and nothing left in our bindles for lunch.
We entered a broad, wooded valley called “Puerto de la Víbora” (Rattlesnake Pass) because of the prevalence of these serpents in the area, then crossed a small brook called Aguas de los Coconos (Waters of the Wild Turkeys) because wild turkeys are said once to have come here to drink. Crossing another ridge, we dropped into a broad valley, and followed for some time the Arroyo de San Rafael, a tributary of the Rio Elota, whose crystalline waters were such a contrast to the muddy, racing runoffs of the barrancas. In this valley we encountered the first piñones –not the piñon pines of the southern Sierra Nevada, but true sugar pines– the seeds from the huge cones of which are toasted and eaten when other food is scarce.
Leaving the arroyo, we wound our way up a steep ascent, emerging on a broad, gently sloping ridge, where we encountered an old timber road coming from the inland, plateau side of the sierra. This ancient track, now overgrown and obstructed by numerous fallen trees, is euphemistically called La Carretera (The Highway). We followed La Carretera for some 16 kilometers, taking many precipitous shortcuts. We crossed the Arroyo Amado, another tributary of the Rio Verde, and hurried onwards, driving both our animals and ourselves as fast as we could go, for the petulant sky had clouded over and was beginning to grumble. As the first big raindrops fell we arrived at Huachimetas de Arriba, a grassy clearing with some 10 log cabins roofed with pine shingles. I had been under the impression that we were to halt here, and was giving thanks that we had arrived before the storm, when Daniel informed us that we would continue on to a small rancho called La Quemada, where lived two of his uncles, a second cousin, and the father of his wife. We proceeded on, the rain pouring down, and in another hour arrived at La Quemada, wet, exhausted, and famished.
We stopped at the home of Solomé Macías, Jacinta’s father. At once Jacinta’s sister, Juana, and her stepmother, Porfidia Robles (sister of Gregorio Robles in Verano) began to whip together a meal, and an hour and a half later we sat down to a hot dinner of tortillas and watered-down beans.
The rain continued to fall, with brief interruption, for the next four days. At times it looked as if it were going to clear, and we would get ready to go out to look for corn, only to see the clouds close down again and the cold rain commence afresh. The temperature during the daytime seldom rose above 50 degrees, and we spent most of our time huddled around a fire in the portal of one or another of the casas, shifting our stools repeatedly to avoid the smoke and the dripping water from the leaky shingle roofs. In these days everyone stayed home, for the soil was too mucky for working the cornfields. The men grumbled about the excess of rain this summer, for while, in the barrancas, the heavy rains will, for the most part, mean a bumper crop, here in the higher sierra many of the cornfields have turned into bogs. With too much water and too little sunlight the corn plants have remained stunted and are beginning to yellow. It always rains more at the higher elevations. The drought of a year ago hit the lower villages harder, with the result that pack trains are now coming from the barrancas into the higher sierra for corn. Next year may well witness a reverse movement from the sierra into the barrancas, if indeed this summer’s corn crop in the upper sierra proves a failure.
We found that even now many of the families in the higher sierra are short on corn, while others are unwilling to sell what little extra they have because of the predicted failure of this year’s crop. Here in the sierra, dried corn can be kept up to two, sometimes three years without spoiling. In contrast, at lower elevations the grain begins to become picado (moth-eaten) from the time it is harvested.
In Ajoya by the beginning of las aguas –except on cobs that had been specially smoked or stored for planting– there remained scarcely one grain of corn in twenty that was not inhabited or excavated by a fat, little caterpillar. Clouds of small fuzzy moths would rise in the portals above the stored corn, hatching in hundreds from their kernel-capped cocoons. As an uncritical analysis of the tortillas we were eating in Ajoya in June, I would estimate that they consisted of about 70% corn, 20% caterpillars, 5% grain beetles and their grubs, and the remaining 5% of assorted droppings, ranging from caterpillar to rat, with traces of cockroach and housefly, which are omnipresent. I do not propose any claims as to whether these extraneous faunal elements add or detract from the ultimate nutritional quality of the tortillas, or whether they decrease or increase the total protein content. I do know that otherwise unexplained deaths of chickens are frequently accredited to the chickens having devoured too many papalotas (corn moths); as for my own ingestion of this animal life, I noticed no ill effects. In Verano the corn analysis would run nearly the same as in Ajoya; although the moth count would be somewhat down, the beetle count somewhat up. In the Huachimetas and the villages of the higher sierra, however, nearly every kernel of stored corn was sound, and the recent arrivers from the barrancas ran it through envious fingers, exclaiming, “Why, you could still plant this corn!”
Jacinta’s father, Solomé, ran out of corn in June, and has been working his fields this year en medias for Daniel Sánchez, a local corn-merchant from the neighboring village of San Blas, in exchange for loaned corn this summer. Our party from the barrancas moved in on Solomé and his family and they did their best to feed us, although most of the meals consisted of tortillas with four or five tablespoonfuls of watered-down beans. Other meals were of stewed, unripe calabaza, and of bayusas, the boiled flower-buds of maguey. The space remaining in our stomachs when we had eaten the meal, we filled with prickly pears, apples, and peaches, which were abundant in the small orchards at this time. But the apples and peaches were both of poor stock, small, green and bitter at their best, and the peaches especially had suffered from the unrelenting rains. Although Daniel spent hours on end peeling and swallowing these hard green peaches –I think he consumed up to a hundred a day –I found that only ten or fifteen were enough to give me hurried side effects, and beyond the day of our arrival I scarcely ate any at all. The result was that I went hungry. I think I lost five or six pounds during our rainy stay in La Quemada.
I was amazed to find that my reputation as a medicine man had traveled all the way across the crest of the sierra to Huachimetas. In spite of the persistent rain, people began to appear from the surrounding villages for consultation and treatment, which was unfortunate, as I had brought with me only enough medicines to cope, with emergencies. I had thought that the village of Huachimetas, located on a lumber road only a few hours from the thriving lumber village of San Miguel de Las Cruces –which has a substantial Centro de Salud as well as private practitioners and a dentist –would be in lesser need of my services.
However I was informed in Huachimetas (whether it be true or not) that the Centro de Salud, although government sponsored, charges as much as the private practitioners, so that, ill or not, the vast majority of the people cannot afford treatment. In short, the situation was much the same as in Ajoya, and probably in most of rural México.
Solomé, in this regard, is more fortunate than most, as several years ago he worked for a mining company, and was thus entitled to join the Seguro Social, a federal program of social security and medical aid, available only to those citizens who are employed by corporations where the fees can be deducted from their pay checks, thereby placing the program beyond the reach of those who need its services most. Solomé’s membership in the Seguro Social has remained effective even though he is no longer with the company, having lost his job along with several fingers in a mining accident. Last year when his aging wife had to have all her teeth pulled, Solomé found that the Seguro Social would cover the cost only if he was legally married to her, so after 17 years of living together, Solome married his wife –in order to have her teeth pulled.
On our 4th day in La Quemada, Daniel, several of his friends, and I rode to San Francisco to see if Daniel could collect the money owed him. On the return trip, as we were being pelted by a sudden downpour, someone spotted a small ocelot high in a pine, and at once every man in the crowd whipped out his pistol and began to fire upon it. The poor animal, riddled like a pincushion, tumbled from the treetop, dead, and when we picked it up its enormous, green, luminescent eyes looked out at us, a little startled and a little sad, as if to say, “What did I ever do to you?” But the men were too pleased to notice. Lord, it was a beautiful animal!
The 5th day in La Quemada dawned clearer, and Daniel and I set out with the two burros for San Blas, accompanied by Solomé. Daniel had hoped to buy 100 liters of corn, which Daniel Sánchez was selling for a peso a liter. However as Daniel Reyes had been unable to collect his debt, he was able to buy only 50 liters, although Solomé gave him another 25 liters from that which he had borrowed from Daniel Sánchez. I decided to buy 50 liters (about 100 pounds) myself, to give part to Eustaquio’s family and part to Juana’s, both of which are destitute at present. Purchasing this corn would mean returning to Verano on foot, but as I had come most of the way on foot anyway, I saw no reason not to do so. I bought the corn, and we loaded the donkeys and returned to La Quemada, which was about an hour’s distance away.
I could not help noticing a difference between the villagers of the sierra of Durango and those of the barrancas of Sinaloa. The people of the sierra were equally friendly toward me. They even offered to pool the cost of the airplane fare (100 pesos) from San Ignacio to San Miguel de Las Cruces, where they would come to fetch me, if I would pay them another visit with medicines. Yet for all their friendly welcome, I never felt as relaxed with these people as with the villagers of the barrancas. It struck me that there was something harder, more brittle, about these highlanders, perhaps in part due to the colder climate. Their faces lacked the blossomy, easy-going look so common in the people of the warmer barrancas. These mountaineers tended to have more thin, aquiline faces, with a persistent squinting of the eyes, perhaps from sitting for hours before smoking fires to keep warm.
Jacinta’s father, Solomé Macías, is more or less representative of the people of the high sierra. I never saw him make one unkind action toward his wife, his children, or his grandchildren. He was kinder to his dog than most of the men I have seen, even letting the animal romp with him and leap up on him in the mornings. Yet there was always a kind of half-hidden wariness about the man, a secret kind of brooding, a tightness of the lips, which made me vaguely uneasy in his presence.
One day as we were huddled around the fire weathering the rain, the subject of professional killers came up, and it was then I learned that Solomé was the brother of Delfino Macías, whom El Güero murdered together with his wife and children in La Tahoma six years ago. Solomé confirmed the seven murders and added, rather pensively, that the murder of his brother’s family had gone by no means un-revenged. Six relatives of the Salcido family have been done away with since El Güero’s mass slaughter, he informed me.
“¿Y quien los mataron?” I asked. (And who killed them?)
Solome squinted his thin, worn face even more than normal, hesitated a moment, and then replied, “Pues, muchas veces no se saben.” (Well, often they don’t know.)
“¡Pero Usted sí sabe!” I responded. (But you do know!) “¿Verdad?”
Solomé did not reply, but –avoiding my eyes– with a twisted half-smile and low chuckle, let me know that he knew only too well.
The morning of our sixth day in La Quemada dawned bright and clear. Daniel had been up before light to catch the grazing animals, and shortly after sunrise we set out. The two burros, two mules, and horse were all packed heavily with corn, green peaches, and tunas, and all five of us set off on the 50 miles of rough mountain trail on foot. It proved a hard trip for us all, but especially for Daniel’s pregnant wife, for we kept up a fast pace to try to beat the rain. This time, however, we lost the race. The rain caught us high in the mountains, two hours before we reached the first cave. It fell in a veritable aguacero (cloudburst), a combination of bitterly cold rain and hailstones. We used the three ponchos we had between us to cover the goods on the animals, and were therefore utterly exposed to the pelting rain and ice. We trudged on through the relentless storm, gritting our teeth and becoming progressively more stiff and numb with cold. Now it was no fun at all.
We arrived, at last, at the first cave, called La Respalda (The Backup), a shallow grotto along a slanting ledge of a towering, sedimentary cliff. Huddled at the upper end of the grotto was a grizzled, thin old man in his seventies, Domingo Moráz, who had come up the mountainside to hunt for stray cattle, and also had been caught in the storm. He sat shivering, with a small, torn strip of blanket wrapped about his bony shoulders.
Shaking with cold, we unloaded the animals as hurriedly as we could and set about trying to build a fire, no easy trick in such weather. Although we had packed a few ocotes, we had neglected to bring an axe, machete, or even large knife, and all the available wood was soaking. If it were not for a heavy sheath knife which Domingo had brought with him, I think we might never have got a fire going. As it was, it took us two hours to achieve a flame big enough to throw any heat.
Once the fire was burning brightly, life took on a new joy and we began to thaw out. We spread our garments to dry, collected water from the spouts pouring from the overhang, and when there were sufficient coals, toasted the bayusa-filled gordas we had brought, and brewed a té de laurel.
The rain continued into the night. Daniel and the three women crowded together in the small 4’ x 5’ patch of ground near the fire, which a previous traveler had thoughtfully lined with a thick mat of pine needles. They had to share their blankets, for Daniel had spread his own blanket over one of the donkeys in a vain attempt to keep the cargo dry, and it was soaked. Domingo and I went higher up on the ledge to sleep, lying on the bare rock, the two of us covered with my blanket.
The next morning we continued on our way. The rain had stopped, but the sky was overcast and threatening. We covered the 30 or so remaining miles of rough trail, and when finally we arrived in Jocuixtita there was not one of us who was not limping. A brief thunderstorm caught us near the “Escalones”, but by this time we were at a lower elevation, the temperature was warmer, “home” was closer, and we didn’t mind.
THE FIRST ELOTES
First widely scattered and at last in gay profusion, like the bursting blossoms of the sacalosuches with the first monsoon of summer, now in September there has bloomed within the families of the barrancas a new sense of life, of triumph, even jubilation.
“¿No le gusta los elotes?” (Don’t you like fresh corn?) said Eustaquio, the father of Pipi, over my shoulder, the day before yesterday.
He had approached so silently that his voice startled me. I swung around. Eustaquio’s quiet face was alight in a way I had not seen it before. In his thin hand he held out to me three elotes, fresh-picked from his milpa and toasted golden. He had brought them all the way down the mountain from Los Pinos for me to sample.
“¡Como no!” I answered gladly, and peeling back the charred husk of one of the ears, bit into the small, young grains...
The corn of the Sierra Madre does not have the fat, sweet, tender kernels of the corn in the States. There isn’t any butter to put on it. What is more, the cobs that Eustaquio had brought me had grown cold in the descent from Los Pinos... Yet I have never enjoyed fresh corn as much as those three ears.
As with the onset of the first heavy rains of summer, the coming of the elotes in early autumn is an occasion for festivity. It marks a new and fuller phase in the lives of the people. The hard work of fighting back the weeds in the cornfields can at last be abandoned, for the new corn will now hold its own till harvesting. The villagers can begin to take life easier, to watch the sunlight and the rain from the shelter of their portals. But more important, the coming of the elotes marks the end of the period of skimping, of eating watered down mush and unripe squash, of hushing hungering children in the night, of sweating all day on the steep mountainside while the stomach complains and arms and legs move grudgingly for want of food; above all, of constantly wondering where the next meal will come from. Now, and for many months ahead, the ripening of the elotes means the security of enough to eat; the fresh corn will last until the stalk dried mazorcas are harvested in December. Then, the cribs will be filled with a reserve, and with the sale of a few centílitros of the harvested grain, new clothes, new sandals, a new corn-mill or other needed implements will be bought –and maybe, if the harvest has been good, a radio or a rifle. All this, and more, is signified by the small yellow-green kernels cradled in the husks of the first elotes. Truly, this is the fruit of man’s labors.
“¿No le gusta los elotes?” How often have I been asked this question! How many times in the last few days have I been brought fresh corn –raw or roasted or boiled– by children and grownups whom I have helped with medicine, food, or clothing, and even by persons to whom I have given nothing at all that I remember? As early as July, when I passed through other villages and ranchos, time and again I was invited to be sure and come back again “cuando hay elotes”. There is something joyous and symbolic about the gift of an elote, like a valentine or a talisman of prosperity.
Not everyone’s elotes ripen at the same time. The first ears to ripen are those planted in small patches before the first rains, and watered by hand. The last are those growing in soil that is poor or overworked, as is most of Eustaquio’s land. At higher elevations the corn also matures later, as in Jocuixtita and Santo Domingo, where the first elotes will not ripen until October. Even here in Verano, there are a few families still waiting hungrily for the first elotes. Just a few moments ago, Casimiro Díaz again passed by, and informed me that he still does not expect his elotes until the 20th (of September). He has run out of Maseca, and for three days he and his family have been eating nothing but colache (unripe squash).
Last night I worked long after dark in an attempt to finish this third Report. Some time before midnight I heard a confusion of strange yelping from high on the mountainside, gradually approaching. At first I thought it must be coyotes or some other wild animals; then, as the sounds drew closer, I feared it was a group of noisy drunkards. Yet the voices sounded too high and too alive. At last a group of four boys, 13 to 16 years-old – attracted like the green leaf-hoppers to my light – bounded out of the darkness and saluted me cheerfully, their young and joyful faces beaming golden in the light of flaming ocotes they carried as torches. As they jostled each other and frolicked about, I saw that they were indeed drunk –not on cerveza or vino– but on the sheer pleasure of friendship and starlight and stomachs stuffed full of elotes. They were returning from a midnight picnic, a kind of ritualistic feast in the fields. After dark when the rain had stopped and the stars had begun to pierce the dissolving clouds, the boys had banded together and each taking a handful of ocotes with one ocote flaming to light their way, they had waded across the partially flooded arroyo and made their way along the steep, winding trail, bordered with dripping foliage, until they came to Bonifacio’s cornfield high on the mountainside overlooking the sleeping valley. There they had built a big bonfire, hunted through the milpa until they found the biggest and best elotes, roasted them in the hot coals, and had eaten until they could eat no more. Then they had frolicked and sported until the food packed down a little; and roasted and eaten yet more.
I asked Bonifacio’s adopted son, Miguel, how many elotes he had eaten, and with a big grin he threw up his hands and said “Hueee… ¡Como cinquenta, yo creo!” (Whew… about fifty, I think!) We all laughed.
“¡Ya a dormir!” (Now to sleep!) said one of the boys, yawning. And with a whoop the four youngsters capered to the arroyo, splashed across, and disappeared into the night.