The rain, which came in like a lion at the beginning of summer, in autumn went out like a lamb. Each afternoon in the latter days of September, the dark clouds would come as usual, flashing and grumbling down from the high sierra, obscuring the sky and the sun. Sometimes a few fat drops would sputter down, enough to make children leap and shout and women scrubbing clothes in the arroyo snatch up their garments drying upon boulders and dash back toward their casas. But frequently it was a false alarm. The drops would stop as suddenly as they had begun. Or the clouds would part and the sun reappear, often while the drops still fell. It was a season for rainbows. Then a day passed when it did not rain at all. Then two consecutive days. Then four. The last rain fell in scattered spots in the barrancas somewhere around the 20th of October.
Gold is the conspicuous color of Autumn in the upper barrancas: not the soft, dying gold of autumn leaves, but rather a vivid, flaming gold like that of the poppy-covered flanks of the California foothills in spring. As the summer rains subsided and the days began to get hotter as in spring, a glowing inflorescence of saffron-colored daisies (cosmos) began to paint the slopes of the barrancas. These vivid orange-red blossoms burgeoned upon a jungle of wiry vegetation which had sprung up like a startled pheasant during the last days of the rainy season, crowding out the other herbage until little remained but a dense tangle of these colorful composites, which rose from four to eight feet high, and continued to shoot upward even as they were blooming. Each day a billion new buds would yawn and stretch their luminous petals. Each day the slopes grew brighter. As one stood on a hilltop surveying other hills in the distance, the sloping fields of golden daisies, interrupted by the rich green of hillside corn patches, formed a delightful and colorful mosaic. The daisies grew in greatest proliferation where the hillsides had formerly been cleared, burned, planted with corn, then abandoned. Although the villagers regard these fast-growing composites as their enemies and battle to keep their cornfields clear of them, the cosmos are most certainly an important factor in the long-term survival of the villagers. Once a steep hillside has been cleared and burned for planting, all the surface soil is washed off in the torrential summer rains, and the land becomes useless for planting until sufficient new topsoil is formed, a process that takes up to fourteen years. Yet fourteen years is a brief period for reestablishing such devastated terrain, and much of the credit is due to the exuberant proliferation of these pioneering plants that spring up on the man-ravaged slopes at the close of each rainy season and die back again each dry season. They stabilize the soil and creating new humus at an astonishing rate, so that, in relatively few years, man may plant and despoil it anew.
So dominating is this maze of cosmos in its peak season, that it has engendered its own curious insect life. Someone unaware of the significance of protective coloration might suppose that many of the small denizens of the daisies had been decorated for purely aesthetic reasons, so perfectly do their colors harmonize with those of the flowers. One pollen-plundering click beetle has wing covers of the same saffron hue as the flowers, while a common long-horn beetle has a sparkling green body with saffron colored legs. Green and orange caterpillars nibble upon the leaves. Scrambling like a many-armed ape through the daisy jungle, and pouncing upon the smaller denizens whose camouflage fails them, are wooly tarantulas, up to four inches across, whose long fur is the same saffron-orange hue as the flowers.
The cosmos are in full bloom for almost a month. Then, slowly, in early November, as the corn in its steep patches begins to dry and yellow in the sun, and the petals fall from the flowers, a gradual exchange of color takes place on the slopes of the barrancas, until the expanse of wilted daisies forms a gray-green background to the fields of straw-colored corn.
Most of the corn is ripe by mid-October, yet picking does not begin until mid-November or early December. The mature ears are allowed to dry upon their stalks so that the grain will not rot with moisture after harvest. During this drying period, as always, the farmer is subjected to the weather’s whim. A surprise cloudburst in November, or early winter rains in December, before he has finished harvesting, may cause him great loss.
The desiccating corn is also marauded by many birds and beasts. At lower elevations, near Ajoya, the armadillo dines greedily in the milpas, as do the urracas (magpie jays). In plantings near streams, the mapache de arroyo (raccoon) is a prevalent pest. At middle elevations, near Verano, the tlacuache (opossum) and tejón solitarioi (coati mundi) together with the zorra (fox) are among the chief invaders of the ripened corn. Near villages, domestic hogs make their way to milpas, while remoter patches are raided by their wild cousins, the javelín (peccary) and venado (deer). In the higher reaches of the sierra, the occasional bear plays havoc with a milpa. A bear is said to demolish a large section of a cornfield and carry all the ripe ears to a central pile before he sits down to eat. At any elevation, cahuillas (small crows that travel in large flocks) may descend upon a harvest and pick it bare as fast as it ripens. But in all areas, perhaps the biggest threat to the corn is the domestic dog. Characteristically, dogs of the barrancas are underfed, and are used to a corn diet because they are rarely given more than left over bits of tortillas. Dogs have learned to raid cornfields, banding together in small packs at night. Like the bears, the dogs frequently pull down a number of stalks and carry off the ears to a sheltered spot before beginning their feast. In spite of their bad habits, dogs are, of course, an invaluable aid to the farmer in tracking down the wild raiders of the cornfields. Like the saffron-colored cosmos, the dog is both man’s enemy and friend.
The last half of October and beginning of November in the barrancas is the season for cortando las hojas, or cutting leaves. The leaves of the corn stalks are harvested as fodder for mules and cows. They are stripped from the stalks, leaving the ripe ears jutting ridiculously from their naked poles. The leaves are then bound into large manojos (bundles) with wild vines called bejucos, or with long, thin strips of bark, called majaguas, frequently peeled from the guasima tree. After bundling, begins the task of stacking the manojos atop a tasolera, a square platform on poles, up out of reach of a hungry mule. Sometimes the farmer builds his tasolera at the edge of his corn patch, far from his casa, as did Irineo Vidaca. But if he has enough burros, or – as in Bonifacio’s case – children, to help carry the leaves, he will transport them to his casa and build his tasolera there.
Back and forth, every day for over a week, Bonifacio and his children came trundling past my dispensary at the Vidaca house, bringing down the leaves. Each child bore a load many times his own volume, but proportionate to his size. I had to laugh each time I saw the comical file of these two-legged bundles, with Bonifacio’s stout legs under the biggest load of all, come scuttling by at more of a smooth, running pace than a walk. On their return trips to the milpa, Bonifacio and his young ones would frequently pause outside my dispensary, their faces wet with sweat and plastered with bits of corn leaf, to say hello and frolic for a moment before they hurried back up to their fields. They had to hurry, for if a heavy rain fell before the leaves were stacked on the tasolera, they would mildew and be lost.
Stacking the tasolera marks the end of another phase in the agrarian cycle, and, as such, may become a kind of ritual and celebration. Neighbors gather, and help toss the bundles up to a man on top of the mounting stack who arranges them like shingles around a tall central pole. The process looks simple, but it is quite an art to get each manojo so placed that the rain is properly shed. The pile gradually tapers as it rises until it comes to an acute peak at the top of the pole, which, as the last touch, is capped with a bule, or gourd. Sixty-eight year old Esteban Sánchez of Los Pinos is renowned for his skill in stacking, and came to help Bonifacio form his tasolera.
Echando las hojas – tossing the leaves – also looks easy, but is (as I discovered on attempting it) a little like trying to throw feathers. As the tasolera gets higher, the tossing becomes more difficult. The men compete with each other, laughing and shouting when the bundles go wild or fall short of their mark. In the last stages, often only one or two of a dozen men can successfully land the obstreperous bundles upon the peak, ten to twelve feet above the platform.
This autumn, thanks to the abundant summer rain, there has been a bumper crop in the barrancas. The people have again begun to eat well – or at least what they consider well. There is a sense of plenty, a joyousness, an expansiveness among the villagers. Hunger is temporarily forgotten. With the harvesting of the corn and sesame in November and December, people have been bartering cloth and clothing which the traveling fayuqueros have brought up from the lowlands; they have, been fattening their chickens and hogs –which also grew thin during las aguas– and the chickens have begun at last to lay. Once again, also, now that corn can be traded for cash, the traffic of illegal alcohol from the coast has become a big thing. Parties and dances are being thrown – usually by the vendors of the vino – to which old friends, as well as old enemies, are drawn together. Sometimes the merriment ends in fighting.
Las secas de otoño – the dry season of autumn – then, has been a season of gold upon the mountain slopes, of joy and prosperity afforded by the bumper harvest, and, unhappily, of bloodshed and suffering resulting from the misuse of that brief prosperity. Yet in response to the tragedy and suffering, the villagers of the barrancas have rallied a new degree of generosity, cooperation, and sacrifice.
This last quarter in the Sierra Madre has been for me the busiest, most momentous, most terrible, and – strangely – most beautiful of all. More has happened than in the other three seasons put together. Somehow, many of the small events that formerly seemed unrelated have begun to fall together like a puzzle, so that now, at the close of one year, I feel that I have just begun to catch a glimmer of the structure and enormity of this small corner of the universe. My only regret is that I cannot write it as I have felt it. May the reader bear with me.
Not until three days after my return to Ajoya from Verano at the end of the rainy season did I manage to tear myself away from the storm of people coming for medicines and make my way toward Las Chicuras. I was nervous about attempting to cross the flooded river, but was eager to see the Reyes family, as my friends in Ajoya had neither seen nor heard from them in some time. No rain had fallen for the last two days, however, and the water level had dropped noticeably. To play safe, I removed my boots before guiding my mule into the river. The swirling water rose all the way to the saddle, but Hormiga kept her footing, and without mishap we emerged high and wet on the other side. Half an hour later I rode into Las Chicuras.
Goyo’s younger sister, Inez, was sweeping the dirt yard in front of the Reyes casa as I rode up. “¡David!” she cried, and at once Goyo, Chaparro, and Angelita came running to meet me, followed by the wobbly baby, Armida. Next came Goyo’s young aunt, Benancia, who now seemed fully recovered from the bullet wound which her husband, José, had dealt her five months before. I learned that she was back with José again, and that they and their two small children were living together with Goyo’s family – making a total of fourteen persons living in the one-room, stick-walled hut.
Goyo hurried to try riding Hormiga, whom he had never before seen, while little Chaparro hung on my hand and grinned up at me. Angelita, called “La Cuata” (the twin), was dancing in circles shouting “¡Dabí! ¡Dabí! ¡Dabí!”.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked, looking around for her.
“Didn’t you know?” exclaimed Benancia. “She was stung by a snake!”
I hurried inside the hut, to find Goyo’s mother, Jesús (Chuy), lying on a catre, her foot swollen to double its normal size. “Welcome home!” she exclaimed, making an effort to sit up. She added mockingly, “It’s about time you got here! See what happens when you stay away!”
“What kind of snake was it and how long ago did it bite you?” I asked, inspecting the foot.
“Six days ago,” she replied. “I don’t know what kind of snake. We think a coralillo. Remedios and I were returning from Güisache where we’d borrowed sugar and beans – the river was still too high to get back to Ajoya. It was night and pitch black. Suddenly I felt a stab in my foot. We heard the animal slither off into the brush. That’s all I know . . .”
“You should have seen it three days ago!” cried Inez. “It was swollen like this!” She held up her hands about eight inches apart.
“It could have been worse,” laughed Chuy. “Actually, only one fang went into my foot; the other struck my sandal. So you see, Dios Padre protects his children.”
“How have you been treating it?” I asked.
“With contraveneno and the leaves of guaco,” she replied.
“Antivenin!” I exclaimed. “Where did you get it?”
“I made it,” she replied, “I put an alacrán, an ubar and a cienpie (scorpion, black widow spider, and centipede) in a small jar of alcohol and heated it in the fire. Then I put it outside in the dew overnight. Every few hours I rub a little of the antivenin lightly over the ‘sting’ and tie five leaves of guaco over it.” (Guaco, a slender serpentine vine with a large tuber, and a flower that looks like the head of a snake, is well known for its medicinal properties.)
“Where are Remedios and the older boys?” I asked.
“Remedios left yesterday with José for Candelero to return his father’s mule which he had borrowed for plowing. Camilo is working as a vecerero (calf herder) at La Mesa, the ranch of Jesús Manjarréz. It’s hard work. He’s only fifteen, you know. He has to get up between three and four in the morning and works until dark. Jesús Manjarréz only pays him five pesos a day,” she sighed. “Pero algo es algo.” (But something is something.)
“That’s criminal!” I exclaimed. (The basic minimum wage is twelve pesos for an eight-hour day.)
“That’s Jesús Manjarréz,” replied Chuy stoically. “But what can we do? Martín was heartbroken when school began this September and he couldn’t go. But Remedios says he has to work. Of course he couldn’t go to school yet anyway, none of the children can: the river is still to high to cross safely.”
“¡David!” cried Goyo, trotting up on Hormiga. “Have you seen our milpa? The corn is as high as the house, and the elotes are like this!” He waved the stump of his arm a foot from his good hand.
“Big fibber!” snapped Inez.
“Come on!” cried little Chaparro, tugging at my hand. “Let’s go to the milpa! The elotes are big like this!” He giggled and stretched his hands as far apart as he could.
“¡Chaparro!” barked Chuy. “Be still!” She swung her legs over the side of the cot and slipped her good foot into a sandal. “We’ll all go to the milpa!” she said. “And bring back elotes and melones and calabasas.
We’ll have a feast to celebrate your return!”
“You shouldn’t go with your foot like that!” I exclaimed.
“I shouldn’t,” said Chuy firmly, “but I will! If I lie on my back any longer they’ll light candles around me!” She tried stepping with her swollen foot. “¡Ow!” she exclaimed. She hobbled across the hut and picked up a large costal and a butcher knife, placed a tattered sombrero on her head, lit a small, brown, tapered cigarette, and said, “Let’s go.”
There was no dissuading her. The best I could do was to offer Hormiga for her to ride.
We were just about to take off when Chuy, noticing the dirt around La Cuata’s mouth, shouted at her three year old, “Cuata! Have you been eating dirt again?”
The child shook her head vigorously.
“¡Huh!” exploded Chuy. “¡Si comes tierra te voy a quemar la boca – ya veras!” (If you eat dirt I’m going to burn your mouth– just you see!)
The little girl opened her eyes wide with terror, and she spit.
As we hiked toward the milpa, Chuy riding atop Hormiga and the children scampering ahead, Chuy turned in the saddle and said to me, “What makes children eat dirt, anyway? They say it’s because they have worms.”
“One theory has it that it’s because of iron deficiency,” I said.
“Oh,” said Chuy. “When I was a child, I went on eating dirt until I was fourteen years old. I adored it. I liked the smell of it, just certain kinds of dirt, mind you. My mother tried everything she knew to make me stop. She whipped me. She made me eat garlic. But I’d still sneak out and eat soil. She tried blowing cigarette smoke in my face – that’s the usual cure – and finally she made me start smoking. So I started smoking at age fourteen and I’ve smoked ever since. I stopped eating dirt, all right, but I substituted one vice for another. Now I can’t give up smoking.”
“Look, David!” cried Inez, pointing ahead of us, “¡La milpa!”
Ahead of us rose the steep hillsides and ridges which in June I had seen as a burned and barren waste over which Remedios and his four sons had scrambled, punching holes with their güicas and dropping in grains of corn. Now these hillsides were glowing green. In places, the tall corn was indeed nearly as tall as the casa.
“What did I tell you!” cried Goyo proudly. “We grew it, Dad and I, with Camilo and Martín and Chaparro. But nearly all of the weeding I and Martín and Chaparro did by ourselves!”
“That’s true,” said Chuy. “By the middle of July we were running out of both corn and money – in spite of what you gave us – and Remedios got the chance to plow the fields of José Celis for ten pesos a day. José’s fields are on this side of the river, and in summer it was too flooded for José’s men to plow them, so Remedios and Camilo got the job.”
“I thought José Celís once paid to have Remedios shot,” I said.“He did.” said Chuy. “But what else could Remedios do when all these little ones have their mouths open like baby birds, screaming for food?” She laughed and added, “¡Así es!” (That’s the way it is.)
When we reached the milpa, Chuy dismounted. We tethered Hormiga to a guamuchil tree. Chuy continued on foot, hobbling but not complaining. We climbed up and down the steep slopes, weaving our way between the tall corn stalks. We broke off the tenderest elotes we could find. We selected the best pumpkins and squashes from their vines. Here and there we stopped to eat some of the small, oblong, pulpy melons which were beginning to burst with ripeness. As we trudged along, little Goyo went bounding this way and that, whooping and running ahead to find a hiding place to jump out and surprise us.
“Look, David!” said Chaparro as we came over the steepest ridge. “¡Ajonjolí!” (sesame). The sesame was growing as a garden of white flowers on the narrow alluvial flat between the base of the corn-covered slopes and a small stream. Sesame is grown as a cash crop by some of the campesinos, and I had loaned Remedios enough cash to buy the seed and a harness rig for plowing, in the hopes that the subsequent crop might put the family a little more on its feet.
“Look, Mama!” cried Goyo in alarm as we arrived at the sesame field. “¡Mochomos!” On a miniature super-highway winding across the ground between the plants, thousands upon thousands of leaf-cutting ants, each bearing in its jaws a proportionately huge piece of sesame leaf, streamed by like a busy regatta of tiny sailboats. We found that nearly a third of the sesame plants had already been stripped of their leaves, leaving the spikes as naked as corn stalks after the leaves are cut.
“¡Chaparro!” cried Chuy. “Run back to the house and bring the poison.” Chaparro left on the run. Chuy shook her head. “We’ve been fighting the mochomos all summer,” she said. “We’ll be lucky if we get half the crop we hoped for.”
When little Chaparro came running back with the ant poison, panting hard, we tracked the ant trail back to where it entered the ground and poured some poison down the hole.
“Does that stop them?” I asked.
“Oh, for a day or two,” said Chuy.
Chuy and I filled the costal with the calabasas and melones and elotes while Goyo ran to bring my mule. In one trip we could carry only a fraction of the produce we had gathered. Chuy mounted Hormiga. I heaved the heavy costal in front of her onto the saddle horn. Goyo, Inez, Chaparro, and I filled our arms with as many calabasas and melones as we could carry, and we set off in the direction of the setting sun.
“¡Al fin ahora no hay hambre!” said Chuy, looking back over her shoulder at the milpa. (Now at last there is no hunger!)
And as she rode, she sang.
Potentially, one of the best steps that the Mexican Government has taken toward bettering conditions for its citizens in remote regions has been the establishment of rural health centers, or Centros de Salud, staffed by a doctor and several nurses and dedicated especially toward providing medical services to the poorer villagers. Each municipio has at least one such Centro de Salud. The doctor is supplied with both salary and free medicine so that families who cannot afford to pay will not be deprived of sound medical treatment. The Centro is also responsible for a program of inoculation against the more dangerous immedicable diseases – polio, tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, and smallpox – in every village within its territory.
Fifteen years ago, the Centro de Salud in San Ignacio got off to an excellent start under the dedicated direction of Dr. Raúl Vega, who – technically speaking – is not a “doctor” at all. A native of San Ignacio, Dr. Vega studied in the medical schools of Guadalajara and Mexico City. Unable to complete his degree for lack of funds, in 1932 he set up a practice in his home-town. He had achieved a notable reputation by the time the Health Department installed him as head of the Centro de Salud. Dr. Vega carefully supervised the construction of the new Centro, and to this day the physical plant remains excellent. It is in the shape of an “L” with two large wards, each with six beds, and has a consultation room, minor surgery, kitchen, dispensary, laundry, and store room. Upstairs are living quarters for the doctor and nurses. The building has glass windows, running water, a flush toilet, a shower, and is attractive.
Seven years ago, the Health Department, in an attempt to raise its standards, made an effort to place a full-fledged M.D. in each Centro de Salud. So it was that Dr. José Félix López, M.D. from Mexico City, was placed as head of the Centro in San Ignacio. Raúl Vega was retained on the staff, but soon found coexistence with Dr. Félix untenable, and resigned.
I can appreciate why Raúl Vega resigned: Dr. Félix doesn’t care about anyone’s health or welfare but his own. Apart from that, he is an agreeable and genial man, clean, orderly, and handsome. He is easy to get along with, provided you don’t mind being slapped on the back constantly and asked how many girls you’ve screwed in this village and that, whether such and such a señorita doesn’t need an injection – with hot beef, that is, ha ha – etc., ad infinitum. I get a little exasperated when I come hurrying to the good doctor about a sixteen year-old girl who has been severely hemorrhaging, and before he replies whether he will give her blood transfusions or not, he winks naughtily and asks, “What does she look like? Is she good for...?” and knocks his fists together, swinging his hips. Or, likewise, after I have explained to him how many children, like Pipi, have been stricken with polio in the barrancas, I grow irritated when he responds, “If you bring some of your students with you, sure I’ll go vaccinating with you up into the mountains. But you’ve got to bring Gringas. Just Gringos won’t do. Gringas! Understand!”
When the occasion demands, Dr. Félix has a very convincing spiel. In fact, his expressed concern for the villagers can be truly moving. After Dr. Price, the pediatrician from Palo Alto, California, had been guided through the Centro de Salud, he was puzzled. “Dr. Félix talks like a very dedicated man,” he said, “but I wonder! If he can afford his new Chevrolet convertible and that luxurious radio-phonograph console, why doesn’t the Centro have a single microscope? And, with all the villagers we’ve seen in such dire medical need, why is the hospital so empty?”
The hospital is always empty, or nearly so, because Dr. Félix prefers it that way. I have known him to dismiss patients still in critical condition even when no other hospital bed was occupied. Dr. Félix makes a point of keeping his hospital immaculately clean, and this, of course, is more difficult when there are patients. The villagers, for their part, have little confidence in the Centro. The sick would rather go to Raúl Vega or La Apolonia, or sell their chickens and pigs and go to Mazatlán for treatment. Even from San Ignacio, patients come to me in Ajoya, although I try to discourage it. They have learned, through experience, that the Centro attends in a most cursory manner those patients who have little money. They have found that Dr. Félix too often prescribes or applies medicines, at the patients’ expense, and that often those medicines do little good. The villagers say of the doctor, “¡No sirve!” (He’s no good.) Many even speak of him with contempt, charging that he has converted the hospital into a whorehouse, that his nurses are his mistresses and that his gardener is his pimp. If what the people say is correct, two of the doctor’s nurses already “salieron embarazadas” (came out pregnant) and the doctor narrowly escaped being assaulted by the father of one of the nurses as a result.
Part of Dr. Félix’s responsibility is to see that the children throughout the municipio are vaccinated. A large portion of the villages and ranchos of the Municipio de San Ignacio are accessible only by burro trails, yet Dr. Félix has never once set foot beyond the road’s end in Ajoya. In the second Report from the Sierra Madre I mentioned how delighted I was that Dr. Félix had at last condescended to make a vaccinating tour with me to the upper villages of the barrancas. I told of my hurried 70-mile circuit through the barrancas to advise the villagers that we were coming to vaccinate. Yet in the third Report, I made no mention of how the vaccinating had gone: It hadn’t!
The day Dr. Félix and I had scheduled to leave from Ajoya, and Dimas Lomas was ready with his mules, I waited and waited, but Dr. Félix never showed up. At last I phoned San Ignacio and contacted the head nurse, who told me that the doctor said he couldn’t make the trip. I asked to speak with the doctor, but the nurse said he was busy. I found that hard to believe! I asked her why the doctor couldn’t make it, and she said she thought it was because he had trouble getting ice for the vaccines. I told her to tell Dr. Félix that if he couldn’t get ice, I could, and that I would expect him in the morning. She told me to hold the line. A few minutes later she came back and said that she had been mistaken; it had not been the ice but the vaccines that the doctor had been unable to get. I thanked her, and asked that the doctor call me as soon as he was no longer busy.
The doctor never called. Next morning I borrowed Caytano’s mare and rode the 17 miles into San Ignacio. Dr. Félix was not at the Centro.
“Where is he?” I asked the head nurse.
“He left to vaccinate in Coyotitán,” she replied. He should be back for lunch.”
“How can he be vaccinating if he couldn’t get the vaccines?” Feliz asked.
“The head nurse blushed. “You’ll have to talk with the doctor,” she said.
Shortly after noon, Dr. Félix pulled up to the hospital in his spiffy, light blue convertible. I was there to meet him. He looked surprised. “How did you get here?” he exclaimed.
“On horseback,” I replied. “And you?”
The doctor fell into his usual banter. “How are all the girls in Ajoya?” he asked, smiling broadly.
“I understand you’ve been vaccinating in Coyotitán?” I began.
“You know, you really ought to make something of Ramona,” the doctor continued. “She’ll do it. The other day when she came in for her blood test she told me she liked you…”
“I’d like to speak to you about our vaccinating trip...”
“What’s the matter? Isn’t Ramona pretty enough...?”
“I have the mules all ready and waiting if ...”
“Ah, David, what a friend!” The doctor clapped me on the shoulder. “I’ll admit she looks like a toad, but she smells nice. Heh heh! And she’s got a lot of meat on her. The other day she was sitting in that chair with her legs apart. Umm! Have you noticed her thighs?”
“Yes,” I said. “Now, ice I can get. The vaccines you have. The program we have all drawn up. Seven villages have been notified that we are coming. The mules and Dimas are ready. When do we leave?”
Dr. Félix was suddenly serious. “Now I’ve been giving a lot of thought to this,” he said, “and I’ve decided it’s all too uncertain. I don’t like to take part in something unless I’m sure it’s going to turn out right. Would you care for a cigarette?”
“No thanks,” I said. “Why shouldn’t it turn out right?” (I could think of a lot of reasons.)
“Well, in the first place...” and he followed with a song and dance about not being sure how long the ice would last or how the “primitive” people would accept being vaccinated. Etcetera. It became increasingly clear that he was both too lazy and too chicken to go.
At last he said, “I’ll tell you what, David. Why don’t you go ahead and give the first round of vaccinations, and if everything goes well, I’ll go with you on the second trip.”
“All right,” I said, controlling my anger. “I’ll do it. Where are the vaccines?” Dr. Félix gave them to me in a large iced thermos, and I left.
As I rode swiftly back to Ajoya over the winding dirt track, the fresh air and quiet calmed my spirit. It was not until that night when I was lying awake in bed planning the trip, that it dawned on me that I should have gotten a letter from the doctor authorizing me to vaccinate. This was imperative, especially considering that I was a foreigner, and not long had passed since people in Verano had rumored that persons taking my medicines would die in two years’ time. The villagers tend, at best, to be skeptical about vaccination. When they are sick, they may clamor for an injection, but when they are well – and the vaccines can only be given to children who appear well – it’s another story. For example, this spring in Ajoya an army doctor came to vaccinate, and only 15 or 20 percent of the parents brought their children. The soldiers managed to capture a few more. Then, three weeks later, when the youngest son of David Salcido died of encephalitis resulting from mumps, the villagers angrily threw the blame on the vaccination.
In like manner, about six years ago, when Mencho Pereda, the kind-hearted medicine man from Jocuixtita, decided to vaccinate the village children, a couple of the first children had mild side effects from the vaccine. The villagers, who up to that point had trusted Mencho and come to him confidently for treatment, protested angrily. One man threatened to kill him if he vaccinated any more children, so he didn’t. Not a child had been vaccinated in Jocuixtita since! All this considered, I had good reason for wishing Dr. Félix to accompany me, or at least to give me written authorization.
I telephoned San Ignacio again, and asked the head nurse to ask the doctor to write the authorization.
“He says he can’t,” she said when she returned:
“He says he hasn’t got the authority.”
“But he’s already given me the vaccines and the complete okay!” I protested. “All I want is for him to write me a note that he’s done so.”
“Just a minute,” said the nurse, and a few minutes later she returned and said, “He can’t.”
The following day I made another trip to San Ignacio. My conversation with the doctor followed roughly the same pattern as the day before, Ramona not excluded. He ended up by clapping me on the back and saying, “I’m sorry, David, old friend. It’s a touchy question. I’m sure you understand...”
I understood, all right! The doctor wanted me to do his job for him, but preferred to stick out my neck instead of his own. “The hell with it all!” I said to myself, and left.
It was not until some two weeks later, as I was passing through San Ignacio on my way back to the United States, that I saw the good doctor again. Dr. Félix was very friendly, and asked me to make specific inquiries for him in California, where he plans to visit.
“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll get the information that you want, if you get the written authorization that I want. Okay?”
Dr. Félix clapped me on the back. “Ah, David! What a guy! It won’t be easy, but I’ll try.”
A few days later I received a telegram in Palo Alto, which read:
HAVE OBTAINED AUTHORIZATION FOR YOU TO INNOCULATE.
DO NOT FORGET YOUR PART OF AGREEMENT. DR. FÉLIX L.
“Whoopee!” I cried. Yet on my return to San Ignacio a week later, I found I still had to haggle to get the letter. But after two weeks I cornered Dr. Félix, having followed him all over town until almost midnight, and he wearily sat down at his typewriter and wrote (in Spanish):
To whom it may concern:
David. Werner, the bearer of this, we authorize to give necessary vaccinations where necessary. We beg you to assist him in whatever way he finds necessary.
J. Félix Lopez
“Hadn’t you better date it?” I suggested. And he did.
“Hadn’t you better stamp it?” I suggested. And he did. Upside down. It was not until I had left that I noticed that the stamp merely said, “AÑO DE LA AMISTAD” (YEAR OF FRIENDSHIP).
At last I had authorization –such as it was– and could commence with the inoculation of the village children. But now that the personal obstacles had been overcome, the natural obstacles commenced. The rainy season began with a crash, and I resigned myself to waiting until the end of “las aguas.”
It was the fourth of October when I set out on the first inoculating trip, accompanied by Tatino Chavarín. The rainy season was not completely ended, the river was still too high to risk fording with all our equipment, but we could not afford to delay any longer if we were to complete the series – one application per month for three months – before my departure from the Sierra Madre in early December. My plan was to administer the DPT – diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus – combined vaccine to children of ten years and under, and the oral polio vaccine to children under five. I had decided not to vaccinate against smallpox, as many years have passed without an incidence of smallpox. Also, with the smallpox vaccine there is more chance of untoward reactions.
The vaccines had to be kept cold, most critically, the polio vaccine. In Palo Alto last June, we had been donated a small battery-operated refrigerator, and had obtained two automobile batteries, plus a compact, hand-crank generator to keep the batteries charged. I ran into many snags, however, in getting the rig to work. When I discovered that the insulation of the small refrigerator was so efficient that it could keep ice up to four days in the hottest weather, I decided to forget the batteries and generator (which would have necessitated an additional mule) and transport the refrigerator alone, using it as an icebox. This way we would need only one pack mule.
I decided to vaccinate only along the main route to Verano, namely in the four major villages of Güillapa, Bordontita, Jocuixtita, and Verano. I regretted not including Saus, La Cienega, Chilar, and Caballo de Arriba, which are the next largest villages of my stomping grounds, but decided that they were beyond the limits of our ice and energy, at least for the present.
As ever, Tatino and I ran into endless difficulties in securing borrowed mules on time. We had planned to leave at the crack of dawn but discovered at the last minute that the mule and the one-eyed horse we had borrowed needed shoeing. On top of other delays, it was 10:00 A.M. before we got underway. This meant that we arrived late in Güillapa, and the children –whom the schoolteacher had assembled and kept waiting for us until noon– had been dismissed and were scattered hither and yon. We gathered them together again with the help of a crew of parents, but by the time we finished inoculating it was late in the afternoon. We arrived in Bordontita well after dark. Next morning we were vaccinating at the crack of dawn. Francisco, the gentle, alcoholic schoolteacher, quickly brought all the children together, and we were through and on our way by mid-morning, arriving in Jocuixtita just ahead of the afternoon rains. That night we inoculated in the light of carbide lamps. The entire trip we had to work against time, for if the ice melted before we finished in Verano, the vaccines would spoil and be useless. With driving effort, and missing several meals, we had managed to keep up fairly well with the schedule we had set. Then, on the morning of the third day, when we were hurrying to leave Jocuixtita for Verano, the boys we had sent to look for our grazing animals returned with the borrowed mule and one-eyed horse, but not with Hormiga.
“Didn’t you bring my mule?” I asked.
“We looked for her everywhere, but we couldn’t find her,” the boys replied.
So Tatino and I hurried to look for Hormiga. Between us I think we must have covered ten miles, over hill and dale, until at last Tatino whooped that he had found her. Next we had to catch her, which took some doing as she had taken a fancy to her freedom. We succeeded in herding her back onto the trail, but we had lost about two and a half hours.
As it turned out, our ice held out longer than our vaccines! In Verano, we ran out of both the polio drops and the DPT, and still the parents continued to arrive with their children, begging us to vaccinate them. The women from the three houses of Sapotitos, a rancho about two and a half hours away, arrived with small children and babes in arms requesting vaccination, but I had no vaccines left. I told them to come back the following month, when I would be sure to have enough.
On the second trip a month later we brought more vaccines, and still we ran out. The third trip we brought still more, and ran out. I was amazed at the success of our vaccinating program, and at the response of the villagers. The majority of the parents, far from objecting to our inoculating their children, were eager. The children were less so, as expected, but for the most part even they did not seem to mind a great deal. We did our best to make the experience happier for them by awarding each child a pencil or few colored crayons after the injection. They were surprisingly good sports. There was, in fact, more yowling on the part of the children under five, who received only the oral polio vaccine, than by the larger children whom we stuck in the backside. We conducted the inoculating either in schoolhouses or in the portals of private homes. This meant that the children could watch each other being jabbed. When one child had been injected the others would all ask, “Did it hurt?” and the first child would grin and say, “No!” And so they would build up each other’s courage. Only about five percent of the injected children wept, and this was almost always before they were injected.
In Verano there was one curly headed boy, named Alfredo, who, the first time around, began to scream and fight as his mother dragged him to the cot to be injected. I tried reassuring the child, but it was no use. Then his mother started beating him.
“That won’t be necessary,” I said, and Tatino and I took hold of the struggling child. The mother lowered his pants. They held him as firmly as they could, and for extra security I sat down on him, too, before injecting. I stuck him as lightly as I could, and standing up again, I said, “There, was that so bad?”
Alfredo shook his head sheepishly, took his pencil, and walked out.
The next time around a month later, Alfredo was one of the first children to arrive for vaccination. He marched over to the cot, lowered his pants, and did not even jerk when I injected him.
“Did it hurt?” asked the other children.
“Course not!” snapped Alfredo indignantly, and took his place with the others to watch the fun.
I was fortunate that, among all the children I inoculated, not one resulted with severe reactions. A few had slight fever for a day or so following, a few felt a little sore in the backside, but I had warned the parents that this was to be expected, and no one got upset.
Altogether, we inoculated 249 children, from ten years and under for the DPT, and from five years and under against polio. This is a small number considering all the children throughout the barrancas, but it represents about 75% of the younger children in the four villages where we did inoculate, and should be enough to prevent serious epidemics in these villages. In San Ignacio, several children died in a whooping cough epidemic this summer. In December a whooping cough epidemic struck villages along the upper reaches of the Rio Piaxtla, and along the coast diphtheria has struck a number of the villages in epidemic fashion. It is a comfort to know that at least one small area of the barrancas now has some protection against these diseases.
Having written of my impressions of Dr. Félix at the Centro de Salud in San Ignacio and of his cavalier preoccupation with sex, it seems well, by contrast, to say a word about the approach to sex of the villagers. For although Dr. Félix is a citizen of the same country, he comes from a very different world. As a boy, Dr. Félix grew up in a huge metropolis where he was orphaned from the soil and from Nature, where sex, as he learned of it, must have been something naughty and elitist. It was joked, whispered, and even shrieked about; distorted, idealized, and devotedly sought –sight unseen– almost like God. By contrast, the villagers of the Sierra Madre have grown up in a world where sex is as plain and natural an element in their daily lives as is the hot dust under their feet in las secas or the fresh taste of rain in las aguas. Three year old Beni, in the casa Chavarín, says to her mother María, “What are the pigs doing?” And María replies simply, “They’re making babies.” ”Oh!” says little Beni, and stares with avid fascination until she has had her fill, then turns to other things. It’s as simple as that.
People grow up regarding sex as normal, necessary, pleasurable – or sometimes painful – and commonplace. It is a man’s nature, they say, to “llenar la barriga y vaciar la bolsa” (fill his belly and empty his pouch). And because “filling his belly” is the appetite he is least confident of satisfying, the campesino’s wishful thinking frequently turns more toward a beautiful cornpatch than a beautiful woman... For as Pelluyo the musician sings with his thrush-like voice,
Se acaba el maíz, Se acaban los frijoles,Pero nunca se acaba, La cosecha de mujeres.
(The corn runs out,
The beans run out,
But the harvest of women,
Never runs out.)
Sexual indulgence in the villages of the Sierra Madre – as anywhere – may be harsh or gentle. But it is always prevalent, and perhaps for this reason sex is less idealized and glamorized than is good food. Above all, sex is not sordid. Bestial at times, true. But never have I seen the villagers make it dirty and cheap. Somehow a villager can manage to talk about the same anatomy of the same girl with basically the same motives as Dr. Félix, and yet ring as fresh a note as from the city-bred physician it rings foul. In general, the villager finds little need to talk about his sex life, or anyone else’s, (unless, of course, it is a scandal). Sex is not something to be whispered or guffawed about, or that children need to sneak away about, to tell jokes that are funny because they are taboo. Sex, like a bath in the river, is a refreshing and clean respite.
It is true, that with such “directness of desire” comes an array of concomitant problems. When a man’s appetites get the better of him he may rob another man’s corn, or he may “rob” another mail’s wife or daughter. Such acts are frequent. Little Goyo’s Aunt Benencia was raped when she was only thirteen; Goyo’s mother was assaulted twice when she was fifteen. And so on. Although in the villages there is little sign of the overt preoccupation with sex so conspicuous in America today, sexual union is a very significant pastime in the lives of the villagers, being the cheapest (at least initially) as well as the most habit-forming form of entertainment. To the maturing girl, however, sex can be a real threat: not because she is afraid of sexual contact, but because she is afraid of being mistreated or made pregnant by a man who cares for her body only.
All this considered, however, in the people’s matter-of-fact approach to sexuality there remains a kind of innocence, which is to me as refreshing as standing by night on a lone mountain and looking up at the host of sharp stars in a clean sky; after many dreary nights of peering up at the sparse, half-suffocated stars above a city.
In the months I have known Tatino Chavarín, stayed with him in the home of his parents in Ajoya, gone hiking with him, swimming with him, gone with him to the milpa, talked with him of a hundred different things, he never said a word to me about his sex life. Not until two days after we had completed the first round of vaccinations did the subject first arise.
After helping vaccinate, Tatino needed to get back promptly to Ajoya to help his brothers harvest the sesame crop. As he had never been to Verano before, I offered to accompany as far as the ridge overlooking Bordontita, where he could easily find his way along the river.
We set out from El Rancho del Padre shortly after dawn. When we were a hundred yards from Irineo’s big casa, Tatino said with a laugh, “Did I ever have a scare the day before yesterday!”
“How so?” I asked.
“Do you remember that fat woman with the curly hair who came in the afternoon with all the other mothers?”
“Do you mean Escolástica?” I said.
“Yes,” said Tatino, “I was afraid she was going to explode when she saw me. If her eyes had been fangs I’d be dead!”
Tatino reached out and plucked one of the saffron daisies. “It had to do with her daughter.”
“You ‘robbed’ her?” I ventured.
“Yes . . . You see I was about sixteen at the time, and Cirila was thirteen or fourteen...” As we wound our way up the mountainside of cosmos, Tatino told me that when Micaela and Ramón had taken a trip to Mazatlán, he had lured Escolástica’s daughter into the back portal of his home and “robbed” her. The girl then told her mother, who marched off to San Ignacio and demanded that the judiciales (state police) arrest Tatino, which they did. Tatino was taken before El Presidente in San Ignacio (a different Presidente than the present one) who sentenced him to twelve years in prison. When Ramón and Micaela returned from Mazatlán and found their son was in jail, they went to the Presidente and begged him to let Tatino off, offering all the small funds that they could scrape together. But the Presidente refused. As luck would have it, Jesús Manjarréz of San Ignacio, a wealthy and influential friend of Ramón, arrived a few days later from Mexico City, and at Ramón’s request quickly arranged for Tatino’s release. Escolástica was, of course, furious and has remained furious with Tatino ever since. Her daughter has long since married.
“That was eight or nine years ago,” said Tatino. “You’d think she’d cool down. But no!”
“Was Escolástica’s daughter the first you ever robbed?” I asked.
“Lord, no!” replied Tatino, and gave his one-eyed mare a swat on the rump. “The first was when I was about twelve years old, or maybe thirteen. I’m not sure; my mother lost my birth registration when I was still little.” He picked another flower. “You see, it happened like this: One evening after it was dark, a group of us boys were playing ‘Mamitas.’ That’s a game where one half of the boys run and hide while the other half cover their eyes and sing out:
y el pan que te doy!
Si más te diera,
Little Mother, Little Mother,
And the bread that I give you!
The more that I give you,
The more you shall eat.
And the other half, from their hiding spots, sing back:
No mires pa’ donde voy.
Viene San Pedro,
con un tapojo!
Don’t look where I go!
Come Saint Peter,
He’ll break your eye
With the blinder of a mule!)
“Then the first half run to hunt for the second.
“Well, when it was our turn to run and hide, a friend and I ran down that little path that takes off beyond the house of old Cecelia, you know, the witch who hexed my uncle, and we hid below in the deep, brushy wash. While we were hiding, a young woman of about twenty, called Lina, who lived in the house behind my aunt Lupe, was coming back from Raúl Padilla’s along the path with a bottle of kerosene she’d bought. She had her little boy with her, about four. ‘Let’s grab her’, said my friend. He was about the same age I was, maybe a little older. ‘All right!’ I said. Well, we dashed out of the ditch and grabbed hold of her. Her little boy ran away, screaming. We hauled the woman down into the gully and made her lie down. First my friend robbed her, and then I did. Well, like I say I was only twelve or so. It was the first woman I’d ever had! But I liked it! More than just about anything. And do you know, she didn’t even struggle or cry out. I think she liked it too... Yes, she was married, but her husband had been away for months, so that in those days she didn’t have her man ‘by the foot’. That night was just the beginning. After that my friend and I used to go to the same spot every night and wait for her to come by for kerosene. She made a point of coming, whether she needed kerosene or not. Every night we’d grab her and lead her down the gully and rob her. Sometimes we’d spend as much as four hours, taking turns. We didn’t get much sleep on those nights, but it was worth it! Unfortunately it only lasted about three weeks. Her boy told her father, and the old fellow followed secretly her when she left the house. As ever, my friend and I met her down into the wash. I was all excited and ready when we heard a noise and jumped to our feet. Her father came charging out after us, and we ran off down the arroyo. The old man ran after us, throwing rocks. He didn’t hit us.”
“He didn’t take any action against you?”
“No,” said Tatino. “I don’t think he recognized us. It was dark.”
Suddenly I realized we had taken the wrong trail. Absorbed in conversation, we had drifted along through the tangle of saffron daisies and tall grass until we had come out on the ridge top. I had automatically led the way to the right, toward Jocuixtita, instead of taking the trail to the left, which follows the ridge crest down toward Bordontita. We turned our animals around and headed back along the ridge.
Tatino was now in the mood for reminiscing. “I’ve had narrower escapes than that,” he said. “One time, for instance, when I was about eighteen, I was in Coyotitán visiting relatives, and a young woman I got talking to invited me into her house. She told me her husband had left that morning to work in the, hills and wouldn’t be back for several days. So we got into bed together. Next thing we knew her husband was pounding on the door! Said he’d forgotten his machete, and told his wife to open up. Well, there was no other way out except by that door, and there was only the one room. ‘Quick, under the bed!’ whispered his wife. So I climbed under the bed, and she let in her husband. He lit a cachimba and began to poke about the room. Meanwhile, there I was with my pants off and my breath held, under the bed.”
Tatino laughed at the memory of it. “Then the fellow bent over to look for his machete, and spotted me! Well, he jerked out his knife and scrambled under the bed. And we fought. I managed to get hold of the hand with the knife, but he cut me twice, pretty deep.”
Tatino swatted the one-eyed mare until it came along side Hormiga, and showed me his hands. Across the back of his right hand was a long scar, and on the side of the wrist of his left hand was another.
“We fought for a long time, all over the room. At last his wife helped me get the knife away from him by beating her husband’s hand with a mano del metate (pestle for grinding corn) until he dropped the knife. I ran out of the house, and out of Coyotitán. I didn’t stop until I got to San Ignacio. I was pretty weak by that time. I’d lost a lot of blood.”
We came out on a high crest which overlooked, to our left, the deep, winding valley of the Rio Verde, still dark and mysterious in the shadows of early morning. To our right, far below us in the distance, lay the red-tiled roofs of Jocuixtita, clustered in the middle of the daisy-gilded slopes, now aglow in the early sunlight, while behind them rose the somber escarpments and towering crags of El Cerro de los Chivos.
I pointed out to Tatino a beautiful little rancho, now vacant, called La Higuerita, in a high pocket midway between our viewpoint and Jocuixtita... “You were lucky,” I said. “The owner of that little rancho came back to his house one night this spring and found his wife with another man. Only the other man didn’t come out of it as well as you did. He’s in the hospital in Culiacán with a bullet through his spine, paralyzed from the waist down.”
“Only the lucky stay alive!” said Tatino with a shrug. His eyes swept out over the magnificent panorama. “The mountains are pretty after the rains,” he added. “I like it when everything’s so green and full of life.” We clucked to our animals to move on. Tatino continued to relate his many exploits with the opposite sex. He spoke with no special pride or shame, and always with a kind of child-like enthusiasm. He had simply enjoyed himself, and he said so. On some of his trips to the coast he had experimented with prostitutes. He had been to both the large, government regulated whorehouse near the army camp in Culiacán, and to the small burdél oculto near the junction of the Rio Piaxtla and the main highway, where “the house can’t let the police and soldiers know it exists... officially, that is.”
“No,” Tatino added, “I haven’t been very often. I don’t get down to the coast very much, and when I do, for me fifteen pesos is a lot of money. But I like to do it when I get the chance, especially when I haven’t got a regular woman in Ajoya. A man shouldn’t let much time go by that he doesn’t hechar el palo (put in the pole). If he does, little stones will form in his huevos and he’ll have to have an operation to get them out.”
“What do the young men from the villages do who haven’t got a woman and don’t have the chance to go to the burdeles on the coast?” I asked.
“They either bear it or they rob a girl,” said Tatino. “But there are always women who are ready or who can be persuaded. For example, there’s Ubaldina, the inocente. She likes it a lot and will do it for a peso, or sometimes for nothing if a fellow hasn’t got a peso.”
I noticed that Tatino rarely mentioned the sex act by name, but rather spoke of “it”.
“I’ve never done it with her myself,” Tatino continued. “She repels me. But I know Eberardo has. When Eberardo comes back to the house so happy that you think he’s drunk, but he’s not, and he can’t get that big smile off his face, you can bet he’s been with Ubaldina.” Tatino shook his head. “Of course if a man’s got a lot of money,” he added, “he can have just about whoever he wants. Your good friend, Ramona, as you already know, is the secret mistress of Chuy Vega. He pays her fifty pesos a shot.”
“Are you sure of that?” I asked.
“Where do you think she gets the money to buy all those clothes and perfumes?” replied Tatino. “After all, David, Ramona’s no longer a child! She’s eighteen now. She’s ready and she’s looking. Have you seen the way she shows her thighs? One day when Ramona was sitting out front of the shop, Nicolasa, the old witch, came out and cried at Ramona, ‘Why do you keep showing your thighs? Don’t you know it makes men rear up like burros?’ Mona knew, all right. That’s why she did it. All the men and boys who were standing around exploded with laughter. Poor Ramona covered her face with her hands and ran back into the shop... but she was laughing.”
I learned from Tatino that not all of the men of Ajoya confined their sexual taste to women. For example, he told me that Raúl Padilla, the owner of Ajoya’s largest shop, was a mesatero, a man who spends one month with a woman and the next with a man, according to the changes of the moon. He said that Raúl openly declared his likings and offered twenty pesos a time to young men who would oblige him.
“There are always those who accept,” said Tatino. “After all, twenty pesos is two days wages. I’ve never done it though. I don’t think that I’d like it much.”
Tatino went on to tell me that José Lomas, Tatino’s young cousin and formerly the best hunter in Ajoya (he used to bring me all kinds of wild game because he knew I missed not having much meat) had been el marido (husband) of Raúl.
“But the people started talking,” said Tatino. “They said that José was a puto and that he had ‘salted’ (brought bad luck to) the pueblo. They even blamed him for last year’s drought. The women made it unbearable for José’s wife when she went for water or to wash in the river. At last even his wife began to make fun of him. José couldn’t take the ribbing any longer. That’s why he took his wife and children and left.”
“If the people were so critical of José,” I asked, “why don’t they say anything about Raúl?”
“Oh, they do,” said Tatino. “But in whispers. After all, Raúl is rich, and the people have to beg for credit at his store. José, on the other hand, is poor. Poor guy!”
“You don’t hold anything against José?”
“Why should I?” shrugged Tatino. “The people are always after somebody’s hide. No, I don’t see that José did anything wrong: he made twenty pesos each time.”
Ahead of us the ridge burst suddenly upward in a dark escarpment of volcanic rock. We followed the trail around it to the right, cutting through a, dense forest of bamboo-like otate. Twined about the filmy otate were rich bouquets of a pink-flowering pea called coronillo, whose lavish festoons were being visited by large, lazy butterflies, snow-white above with a round yellow sun-spot painted on each wing.
Tatino suggested that I should get married in Ajoya so that I wouldn’t be tempted to leave. He suggested the sixteen-year-old daughter of Antonio Sánchez. “Antonio would let you,” he insisted. “He’d be delighted. What do you say?”
“She’s pretty and I like her,” I replied, “but . . .”
“You could just tell her you were going to marry her, and later leave her,” explained Tatino. “Shall I talk to her for you?”
“I wouldn’t feel right about it,” I said.
“Why not?” said Tatino,). “The girls don’t mind being tricked. They expect it.”
“What about you, Tatino,” I suggested. “You’re how old? Twenty-four or twenty-five? Haven’t you got any thoughts of getting married?”
“Oh yes,” said Tatino, “I’d like to get married. Then I wouldn’t have to keep jumping from one woman to the next.”
“How many women would you say you’ve had?” I asked.
“Not many,” replied Tatino. “Let’s see . . .” He counted on his fingers. “Only fourteen, not including whores.”
“Have you had any children by any of them?” I asked.
“Just two that I know about,” he replied.
“Have you ever asked a girl if she’d marry you, and meant it?” I asked.
“Just once,” said Tatino. “It was a couple of years ago, around the time you came with your students. I was going with a young girl from Duranguito. She was only twelve. One afternoon I took her out into el monte and we found a little clearing where we thought no one would find us. Well, we’d just finished doing it, and were sitting there side by side talking, when we heard someone coming through the brush. It was her brother. He had a rifle with him. He was hunting cüiches. ‘What are the two of you doing here?’ he asked us. ‘Talking,’ we said. ‘Just see that that’s all!’ he said, and he went away. I knew there was likely to be trouble, so I asked the girl if she would come and live with me. She said yes, and we did it again. Then we started back toward Duranguito to talk with her parents. But we met her father coming our way. He had his rifle with him. I told her father we planned to get married. He got mad and said to the girl, ‘I’ll give you a choice, daughter: You can have a father, or you can have a husband, but you can’t have both. Not yet! Which will it be?’ Well, she began to cry, and said, ‘I think I’d better go with my father.’ ‘As you wish,’ I said. But I was hurt and angry inside. I really wanted her then. She was crying. Her father took her by the hand and led her down the trail a few meters, and there he beat her with his fist. My God, how he beat her! And I couldn’t do anything because he had the rifle. Then he led her off toward their casa, and I went back to Ajoya. About two weeks later her father came to Ajoya and asked me if I would marry her. He said he’d changed his mind and it was all right with him. But I’d changed my mind, too, by that time, and said no.”
“You’re not going with any woman now, are you?” I asked Tatino. “I’ve never seen you with one.”
“I hope nobody’s seen me,” said Tatino. “I don’t want my parents to know. They’d have a fit. You see, she’s María Elena, the wife of Manuel in the house next door to us.”
“How do you manage it?” I asked.
“Each of us sneaks out in the middle of the night as if we have to excuse ourselves. It’s an old trick we learned as children from our parents – where everyone sleeps in a single room. First one parent gets up and goes out as if to take a dump; and a few minutes later, the other. But they don’t come back for half an hour or so, so all the kids know what’s happening, if they’re awake. The two of them go to a spot in el monte that the father cleared very clean with a machete the day before. When they come back, the children all pretend they’re asleep. Or if one of the smallest children is so stupid as to ask his folks where they’ve been, the father says, ‘Shut up! Go to sleep!’ Well, that’s more or less how María Elena and I do it, too.”
“What will Manuel do to you if he catches you?” I asked.
Tatino grinned. “Kill me… if he can!”
We reached the point where the ridge we were following began to drop off abruptly and we began to wind our way down toward the junction of the Arroyo de Caballo with the Rio Verde. We could see the village of Bordontita far below us in the distance.
“She is such a beautiful thing!” said Tatino happily.
“María Elena?” I said.
“No,” replied Tatino with a laugh. “María Elena’s not lovely at all. She’s ugly. I mean the thing itself, you know, the act. How I do like it! I’ve been doing it since I was twelve, and the will hasn’t left me at all.” He looked out over the wide valley. “I like it as much as I like riding all day through the mountains, as we are doing now, when everything is green and alive. It makes me feel strong, you know what I mean? And it is natural. The most natural thing I know.”
Tatino smiled broadly, and looked a little pleased with himself for having thought out all his feelings so well. “We certainly have talked!” he said, laughing. We rode on down the slope in silence.
On re-reading what I have written on “Tatino’s Love Life,” I notice that the first and last time I used the word “love” was in the heading. Tatino’s exploits with the opposite sex clearly and openly are expressions of lust, with no pretensions of love. In fact, the word amar – to love – has virtually been dropped from the local language, the villagers using only the word querer –to want, or to like– to express their deepest, most passionate bonds. A deep love is nevertheless very evident in many close relationships. If Tatino’s affairs are conspicuously devoid of real affection, it may be because he has not yet set up house with a woman and tried to live with her through thick and thin. By contrast, Tatino’s parents, old Micaela and the blind Ramón, after thirty-five years of floods and droughts, harvests and hunger spells, simple pleasures and crushing adversities, have become united by a bond so complete that the visiting nuns’ insistence that the aging couple marry seems absurd. Their “marriage” is clearly far deeper and more durable than are the superficial pacts awarded by church or state! Many times, as I observe the depth and closeness of the bonds between persons such as old Micaela and Ramón, I recall James Thurber’s simple insight: “Love is what two people have been through together.” Tatino, for all his adventures, still has a long way to go.
One, of my most frequent visitors at El Rancho del Padre during the long rainy season was Pancho Soto Alvarado, the quiet, thirteen-year-old son of Florinda Alvarado from Sapotitos. Pancho’s father died last spring, probably of tuberculosis. Whether or not the absence of his father has had anything to do with Pancho’s frequent visits, I don’t know. In any case, I began to get used to, even look forward to Pancho’s regular appearance at my dispensary. Sometimes he would tell me his mother sent him, and ask for some medicine or other, or for more powdered milk for his baby nephew. But more often he would simply appear and stand – quiet as a shadow in the background – watching as I questioned and gave medicine to other people. One of his great fascinations was my camera, and I showed him how to use it. But he was always tremendously shy, and rarely did many words pass between us.
One day as I was typing in the portal of my dispensary, Pancho appeared and watched with absolute fixation. The better part of an hour passed, during which he scarcely moved. At last I turned to him and asked, “Sabes leer y escribir?” (Do you know how to read and write?)
Pancho shook his head, embarrassed, and muttered, “Es que vivimos muy lejos de la escuela.” (It’s that we live very far from the school.)
“Lástima,” I said. “Vale mucho saber.” (Too bad. It’s important to know how.)
Pancho did not reply, and the next moment I saw him sneaking quietly away.
Unknown to me, Pancho hurried home and pleaded to his mother to let him go to school in Verano in September, provided a teacher should come. Florinda was reluctant to let him. Not only would his going to school mean a two and a half hour hike each way, over a 2000 foot pass and treacherous trails, from Sapotitos to the school in Verano, but she needed Pancho to help with harvests, especially since the death of her husband. Pancho was so eager and insistent, however, that Florinda gave in. In the last days of September, when Professor Gautamo Manjarréz arrived in Verano, I gave Pancho pencils and a notebook, and he began classes, leaving his home before dawn each day, and arriving again after dark.
The first chance I had to visit Florinda’s home in Sapotitos was one Sunday in mid-October, following the first vaccinating trip. The rancho of Sapotitos, located on the upper reaches of the Rio Verde, comprises three widely separated casas. Florinda’s family lives in the smallest and poorest of these, a crudely constructed shack sheltered in a grove of large zapote and palo colorado trees at the junction of Arroyo del Rincón. The shack is at the edge of a small sugar cane field, and was built by Florinda’s husband shortly before his death, when he became too weak to hike back and forth to the field each day from Santo Domingo, where the family had lived before. When Florinda’s husband died, the maintenance of the family fell on the oldest remaining son, Manuel, age twenty-two. Manuel is one of four children still living, out of eight that Florinda gave birth to. (One of Florinda’s children died in a whooping cough epidemic at age six; three others died in infancy.) In addition to his mother, his younger siblings, and an orphaned, fifteen year old, simple-minded cousin, Manuel also has a young wife of his own five children to feed– a total of eleven.
When I arrived at Sapotitos, escorted by young Pancho, Florinda hurried forward to greet me, followed by Manuel, who offered to take Hormiga to a spot where she could graze. This was the first time I had seen Manuel since a year and a half before, when our Pacific High School group had passed by along the river. At that time, Manuel had cut each of us a tall stalk of sugar cane to gnaw upon.
The small shack in Sapotitos was bursting with people when we arrived. As chance would have it, that same Sunday, Victoria Torres, her husband and three small children had set out from Pie de la Cuesta on a seven hour journey to Verano, to bring me their four year-old daughter, who suffers from epileptic seizures. Victoria is the twenty-six year-old sister of Manuel’s wife, Delfina, and as she and her family had been passing Sapotitos, they had stopped to say hello. When they’d learned that I, too, was on my way to Sapotitos that same day, they decided to wait for me. Later that afternoon Manuel returned from a wild boar (javelín) hunt accompanied by two young friends, who also decided to spend the night. Altogether, this made a total of nineteen persons spending the night in the small hut.
Victoria Torres told me that her four-year-old girl had been having seizures since she was a few months old. Recently the child has been having as many as one hundred fits in twenty-four hours. Her brain has obviously been damaged by the attacks, for she has lost her capacity to speak and even to play. Victoria thinks the child’s illness was the result of a severe susto (scare or mental shock) that Victoria received when pregnant with the baby. She told me that one day when she was already badly upset by the drowning of a young girl in the river below her home, word also reached her about the savage death of her twenty-two year old cousin, Elodia Jiménez Cebreros, in La Quebrada. (I had already heard tell of this unfortunate event: five years ago Elodia’s father, Camilo Jiménez, threw a dance at his house in La Quebrada, the same house at which young Pancho Cebreros was stabbed to death last spring! Against his daughter’s protest, Camilo insisted that his daughter dance with other men until her new husband got there. Her husband arrived, found Elodia dancing with another man, shot her three times, and left.) Victoria said she was so shocked by the news that she was unable to eat or sleep. She feels sure that this is the cause of her daughter’s ataques.
As night was falling, it began to rain. There was scarcely room for the nineteen of us to huddle under the leaky roof of the tiny hut, and I wondered how we were going to pass the night. But Manuel, Delfina, and their children went out and curled up in the shelter of the empty corncrib, so that, with some overlap, there was room for the rest of us to lie down.
Long before dawn, Florinda, Delfina, and Victoria were up grinding new corn and making tortillas. The rest of us rose at the first touch of light. Thirteen year-old Pancho had already gulped down a couple of tortillas and hurried off on his two and a half hour hike to school. It last the sun emerged above the dark mountains to the east, streaming, through the morning mist and making the myriad raindrops flash in a spectrum of colors upon the light green leaves of the towering sugar cane. Soon it was hot.
“¡Vamos a bañarnos!” suggested young Lucio eagerly. (Let’s go swimming.)
“¡Vamos!” And Manuel, Lucio, Domingo, Lino (another youth), and I took off up the river to a good swimming hole.
The swimming hole was a deep, turbulent pool flanked with giant water-sculptured boulders separated by pockets of dark sand. Along the shallow perimeters of the pool were clumps of graceful, white spider lilies. We stripped off our clothes and sprang into the water. The young men frolicked and fought like bear cubs, laughing and swearing at each other. Manuel, especially, impressed me with his strength. Tall for a villager, he is very thin and stringy. Yet he would sweep up the other youths like bales of corn leaves in his long arms, and hurl them bodily into the swirling current of the river, much to everyone’s delight. It was great fun.
After we had finished swimming and returned to the casa, Florinda asked me if I would take a picture of her husband’s mule. She told me she would have to sell it, and wanted the picture as a memory of her husband. Manuel offered to take the mule down to the river in the sunlight. I suggested that we photograph the mule drinking. And so the fight began. The mule refused to put its nose in the water, and Manuel tried to make it. Each got angrier and more stubborn as the struggle proceeded. Manuel tugged and swore at the huge, black mule; the mule tried to kick Manuel. The eyes of each grew wide with fury. I cried to Manuel not to bother, but he was beyond listening or reasoning. He struck the mule in the head and heaved it bodily toward the water. But the mule was as stubborn as he, and at last Manuel had to admit defeat. When at last he had cooled down a bit, he laughed at the foolishness of it.
After our first vaccinating trip in October, it was more than two weeks before I followed Tatino back to Ajoya. I took a long way about, making a sixty mile loop of some of the more easterly villages – including La Sierrita, Azoteas, Pueblo Viejo, Candelero and Limón de las Castañedas – for I had never been into this rugged area before, and had long-standing invitations. It was a good trip, full of unexpected adventures and heart-warming welcome in each village and rancho along the way. As ever when I arrive at villages where I have not been before, I was appalled at some of the diseases and injuries that had been inappropriately treated or simply neglected. Yet, for me personally, the trip was without mishap, except for once when my mule, Hormiga, let me down with a splash.
The fault was my own: Hormiga had lost her rear shoes, and I had neglected to replace them before the trip. The Arroyo de Verano still carried a good bit of water, and was in bad shape for travel after the rains. At one spot, where we had to drop down a steep trough of cascading water and cross a deep pool at the bottom rock. She skittered downwards, her feet flying like a frenzied tap dancer’s, and cannon-balled into the pool. She landed off balance, her hooves sinking deep into the soft mud of the bottom. For a moment she floundered frantically, then keeled over sideways with a splash. I barely managed to hoist my camera over my head with one hand and extend my other hand toward a protruding rock to catch my fall, as I, too, went splashing under the floundering mule. Irineo’s grandson, Alvaro, who was at that moment passing through the canyon on his way to El Tule, at once sprang into the pool, caught hold of the halter, and hauled the mule away. As the three of us sloshed out of the pool, Alvaro and I were laughing so hard we nearly fell into the water afresh, not that it would have made much difference.
When I arrived back in Ajoya, the village was astir with talk about the recent deaths. The first death had been that of Juan, the cirrhotic, nicknamed Chútele, or El Tejón, because as a little boy he used to climb trees stark naked, where – with his dark skin, skinny face, and bright, black eyes – he had reminded the villagers of a coati-mundi. The next two deaths – which took place five days after Chútele died and two days before my return to Ajoya – were those of sixteen year-old Candelaria (Cande) Castro, and her new-born child.
Chútele’s relatives –as I mentioned in the third Report– had for a long time been accusing old Nicolasa, Rosaura’s washer-woman, of having hexed Chútele by placing a frog or a rat inside him through black magic. This, they said, was the cause of the grotesque swelling of his abdomen. As Chútele continued to get worse, and his belly to swell, the hostility of his relatives toward Nicolasa had continued to increase. Then came the night when Chútele took a sudden turn for the worse. As it happened, Nicolasa was sleeping in the house of Ramona’s grandparents, Gregorio Alarcón and Rosaura. Shortly before midnight a. group of men came banging on the heavily bolted doors. Rosaura got up, went to the door, and without opening it, called out, “What do you want?”
“We want Nicolasa to go with us to the loma to cure Chútele!” they said. “He can scarcely breathe.”
“Well, she’s not coming out!” cried Rosaura through the heavy doors. “I won’t let her!”
Rosaura knew only too well how they would have Nicolasa “cure” Chútele: they would beat her and very likely kill her, for it is thought that by killing a witch her evil spells are automatically lifted from those she has hexed. (The effectiveness of such a “cure” of an hechizo (hex) such as Chútele’s was by that time well established. Everyone in Ajoya knows the story of Felipe Estrada who, like Chútele, whose abdomen became “swollen like a bloated cow” while the rest of his body grew thinner and weaker. At last Felipe had gone to see a curandero de mal puesto (witch doctor) who told him he had been hexed, and named the old spinster, Paula as the witch. Everyone knows that no sooner had Paula been dragged out of her casa in Carrisál and beaten to death than the distension of Felipe’s abdomen disappeared, as if by magic. Anyone who doubts this can go to Carrisál and ask Felipe, who is now an old man, but remembers well.)
“Open up!” demanded the men at the door. “We want Nicolasa!”
“No!” shouted Rosaura with finality.
The men moved away, grumbling and swearing.
The next morning word circulated through Ajoya that Chútele was dying. Nevertheless, when the sun had risen high and hot in the morning sky, Old Nicolasa, disregarding Rosaura’s warnings, put her load of wash on her head, as was her custom, and made her way to the river. She constructed a small teepee of brightly colored rags stretched over converging poles, and thus sheltered from the sun, she began to scrub the garments, beating them on a flat stone to loosen the dirt.
Suddenly she heard a noise and looked around. Rubén Zepeda, Chútele’s seventeen year-old nephew, drew close to her and said stiffly, “I’ve come to ask you to go with me to cure my uncle. He’s dying...”
Nicolasa, angry at the young man’s implication, gave a snort and turned back to her washing.
“Please come!” begged Rubén, and again he added, “He’s dying!”
“¡Hijo de la chingada!” shrieked Nicolasa. “What in the devil makes you think I can do anything for your damned uncle!”
Ruben caught the old woman by the shoulder and said in a shaking voice, “Are you going to go with me? Yes or no?”
“No!” snapped Nicolasa. “Leave me alone!”
She jerked away from him. Ruben caught hold of her again and threw her to the ground. He closed his hands around Nicolasa’s throat and began to strangle her, crying “Kill my uncle, would you, you lousy witch! Die, damn you!”
Two other women who had been washing clothes a short distance upstream came running to Nicolasa’s aid. These were the aged Saturnina Castro, wife of Martín Chavez, and her niece, Jesús Castro. They clubbed Rubén with sticks until he let go. (“As soon as I let her go I felt sorry for her and wished I hadn’t done it,” said Rubén afterwards.) Nicolasa, her throat badly injured, gasped to regain her breath. Saturnina and Jesús escorted her back to the home of Rosaura, where the old woman collapsed.
That afternoon Chútele died. For twenty-four hours his wife and children sat around his small, swollen body, weeping, and praying for his soul. Then he was carried to the hillside cemetery in a small, wooden coffin. Half the village saw him buried.
Four days later, in the evening, sixteen year-old Cande Castro, a niece of Saturnina, gave birth to a small boy baby. It was a difficult birth, yet for the first hour or so afterward, both she and the child seemed to be doing well. Then, of a sudden, Cande went into a state of collapse, with high fever and labored breath. The midwives gave her agua de carmin and the medicinal herbs, all to no avail. Cande’s mother was frantic, and cried out, “It must be that she’s been hexed! Bring Nicolasa and see if she can cure her!”
Again a. group of men came knocking on the heavy doors for Nicolasa. Again Rosaura turned them away. A few hours later, Cande succumbed, and the new-born infant died minutes after his mother. Now there was no doubting the cause. It was Nicolasa! Cande’s mother shrieked to God for revenge, and the village, like a great wall, echoed her pain.
From that day on, Old Nicolasa lived as a virtual prisoner within the confines of the Alarcón home. Shortly after my return from Verano, when I heard of what had happened, I went to call on her. Ramona and Rosaura greeted me as warmly and spontaneously as ever, but poor Nicolasa –who usually comes forward with her bony arms spread wide to embrace me– now stood silently, her arms drawn in against withered breasts, in the darkest corner of the hall. I went to her and hugged her, and she tried to laugh, but tears came to her eyes.
“ . . . It’s not just that I’m afraid to go out into the streets anymore,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to! The way the people all look at me, David, I tell you it really makes me ashamed, ashamed so that I can’t stand it. I can’t even go to the river to wash! What else is there to do?” She looked at me and smiled unhappily. “What did I do, David, I ask you that? I didn’t do anything to Chútele. Or to this Cande; I scarcely knew her! Why would I want to do any harm to her? Yet they blame me. Why me? I’m losing my mind. Curse them all!”
She bent her head to dry her eye on her shoulder. “You don’t have any medicine for my throat, do you? It hurts so much I can hardly swallow.”
I examined her throat and found it was still swollen and blue. “I’ll bring something,” I said, and left.
“All this talk about witchcraft is a lot of nonsense!” snapped Rosaura when I returned. “I’ll tell you why I don’t believe in it. My father, Bonefacio, started urinating blood in Nogales, and a doctor said he had to have a kidney stone removed. My father wrote for me to sell three calves to pay for it. So I sold them. Well, my father arrived in San Ignacio and met a band of gitanos (gypsies) who told him he’d been hexed. They said they would cure him for 900 pesos. So my father gave them 900 pesos, and the gypsies left, saying that the cure would take place invisibly in the course of three days. So! At the end of three days he was worse! We had to sell a full-grown cow to pay for the operation: They took out a stone as big as a dung beetle. And he got well.”
“I know,” I said. He showed me the stone when I stopped by at Vainilla on the way back from Pueblo Viejo.”
“My husband, Goyo, has almorranas (piles),” continued Rosaura, “And do you know he spent over 3000 pesos trying to get cured of a hex before he finally had them operated on. No sir, nobody’s going to make me believe in witchcraft! Look what they’ve done to poor Nicolasa! By the grace of God she’s not dead.”
“Better I were,” muttered Nicolasa sadly.
“Why do you defend her?” drawled easygoing, seventeen-year-old Chón, when I returned to the casa Chavarín, “since she’s guilty.”
“She is not guilty!” I replied, a little annoyed.
“Huh!” snapped Micaela. “I can name at least a dozen people right in this village that she’s done away with.” And she named them.
All over Ajoya people were dragging forth evidence against Nicolasa. Catalina, the wife of Heliodoro, remembered that one day she had argued with Nicolasa over the use of a lavadero (a big rock for washing), and the next day as she was going down the steep path toward the river, a huge black snake “fatter than natural” had fallen from the bank onto her foot. Micaela’s sister, Lupe, related how one day when she was going to wash, Nicolasa had touched her on the back and said, “¡Con eso te chingo!” (With this you’ve had it!), and from that time or, Lupe began to have eye trouble, stomach trouble, foot trouble, back trouble, and trouble with her daughter. Even blind Ramón recounted how Nicolasa had brought about the death of his brother. (Before this, he had been blaming old Cecilia).
The village was full of talk of witchcraft whether it applied to Nicolasa or not. Librada, the wife of old Caytano, remembered how Abraham Lomas had paid “La Joróita” to put “huevos de burro” (donkey balls) on Chencho Velázquez so their mutual sweetheart, Cuca Sánchez, wouldn’t love him. Sofía Chavarín told how her first cousin, Carlota, had been jealous of the marriage of Victoria (Toya) Nuñez with Gregorio Alarcón’s son, Librado, and how Carlota – on the advice of Micaela’s half-sister, Cosme – had succeeded in breaking up the marriage by repeating the “Oración de San Antonio” (Prayer of Saint Anthony) at twelve noon for nine consecutive days while she burned a candle al culo (at its ass end) with a needle through its center.
The stories were endless and everyone was busy telling them. Anyone who sided with Nicolasa was suspect, especially Rosaura, about whom people dug up all kinds of nasty gossip. “Rosaura protects Nicolasa because Rosaura’s got a secret romance going with Ricardo Manjarréz. So she’s been paying Nicolasa to hex her husband, Goyo, so he won’t find out. The whole village knows, and poor Goyo doesn’t suspect a thing!” and, “When Goyo’s son Salvador wanted to abandon Rosaura’s daughter, Jovita, Rosaura had Nicolasa hex Salvador so that he wouldn’t be able to do it with other women.” Et cetera.
It was too much for me. The day after I arrived in Ajoya, I saddled Hormiga again and rode across the river and the hills to Las Chicuras, to visit the family of little Goyo. But I was still upset.
“It’s completely unjustified the way people have been accusing Nicolasa!” I confided to Goyo’s mother, Jesús.
“Is it?” said Jesús challengingly.
“Don’t tell me you think she’s a witch too!” I cried.
Chuy laughed. “I really don’t know,” she said. “But in any case, Nicolasa brought it on herself.”
“The way she talks, you mean?”
“Exactly!” said Chuy. “Why, do you realize she’s threatened to hex our whole family to death! Whether she meant it, or could, who knows? But she said it, sure enough.”
Chuy lit a brown, hand-rolled cigarette in the coals. “You see, Nicolasa’s son, David, and an uncle I used to have named Lino, got into a fight over a girl they both liked. This was about twelve years ago when they were both young men. Well, a few days after they had been fighting, Lino got drunk. My uncle used to drink quite a bit. Well, this day Lino was walking up the alley past the house of María Vega, and he simply dropped dead! Somebody remembered that Lino and David had had a fight, and they decided that Nicolasa had probably hexed Lino. So a group of people went to Nicolasa’s casa on the loma, and asked her ‘Is it true that you hexed Lino to death?’ ’Damned right!’ screamed Nicolasa. ‘And I won’t stop until I kill off every last relative he’s got!’ And that,” concluded Chuy, “includes me and my children!”
“But surely that was just something she screamed out in anger because they accused her,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” replied Chuy. “But there are things Nicolasa has done that I can’t explain. Like the time she changed herself into an owl. That was several years before Lino died, when Remedios and I were just recently married and we lived in Saus. A friend of Remedios named Santiago was visiting us, and just at dusk they spotted a lechusa (barn owl) that had landed in the closest tree. Santiago, as a joke, cried out at the lechusa, ‘Mire! Allí está la Nicolasa, hija de la chingada! ¿Porque viniste pa’ca?’ (Look! There’s Nicolasa, daughter of a bitch! Why did you come here?) The lechusa flew away, and that was that. Well, the next day Remedios had to come to Ajoya, and he decided to stop by at the house of my grandmother next to Nicolasa’s casa there on the loma. As he was passing Nicolasa’s house, who should step out but Nicolasa. She took one look at Remedios, and screamed, ‘¡¿Que hubo, cabrón?! ¡Hijo de la chingada! ¿Porqué me maltrataste ayer?’ (What’s up, bastard?! Son of a bitch! Why did you speak evil to me yesterday?) Well, I’m telling you, poor Remedios just about died!” Chuy scratched her head. “So who knows if Nicolasa is a witch or not?” she said. “All I know is what people say.”
When I first began my sojourn in the barrancas of the Sierra Madre, I had no intention of trying to “modernize” the villages in any way, other than be providing some small medical assistance to those who were visibly in need. It seemed to me presumptuous – and it still does – for an American to assume that radical changes from the “primitive village-life” in the direction of “modern civilization” should necessarily be changes for the better. This is especially so because, for all our modern know-how, we still don’t know how to live in harmony with our neighbors, with our families, or with ourselves – at least if our delinquency, divorce, mental illness, drug addiction and suicide statistics are correct. I came to learn from the villagers, not to show them how to live!
As I became immersed in the village life, however, I began to run into dilemmas in restraining my endeavors to “some small medical assistance.” In Ajoya, for example, a large amount of the illness and death, especially of children, arises because the people bring their drinking water from the same river near which they go to defecate. True, I could dole out medicine for hundreds of cases of dysentery, and I have done so; most of the children get well … until the next time. True, I could encourage people to boil all their drinking water, and I have done so … with the result that one family in thirty has begun to boil their water. But clearly the only significant way to combat the severe problem of diarrhea in Ajoya would be to radically modify the time-honored and picturesque tradition of bringing water from the river. A system of pure drinking water in Ajoya could do more toward diminishing sickness in that village than I could do with all my little pills in a lifetime.
When my friend Fidel Millán, Ajoya’s fat and parasitic bartender, came to me one day last Spring to tell me that a “Comité para la Introducción del Agua Potable” (Committee for the Introduction of Potable Water) had been formed, and was asking my assistance, I was delighted. I never dreamed what I was getting into.
While pure drinking water would be a benefit to every family in the village, rich or poor, it was “los ricos” who were the most eager to establish it, not so much because the water would be pure, but because it would be piped in. The water needs of “los ricos” are greater: they must irrigate their fruit trees, water their livestock, and put down the dust in their spacious courtyards. To supplement the water that their wives and children haul up from the river, they must hire carriers at 50 centavos (4¢) per load.
A group of the wealthy landholders, led by Jesús Manjarréz and José Celis, had therefore formed the above-mentioned committee, and contacted a federal agency established to improve water systems in towns all over México. The government agreed to send engineers to put in a deep well, complete with pumping station and water lines, if the village would raise the first 15,000 pesos and provide the necessary local materials and unskilled labor required.
15,000 pesos (about $1,200.00) may not seem like much in a village with over 700 inhabitants, especially when you consider that in Ajoya, the ten wealthiest persons own, among them, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 head of cattle. Any fifteen of those bovine, when fattened, could easily bring in the required 15,000 pesos to get the pure water project underway. (A good cow is worth between 1000 and 1500 pesos.) Apart from the cattle, there is also to be considered the profit these same persons make on the harvests from their enormous bottomland terrains, or from the corn that they buy from the poorer villagers, and resell six months later at 1500 profit. It is these same wealthy persons who are most eager to have water piped into their homes and who formed and belong to the Committee for the Introduction of Good Water. Yet in spite of all this, what a discouraging battle it has been to try to raise those 15,000 pesos! I could have gone back to the U.S.A., got a job rooting out gooseberries, and have earned the blinking money in half the time and with half the sweat that I have expended trying to raise the funds in Ajoya.
The whole story of the Ajoya Water Project is far too long, and too painful, for me to relate. I can touch only on the highlights. My major efforts have been in two areas: first, to convince the rich to contribute in proportion to their capacity; and second, to convince the campesinos to cooperate.
I discovered that my idea, that each householder contribute according to his or her capacity, was revolutionary in Ajoya. The members of the Committee had initially decided to raise the 15,000 pesos by demanding 150 pesos from each of the 100 or so householders in Ajoya. They completely ignored the fact that although there may be a small percentage of the householders in Ajoya, (themselves included) who are well accustomed to spend two or three hundred pesos in a single night’s borrachera (drinking spree), also there is another, much larger percentage of Ajoya’s householders who are lucky if they see 150 pesos in the course of a year. The Committee’s proposed payment of 150 pesos from rich and poor alike was therefore not only unreasonable, but impossible: even the most skillful fingers cannot pick a pocket that is empty! But the ricos were bound to try. The Comité even instated Fidel Millán, the fat bar-keeper, as its presidente (really as its con-man) because Fidel with his lazy good humor maintains an amiable middle-of-the-road position between los ricos and the campesinos and could be sent from house to house to collect the money. Yet after three months, Fidel had collected only 832 pesos (USD$87.00).
The poor campesinos were skeptical of the program from the start, not because they didn’t want good water, but because they were suspicious of getting stung again by their enemies, the rich. As blind Ramón pointed out, “Three years ago ellos came around collecting money for improvements on the school building, so we tightened our belts and chipped in. That was the last we ever heard of our money. There still haven’t been any improvements made, not one! And nobody seems to know where the money went. No sir, I’m not going to contribute one centavo more for the Agua Potable or anything else...”
Old Ramón’s reaction was typical for the campesinos. Nevertheless, as I made my way from family to family, explaining the importance of pure drinking water to the health and even the lives of themselves and their children, pointing out how the incidence of diarrhea goes up every time it rains and the river rises, the campesinos began to override their distrust and agree to cooperate, to the extent that they were able. Many stipulated that they would help only if I myself would keep tab on the money and follow the project through. If it was left to los ricos, they wanted nothing to do with it.
But it was clear that even with all the campesinos cooperating, the majority of the money still would have to come from the minority of the people, the rich. I sat down with Fidel, and we made a list of all the members of the community who should be able to contribute at least 1000 pesos without hurting. The list numbered twelve for certain, eighteen as a maximum. Then I made a proposal: if there were nine persons in the village who would contribute 1000 pesos toward the Agua Potable, I would match them with 1000 pesos (from funds donated for the village health project) to complete 10,000 pesos. The remaining 5000 pesos we would try to raise from the poorer members of the village.
At first I thought it was really going to work. Although the first village meeting I tried to organize proved a total flop (everyone said he would come and then almost no one showed up) I made the rounds to every house in Ajoya, and succeeded in getting pledges from about half the families, amounting to over 3000 pesos. For the 1000 peso pledges from los ricos, Jesús Vega and Raúl Padilla were the first I visited. Each agreed that, “If nine other persons contribute 1000 pesos, I’ll do the same.” I was delighted. But the rest of los ricos gave me a song and dance about how hard pressed they were, how many of their cattle had died, how many debts they had to pay, etc. I talked myself blue trying to convince them, but to no avail. Jesús Padilla, for example, who had been perfectly content to have the poorest campesino pay 150 pesos (the same amount as himself) was suddenly upset that he should be asked to contribute as much as Jesús Vega, who is twice as wealthy as he is. Marcelo Manjarréz, who three years ago handed over 14,000 pesos to a troupe of gypsies for a portable movie show, complete with generator (which he could never make work) regretted that he could not possibly afford more for the purified water than the 150 pesos originally agreed upon. After three visits, I talked him up to 200. The rest of los ricos all listened to me sympathetically, said they sincerely wished they were able to help out more, but regretted that they were unable to afford it.
Early in July, at the commencement of the rainy season, the Nuevo Centro de Población in Ajoya held a meeting at which I was given a chance to talk on the Agua Potable. I re-emphasized the urgency, from a health standpoint, of having good drinking water, and suggested that we reconvene at the close of the rainy season; when, with the harvests ripening and the cattle fattened, people should be in the best position to contribute generously to the project. I encouraged each householder not to worry about whether he was giving more than somebody else, but to give the maximum he was able toward the project, which might save the lives of his own and the other children of the village. My little speech was greeted with hearty applause, and we set the last days in October as the time for the next meeting.
Shortly before the October meeting, when I had returned to Ajoya from my first vaccinating expedition, I went to make plans with Jesús (Chuy) Manjarréz, who is the official treasurer and effective leader of both the Nuevo Centro de Población and the Comité para la Introducción de Agua Potable. I suggested that the fairest way to collect money for the water project would be to ask each householder to contribute a small percentage – somewhere between 0.1 and 0.2 percent – of the value of what he owned, principally the value of his cattle.
Chuy agreed, but said it would be very difficult to get the wealthier cattle owners to admit that they possess as many cattle as they have. He pointed out that, in order to avoid the taxes on their cattle, many of the big cattlemen report only a small fraction of the cattle which they actually own, and pay handsome bribes to deter investigation. “For example, Marcelo Manjarréz,” said Chuy, “reported in the last census that he had only fifteen head of cattle, while in truth he has closer to six hundred. Most of the other cattlemen did likewise. I believe I’m the only one who told the truth.”
“How many head did you say you had?” I asked.
“Roughly two hundred head,” said Chuy, pleased with his honesty.
I did not refute him, although only a few days before, little Goyo’s brother, Martín, who was working as vecerero for Jesús Manjarréz in La Mesa, had told me that Jesús has six hundred head of cattle at the very least.
Jesús Manjarréz told me that he would help me present my plan for proportional contribution at the forthcoming meeting. In the meantime I paid calls on a number of the other ricos to try to win them over in advance.
First I went to see Jesús (Chuy) Vega, by far the wealthiest man in Ajoya, owning four houses, four huge ranches, and well over a thousand head of cattle. According to my plan, Chuy Vega would be asked to make the largest contribution, and I thought that if I could convince him to pay his share, others would more willingly follow suit.
“An excellent plan!” exclaimed Chuy Vega, when I presented the idea. “I’m behind you all the way, David.”
“Wonderful!” I said. “Could I ask you how many head of cattle you have?”
Chuy chuckled and said, “Well, you know how it is, David. When I’m drunk I say I’ve got 5000 and when I’m sober I say I’ve got five.”
I chuckled with him, and replied, “They say that drunkards and children always tell the truth. I’ll put you down for five thousand.”
“Oh no you don’t!” cried Chuy, waving his fat hand.
“Then how many cattle do you really have?” I asked him.
Chuy Vega grew sober. “To tell you the honest truth, David,” he said, “I’ve sold a lot of my cattle and I’ve had a lot of them die. Right now I’ve only got about eighty little cattle.”
“Now how about telling me the truth,” I suggested.
Chuy frowned. “That’s the very truth, David. I swear it. Eighty head. A hundred at the very most!”
“You won’t object if I check with your cowboys, will you?” I asked.
Chuy waved his fat hands. “Come now, David, you don’t have to do that! I’ll tell you what. You can put me down for two hundred head. It’s more than I have, but because I want to help bring about the agua potable...”
“Two hundred head for each of your four ranchos?” I suggested.
“Oh no!” cried Chuy. He shook his head and laughed. “You’re a hard man, David,” he said.
My next stop was at the home of Tomás Lomas, the father of Dimas. Apart from talking to Tomás about my plan for the Agua Potable, I wanted to see if he could lend me two mules for my next vaccinating trip into the barrancas. Tomás greeted me energetically, agreed to have two mules ready and waiting for me the following Thursday (he didn’t), and also said he would cooperate whole-heartedly with my plan for the water. I explained to him the difficulty I had been having in getting people to admit the number of cattle they possessed.
“How many did Chuy Vega say he had?” asked Tomás.
“Two hundred,” I replied.
Tomás was outraged. “What!” he cried. “Why Chuy Vega has close to three thousand head!”
“And how many would you say you have?” I asked him.
Tomás shrugged his broad shoulders. “I’m just a small rancher, myself,” he said. “I’ve got some thirty head of cattle, no more.”
“I’ve seen at least double that number with your brand ranging in the uplands,” I said.
Tomás squinted his eyes and looked hard at me. “What uplands? Where?” he demanded.
“In the Arroyo de Verano near the river,” I said.
Tomás looked over to his son, Samuel, who nodded back that it was so. “Very well,” said Tomás. “You can put me down for sixty head.”
“I happen to know that you have better than two hundred head,” I said gently.
Tomás sprang out of his seat. “Whoever told you that told a lie!” he cried. I did not argue with him.
The meeting of the Nuevo Centro de Población was scheduled to begin at noon on a Sunday late in October, in the village salón (public meeting hall). By one o’clock there was still. No one there, and I went to search for Jesús Manjarréz. I found him drinking beer in the tienda of José Celís.
“Is the meeting going to take place?” I asked him.
“It should begin any moment now,” said Chuy, slightly drunk.
I had just stepped out into the street again when María, the stout school mistress, came hurrying up to me.
“Come quickly to the house of my sister, Teresa,” she said.
“Is Teresa bad again?” I asked.
“No,” said María. “It’s her baby. Hurry!”
“What’s wrong with the baby?” I asked as we strode along.
“I don’t know,” gasped María. “It’s susto, I think. It scares me.” (Susto –literally “fright” or “shock”– is a condition common in infants, thought to be caused by evil spirits.)
We arrived at the ill-kept casa of Teresa and found the mother hovering over her seven-month-old child. I was appalled. The youngster could not have weighed more than fifteen pounds. His face was lean and drawn, making it look older and more human than it was. His shrunken belly sank beneath his protruding rib cage, and his arms and legs were skeletal, emaciated in extreme. All this, however, was not the mother’s immediate concern. The baby looked dead. He was still breathing faintly and had a weak pulse, but his big eyes stared fixedly ahead of him, wide open. I moved my hand in front of them and they did not move, or blink. Teresa began to weep.
“It frightens me!” said María with a shudder.
“What do you feed him?” I asked Teresa.
She told me, whimpering, that from the day the baby had been born she had fed it only cornmeal and water, and sometimes rice, because the other women had told her that since she had asthma, it would be bad to breast feed the baby. Now Teresa’s breasts were dry.
“Why didn’t you ask me for powdered or canned milk?” I asked.
Teresa sobbed. “I was ashamed to ask you for any more help. You’ve already given so much medicine to me and my other children.”
“The baby could have had cow’s milk!” snapped María, suddenly angry. “Four months ago I offered Pedro, my sister’s husband the use of a cow I had in Agüines, but he never got around to bringing it. And he never buys milk, either. When Pedro gets his hand on a few pesos he gets drunk! Poor Teresa, sick as she always is...”
Teresa lit a match to a piece of blessed palm and sprinkled the ashes into the baby’s mouth. Then she passed a small, plastic-enclosed figure of San Martín de Porres back and forth over the staring infant, while she and María said in unison:
el nombre de la Santísima Trinidád,
En el nombre de Jesucristo, el Hijo de Dios,
En el nombre de María, Reina del Cielo,
En el nombre de José, Patrón de la Iglesia Universál,
Bendito Martín cura a mi hijito
Para el honor y gloria de Dios
Y la salvación de las almas.
the name of the Holy Trinity,
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,
In the name of María, Queen of Heaven,
In the name of José, Master of the Universal Church,
Blessed Martín, cure my little son
For the honor and glory of God
And the salvation of the souls.)
“Ohhh!” cried Teresa. She caught hold of my arm. “He’s not going to die, is he? Tell me he’s not going to die!”
“I don’t know,” I said gently. I had never seen a child in this state before.
María slapped the child gently, and murmured,“En el nombre del Santo Niño de Atache.” Still the baby stared ahead, zombie-like. María snatched up a bottle of agua de carmin and poured a half-teaspoonful of the bright red fluid into the child’s mouth. The baby neither spat it out nor swallowed. María slapped it again. The baby continued to stare straight ahead with frozen eyes.
“I can’t stand it! I can’t stand it!” wailed Teresa, and ran from the dark room.
“What’s wrong with the baby?” asked María, terrified.
“The child is starved, that’s one thing for certain,” I said sadly. “Other than that I can’t say.”
Teresa returned and stood, sobbing softly, in the doorway, afraid to look at her child again. María covered her face and began to weep also.
Then a strange thing happened. An overwhelming feeling of sorrow and concern came over me. I reached out and put my hand on the child’s forehead, looked intently into its staring eyes, and willed with all the force I could muster for the child to come back out of its strange, comatose trance. While I still had my hand on his forehead, the child’s eyes began visibly to soften, to melt, almost. They blinked, and began to move. Whether this was due to the warmth of my hand, to some psychic force I do not understand, or mere coincidence, I cannot say. In any case, the child wakened, as out of hypnosis. It was uncanny!
“Look, Teresa!” cried María. “His eyes have come normal again. I think he’s all right.”
Teresa hurried in to peer at her emaciated baby. The child coughed and sputtered and began feebly to move its arms and legs. “Thank God!” sighed Teresa. “What should I give him?”
“Milk!” I said. “I’ll bring some from the clinic right away.”
When I returned with the milk, Teresa was standing over the baby holding an empty tablespoon in her hand.
“What did you give him?” I asked.
“A purgative of cooking oil,” she said: I shuddered. “Did I do wrong?” she asked anxiously.
I shook my head. “Just don’t give him any more of anything without asking me,” I said. Teresa nodded. I gave her instructions on how to prepare the milk, saw that she did it right, and watched her begin to feed the child.
“I’ll come back after the meeting,” I said, leaving.
She followed me to the doorway. “Will he be all right now?” she asked fearfully.
I answered her in her own idiom. “Si Dios quiere.” (If God wills.)
It was now past two o’clock, and the meeting had still not begun. I found Jesús Manjarréz in his home, stone drunk.
“What about the meeting?” I asked.
“I can’t.” said Chuy simply. “I can’t even walk!” He laughed uproariously. “Sorry.”
Most of the men who had come from the neighboring ranchos for the meeting had gravitated into the pool hall, from which the juke-box was throbbing with a loud, Latin beat. In the pool hall, also, I found Cristino Chávez, the figurehead president of the Nuevo Centro de Población. I asked him if there were still going to be a meeting. He said he thought so.
Slowly the men began to gather in the salon for the meeting. Cristino Chavez arrived, and was at a loss without Jesús Manjarréz. After waiting for nearly an hour, during which many people left, he opened the meeting by saying, “Ahem! There are some people who want to talk about land.” And a number of men began to argue. Nothing was resolved; Cristino did not intermediate. As one hour and then another passed, the room got more and more noisy and many people got bored and were leaving. At last I saw Chuy Vega lean over to the man sitting next to him and say “¡Vamos, compadre!”
“What about the agua potable?” I asked him.
“Go forward and tell Cristino you want to speak,” suggested Chuy, “and they can carry on with all this nonsense afterwards.”
I followed his suggestion.
“David wants to say something,” Cristino said simply. The room became silent.
It was then that I made my big tactical error. I had decided, before speaking about the Agua Potable, to say a word in defense of old Nicolasa, the washer-woman, who was still being terrorized by the villagers and afraid to leave Rosaura’s house. I pointed out that the death of Chútele (Juan the Cirrhotic) had been caused by a liver condition that had clearly resulted from too much drinking, not from witchcraft, and that before his death he had been examined by doctors from both México and the United States (namely Dr. Félix and Dr. Price) who had agreed on the diagnosis. I begged the people to stop their unwarranted accusations of Nicolasa, and stressed that it was both unjust and unkind to make her suffer as she was doing.
My little speech was accepted with a stony silence. The people just stared. Their rigid faces seemed to say, “We’re glad you bring us medicine; we regard you as a friend; but you know nothing of witchcraft, so keep your damned Gringo nose out of what you know nothing about!”
“Secondly I want to speak to you about the Agua Potable . . .” I began anew. But I had already turned the tide against me. I re-emphasized the need for pure drinking water, and carefully explained the plan for proportional contribution. “That way a man who has one cow will contribute about one peso, a man who has fifteen cows will contribute fifteen pesos, and a man with five hundred head of cattle will contribute around five hundred pesos. But in any case no one will contribute more than about a peso per cow, so that no one will be hurt. What do you say?”
They didn’t say anything. They all stared at me again with the same stony silence. Part of the problem was that none of the independent campesinos were present, it being a meeting of the Nuevo Centro. Those present from Ajoya were either the rich cattlemen or their peons, and most of the rich cattlemen had already got bored and left. The campesinos who remained dared not express their own opinions even if they had them.
I made another stab: “The contributions will, of course, remain voluntary, so the plan can only work if you, the people, go along with it willingly. What do you think?”
Still the people just stared.
I tried yet again: “If all of you want me to, I’ll cooperate with you to make the assessments of property value and see if we can raise the money between us. Could I have a show of hands of those in favor?”
Heads turned slightly this way and that for their cues, but not one hand went up.
Marcelo Manjarréz said casually, “I think we should raise the money according to the original plan of 150 pesos per householder. I’m ready to give my 150 pesos the day everyone else does.”
“But look, Marcelo!” I protested. “That plan’s not only unfair, it doesn’t work! Fidel’s been trying to collect on that basis for eight months, and he’s still got almost nothing.”
“Nevertheless, that’s what I think,” said Marcelo, refolding his thick arms across his chest. “I’m ready to pay my 150 pesos the day I’m asked.”
Chuy Vega stood up. “I’m completely behind David’s plan!” he said. “And I’m willing to contribute up to 500 pesos to see it go through.” He sat down again.
(Dear Chuy, I thought to myself, if you were really ready to contribute in proportion to what you have, you would not have said 500 pesos, but 5000.) However, I said nothing. I looked about the room for other of los ricos, but they had all. Left. I called for another show of hands. Not even Chuy Vega’s went up.
“I thank you all for listening,” I said, and unable to control my disappointment, passed out through the doorway. From the street I looked back over my shoulder toward the salon and muttered, “¡Borregos!” (Sheep!)
My friend, Tatino, who is one of the Agradistas and therefore had not been welcomed into the assembly of the Nuevo Centro, had been listening from one of the windows. As I walked down the street toward the casa Chavarín, he followed me and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Don’t feel bad, David,” he said. “That’s the way it’s been all along. Ever since the Nuevo Centro took control of Ajoya, they haven’t succeeded in bringing to completion a single project. Even the salón where the meeting is being held was built by Chuy Alarcón and the Agradistas. ‘Ellos’ have the money to make all kinds of improvements, but their elbows are too hard.” (Hard elbow [codo duro] means stingy.)
As we passed the casa of Jesús Manjarréz, leader of the Nuevo Centro, the sound of boisterous laughter flooded out.
“Does Chuy Alarcón drink much?” I asked Tatino.
“I’ve never once seen him drunk,” said Tatino.
“Nor I,” I said. “It’s a shame he left.”
“He was afraid of getting shot just like Ramón Valverde” said Tatino. And he added, “Also, I think he got discouraged.”
“That I can understand,” I said sadly.
As we entered the casa Chavarín, old Micaela came hurrying forward, saying, “David! María came looking for you again while you were at the meeting. Teresa’s baby has died.”
Teresa’s baby is dead. It died while I was wagging my tongue at the meeting. Teresa’s baby who never tasted a drop of its mother’s milk. The shriveled product of poverty and fear. Better off dead, maybe! But still –a mother’s love, a mother’s terror, a mother’s child, a life almost human...
“Oh,” I said numbly.
A very thin little girl with a long, pointed face like a coati mundi’s, who had followed me up the street without my noticing, said to me softly, “David, don’t you have a pencil for me for school? I don’t have one.” It was the daughter of Chútele who had died only two weeks before. I brought a pencil and a handful of crayons out of the back room, and handed them to the little girl.
“Gracias,” she said, gripping her treasures. She hesitated a moment. “My mother asks if you don’t have any more milk for my baby sister…” I placed a plastic jug full of powdered milk in the girl’s arms. “Oh, thank you, Don David! Thank you!” Grinning with delight, she went skipping out of the house.
When, on my return to Ajoya from my first vaccinating trip, Ramona called me into her back room and told me that the federales (federal soldiers) were after me, I did not take her too seriously. In the minds of the villagers, los federales are the 20th century bogey-men, and are out to get everyone. In Spring, when I had left for Chilar, a small troop of soldiers arrived in Ajoya, and immediately word radiated that they had come to take me prisoner. Young Goyo’s father, Remedios, was all set to take off ahead of the soldiers to warn me, but the soldiers withdrew again to their camp in San Ignacio. Then again, toward the end of the rainy season, Agustín Arisqueta, of Bordontita, arrived at El Rancho del Padre to warn me that the soldiers were on their way up river, and that they were going to confiscate my medicines and take me as prisoner to Culiacán, where they would go through all the capsules to see if I were packaging opium to smuggle it back to the United States. But the soldiers never arrived.
Ramona told me that her uncle, Francisco, who has recently become a soldier and is stationed at the cuartél in San Ignacio, had just visited her family in Ajoya. In the-course of conversation, Francisco had let slip the secret that a squadron of soldiers was camped outside Platanar (half-way between San Ignacio and Ajoya) with the intention of stopping my Jeep the next time I came out, and taking off the tires to see if I were smuggling goma (opium paste) inside them. “I just thought I’d better warn you,” said Ramona with a coy smile. I thanked her, and told her not to worry.
The first occasion I had to leave Ajoya for the coast was to drive a man with advanced tuberculosis to the hospital in Mazatlán. We left Ajoya before dawn, and as we passed Platanar, the soldiers, if they were there, must have been asleep. On the way back from Mazatlán that night, however, as I was re-passing Platanar, the black woodland to either side of the rough dirt road suddenly became alive with high-powered flashlights, and a swarm of soldiers, armed with rifles, descended toward my vehicle crying “¡Alto! ¡Alto!” I stopped, and they encircled my Jeep, shining their lights inside and into my eyes.
“What is your name?” demanded one of the soldiers.
“David Werner.” I said. All the soldiers nodded.
“Where are you going?”
“What do you have in the back here?” asked the lead soldier, shining his light on my small, portable refrigerator.
“A refrigerator with vaccines for inoculating the children of the upper villages,” I said. “I just picked them up at the Centro de Salud in San Ignacio.”
“All right,” said the soldier. “You can go on. Have a good trip.”
“Pass a good night,” I said, and drove away.
That was all I heard from the soldiers until several days later when I made a trip into San Ignacio to acquire ice for my next vaccinating trip. The ice truck had not yet arrived from Mazatlán, and I had parked my Jeep in the central plaza and begun to write a letter while I waited, when I looked up to see a small army Jeep racing in my direction. It was full of armed soldiers. The Jeep swung to a stop beside mine, and one of the soldiers called out, “¡Siga!” (Follow!)
I was escorted to the soldiers’ cuartél at the upper end of town, and ordered to park my car. I was marched into the main building, up to the desk of a stout, moody-looking officer, and left standing there with the introducción, “Aquí está.” (Here he is.)
The officer was none other than the teniente (lieutenant) who had been dispatched from México to investigate and put an end to the growing of contraband narcotics in the barrancas. His name was Manuel Corona Trujillo. With scarcely a word, he rose and opened a folder, which he extended toward me. In it was a pressed plant.
“You know what this is, do you not?” he said.
I did not. “Poppy?” I suggested, helpfully.
The lieutenant frowned. “It’s marijuana,” he said with irritation, “And I think you know it.” He looked at me with hard eyes. “I understand you’ve traveled a lot among the ranchos of Rincón de los Sapotitos and Rio Verde,” he said. “Who are your two companions?”
I told him I had many friends, and traveled sometimes with one person, sometimes another, and frequently alone. I could select no special two.
“Very well,” said the lieutenant, “I’ll be a little more specific: Who were the two men who climbed down a rope ladder with you into a ravine to the east of Sapotitos?”
“I’ve never seen such a ladder,” I said.
The lieutenant ignored my reply. “The two men are named Irineo Vidaca and Eligio Ruíz, right?”
“Eligio Ruíz I don’t know,” I said. “And Irineo Vidaca, who is my host in Verano, is nearly eighty years old. He hasn’t ventured as far as the main part of Verano since I’ve been there, much less to Sapotitos. If he tried to climb down a rope ladder he’d likely break his neck. I think you’re mistaken.”
The lieutenant stared at me, a little confused. “You do know Eligio Ruíz!” he insisted.
I shook my head. “Not by the name. It’s possible he came to me for medicines, and I have forgotten. I can check in my cards.”
The lieutenant snorted.
“I take it that you’re suspicious that I’m contrabanding opium or marijuana?” I volunteered.
“Your name is on my list,” confirmed the teniente.
I laughed, and said, “I’m as eager to see the end of drug traffic as you are. I’ve seen the harm addictive drugs can do.”
The lieutenant stared at me dubiously. “What are you doing wandering about the barrancas then? I know you’re giving away medicines. But what’s your real reason?”
I told him the truth, as nearly as I could, and it left him more confused than before. He rubbed his nose. “The people in Ajoya and Bordontita have told me you’ve got pretty good medicines,” he said at last. “I’ve had a miserable cold for more than a month...”
He accompanied me to my Jeep for the medicine, and thanked me gratefully when I gave it to him. Before we bade each other goodbye, he said to me once again, “Are you sure you don’t know Eligio Ruíz?”
Again I said no. As I drove away the teniente stood in the doorway of the cuartel, staring after me in perplexity, while he rubbed the end of his nose.
“I hope the medicine works!” I said to myself.
Following the accusation of the lieutenant in San Ignacio that I was in league with Eligio Ruíz as a contrabandista of opium, I asked around, and discovered that, although I cannot recall ever having met Eligio himself, I know his entire family. I have inoculated his children, and have been treating his wife for anemia. Eligio Ruíz is the closest neighbor of my friend Florinda Alvarado in Sapotitos, and since the death of Eligio’s first wife three years ago, Eligio has been living with Florinda’s daughter, Eulalia, the nineteen year old sister of Manuel and my young friend Pancho. I first met Eligio’s seven children last July when their grandmother, María Robles, brought them to my dispensary in Verano, explaining that they were huérfanos. (In the villages children are called orphans even when only one parent is dead.) Eligio’s children are all quite frail, fragile almost, but bright and very much alive. I gave them clothing, and when school began in Fall, gave them pencils, crayons, and writing pads. Frequently they come to visit me at my dispensary, for I think they sense that I like them.
I also found out that Eligio has been twice arrested for the illegal growing of opium poppy, and that each time his father, who lives somewhere on the coast, has bought him out of jail. One time Eligio’s father, who deplores his son’s involvement in the opium business, was himself apprehended by the state police. They reportedly forced him at gunpoint to hold in his hands a bunch of opium poppies, and then took a photograph to prove that they had “caught him red-handed”. Eligio’s father, of course, paid up rather than be taken to prison, and the police let him go.
As for Eligio Ruíz, some say he is one of the finest men they know, others say one of the wickedest. Who knows?
One afternoon back in mid-August, Gregorio Robles, comisario of Verano, stopped at El Rancho del Padre to ask me to help prepare a letter to the Director of Federal Education in Culiacán, begging that next school year a teacher be sent who would arrive on time and not leave early. In only six out of the past twenty-five years has Verano had a teacher who stayed the while school year, and half the years, no teacher has arrived at all. Last year (1965-66), the appointed profesor did not appear in Verano until after Christmas, and left in March, claiming that the government had not paid him. Verano’s protests to the Federal Inspector of Schools in San Ignacio brought no results.
Gregorio and I composed the letter, I typed it, and we sent it off. Toward the end of September, (three weeks after school was scheduled to begin), Profesor Cuauhtemoc Manjarréz arrived in Verano. The young teacher showed what seemed to be a genuine interest in educating his sixty-five pupils. He deplored the fact that some of the children who had attended school for two or three years had not even learned to write their own names. He asserted that by the end of the year every child in school would know how to read and write.
I presented Profesor Manjarréz with a globe, an atlas, chalk, crayons, pencils and ball-point pens, together with a large stack of copy-books assembled and donated by a class of intellectually disabled children back in California. I asked the Profesor to make a special point of seeing that these supplies were given to those students who could least afford to buy them. Several days later I was astounded when some of the poorer students came to my dispensary asking for cuadernos. I found that the new teacher had been selling the copybooks to anyone, student or not, who would pay. I suggested to Profesor Manjarréz that perhaps he had misunderstood me. I asked him to return all the money he had collected, and to give away the rest of the supplies only to the children who could not afford them.
But the “Profesor” refused to make amends, and pointed out that I needn’t bother to advise the Federal Inspector, because it would do me no good.
On my next return to San Ignacio, I made inquiries, and learned that Profesor Manjarréz is a personal friend of the Federal Inspector of Schools. I also learned that before Señor Manjarréz became a teacher, he had studied briefly for the priesthood, but had been thrown out of the monastery for theft. He subsequently donned the robes of a padre, and made the rounds of small villages, giving mass, taking confessions, and pocketing the money. Twice he has been in prison for theft. In spite of his shortcomings, however, he is intelligent, and has proved to be far more conscientious in his teaching than are many of the other teachers in the barrancas. I would be hesitant to do anything to see him removed, for fear his replacement (if one were sent), might be worse.
The Mexican Constitution, as revised after the Revolution in 1910, provides for “free, compulsory, and democratic” elementary education. Such education has understandably been slow in reaching remote regions. Ajoya has a school which goes as far as the sixth grade; yet, except for Caballo de Arriba, none of the schools beyond the reach of the roads goes farther than the third grade. Many smaller villages and groups of ranchos, some with as many as forty-five children eager and ready to learn, have no schools at all.
For more than fifteen years Pedro Dominguez of El Rincón de Sapotitos, and Filomeno Ruíz of La Tahona, have been petitioning for schools... without results. Also, while teachers are usually paid by the government, in some of the poorest and most remote villages, a teacher is sent only if the residents pay part, sometimes all, of his salary.
There are thirteen village schools along the tributaries of the Rio Verde upstream from Ajoya. Of these, ten are operated by the Federal government and three by the State. The two school systems are identical, each following the same curriculum, and each using the same paperback textbooks supplied free by the Federal government. At present an attempt is being made to increase the number of accredited teachers. Yet in the village schools, the older, indigenous teachers (such as Bordontita’s drunkardly Profe Uriarte, who only finished the fourth grade) often get more across to their pupils than do the slick, young teachers fresh out of training college, who too frequently don’t give a damn. It seems the young graduates who have done badly in teachers’ college are given last preference of places to teach. Because the teacher who will voluntarily choose an isolated mountain village is rare, new teachers come not only from the bottom of the academic barrel, but come grudgingly. The standard of teaching in the barrancas is, for the most part, deplorable. In the Federal schools the problem is compounded by the fact that the Federal Inspector consistently fails to fulfill his duties. He is supposed to make a minimum of three visits annually to each school under his jurisdiction, yet he frequently lets several years pass without putting a foot in the high country. According to Gregorio Robles, the Federal Inspector has visited the school in Verano only three times in the past twenty-five years. As result, the teachers –many of them undedicated in the first place– get away with just about anything they choose. The school system forbids physical punishment, yet many teachers still follow the old adage, La letra con sangre entra (The letter enters with blood). In Ajoya, little Goyo is frequently throttled by his school mistress, María, who dislikes teaching, and spends much of her class time knitting sweaters and reading comic books behind her table. Other teachers –the majority of them in the barrancas– regularly play hooky. Frequently they do not return from vacations for days or even weeks after school is supposed to reconvene. In Jocuixtita, the villager took a tab on a school mistress sent them five years ago, and found she attended school only fifty-one days during the entire school year.
The Federal Inspector of Schools, in lieu of visiting the villages, requires each teacher to report in at San Ignacio bi-monthly. This not only means that the teacher misses more days of school, but that the Inspector hears only the teacher’s side of issues. The village of Jocuixtita has now gone more than two years without a teacher because the Inspector got angry when Jocuixtita’s last teacher, named Javier, reported to him that the villagers refused to salute the flag. (This was evidently false, but Javier could get away with it because of the large Seventh Day Adventist element in Jocuixtita.) Javier’s grievance was really for another reason. Against regulations, he had thrown a dance in the schoolhouse, and during the dance Fausto Reyes (brother of Daniel with whom I went to Huachimetas) had got drunk and begun to get wild. Javier had led Fausto to the casa where Javier and his wife lived. He asked his wife to watch Fausto, and under no conditions to let him out of the house. Javier’s wife did not let Fausto out of the house, but she did get pregnant. When Javier found out he was furious, not only with Fausto, but with the entire village. The children of Jocuixtita are unfortunately those who most suffer Javier’s revenge. At their parents’ request, I have spoken with the Federal Inspector of Schools in San Ignacio, but to no avail. The Inspector has a chip on his shoulder anyway: the last time he visited Jocuixtita (five years ago) the villagers neglected to provide fodder for his mule. “They don’t deserve a teacher!” he insisted.
One of those rare teachers who has come to the barrancas, not through obligation, but by preference, is thirty-year old Gonzalo Flores Gallardo. A native of San Ignacio, Gonzalo had taught for six years in the lowlands when the State Inspector asked him if he were willing to start a school in Caballo de Arriba. The villagers of Caballo had been begging for a teacher for years, but both the State and Federal Inspectors had balked at their requests. Not only is Caballo one of the most inaccessible villages in the Municipio, lying forty treacherous miles from the end of the road, but its inhabitants have a reputation for being inhospitable, thieving, and violent. (Before my first visit to Caballo, I was warned time and again not to go there.)
Gonzalo accepted the challenge. He went to Caballo and recruited the help of children and grownups. In a short time they had erected a simple schoolhouse with walls of split bamboo and a roof of corn shucks. They made crude benches and desks of split and hand hewn logs. Gonzalo hauled in a load of textbooks with burros, and classes began. Both the children and their parents became enthusiastic as the school year continued. When the students took the state-regulated exams at the end of the year, the entire class passed! (It is not uncommon for eighty or ninety percent of the children to be failed each year in the village schools. The teachers usually say this reflects the “backwardness” of the villagers.)
Gonzalo began the school in Caballo three and a half years ago. Unlike most of the certified teachers, who leave their remote village schools at the end of one year, Gonzalo chose to stay in Caballo. The second year he started a second grade, the third year a third grade. This year he has started teaching fourth grade – the first time that any school beyond the road’s end has gone beyond third grade. Gonzalo divides the day into two six-hour sessions, which means he teaches from six in the morning until six-thirty at night. This year he has over sixty students, the same number as Verano, although Verano is twice the size of Caballo.
Although Caballo has no formal religious rites on Sundays, Gonzalo noticed that the men folk always took the day off, and just hung around the village. At times men would get to drinking and even to fighting. To deter this, Gonzalo began adult education classes on Sundays. People got interested and joined the classes. Drinking was reduced, Sunday quarrels diminished, and today Caballo de Arriba is one of the most literate villages in the barrancas.
Unlike most of the schoolteachers who come from the outside, Gonzalo does not abandon his village during vacations. Last summer, when the entire barrancas suffered from a dire food shortage, Gonzalo made several trips with burro teams, risking his neck crossing landslides and floods, to transport UNESCO-provided wheat and powdered chocolate milk to the hungering families of his students. (Caballo was the only village in the barrancas that succeeded in receiving any UNESCO provisions from the Presidente in San Ignacio.) Last summer, Gonzalo also helped complete a new schoolhouse, built of adobe, with two rooms. The villagers were just beginning this structure when I visited Caballo last March. At that time Gonzalo –who knew every physical ailment of his students– brought many youngsters to me for treatment. He was particularly distressed about the two recent incidents of paralytic polio in Caballo. (It is Gonzalo who will be borrowing my portable refrigerator and syringes to continue the program of inoculation in the barrancas when I am back in the States. He will inoculate the children of Caballo de Arriba, Chilar, and probably Caballo de Abajo.)
Perhaps the secret of Gonzalo’s achievement in Caballo lies in the fact that he has let himself get thoroughly caught up in the life of the village. One time when he stopped in Ajoya to pick up a globe and other school supplies I had saved for him, I offered him a variety of vegetable seeds and suggested that if he could encourage the villagers to utilize them it might help to reduce the nutritional problems so pronounced in Caballo. Gonzalo became so enthusiastic over the idea that I remarked appreciatively on his deep concern for his villagers. Gonzalo shrugged. “A lot of teachers are teachers and no more,” he said. “They come to a village and they give classes and the children come and the children go. But the teachers don’t mix with the people. They aren’t concerned about their problems or their crops or anything else that really matters. They don’t respect the village life: they regard it as backward. But if the teacher doesn’t respect the villagers, how can he expect the villagers or their children to respect him? I know so many young teachers who try to demand respect by shouting and beating their pupils. They get so lonely and bored in a mountain village that they can’t stand it, poor bastards. And all because they can’t bring themselves to take off their shiny white shirts and dig in!”
“I can’t picture your getting bored,” I said to Gonzalo. “But don’t you get exhausted doing all you do?”
Gonzalo shrugged again. “When I sleep, I sleep well,” he said.
Each day as Autumn progresses in El Rancho del Padre, the sun sinks a little earlier behind the corn-patch dotted hills to the west. By early November, the last direct sunlight to pour into the deep valley disappears about mid-afternoon. Yet for another two hours the hidden sun continues to flood against the hills towering to the east, providing a soft, indirect lighting for the valley below.
In the late afternoon, I enjoy watching this last, reflected sunlight creep swiftly up the steep escarpments. It glows more golden and apparently brighter as the harsh blue sky fades. At last only the uppermost pinnacles are tipped, like lighted candles. Then –sometimes for as long as fifteen or twenty minutes after the last bright rays have risen– a tingling, pinkish alpenglow radiates from the hilltops.
One day, not long after we had finished our second round of inoculations, and Tatino had returned again to Ajoya. I frittered away an afternoon wandering about the desiccating hillsides. Fewer persons than usual had shown up for medicines that day, and I should have spent the spare time catching up on my writing. But it was one of those magical times when the tranquility of the surroundings strips a man of his incentives as a mother strips her child for a bath. As it grew later, I paused to look at the tarnished sunlight creeping up the eastward hills.
Somewhere downstream, above the tumbling waters, a bird began to sing. This was the vesper song of the jilguero or Mexican solitaire, a homely-looking little bird which haunts the wooded ravines of the barrancas, and whose song is more exquisite than that of the hermit thrush or the nightingale. From a distance, and above the rush of the arroyo, the jilguero’s song reminded me of the tinkling of goats’ bells from a far mountainside when the right wind blows the right way. At times I wondered whether it was merely my imagination singing a duet with the stream. I set out in the direction of the music.
Weaving my way through a tangle of wilting saffron cosmos, I trod the length of the long field which parallels the arroyo, then descended toward a small creek near where it enters the main Arroyo de Verano. Leaping from rock to sandbar and sandbar to rock, I made my way downstream beneath an overhanging bower of spiny, twining garrapata blanca bushes. Small, epiphytic orchids bloomed upon the protruding branches, their fringed, lilac blossoms harmonizing with the beady, apricot-colored fruit of the thorny garrapatas. After a short distance, I came upon a sandy shelf that terminated in a small but noisy waterfall. The ground was carpeted with enormous white butterflies. They fluttered up as I nearly stepped on them. By the time I reached the center of the clearing, the air was full of these white Lepidoptera – thousands of them! – with wingspreads of nearly six inches. In a slow, staggering dance, as if drunken, they floated and dipped through the glade like magnified snowflakes. When I stopped and stood still, they quickly fluttered to the ground again. Several landed at my very feet. The reason for this winged ensemble was apparent. The atmosphere was heavy with the odor of spoiled guayabas (guavas), which had fallen from a lone tree, overlooked by the village children. The ground was strewn with ripe and rotting fruit. The ghost-like butterflies clustered thirstily on these fruits, their long tongues unfurled like drinking straws to sip the fragrant ooze. They had lost all sense of caution. I knelt, and discovered that if I moved slowly I could all but touch their powdery wings before they would flutter sleepily up, and drop again on another guayaba a few inches away. They reeled and keeled over as they guzzled. These handsome insects not only looked inebriated, but had indeed become intoxicated on the fermenting fruit.
For some time I crouched on the dark sand, vicariously enjoying the revels of the butterflies. As I was rising to continue my search, the air above me suddenly vibrated with tinkling, liquid notes, as if myriad tiny bells were tumbling down a resonant, spiral staircase. I peered up into the orchid-festooned branches of a giant fig tree. At last my eye managed to locate the drab jilguero standing straight and serious on a shadowed twig. Again he sang.
Less than eighteen hours after it took place, word of a fatal gunfight near Verano reached Chilar, where I had stopped for a brief visit on my return to Ajoya after the second vaccinating trip. News spread through the village like oil over water. Children were running from house to house shouting, “Have you heard?” – and everyone had. Yet nobody knew the exact details, everyone was inventing them. Some said it had happened in Sapotitos, others, in El Rincón. Some said two men were dead and two injured, others said six were dead. One report had it that one of the dead men was Elias Espinosa, another that, no, it was Eligio Ruíz. Whatever the variations, the reports agree that, one or more persons were seriously injured. I decided to return to Verano and see if I could be of help.
I set out alone at dawn, pushing old Hormiga as fast as she would go. By the time I reached Bordontita, she was exhausted, dripping blood from deep cuts given her by a new cinch which a well-intending villager had made for me, and made badly. I talked Victoriano Murillo into lending me his new mule, and so, leaving Hormiga in his care, continued on my way up river, fording and re-fording. I had just passed Los Brotos when I met a young man trotting downstream in my direction. He had been dispatched from La Quebrada to fetch medicines for Esteban Torres who had been “balaziado en las tripas” (shot in the gut) during the gunfight.
“Do you mean Esteban Torres, the father of Manuel Soto’s wife, Delfina, in Sapotitos?” I asked.
“Yes,” said the young man. “He’s dying. Manuel was killed too, you know.”
“Manuel, dead?!” I exclaimed.
“Yes,” said the young man. “Eligio Ruíz killed him.”
“I thought Manuel and Eligio were friends...” I said numbly.
“Not only friends, brothers-in-law. Eligio’s wife, Eulalia, says she’ll never go back to Eligio because he killed her brother...”
“Then Eligio isn’t dead after all?” I exclaimed.
“I don’t think so,” replied the young man. “He was wounded in the leg. His relatives carried him away. They have him in hiding somewhere. They’re afraid the soldiers or the state police will come after him. He’s already wanted, you know.”
“I know,” I said. “Was anybody else hurt?”
“Eligio’s brother, Galdo, was also killed, and so was his cousin, Filomeno Ruíz, of La Tahoma. His cousin, Aristeo Ruíz, was wounded also, but not badly.”
“I’ve got medicine,” I said. “Let’s get back to La Quebrada and see what can be done for Esteban.”
As we set out again upstream, I asked the young man, “How did the fight begin?”
He shrugged. “Everybody’s got a different tale. There was a dance in La Quebrada, and it was along about one in the morning. The dancing was over and the women were all inside, while the men were standing outside in the patio, drinking. It was pitch dark. Manuel and Eligio got in an argument, and suddenly everybody began shooting, Manuel’s family against Eligio’s. It was pure madness! Aristeo Ruíz pulled out his gun in such a hurry he put the first bullet through his own leg, and the second bullet through his cousin, Filomeno, by mistake. Filomeno just had time to gasp, “You’ve killed me, cousin!” and he died. Aristeo threw down his gun and begged another cousin, Clemente Ruíz, to shoot him in return, but Clemente wouldn’t do it. Meanwhile bullets were flying everywhere. Ramiro Torres, the son of Esteban, shot Galdo; and Esteban jumped into the battle, without a gun or anything, to try to break it up. He got four or five bullets, one in his belly, and one in his groin. He’s in pretty bad shape.”
We traveled along in silence for a while, moving as fast as we could over the rough terrain. How ugly, how unnecessary, seemed all this gun-play. Three dead, and three injured. What of the families? Men from all three families in Sapotitos had been killed or disabled. Before the gunfight, Manuel, who had been supporting his wife and five children, plus the family of his mother, Florinda, had been working a corn-field in partnership with his father-in-law, Esteban, and now Manuel was dead and Esteban perhaps dying. My heart sank as I thought of Manuel’s thirteen year-old brother, Pancho, who had so eagerly begun school this year. Of Florinda’s eight children, now only three are left, and Pancho, at thirteen, will be the remaining man of the family. He’ll have ten people to provide for, as best he can. His schooling is surely over. He will never learn to read or write. And what of Eligio’s eight children? Who will harvest his crops? What will the children eat? And what of Filomeno’s five children, and his wife, and his aging mother? And Galdo’s four children. Why did this have to be? And what of Florinda? This spring she lost her husband. This summer her niece drowned in the arroyo. And now her eldest son. Who would have thought that when I photographed Manuel with the mule she wanted a picture of as a memory of her dead husband, that the print, still undeveloped, would provide Florinda with a memory of her son as well?
“Florinda has gone out of her mind,” said the young man. “She keeps calling out to Manuel and her husband as if they were hiding from her and she could coax them back. But I guess she’ll recover. She’s strong.”
We reached the junction of the Arroyo de Verano and made our way up the streambed. Two hours later we arrived at El Rancho del Padre. I picked up additional medicines and instruments from my dispensary, and we continued on up the arroyo past Verano. It was late afternoon when we arrived in La Quebrada.
Esteban Torres was lying on a cot in the portal of the casa of Camilo Jimenez. The portal and patio were packed with relatives and friends of the wounded man. Delfina, having seen her husband buried that morning, had returned to her father’s side. Her sister, Victoria, (who has the epileptic daughter) had come from Pie de la Cuesta with her three children and Esteban’s tiny, aged mother. Other relatives had come from far and near.
I found Esteban conscious, but pale and feverish, his eyes with a faraway look. He had been urinating blood. His painfully swollen abdomen was indicative of peritonitis. I at once injected him with a penicillin-streptomycin combination, together with Chloromycetin and tetanus anti-toxin, then set about trying to clean his wounds. The family had made no effort whatever to wash or bandage him, and now, some thirty-six hours after the shooting, he stank of putrefying blood. I tried to get his daughters to help me bathe him, but they were shy and frightened, and Esteban was embarrassed, so I did it alone.
The family insisted that Esteban still had a bullet in his gut, for on initial examination they had found only seven holes where bullets had entered or exited, and had concluded that at least one bullet must still be inside. After cleaning away the blood and matted pubic hair, I discovered that there were, in fact, eight openings, four of them caused by a single bullet which had passed sideways through the anterior portion of his lower abdomen, barely exited and re-entered beside the scrotum, and passed out through the side of the hip. It seemed likely that no vital organ other than his bladder had been damaged, and were it not for the peritonitis, prognosis might have been good. As it stood, I had little hope.
“We must try to get Esteban to a hospital as soon as possible,” I announced to the family.
They all looked at me blankly. No doubt they were almost sure he would die, and preferred he die and be interred close to home and family. At last Victoria said, “Can’t you treat him here?”
I shook my head. “Here I don’t think he stands a chance here. In a hospital there’s a little more hope.” Again the family fell silent.
“Take me to the hospital!” gasped Esteban.
And so it was decided. But spirits still flagged. “We must cut poles to make a stretcher,” someone said. “We must send someone to Verano and La Tahona to ask men to help carry the stretcher,” said someone else. But no one moved. Night fell. I was offered a dish of watery soup, the only food left in the house. For several hours we all sat around and talked.
“Manuel kept right on living, like a snake!” said Ramón Cebreros, who had arrived from the other side of the arroyo and was describing the details of the gunfight to those who hadn’t been there. “Eligio kept pumping bullets into him and Manuel kept right on after him…”
“Eligio picked the fight with my husband,” said Delfina in a slow, distant voice, as if she were falling asleep. “Eligio and his brother and their cousins had it all planned before the dance began.” She turned to me as if I were the judge, “Manuel didn’t even have a gun. He’d hocked his pistol and Eligio brought it out of hock. That’s how the argument began between them. At the dance, Eligio began to taunt him, to echar la madre (throw the mother) at him. Manuel got angry and pushed back his sleeves to fight with his bare hands. Then Galdo shot him from behind, and Eligio and his cousins from in front. When Manuel fell, Eligio jumped on top of him and stabbed him in the chest and face. Manuel was dead, and Eligio kept or stabbing, stabbing...!” Delfina began to sob. “Why did he have to do that?”
Victoria glared at me. “Why did he have to shoot our father?” she snapped furiously, as if I had the answer.
The discussion continued. At last I took my sleeping bag and went out into the patio under the stars. Everyone except the children and myself stayed up, chatting quietly and laughing in the light of the flaming ocotes, and hovering over the wounded Esteban. I told them to call me if I was needed. It was a long time before I went to sleep.
I have listened to many versions, varied as the tales of Rashomon, as to who was to blame, who started the gunfight, and why. Little by little I have pieced together a tale that may have some resemblance to the truth.
For years Manuel Soto and Eligio Ruíz were close friends, inseparable in fact. They went swimming and hunting together, stole cattle together, planted and harvested opium poppy together. When Eligio’s first wife died, he married Manuel’s sister, Eulalia. Then one day Manuel stole a young bull from Eligio’s cousin, Filomeno Ruíz of La Tahona, and Eligio – honoring his kinship more than his friendship – informed his cousin. Filomeno took Manuel by surprise, confiscated his bull, and took Manuel’s pistol. Manuel was furious with Eligio, and became still more so when he learned that Eligio had bought the pistol from Filomeno. Weeks later, fuel was added to the fire when Eligio tore down a portion of the fence around Manuel’s corn field, and drove his stolen cattle across the field, letting them browse all the way. Manuel was so angry that he secured another pistol and went in the night to the casa of Eligio, to kill him. Eligio, however, was in bed with his wife, Manuel’s sister, and held her in front of him as a shield so that Manuel could not shoot. So they called it a draw. Manuel returned to his casa. Things remained quiet for another two months until the night of the fatal dance in La Quebrada. Young men and women from all the surrounding villages showed up, including Manuel and Eligio and their relatives. Eligio and Manuel were friendly enough until they were all tipsy. Then an argument started and the guns came out. Who fired the first shot, I don’t know. It could have been anyone.
I awakened, still sleepy, long before the stars began to dim. How bright are the stars in a land where the sky is clean! Orion balanced on one foot atop the black-silhouetted hilltops to the west. I watched as he sank upon his knees, then I rose and made my way into the portal to see how Esteban was faring. His abdomen was slightly more swollen, but other than that he seemed much the same. His breathing was more regular. I injected him again. At the first glimmer of daylight, I prompted his family to make haste in constructing a stretcher and rounding up a group of young men to carry it. But still they dallied. At last, and with much urging, they sent Esteban’s simple-minded brother, Pedro, to Verano to recruit stretcher-bearers. They debated interminably as to who should go to La Tahona, and finally I volunteered to go myself.
I set off across the arroyo to look for Hormiga. As I was passing a large boulder by the side of the stream, a man standing in the shadows called to me softly, “Psssst, David!” It was Agripino Campos, half-brother of Leopoldo Campos and a cousin of Eligio Ruíz. I stepped close to him and he said in a low voice, “Do you have any medicine for a boy who has rheumatism in his knee? He can scarcely walk.”
“Who is the boy?” I asked.
“Juan Majín,” replied Agripino.
“Eligio’s eldest son?”
Agripino hesitated. “Yes.”
“How is Eligio?”
Again Agripino hesitated, “Pretty bad,” he said. “His thigh is broken and the bullet’s still in it. He’s in terrible pain.”
“Does he want me to treat him?” I asked.
“Well... if you could…”
“Is he nearby?”
“Oh yes! Only a couple of hours from here. But he’s in hiding.’ We’ll have to make the final approach on foot. You understand.”
“Wait for me just a moment,” I said. “I have to tell Esteban’s family to send someone else to La Tahona.”
Agripino grew pale. “You won’t tell them you’re going to see Eligio, will you?” he exclaimed.
I shook my head. “There’s been enough bloodshed!”
Agripino and I set a swift pace until we arrived at the outskirts of Verano. There we tethered Hormiga out of sight, and, looking this way and that to be sure no one was looking, stole across the main trail and made our way up a sandy arroyo. We had hiked a few minutes when we heard the sound of approaching hooves from farther up the arroyo. Agripino stopped short and pulled me back against the sandstone wall of the deep-cut arroyo. The sounds came closer and closer until they were just around the bend from us, and the voice of a boy called out, “Whoa, burro! Whoa, ¡pinche cabrón!” The sound of hooves stopped, and we heard the sounds of the boy adjusting the load. Cautiously, Agripino peeped around the bend.
“It’s all right,” he whispered. “It’s the son of Eustórjio bringing firewood. He won’t talk.”
We walked forward, passed the boy with a simple greeting, and continued up the arroyo for another mile or so. Then we began to climb a nearly obliterated, winding, very steep trail up the mountainside, up and up, until I was panting and streaming sweat. At last we took a transverse deer trail that wound across the wooded ridge and looped into a small, dry, steep-sided ravine. “He’s just ahead,” said Agripino, and gave a low warning whistle. We rounded the bend. Eligio was half-lying, half-sitting on a crude stretcher. Another man, Pedro Martínez, sat behind Eligio, supporting him with his shoulder. Pedro turned slightly as we approached, and Eligio gasped in pain. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.
“You haven’t seen my son, Juan Majín, have you?” said Eligio, gripping hard the poles of the stretcher to fight back the pain in his leg. “He’s got rheumatism or something in one knee. Yesterday I hear he couldn’t even make it to school. I don’t want him to miss school...”
“How long has he had the bad knee?” I asked.
“Just a couple of days,” said Eligio.
“Did he help carry the stretcher up here?” I asked.
“Yes,” admitted Eligio. “I shouldn’t have let him. He’s sixteen now, but he’s still small and thin . . . . But there weren’t enough men, and he wanted to help carry me.”
“I’ll do what I can for him,” I said. “How about you?”
Eligio winced with pain and gingerly touched his broken thigh. “It keeps cramping on me,” he said. “The bullet’s still inside.”
I examined Eligio’s leg and found a purplish swelling on the opposite side from where the bullet entered. “The bullet ought to come out,” I said. “Do you want me to remove it?”
“I’m not sure I can stand it,” said Eligio. “But I’ll try!”
I laughed. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll inject you with painkiller before I cut.”
There was not a patch of ground flat enough to put my medical bag upon it without rolling, but Agripino helped by holding things. I washed my hands with Phisohex and a little water from a gourd, gave Eligio antibiotic and anti-tetanus injections, and then injected Xylocain locally around the embedded bullet. I sterilized a scalpel and forceps with a flaming match and then alcohol, made a small, deep incision, caught hold of the bullet with the forceps, and with difficulty maneuvered it out. The bullet was large –evidently.32 caliber – and had been flattened by its impact with the bone. When the bullet was out, I stitched the incision and applied a dressing and bandage. Then I splinted his broken thigh with sticks held in place with strips we cut from a blanket.
As I was working on his leg, I asked Eligio, “How did the fighting start?”
“I really don’t know,” said Eligio. “A bunch of us men were standing outside on the patio, drinking and talking, when suddenly there was a pistol shot and somebody shouted, ‘They’ve killed Filomeno!’ Filomeno was my cousin, so I pulled out my arma negra (black arm, i.e. pistol) and jumped into the fight. So did everybody else.”
“Did you really stab Manuel after he was dead?” I asked Eligio.
“Well . . . I guess I did. I was pretty angry I guess. My brother and my cousin were both killed, and it was Manuel’s fault...”
“You and Manuel used to be good friends, didn’t you?” I asked.
The look of pain returned to Eligio’s face. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve known Manuel since he was a little boy. His father used to live in Santo Domingo, and the two of them would pass my casa on the way to their sugarcane field in Sapotitos. Sometimes his father would lend Manuelito to me, to help me in my milpa on the mountainside. That was before my own sons were big enough to help me. Manuel liked to go with me. I didn’t work him as hard as his father did. Then, too, I guess we cared for each other. I treated him almost like my own son. I never went hunting without asking Manuelito to come along. We had some wild chases together. One time I saved him from getting gored by a wounded javelin.” Eligio winced as his leg cramped him again. “Yes, I guess we were good friends. When Manuel grew up we quarreled a bit, and maybe that’s part of friendship.”
“You and Manuel planted amapola (opium poppy) together, didn’t you?” I ventured.
Eligio was suddenly on guard. “Who told you that?”
I laughed. “The lieutenant of the federales accused me of being in league with you,” I said.
Eligio shook his head and laughed in return. “What fools these soldiers are!” he exclaimed. “I’ve seen you twice before, from a distance, but we’ve never even spoken together before today!”
There was the sound of footsteps on the dry leaves around the bend, and we all froze, listening. The next instant we heard a low, warning whistle. Everyone relaxed.
“It must be Eustórjio with the food,” said Pedro.
Eustórjio appeared, bearing a pot of rice soup and a kerchief full of tortillas. It was intended for Eligio only, but Eligio insisted that I join him, and as I was famished, I accepted.
As I was taking my leave, I said to Eligio, “By the way, if the lieutenant finds out I’ve been to your hiding spot and taken the bullet out of your leg, after I told him I don’t know you, he’ll be sure I was lying...”
“Don’t worry,” Eligio assured me, “Word that you’ve been here won’t leave this spot!” The other men echoed their agreement.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Thank you,” returned Eligio, and as I set off back down the mountainside with Agripino, he called after me, “Don’t forget to cure my son, Juan Majín!”
It was about three in the afternoon by the time I arrived back in La Quebrada. Esteban was in bad shape, hunched up and breathing in short, rapid breaths. He complained of a feeling of sofocación in his abdomen. The stretcher had been constructed, a heavy rig of two long poles of zapote with many splints bound between them on the underside. A group of ten or twelve young men had gathered, some of them from Verano, others from La Tahona. They had been waiting for two or three hours, but no one had given the signal to leave.
I tried to get our journey underway. It wasn’t easy. The women began to debate as to which of them was going to accompany us, what they were going to do for money, for food, etc. Evening was fast approaching. People began to suggest that we wait until morning. I foresaw an indefinite postponing of our departure. But Esteban himself saved the day. “I don’t know if I can hold out much longer,” he said weakly.
We agreed to set out at once. But debate followed as to whether we should take Esteban down the treacherous shortcut along the arroyo, or over the trail por los altos which would mean more steep climbing. At last we decided upon the arroyo, which would be more shaded during the heat of the day.
Dusk had begun to fall by the time we got Esteban moved onto the stretcher, and set off. Our departure was a mass Exodus. Behind the dozen or so stretcher-bearers, more than a score of relatives and neighbors fell in.
If people had stalled in getting underway, there was no dallying now. The young men, taking turns two by two bearing the stretcher, turned the portage into a sort of marathon race. How astonishing was the sure-footedness, stamina, and cheerful exuberance of these mountain youths! In places the young men would trot with the heavy stretcher, scarcely jiggling it, while their feet danced this way and that over and between the boulders and through the rushing water of the stream. Now the tragedy of the situation seemed forgotten. Only the urgency remained.
Bringing up the rear, the oldest and youngest members of the party, Esteban’s tiny, aged mother, and her small great-grandchild, the son of the dead Manuel, hurried along. The old woman fairly skipped over the rocky trail and across the fords, while the little boy holding her hand was running and stumbling all the way. Yet for all their haste, little by little the old woman and little boy lagged farther and farther behind. They managed to catch up only when the stretcher-bearers stopped to trade off or to have their pants rolled up at the deeper crossings.
When we arrived at El Rancho del Padre, the first stars were just flickering into existence in the deepening heavens, and glowworms were beginning to form pale constellations along the damp banks of the stream. I was a bit reluctant to descend upon Irineo and Eustolia with such a horde of people; I hadn’t dreamed that Esteban’s entire family would accompany us that far. But the old Vidaca couple, after their initial shock, took our intrusion cheerfully. Irineo cleared a cot for Esteban, while Eustolia, who had already gone to bed, got up and stoked the fire. To add to the confusion, all the neighbors from across the arroyo came to join the party. They chipped in corn or beans or whatever they had, and the womenfolk moved into the kitchen to prepare a meal.
Dinner was not ready for almost three hours. Meanwhile I attended Esteban –who had withstood the first stretch of the journey fairly well– and consulted patients in my dispensary, illuminated by my Safari Lite (a large florescent flashlight). After dinner more sick persons arrived and the consultations continued. It must have been at least one o’clock by the time I at last rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the dispensary and went to sleep.
I rose well before dawn. Esteban’s relatives were slumped and sprawled in all parts of the portal. A clump of children lay under a tattered blanket that Irineo had put over them. Only Esteban’s aged, wrinkled mother was awake. She sat on the edge of the catre with her wounded son, a flaming ocote in her knotted hand. As I stepped into the portal she said softly, “He’s sleeping.”
Several of the women arose, built up the cooking fire, and heated a batch of gordas they had made the night before. Then the men arose. As we were breakfasting, volunteer stretcher-bearers began to arrive. At the first hint of the new day, we set out.
Our party had dwindled to nineteen persons: Esteban, his two daughters Victoria and Delfina, Pedro, fourteen stretcher-bearers, and myself. Among the bearers were Irineo’s grandson, Alvaro, and Bonefacio from across the arroyo, together with his adopted son, Miguel. The bearers set out at a fast pace, although the slippery rocks, boggy mud, and ragged terrain frequently slowed them down. The stretcher had to be carried down rocky cascades of water, tricky to pass even for a man without cargo. The men carrying the stretcher, to be safer, would wade across where the mules passed, while the rest of the men –except for the stout Bonifacio– leapt with the grace and agility of mountain goats from rock to rock to avoid wetting their sandals. Although their sandals were already wet, they avoided the water like cats. They turned the long portage into a kind of game, like “Follow the Leader.” Some of the young men’s leaps were spectacular, requiring the agility of ballet dancers and the balance of aerial acrobats.
As we covered mile after mile of the difficult terrain, even the heartiest of the bearers began to slow down, and they traded off more often. Three times the men stumbled and fell, but each time they managed to break the fall of the stretcher. Bonifacio received an ugly cut across the back of his bulldog neck where the stretcher hit him as he fell. The other men wore spots of raw skin across the back of their necks where the stretcher rubbed. Meanwhile, Esteban rode hunched and silent, without complaining.
We reached the spot where the Arroyo de Verano opens into the Rio Verde. The men were exhausted and hungry, and vie stopped for a breather at the small hut of Bernabé Díaz in El Tule, lowering Esteban in the shade of a guamuchil tree. Bernabé had shot a good-sized javelín the day before, and his wife set to broiling slabs of it. Bernabé invited us to partake, and the lot of us devoured half the pig.
When we set off again, Bernabé went with us to help carry. As we were approaching the first river crossing, a big man came toward us from a side trail, driving a train of burros. He fell in with us and also took his turn with the stretcher.
Back and forth across the river we splashed. The water level had dropped considerably since the rains but some of the fords were still more than waist deep. Now the hot sun was high in the sky, burning down with its full force as we cut through cornfields, spiny woodlands, rocky alluvia, and endless fords. The necks of the stretcher-bearers grew bloodier. Sweat dripped from their faces and their shirts clung to their backs. Esteban endured.
As we approached the village of Bordontita, Victoriano Murillo came forward to meet us. He threw up his hands, discouraged. “This morning at dawn nearly every man in Bordontita went up to the frijolares (bean fields) way up on the ridge tops. There are only three of us men left in the village who can help.”
“We’ve got to send for the other men,” I told him: “Our men here are exhausted.”
We lowered the stretcher in the shade of a huge guinacastle (ape’s earring tree) and dispatched a messenger up the mountainside to advise the men in the frijolares.
I found the long wait frustrating. I felt an urge to be by myself for a while, and after injecting Esteban, made my way up-stream. Climbing up to a small shelf of out-jutting rock that formed a perch overlooking the river, I drew out a notebook and made a few efforts to write. But I was too tired, too concerned about Esteban, too full of impressions still too near and too vivid to record. I set aside my notebook and stared into the water where a number of small brown truchas (trout), the same yellow-brown color as the sandy bottom, seemed to hover in the swift current like hummingbirds before a flower. I watched them in dumb fascination. And above the fish, the reflection of the mountains and the clouds.
I sat in a kind of meditation – or better said, a daze – for nearly two hours, until Victoriano’s son, Agustín, returning down the arroyo from some errand, spotted me on my perch and awakened me from my muse with an eager shout. He scrambled up to join me, and pulling a sweet lime out of his pocket handed it to me with a broad grin. I peeled it and threw the small pieces of peel into the green waters. We watched the trout as they rose to nose and nibble at the peels that turned in a slow eddy until the current caught them and swept them downstream.
“I’m sure glad to see you,” said Agustín with his boyish enthusiasm. “What are you doing here?”
“Sitting.” I said. Agustín shrugged his small shoulders and we both stared down at the fish. Then Agustín said, “Come on!” and we rose and made our way back to the village.
The last glow of sunlight was inching its way up the eastward hillcrests when the first of the men bean to arrive from the frijolares. By the time twelve new volunteer stretcher-bearers had gathered beneath the guinacastle where Esteban lay stoically hunched on the stretcher, dusk was descending. We borrowed two carbide lamps, and set out.
Victoriano and I rode ahead of the main party to recruit carriers in La Amargosa and Güillapa. We had no light, but a sliver of moon in the westward sky provided a glimmer to see by, and our mules had no problem in finding their way. We set off at a swift trot. Hormiga, after her respite and with her belly full of corn, was lively and responsive, and with her long ears cocked forward in the dim moonlight, trotted along like a mula half her age.
As we splashed across the mouth of the Arroyo de Chilar, Victoriano remarked, “Here comes someone.” A lone rider on mule back made his way toward us up river. As he reached us he drew rein, and cried, “David! Is it true you took the bullet out of Eligio’s leg?”
My mouth fell open. Here was our big secret, not a word of which was to leave Eligio’s hideout, and already a day later, it had reached Ajoya and was on its way back upriver again! I looked at Victoriano and he looked back at me.
“Could be,” I admitted.
Victoriano laughed. “Here in the barrancas secrets travel faster than public announcements.”
“By the way,” said the lone rider, the judiciales (state police) are on their way up river right now to investigate the killings. They plan to travel all night so as to catch the people in Verano off guard in the morning.”
“And where are you headed?” asked Victoriano.
“I thought I’d go to Verano,” he replied.
“Look, cousin,” said Victoriano, drawing a small sheath knife out of his belt. “Do me the favor of leaving this with my wife in Bordontita. Tell her to hide it. She knows where.”
“Will do,” said the rider, taking the knife. “The judiciales are getting pretty rough. Day before yesterday they came to Ajoya and hung young Chunel by the neck.”
“Chunel, the son of Chuy Padilla and Goya Lomas!” I exclaimed.
“That’ right,” said the rider. “Only fifteen years-old. They didn’t kill him; just hung him until he talked. Seems Chunel stole some goats from his uncle, Raúl.”
“Here come the stretcher bearers!” said Victoriano, looking back over his shoulder at the approaching lights. “We’d better get going.”
“Watch out for the judiciales!” cried the lone rider after us as we rode away. “¡Que le vaya bien!”
Victoriano and I continued our way back and forth, down the dark, glistening river: Vado de Inocente, Vado de la Garratadera, el Vado de la Luna. When we approached “El Vado Hondo” where the water would have topped our saddles; we turned aside onto the narrow and treacherous detour that winds its way across the face of an almost vertical escarpment high above the river. Here the trail was in places only a foot wide, dropping off precipitously on our right to the river hundreds of feet below. Beneath the canopy of máhuto that rose above us, the moon-trace was obscured but for an occasional flicker, and everything was so black that we could not see even the ears of our mules in front of us.
“Hold the rein loose,” said Victoriano, “and be ready to jump off toward the left if your mule slips.” Thus we drifted through the thick night, one hand stretched out in front to keep invisible branches and twigs from poking us in the eyes. At last we descended once more to the river.
We crossed the last ford before La Amargosa and were greeted by angry dogs as we approached the first house. Without dismounting we called to the owner, who had already bedded down. He came sleepily forward, calling off his dogs.
“Friend, we’re bringing a wounded man on a stretcher,” said Victoriano. “Can you get some men together to help out?”
The man turned his head upward and yawned. “It’s awfully dark. Why don’t you spend the night and take him the rest of the way tomorrow?”
“He’s in pretty bad shape;” replied Victoriano, “And David says we should hurry.”
“Oh, is that you, David?” said the man, peering through the darkness. “Well, I’ll try to rouse the neighbors. You can count on the help of myself and my son.”
“Good, the stretcher should be here in about half an hour... We’re going to continue on to arouse the people of Güillapa ...Hasta luego.”
“Hasta luego... ¡Que le vaya bien!” he called after us.
We rode on. At times now the setting moon-fragment would become obscured behind the hills, leaving us in darkness while the flanks of the higher hills still glowed warm and silent. Ford after ford we crossed, our tongues muted, our ears awakened to the song of the river and the percussion of iron-shod hooves on earth, water, sand and stone. The world turned and the moon went slowly down. We approached the upper houses of Güillapa, arriving, like moths, at a house where a light was still burning. We were welcomed inside; the woman put fresh wood on the fire and blew on the coals through a bamboo pipe until a shy and undulant flame, like a genie, rose from the shouldering coals. “You must be hungry,” said the woman, “I’ll warm the beans.”
We accepted her offer. Meanwhile her husband made the rounds to the neighboring houses, advising the men of the approaching stretcher and requesting their help.
We proceeded down the river to the next portion of the village, arriving at the home of Cipriano Martínez, next to the schoolhouse. Cipriano’s wife had been suffering from severe hemorrhage when Tatino and I had passed through Güillapa a week and a half before. The house was dark when we arrived, but one of the sons rose quickly and lit a cachimba.
Cipriano disengaged himself from his wife and sat up in bed with a wide yawn. “David! Victoriano! What are you doing playing the owl? . . But welcome! Come in! Bring another stool, my son... Sit down.”
“I’m glad you’ve come, David,” continued Cipriano. “My wife is better now, thank God, but look at this little one.” His small daughter was asleep at the foot of his cot. “A week ago she began to break out with sores, and now she’s covered. Look.” He pulled back the corner of the blanket and uncovered the little girl, whose arms, legs, and face were covered with large crusting sores, some of them an inch or more across. The little girl awakened and began to cry. “It’s all right, my daughter,” said Cipriano. “Don David is here. He’s going to cure you.” he turned back to me. “We’ve tried yerba buena and cardón (a cactus); we’ve said prayers and given her an enema, but nothing seems to do any good. She keeps getting worse!”
I turned back to Cipriano. “While I’m getting the medicine from my mule could you start asking the neighbors if they could help carry a wounded man to Ajoya?”
Cipriano opened his deep eyes widely and said, “You mean now?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do you think they’ll do it?”
Cipriano looked out into the dark night. “It’s dark,” he said. “The moon has already set. But a couple of the men have carbide lamps. I’ll see.”
He stretched himself sleepily, pulled on has trousers, lit a second cachimba; and went out into the night. I brought in my medicine bag and got out a package of chewable ampicillin tablets for the little girl.
I poured some Phisohex into a small jar that Cipriano’s wife provided. As I was closing up my medicine bag another mother arrived from a neighboring house saying that she, too, had a small child with the same kind of sores... Other patients followed.
The stretcher-bearers arrived before Cipriano returned. I asked Esteban how he felt, and he said, “Lo mismo.” (The same.) Yet his fever had subsided somewhat, and his abdomen showed no sign of further swelling. I felt encouraged.
Cipriano appeared and said the men were coming. But it took them a long time to get there. There was little I could do to speed things up. I had become so tired that I felt drunken and tingly, and would stumble and lose my balance when I walked. At last I crept off into the shadows and lay down on the open ground, looking up at the stars, which had doubled in brilliance since the moon had set. I hugged my arms in against my body, shut my eyes, and tried to catnap until the men arrived. But I could go only half way to sleep, and lay there, with human voices and starlight penetrating my drowsing consciousness in a kind of lovely blur, as through a veil of snowflakes. I half remember a child lifting my head and placing a pillow under it.
At last I heard Victoriano’s voice saying, “I think enough men are here now to take the stretcher on to Ajoya. Where is David?”
I rose, still half asleep, and returned the pillow. The new stretcher-bearers, lighted by the glaring carbide lamps, were preparing to set off. There were now sixteen men, led by Cipriano.
“You’ve got a good group to take you on to Ajoya,” said Victoriano. “We men from Bordontita are going to return from here.”
“Thanks for all the help,” I said.
“For nothing,” said Victoriano. “The next time around it may be a member of our own family that we need to carry out.”
Two of the men from Güillapa shouldered the stretcher, and took off at a rapid pace, followed by the other young men and Esteban’s two daughters, who shared a mule. We had traveled only a short distance when I realized I had forgotten my camera, and went back for it. The camera recovered, I set off again on Hormiga, as fast as I dared in the pitch dark, to try to catch up. I reached a point where the trail left the river and forked in many places. The night was so black that I was completely disoriented, and had to leave the direction to find Hormiga, who took the wrong turn several times, and led me to barricades or other spots where I realized we had gone astray. At last we encountered the trail that led to the river again, and I flailed Hormiga in an effort to catch up with the stretcher party. She caught the spirit, and did her best. But the stretcher party seemed to have taken wing. I rode and rode, fording the dark river back and forth, always with my eyes peeled ahead for the first glimmer of the carbide lights.
Finally, after fording El Vado de Tejoco, I spotted the lights. There appeared to be more than before, and as I drew closer I saw that the stretcher had been lowered to the ground and people were crowded round it. “Oh no!” I thought. “Esteban is dead.” I slowed down and drew close quietly. Then I recognized the shiny leather jackets of the judiciales, the state police. I stayed in the shadows of a garrapata, and watched. The judiciales were squatted around Esteban, removing his bandages, taking measurements, and writing down descriptions of the wounds. Then one of the police lifted the bandage over Esteban’s abdomen. He shook his head and said darkly, “He doesn’t have a chance.” No one replied.
“Who shot you?” asked one of the police.
“I don’t know,” replied Esteban weakly. “It was dark.”
“But surely you know who shot you? Come on now, man, speak! Was it Eligio Ruíz?”
“It might have been.”
“Figures. And Eligio is wounded too, right?”
“They say so.”
“Is his leg broken?”
“How should I know?”
“We’ve got to find that Gringo curandero who treated him,” commented one of the other police.
I smiled to myself at being referred to as a Gringo curandero, and hunched down a little more in the shadows.
The questioning continued. “The shooting happened at a dance, right?”
“There was some dancing, I guess.”
“And drinking, too, right?”
“No, not really.”
“Oh, come now! Whenever there’s dancing there’s drinking. You know that as well as I do.”
“There might have been some drinking. I don’t know.”
“Who brought the vino?”
“I don’t know,” muttered Esteban. “I tell you, I don’t know anything. My mind’s foggy.”
“Leave him alone, for mercy’s sake!” cried Victoria angrily. “Can’t you see what shape he’s in? Have mercy!”
“And who are you?” said the sergeant, turning to Victoria.
“His daughter.” said Victoria.
“Were you at the dance?”
The questioning continued for the better part of an hour, during which time the police learned almost nothing. At last Quico Manjarréz, the young “judge” of Ajoya, who had come with the state police to investigate the shootings, became irritated and cried out, “Look here, you people, you’re all the time complaining that the government does nothing to enforce justice in the barrancas, and every time police or soldiers come, you refuse to cooperate. Why?”
No one responded.
“Come on,” said the sergeant. “We’re wasting our time. Let’s get going.”
The judiciales remounted and prepared to set out. As they rode past, the sergeant shone his light around, spotted me, and drew rein.
“Ah, here you are!” he cried, and moving closer demanded, “Is it true that you took the bullet out of Eligio’s leg?”
“Yes.” I said.
“Is his leg broken?”
“What kind of bullet was it?”
“And where’s Eligio?”
“Near Verano,” I replied. I waited for the sergeant to ask me exactly where Eligio was, for surely if they hoped to take him by surprise they needed to know. But the sergeant simply said, “Very well. Let’s go catch him!” and they all rode off.
On we traveled through the night. The trails, except for the ford, were better now, and we moved swiftly. The men traded off every quarter-mile or so. Frequently the bearers would trot with the stretcher, while one man would run along ahead and another behind, lighting the way with the carbide lamps. As we approached Ajoya it began to drizzle, the first rain in more than a month. I was so fatigued I didn’t even notice it. I don’t know how Victoria, Delfina, and Pedro managed to hold out, especially Pedro, who had come all the way on foot. I myself was ill with weariness. My stomach was cramped, and my head was reeling. I was thankful indeed as we climbed the last rise into Ajoya and the thirty-five mile marathon with Esteban on the stretcher was over.
“Where shall we arrive?” asked Cipriano as we entered the sleeping village. It must have been nearly 2:00 A.M.
“With Micaela and Ramón,” I said, and led the way. When I dismounted I nearly fell over.
“What’s all this?” barked old Micaela from the dark inside of the portal.
“It’s David,” I answered. “We’ve brought a wounded man from Verano.”
Blind Ramón had wakened also. “Ah, David! Welcome home! Wounded, you say. Who is it? Bring him in out of the dew.”
Meanwhile Micaela was putting on her sandals. She crossed over to the cot where two of the boys were snoring and shook them furiously. “Chón! Everardo! Wake up! Out of bed! We’ve got to put a sick man down here.” Chón and Everardo yawned, grunted, obeyed, still half asleep. We deposited Esteban on the bed.
“How do you feel?” I asked him.
“I’m hungry,” said Esteban, gingerly feeling his belly.
“We’ll fix you something to eat right away,” said Micaela. “Sofia, get up! Everardo, bring in some wood. Tatino and Federico, wake up! Chon, take care of the mules. You girls must be tired. Sit down!”
She turned to the stretcher-bearers. “Can I make you men some coffee?”
“No, thanks,” said Cipriano. “We’re just about to take off back to Güillapa. It’s harvesting time. We all have to work in the fields tomorrow.” He turned to the other men. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get going.”
“Our thanks to you all!” I said.
“That’s all right,” said Cipriano with his gentle smile, “It was fun.” The men took off into the night.
I wanted to drive Esteban to the hospital as soon as possible, but I thought it was better if we all took a short nap before starting out. I feared an accident on the highway if we didn’t. Besides, Esteban actually seemed in less critical condition than when we had left Verano. Tatino laid out some burlap bags on the floor for Victoria and Delfina to sleep on. At last we all turned in – with the exception of Sofía, who insisted on staying up to iron my trousers for the trip to Culiacán.
I had no more than closed my eyes, it seemed, when a great commotion awakened me. The dark streets were full of men, women, and children, all running in panic and shouting, “Help! Help!”
“The world is coming to an end!”
“The sky is falling!”
“We are under attack!”
“It must be the Communists!”
“Oh, San Agustín, save us!”
“The hour of destruction is upon us!”
“Look! Look up!”
“The stars have come loose from their hooks!”
“Pray for salvation! Little God!”
I forced open my weary eyes and looked up, then sprang to my feet. The sky was alive with a cascade of shooting stars! Thousands of meteorites were streaking across the heavens and rocketing toward the earth, all at the same angle. Dizzy with fatigue, still half asleep, I caught my breath and gawked ecstatically at the sky. It was superb! Cosmoramic! Let the children and patriots have their fireworks! This was my kind of show!
People came hurrying to me as if I were a wizard, to ask me what the strange bombardment meant.
“I don’t think it means anything,” I said to one old man. “But isn’t it magnificent!”
“Magnificent?” cried the good man, “It’s terrible! It’s surely the end of the world!” And he hurried away, mumbling, “I knew it would happen! I said so all along, but no one would listen!”
The meteoritic shower and its consequential storm in Ajoya continued for a couple of hours, nearly until dawn. I remember it as a wild, happy dream. At the first hint of dawn I rose, awakened Esteban’s daughters and his half-brother. While it was still only half-light we moved the entire cot on which Esteban lay into the back of my Jeep, cleaned the windshield, and departed. Tatino accompanied us.
As we passed the last houses on the way out of the village, a small, one-armed boy came running toward the car in the semi-light. I stopped and rolled down the window.
“Goyo!” I exclaimed. “What on earth are you doing in Ajoya at this hour?”
Goyo was beaming. “We moved here to Ajoya!” he explained, catching hold of my right hand with his left and squeezing it. “My parents wanted us to be closer to the school.” He motioned to the small adobe hut opposite my Jeep. “That’s our new house.” He thrust his head inside the window, and asked, “Who’s hurt?”
“Esteban Torres,” I said. “I’m taking him to the hospital in Culiacán.” And before Goyo could ask if he could go too, I added, “I’ll see you this afternoon, or tomorrow.”
Goyo could not conceal his disappointment. “Have a good trip,” he said quietly, turning the other way.
We drove on, leaving little Goyo standing in the road.
Five hours later we arrived at the Hospital Civil in Culiacán. Tatino and I carried Esteban into one of the wards. Poor Delfina and Victoria were as frightened as lost children. Never before in their lives had they been farther down from the mountains than Verano. They had never ridden in a motor vehicle, had never seen a village as large as Ajoya, much less a city like Culiacán.
Dr. Jorge Espinosa remembered me from a former visit, and agreed to give Esteban the best of care. By the time we arrived at the hospital, however, Esteban was already showing definite signs of improvement. His temperature had returned to nearly normal, the foggy look had disappeared from his eyes, and the swelling of his abdomen was subsiding. In short, he lived.
As Tatino and I were driving back from Culiacan to Ajoya after taking Esteban to the hospital in Culiacán, late at night on the last leg of our trip, we again encountered the Judiciales Estatales (State Police), on their return from the Sierra. The old truck they’d borrowed to transport them between Ajoya and San Ignacio had broken down, and they were stranded miles from the closest village. They begged me to take them back into San Ignacio, and weary as I was, I reluctantly agreed. If I hadn’t, they’d have likely commandeered my vehicle.) The Judiciales transferred into my Jeep all the booty from their raid into the barrancas: rifles, pistols, hunting knives of all shapes and sizes, and –the prize of all– a portable, battery-operated phonograph they had confiscated in La Quebrada. Apart from their retrieval of these items, their trip had been utterly fruitless. The villagers had known they were coming. When they arrived in Verano, they found only three men in the entire village. When they entered La Quebrada, where the actual killings had taken place, they couldn’t find one living soul: men, women, and children had disappeared into the hills. The police searched the houses for weapons, then returned back down the arroyo. As they were passing a sugarcane field, they saw a man ducking through the stalks. They pursued him, and found he had stashed a large sack full of twenty-two rifle shells in the cane field. They beat the man and after releasing him rode back down the arroyo through Verano, filling their guns with the superfluous ammunition and firing vivos (joy shots) into the air.
By the time we arrived back in San Ignacio, the Judiciales were in fine spirits. They invited Tatino and me to spend the night with them, in the jailhouse. We agreed, for we were totally exhausted. The Judiciales decided to have a party, consuming large quantities of the tequila and mescal that they had confiscated from the houses they had search in Verano and La Quebrada. They put dance music on the confiscated record player. , and danced and laughed together, accompanied by the prisoners, who – having been awakened by all the noise – had come to the bars to watch.
The next morning before I left, the Judiciales, as a token of thanks for my having brought them out of the wilderness, presented me with two handsome, handmade daggers they had confiscated in the Sierra.
Back in May, Gregorio Alarcón, the elderly shopkeeper in Ajoya, received a letter from Guillermo Ruíz Gómez, now living in Culiacán. A native of San Ignacio, Ruíz Gómez had for many years been the diputado (local representative) for the Municipio of San Ignacio in the State Capital. In his letter, Guillermo enquired about the “filántropo norteamericano” who was performing “un labor de trancendencia social” in the forgotten Indian village of Ajoya. He wanted to know more about me, how long I had been in the sierra, how I had been “inspirado” to come to Ajoya in the first place, etc. The tone of his letter was emphatically favorable. On reading it, Old Gregorio fairly danced with delight. He called me to his blacksmith shop and thrust the letter into my hands, exclaiming, “This is a fine man, a big man, a key player in the State Government! He can be of tremendous help to you, David. And to all of us abandoned campesinos. Tremendous help! . . . I must write him an answer at once.”
Just how it was that Sr. Ruíz Gómez heard about me, I’m not sure. I suspect it was through an article (which I have never seen) appearing in the daily newspaper of Culiacán. This article must have been written by a young reporter with whom I had a casual chat last Spring while waiting two and a half days in an office in Culiacán for my interview with “El Jefe de Services Coordinates de Salubridad y Asistencia del Estado de Sinaloa.” I was, of course, pleased with the tone of Ruíz Gómez’ letter, and determined to pay a call on him the next time I visited the state capital. Not until this November, however, when I took the wounded Esteban to the hospital in Culiacán, did I finally look up Sr. Ruíz Gómez.
Guillermo Ruíz Gómez welcomed Tatino and me into his home with warm enthusiasm, and at once we began an intense interchange of questions and answers. Don Ruíz Gómez is a consultant and close friend of the Governor, who has appointed him to the specially created position of Director de Trabajo y Acción Social (Director of Work and Social Action). I learned he was already familiar with many of the land problems in the barrancas, and was also well aware of the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy land barons and cattle owners in Ajoya. He asked us what changes had come about since he had last been there, and Tatino and I explained to him some of the more recent events. When he learned that land reform efforts of the Agradistas in Ajoya had been all but squelched, and that their leader, Chuy Alarcón, had left in despair for the coast, he cried out: “No! Chuy mustn’t despair. The little farmers are in the right, and they must be defended! For this the great Mexican Revolution was fought. Chuy must be encouraged to return to Ajoya and take up the struggle anew. I will do what I can to assist him. Tell me more!”
Tatino explained how Jesús Manjarréz of Ajoya, the effective leader of the so-called Nuevo Centro de Población, made frequent trips to Mexico City to sell the authorities on the land barons’ point of view.
“I know,” interrupted Don Guillermo. “The land barons have come to ask me, too, for my support. They know I’m an advisor to the Governor. But I said to them, ‘No, my good friends’ – for they are all my friends: Marcelo Manjarréz, Chuy Vega, the lot of them – ‘No, my friends! In the question of land I cannot help you, for you are in the wrong..!’ And I didn’t help them. And I won’t! They have more than their fair share already.”
“And are they still your friends?” I asked.
“Certainly, replied Sr. Ruíz Gómez. “And they are good people. It just happens that the matter of trying to monopolize the land-use and exploit the poor farmer, they’re dead wrong, and I tell them so.”
“Is there anything that can be done to put things right?” I asked. “Or to bring into effect the land reform laws which are being so openly violated?”
“As you know,” said Guillermo Ruíz Gómez after a pause, “Politics in any country is a tricky business. I’ve been intending to take some action over the land problem in Ajoya for years; but I haven’t figured quite how to go about it.”
He paused and then said suddenly, “Do you know how to get in touch with Chuy Alarcón?”
“Yes,” said Tatino. “He’s working on a small rancho near Santa Cruz.”
“In fact, we were thinking of stopping to see Chuy on our way back to Ajoya,” I added.
“Ask him to come see me at my home here sometime,” he said, “or at my office in the Gubernatorial Palace. If he can bring all the factual data he can, it will help.”
“I’ll tell him,” I said.
Guillermo Ruíz Gómez inquired also about the education program of the children in the barrancas. I told him of the marvelous work that Gonzalo Flores was doing in Caballo de Arriba, and of the dreadful work of some of the other teachers and inspectors. I explained that the village of Jocuixtita had not had a teacher for two years, and how the villagers had asked me to see if I could do anything to get a teacher for them.
“I happen to be a friend of the Federal Director of Education for the State here in Culiacán,” said Ruíz Gómez. “I’ll talk to him tomorrow... I think Jocuixtita will soon have a teacher.”
We talked for more than three hours; discussing all sorts of things. It was late in the afternoon by the time we took our leave. As we walked down the street, Tatino turned to me and said, grinning widely, “What a goldmine you have found in this friend!”
I was a bit overwhelmed myself. “Can it really be true that he is as conscientious as he seems? And if so, how did he ever get to the position he is in?”
Tatino tapped his forehead. “He’s no fool.”
It was nearly two weeks before I heard anything more from Guillermo Ruíz Gómez. On returning to Ajoya from my third and final vaccinating tour of the barrancas, I received three copies of “El Diario de Culiacán” dated 27 noviembre, 1966, and a letter, which, translated, reads:
Esteemed sir, teacher, and friend:El Diario of Culiacán today published a brief commentary about the social labor that you are realizing in that agreeable village of Ajoya and its surroundings.
In this manner we render homage to you, and to your social work of such transcendence for the poor people who merit all our concern and effort.
To Gregorio Alarcón and to you I am dispatching some nine copies of El Diario with the object that they be distributed where best suited. Other copies I have sent to Mr. Robert Wallace in Palo Alto, California.
I hope and desire to speak with you when you pass through this fair city.
My very affectionate salutations and very cordial felicitation for you and your work and your sleepless nights in benefit of our brothers of Ajoya.
Greetings to Gregorio and all our friends.
Guillermo Ruíz Gómez
The newspaper article, entitled, Carta Amistosa (friendly letter) al Sr. Prof. David B, in spite of Don Guillermo’s indication that it is “brief”, is too lengthy and flattering to include in full here. In characteristically embroidered language, he presents the history of my activities in the mountain villages and even mentions the names of the students from Pacific High School who accompanied me on an earlier trip there. He deplores the gap I will leave when I depart, and then cleverly turns the gist of his letter to the campesinos land reform struggle in Ajoya. He continues, of course, to address his commentary to me. This part, in translation, reads:
“Notwithstanding your North American nationality, you have clearly identified with the dark-complexioned race, because you have entered into their family problems and their hearts, you have served faithfully and in an exemplary manner, as has no Sinaloan, in spite of the fact that in Ajoya there exist persons with economic possibilities and that on that soil were born men who made themselves rich in the Revolution, yet never once thought about the tragedy of their people, for (reason of) their concentrated egoism and despicable avarice.”
The letter goes on to say that:
“When you edit your book with the observations and studies realized about the thoughts, idiosyncrasies, and customs of the inhabitants of Ajoya; about the birds, trees, flowers, the things, and all classes of animals which frequent there, don’t forget the tachicuales* product of luminous ingenuity of the Indians, nor forget that, in spite of the agrarian revolution which the ‘campesinos’ made, by the sarcasm of destiny, they still lack the lands to plant and live modestly, because a group of cattlemen after an iniquitous despotism has insolently and arbitrarily grabbed them from their rightful owners, the members of the community who, at another time, defended them with passion under the orders of Feliciano Roque, who destroyed a battalion sent by the Porfirist dictator to trample their rights."
“To complete the painful portrait of the campesinos plundered of their lands which are fenced off by the latifundistas (wealthy land barons) of the new wave, they charge them rent for the land which they plant with sacrifice, for the firewood that they need in their homes, and (for) the pasture for their animals; they buy “on time” the crops at the laughable price of twenty pesos (per) hundred liters of corn, which after it becomes scarce they sell at ninety pesos; they lend two liters of corn in the agricultural cycle with the obligation of returning five on lifting the harvests.
“The campesinos who suffer the blows from the cruel destroyer of their organism wait for a new Indian Roque to hurl the cry and rise in arms to defend their lands anew and to make justice with their own hands, now that the agrarian authorities, with reproachable indifference, have them submitted in despair and misery, in desperation and ruin.”
I don’t know how many copies of his “Friendly Letter” Sr. Ruíz Gómez sent around outside Ajoya, but the next time I passed through San Ignacio, several of the town’s more prominent figures, who had formerly glanced at me out of the corner of their eye as if to say, “There goes that contrabanding Gringo again,” now greeted me with a display of cordiality. Two such persons even presented me with copies of the article, saying, “Guillermo Ruíz Gómez sent me this. Have you seen it?” Among others, El Presidente Municipal de San Ignacio received a copy, which should make him think twice.
El Presidente, however, is already thinking twice. He has carried some of his shady dealings a little too far. The Lira de Agradistas in Culiacán, together (I have been told) with the State Inspector of Schools in San Ignacio and many of the people, have pushed for an investigation. It has been disclosed that El Presidente has embezzled over 200,000 pesos of public funds, mostly collected for public works from the inhabitants of the municipio; that he has pocketed some three months salary (about 36,000 pesos) destined for the teachers of the State-operated schools in the municipio; that he has been using public money to buy cattle for a private ranch he purchased in Lodazal (a small village between San Ignacio and the main highway); that he sent truckload of foodstuffs provided through UNICEF to Lodazal, where the school teacher has in turn been selling the supplies to bakeries and giving El Presidente his cut.
Now that some of the misdoings of El Presidente have been declared (an article defaming him appeared recently in E1 Diario de Culiacán) many persons in Ajoya and San Ignacio are confident that he will be thrown out of office in short order. Others point out that only the State Governor can remove the municipal president, since the Governor appointed him in the first place. But the Governor won’t do so, they say, because he, together with El Presidente, was in on the assassination of Ramón Valverde, and therefore has too much to lose.
The newspapers have frequently attacked the Governor for graft and favoritism to the wealthy. It is hard to know how much of this is pure talk. Guillermo Ruíz Gómez pooh-poohs the involvement not only of the Governor, but of El Presidente of San Ignacio in the murder of Ramón Valverde, saying “I know Nacho, why he wouldn’t get mixed up in that kind of thing.” On the other hand, Ruíz Gómez surprised me by vituperatively deprecating Ramón Valverde, who for many years did more than almost anyone else to help the cause of the Agradistas. “Ramón Valverde wasn’t a man!” cried Ruíz Gómez when I brought up the murder. “He was a coward. He didn’t have a gram of courage in him. Furthermore, he was involved in all kinds of shady dealings, and it was because of these, not because of his support of the Agradistas, that he was shot! Neither Jesús Manjarréz of San Ignacio nor the government had anything to do with it...”
According to Ruíz Gómez, then, Ramón was shot because he was responsible for the death of a big time mule trader named Cruz Arreola, whose cohorts in La Noria near Mazatlán had avenged his death.
Who knows? Although it is quite possible that Ruíz Gómez is correct abut Ramón’s murder, there are factors that could influence his opinion. Jesús Manjarréz of San Ignacio (unrelated to Jesús Manjarréz of Ajoya), who now lives in Mexico City after he was run out of town by Ramón Valverde three or four years ago, is suspected by many to have encouraged the murder of Ramón. Apart from being very wealthy and very influential, Jesús Manjarréz is a close friend of Ruíz Gómez, and it would be only natural if Ruíz Gómez should go out of his way to defend him, as in fact he has done. Be that as it may, I believe that Ruíz Gómez is probably about as honest as any man can be in the political tide and keep afloat, but like anyone else he knows where he must respect his limits and his loyalties if he is to survive.
A week after receiving the newspaper article, as I was passing through Culiacán on my way back to the United States at the end of my year in the barrancas, I stopped in once again at the home of Guillermo Ruíz Gómez, who had invited me to lunch. I thanked him for his Carta Amistosa, and he replied, “It came out in the dailies of the three major cities of Sinaloa: in Culiacán, in Mazatlán, and in Los Mochis.” The day the article came out, he said, he’d taken it to the Governor in person, had him read it, and further explained to the Governor about my activities in the barrancas and the problems of the poor campesinos there.
“The Governor is very pleased with what you are doing there,” added Ruíz Gómez. “He has also appointed me personally to investigate the question of land distribution in Ajoya, and to see that the agrarian laws are applied to protect the poor farmers.”
He smiled at me broadly, “So maybe the little people will have a chance after all!”
After leaving Guillermo Ruíz Gómez, I kept mulling over my recent encounter with this rare man. How clever he had been to make a statewide broadcast of the iniquities in Ajoya, using as excuse his “Friendly Letter” to me, before speaking to the Governor. As an aide and personal friend of the Governor, Ruíz Gómez must be well aware of the Governor’s own political juggling, and realize the delicate balance between wealth on the one hand and public opinion on the other, in the making of official decisions. Clearly his letter in the newspaper, addressed to me and directed to the people of Sinaloa would help to influence the Governor’s decision making.
It is still too early to know how effective Guillermo Ruíz Gómez will be in improving the land situation in Ajoya. Still and all, it is nice to know that people like Ruíz Gómez do exist, and that some effort may be made.
“¿No tiene medicina para no tener hijos?” (Do you have medicine to prevent having children?) is a question I am asked with surprising frequency in the barrancas. Sometimes the question comes from a woman who has had a difficult pregnancy and therefore fears, sometimes correctly, that another conception may cost her life. Most often, however, the request comes from a mother who has already had eight or more children and whose breasts have bit by bit gone dry, until, as little Goyo’s mother with her tenth child, she offers her breast merely as a pacifier, and fills her malnourished baby with sugar water, corn meal, and perhaps the broth of boiled beans. Not only mothers, but fathers of large families frequently ask me if I have medicine to prevent having more children. They tell me of the enormous struggle they have to feed and clothe so many children and send them to school. Parents are usually glad to have up to six or seven children. Beyond that they become increasingly conscious of diminishing returns.
When I had been in the barrancas only a short time I was surprised by the frequency of requests for birth control medicine. Several times, when I’ve asked, “But doesn’t the Church object?” I’ve received answers like, “Who knows?” or “Why should it?” The idea of birth control “medicine” is not new to the villagers. As for every affliction ranging from leprosy to tuberculosis, there is a wide range of “home remedies” for preventing conception. To prevent or interrupt pregnancy, these include chewing garlic while fasting, and eating mojarras or camarones pintos (small, flat, ugly river fish or spotted crayfish) during the menstrual period. As with many of the folk cures, these measures for birth control are only occasionally effective.
Apart from the obvious benefit that reliable birth control could be for individual families, the need of such measures in terms of the total community is paramount. Already the inhospitable terrain of the barrancas is inhabited by many times the number of persons that it can comfortably support. If the village of Ajoya were a third its present size, and the land were equitably distributed, there would be enough fertile, level, bottom-land near the river to provide ample sustenance for all the villagers, without the small farmers having to eke out their existence through slash and burn farming of the steep mountainsides.
But as it stands, the size of Ajoya and other villages is determined not by the number of people who can comfortably live there, but by the number who can barely manage to subsist. Because food is the limiting factor, this number is subject to the vicissitudes of the weather. Scanty summer rains and subsequent harvest failure inevitably result in a vast exodus. Family after family, cornless and penniless, sell their last burro (if they can find a buyer) and make their way out of the mountains to seek their fortune, or misfortune, along the coast. The vast majority end up in the ever-expanding slums that border larger cities like Culiacán, where the men begin to drift here and there in search of odd jobs, and the children learn to wander through the streets polishing shoes of big-hearted Gringos, to sell tamales in the bus depots at night, and to explore the rewards of theft and marijuana. The population of the barrancas is exploding at such a colossal rate that even in bumper years the overflow continues. There is a constant stream of people from the upper villages to the lower ones, and from the lower ones to the coast. The rapid population expansion within the villages not only guarantees a continuance of poverty in the barrancas – regardless of whatever land reforms and agricultural improvements may conceivably be effected – but it compounds the problem of already over-crowded lower-class barrios mushrooming on the perimeters of urban areas.
Such problems of population are not only local to the barrancas, they are global, and the problems are complex. These of us who deplore war have raised a loud plea to direct the frontiers of modern science away from the destruction of life, toward the preservation of life. Yet, ironically, those means which can save life –unmatched by means which can prevent life– in the long run compete with the means which destroy life as contributors to human suffering and hardship! There can be little doubt that the present logarithmic explosion of the world’s population is due, in great part, to the onslaught of modern medicine and hygiene. Plagues that wiped out nearly half the population of Europe almost overnight are things of the past. The natural balance has been upset. Man, like other earthly creatures, long ago evolved the propensity to reproduce at a rate proportionate to the extent of his extermination as dictated by his environment. For millions of years his numbers remained more or less in balance. Now, with the advent of antibiotics and the scientific battle against disease, the death rate has fallen so low that man, with no substantial enemy left but himself, is running as wild, numerically, as is the rabbit in Australia. Food production has not and cannot keep pace. For all our medicine and science, there are more malnourished and hungry individuals on earth than ever before.
Aware as I am of the adverse effect which providing medicine has on the population, I do not see how, when a weeping mother brings me a sick or injured child, there can be any valid argument against my doing all in my power to save that child’s life. Any proposal to do otherwise would deny the immediacy and importance of love, and to deny love is to deny everything. What would it matter, love denied, if the world’s population, or humanity itself, exploded? I must treat that child, and all children within my reach, as best I can, given my limitations. For does not each child – being born and loved – have as much right and reason to live as does our transient specie? Yet at the same time I cannot conscientiously deny the fact that, through providing the villagers with medical services, limited though they be, I am compounding the population problem which forces more and more families to leave their mountain homes and take up a grinding existence in the over-crowded slums of the cities. I have recognized this contradiction from the start. I have felt an urgency to encourage some manner of birth control, if only to make up for the lives I have managed to save.
So far, I have accomplished little. First, there is the problem of method. Birth control pills are too expensive to be used on a large scale, long-term basis. What is more, when they are discontinued women tend to become more fertile and prolific than before. The rhythm method is free, but impractical because so many villagers, like children, have difficulty following schedules and exercising self-control. Furthermore, the vicissitudes of environment frequently cause excessive irregularity in the village woman’s menstrual cycle. I have, nonetheless, distributed quite a number of pamphlets describing the rhythm method to fathers who have voiced interest. While in the future the best method may be a long term, time-release hormonal capsule implanted under the skin, this is still being researched. For the present, the most practical device is probably the intra-uterine “loop,” presently being used all over the world, especially in India. When I broached the idea of the “loop” to Dr. Félix at the Centro de Salud in San Ignacio, he was quick to produce a report of research carried out in Mexico City, which concluded that the “loop” was “significantly carcinogenic”, and discouraged its use. (Research conducted in the United States has indicated no significant increase in the frequency of cancer with approved intra-uterine devices. One cannot but wonder if “religious” or political grounds may not have influenced the Mexican researchers.) *
*[footnote, 2010] Since this was written in 1966, further research indicated the Dalkon Shield, an IUD, widely introduced by A H Robbins in 1971, caused an unacceptably high incidence of severe and sometimes dangerous side effects. After the Dalkon Shield was banned use in the US in the mid-1970s, the pharmaceutical company continued to promote it in the Third World. However there is still little evidence that IUDs increase the incidence of cancer.
Having got nowhere with Dr. Félix on the question of family planning, I spoke to the Chief of Health and Welfare for the State in Culiacán, explaining to him the villagers’ urgent need and eagerness for birth control measures. While the Chief approved of my dispensing medicines, he said that under no conditions should I get involved with birth control. He would give me no reason. I am not happy to let things rest at that. Now that I at last have some favorable contact with the Sinaloan government (through Guillermo Ruíz Gómez), I plan to push for a pilot project for birth control in my area of the barrancas. To this end, I have taken a preliminary census in Ajoya. The results are as follows:
Of 128 “married” couples polled, the average number of children born per couple is 7.1, and of these children, 34.4% have died before the end of their fifth year. The statistic of 7.1 children per couple is, in fact, deceptively low, the average being lowered by the 7.0 of couples who, for reason of sterility, have been unable to have children. Also, the average is lowered by the figures for many young couples who are only beginning to have children. The average for the middle-aged couple is more in the range of ten or twelve children.
While taking the census, I also tallied the villagers’ attitude toward birth control. I found that 66.21 of the couples were in favor (sometimes with qualifications, i.e. providing it was safe, providing it was not compulsory, etc.). Only 22.8% of the people were decidedly against birth control. And 11% were non-committal. Many of those opposed to birth control were young couples just beginning their families, who often made such statements as, “I want all the children God cares to send to me.” It is interesting that the couples opposed to birth control had an average of only 1.6 living children, and none had more than six living children. Conversely, the greatest enthusiasm was expressed by those with the largest families. Of the eleven women in Ajoya who have had thirteen or more children, eight openly begged me to provide them with some means of birth control. Most emphatic was Ninfa Salazár Ibarra, who has already given birth to seventeen children, only six of whom are still alive. (Eventually she had 22!) She told me that she has been “torn inside” from so much childbearing, so that now it hurts her to carry water from the river and to grind corn. She wants desperately not to have more children, but says sadly, “I suppose I’ll have a few more: I’m only thirty-eight.”
At times there was a difference of opinion between man and wife. Vicente Bañuelos, who has four children living and one dead, told me he loved having babies and would never tire of having more. Vicente’s wife, Agripina, refused to venture her opinion while her husband was present, yet when I was three houses down the line, she came there alone and told me that regardless of what her husband said, if I could get some manner of preventing conception, she wanted it. As it happened, Vicente was passing in the street while his wife was telling me this, overheard her, and laughed good-naturedly.
The program I would like to see in México would entail the staffing of the rural Centros de Salud with a woman trained specifically to insert the “loop”, so as to provide safe, effective birth control at lowest cost to all village women who want it. The majority of the villagers – at least in my region of the Sierra Madre – are not only willing but are desperate for it. Many husbands also consider it important. It is the government that is lagging. Yet efforts to promote family planning – or birth spacing – are currently being made in many parts of México, and I will make efforts too. I am convinced that, in the long run, the establishment of birth control is just as important in the barrancas as is helping the people with medicines, maybe more so. Only when the two go hand in hard will the population have a chance of becoming more stable and healthy – and in balance with the natural environment.
The day of my departure from the Sierra Madre I awoke before dawn. It was the eleventh of December, a year and a day from the time I began my long sojourn in the barrancas. Old Micaela and Blind Ramón were already up. The cooking fire flickered in the cocinas, and the heavy shadow of Ramón swayed rhythmically back and forth as he turned the molina to grind the nixtamal (lime-soaked corn) into masa. Old Micaela was also nodding forward and back, grinding the masa yet finer on the stone metate in preparation to make tortillas. Last evening I had told them I planned to make my departure at daybreak. I had begged them not to trouble to get up, yet they had risen two hours before dawn in order to give me a hot breakfast before I left.
I arose quietly and made my way to the river, then stopped for a brief moment under the scarred branches of the lone mesquite tree arching ever the steep escarpment where each morning the women and children of Ajoya descend to fill their water pails. But it was too early. The sleeping village lay behind me, dark and silent, so that for a moment it seemed I was alone in the world. The river wound like a dark and whispering serpent under the moonless sky. The stars shone fiercely, unwilling to yield to dawn. I looked across to the dark hills, where the rocky silhouette of Los Viejos –The Old Ones– stood frozen among the pulsing stars. A pygmy owl called from the far bank of the river... then waited a moment, as if for an answer... and then called again... and again.
It will not be easy to leave a community where one has been known and cared for. Too rarely does a person find a corner of the globe he can wander, as I have done, over a landscape of some five hundred square miles, knowing that wherever he goes people trust and welcome him, that every but is open to him, and every youngster he smiles to, smiles back more brightly. It will not be easy to depart from a land and a people he has come to love, especially when, as he is preparing to go, the people come, saying, “But you can’t leave! Didn’t we feed you alagüita (a small river fish) so that your heart would stay forever in the barrancas?” or simply, “How will we manage without you...?”
Oh, the people will manage. One way or another they will manage, as they have done for generations, living, giving birth, and dying, like flowers, like birds, like humanity the world over. They will manage...
But how shall I manage? Oh, I will manage too, one way or another.
Yet how shall I leave a people who, when I tell them I must go, do not ask me if I am coming back, but when. So I told them I would be back in March. And I will be, si diós quiere.
The evening before my departure I made a short visit to the Reyes casa, and little Goyo accompanied me back, on his mother’s orders, to the casa Chavarín.
Goyo, slipping his small, tough hand in mine, escorted me almost to the portal of the Chavarín casa, and there we bade each other goodnight. He did not go into the casa, because he and Old Micaela had had another scrap. From the beginning of my stay in the barrancas, Old Micaela has had little use for Goyo. She always referred to him as. “ese niño tan encimado” (that pushy little boy) or el mochito ambustero (little one-armed liar). If someone expressed sympathy for Goyo she would snap back, “¡Solamente tiene una mano, pero nunca se deja!” (He’s only got one hand, but it never rests!)
Goyo, understandably enough, expressed even less love for Micaela. During my days in Ajoya, I did my best to soften the feelings between the boy and the old woman, and little by little, Micaela began to relent. One day, when Goyo presented her with a fat papaya he brought all the way from El Arroyo Grande as a kind of peace offering, Micaela went so far as to concede, “El mochito no es tan inaguantable como antes.” (Little Stumpy isn’t as unbearable as he used to be.)
Their relationship improved to the point where, when Goyo was helping me in my dispensary, Micaela would sometimes invite him for a meal. I suspected she did this more to please me than Goyo. Yet I had begun to kid myself that these two fiery souls were really going to make up. Then one afternoon the cease-fire ended. That day in school, while María, the schoolmistress was reading a comic book and the children were chattering noisily, one little girl demanded of another, nicknamed Micha (Cat) where she had got so many colored crayons. “David only let me and everybody else have eight!” the first little girl insisted. And she was right. I had been letting each child select out eight different colors from a large carton of loose crayons donated during my last visit to California. I left the children on their honor not to take more than eight crayons each, and, as nearly as I could tell, most of the children had respected my trust. Little Micha was evidently an exception. When the first little girl accused her of sneaking more than her share, Micha, in order to cover the fact, and perhaps to get even with Old Micaela, who had scolded her unmercifully the day before, replied, “Micaela sold them to me!”
Little Goyo, who had been listening, was incensed (and, no doubt, secretly delighted) that Micaela had apparently betrayed me. He cried out, full of righteous indignation, “¡Que vieja hija de la chingada!” which is about as profane as the Spanish language gets.
As soon as school was out, little Maruca, the pretty eight-year-old sister of Adrián of the mumps, and the biggest little tattle-tale in town, went straight to Micaela and told her that “¡Goyo le echó la madre!” (“Goyo called you a mother …!” so to speak).
It is understandable, I think, that Goyo cried out as he did. It is equally understandable that Old Micaela became furious. I cannot be genuinely upset with either of them. Nevertheless, the truce between them was broken. Old Micaela, turning deep red, exploded, “Just wait ‘til that cursed brat shows his face around here again! Just wait...!”
Word spread like wildfire that Old Micaela was on the war-path again, and from that day Goyo has avoided confrontation with Micaela like the plague. This has been especially hard because their fetid sore re-opened only a few days before my departure. I was busy packing and rearranging supplies in the Chavarín house, and a number of children in the village, especially Goyo’s older brother, Martín, often came to help me. Sometimes Goyo would come and peek in through the small window opening into my dispensary. I would wink to him and he would grin back at me, ducking down when Micaela looked his way. I tried hard to patch things up with Micaela for him, but Micaela was still smoking.
So it was that the evening before my departure, Goyo escorted me only so far as the corner of the casa Chavarín and bade me goodnight.
When I entered the casa Chavarín Old Micaela, Sofia, and María were busy making empanadas (pumpkin turnovers) for me to take the next morning. By this time I had almost everything I planned to take packed in my Jeep, for Martín and Chón had carried it all out late that afternoon.
I put away a few last minute things and went into the cocina. Sofia handed me a steaming empanada fresh out of the earth oven. Everyone laughed as I juggled it in my hands.
“It seems like a long time until March...” said Blind Ramón slowly.
“It’s only three months,” I said. “I was gone that long during the rainy season when I was up in Verano.”
“Humph!” snorted Micaela. “And Sofia and her baby nearly died!”
“I don’t suppose there’s still any chance of that eye-doctor coming from El Norte?” said Ramón.
“I think there’s a good chance,” I said. “I’ll do my best to arrange it.”
“Just think!” said Ramón, “If I could see again... When I was a boy I used to have the eyes of a hawk. My Dad would never go hunting without me. One time...”
So the time passed until we were ready to go to bed. Before we all turned in, Tatino and I stepped out into the dark street around behind my Jeep.“What’s that?” asked Tatino. There, protruding slightly from under my Jeep, was a small foot. We bent down and I shone my light under the car.
“Goyo!” I exclaimed, shaking him gently. “Wake up!” I shook him again. “Goyo!”
Finally Goyo moved and yawned, “Huh? What? What is it?”
“What a kid!” remarked Tatino. “He’s gonna cry when you leave, you know that?”
“Goyo,” I said, “Come on. It’s late. Your parents will worry about you.”
Slowly Goyo pulled himself out from under the car and stood up, shivering.
“I’ll take you back home. So that you don’t get lost,” I kidded him.
Goyo was not amused. He thrust his hand in his pocket and stumbled along beside me down the long street toward his casa...
“What’s this!” exclaimed Goyo’s mother in mock annoyance as we arrived. “I told Goyo to take you home, and instead you end up taking Goyo home. All right, Goyo, you just wait and see if I don’t thrash you for mischievousness!” And she laughed to show she was joking.
Goyo was still not amused.
“You really didn’t have to bring him back,” said Chuy apologetically. “What did he do? Fall to sleep again?”
“Yes,” I replied.
Goyo – who by this time was more wide awake – scowled and said, “I wasn’t asleep. I was just pretending.”
I ignored his lie. Normally I would have taken him to task for it, but at that moment I didn’t have the heart. Instead I said to his mother, “I wonder if you’d let Goyo be my night watchman and spend the night in the car. I have all my gear packed inside and no way of locking up the back. That way, Goyo can be right there to help first thing in the morning.”
Goyo was suddenly wide awake. He danced up and dorm and shouted, “Can I, Mama, can I? Say yes!”
“Silence yourself!” barked Chuy. “You’ll wake your little sisters!”
She gave her consent and laughed as we left, shaking her head. She knew as well as I that I didn’t need a night watchman, least of all one that it takes five minutes of shaking to waken!
When we reached the casa Chavarín, Goyo, in order to avoid Micaela, stole quietly to my Jeep and curled up on the front seat. A moment later, when I returned with an old scrap of blanket to cover him, he had already fallen asleep.
The next morning before dawn, after I had returned from the river, I awakened Goyo, who stumbled out of the Jeep and at once set to work cleaning the windshield, on which the dust had been turned to mud by the heavy dew. When Micaela saw Goyo, she bristled visibly, but decided to hold her tongue. A moment later she called me to breakfast, having killed a chicken for the occasion. On my way to the little table, I looked out apologetically at Goyo. Old Micaela, sensing my feelings, said stiffly:
“Come on, Goyo. I know you’re always hungry. Eat!”
Goyo threw his paper towels into the air and came skipping into the house as if he owned it. Micaela served us, and we feasted.
As we were eating, my passengers began to arrive. Several persons were going to San Ignacio, others to Culiacán, and one boy wanted to go all the way to Hermosillo to visit a brother. Martín arrived, and he and Tatino helped arrange and pack the passengers’ gear.
Dawn was just beginning to break as we at last prepared to set off. My last two riders, both women, were waiting at the far end of the village, and Goyo and Martín slipped into the front seat to bum a short, last ride.
“Are they going with you?” exploded Old Micaela on seeing Goyo and Martín in my Jeep.
“No,” I said, and teasingly added; “Not this time!”
I hugged Old Micaela, then Ramón, then each of the family. I climbed into my car and pulled away.
I stopped just long enough in front of the shop of Gregorio Alarcón to say goodbye to Ramona, and Ramona’s grandmother, Rosaura, came hurrying out in her nightgown. I have always thought of her as a good woman, but with a shell hard as flint. Yet she caught hold of my hand with both of hers, and managed to stammer no more than, “Come back!” Then she broke into sobs and hurried toward the house.
When I picked up the last passengers, I had to displace Goyo and Martín. Goyo scrambled up on top of the carrier and Martín clung to the back. I drove on, and stopped in front of their new house to say goodbye to the rest of the Reyes family. A crowd of children and adults quickly gathered ‘round, almost as they had the day I arrived. But now they came not to stare and wonder, but to wish me farewell, and safe return.
Chuy had prepared hot milk for me (out of the powdered milk I had given her for her baby), and bought bread. I took a moment to eat, and then said my goodbyes, shaking hands and hugging the shoulder of each member of the family, as is the custom. Then I hurried to my car again, and climbed in.
I was waving goodbye to everyone, and especially to Goyo, who was standing next to the casa waving and trying to smile, when suddenly I spotted little Chaparro, Goyo’s seven year-old brother. Chaparro was clutching the main pole of the outdoor kitchen with his back to me, and sobbing until he shook.
“You didn’t say goodbye to Chaparro!” called Martín.
How could I have forgotten him! Little Chaparro who comes dancing up to me and catches hold of my hand every time I approach the casa, and who shadows me every moment while I am there. I hopped out of the car again and hurried over to him. I hugged him affectionately and offered him my hand. But Chaparro turned away from me, his head hung down, his small chest heaving as he wept.
“¡Adios, Chaparro!” I said. But he didn’t answer. I had forgotten him, and now it was too late. I waited for a moment, then gave Chaparro another hug, and hurried toward my car. By this time, little Angelita, the twin, still smaller than Chaparro, had decided to join the chorus of tears. Goyo was biting his tongue as he waved. I drove away. A flock of children followed in the dawn, shouting, “¡Vuelva pronto, David! ¡Que le vaya bien!”