Juan: A Different Kind of Campesino
Juan is different. So many of the campesinos in the barrancas go through life with the blinders of their culture strapped firmly to their mind’s eye, and their thoughts, like slow work mules, plow and replow the same ground year after year. They wonder what the weather will be. They do not wonder why.
Juan is different. So many of the campesinos, when they ask each other “Qué hay de nuevo?” (what’s new?) reply, without giving thought to their answer, “Nada . . . Todomuy triste.” (Nothing . . . Everything is sad.) But for Juan there is little sadness and everything is new; each dawn, each day, each hour. Juan has a freshness that sparkles. I cannot imagine him ever having, been or ever being bored. I have seen him unhappy —rarely, as when his four year old daughter died this autumn —but I have never seen him feel sorry for himself. It is beyond him.
What made Juan different is hard to say. He was one of ten children. His brothers and sisters, as many of them as I have come to know, are all good people, moderately honest, hard working, nothing exceptional. None of his siblings nor his parents are literate. None of them, nor Juan, ever went to school. They live in a remote settlement called Oso de Arriba, where there never has been and probably never will be any school. But Juan can read and write. He has read everything he could get his hands on, which up until I started a diminutive lending library at El Zopilote, wasn’t much. One day I asked Juan how he ever managed to learn how to read and write.
Juan grinned shyly and told me that when he was a boy his father had bought a new “molino” (corn grinder), and that it had come in a box with bright red letters. The letters fascinated and were a mystery to him. No one in his village knew what they said. Then one day a visitor arrived who knew how to read, and Juan pumped his mind until he had learned all the letters and words on the box. There his literacy stopped for some time, as there were no more written words in the neighborhood. Later, however, in a nearby village Juan came upon a discarded, battered, leather-
bound copy of La Historia de Carlo Magno. Little by little, with occasional help of those who could read, he picked his way through the book. He read it and reread it and reread it. The vocabulary was far beyond that of the campesinos, but nevertheless Juan learned the book by heart, from cover to cover. He became the regional expert on Charlemagne. For the most part he kept his knowledge to himself; no one else in the barrancas had ever heard of Charlemagne, or cared to.
Juan and I hit it off from the start. Here in the barrancas I have to a great extent learned to keep my deeper thoughts and appreciations to myself. I talk to the villagers about their ailments, the weather (what it will be, not why), the planting and the harvest, the catastrophes, the dances. I do not talk about the sunsets; the villagers do not have a word for sunset in their vocabulary. I do not talk about the birds; most of the most beautiful species —unless they happen to be edible, magical, medicinal or destructive —don’t even have a. name. All birds are birds of prey; the prey of small boys with slingshots. I began to forget I ever discussed literature, poetry, art, drama, science, silence, philosophy or religion with anyone. I learned, to a large extent, to keep my mouth shut and listen to the fascinating folk lore of the people. I have come to take as much pleasure in the villagers daily gossip as once I took in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town . . . but I am the audience and the seats beside me are empty.
And then came Juan; quiet, shy, at peace with the world and himself, but eager to know, to explore, to appreciate, to touch with his heart: everything: What a man!
With Juan I can talk, and do talk of many things. Juan listens and asks questions. He wants to know the reasons for the seasons, for the weather, for the phases of the moon. He wants to borrow and read every book on the shelf. (The first he picked was Las Grandes Religiones del Mundo, the next was Evolución.) He sometimes comes when I am painting a bird or stitching a wound, and watches each move with spellbound fascination, saying nothing. He picks my brain about other lands and languages. And he laughs aloud. with delight at every strange new discovery.
In our meeting of minds, I have usually been the teacher, Juan, the student. Yet of what really matters in this world of ours, I feel Juan has taught me far more of value than I can ever teach him with all my complicated thoughts.
I have not mentioned what Juan looks like, or even how old he is – probably-because these factors don’t really matter. Juan, like myself, is in his mid-thirties. He is short, stocky, but all muscle. His head is large, his face square, his hair curly. There is a child-like quality in his wide eyes, his laughter, and his stance. His features are not so much handsome, as refreshing . . . but perhaps that is because I know him.
When, three years ago, I was about to undertake the construction of El Zopilote, everyone recommended I get Juan to help with the building. I sent a message to El Oso and the next day Juan came. I showed him a sketch I had made of the prospective clinic, partly of pine logs, partly of adobe, and with a small upper story room which was to be built of hand sawn lumber. Juan said he had never seen a house like that, much less built one, but that if I wanted his help he would do his best.
Juan’s best was superlative. I have never before in my life seen anyone work with such stamina, such persistence, such skill, such speed and such pleasure. Juan, who had taught himself how to read and write, against all odds and with very little help, had also somehow mastered the craft of house building, Mexican country style. He knew how to chisel the stones for the foundation, how to make and lay the adobes, how to hew and pin the beams, how to mold and fire the roof tiles. His craftsmanship is supreme; there is not a better builder in the whole of the barrancas.
Juan had only the barest essentials of hand tools of his own, and many he had skillfully constructed himself. He had one 3/4" bit, but no brace, and to use the bit, very carefully carved a small, tapering square hole in a piece of heartwood of tepeguaje, a very hard local wood. The bit fit perpendicularly into the hole, and by turning the stick in propeller fashion, Juan managed to drill. Juan had used the same very hard wood, plus an old bolt and a carefully filed piece of car spring, to fashion a very serviceable carpenter’s plane.
Juan took on the enterprise of the new clinic with all the boundless enthusiasm of a child who builds a secret hideout.
To watch Juan work with an axe or aspe is like watching a skilled sculptor or dancer; every motion is controlled and precise, an expression of total concentration and joy; nothing is wasted. And what an eye'. For extremely accurate work, Juan uses a chalk-line, using for chalk the carbon inside old flashlight batteries, and with careful, full swings of the axe, hues right down to the line. One time when I was making a desk for my upstairs study, I found that the hand-sawn planks-I intended to use had warped considerably in the drying. Laboriously, I set about planing the warp out of them, a task which I reluctantly realized would take me all day. Juan offered to help, and I gladly let him. With an axe, he proceeded to hew the boards straight again, and so smoothly that all that was needed was a few strokes with the plane to make them perfectly flat. Within less than an hour he presented the boards to me, as smooth and free from warp as if they had been run through an electric planer. When I expressed my delight, Juan grinned shyly and said nothing. That is Juan.
Without Juan’s help, the construction of El Zopilote would have taken twice as long, and the craftsmanship would have been only half as good. Juan took on the enterprise of the new clinic with all the boundless enthusiasm of a child who builds a secret hideout. In the early stages of construction, I and the young Americans who had come to help me (first Michael Bock, later John Grunewald and Mark Silber ) ate and slept at the nearest house, about a kilometer away. To make the most of the daylight hours, we were always up and had finished breakfast by dawn, and left for the building site at the first hint of daylight. Invariably we would find Juan already there and waiting for us, even though, in the 5 kilometer hike from El Oso in the dark, he had had to climb one mountain ridge, drop all the way down into the canyon of La Tahona, and ascend more than 2000 feet again to reach El Zopilote. Such a strenuous hike – which in itself would have been a good day’s work for the average man —didn’t even phase Juan. He would always greet us with a cheerful “Gut mor-r-rneen:”, as we puffed up the last ascent; and if, as occasionally happened, we were 10 or 15 minutes later than usual (but still long before sunrise) he would greet us playfully, “Gut ahfter-r-rnoon:”
Juan would work tirelessly all day, with only a short break for lunch, which he always brought with him and which usually consisted of a stack of corn tortillas and a small piece of goat’s cheese. Whatever the job at hand, from digging the building site out of the hard, rocky slope, to peeling the bark off the pine logs for the log cabin, Juan managed, in the same time, to accomplish three times as much as any of the other workers. But he never made a point of his accomplishment, and none of the others held it against him. Whether with pick or axe or crosscut saw, he worked rhythmically, deftly, always getting the most out of each motion for the energy expended. He had the stocky grace of a mountain lion. He. was never careless, always cheerful but intent. With whatever tool and at whatever awkward angle, I never saw him fail in his aim. Many of the other workers occasionally mashed, bruised or cut themselves, and several times I had to suture lacerations. But Juan never so much as scratched himself. It was a delight to watch him work . . . and to work with him.
Somewhere Juan had acquired a small English-Spanish dictionary, which he would occasionally, and secretively, slip from his breast pocket and hunt the meaning of a word he had heard repeated several times in English and didn’t understand. For some reason he was embarrassed about looking up such words, and the first time I asked him what the little book was he kept referring to, he turned bright red and grinned sheepishly as he took it from his pocket to show it to me. From then on we undertook to teach Juan English names of all the tools and materials, and many other expressions. He had much trouble with pronunciation, but practiced the new words over and over again as he worked. When we were building the walls of the room that is now the dispensary and he was laying the adobe bricks, with a big grin he would call down, “Moan-r-r mahdt!”, and when one of the high school students helping at the time would hand up a bucketful of mud, he would laugh with pleasure at having succeeded in communicating in our foreign tongue. With Juan around, work was always fun.
Often, at around. five o’clock in the afternoon, when we had worked a good 10 or 11 hours and most of the other workers had headed for home, I would say, “Juan, why don’t you take off now; it’s been a long day.”
“And are you going to stop work now?” Juan would ask.
“There are a few things I want to finish up,” I would reply, “But I don’t have so far to go. If you don’t leave now you won’t make it home before dark.”
“There’s a good moon,” Juan would reply, and keep on working until it was too dark to see what we were doing, and we had to stop. “Hasta mañana!” we would say. And the next morning there would be Juan, leaning against the big pine in the patio, waiting for us.
But Juan did a lot more for me than teach me how to enjoy hard work. His openness, his candor, his eagerness, and his boundless curiosity to see and understand any and everything new to him, have been a constant inspiration to me. He has become my friend, and also I have become very close to his wife and three small-children. I share the bounty of the gifts my patients bring me with his family, and (now that they have moved closer) his wife often brings me a hot meal and his older son and daughter (9 and 11 years) help in the garden. Juan, although he is a little younger than I and retains all the sparkle and vitality of a child, is in many respects far wiser than I, and often assumes an almost fatherly concern for me. He never, it seems, loses his temper or sense of perspective. Sometimes when I have lost my temper and been tempted to do something brash (usually as a result of a theft at El Zopilote or wanton damage to some of the nearby pine trees) Juan has helped me to stop and think that here – where the only reliable enforcement of justice is usually through personal violence —often it makes more sense to meet an offender with good will and patience than with a righteous accusation.
Juan is, for all his lack of formal education, within himself complete, or as near to complete as any man I have known. Sometimes I stop and think what he could have been if . . . But then, I ask myself, why should he be any other than he is? Sometimes I am tempted to take him with me and show him “the big world” beyond. (Only once has he been as far as Mazatlán ) . . . . But then I stop and think, Good Lord! The world he now lives in, the world of the barrancas, so limiting and narrow for many, for Juan is infinite in its wonders and. revelations and delights. Juan would be thrilled with the wonders of any corner of this earth he found himself in, that is for certain. But if there was ever anyone who has no need to go somewhere else than where he is, it is Juan.