The first days of February had already passed when at last I started my journey toward Verano. Dimas Lomas—who had offered to take me since the day he brought his young cousin, Ramírez, to have me patch up his machete-cut hand—was good to his word. He arrived in the morning with six mules, two saddled for himself and me, and four mounted with aparejos for carrying my medicines and equipment. We were nearly a mile out of town, following the dusty trail up river, when we were hailed from behind and little Goyo, who had arrived too late from Las Chicuras, came running to wish me farewell.
We followed the broad river basin north-eastward, fording the river several times, and in about two and a half hours came to the village of Güillapa, a scattered settlement with about 24 houses. Although we had hoped to stop only an hour or two before pushing on to Bordontita, the villagers begged me to spend the night and I gave in. The villagers agreed to take me on to Bordontita the next day, and so Dimas returned to Ajoya. The young schoolteacher although his wife was in labour, insisted I spend the night in his house. Shortly after I arrived it began to rain again—the last rain of the cabanuelas—and I spent the afternoon dashing between cloudbursts from home to home of the sick. There were many chronic patients who had never seen a doctor or taken a medicine, other than local herbs, in their lives. One, for example, was an old lady who had an ulcerated sty on her upper eyelid. Now swollen like a marble and wrapped in a small sack of cloth, it hung pendulously at the level of her nose, obscuring the vision of that eye. It had been suppurating for more than 50 years!
I spent a rather sleepless night in the small stick casa with the teacher, his labouring wife, and two gossiping old parteras (midwives) who sat, waiting like crows, on either side of the bed. The next day I prepared to leave early for Bordontita, but the burros which had been offered had wandered off and could not be found. Finally I departed with only two burros loaded, leaving half of my supplies behind, to be sent for from Bordontita the next day. Two young men from Güillapa accompanied me.
Again we followed the river, fording and re-fording. The terrain along the river basin was mostly flat, although the valley had begun to narrow as we moved upstream. After about two hours we passed by the rancho of La Amargosa; an additional hour brought us to the village of Bordontita, also on the banks of the Rio Verde.
Bordontita is smaller than Güillapa, with its 16 houses more closely grouped. It has a feeling of harmony, of warmth, of peace, such as few of the villages I have been in. It abounds with children, radiant children. It has a poor excuse for a schoolhouse in the form of a badly weathered adobe but some fifteen feet square with one small window and a door, into which the thirty odd pupils crowd for their classes. Their teacher is Francisco Uriarte, middle-aged but old, kindly, intelligent, and a chronic drunkard. A good man with a respect for learning and a real concern for the welfare of his pupils, he marched eleven of them to me for treatment of sundry ailments.
In Bordontita two families especially adopted me. One was that of Agustín Arisquita, who had previously brought two of his ten children to Ajoya for treatment for calcium and vitamin deficiency. (Agustín himself was one of 24 children whom his mother bore in Verano.) The other family was that of Victoriano Murillo, whose 12 year old son, Agustín, had befriended our Pacific students the year before. I set up my medicines in the portál of Agustín’s house, slept in the portál of Victoriano’s house, and ate three meals a day with each family.
After three happy days in Bordontita, two young men came with a burro train to escort me to Chilar. We doubled back along the Rio Verde for a km. or so, and then followed the arroyo of Chilar northwestward for eight or ten km until we came to the village.
Chilar is a rugged and picturesque village some 1500 feet above sea level. Its adobe rouses with tiles of baked earth are strung out between huge boulders along the base of the steep hillside. To either side the steep mountains soar for thousands of feet, and it is up there that they begin to level off, at elevations 1500 to 2000 feet above the village, that the villagers climb each day to work their small corn patches…
In spite of its physical beauty, it was some time before I warmed to the village of Chilar. This was partly because my host, Hilario Martínez, being the sole wealthy cattleman in the village, tended to regard me—along with many of the poorer villagers—as a source for his entertainment rather than as a fellow human being. In addition I noticed that there was a certain sullenness, even wariness, about many of the villagers of Chilar. Nearly all the men carried large knives or hidden firearms. And the youths—a trait characteristic of the cities of México for the most part quite absent from the mountain villages—tended to huddle in the shadows of the buildings with one hand cupped suggestively over their genitals, eyeing and making comments about the girls who passed. My first night in Chilar there was a street fight outside Hilario’s house, and one of the offenders, reeling with vino, was bound with his hands outstretched between two poles, struggling, and screaming abuse, while everyone laughed. I was eager to leave Chilar as soon as possible.
In a surprisingly short time, however, I began to make friends, especially among the younger children and old people, and little by little Chilar began to lose its grotesque aspect and become a village of living, loving, and struggling individuals. By the time I finally left Chilar eight days later I was as fond of the village as any. Several families had invited me to stay in their houses. One man called me to his home every dawn for goat’s milk, another for cow’s milk. People brought me more eggs than I could eat, and I think that if the hills had not been so steep I would have begun to grow fat. Children accompanied me everywhere, took me to their secret swimming holes, and to Rincón (a picturesque rancho two km. upstream) for oranges.
There was a super-abundance of minor ailments, nearly all of nutritional origin, in Chilar. More serious cases included a woman ahogandose with acute bronchitis, a man brought from Bordontita who could not urinate (of whom more later, and a man who had fallen from a mule and broken his forearm. This latter came to me wearing a cast his mother had prepared from the boiled squeezings of tepeguaje bark. The cast was very rigid and could have proved quite effective except that it was only about 4 inches long and barely covered the break. I re-cast the arm with splints made to order by the local carpenter, padded with newspaper I had brought along for the purpose of pressing plants. The break knitted well.
From Chilar I took a side excursion of about 12 km to a little village called La Ciénega, for I had been asked to go there to see a woman suffering from severe hemorrhaging. I was about to leave on foot when a boy with contagious laughter, named Crecencio, appeared, and learning of my intention, ran to get his aging father, Higenio Gonzáles, who offered to accompany me, and to loan me his horse. We left together, old Higenio riding a burro, I on horseback, and the boy, Crecencio, on foot. His teen-aged sister, Catalina, and another girl went along for the fun of it. I have subsequently come to know this family better, for we have become dear friends. I enjoy them thoroughly, and never cease to marvel at the closeness of the bond between the members of this family, at the harmony, and at the open expression of love, especially between Crecencio and his father, who are inseparable. It is nice to know that somewhere in the world families can still be like this.
The trail to La Ciénega began as an endless series of dusty switchbacks, ascending for a full 2000 feet. It rose from the short-tree forest, passed through the oak zone, and at last began to level out shortly below the pines. Then it wound along the ridges, dropped to an isolated casa called El Ranchito, and following the rim of a deep canyon eventually came to the village of La Ciénega, some 3000 feet above sea level.
A village with 18 closely grouped casas, La Ciénega lies at the foot of the giant Cerro de la Ventana. Its inhabitants are endowed with much of the beauty and rugged peacefulness of the landscape. I stayed with the family of José Alarcón, brother of Chuy in Ajoya, and accompanied him to his sugar-cane mill (a mule-drawn press) to eat melcocha (taffy) and drink miel de caña. His wife’s hemorrhaging had stopped with the vitamin C I had sent from Ajoya, and the present treatment was for anemia and protein deficiency. She was being fed on corn and rice mush in the fear that other foods would do her harm. This is typical.
Returning again to Chilar with Higenio and Crecencio, I left for Caballo de Arriba three day’s later with Diego Gallardo, who had come with four mules to fetch me.
Caballo de Arriba is one of the most remote villages of the Sierra. It took us all day to get there from Chilar, traveling hard. Although the scenery in many places is spectacular, the trail itself is a nightmare; narrow, rocky, continually climbing up steeply into the pines or plunging down into the deeply cut arroyos thousands of feet below. It is constantly traversing cliffs and rockslides. The journey was especially hard for me due to a rib I had broken three nights before in Chilar. (I had been walking down the trail—or what I thought was the trail—in pitch dark, for the night was moonless, when suddenly I tumbled, head first, over the edge of a padrón (terrace wall), striking my rib-cage on a pointed rock.) Now it hurt when I breathed, stabbed like a knife when I coughed or sneezed, and the jarring on horseback, especially when the animal let himself drop from one outcropping in the steep trail to another below, was torture.
Caballo de Arriba, at about 2000 feet above sea level, is roughly the size of La Ciénega, although its casas are strung out here and there for more than a mile along the arroyo which runs through a precipitous ravine. The steep flanks of the ravine are wooded with such trees as Palo Colorado and the tall apomos, resembling shagbark hickory, with a dense under-story of a laurel-like shrub called orines de caballo. I stayed in the casa of Manuel Gallardo, father of Diego, and worked a busy dispensary under the bougainvillea trellis of the patio.
Two children in Caballo had been struck by polio in infancy one or two years before, and both had remained paralysed below the waist, a tragic fate in so isolated a village. One I had met before, for José Aseda—a kind man with sad eyes—had brought his child for cure when our Pacific group had been in the Sierra the year before. There was, of course, little I could do. José’s luck seems to be against him, for he now came to me asking me to go see his older son, ten years old. Three months ago a tree fell on his calf, severely bruising it and apparently rupturing major blood vessels. The calf swelled to triple its normal size, became hard, and now remains so. The boy cannot straighten his leg, has dropped out of school, and hops about on the other foot with the help of a staff … I gave the boy a vasodilator, an antibiotic, and provided the father with funds to take him to Mazatlán. He took him; but now, two months later, has still not returned. I don’t know what has happened.
The families of Caballo de Arriba are very poor. Their diet is 95% corn, even beans being scarce this year due to lack of adequate rain last summer. The number and variety of malnutrition diseases was startling. Now, two months after I was in Caballo, many exuberant reports have come back extolling my wonder drugs which provided such miraculous relief to so many of the children and grown-ups of the village. But my “wonder drugs” for the most part were nothing more than vitaminas.
To continue on to Jocuixtita, Manuel Torres provided mules and José Aseda and a friend of his escorted me over the 20 km. of steep and treacherous trails. We stopped on the way at a small rancho called Amarillo, and arrived in Jocuixtita before dark.
While many of the other villages of the Sierra Madre are tucked deep in ravines, the thirty tile-roofed casas of Jocuixtita huddle on the brow of a hill 3500 feet above sea level, overlook the blue ridges and winding gorges of the tributaries of the Rio Verde. It is a quiet town made up largely of Testigos de Jehova (of which there are virtually none in the other villages). I stayed in the home of Teófilo, the comisario and fayuquero (traveling vendor).
The day after I arrived I was called to La Quebrada, a little village about two hours away on the far side of the pine-crested ridge, to attend to a youth who had been stabbed in the stomach. (His story is told further ahead.) The following day I returned to Jocuixtita.
A saddle-maker and mule-driver by the name of Daniel Riós, and his 9 year-old son transported me and my cargo up over the high ridge and down again for over 2000 feet to the town of Verano. We arrived on the day of a wedding (which consisted chiefly of dancing and hot chocolate) and the village was full of excitement.
The village of Verano, plastered against the red earth of the goat-scoured hillside 200 feet above the arroyo, is made up of some 40 casas and 230 inhabitants. The village is divided into three sections, each separated from the other by a kilometer or two of dirt trail. The first section includes the majority of the houses and the two small shops. The second section, a kilometer downstream, includes the schoolhouse. The third section is a loose group of three houses two kilometers further downstream. It is here, 3 km. below the main part of town, in a large and aged adobe house, lives Erineo Vidaca, José’s father, a small and slender man of 72 years. José himself was there when I arrived, having been called to see his father and mother, who were both ill, his father having developed pneumonia following the grip. They were glad to see me, and with the help of antibiotics and vitamins improved rapidly.
Due to the constant strain of travel my broken rib still showed no sign of knitting, and neither my own medications nor the people’s native cures—a brew of the roots of otate, another of hierba de golpe, a birma (cast) of burnt putrid corn mixed with child’s urine, ventosas, etc.—proved to be of much help. I decided that the only remedy was to stay quiet for a few days, and for this reason did not venture even as far as the main part of the village for over a week. However the villagers began to arrive, first in trickles and then in droves. Most came not from Verano (for a tale had circulated there that the U.S. government had sent me because it wished to occupy México, and that everyone who took my medicines would die within two years) but from the smaller populations upstream. José and his friends helped to set up a sort of dispensary for me in the grain shed, making shelves of rough hand-sawn planks brought from the higher reaches of the Sierra.
A frequent and welcome visitor was Bonifacio’s slender eight year-old daughter who the year before had severely burned her leg when she had fallen into the pile of red-hot coals at Goyo Roble’s sugar cane mill. Our Pacific group had supplied medication, but I had never dreamed she would recover as completely as she has. The knee was charred and the skin below it completely gone. Yet now, although significantly scarred, she runs around as if the accident had never happened!
After I had been in Verano a little over a week, a letter was delivered from my friends in the States saying that they had contacted the Mexican consulate in San Francisco about securing a permit for the entry of medicines into México, and he had recommended I contact the governor of Sinaloa in Culiacán. As my friends the Wallaces were planning to bring a load of supplies down from Palo Alto toward the end of March, I decided to take off immediately for Culiacán to see what I could arrange. José Vidaca went with me, as he said he had a friend of a friend of the son of the Governor, and he could get me in through the back door.
The friend wasn’t home, and we went to see another friend who was a State policeman in Culiacán, and who put us in touch with the Captain, who sent us to the Procuradór (State’s Attorney). The Procuradór was sympathetic and sent me to the “Jefe de Servicios Coordinados de Salubridad y Asistencia del Estado de Sinaloa”, a Dr. Patraca. To my great delight, Dr. Patraca was enthusiastic about what I was doing and telephoned the governor’s office at once. The reply, however, was that as permits were first required for entry into the country rather than the State of Sinaloa, I should make application to federal authorities in México City. However, Doctor Patraca offered—as soon as I got together a list of the medicines and quantities I was to bring—to make the application for me himself. He suspected, however, that it might take some months.
I returned to Ajoya, and while I waited for the Wallaces to arrive with the much needed supplies I took a short expedition to El Naranjo, high in the hills north of Ajoya.
Bob and Margaret Wallace arrived in San Ignacio at the appointed hour, and Goyo and I hiked in to meet them. I marveled at the load they had brought. It was a delight to see and talk with them. They also brought with them a young American named Paul, who had read my report and determined to come and assist me.
The clothing and blankets which Bob and Margaret had brought caused a panic in Ajoya and the surrounding villages. We tried to give out the items as inconspicuously as possible to those in greatest need, but the word spread like brush fire through the town and high into the mountains beyond. Within 24 hours nearly half the families of Güillapa had arrived, and persons showed up to ask for clothing from as far away as Caballo. I divided the clothing into two lots, one to take with me into the high country. Although the quantity of clothing seemed enormous and I allowed as a rule only one item per family, how fast it disappeared! Yet there are now many children, and many adults too, who will sleep warmer on cold nights, and who will therefore be less likely to fall ill.
After a rather hectic week in Ajoya, distributing the clothes as well as the medicines I had promised the people, I took off on an expedition to Sauz, a small village some three hours north of Ajoya, where I had a long-standing invitation. Paul wanted to accompany me, but since the lawyer and judge of San Ignacio we met when the Wallaces arrived had invited him to México City during the Easter vacation, Paul left instead for San Ignacio.
For Easter I returned to Ajoya, which had been struck hard by combined epidemics of measles and influenza; I was kept going day and night. The day after Easter a messenger came from Arroyo Grande (5 km. beyond Las Chicuras) saying that Simón Ramírez, an uncle of Sixto whom the dog bit, had fallen off a cow and injured his internals. I took off on a spirited horse borrowed from old Caytano, with little Goyo riding ananca (behind the saddle) to guide me. Simon was in grave condition, and we decided it was best to take him to Mazatlán for treatment. He was carried in on an improvised stretcher to Ajoya, and from there transported in Antonio’s truck to San Ignacio, together with a load of hogs. As it was, the afternoon bus for Mazatlán had been delayed. We caught it and arrived in Mazatlán the same evening.
I left Simón in the care of the Red Cross Hospital and proceeded again to Culiacán to see if the chief Doctor could arrange a letter of introduction for a doctor from the States, who was planning a visit in the near future. Dr. Patraca, however, had been replaced by a Dr. López, who at first was far less sympathetic, and for a while I was afraid he would bring my entire project to a screaming halt. He insisted that I was “working” without a specific work visa. At last, I managed to convince him of the value of my work, and he ultimately thanked me as emphatically as he had at first opposed me. He told me to continue my work by all means. What a relief! As for arranging any kinds of permits, however, he said that governmental red tape made it virtually impossible, and suggested that I proceed “informally”… an arrangement which suits me fine.
Returning to San Ignacio I was met by Antonio Sánchez, who, with José Vidaca and other men from Ajoya, had carried his teen-aged daughter in to the Centro de Salud in San Ignacio, as she had been hemorrhaging severely. For several days the bleeding was stopped, but the girl remained in a state of utter collapse. Blood transfusions were not given because Antonio is poor. I determined to talk with the doctor, because the Centro would give free services, if not free medicines, and the blood could probably be given by Antonio himself.
Dr. Féliz, already a friend of Paul, agreed to provide Antonio’s daughter’s transfusion; and furthermore, on my persuasion, agreed to vaccinate the people in the mountain villages with me to villages at least as far as Verano and Jocuixtita. He will be inoculating against smallpox, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, and polio. Dr. Féliz is supposedly responsible for immunizing the entire Municipio; but as this region is so inaccessible, he has so far neglected it. I was delighted, of course. I returned at once to Ajoya, intending to make a preliminary journey through all the villages we would visit, to prepare the people, and tell them when we were coming.
And now, May 13, I have returned to Ajoya. I have notified all the villages, and I wait for the doctor to arrive with vaccines—supplied free by the federal government—so we can leave on our mission.
Here follow extracts from my journals. I regret that I am unable to share more at this time; but, they may afford some detailed glimpses into the world I now encounter.