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.