One of the things I did this spring while I wasn't doing this was to spend eight days on a service learning adventure with twelve other people (including nine students) in Cholula in the state of Puebla, Mexico. This post is for the people I met there and what they taught me and what they told me and what I felt while I was with them. And how I am changed for all time, I think, by the experience. These are some of my memories of Mexico, in no particular order.
I remember buying water in the airport (having been warned at least one billion times NOT to drink unbottled water in Mexico) and walking out of the shop back to Arturo Ortega (our trip coordinator), realizing that I had zero idea of what my change should look like, showing it to him and saying "Is this right?" Looking back, I realize how frightened and out of my element I was at that point, how pumped with adrenaline, how hyper-vigilent and excited I was, and how green, green, green. Fortunately, this phase passed. Quickly.
I remember riding through Mexico City on a bus I had expected would have crates of live chickens aboard (it didn't) and my eyes were burning. "Why are my eyes burning?" I asked a fellow trip-mate who had spent a good bit of time in the country some years ago. "Because they still use leaded gas," he replied. And that was my first lesson in the cold realities of globalization. Not at all complicated or hard to grasp. Just my supersensitive spoiled-rotten eyes trying to shut to avoid exposure to what they're not used to. And me thinking, "I see..."
I remember arriving at our base of operations in Cholula (a house operated by Community Links, an organization that must surely be the cream de la cream of such outfits, having been in the business for more than fifteen years and deserving of far greater accolades than I could ever provide here); hearing Arturo tell us in no uncertain terms that we are not even to rinse our toothbrush in tap water, that we are not to flush the toilet paper (basket provided next to the toilet), that we are not to flush anything unless "it's" brown ("if it's yellow, let it mellow"--omigod, I thought, shades of the sixties, which pleased me no end for some reason, feeling smug since I'd done this before); that we are to rinse, turn off the water, soap down, then rinse again, rather than let the shower run; and that we should try to keep showers to one per day, if that.
Much later in the week, after getting to know Arturo well enough to trust that he wouldn't think me an ass for asking, I asked, "Would it be possible to make the pipes capable of accepting toilet paper or is there just nothing to be done?" He smiled at me (the over-indulged child) and replied with a kindly, but pointed question, "Why would you want to put paper in the water supply when it isn't necessary?" And I'm caused to think of a paragraph I read years ago describing how people in the U.S. like to flush problems (and problem people) "down the toilet"--much like we went from dealing with our body waste (digging holes, spreading lye, filling it in and moving the outhouse) to disposing of it by sitting on an immaculate white ceramic "throne" and flushing, as though the waste, paper, process or problems never really happened.
I remember standing in the community room at Calpulli de los Ninos in Tlaxcalancingo (a poorer neighborhood in Cholula), where indigenous children learn dances many of their people no longer remember and educational programs are offered to reawaken the mighty spirit of ancient cultures. The wall at the back of the stage in this building deep into Mexico is glorious with the images of Che, Allende, Zapata, La Adelita (the woman warrior), the poet king Nezahualcoyotl, and school-teacher/revolutionary Lucio Cabanas, but Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., as well. I stare at the pictures. I consider the fact that these people know that we are all connected, that all true heroes belong to everyone, something most of us do not realize in the U.S. Imagine, I think, La Adelita on a wall in Tampa. She will be my new advisor, I decide. Along with the others.
I remember listening to Justino telling us the history of his people through Chenelia (one of our trip-mates, a young woman from the Dominican Republic, who steps up to the plate as translator, overwhelmed, but rising to the occasion like a hero herself and quickly becoming comfortable in her unexpected role). He describes how more recently, those with the power have been stealing the land from the indigenous people, buying it when necessary, but often just finessing it away, since indigenous people couldn't originally understand the concept of owning land any more than you might imagine owning your mother. Once they began to organize to keep the land and hired a lawyer, the lawyer was just summarily murdered and now they stand alone, since no one is willing to represent them. Sitting there, in that room, I know that Justino's voice is the voice of his ancestors and that the land is their soul, not just a geographical location, and I wonder if there is really hope for the future of any of us. If the Earth is our Mother and we don't know it, then are we perhaps wandering like orphans, lost and helpless against the forces of evil that would destroy our Mother and leave us without a home?
Later, Justino's wife, Patricia, who has a Master's degree in psychology, explains how they came to establish Calpulli de los Ninos, the word 'calpulli' dating back to Aztec roots meaning 'community organization.' They want to be a bridge for the indigenous poor to return to the land, to remember their former glory, the former ways by which they survived in a paradise of beauty and health and sustainability before the White man came. There are three hundred sixty-five pyramids in Cholula (one--the largest in the world--dates back more than two thousand years). When the Spanish arrived, they enslaved the people they found there and then forced them to build a church on every single pyramid. So now, every night, there are fireworks to scare away the devil so that whichever church in Cholula is holding its festival the following day will not have to worry about that.
Most of the indigenous people are Catholic now, of course, but their weddings are followed by a "dance of the flowers" and another where they "dance with their dinner," bobbing and weaving with vegetables and jugs of drink and chickens not yet plucked and even whole pig carcuses on their way to the coals. They may be Catholic, but their cells remember a different time, a different way, a way that lasted far longer than this latest one. Attending mass on Sunday in a church built by slave labor, worshiping with old brown women who didn't come to my shoulder, I was reminded of a line: "We are known by our scars."
I remember stopping at a little hole-in-the-wall store to buy a bottle of Penafiel Naturel Agua Mineral de Manatial (a sparkling orange-flavored beverage we don't have in Tampa, more's the pity) and then swigging on it while walking down a dusty street behind two little boys with their arms thrown over each other's shoulders, dogs barking wildly as I pass each house, some running into the street to make sure I don't come any closer, some barking down from a roof where they have a better vantage point from which to ward off intruders.
I remember flipping big flat cactus leaves so they'll dry on the other side and then, later, picking a bushel of hand-sized leaves, the tiny spines, no bigger than fine hairs, sticking right through my leather gloves and into the tips of my fingers and thumbs where some of them still are, irritating, painful, reminding me of the activity, like infinitessimal bits of shrapnel that don't intend to go anywhere until they're damned good and ready.
Later, I bought an eye of God decoration to hang over my bed, be-feathered and beautifully painted with ancient designs around a wheel of spokes made of larger cactus spines. I want to remember how badly my back hurt before I finished even one row of flipping leaves. I want to remember how hard it was to coax my fingers to pick the smaller leaves when doing so caused the tiny spines to stab my soft flesh in a hundred tender places. And I want to remember how I felt when they told me that a worker has to pick 5000 leaves to make $150 and I could barely stand to pick 250.
I remember walking down a dirt road between two cactus fields, discussing with remarkable adeptness and a clear understanding, considering our language barrier, the connections between the interests of the political and economic elites in our respective countries and the suffering of the Mexican poor. Two tall and modern buildings, corporate offices sporting air-conditioning and even in-door swimming pools, rose out of the dust directly visible from where we stood. The intention, we were told, is to turn this area, so "wasted" on its indigenous population, into a "safe neighborhood" worthy of those who want--and can afford--the accoutrements of a "better life": golf courses and fine homes, such as some of us have in the U.S. The indigenous, of course, and their cactus fields will have to be brushed aside to wherever they go when a country--or at least its elites--move forward.
We were about to turn back for Calpulli when a woman with impeccable English and the vaguest tinge of Spanish heritage about her came walking out of nowhere.
"Are you just a student group or might you be interested in buying some land?" she started the conversation in an oily voice.
We admitted to being a student group, but welcomed her information and she was glad to give it. From what she told us, the land in that location is very cheap, though she assured us with a wink that it was much cheaper when she and her husband moved into the area from a more urban setting. Needless to say, we were all stunned. Like an object lesson from hell, she carefully presented and represented everything we had just been told about the situation. And suddenly, the military men that seem so liberally sprinkled everywhere with their automatic rifles and even shotguns came into clearer focus and took on, if that's possible, an even more ominous tone.
I remember sitting in a sweat lodge participating in a ceremony conducted by Patricia and Alberto, an Apache with long dark hair and sun ceremony scars on his back and chest. I come out after three hours, staggering, covered with the dirt from the floor of the sweat lodge. At some point during the proceedings, I become unsure that I can bear the ordeal, but Patricia and Alberto give me tea and gently convince me to stay. When I tell Alberto that I'm not steady enough to hold the pipe, he holds it for me. I put a rock next to my heart, thinking I will take it home for my circle of grandfather stones. Later, another rock is in my hand, saying, "Take me." "But what do I do with the one that has already learned my heart beat?" I ask. "You leave it here," came the reply in my head. "You bury it in the soil of this lodge."
I am hungry for knowledge of the ancient ways. I understand them and I am not afraid. I am a bird with a curved beak and sharp eyes. She who sees far.
I remember eating real tacos made of diced pork, tender and cut off a tall rod, like lamb for gyros often is. I remember eating a huge Mexican breakfast cooked excellently and with great love by Arturo's uncle. I remember helping Saude prepare spaghetti and good bread for the team 16,000 feet up a mountain at a silent Hermitage facing Popocatepetl, a volcano continually visible from every vantage point of our trip and continually steaming, too. I remember buying churros (sugar-dusted fried bread sticks) to eat while walking down a street in Atlixco one day, after visiting the city hall where I saw a mural memorializing the workers who died fighting for their rights. I wanted to eat something they would eat, made by hands that were their hands. Then, I bought a candle and lit it in front of Our Lady of Guadalupe, asking whoever was listening to take care of the workers who still fight for their rights and risk dying.
I remember eating mango and strawberry milk and some kind of blue corn drink for breakfast at Delefino's and Tomas' table. I remember eating chiles en Nogada (a poblano chile stuffed with fruit and nuts and covered with a creamy sauce) in Puebla, a modern city that is inching toward Cholula even as we speak and threatens to swallow her and gentrify her and push her people into the desert. And I remember eating Zukaritas (frosted flakes complete with Tony the Tiger) most mornings for breakfast. Except for the Big Breakfast day and the time I ate the leftover dessert somebody dragged home from the marketplace. I decided, what the heck, it was probably more nourishing than the Zukaritas and, at least, it was Mexican.
I remember shoveling manure, a small mountain of manure, some of it brown and dry and some of it green and wet and incredibly strong-smelling, into a pick-up truck. I was not nearly as good at this or as committed to it as the students were, but I did what I could when I wasn't taking a turn at breaking up concrete to lay a fresh slab or sitting on the porch feeling like a humiliated sloth.
At one point, in desperation, I went to Patricia and asked if she had a bandana I could use to cut some of the strength of the odor. She whipped out a green printed square and tied it around my face, whispering, as she did so, "Like a Zapatista." I did my best shoveling after that. In fact, while one of the paintings I brought back is a colorful oil depicting light coming down into a Mexican courtyard, one is a small, stark, black and white painting of a Zapatista's eyes. It was done by an artist that intended to give the proceeds of its sale to the revolutionaries. No, they told the artist, use the money to start an art program for the village children. "The true revolutionary," said Che, "is guided by a great feeling of love."
I remember Delefino's and Tomas' seven-year-old daughter playing the guitar and singing for us and then demonstrating how well she could read. I remember eating meat from their table while they ate noodles. I remember looking at their wedding photos and somehow, communicating with them how beautiful they all were.
I remember waking to the rooster in the morning and descending to Marguerita's kitchen where women of all ages were busy preparing food. Watching them, I felt silly and useless until I saw someone sweeping and volunteered to help. But I couldn't even do that correctly. When I was handed the scoop to pick up the dust from the courtyard, the woman who would have been sweeping instead of me bent down and retrieved two thin plant leaves that had wound up in the pile, returning them to the rest of the leaves the grandfather had brought in from the garden and laid by the kitchen door. The respect she showed in that simple gesture, respect for her grandfather's work, respect for the family that would be serviced in some way by those leaves, respect for the leaves themselves and the Earth that provided them, was something my sped-up, Publix-generated life-style does not begin to reflect, but while I was oblivious before, now I cannot forget.
And lastly, I remember carrying Carlita, Delefino's and Tomas' baby, campesina-style, wrapped over my back in a rebozo, peering out around my right elbow, just as she had peered around her mother's the first time I saw her. Ah, Carlita, will I see you again? Will I know you when I see you again?
I started remembering before the plane crossed the border into Texas. Miguel's face with his sociologist's eyes twinkling at me above his grin. Arturo's knowing smile as he unapologetically hawks the wares of the artisans he supports in Oaxaca and Puebla and Peru. Saude clapping her hands to express the joy that bubbles out of her gentle heart. Arturo's uncle taking my arm whenever I would stumble on a broken bit of sidewalk or start to step out into the street at the wrong time.
My tiny apartment has been revolutionized by the bright colors that followed me home. There is Mexico everywhere I look. And it has drawn more to it. The pillows and dishtowels have become bright with bold stripes. I listen to Arturo's folk songs as I get ready for work in the morning. I teach in the bright yellow blouse and red painted earrings I bought to wear home, like a transplanted flower from a garden far away. And I am most self-consciously, but adamently, wearing the woven bracelet I allowed someone to tie on my wrist while we were still in Cholula.
And there are other changes. For the first time in a while, I've sent some money to my friend in Haiti, the one who feeds the street kids, even if there are thousands of them and they're going to need to eat again tomorrow and I only have so much. I've come up with an idea for a book I could write with Patricia, even though we can barely communicate and neither of us has anything like the time that would be necessary to do it. I've started to feel funny about flushing paper down my own toilet. I've begun to appreciate the greenery around me in a whole new way and wonder how I could spread those trees to Tlaxalancingo. And I'm cooking pork chops with rice and corn for dinner, even though there's nobody here but me. I've slowed down some. I look at things longer. And I share what I've learned as often as I can.
Coming down off the mountain on the hot and bumpy ride back into Cholula, I asked Miguel what the evacuation signs along the road were about. "They're in case the volcano erupts," he responded.
Considering this for a moment, it occurred to me that the silent Hermitage we had just left, where every room is an individual and collective work of art, where statuary and plummeting waterfalls and stained glass abound, has been in a continual process of daily development for nearly thirty years. "But..." I sputtered, incredulous, "couldn't it take the Hermitage with it, if it blew?"
"It could," he agreed.
"Well then, why put thirty years of building into something that could be wiped away at a moment's notice?" I challenged.
"Because it's all just part of life and death..." he said, and I remembered seeing the artisan standing mute at the Hermitage gate as we left. I had picked up a rock to bring home to my circle of grandfather stones and, approaching the gate, I held it up, asking with my eyes if it was okay for me to take it. He nodded, smiling gently. So, now he knows that if Popocatepetl erupts and if it takes the Hermitage, there will be a stone, thousands of miles away, with which to begin a new edificio, a new building, a new place to be on and of the Mother, Earth.
There is no beginning. There is no end. For any of us. Ever. We are One.