by David Werner
Before Where There Is No Doctor, before the Newsletter from the Seirra Madre, David Werner issued four legendary Reports from the Sierra Madre. They have been compiled into a handsomely illustrated book which you can read about here.
This is the backstory, the real-time day-to-day journals and reports of what David experienced in the backcountry of Western Mexico, living and working side-by-side with the campesinos. Richly illustrated with hundreds of photographs as well as line drawings and sensitively painted images of birds, all by the author, this book is a must-read, both for those who have been involved in the health and disability programs that grew out of the experiences in this book, and also for those who have benefited from Where There Is No Doctor, and David’s other groundbreaking books.
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INTRODUCTION: AN APOLOGY
Perhaps when the rains come I will have time to sit and muse, to wander through the wet hills and listen to the songs of the nesting birds, to paint, and to record and coordinate my impressions. This has been my dream in coming to the Sierra Madre, and it remains my dream. Reality, so far, has taken me on a different course. I do not complain, for life to me has been full, – full to overflowing. Yet my involvement in trying to care for the health of the villagers has become an ever-expanding and time-consuming project. Now the time has come when I should like to send off another “Report”; and although I have accumulated more than two hundred pages of hurriedly written observations, I have not had time at the present to coordinate them into any kind of balanced account. Besides, too much has happened that seems worth relating. To tell it all as I would like, would require a full length book. Here is a brief summary of my travels since my last report. followed by fuller accounts of some of the more eventful days.
May 15, 1966
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 derided 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.
In the early morning my friend Agustín Arisqueta, from Bordontita, rode into Chilar to ask me to go with him down the trail to where his cousin, Nacho Torres, was slowly and painfully making his way in our direction. He had been unable to urinate since the morning of the day previous, and with his bladder now distended, the pain was excruciating. Agustín had insisted he come to Chilar to seek my help, and as Nacho found it impossible to travel on horseback, he made his way, step by painful step, on foot.
Riding double, we set off at a trot, and in twenty minutes came up to Nacho, propped against a stone, gripping his abdomen and groaning. By his side were several persons including his wife, his sister, and a very dark skinned little boy, who was sobbing.
I gave Nacho a sedative and when it began to take effect we started the slow, painful journey back to Chilar. As we proceeded, moving like snails, I kept asking myself what I would do. I had neglected to bring with me so much as a catheter!*
The dark-skinned boy continued to tremble and sob, and his fear for Nacho was to me like an omen of death. The day before this boy had come – as he has each day with his languid, laughing eyes and eager smile – to watch me prescribe my many coloured pills, and follow me as I made my way through the village. Now he was weeping with terror. I asked him if Nacho was his father.
“No, señor,” he replied.
“Es mi tío”… and then adding softly, “Es como si fuera mi padre… Los dos me criaron juntos.”
Arriving at last in Chilar, I set about searching for something I could use as a sonda (catheter), but… nothing.
As Nacho said he had previously experienced occasional pain urinating, I suspected his condition was due to infection, possibly gonococcal. But it was now too late to wait for the effect of antibiotics. On the off chance his condition might be due to muscle spasm or intestinal pressure (he was also unable to defecate), I gave him a muscle relaxant and suppository evacuant. With this his bowels moved, but still could not urinate.
The only answer was catheterization. But how? I sent a man off at full gallop for San Ignacio to fetch a catheter, but was sure that if he traveled even by day and night he could not make it back in time.
My eye fell on a very slender-stalked asparagus-like plant called aliento del niño growing in a flower-pot hanging in the portál. I asked if I could cut a frond of it, and then proceeded to strip and smooth the stalk with a knife. It was slender, firm, yet moderately pliable. I rounded the tip as carefully as I could and coated the tip with a corticosteroid antibiotic (ophthalmic) ointment, as I had no better lubricant. I feared using such a crude instrument and doubted if it would work, but I knew that if Nacho’s bladder burst it would be the end. I remembered only too well my first trip to México 14 years before, when, in the small town of has Las Varas, Nayarít, I had helped Dr. Ricardo Sánchez try to catheterize a gonorrheal patient. The patient’s bloating and pain had been the same a Nacho’s. I can still hear his groans and the oft-whispered “¡Poquito, médico!” when the doctor asked him if he felt the urine coming. But the block proved too obstinate, the catheter too flimsy, and the urine did not come. The next day the patient died.
I tried to insert the makeshift tool in Nacho’s penis, but the tip of the shoot was not smooth enough to enter easily and I feared damaging the delicate epithelium. Quickly, I dispatched a child to purchase a vela in the small shop of Basilio Bueno, and when he returned I lit the candle and carefully capped the tip of the shoot with wax. I tested it to be sure the wax was firm and re-coated the stalk with the ointment. Men, women, and children – all family and relatives – crowded around in suspense. This time the shoot entered smoothly and easily, though Nacho bellowed with pain. When I withdrew the shoot the urine, drop by drop and then in a small trickle, began to exit. It blocked again, and I had to repeat the process several times. But by nightfall the bladder was no longer distended, and with good fortune the immediate danger had passed. I placed Nacho on combined Mandelic Acid and antibiotic therapy and hoped that he would be better by morning.
The next morning Diego Gallardo arrived from Caballo de Arriba to transport me there with his mules, but Nacho was still in critical condition with extreme abdominal pain requiring heavy sedation; I decided to remain in Chilar until he improved.
It was a battle for me to get those caring for Nacho to give him his medicine according to directions, and I finally had to give him each medication myself. My own treatment was accompanied by a variety of native cures which I was not sure whether to prevent or allow. Nacho was given lavados (enemas) of cooking oil. Hot orange leaves were placed on his abdomen. Ezequiél, the wandering minstrel and mimic, appeared with strong-smelling weeds to be sniffed, and when these failed he resorted to God: In front of Nacho’s catre he stood solemnly, his stout arms folded over his extensive stomach like Rodin’s statue of Balzac, chanting an incantation in the name of Christ and the Virgin Mary. (To raise Ezequiél’s mock fury, Agustín referred to this supplication as brujería, [witchcraft].)
By the morning of the third day (this morning) I again climbed the steep hill to see how Nacho was faring, and discovered that he was at last greatly improved, He felt weak but had little pain, no fever, and the dull, blurred look in his eyes was replaced by its former shine.
At last I could leave for Caballo; but when I tal’ced With Diego an hour ago, I learned that one of the mules has strayed into the hills. It will probably take him half the day to find it; and as Caballo is some eight hours (35 km.) from here, we shall probably wait until tomorrow. This gives me a chance to sneak away to the shade of a guayabo by the arroyo, to write and watch the birds coming to drink. At this moment two palomitas, inca doves, have landed, whistling at the waters edge, and are delicately taking up beaksful of water.
This morning after my arrival in Jocuixtita a small, very slender dark-skinned girl came to the house of Teófilo and stood quietly watching as I doled out medicines. She did not speak until I turned to her and asked if she were waiting for treatment. In a very soft voice she asked me if I would go with her to her house – her mother had asked me to come.
I followed the little girl up the steep rocky hill behind Jocuixtita, then down again into a small arroyo. At the upper end, about a quarter mile from the main part of the village, we came to a small house, decked, as are so many houses in Jocuixtita, with bougainvillea. This was the home of Eustaquio Morones. La señora met us at the doorway of the earthen house, and bid me inside.
Sitting on the edge of the bed was a little boy, and it was to examine him that I had been called. Apparently another victim of polio, the child had been struck by the crippling disease before he completed his first year of life. Now he is fifteen, although he looks no more than 9 or 10. As his mother explained the condition of the child, he sat quietly, motionless, his large black eyes fixed on me and a strange smile frozen on his face.
It always disturbs me to talk about someone when the opportunity presents itself to talk to them. I tried placing several questions to Pipi but could draw no speech from him. Yet always he kept those same eyes fixed upon me. Always the same frozen smile. When I turned away to talk with his mother, the smile – like a hapless flower that has been pieced and discarded -began to wilt, but needed no more than a glance or nod on my part to spring back to life.
Pipi is paralyzed from the thighs down; both legs, and his knees and the tops of his feet are calloused from dragging over the earth floor of the casa and the yard. I asked if he could walk at all.
“Pipi”, said the mother, “Anda con tus bordones para el señor.”
The boy dragged himself to a corner where two staffs were leaning against the wall, hauled himself erect, and supporting much of his weight with the poles, slowly transported himself across the yard, and back again, and back and forth and back and forth, at a snail’s pace but with surprising stamina. I thanked him and said it was enough but Pipi continued, time and again, until I was exhausted. And the smile remained transfixed upon his round young face.
This was Pipi’s one big day: This dragging of himself upright, back and forth across the yard was his big achievement. He never ventured beyond the yard. He had never attended school in the village a quarter mile away. He had not even seen the village in many years, not since he has grown too large for his mother to carry. When the family goes “to town”, Pipi stays home.
Although the child’s behavior and fixed smile suggest retardation, his mother assured me that, while his speech is slow, he has a good memory and apparently normal intelligence. When I learned that his mother could read and write, though poorly, I suggested she try to instruct the boy, and if
he responded, that she send him to school the coming year – if there is a teacher. (This year there is no profesór in Jocuixtita. The government-appointed teacher said that the village was too “retirado y atrasado” and left after a few days.)
It occurred to me that, with crutches, Pipi could learn to transport himself much more efficiently than with the two staffs, and it surprised me that they had let fourteen years elapse without them. I asked if there were no one in the family who could make a set of crutches. The mother replied that her husband – as a carpenter – could, and would. On my next visit to Jocuixtita I shall inquire if the crutches have been made, and if not (and I fear not) I shall make Pipi crutches myself. Or perhaps we shall make them together, for he has strong hands.
THE PRICE OF A MOMENT
While Pipi hauled himself back and forth across the yard with his staffs, two men arrived. One was Juvencio (Mencho) Pereda, a weathered man in his early fifties, the closest thing that Jocuixtita and surrounding ranchos have to a doctor.
I first met Mencho two months ago in Ajoya. He had come to ask for a medicine to relieve the pain in his back and legs, the result of mistreatment he received from a band of soldiers six years earlier. The soldiers came from a temporary cuartel in Bordontita, established to track down the notorious bandit Tino Navarez. They had come to Jocuixtita to arrest two young men then visiting at Mencho’s casa. On what charge, they did not say. Mencho had been standing in the doorway when the soldiers arrived. Without warning, the leader jabbed him in the stomach with the muzzle of his rifle. When Mencho staggered and fell, the soldier punched him again with the muzzle in the small of the back. The soldiers entered the casa and carted off the two young men to Bordontita, questioned them, found them innocent, and released them. Yet Mencho still carries two doughnut-shaped scars where the rifle muzzle struck him, and still suffers from spinal and internal injuries from the mistreatment. Since the assault, Mencho has been unable to “trabajar sus milpas en los cerros”. He began buying medicines in the cities and administering them in Jocuixtita and surrounding villages at a small profit. He makes no pretence of having a large knowledge of medicine; and unlike Oseo in Ajoya, has not only a conscience, but a genuine concern for the welfare of his people. He makes a small but reasonable profit in the medicines he administers, does not refuse treatment to those who cannot pay immediately, and will walk 10 or 15 miles, day or night, to meet an emergency. He is, as nearly as I can make out, a good man.
The compañero who arrived with Mencho was Juan Cebreros, a youth of some 20 years. He was obviously suffering from the gripa and had a panuelo bound around his head. But he and Mencho had come on a mission far more serious. Juan’s younger brother Pancho had been knifed in the stomach the night before, in the small village of La Quebrada, about 4 km. upstream, on the same arroyo as Verano. Mencho, who had been sleeping in El Pino, a rancho 2 km. away and nearly 2000 feet higher than La Quebrada on the mountainside above, had been summoned in the middle of the night; he descended the winding precipitous trail “en las nalgas”, on his backside. Mencho had injected Pancho with penicillin, advised the family to give him neither food nor drink, and beyond this could only leave the youth to his fate. Although the wound was gaping, with part of the entrails pouring out, Mencho lacked the materials to stitch it.
The following morning Mencho and Juan had hiked the 10 AM. to Jocuixtita to ask me to come to the patient’s aid. I explained, as ever, that I was not a doctor, and that if there was serious internal injury, there was little I could do. But at least I did have equipment for stitching, and I did have sedatives.
I agreed to go, but asked if it were possible to obtain a horse or mule, as with my broken rib I found it painful going up or down steep grades on foot. (It never occurred to me before that in merely walking one uses his chest muscles much, but one does!)
Mencho’s son lent me his horse, but first he had to catch it. It was mid-afternoon by the time we set out… Mencho and I alone, for Juan had left before us. I was on horseback, Mencho on foot. We followed the steep winding trail that leads to Verano until we came to the high pass (5000 ft.) or “el puerto” which separates the valley of Jocuixtita from that of Verano. Here we left the trail to Verano, and wound our way along the side of the ridge, northeastward, through small pines and giant-leaved encinos robles. We crossed to the north side of the ridge and began to drop precipitously. Here on the northern slope the pines, of a long-leafed 5-needle variety, extended much further down the mountainside. We passed by the rancho called Llano de Arriba, and after another drop of 500 feet, by Llano de Abajo. Shortly after we crossed the high north pass we could see the village of La Quebrada, as a narrow green patch, about 1500′ below us, to the right, in the steep ravine. To the left, where the ravine divided at the foot of a high mountain, lay the small pueblo La Tahona; and directly across from us, like a tiny dusty thread, we could see the trail which left Arroyo de Verano and crossed the far ridge, to drop again into an arroyo on the other side, where nestled the village El Oso, home of the boy who had been knifed.
Francisco (Pancho) Cebreros was not the kind of youth to get into a knife fight, Mencho explained. He was a quiet young man. Unlike many other youths of the family, he tended to stay clear of gatherings where there would be much drinking and brawling. Mencho described him as “muy pacífico, muy separado”. Eighteen years old, he was married, father of one child, another on the way. The night before, he and his brothers had been visiting friends in La Quebrada. Manuel, his younger brother, smaller, swarthier, and more temperamental, had begun to roughhouse with a cousin, Martín Cebreros, 19. Play turned to anger; and Pancho, who at the time was sitting in the portál eating buñuelos, hurried to the fighting and tried to make peace: But Martín whipped out his daga, his sheath knife, and plunged it into Pancho’s belly. Pancho staggered back to the house, and when his older brother, Juan, asked what had happened he replied “Martín me sacó la tipa.” Juan ran into the house for a pistol, but when he came out again Martín was long gone. Juan hunted him high and low, but to no avail.
This happened around midnight the night before. Pancho was placed on a catre. The younger brother was sent off up the steep mountainside to fetch Mencho.
The sun was near to setting when we arrived. The portál of the house was jammed with family and relatives of the wounded boy. The father and mother of the stabber were there, as well as the father, sisters, and brothers of the stabbed. I was ushered into the dark room where Pancho lay. His mother sat on the edge of the bed, her hand pressed against the boy’s stomach. The youth groaned in pain and breathed in short quick breaths… I asked for light, and ocotes (pitchy pine splints) were ignited, as neither cachimba nor lámpara were available. The youth, tossing his head and squinting in pain, begged his mother not to withdraw the pressure of her hand from the wound, and I decided before doing anything else to give him a sedative. I regretted giving anything at all by mouth for the likelihood of damage to the alimentary canal, but as I learned that despite Mencho’s advice he had already been given water and even orange juice, I placed a tablet of Butisol in the boy’s mouth and told him to wash it down with a small swallow of boiled water.
I injected him with a tetracycline-penicillin combination, and we waited for the sedative to act. Pancho, who had begun to grow a thin mustache, was pale to the point of waxiness, and his face was cool, although his body was feverish. His eyes would meet mine, as would those of his mother, with a desperate, pleading look, as if somehow I had a choice as to whether he lived or died. At one point Pancho caught hold of my hand, gripping it weakly, as if attempting to draw strength from me. But the wound was too real.
Slowly the pain minimized. Pancho’s groaning abated, and he complained only feeling sofocado. His mother untied the cloth which bound him, and exposed the wound. The gash was larger than I had hoped: more than two inches across. Spilling from it was what appeared to be the caecum and a portion of the liver. Now that the external pressure had been released, the entrails proceeded to force out more and more through the mouth of the wound, slowly, and with little noises…
I do not know if I did the right thing. Given the situation, there was probably no right thing to be done. If I had known for certain, as I learned afterwards, that the knife had penetrated the stomach (I was told later that pieces of tortilla had come out through the wound) I would not have tried making repairs myself. But I hoped against hope that somehow the blade had missed severing the vital organs (there were no signs of a cut on those which protruded) and with adequate antibiotics peritonitis night be controlled. I weighed the possibilities of trying to transport him to a hospital – 30 miles of precipitous trail, and then the rough truck trip – but I doubted he could survive such a trip.
Whatever was to be done, it seemed that further protrusion of his entrails would be for the worse, and the only way to avoid this was to close the opening. Reinserting the protrusion as gently as I could, I tried closing the wound with large butterfly bandages. This proved ineffective; I resorted to sutures. How I cursed the clumsiness of these crippled hands of mine when I needed dexterity most! But the wound was closed, and with little pain to Pancho, thanks to the barbiturate.
Pancho asked for a glass of water, and against my advice it was given to him. A minute later, with a sputtering sound, the water, slightly yellow, seeped out through the wound. A wave of despair went through me. At that moment I knew my efforts, for better or worse, had been in vain.
Yet my heart refused to admit the loss. This boy was still so nuevo, so alive, so nearly perfect. The skin I had forced the needle through was so strong, so pliable; the blood so red; the eyes that reached out to mine, and the hand, so full of soul. One human being still beginning! Could it be blown out like a candle before half burning down?
I went into the darkness and walked down the portál to the cocina to re-boil my instruments. In the corner of the kitchen was a cousin of Pancho, a panuelo bound around his jaw, his face swollen from a postemilla (infected tooth) until his left eye was puffed and shut. He asked if I had any medicine for dolor de muela, and, as I had brought no other medicine with me, I gave him terramycin, and a Mejorál to dissolve in his mouth. I looked in again on Pancho, who lay quietly now; his mother’s hand again pressed gently against the wound and his aging, whiskered father and his brothers standing by. There was little more I could do.
My sleeping bag under my arm, I went into the night and looked up. Never had the sky seemed so close, so rich with stars, so luminous in its darkness. How beautiful, that sky! It took me, as a mother takes a weary child, into its arms, and rocked me gently, though I knew I could not sleep. I lay silently on the rough earth, vaguely aware again of the pain in my broken chest, my mind wandering like a child in a strange garden there between the soil and the stars. I set to dreaming…
For some reason my thoughts fastened on the chopped, vine-like bough of California buckeye that had twined through the fork of the big live oak in whose upreaching arms I had built, with my hands and the hands of those I love, my home. I had built my house high in a tree, as a man builds a dream, and the dream had become real, the tree had become my sanctuary, a place for longing and rejoicing, for remembering and forgetting, for looking at birds and at the change of seasons, a hiding place and outlook on the world. And then, one day, a man whom I did not know, and who did not know me, came and posted my tree and his, and nailed the trap-door shut, and for some reason chopped that vine-like bough where it looped through the crotch of the oak. It was this — this violation of beauty — which hurt most! The sign could be removed, the trapdoor opened, but all the money, the tears, the love in the world could not re-knit that vine. I looked at the slash, and although the house still stood, beautiful in the arms of the oak high over the valley, I knew that the dream was ending, a chapter in my life was closing, that the flower had been picked and was wilting fast, that I must turn elsewhere… between my eyes and the stars, I could see clearly the white sap oozing from the cut vine……
The night grew colder. A group of men and boys came outside and built a fire near the side of the house, around which they sat, at first talking in low voices, finally in silence. The hours wore on.
At last, in the middle of the night, came the sound I had awaited, and dreaded, and hoped I would not hear… the indescribable cry of a mother whose child dies. All heard and knew at once, and all were reluctant to respond, to admit what their ears now shouted. The men around the fire lifted their heads, listened, then slowly, without speaking, rose, one then another, and entered the dark room. As for myself, I lay where I lay. I did not move until the stars waned with the dawn. Now it was time for the family and I was a stranger, unneeded.
I lay all night and listened. The lamentations of the living rose, sometimes in isolation, sometimes in chorus. The mother remained at the side of her son, wailing her hurt while the dogs howled from the surrounding darkness. Time and again she raised her voice, sobbing “!Ay mi Diós! ¡Ay Diosito!” as if some god would give her back her son. The brother, Juan, came outside and leaned against the house, head in his arms, sobbing loudly and wailing, also “¡Ay, Diós!” The aging father stood in drooped silence by the portál, staring into the night with its stars.
Why does one cry out to God in pain? It seems not a conscious act, but springing from something deeper, some automatic and primeval response in man, almost an instinct. How deeply wedded are our symbols to our lives.
Thurber has said, “Love is what two people have been through together”, and perhaps this is why there is so close a bond, between the members of these families. In a village like El Oso, the family grows and works and plays together. Children are not sent off to school, for there is none. The father tills the hills behind the house, and from the time the children are able to husk a corncob, they go with him to help, to learn from him, and share with him his hardships and his harvests. Nor, for the mother, is the kitchen a place apart. If it is more often a corner of the common sleeping and storage room, it is also the living-room, the place where the family gathers to warm themselves on cold mornings to share in the lengthy preparation of the meals, the feeding of the fire, the conversation of the day. The home here has no barriers isolating each family member in his own quarters. The love is great; therefore, also, the joy… and the suffering.
Shortly after Pancho died, in the light of flaming ocotes, some of the men began to hew with their machetes small crosses from saplings, to place at the body’s head and feet to keep the devil away. At dawn I arose and went to the room. Pancho lay straight and quiet on the catre, dressed in clean, pressed clothes. His bare feet were bound together by a piece of vine, and between them was propped a small wooden cross. In his hands, clasped together over his breast, was another cross, and a larger cross was placed at his head, His eyes were shut and he appeared asleep. His mother knelt by the bedside, his head in her arms.
I stared at Pancho, and could have sworn I saw his chest moving up and down in gentle breathing. I tried to destroy the illusion, but could not, so unwilling was I to accept the death.
When I went outside again, the man whom I had given the terramycin the night before, came up to me and told me that the pain which had tormented him for over a week had stopped during the night. The swelling, in fact, had subsided. A number of the family members asked me if I had medicine for la gripa, tos and catarro which was as rampant there as in all the villages of the Sierra Madre in tiempo de frío.
After a bit, old Juan came up to me and asked, hesitatingly, “¿Cuanto le debemos?”
“Nada”, I replied.
The old man remained silent a moment. Then he said, “Usted comprende que hemos perdido algo que vale más que a cualquier dinero.” (We have lost something more valuable than any money.)
I replied, “Yo comprendo.”
The family proposed to carry Pancho to the small cemetery on the slope above El Oso. They were still preparing the litter — two poles of Guacimillo with seven cross pieces lashed together with rope, and with fresh-cut vines where the rope ran out — when Mencho and I left.
Mencho said that there was a man ill with pulmonía in the rancho of E1 Pino, on the mountainside some 2000 feet above the quebrada, and we set off on foot, leading the horse (despite my broken rib), for Mencho insisted that the trail was too steep and treacherous to risk on horseback. we was probably right. I did not envy him making the descent in the night,
We arrived at El Pino to find the sick father alone with his small son.
From the doorway of the small hut we looked across the huge valley to where, like colorful insects upon a winding thread of dust, the funeral party was creeping its way up the steep ridge which separated Verano from the Arroyo de los Osos.
“Pobre familia”, said Mencho, after a long silence. “What wouldn’t the murderer give now to not have done what he did?
“Will he ever come back?” I asked.
“No”, replied Mencho, “How can he? They are all relatives here. de has a young wife there in El Oso, and land he has cleared with his own hands, and three cows. He has lost them all.”
“What kind of a person was he, this Martín?” I asked.
“He was all right,” said Mencho. “He drank a good bit.”
“But he wasn’t drunk at the time?”
“Had he ever done anything to harm anyone before?”
“No,” answered Mencho, and then quoting a proverb, added, “No sucede en un año lo que sucede en un momento.” (That which does not happen in a year, happens in a moment.)
“Will the authorities make any attempt to capture and punish Martín?” I asked, vaguely hopeful that they would not.
Mencho shook his head.
“Why not?” I inquired,
“Porque la familia no tiene…..” and he made the sign of money with his fingers. “Aquí en México solamente hay justicia donde hay dinero. ¡Si no hay o dinero, no hay justicia!”
We stood watching the distant funeral file until it passed over the crown of the ridge and disappeared, then started on our way again.
SNOW ON THE MOUNTAIN
Mencho and I climbed another 300 feet and came to another house, the adobe old and cracked, but beautiful in its solitude, overlooking the huge valley. A spidery little woman in her seventies came hurrying out to greet us, Mencho explained that this was his Tia Gregoria.
Gregoria and I took to each other immediately, and in a moment were chatting together like old friends. (Mencho had disappeared for a short while.) The old lady was sharp, curious and alive. Her age became her like snow becomes a mountain….
Why is it, I wonder, that some persons wilt with age while others bloom up to the end? When I look at elderly persons, drooping, regretting “not so much what old age takes, as what it leaves behind”, I am terrified to the point of determining to die before I am over the hill. It seems to me a crime to cling to life when one is no longer willing to embrace it and… then I see an aged person like old Gregoria. Oh, yes, her strength is waning and she suffers from an intermittent pain in the right side of her head. Nor has rheumatism passed her by her husband and half of her children have died before her. But she does not live in things lost. Life for her is still full of surprises and changes and wonders and she welcomes it as a bee welcomes a flower. She lives alone now in the mountains, and welcomes what comes her way. I would not mind growing old like this.
PEARLS FROM THE HEADS OF CHILDREN
Today Goyo’s young uncle, José Reyes, came from Arroyo Grande to ask for more medicine for his 3 year-old child with cretinism. José’s green eyes flashed with pleasure as he told me how, finally, the poor deaf child had begun to crawl and to stand up. The medicine (a four month supply) was now running out. I gave him an additional quantity of Thyroxin, enough for 2 years.
Later, with the Chavaríns, we began to talk about children born with cretinism. They insisted emphatically that Ramón’s 14 year old brother, Goyito, “el petón” (thick lip), was born as he was because his mother, when she was pregnant with him, had seen a food that whetted her appetite, yet which she had refrained from eating. For this reason, the child had been born with his tongue lolling out! Mothers-to-be, they moralized, must be very careful to yield to temptation.
Another child in Carrizál, they continued, was born with a condition, apparently megacephalia. (Tiene la cabeza tan grande como una calabaza.) They assured me that the oversized head was due to a precious stone, diamond-like, but large, imbedded inside the skull. They were surprised when I laughed at this idea. They insisted that it was “¡por cierto!” Everyone knew it to be so, and there were even persons who went around buying these children in order to open up their skulls and remove the precious stone, no great crime, since they all die in their seventh year anyway. The mother of the child in Carrizál had been offered a considerable sum of money for her megacephalic child, they said, but had refused because “no se animó.”
I asked who were the child buyers. No one was quite sure. Opinion indicated that it was “los Americanos.”
The harsh death of Ramón Valverde (leader of the campesinos murdered in San Ignacio this January) has taken its toll in many ways. Because he was kind, those whom he left behind have suffered more. But perhaps none has suffered more than his seven year-old son, Francisco Javier. Several days after the death of his father, the boy, although ill with a fever at the time, was literally dragged by his mother and another woman to where the bodies of the two men were being kept for wake. The terrified boy was made to look at the two bodies, a horrible sight, for the entire crown had been shot off of the one man.
The boy lost control, tried to run away, was confined., He thrashed and kicked, and remained out of control even when taken back to his house. He lost, completely, his sense of hearing, and saliva began to run out of his mouth “so much that it drenched his pants.” The boys grandfather tried to knock sense into him by beating him with a stick, and when the boy failed to respond, beat him harder, until the child was bruised. It was the first time in his life that Francisco had been beaten, for Ramón had not allowed it.
Days passed into weeks, and Francisco remained both mute and deaf, continuing to slobber and to strike out at anyone who approached. He was taken to Mazatlán, where the doctors said he was suffering from mental shock, and prescribed a medicine which proved to be of no help.
At last, in desperation, the mother took her son to La Apolonia in El Naranjo. The old lady diagnosed his case as “congestión cerebrál.” She applied humentos of alcohol with cinnamon to the back of his head and neck, and gave him a tonic of canela con ojitas de margarita y de zapote (cinnamon with leaves of zinnia and ‘toad tree’). In three days the boy was able to hear and speak again, to eat better, and although still subject to fits of violence, was so much improved that his mother took him home again with relief.
THE SPIRITS OF LA APOLONIA
The trail to El Naranjo follows for a distance a dry arroyo behind the village of Ajoya, passing under the huge higueras which flank the stream bed. Leaving the arroyo, it winds into the hills beyond, rising at first gently, then more abruptly, until it passes through a dusty puerto (pass) in a shallow notch in the hills. At the puerto stands a wary rosa amarilla tree, whose giant buttercup-like blossoms blaze in the sunlight from December into March, dropping its large yellow petals into the dusty trail below. From the pass, the trail descends again into the broad valley beyond, passing through a brushy forest of Güinoli (Acacia sp.) and then rising through palo blancos, mahutos, and other short trees, until at last it comes to a settlement of three widely separated
The uppermost house is the oldest and best built with thick adobe walls and hand-hewn beams. It sits on a small step of land overlooking the distant valley of the Rio Verde and the violet-blue sierra beyond. The house is surrounded by a lush and luxurious garden of a wide variety of beautiful or useful plants, which are carefully irrigated by tiny canals leading from a small, clear spring which issues from under a rock in a deep cut in the hillside behind. Behind the house, a grove of giant bamboos arch over the dwelling, shading it with a yellow-green halo of grass-like leaves. To the sides of the house and following the canal toward the spring, are lime and lemon and orange trees; and in the shade of the bamboo, grow twining coffee bushes. This is the home of La Apolonia, famous among the villages for her native cures and for her communications with the dead.
Today I have come alone to E1 Naranjo, and — surprisingly enough — there are no other visitors. La Apolonia, her bright eyes shining from her wrinkled face, takes me through the garden, telling me of her plants. This giant zalate (a fig tree similar to higuero but with darker, bluer leaves) she brought as a seedling from the coast when she first moved her family here some 40 years ago and this plant, which I had taken for the local barra blanca, is a bush of the Indian asafrán (saffron), the bee-bee like seeds of which are used for food coloring. This broad leafed lily, called lirio gigante is useful as a medicine for mothers who have trouble giving birth or in eliminating las demas (the afterbirth). (Se cuece las ojas con manzanilla y se da a tomar, hasta tres vasos, hasta que se alivia, en general antes de una hora.)
Each plant, it seemed, involved a story and a cure. This canela plant (cinnamon) now a tall, luxuriant bush, La Apolonia had brought several years before as a cutting from Mazatlán. At that time, she had cured a woman of severe, itching sores on her legs, after the doctors had tried to relieve the condition for several months and failed. La Apolonia had bathed the leg with a concoction prepared from the bark of Guasima (a common tree of this area, Guazima Ulmifolia, with elm-like leaves and a spiky, cylindrical fruit eaten raw or ground to make tortillas when corn is scarce) together with the leaves of laurel de olor. In nine days the llagas were completely cured. When asked the cost of the cure, she had said “Nada”, but that she would like a cutting of the cinnamon plant kept in a caged enclosure in the patio. And so, it had been given her.
Most of the plants of the garden are native to this region of the sierra, and La Apolonia has gathered and cultivated them for medicinal uses. Here was a narrow-leaved, erect milkweed plant with an apical tassel of orange and red flowers, called sonorita (at times señorita by those who confuse the name). Apolonia, observing that I have a bit of constipado (stuffy nose) plucked a bit of this plant and told me to sniff it. The scent was strong, unpleasant, but almost instantly my nostrils and sinuses
Apolonia sent her grandson, Juanito, to fetch from near the spring a spray of “skunk” and the small boy returned holding the plant in one hand and his nose in the other. The scent of the root is so strong that it actually burns the nostrils like ammonia. La Apolonia tells me that a very, effective jarabe (cough syrup) is prepared from zorrillo, together with other herbs, and that she has cured many cases of asma with it, including that of her son, Cuco, after he had tried for months to relieve his condition with commercial remedies. The receta, which she dictated to me, is as follows:
Jarabe de Zorillo (para asma)
- Se cuece la raíz (o todo la mata) en dos litros de agua.
- Le pone manzanilla, canela, laurel de olor, cilantro, y poleo.
- Se cuece haste le queda medio litro de la agüita.
- Le hecha un cuarto kilo de azucar doradita en la agua cuelada.
- Se tome una o dos cucharadas de la miel tres vecas al día.
So we continue through the garden, La Apolonia filling my head with remedies she has prepared with the plants and with cures she has worked, which are many. Yet I never get the sense that she is bragging. Rather she is telling me with joy of the marvels of her plants. She is proud of them, as if they were her children and her friends.
One of the most fascinating aspects of La Apolonia’s unique life is her communication with los doctores espirituales. She and her daughters are able, they say, to communicate with the spirits of dead physicians to seek their advice and help in the treatment of the sick. In order they go into a state of intense concentration resembling a trance. Having entered the trance, La Apolonia is unable to open her eyes even if she wants to and her upturned hands grow heavy like lead. It is an exhausting experience and now she is too old, she says, to undergo it. Similarly, her daughter, La Cuca, since she since she has been ill, has been unable to summon together enough energy for the concentration. (This is the same Cuca who I treated two months before for congestive heart failure).
The natural cures which La Apolonia and her daughters apply, they say they have learned from their doctores espirituales. These dead doctors have specific identities, being deceased physicians whose lives had been cut off before they had completed their curative work. One, a Dr. Manuel Martínez, from the medical school in Guadalajara, appears in the trances of Apolonia’s daughter, Picha. In the trances of La Cuca comes Doctor Juan Cheleque, from México City, who was shot while in his twenties, as he passed by a bar when a fight broke out. (I am curious to check if there is a doctor by this name among the medical graduates in México. Not that it matters…)
I cannot testify for the validity of these communions with the dead doctors. One thing, however, is certain: La Apolonia and her daughters have effected many cures. True, there are those who scoff or assure that La Apolonia is a witch, but these are surprisingly few considering the people’s fear of the extraordinary and their tendency to expand suspicions. La Apolonia is so kindly, so gentle, and for all her seventy years, so open, fresh and childlike that it would be difficult even for the most avid witch hunter to seriously wish her ill, and those who do so, I have found, are those who do not know her.
La Apolonia is most famous for her ability to cure locos. The son of Ramón Valverde is but one example. Patients with temporary insanity have been brought from as far away as Tayoltita and Guadalupe de los Reyes. From Tambór, a woman was brought who was in a state of infantile regression, crawling about on all fours, cooing and crying like a baby, unable to speak, and refusing to recognize or nurse her young child. La Apolonia conducted prayers for her, cared for her and gave her curious concoctions: In three days the young woman was restored to normal and again nursing her baby.
From Tayoltita was brought another young woman, in severe pain, who insisted she had been shot in the heart. Her parents had returned from a dance late at night in which a fight had been started and a young man had been shot and killed. When they arrived at the house they found the doors barred and could not rouse the daughter they had left at home. Breaking in, they sought their daughter everywhere, and at last found her hiding under the bed. They dragged her out, and the poor girl was trembling and clutching at her breast. She told them that a man had broken into the house and shot her in the heart. But there was no wound. From that day on, the girl continued to suffer and insist that she was dying, and as the days passed into weeks, it appeared more and more that she really was dying for she reused food and was fading away. Her father took her to La Apolonia, and there, under the old woman’s cures and prayers, she awoke as if from a dream.
More recently, indeed, only two weeks ago, a teenaged girl from Guadalupe de Los Reyes was brought, raving mad. Her skin was speckled with small wounds where she had climbed like ari iguana up a tall cardon (cactus). She had also scratched herself and torn her hair. No sooner had she been brought to La Apolonia than she gave a giant leap and caught hold of the rafter overhead, swinging back and forth like a monkey. La Apolonia cured her with pedimentos (prayers) and la loca de Guadalupe went home meek and grateful.
La Apolonia proceeded to tell me of a well to do sceptic who came from Durango. Having heard that she talked with the doctores espirituales, but doubting the truth of it, he had come to satisfy his curiosity. He informed La Apolonia that his wife was ill, and asked her for a cure. She told him she would consult her “doctor” and went into a trance. Coming out of it, she informed the man that in truth, not his wife but his father, was ill in the house in Durango. The man gasped and admitted that this was true. Furthermore, said La Apolonia, the spiritual doctor had just injected him, and he would soon be better. The young man left, confused, and a week later sent a note with a sizable propina saying that his father, who had in fact been seriously ill, was much improved. La Apolonia smiled her warm smile and told me that she didn’t mind people’s doubting of her seances with the dead doctors, for doubt, she says, is perfectly natural in those who have not experienced these things.
I asked La Apolonia about the injections her doctor-spirits give. She says that although both the doctor and the syringe are invisible, the patient can feel the prick and see the mark.
According to reports, La Apolonia and her daughters have performed many other miraculous cures. They have made a mute man talk and several paralytics walk. A woman came with a hand which had been cramped shut for over two months. La Apolonia bathed it in liniments of natural herbs, told her to open it, and she did. With one treatment of vapores she managed to relieve the skin condition of José Vidaca’s wife, Sofía, which neither I nor the Centro de Salud in Mazatlán (where I had sent her) had been able to cure. (This was the ailment which old Micaela ascribed to witchery.)
The list of strange and marvelous cures goes on and on. She cured a child with kidney stone by giving him seven glassfuls of orange juice. She also, on learning that I still suffered from a broken rib, tried various cures on me, which included ventosas (sucking up of the skin around the injury by lighting a candle in a tumbler pressed against the injured area) and a poncha (raw egg beaten into hot cinnamon tea) so delicious that it made the injury almost worthwhile. Both remedies were designed to eliminate the aire from the golpe, and perhaps they did, although I did not notice the change, except that I was a little more sore the following morning. But I do not credit my failure to respond to La Apolonia’s treatment to her lack of ability, but rather to my lack of faith. A chronic doubter, there will always be those doorways through which I can look lovingly, but never pass.
DELAY: THE COST OF LIQUOR
I half think that the people of Ajoya who have threatened to tie me down or force feed me alagüita so that I won’t leave the village, must be making pedamentos to the rain gods. Every time I prepare to leave for the high country, it pours! My initial departure for Verano in December was delayed for weeks and weeks because of the cabanuelas which commenced the morning after I arrived in Ajoya, and continued with the heaviest and most prolonged winter rains that the region had known in years. Now in las secas, the long spring draught, during which, according to both the villagers and the weather statistics, it never rains, it has rained twice. The first rain fell the day before Teodoro was to come to take me to Saus. Black clouds mushroomed above the mountains in the east and spread our way. Lightning began to flash, thunder to resound and children to shout and dance. Then the rain came, pounding at the dust. It lasted for two and a half days, and three days after it stopped, when I was just about to give up Teodoro for lost, he arrived and we left… a week late. The second rain of las secas was brief, but heavy, and fell the Saturday that Dimas was going to bring the mules to take me to Verano again to notify the villagers of our vaccination program. Then, when at last the sun broke through the clouds and Dimas left to bring the mules, another delay was in store for me.
It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. I was trying my best to get my medicines sorted into three groups for stations in Ajoya, Bordontita and Verano, and packed for mule transport. Little Goyo and the Chavarins, especially Julia, were helping me. But we made very slow progress as the stream of patients was almost unremittint and at times I had to leave for house calls. We were arranging the medicines in Bordontita in a large box when Goyo’s father arrived, pale and out of breath. He said he needed to talk to me in private and we went out into the yard behind the house. Goyo, who misses nothing, followed us.
“Es que mi hermano, José …”, began Remedios, “del Arroyo Grande en la vieja casa mía…. ¿Lo conoce?”
“¡Como no!”, I replied. Across my mind flashed the image of José Reyes, Goyo’s young uncle with the laughing green eyes, who had recently come to ask for more Thyroxin for his three year old cretinistic child. I recalled the radiant pleasure in his eyes as he told me that at last the child showed signs of improvement. I recalled, also, the warmth and welcome he and his young wife had given me when Goyo and I had first arrived, on burro-back, at the tiny house where they lived, the same house where Goyo had been born. I remembered the venison which José’s pretty and child-like wife, Benancia, had grilled for me and José’s pleasure at having meat in the house from his kill in el monte three days before. Yes, I knew Remedios’s brother. “Muy buena gente”, I said.
Remedios took a deep breath. “Pues es que mi hermano José mató a su senora.” Goyo’s mouth dropped open, and he quickly shut it again.
“¿Cuando?” I asked, scarcely believing what I heard.
“¡Ahora!” replied Remedios. And he proceeded to tell me how half an hour before, Goyo’s 14 year old brother, Martín, the only witness, had come running with the news. Martín was in a state of shock, and the account was not very clear. Being Sunday and a school holiday, Martín had gone to their old home in the Arroyo Grande to bring some papayas from la huerta, and had been visiting with his Aunt Benancia when José arrived, thoroughly borracho. From this point on the story became confused. Remedios way not sure how it happened, but José had shot and killed his wife with his rifle, more or less by accident, it seemed. Martín had fled in terror.
“¿Es cierto que esta muerta?” I asked.
“Es cierto,” replied Remedios.
Having told me the news, Remedios hesitated, confused. I found myself wondering why he had come all the way to Ajoya to tell me. He was obviously at a loss as to what to do and had come to me for advice and support. It was up to him to notify the family of the girl, yet he and her family were on bad terms and he feared the family would echar la culpa (throw the blame) at him. el síndico also had to be notified, and José would be arrested, perhaps mistreated, and would have to serve a prison term. I found out later that there was a chance that Remedios, as his brother, might be arrested, too.
Remedios agreed that the best thing would be for José to turn himself in. I offered to go with him to the síndico, as (he), José Mercado, respects me. (In the past week I had treated four members of his family, including his young daughter for dog-bite the day before.)
Remedios would set out for the Arroyo Grande at once, try to convince his brother to come in to Ajoya and report to the síndico, and then inform the girl’s parents, in that order, so that her family would not have a chance for revenge (except possibly on Remedios, which was the possibility which Goyo feared, as he told me later.)
Remedios left, and Goyo and I went back to work with the patients, acting as if nothing had happened. I was marveling at how little Goyo reacted, for I knew he was very close to both his uncle and Benencia. It was not until I was called out to a sick house, and we were returning alone, that suddenly he caught hold of my hand and spilled out his feeling and fears. Yet he did not shed a tear. I have never seen him cry.
Returning to the house, I was met by the wife of Benigno Ríos, who asked me to come see her child who had fallen and struck his head on a stone. I told her to try to get some ice from Fidel, and that I would be along soon.
I finished labeling medicine for la gripa for two patients and as I was about to leave, the step father of Benencia arrived, panting, and informed me that they were bringing his step daughter on a stretcher from the Arroyo Grande, where she had just been shot. As chance would have it, they were taking her to the same house where I was presently heading to see the child with the bruised forehead.
So, Benencia wasn’t dead after all! I put some medicines and implements in my bag and set off. The stretcher-bearers and I arrived at the house simultaneously.
The bullet had entered her right buttock, near the base of the spine, and the bloodshed had been profuse, but had subsided. From the entry point of the bullet, I had feared for the worst, but when at last I could examine her more thoroughly,(the sedative I had given her taking effect) I discovered that the bullet had passed from one side of the buttock to the other and lodged just under the skin. I considered removing it myself, but decided it was better to take her to Dr. Feliz in San Ignacio.
As fortune would have it, Antonio was in Ajoya with his camión, preparing to leave for San Ignacio with another load of swine. We carried the girl to the truck and put her on a single bench in front of the pigs. Her mother and step father and I accompanied her. Goyo begged his father, who had returned ahead of the stretcher, to let him go along, and his father agreed.
The trip went well, for I had given Benencia a hypnotic dose of sedative before we left.
We arrived in San Ignacio to find the gates of the hospitál locked with a padlock. We searched the town for the doctor, only to learn that he had left that morning in his car, but that the head nurse was asleep in the hospital. We roused her by shouting and she came out sleepily. However, she did not have the key. We had to hunt up the gardener who lived in the street below. At last, a few minutes after midnight, we managed to get the gate open, and at that moment the doctor arrived, in his new Chevrolet convertible driven by Paul. They had been enjoying themselves in Culiacán. The doctor looked tired and not at all happy to see us. We carried Benencia in on a stretcher and put her on a bed in an empty ward. The doctor gave her a sleeping pill and the rest of us slept there with her.
Benencia woke early, hurting, and I gave her a sedative to tide her over until the staff appeared. When her parents left the room and Goyo was still asleep, she took the initiative to tell me what had happened.
The morning before, José had left their small but in the Arroyo Grande to hunt for food, for they had nothing to eat. However José did not return until the middle of the afternoon, and when he came he came drunk with a bottle of vino in his hand without food. Benencia protested and began to weep. José, no doubt finding his own guilt hard enough to bear, told her to shut up. She continued to weep and he took down a palo to beat her. Benencia fled, running toward the stream between the trees. The next thing she knew there was a rifle shot and a bullet whistled past her. She stopped and was turning around to cry out, “¡No me friegues! ¡Mejor azotarme!” when the second bullet struck her and she fell, spouting a small fountain of blood.
The next thing she knew, she was in José’s arms, and he was weeping.
“¿Porque me fregaste?” she whimpered.
”¡No quise! ¡No quise!” he wept. “Iba a asustarte, no más!” (I was only trying to scare you).
“¡Pero ya me fregaste de veras!”
People began to gather, drawn by the shot, and someone took off to notify her parents, who live in Naranjo, about two kilometers downstream. When her relatives began to arrive, José left hurriedly, saying that he was going to gather together the money to cure her. No doubt, he feared for his life.
I asked Benencia if she wanted to go on living with José if she had the chance. She slowly shook her head, “Ya no…”
Two beautiful young people! To me, from the first, they had seemed very beautiful, and to me, they remain so. I had known them for their love and for their joy in the face of hardship, for their tenderness and concern for their children. I suffer for them as if they had both been killed, and yet they are both alive, and must go on, separately. Yet, I wonder how — and where.
“I have seen the same thing happen many times,” Goyo’s father had said to me. “That is why I don’t drink anymore.”*
At 10 A.M., the doctor operated (rather clumsily, I thought). The novacain did not take at all. Within a couple of weeks Benencia should be, at least physically, nearly as good as new.
How often do we see a man as good because we see only his good side, or bad, because we first see his bad. Whenever we speak of someone as being “a good person” or “a bad person”, it is, perhaps, because we do not know him. Coins have two sides; people, many.
As we were unloading in San Ignacio the enormous load of medicine and clothing which Bob and Margaret Wallace brought from the U.S., a thin, spidery young man, well-dressed and with a neck tie, approached me and said, in a rather stiff, school English, “Excuse me, please. Do you play chess?
When I replied that I did, his face lit up, and he at once invited me to a game in his house across the street: He introduced himself as el Licenciado Francisco Chávez Nieto, recently appointed lawyer and judge of San Ignacio. It would be a good idea to get on his right side, I thought, and agreed to accept his invitation as soon as we had finished unloading. He left, and a few minutes later returned, inviting us to a beer.
We accompanied him into his home, an elegant building at the end of a long, narrow courtyard. We took seats in the spacious portál, beneath a very high roof, and proceeded to drink Coca Cola and Cerveza. Although rather discourteous to young Goyo, he treated us Americans with both chivalry and charm. We learned that he had been dispatched by the Federal Government in México City.
“And what sort of functions do you perform here?” we asked.
“I go to put in prison this President of the municipio here,” he replied.
We looked at each other with amazement and asked him, “Why?”
He replied that there were “too much gangsters” in San Ignacio and that the Presidente of San Ignacio was in league with them. He (the lawyer) had come to San Ignacio a month before with the project of investigating the murder of Ramón Valverde and his colleague and already he had learned a great deal, He said he was determined to “clean things up.”
We were delighted to at last have found, apparently, an official with a conscience, a much needed friend! We proceeded to pour out to him the story of what I was doing in the villages and the trouble that San Ignacio’s “presidente” had made for me. When I mentioned the Presidente’s incrimination of me as a “poppy smuggler” he seemed suddenly confused and wary, and I wondered if I had spoken out of turn. At last, however, we managed to communicate to the licenciado more or less the spirit of my project, for he smiled warmly, saying that when I died, I would go directly to Heaven. (Bob, who knows me better than I was aware, was good enough to tell him that I was just as likely to go to Hell.)
It was not long before we began to get a glimpse of the other side of San Ignacio’s lawyer and judge. Impressed by our passion for social justice, he proceeded to inform us of his. He disliked communism, and was pleased to find out that we were not communists. The United States of America, he informed us, was a nation of sheep. We admitted the truth in his statement, and Margaret added that, after all, so were all nations, nations of sheep. The lawyer then told us that we Americans were foolish because we were all pro-Castro! And Castro was a gangster! Roosevelt, he informed us, had been a Jew and Kennedy, a Communist. To prove his point he told us to look at the Kennedy 50 cent piece, on which was clearly visible a tiny hammer and sickle, at the base of the portrait.
“Those are the initials of the artist!” Paul exclaimed. But Mr. Frank shook has head and insisted that Kennedy, whether we admitted it or not, was a Communist. After
several more efforts, we stopped arguing the point.
“I am a Nazi,” he announced to us next. “You do not mind?”
Oh, no, we didn’t mind at all. Every man to his own ideas. Ha. Ha. A few minutes later, Goyo and I left Paul with the judge and accompanied Bob and Margaret to the edge of town, where we parted company, all too soon for me.
When we returned, after paying a call on a family who had asked me for medicines, we found Paul and the lawyer commencing a game of chess. The judge, had consumed more than his share of beer. The pile of empty cans on the table was growing and he sent Goyo out to buy more. By this time, the unhappy man had shed much of his graciousness, though still not his tie. He proceeded to pour out his assertions, doubts and hatreds.
“You two,” he announced to Paul and me, “are the only civilized persons in this village.” I tried to protest, but he continued, “These people live in the Stone Age. They are ignorant. They are animals. They kill each other. The eat iguanas. You don’t believe me? Well, I have seen them eat iguanas!”
“You do not believe I am a member of the Partido Nazi?” he asked, suddenly drawing from his pocket a card, initialed by George Lincoln Rockwell, which bears the lawyer’s photograph and a statement which says, “Francisco Chavez Nieto es miembro activo del Cuarto Reich. Fundadór Adolfo Hitler.” It also said something about the group being “anti-bolchevique”.
The game of chess continued and the pile of empty beer cans grew. The judge drew out of his jacket pocket a letter. “With this letter,” he cried, “I am going to arrest the Presidente of San Ignacio. It gives me the authority.” He waved the paper about. “Here I have the authority to arrest the three men who killed Ramón Valverde. Here are their names . . .” and he read off three names, one of which was Ignacio Espinosa, the others I cannot remember. “I was to arrest them,” he said, “but the Presidente told me ‘Let them go free’. And now I will arrest the Presidente. He took 5,000 pesos for to protect them.”
“How do you know?” we asked.
The lawyer hesitated. “How do you say “paredes?” he asked.
“Yes… well… the walls have ears!” And he smiled wisely.
A couple of teen-aged girls made their entrance, and at once the judge hailed them and started teasing them about coming to get American boy friends. The girls giggled and departed with embarrassment.
“Does El Presidente know that you plan to arrest him?” I asked.
“Yes, he knows,” was the reply.
“Isn’t it a bit dangerous for you here, then,” I asked. “Is your own life safe?”
“The past night,” he replied, “a man came and, ‘¡zaz!’ with a pistola. Here in my cuarto.”
“Is there a bullet hole in the wall?” asked Paul brashly.
“Yes. Is a hole. Big hole.’
“Can I see it?” asked Paul.
“Yes. Come. Follow me.” And he rose and led us to his room, and showed us where he had been lying on his bed when the door had been thrown open and a man had taken a shot at him where he lay on his bed. He said that the bala had struck the wall above his bed. We all searched for the bullet hole, but could not locate it, and the poor
judge became more and more upset.
“You think I am one liar,” he kept saying over and over again, even though we denied it, and even helped him invent explanations, suggesting the bullet had gone out the small window, or that the man had fired a blank to intimidate him. But he kept insisting that he had seen the hole, and the girls of the household had also heard the shot.
Who knows? Perhaps it was a prankster, like the little boy who tossed a firecracker into the room here at Ramona’s five minutes ago as I’ve been writing this. it would surely not take much to convert such a prank into an attempted assassination, for the good judge, like a good Nazi, is somewhat paranoic… but look at me grasping for reasons! Who knows?
“I don’t like these people here,” Francisco said when we sat back down to the chess game. He was speaking of the villagers in general. “They look at me, they always look at me, the children, all of them, like I was some animal. Why? Because I dress civilized. Because I wear… what you call this?”
“Yes. Tie. I don’t like to be looked at too much so.”
The judges heart was not in the game now and Paul seized his rook. “You are very good. Yes.” said the lawyer, and then, after another long swallow of cerveza, “I know you think I am a liar.”
Paul asked the judge if he was always honest in his professional life.
“Así, no más, replied the judge. “These people of México don’t know what is honest. They are used to being tricked and cheated. If they meet an honest man, they do not know what to do.” And turned to Goyo who sat, subdued for once, to the side of the room.
“Muchacho,” he ordered, “Que busques los músicos y diles que vengan por aca.”
“Si, señor” replied Goyo, and took off to fetch the musicians.
But Goyo must have gotten distracted on the way, for los músicos never showed up.
I was glad that Goyo had taken his leave, and was eager to take my own. How different, I mused, was this man from the city from the villagers I loved! How weak and frail were his body and his soul for all the good food and poor education that had been tucked into them! And to think it was this man, this hater of Jews and of communists (though he would not have known one of them from the other) this “Nazi”, whom the Federal Government has sent to arbitrate justice and “clean up” the municipio of San Ignacio.
“¡Ah, Teresa!” he said, suddenly, when he was very drunk. “¡¿¡Do you know Teresa!?!”
“No.” said Paul, sleepily. “Is she in México City?”
“Yes, yes.” he sighed. “She is too beautiful, but too cruel.”
THE TRIP TO PREPARE THE VILLAGES FOR VACCINATIONS
A week after I had hoped to depart, my friend Dimas Lomas appeared with his father’s mules, and we set out again for Verano. I borrowed José Vidaca’s mule, so that in my hurried tour of the villages de arriba I would not be slowed down by having to wait for transportation from the villagers, or travel on foot. I enjoy walking, but the distances between the villages are large, and now, in the middle of las secas the heat is oppressive from nine o’clock on. Also, the necessary medicines would be a considerable load. In Ajoya, we had set the date of May 6th for a junta of the villagers relative to the project for purified drinking water and also for the organization of a “Centro de Salud” in Ajoya. I, therefore, had to be back in Ajoya by the 5th of May at the latest, which gave me roughly a week and a halt to make the circuit of some 80 or 90 miles of mountain trails, and talk to the villagers of the seven villages in which we plan to vaccinate.
Dimas and I drove the mules hard all day from dawn to dusk, stopping only in Güillapa, 3ordontita and a ranchito called El Tule, near the junction of the Rio Verde with the Arroyo de Verano.
Güillapa, like Ajoya was “tirado con la gripa”. In the last two days, two young children had died, one being the three month old infant of the young school teacher, whose wife had been labor with the child the night I spent with them on my previous journey upstream.
In Bordontita, my arrival was even more of a joy than before. The grown-ups greeted me warmly. The children mobbed me. They poured out the door and single window of the tiny schoolhouse to rush to greet me, and one after another threw their arms around me and hugged me and I hugged them in return. The aging and alcoholic school teacher did not scold them for their outburst, but came hurrying to greet me, also.
To my delight, Bordontita had still not been struck by either sarampeón or la gripa, and sickness was at a minimum.
While we were eating, Agustín’s 14 year old son, Anastasio came up and, hoisting up his shredded shirt, proudly showed me his belly. For several years he has suffered from a rigid and irritating inflammation of the upper abdomen. Gambling that it was a malnutritional condition, rather than a tumor, I had put him on a therapeutic dose of B-vitamins, together with a diet supplement of powdered milk and had continued the same treatment even when two months later, there was no perceptible change. Now, four months later, the rigidity and the swelling are gone and other children no longer tease Anastacio as being embarazado (pregnant).
During the three days I spent in Verano, I treated over sixty patients. I never cease to be amazed at how fast word travels in the mountains. The day after I arrived, people were making their appearance from La Quebrada, El Llano, La Tahona, E1 Oso, Jocuixtita, Los Pinos, and Rio Verde, villages up to twelve kilometers away. I talked to everyone I could about the value of the forthcoming vaccination program, and made arrangements to use a centrally located dwelling in which to conduct it, and asked the Comisario, Isabel (Chencho) Camp, to organize the people for the operation.
As I was preparing to leave for Jocuixtita from Verano, Bonifacio, father of the little girl who had burned her leg, appeared from across the arroyo. Learning that I was planning to travel alone, he dispatched his oldest son, Miguel, a boy of fourteen years, to go with me. We took the short-cut trail past La Higuerita (a one house ranch), zig-zagging our way up the dry, hot flank of the mountainside for about two hours. We then crossed the pine-capped ridge and dropped down into Jocuixtita on the other side.
I stayed only about two hours in Jocuixtita, visiting several sick persons and arranging with the comisario, Teófilo, to use the presently unoccupied schoolhouse as a headquarters for the vaccinations.
About two p.m. I left Jocuixtita, counting on arriving again in Bordontita before nightfall (for the days are longer now). I set out alone — and glad to be alone. The villagers of Jocuixtita had offered to send a boy to accompany me, but I looked forward to the chance of being by myself and foolishly refused their offer, laughing when they insisted that with the cliffs and the treacherous slides along the trail, it was “muy peligroso viajar solo.”
For the first several kilometers, the trail was neither steep nor rocky. It followed the ridges, winding this way and that, and the mule covered the distance at a trot. The vegetation near at hand was mostly low and leafless, with an aspect of death through thirst belied only by the first large sulphur blossoms of the stunted berraco bushes.
The panorama was immense, softened and blued by a hazy wash of cloud that had spread across the sky from the northeast. Below me, the deep valleys of the tributaries of the Rio Verde were weaving their dark way between a series of descending ridges, each bluer and paler than the preceding, toward the distant, haze-ridden coastal flats. I sang, for there were no birds singing. José’s mule swung back his dark, velvety ears to listen.
The ridge crest we were following came to a precipitous end and we began to weave our way slowly down its truncated flank in an endless series of switchbacks, until we came at last to the floor of the ravine below. This was a branch of the Arroyo de los Cabalas, which we followed downstream, at times following the rocky and picturesque bed, and at times, where passage was prohibitive, ascending on steep, winding trails the flanks of the ravine.
This ravine, like most of the other deep-cut ravines of the barrancas, has a certain perennial consistency. While the open flanks of the mountainsides change dramatically with the seasons, appearing dead in las secas of spring, and alive in las aguas of summer and fall, the deep arroyos remain green and quietly alive in all seasons. Now, in the hot droughts, they remain cool and fresh beneath the spreading boughs of the giant fig trees, apomos and other trees of the ravines. In the rains, they become yet fresher and greener, tumultuous with the water which churns though their rocky beds.
I followed the arroyo for less than a mile until I came to a spot where our Pacific High School group had lunched the year before. Here I tied the mule to a root in the shade of a huge boulder and made my way a short distance upstream to one of the most magical rock garden and swimming pools I have seen. The pool, a giant, nearly circular pothole some 25 feet across and over 10 feet deep, is surrounded on three sides by nearly vertical walls of water-sculpted stone. The water enters cascading down a nearly vertical, tortuous trough in the high wall of rock, and exits via a small falls into another quiet pool below. The circular rim of the rock wall 30 to 40 feet above the pool is overflowing with large-leafed, bulbous orchids, whose forms, as one floats face-up in the green waters, are silhouetted against the sky. In March of the year before, the water had been exhilarating, but fearfully cold, allowing no more than quick plunges. Now, in the first days of May, it was comfortably refreshing, warm enough for me to paddle about on my back, looking up and dreaming. The orchids leaning out over the rock rim overhead were just beginning to come into bloom, a few clusters of rich orange blossoms embellishing the deep green blades. The whole effect was one of poetic harmony, the kind that is quiet and secret and difficult to share. I was glad I had come alone.
Dry again from stretching on the hot stones, I put on my sweaty clothes and returned to the mule, who, having little alternative, awaited me patiently. We set out at once, continuing downstream. At one point we came to a stretch where the arroyo dropped precipitously in a series of boulders and falls. The trail left the stream bed and took to the mountainside, ascending the abrupt slope in a series of switchbacks until it was some 300 feet above the deep cut arroyo. It was here, where the trail was about one foot wide on a sloop of 60 degrees or better, that the duffle bag behind my saddle burst open and the contents — sleeping bag, several containers of medicine, etc. — began to tumble out. My reaction was spontaneous. I let go of the rein and, swinging around in the saddle, leaned over to try to catch the falling goods. In vain, the goods fell, landing between the feet of the mule, which took sudden fright and bolted. I, desperately tried to right myself, but in another instant tumbled from the mule, fortunately on the uphill side of the trail. As I fell I caught hold of the long guide rope and, gripping it firmly, tried to halt the frightened beast. But the rope burned through my fingers, taking skin with it, and the mule charged in panic on down the narrow trail and disappeared around a bend. I picked myself up, examined my injuries; one hand with rope burns and the other bloody where I struck the rocks, one pants leg and one knee somewhat lacerated. But nothing serious. My sleeping bag and other items had all gone catapulting over the edge of the trail and plummeting far below. I set off to recover what I could, descending the steep ravine on my backside, hanging onto whatever offered itself — with the result that I, also, ended up with a crop of spines in my hands. I managed, however, to recover almost everything. I packed my gear again and set out to recapture the mule. This proved to be the greatest trial of all. I found him at first about ½ mile ahead, hesitating at the edge of a talus slide which had obliterated the trail. I approached quietly, and managed to catch hold of the trailing rope just as the animal began to move ahead again. I tried to circle around ahead of him, but stumbled on the loose talus. The mule, still nervous, took a swat at me with his hooves, but I had taken care and was out of range. Again the animal bolted, the rope once more burning through my hands (although this time I let go more quickly). Once more I set off, calling ”whoa”. Sometimes I ran, sometimes I walked, and sometimes I stopped and whatever I did, the mule did also, but always with a secure margin ahead of me. I begged him, I threatened him, I swore at him in three languages, I even sang to him, in the hope that it would calm his nerves, but no! On he went. Slowly, slowly I managed to get a little closer, then broke into a jog to try to make up the gap. But the “pinche mula” panicked once again and left me far behind. He went out of sight behind a ridge, and when I rounded the ridge I did not see him anywhere on the trail ahead. Then, looking up the steep slope to my left, I spotted him, standing motionlessly behind some bushes, his head swung around, eyeing me. de had taken another, smaller trail which links with the ridge-trail from Verano. I put down my load at the junction and once again took off after him. Exhausted, very thirsty, I panted my way up the steep trail behind him. Again the same story! At a point where I could see the trail made a broad series of switchbacks, I took off cross country, scrambling up the steep crown of thee ridge, until a hundred yards ahead, I again emerged on the trail. Now I was ahead of my long-eared adversary and descended to where I met him face to face. He stood quietly, as if he had been waiting for me, and I mounted, turned him about and retreated down the steep trail to where I had left my cargo. Alas! I tied him too loosely. While remounting the duffle bag, and the mule still nervous, he bolted again. It had taken me two hours to catch him the first time and it took me another hour to catch him the second. When at last I set out on my way again, I was exhausted, bruised, burned, prickled and piqued. The sun was low on the horizon and Bordontita was still nearly three hours away… At least there would be a nearly full moon to guide me.
The moon was already well up into the sky when the sun set, and by the time the last light of the day had faded, it was nearly overhead. The night was beautiful, the rocks of the arroyo gleamed brightly and I would have thoroughly enjoyed the night ride had I not been so utterly fatigued. The mule, too, was thirsty and stopped at every crossing to drink, but refused to do so until I removed the bit. I was reluctant to do this as I knew the mule was capable of drinking with the bit in place and his stubbornness was pure idiosyncrasy. Yet, his stops at the water and refusal to drink became so persistent that at last, without dismounting (for the mule was still nervous, having recently bolted at the sight of a zig-zag stick in the trail which he apparently took for a rattlesnake), I removed the freno and let him drink. He drank deeply and muttered his appreciation, but when I tried to insert the bit again in his mouth, he sensed my ineptness and took off again at a trot. So much for that! I let him go. He could follow the trail as well or better than I in the moonlight, and except for one brief side excursion, when he took me through a thorny patch of binoro blanco, we arrived without further incident in Bordontita.
In the morning I nearly started a feud between two of the families of Bordontita. It was Sunday, and the fathers of each of the families, had decided to go to the river to “echar truenos” (throw explosives). The boys of the families were going along to fish out the fish. Victoriano’s son, Agustín, pleaded for me to go with his family, and Agustín’s sons, Anastacio and Julián, begged me to go with them. However, Agustín was determined to go upstream and Victoriano downstream. I tried to get them to go together, but they insisted that if they went separately, they would end up with more fish.
I could not decide, for fear of hurting one or the other, and at last we tossed a coin. Downstream it was. It proved a happy event for everyone but the fish, truchas and mojarras, mostly small. No sooner had Victoriano tossed the dynamite stick and it exploded, sending a stream of water 30 feet into the air, than we all stripped off and plunged into the water, surface diving for the stunned fish that lay upon the bottom. In half an hour we had tossed out more than a hundred.
When we returned from the river in mid-afternoon, a messenger had arrived with sad news. The beautiful mountain village of Chilar had just added another ugly stain to its bloody history,
“¿No conocía a la muchacha, Berta, que viviá en la casa más arriba?” I was asked.
Yes, I had known her. A beautiful girl of fourteen years-old, going on fifteen, lively and bashful when they had kidded her that I was going to take her back to the United States as my bride.
“¡Pues, ahora la mataron!” “Who?” A youth called Santiago dark, moody, without friends, a short fellow — hadn’t I seen him — he wore his sombrero with the rim curved together and far on the side of his head. The same Santiago who had abused old Higenio’s daughter, Clara, when she had gone to the arroyo for water, and who had maltreated numerous other young girls, but who had never been taken to task because… well… the síndico (at that time my host, Hilario) didn’t bother. Now, this Sunday morning while my friends and I were playing in the river, Berta and her two young uncles (one still a boy) had set out from Chilar to visit Berta’s mother in the nearby rancho of Espinál. They had walked three or four kilometers when young Santiago, who had followed them, ordered them to halt, a drawn pistol in his hand. They stopped, and Santiago ordered Berta to come to him. She refused. Santiago approached, and catching the girl by the hand, began to drag her away. The older boy, Miguel, sprang to help, while the younger one took off down the mountain side to bring aid. Santiago struck Miguel on the forehead with his pistol, stunning him. He continued to drag the whimpering girl forward. When Miguel tried to rise, Santiago fired three shots at his feet and the boy did not dare move. By now Santiago had dislocated Berta’s arm by tugging her as she huddled, resisting. He pointed the gun downward with its muzzle at the top of her head, and ordered her to get up. She refused. He pulled the trigger. She died instantly, and Santiago, fearful at last, or perhaps horrified at what he had done, took off like a deer down the mountainside.
In the villages of the Sierra Madre, nearly everyone is a relative, close or distant, of everyone else. Berta was a sobrino of my friend, Agustín, and be and several other of her relatives from Bordontita left in the evening for Chilar. I was heading that way also, but decided to go in the morning as there were still a number of infermos asking for medicines, and because I always find it difficult to leave Bordontita, so friendly and welcoming are its people.
In the morning, as I was preparing to leave, the younger of the two uncles who had been with Berta when she was killed, rode into Bordontita looking for me. He said that his family had requested that I come to take pictures of the dead girl, as she had never been photographed in her lifetime. We set out together.
In Chilar, half the village had gathered around the house of the dead girl. Her mother had arrived from Espinal and other relatives had come from as far away as Caballo de Arriba. Old Higenio was there with his son Crecencio, being relatives, also, of Berta. I took the pictures, although they will not afford a very good memory, for her face was badly swollen and distorted. The body had begun to sour with the heat, and the people held panuelos to their faces.
The boy, Jesús Ramón, had followed me from his home as I had passed, and now invited me to ir a comer. His mother fried eggs for me and as I ate I listened to the pounding of the coffin makers across the way. The coffin was made of hand-sawed pine planking brought earlier from high in the Sierra. It was carefully decorated with pink cloth, and when finished, it was carried up the narrow street to the house of the dead. The girl’s mother and grandmother, and one brother especially, were wailing and on the point of collapse as the girl was placed in the coffin, which was first carried to the iglesia, a small adobe building with benches and a cross, and then transported to the graveyard on the hill above the village. José Alarcón, who had come from La Ciénega, was one of the pall-bearers. The procession following the coffin was made up of more than two hundred persons. At its head were los músicos from Bordontita, with guitars and accordions, playing furiously. They continued to play as the coffin was lowered into the eight foot deep hole (four shots were fired to frighten off the evil spirits) and as the soil, first in hands full and then in shovels full, was tossed in. With the last shovelful of the mound, the music stopped abruptly and the silence which resulted was frightening. The women, weeping, retreated while the men-folk lingered, as if waiting for something.
After Berta was buried, I returned with old Higenio to his house, but he was not his usual loquacious self. The sadness and irreversibility of the murder pervaded the entire village. With Berta’s death, it seemed a part of everyone had died. The hot sun burnt down on empty streets.
I excused myself and walked down the path out of town until I came to the arroyo, now dry except for a few still pools and trickles. I followed it downstream for a kilometer or so until I came to a shaded patch of grass still green in spite of the springtime drought. It tempted me and I stretched out on it, removing first my boots and socks. For a while I lay on my back, head elevated on folded hands, watching the birds that came to a small puddle to drink. A chestnut-backed robin plucked busily at the small shiny black fruit of a negrito bush in the tangle above the streambed. A pair of urracas (magpie jays) trailing their incredible tails, landed in the uppermost boughs of a zapote. A chestnut-colored wren (what species I am not sure) hopped and fluttered among the rocks of the streambed…
How long it has been — I thought to myself — since I have lain on my back and looked at birds…
And then the bull appeared: a magnificent animal, part Brahman, but larger than any Brahman bull I had seen during my peregrinations in the Orient. Enormous! He came, plodding nobly up the arroyo in my direction. I lay perfectly still and the bull, it seemed, did not notice me. He stopped opposite me to drink from the quiet puddle. His massive neck, with its graceful, pendant dewlap dipped toward the water and the bull drank, breathing deeply. When he breathed out there was the rushing sound of wind in a tunnel. It gave me the same awful sensation as the sound of the grey whales breathing in Scammon’s Lagoon: What power! What life!
The muzzle of the huge bovine remained in the water one… two… three full minutes without moving… drinking… breathing. At last he lifted his head, slowly, like a crane, the muscles of the animal’s neck knotting, flowing beneath the soft, loose hide. The bull swung his ponderous head and looked at me, his ears turned forward below his heavy horns, his forehead broad, his eyes unblinking.
“How beautiful you are!” I whispered. “¡Que bonito!”
I uttered a few clucking sounds that I hoped he would construe as friendly, and gestured with my hand for him to come my way. He hesitated, then very slowly, with heavy, plodding steps, came toward me… but not directly. He circled past me and came up from behind, stopping with his enormous forehead only a foot away. I patted him, scratched him behind the horns, and ran my hand over the long, powerful muscles of his neck. I flowed my fingers through his enormous dewlap as through a hanging curtain. The bull stood quietly, enjoying my attentions, and when I would stop he would muzzle me wetly or flap a broad ear over my head like a pirate’s bonnet. Through his long curving lashes he looked at me, deeply it seemed, and he was weeping, the tears making moist lines upon the fur of his face.
“Who are you?” I said to the bull. “What sort of soul lies caged and mute behind your eyes? What enchantment has put it there?” — I found myself remembering the fairy tales of the west and the scriptures of the East which describe the souls of princesses and lovers, of gods and violators of the gods, who have been transformed into animals, locked into their hoofed or winged bodies until…
“Who are you?” I asked the bull, “¿Quién eres?” I stared deep into his brown eyes but saw only the diminutive image of myself,
The bull began to rasp at my hands and arms with his long, prehensile tongue. He took a step to come yet more close to me, though we were already touching, and if I had not moved quickly, he would have flattened, perhaps even broken, my thigh.
By this time, the sun had dropped behind the high crest of the hill above the arroyo. I put on my socks and boots again, and as I did so the bull browsed on the plants at the side of the arroyo, returning to my side as I was tying the final knot.
“I wonder if I can ride you?” I exclaimed with a sudden wave of excitement… but how to get aboard? — that was the problem. The bull’s broad back reached the level of my shoulders.
Ahead, at the trail’s edge was a rounded boulder. I walked forward slowly, clucking and calling to my gigantic amigo. Step by lumbering step, he followed me. When we reached the boulder I scrambled to the top of it and from there, leapt onto the animal’s back.
No sooner was I astride, however, than the bull forgot our friendship. He gave a snort, swung round his huge head and began swiping at my thigh with his long, furrowed horns. I sprang — or rather tumbled — from his broad back, landing sprawled beside him. Now the beast’s defensive instincts were triggered, and he turned on me, trying to gore me with short sideways jerks of his head. I caught hold of his horns and fended off as best I could until I managed to scramble to my feet and run behind the welcome trunk of a guamuchil. The bull turned around and stared at me, but did not pursue.
Ah, well — I thought – Así es la vida. I made a broad circle around the great animal and headed back toward the mourning village of Chilar.
MEASLES AND THE COLORED CRAYONS
From the time I have come to México, the villages have been plagued by one epidemic after another. First mumps, then bacterial dysentery, then influenza, then strep throat and now measles. One can follow the path of the diseases through the mountains from village to village. The mumps came from Jocuixtita to Güillapa and Ajoya, then slowly moved northwest to where they are now striking in epidemic fashion the small village of Campanillas. The measles have taken the opposite route, coming from Campanillas via Güillapa.
Such diseases hit with frightening impact upon these villages where quarantine is impossible, where the content of Indian blood is high and where substandard nutritional levels provide young bodies with little strength to combat and endure the debilitating illnesses.
One problem that seems especially great with the measles, is getting the children to take sustenance, sometimes even water. Children will pass days without eating, dehydrated with fever, and toward the latter part of their illness, become so emaciated that malnutrition itself appears to be the major threat to survival. Remittent fever continues well after it should normally subside. Unfortunately, I am frequently called in only at the later stages, when the parents begin to fear for the life of their child.
It is a good thing that I like children and that they like me. One little boy, my tocayo (also named Davíd) aged six, failed to recover after ten days with the measles. The spots had subsided, but the fever continued and the boy, who was now little more than skin and bones, refused all nutriment. His mother, being one of the shopkeepers, made frequent effort to give her son fruit juices, but he stubbornly refused. Yet, when I said “Mira, Tocayo, el jugo to da mucho provecho. ¿Quieres?” the boy nodded “Sí”. When his mother, somewhat doubtfully, handed him the glass, the youngster gulped it down like a mouse dying of thirst. His stout mother looked at me wide-eyed and laughed. From that point on, all that was necessary for me to do was to recommend a good food and the boy took it. His health took a turn for the better and in a short time he was recovering rapidly.
Many children, I find, respond similarly. Sometimes it seems as if they try to get well just to please me. The one big exception, however, has been Abraham. Abraham is the son of the daughter of old Lucía, the cocinero of Jesús Vega, who, José Vidaca insists, is trying to poison me because she is jealous that I reside with her enemies, the Chavarins. They tell me she laughs at me behind my back and makes fun of the way I walk, but to my face, she is always kind. Abraham is a large headed, bug-eyed, dark-skinned, scrawny little boy of seven. He is taciturn and corajudo. He doesn’t play much with the other children, and as nearly as I have seen, never laughs. He is somewhat affected with rickets, his knees being swollen and slightly bowed. The first time I took any special note of him was when a great scuffling began outside my make-shift dispensary, and I saw little Abraham fighting for all he was worth with a still smaller boy from the street above. Both youngsters were angry and becoming angrier, for what reason I never discovered. Abraham, out for the kill, took vicious swings at the younger child, but never connected. The smaller boy, more agile, managed to land a few punches under and around Abraham’s wind milling arms. Except for their feelings, no one was being seriously hurt and the other children pressed close around and jeered the fighters on, while a few men stood in the background and chuckled. The two boys separated for an instant and stood glaring at each other, fists clenched, breathing hard and sobbing a bit, when Grandma Lucía descended on the group like a mother bear. She snatched young Abraham into her arms and shouted abuse at all the bystanders, and especially the Chavarins, accusing us of brutality and being nothing more than shameless troublemakers. She disappeared around the corner, dragging behind her somewhat befuddled Abraham, who looked half-relieved at being rescued and half-resentful at being carted off before he had the chance to connect with one of his paddlewheels. When Lucía had vanished, the young children all giggled and the men looked at each other a little shamefaced, smiling or shrugging their shoulders. The other little fighter thrust his hands in his pockets and marched off.
It was amusing to me that the families of both the boys, when they later related to me of the fight (unaware that I had witnessed it from the shadows) each told how their little boy, through no fault of his own, had been mobbed by a vicious group of other children. When I explained that I had seen the fight and that neither child had had more than one opponent, I was listened to politely without being heard. It is frequently the case that a good story holds preference over a true one.
On Good Friday, I was called to the casa of Abraham’s family, to find him very ill and very weak on his 5th day with measles. His parents were frightened for his welfare as two days before when I had been in Zaus, the little brother of my tocayo, Davíd, had died with the measles. Abraham had taken no food and very little liquid since the illness began, was no little more than skin and bones and could not sit up without help. He moaned a good deal, was sullen and resentful, and in spite of all my endeavors, refused to even answer when I asked him questions. Although I tried to convince him of the importance of taking liquid foods, he stubbornly refused everything, and when his mother tried to feed him with a teaspoon he would feebly strike at it to spill the liquid, and his mother would weep.
This state of affairs continued until Easter morning. I had obtained some bouillon cubes and we tried to give the boy this, he condescended to take one mouthful before spitting it out and locking his lips.
“¿No quiere leche?”, I asked Abraham. The boy did not answer.
“¿No quiere leche?”, repeated his mother, pleadingly.
“Nó”, whined the child.
I took a shot in the dark.
“¿Si te doy una cajita de colores tomarás un vaso de leche?” I asked.
The boy hesitated for a moment, with veiled eagerness,
and then replied, “¡Sí!”
“¡Bueno!” I replied. Ahorita vuelvo.”
I don’t know who donated the colored crayons that Bob Wallace had brought from the States a few days before, but Abraham may very well owe that person his life. I returned to the casa Chavarín, took up a big box of colored crayons, some thirty colors, fastened some white paper and some orange paper in a clipboard that had also been sent, and together with a bottle of powdered milk, took them to Abraham. The boy took hold of the crayons eagerly, and as he was still too weak to use them himself, I sat on the bed beside him and drew for him an elephant with a rider, a kangaroo with a baby, and a bird. Taking interest, he began asking to see first one of the drawings and then another. We mixed him a glass of milk and he drank it down — and then another.
Today (two days later) when I returned to the house, I found Abraham angrily refusing help to sit up or even to stand up to urinate. He has drawn a house with brown tile roof, and he has given his elephant a lawn of colorful flowers to feed upon. He still has a slight fever, but he is getting stronger. He wants to get well.
• • •