(this post has been relocated to this blog, original post Sept 1, 2009)
Chance encounter with our Mexican past
I have been doing a lot of thinking this past summer about the summer 40 years ago. I have begun to write something about that but have delayed the conclusion because of new information which I have found. So I will share with you a side story about this experience of 40 years ago.
I had joined a student group at the St. Patrick’s College, which was by that time part of Carleton University. I was at the time a seminarian with the Oblate order, but still allowed to participate in the group known as C.I.A.S.P. (Coordination of Inter-American Student Projects). A few other seminarians had previously participated in the group, and it did have a church connection, so after a year of activities and fund-raising I went with a group of students from across Canada to work in the mountains of the state of Hidalgo in Mexico.
This was the beginning of my orientation to Latin America and perhaps more significant – the time and place that I first met my wife Anne Marie.
The students were sent to live and work in small villages called “ranchos” according to requests sent by local committee’s in the ranchos. A fairly large rancho with a population of almost 600 asked for 4 students for the summer. There were three of us from Ottawa who were Anglophones, so a fourth student was taken from the Toronto group to complement the three of us. We were John Sontrop, Monique Tougas, myself, and the lucky Toronto student from Scarborough Campus of the U. of T. was Anne Marie McDonell – a third year psychology student.
This was the end of the 60’s, with student movements dominating the university campus and at times the news. CIASP was sort of like CUSO or Peace Corps (in the USA), but its time frame was much shorter – only three months in the field. We arrived in our rancho called El Rayo on May
6, 1969 after a gruelling walk up the mountain from the main town of Pisaflores. Pisaflores was itself a 6 hour walk from the highway down a partly finished dirt road and across the Moctezuma River by dugout canoe. We had the assistance of men from the rancho who carried our backpacks – which at first we didn’t think necessary. Just getting ourselves to the rancho was quite a chore.
We were taken to the home of a couple where we lived for the three months. Our hosts were a very poor subsistent farmer and his wife –
Agrapino Garcia and Esperanza Torres. They were probably in their mid-forties at the most and they had two buildings on a cleared space along the path that weaved through the village. One building was made of wooden slats which were quite loosely put together, covered by a thatched roof. This building was perhaps 10 ft by 16 ft. and served as the kitchen, with an open fire stove where Esperanza did all her cooking. The fuel was wood carried in by Agrapino from his “milpas” – land tilled from the side of the mountains where the staples of corn, beans and squash were grown as it had been since before the Spanish conquest. The second building was the same size but was more of an adobe type structure again with a thatched roof that was open to the air on both ends. In the rafters hung corn to dry and bananas being stored until needed. We were given the adobe building to sleep in for our stay.
The purpose of the summer was “convivencia” and “intercambio” – to live
with and to exchange – to dialogue with – but it was a very uneven purpose. The committee had not even come up with a formal project, but wanted to simply have us there for the summer to “learn from us”. We were all “arts” students, so not exactly well prepared to work in community development or to help in any practical way.
I think we were totally naïve and unrealistic – good willed and enthusiastic but lacking in some basic skills to understand our impact on such a village. We were certainly not rich, I had been given $100 to cover my expenses for the whole summer including meals during the 6 days on a bus to and from Mexico. We received food supplies sent from the main village by student coordinators, but in the end I think we were subsidized by this loving and caring couple who themselves had barely enough for themselves.
Esperanza tried (unsuccessfully) to teach the women how to prepare tortillas from scratch – from soaking the dried corn to grinding the corn to a paste and then making the flat tortillas. John and I accompanied Agrapino to his milpas but were not allowed to work for fear that we could slip off the mountain and on the way down damage much of the crop. We were given a project to complete by the local parish priest who was trying to encourage the growth of a local peasant union.
We came to know only a few families while we were there. And soon enough, our time was up and on August 15 we left the rancho for a few days in Pisaflores and then the return trip to Canada. I did return, unannounced in 1972 on my way down to Peru, and walked up to the
village on my own and received a very warm welcome. After that we had no contact with Agrapino or Esperanza.
This past summer I have contacted the other members of the El Rayo 69 group, well -talking to Anne Marie is almost a daily occurrence, and started to gather information for a written reflection on this experience. I found that Google maps not only gives a good view of Pisaflores, but even a satellite view of El Rayo where the houses can be seen along the footpaths of the village.
While surfing the internet, looking for information about Pisaflores or El Rayo, I stumbled upon a blog-chat site used by young Mexicans. One young man named Angel gave his email address to a young woman who said she was also from El Rayo. The message was two years old but I
ventured to send him an email asking for information about El Rayo.
A few weeks later he responded, not giving me much information but asking “who are you?” I replied with a short summary, much like what you have already read. A while later he replied to me telling me that he had lived in El Rayo for 13 years and that his mother was born there. Furthermore, his mother whose name is Catalina, remembered our visit to El Rayo because Esperanza was her aunt – the sister of her mother. Esperanza did not have any children, so Catalina went daily to assist her aunt and was there most days when we were there. At the time she was about 9 years old.
Angel asked me if I had any photos. We had been cautioned not to take many photos so that we didn’t appear as tourists, which perhaps was the wrong advice for the right reason. So in fact we don’t have many photos but Anne Marie did take one roll of photos, and she had saved the photos. I scanned them and sent them off to Angel. His mother gave him information about the two buildings of Agrapino and Esperanza which I had not provided, so this seemed to be like an authentic connection. We found out that Agrapino and Esperanza had both died, we don’t know
when but it was a while ago and both are buried in the cemetery of the rancho.
Then by chance Anne Marie was looking for some other photo from her past, and we discovered in a seldom viewed album a few more photos including one of some children in El Rayo. There were no names written on the back – just “children in El Rayo”.
I sent along these newly scanned photos to Angel and received an enthusiastic response with more information about himself and his mother. Angel lives in Dallas, Texas and his mother lives fairly close to him. When Catalina looked at the photo of the children, she recognized her baby sister wearing a red dress that Catalina watched her mother make. She would carry her baby sister about all the time, so that meant that the 9 year old girl in the center of the photo was – Catalina. She was thrilled to see the photo because she has no photos of her childhood.
Anne Marie felt that the photo belonged to Catalina – we had made a good
scan of it so we have sent the original to Angel and he delivered it to his mother. She has assured us that if we returned to the rancho we could stay at their family home in El Rayo which is currently vacant. It is a tempting offer – but when we think of the difficult climb when we were both 40 years younger and the same number of pounds lighter – I wonder if we could climb that path to the rancho again. But the offer comes in the same spirit of generosity that so much typified Agrapino and Esperanza – surely the poor of the earth who shared their homes and food with these wandering northerners. They shared from their essentials – their daily bread (literally) – asking nothing in return but the opportunity to get to know us.
Through the internet we have made this connection not only to the rancho but also to Agrapino and Esperanza.