I was impressed by two things, …by what I interpret as a step forward among would-be volunteers like you: openness to the idea that the only thing you can legitimately volunteer for in Latin America might be voluntary powerlessness, voluntary presence as receivers, as such, as hopefully beloved or adopted ones without any way of returning the gift. I was equally impressed by the hypocrisy of most of you: …. because you – or at least most of you – have decided to spend this next summer in Mexico, and therefore, you are unwilling to go far enough in your reappraisal of your program. You close your eyes because you want to go ahead and could not do so if you looked at some facts.
Ivan Illich to CIASP April 20, 1968
El Rayo – Summer of 1969
Places, like music or poetry, friends or foes, help to define us in certain ways. El Rayo is one of those places that are key to my self-definition. Without El Rayo my life would be totally different in so many ways, which speculation could fuel in so many fanciful ways. The simple reality is that El Rayo happened, and I am grateful for this place and its impact on the rest of my life.
The admissions department at St. Patrick’s College in Ottawa was shocked that I had virtually no high school French language instruction, as I came from an Alberta high school. To meet academic requirements I had to pick up another language and among the few choices were German and Spanish. I chose Spanish and my first course in the summer of 1967 was taught by a professor from Chile. That course gave me one of the highest marks I ever achieved in my B.A. program. The following academic year I followed with a second course. On the college campus there was information about some students who had participated in a program called CIASP – the Coordination of Inter-American Student Projects. Richard Abbott and I became involved with the group in the 1968-69 academic year and through this group came to meet regularly with students from St. Patrick’s College and the University of Ottawa.
CIASP began in 1963 and grew out of an American student organization in California. In Canada it developed first out of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto. As an organization it was beginning to question its purpose and function. In April 1968 CIASP organized an ambitious conference in Chicago and one of the major presenters was Ivan Illich, the controversial philosopher sociologist from Cuernavaca Mexico. He delivered a major paper, the significance of which I only discovered after my CIASP experience. In contrast to the Mexican counterparts of CIASP we were quite naïve about the significance of a volunteer international student organization.
At that time I was a seminarian, living in Orleans a few miles east of Ottawa in a typical seminary situation with about 60 other young men who walked around in black dresses called “cassocks”, and lived a somewhat unreal life for students in the 1960’s. Professors easily spotted us seminarians – no one else wore black suits to philosophy classes instead of bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed t-shirts. Part of the CIASP commitment was to participate in fund raising and to meet with other students – including past participants. One student from St. Pat’s College was Monique Tougas, who had been to Mexico the previous summer and whose Spanish, at least to me, sounded so perfect. From St. Paul University, at that time affiliated with the University of Ottawa, was another seminarian – John Sontrop. He lived at the house run by members of the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. John was the fellow with the 12 string guitar and that made him one of the most visible members at all CIASP gatherings. Another fellow seminarian from Orleans was Richard (Dick) Abbott, with whom I formed a life long bond that had nothing to do with the seminary and much to do with CIASP.
On May 26 a group from Ottawa traveled to Toronto to meet with the other CIASP students for the summer of ’69. A total of some 50 students had signed up to go to Mexico. I was staying with Chester Gabriel out at the Scarboro Foreign Mission centre. We all attended a lecture at the Toronto General Hospital on tropical medicine with particular attention to the various parasites we could host if we drank contaminated water or were foolish enough to walk barefoot in places where pig feces were common. Some of the slides shown should have been enough for us to have second thoughts. That evening I was introduced to Anne Marie McDonell, a University of Toronto student from the Scarborough Campus. The group leaders had decided to use the UT students to complement other teams that needed members, and Anne Marie was selected to join three Ottawa members going to a rancho (El Rayo) outside of the town of Pisaflores in the state of Hidalgo. Those three were John Sontrop, Monique Tougas and I.
The next day (May 27) many of the students traveled to Center Island in Toronto’s waterfront area, and then prepared for the evening departure. The bus waited for us on St. Joseph’s Street, just off Bay Street in front of St. Basil’s Church. While preparing to leave I met for the first time Anne Marie’s parents who had come to say goodbye. By 9:30 pm all were accounted for and the bus left for the three day journey to Mexico
City. The bus took us through the US – and when we stopped to eat it was noticed that we were a tri-lingual group. This of course was by necessity – for while some students were trilingual – many were variations of bi-lingual between English, French and Spanish. Oddly enough for this Canadian group – Spanish was the common language that brought us together as there were enough students who spoke neither English nor French.
We arrived at Laredo, Texas at 11:00 am on May 29. The first surprise came when the Mexican bus that had been contracted arrived and it was found to be smaller than requested. John Dillon, the Pisaflores group leader for the summer, asked for 10 volunteers to accompany him on a public bus to Mexico City. The El Rayo designates volunteered for this 16 hour bus trip. We sat at the rear of the bus – probably the most uncomfortable seats on the bus. Many of the other (Mexican) travelers asked if they could put some of their bags in the space behind us and under our bags. We soon discovered why, because during the many customs stops along the way, the police didn’t bother to look at any of our bags (or those underneath). We were reunited with the main group at a convent somewhere in Mexico City and joined in some lectures dealing with points of Mexican anthropology.
On the final day of the month, we met with Mexican students and went on a trip to Chapultepec Park, a 1,600 acre forest park on a large hill on the outskirts of central Mexico City. There we listened to the Mexican students who were far more politicized than we. It was not until after the summer that I really began to understand the significance of 1968 in the consciousness of Mexican students and the tragic events of “The Night of Tlatelolco” where under the orders of President Diaz between 200-300 students were killed by the police. (Some estimates place the number of dead and disappeared over 1000.)
On June 1 we spent a full day touring Mexico City with some Mexican students, visited the main plaza, the Olympic Village and the National University with its impressive murals. One of the Mexican student coordinators who cared for us was Jesus (Chucho) Rosales. After an evening fiesta, there was a scheduled 11pm bus that was to take us north to the city of Pachuca. The bus was four hours late – not the only time, and again just a hint that things in Mexico moved to a different rhythm. In Pachuca we stayed at the Hotel Juarez and other than a few group meetings we had the time to ourselves to sleep or visit the city while awaiting further transportation to the Pisaflores area. Anne Marie and I walked about and were invited into an elementary school and visited a classroom.
The following day we left, with some students getting off the bus in Jacala – this was the San Nicolas group. Richard Abbott was part of this group. The rest of us continued along Hwy. 85 in the back of a large truck, which turned off onto a dirt road towards Pisaflores at a juncture called Chapulahuacan. A few students had to stay behind because of a robbery incident that took place in the lobby of the Juarez Hotel. One of the students, Bob Brennan, had his camera stolen from his pack sack while waiting in the lobby. The police were called and they shortly picked up the suspect. Bob, John Sontrop, (who was a witness to the theft), and Monique Tougas, (because of her Spanish proficiency) had to remain in Pachuca to be interviewed by the police until they settled the matter. These three joined the rest of the group the next day in Pisaflores.
(canoe photo by Frans Schryer)
The road from Chapulahuacan to Pisaflores had been partly constructed by students in previous years and was a multi-year project. It was a fairly steep drop going from 1500 m. above sea level to 250m. at the river. The truck could only go so far because of a land slide and we had to walk the rest of the way down to the Moctezuma River and cross in a dugout canoe. From there it was a short walk to the town of Pisaflores. We were in a corner of the State of Hidalgo, with border states Queretaro and San Luis Potesi just over the next mountains.
We arrived on May 3 and spent a few days in Pisaflores, living in some classrooms attached to the local parish center. There were two Mexican priests there – Miguel Nuñez and Francisco. Miguel had been sent to replace a previous priest (Padre Zapeda) who had started the road project and the organization of peasants, but it turned out that Miguel was equally concerned about the temporal needs of the area as well as the spiritual services provided by the church.
We were introduced to a simple diet that would be the basis of our meals for three months: beans, rice, tortillas and a drink made from rolled oats called “atole”. Padre Miguel gave us some introductory orientation sessions and invited us to watch him teach some classes for local children. The presence of the Canadian delegation was a boom for the local cobbler as everyone had to get themselves a pair of authentic “huaraches”, the soles of which were made from cut auto tires. After two days our guides arrived to escort us to our respective ranchos.
El Rayo was one of the larger ranchos in the Pisaflores municipality with approximately 600 people living up and down a section of the mountain. It took us 3 ½ hours to reach the village for the first time – in part because it was a climb but also the altitude was a factor. We were taken to the home compound of a campesino couple – Agripino Garcia and Esperanza Torres. They did not have children. We later learned that they had not intended to host the student group but became annoyed when they learned that the village committee (comité) had not made the arrangements for our stay although they had requested 4 students for the summer. Agripino and Esperanza appeared to be older but perhaps were just middle-aged. They were poor and hard working, and more than we understood at that time, generous to a fault. Esperanza´s brother Ricardo also lived with them and he had his own “milpas” that he worked. He slept in a small room off the kitchen.
The village did not really have streets. Most of the village was strewn along the main path from Pisaflores that continued along to other ranchos such as Bonigu and La Arena. There were occasional paths off the main path to other groups of homes, following the natural contours of the mountain slopes. There were few flat areas in the village. The property of Agripino and Esperanza was not large, and neighbour’s homes were not that close. There was a cleared area off the main village path where we found two thatched roof dwellings. One had walls of sticks that were tied together and this served as the kitchen. The other had adobe walls. The end sides of both buildings were open at the top, allowing for generous ventilation. The floor was just hardened dirt. We were given the adobe building as our lodging for the summer. This was actually the sleeping area for Agripino and Esperanza but they slept on the floor of their kitchen on straw mats called “petates” made from woven palm strips. In our house there were two twin sized wood frame beds made with rope and covered with petate. We were given the beds while Agripino and Esperanza slept on the floor of their kitchen. Also in the house was a small table shrine covered with holy images which we decided should just be left as it was found.
During the day our door would be left open and the chickens from neighbours could come in and help eat any bugs wandering about. We used sleeping bags which during the day could be rolled up or left outside to air. There was also a family pig that would wander about freely and could be counted on to clean up any scraps that fell to the ground. Hanging in the rafters of both houses were bundles of corn and some banana stalks.
There was no bathroom or latrine, and obviously there was no local need for one. The village was a scattering of houses in thick vegetation, but as self-conscious foreigners we felt the need to build our own latrine at the end of the property. We did not need to dig much of a hole as we were told that the pig would clean up after us, so all we needed was some crudely fashioned walls to give a sense of privacy. Of course, a latrine at the end of the property proved to be somewhat unpractical in the evenings. Even with a flashlight it was pitch dark and easy to wander off the path.
On our first full day in the rancho we went in the afternoon to visit the local school teacher (Oswaldo Valleto) who was only 19 years old and his wife was 14. He was very much the scribe of the village and people would come to him to write letters or interpret documents for them. His school was very small and provided few supplies but we found out that it was one of the few ranchos with a school and state appointed teacher. Later in the evening Agripino took us to meet the “juez” of the rancho, José Bahena. Normally the village comité that invited us would explain what projects they wished us to work on for the summer. Zacarias Bahena was the leader of the committee which invited us, and Bruno Copado was also involved. It was explained that they did not have any projects in mind, even though they had specifically asked for 4 students. When we asked why they asked for us, we were told “You come from far away and have a different experience, we want to talk to you and get to know you and learn about things we don´t know¨. That left us somewhat dangling so we communicated this to our group leader John Dillon, who spoke to Padre Miguel (the priest in Pisaflores). He suggested we could help if we would do a map of El Rayo and conduct a socio-economic census of the village that would help to better evaluate the needs of the area. We accepted this and it gave us the official reason to visit every home in the rancho. One difficulty was that about a third of the village was “evangelical” so a census being conducted by the Catholic priest seemed somewhat suspicious to some. Padre Miguel was more concerned with promoting social change and assisting the campesinos in moving their produce to market without the disadvantage of the middle-men who of course consumed the profits.
In conducting the census we were looking at how many people lived in each house, the construction of the house – type of roof : thatched or tin, type of walls: adobe or stick, and whether the man of the house had his own “milpa” or worked for someone else. Of course much of this could be done just by walking by the house or asking a neighbour, but it gave us a reason to visit and we were able to produce a fairly reliable census report by the end of our stay.
Padre Francisco came to visit the rancho and we had our first experience of a two hour rosary. I still don’t know all what was going on. There was a chapel in the village not too far from the house of Agripino and Esperanza. The following day Padre Francisco celebrated mass and there was a good attendance.
June 14 is a day or rather a night to remember. In the open yard between the kitchen and the student house, a group of men gathered for the first fiesta in our honour. There was a small band of musicians – one playing the quinta (5 stringed guitar), another type of guitar and a violin. The music was a rhythmic and fast repetitive music called the “huapango” which has different variations in Mexico. The dance had some purpose which we didn’t quite understand but basically the girls would dance a kind of hop step, while depending on how fast they danced, sent an indication to the dance partner how interested the women were in more than dancing. Of course this was not explained to us beforehand, so the only two women who were dancing (Monique and Anne Marie) did their best to dance away the night with all the young men who came to the party. John and I joined in for a few dances but basically the girls were the attraction.
All ended well, so we thought. That evening John awoke with severe vomiting, cramps and fever. The villagers including Esperanza formed their own diagnosis. John had contracted “mala de ojo” (evil eye), put on him by one of the jealous men who possibly didn’t get to dance when John had joined in the dancing. The remedy was also traditional. A villager by the name of Daniel Bissuet came and a herbal broth was prepared. John said that it couldn’t hurt him as he was vomiting everything including water. He was given an “aguadiente rubdown” and different herbs, suet and chicken bones were placed on his body. Aguadiente is a very strong liquor made from distilled sugar cane. It probably did help to provide a cooling effect. The herbal broth made with different local herbs and leaves was prepared and then divided into three portions. One portion John drank, a second portion was placed under his bed and the last portion was placed outside the door. The portion under his bed had jelled while the portion outside the door just a few feet away remained licquid. This confirmed for the women of the rancho that the cause of John’s illness was indeed the “evil eye” and he had been protected in time from more serious consequences.
The fever persisted into a third day so we sent to Pisaflores asking that the group nurse, whose name was Pamela Young, come to evaluate the situation. She arrived in the evening and by that time John was sitting up and feeling much better. I remember her disgust when she looked at a syringe and needle which were supposed to be boiled and she discovered a noodle inside the syringe. Nevertheless John did not need a needle since he was getting well and any explanation is almost acceptable.
The men worked small fields carved from the side of the mountains. These fairly small fields were called “milpas” and were separated by dense vegetation and forest, probably to prevent erosion. In these milpas the Mexican staple grew – squash, beans and corn. This was a practical and balanced mix from ancient times. Occasionally some other crops could be found – an avocado tree, coffee plants and of course bananas grew easily. Agripino took John and I one day to visit one of his milpas but he would not allow us to work with him for fear that we could tumble and in falling destroy much of the crop. Agrapino worked the land with a small hand held tool called a huingaro, a type of small hoe that was used horizontally to work around the corn stalks. Every man walked the mountain paths carrying his huingaro, which was also a way of saying “Don’t mess with me!” Agripino would carry large loads of firewood from his milpas so that Esperanza could cook the meals. Some of the milpas were almost a ½ hour walk from the house, so the extra cooking that Esperanza did that summer also took its toll on Agripino or Ricardo.
Esperanza did all the cooking that summer but she attempted to teach Monique and Anne Marie how to prepare some of the food. Tortillas was the basis for all meals and it was made from dried corn which was soaked in water along with some limestone. The kernel skins are softened by this process and a masa is made using a “metate”, a centuries old stone grinder which is very labour intensive. The individual tortilla is made like a flat cake in a “pat-a-cake” like hand motion that few gringos can master. As simple as it seems the original tortilla is delicious. Another staple was the black bean, boiled and ground – sometimes served refried or often in a thick like soup fashion. To this we supplemented the diet with rice and pasta, and twice during the summer we feasted on chicken. A few times we were served a fried cactus dish and squash.
Monique and Anne Marie also did the laundry, for the division of labour was very much defined by gender. My contribution to the laundry process was to fetch water – and being that our visit coincided with the dry season, that meant that I needed to go down the mountain part way to a well where the water literally dripped out of the rocks into a rock crevice. We would scoop up the water by the cupful until our pails were nearly full and then with a board over my shoulders I would carry two pails of water back up the mountain. This was an effective lesson early in the CIASP experience on the value of water. Once a week Esperanza was accustomed to bake bread for sale, but our additional burden on her cooking time meant that she could not always bake bread each week. When she did we feasted on the most delicious sweet buns that I can remember tasting – mind you I think we were constantly hungry.
In the second week of July we left the rancho for a break, traveling to Jacala for a day of meetings with group members and then everyone was on their own. The students took off for Mexico City or Acapulco. I went to Mexico City and during the week met with a number of CIASPers, many of whom were being attended at the Hospital Frances for different ailments. I had come down with a number of problems for which I was prescribed 4 different medications and ended up sick for three days. I visited the hospital almost daily and there came to know a student from PEI who was hospitalized with intestinal problems and she ended up being flown back to Canada. It turned out that her problems were not caused by her trip to Mexico. During this week we visited the pyramids of Teotihuacan, the beautiful Chapultepec park, and of course the old Basilica of Guadalupe. With us for much of the week as a guide was one of the Mexican students Jesus (Chucho) Rosales, who a few years later married Monique Tougas. Chucho was at that time a student in forestry.
Back in the rancho we continued work on the census. On July 20, an event occurred which had a significant impact on the rest of the world but was greeted with much skepticism and disbelief by the locals in El Rayo. It was on this day that the villagers had heard of the USA landing on the moon and the first human to set foot on the moon. When the villagers asked us if this was true we told them that yes, that now it was possible to travel through space. Looking up at the moon that night and trying to comprehend that there were actually humans walking there, they just could not see how this was possible. For us, the juxtaposition of people walking on the moon while others, were still living a basic subsistence existence in El Rayo did not seem to make much sense either!
During the process of carrying out the census, we often learned that a family would have had more children but that some died young. There was no medical care available even in Pisaflores, so small illnesses especially with children could be quite threatening. On July 21 we were told that in one of the homes we had already visited, one of the children had died. We spoke to Agripino and Esperanza and were told that we were invited to attend the vigil. We went to the house in the evening, walking in complete darkness and found many of the villagers present. We were taken into the house and introduced to the family of the deceased child. The body of the child lay on the table surrounded by candles and flowers. In a corner of the one room were a small group of musicians who played tunes. The women were expected to stay inside the house with the other women, mostly in silence, while John and I were escorted outside to sit with the men. There was a little bit of chatter but to ease our discomfort sitting on stones we were served aguadiente. Soon the chill of the evening was not bothering us at all. The funeral was the following afternoon, with a procession from the home of the child, along the main path through El Rayo to the “Camposanto” which was located at the uppermost part of the village at the junction of the path to Pisaflores. One of the men carried on his head a small box with the body of the child, while others occasionally set off firecrackers along the route.
There was another significant death in the village while we were there. Bruno Copado, a member of the comité and the father of the young woman María Copado who had befriended us and often accompanied us on visits to homes and to the swimming hole, had taken ill and over a few days his condition became worse. Agripino and another man anticipating his death went to Pisaflores to buy a coffin. Bruno died on August 11 and María came to our house asking us to come and take a photograph of her father. Anne Marie had a small camera which was not used very often because we had been cautioned about appearing as “tourists”. However the flash of the camera would not work, so to provide more light the villagers knocked down a full wall of the adobe house so that Anne Marie could take a picture. As it happened, one of the CIASPers from Bonigu, Bob Brennan, came through El Rayo the following day on his way to Pisaflores, and he had a camera which enabled him to take some pictures which were later sent to the family. Bruno was not an old man, perhaps only in his 40´s and it was suggested that he died of stomach ulcers. There were at least 200 people who attended the funeral. Bruno was evangelical, so the pastor said the prayers at the house and then later at the cemetery. The same music was provided as at the other funeral, violins and guitars and some singing.
Earlier, on July 29, we had a surprise visit by the international president of CIASP, Jean Serge Quesnel, who came from Ottawa. Jean was visiting the ranchos, and had been given a cake to take to one of the Ottawa students in Amolar, Theresia Chapin, another student from Ottawa. From El Rayo this was another 4-5 hour walk past Bonigu. This magnificent gesture to deliver a cake from Canada to Amolar must have impressed Theresia because she later married Jean who had a full career in international development and relations. On his walk up to El Rayo Jean met José Bahena, from the village comité that had invited us to come, and they discussed possible plans for future visits by Canadian students. This chance encounter was most fortunate as we had been trying to organize a meeting of the comité to deal with this issue. This meeting finally happened on August 12, after the funeral for Bruno. At this meeting were Agripino Garcia, José Bahena, Arnulfo Morales, Daniel Bissuet, Evaristo Ponce, Luis Garcia, Miguel Lopéz, Maximilio Torres, Bruno Garcia and Fausto Bahena. A five point plan was elaborated for the following year, which was more like a wish-list. The comité would like to have support to develop a water project, to build a school and to build a church (Catholic), and would like the students to give classes to the youth and if possible would prefer that one of the students be a nurse who could administer vaccinations.
On August 15 we prepared to leave the rancho, and said our goodbyes to the many people who came to see us off. Agripino and Esperanza insisted on walking with us to Pisaflores. This extraordinary experience had bonded us – Esperanza cared for us as if we were her own family, and the goodbyes later that afternoon in Pisaflores were even more tearful and sad.
I returned to Mexico in 1972 on my way to Peru and went to the rancho alone and unannounced. Walking up from Pisaflores I was fortunate to meet someone from the rancho, otherwise I could easily have ended up on a path to any other rancho. At that time nothing had changed and I found Agripino and Esperanza delighted to see me. That evening there was a meeting with a new comité that was responsible for the building of a new church, and in the morning they showed me the beginnings of a foundation that had already started to take shape. I was puzzled by the almost enthusiastic reception that I received. A few months later I received a letter that was forwarded to me in Peru from Agripino asking if I could help with the construction of a new church. This letter was sent about a month before I surprisingly arrived in the rancho, totally unaware that they were expecting a response from me. I was totally clueless and it only started to make sense later on. I was told by Monique Tougas that years later, while she and Chucho were living in Mexico City, she happened to meet Agripino in Mexico City. He had left El Rayo and was seeking work in construction as a labourer. She said that he looked very old at that time, but perhaps he was not that old after all. I never had any more contact with either of them, although I had written and sent cards to the rancho. I did not know what became of either Agripino or Esperanza until recently with a chance cyber-encounter with a young man in Texas who is from El Rayo. His mother is a niece of Esperanza and through her we learned that Esperanza died a horrible death of cancer of the mouth and sometime later Agripino also died. Both are buried in the camposanto of El Rayo.
While in Pisaflores for two days with all the returning students from the different ranchos, we had group discussions and a friendly game of basketball against a group of Pisaflores young men – who trounced the Canadian team. On August 17 we all walked up the road to where the trucks awaited us, leaving behind this strange and wonderful intercultural experience in Pisaflores and its surrounding ranchos. We traveled to Jacala and met up with the rest of the CIASPers and finished off the night with a fiesta of song and dance in the house of the police chief. I don’t know how that was arranged, but that is where we were staying.
We left Jacala by bus in the late evening of August 18 and passed through American customs around 4 pm the following day. By 6 pm the Canadian Trailways bus that had been waiting for us in Laredo, was fully packed and on its way through the States. About 70 miles before the Canadian border the bus driver pulled into a plaza and suggested that we clean up not only the bus but also ourselves. His experience was that a bus that looked like it was carrying a “church group” was more likely to get a quick pass through customs. Sure enough, when we arrived a customs official bordered the bus, took a fairly quick look at us and waved us on. By 6 pm on August 21 we were unloaded at the Union Station in downtown Toronto. That was the last time I saw most of those CIASPers of the summer of 1969.
I continued to meet with the CIASP group in Ottawa throughout the next academic year but there was no question about returning to Mexico. There was a lot of self-questioning going on within the organization, but it did send a group the following summer. I returned to my life as a seminarian and in the spring of 1972 I was sent (by choice) to do what was called a “pastoral year” in one of the poor areas north of Lima Peru. There I was ordained as a deacon and later after ordination as a priest, I returned to work in the same area until 1978 and then in the northern city of Chiclayo in 1979. There I met Mel MacIssac, working just south of Chiclayo, but at the time I did not realize that he had also been a CIASPer.
When trying to explain CIASP to friends, I would say that we were something like C.U.S.O. or Peace Corps, but we only stayed for three months so we were not able to do as much damage. There is no doubt that some students had projects which did some good in the ranchos but I don’t know how the presence of the Canadian students could ever be evaluated in terms of short term and long term impact on the people of the ranchos. While Mexican students were involved, they were not students from the ranchos but rather middle-class Mexican of a social class different than the ranchos and certainly the experience of the rancho would have been just as “foreign” for them.
The experience of the El Rayo 4 of 1969 was profound for all of us. There is no doubt that we were different for the rest of our lives because of that summer in Mexico. It caused us to be Canadians in a different way. In my program in the seminary I was reading materials not on the official agenda – like Paolo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. There is no doubt that CIASP coloured the rest of my “formation” making me different – perhaps more self-critical and questioning of the agenda which I still accepted in the end.
(photo – some of Ottawa group with Chucho Rosales at Teotihuacan)
I don’t think we left much of a “footprint” on El Rayo. We didn’t build anything (other than a latrine for ourselves) and we certainly did not spend much money while there. Our food rations were sent by the group in Pisaflores. I had an “personal allowance” of $100 to spend over the full three months, to cover all my personal expenditures including meals while traveling and personal costs. In the end I ended up being subsidized by others, while none of us were flush with cash at any time of the summer. We bought a few beer at a small store in El Rayo and we bought a few chickens from neighbours but economically we were certainly not a boom to the hospitality sector. While we did contribute food I think that over the summer Agripino and Esperanza ended up subsidizing us using some of their food supplies to feed us as well. Esperanza was not able to bake bread each week as was her custom so she lost financially on that account.
Monique Tougas married Jesus Rosales (Chucho) and they lived in Mexico and had one daughter. They eventually returned to Canada, Chucho worked at the Mexican embassy but suffered from kidney failure and died. Monique has remarried and lives near Ottawa. John Sontrop decided to leave the seminary in 1972 before he was ordained. He eventually got into urban planning and worked mostly in Ottawa with the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. He married in 1978 and is now retired and still living in Ottawa.
In 1980 I returned to Canada and left the ministry. I reconnected with Anne Marie McDonell 11 years after we had left El Rayo. In those years she had finished her degree at UT and then got her nursing diploma at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. She did volunteer medical work in Honduras and Guatemala for a few years, when not working in Toronto. In the spring of 1981 we got married and settled down in Toronto to begin a family. I worked in both the Public and Separate school boards until I qualified for early retirement in 2006. We now live on Vancouver Island near the small town of Chemainus.
(I wrote this in the summer of 2009, thinking about that summer 40 years ago. John Sontrop helped proof read this reflection and provided some important corrections and additions. Some photos I have borrowed from a CIASP blog and are attributed to Frans Schryer, author of “The Rancheros of Pisaflores”. Photo of John and his guitar sent by Monique Tougas)