One reason I moved into cohousing is to try to recreate my life in the Mexican Sierra. I loved the community and being outside almost all the time talking to neighbors on their porches. I knew I could live like that forever if the other people were educated like me (I just graduated from college and most had barely graduated high school at best there). I was so wrong. They have been living together for over 150 years. It is their lifestyle. They know what they are doing and it’s not perfect – instead of a conflict management team there can be fights and even guns. Yet, maybe being highly educated – and privileged is what makes cohousing so difficult and such a hard adaptation in US whereas comes more natural in socialist like countries where it was born in Denmark.
Either way, I figured I”d put my Mexican experience here. I wrote it into a book a few years ago and never did anything with it but for those who want to read about living in a community without electricity or running water and loving most every minute, here it is. And it is where I was coming from when I dreamed of cohousing. I knew I wasn’t a hot commodity like an unmarried woman anymore, but I thought it’d still be fun. Maybe being fun is something that can’t be taught!
Enjoy or not – it’s up to you!
DANCING IN THE STARS
Chapter One: Cumbias
Life seemed certain and uncertain at the same time. I just crossed the stage with a Spanish major degree in my hand. College was over. Now what? The only thing I ever wanted to do was travel. Unlike the realistic idea of my dad to get a job after graduation, I took a volunteer position in Mexico. Thus, I could fulfill my wander lust and feel like I was deserved of the title “Spanish major”
So after a series of goodbyes – to my friends in college, my friends back home including one young man Rob who I always liked and was certain if I had stuck around maybe we would finally stick, and, the hardest to bid goodbye, my family. But it wasn’t forever, just one year, which felt like forever.
I saw the Mexican opportunity in a newsletter in the cafeteria at Earlham. The college has Quaker roots so the ad ran, “Volunteer needed to run a Quaker guest house in Northern Mexico”. I got the call that I was accepted but that another woman from my college had also accepted the position. We could share, Norman the man who ran the place, affirmed me. How big was this guest house?
I didn’t really know Sheila, just knew of her, We did speak from time to time when we were hall mates the first year of college. Now we phoned often figuring out how we’d get to Mexico.
We met in the Tucson airport. My best friend from college, Elizabeth, also met us with another Earlhamite, Nicole. They had real jobs in Tucson in an organization that helped immigrants. They brought us to their rental apartments and we hung out. It didn’t feel much different from college – a cheap place with junky furniture and we stayed up late talking.
The next morning I had one last goodbye, now to Elizabeth as we wished each other well in our post college endeavors. Sheila and I took a cab to the Greyhound station and then a bus to Nogales – the small border town. We walked across the borderline without any problems. No one seemed to notice our heavy bags that made us stick out in a town where most people come to buy trinkets or get drunk and then leave.
We found the bus station and hopped on a Mexican bus for four hours until we reached the first major city south of the border, Hermosillo. This would be my home, I thought.
A cab brought us to the house called Casa Sein, or Casa de los Amigos – Friend’s House. Sein is the name of the original owner of the Spanish hacienda. The house still is a square with a courtyard in the middle that harvested a lime tree and a patch of grass. Norman met us and told us how he too went to Earlham, forty years before. He was a life long Quaker who heard about the American Friends Service committee’s volunteer opportunities in Mexico. He was so excited to join them that he claims he left his laundry in the dryer and ran off to Mexico. He never really went home. He and his wife spent the rest of their lives in Mexico and their sons still live there. Their daughter lives in Tucson, which is close enough.
In his slow quiet way, he showed us the house and the duties we were expected to do. The big bottle of water next to the door needed to be refilled – by the garden hose. He assured us the water is safe in Northern Mexico since it has a similar pipe system as in the US. He did tell us to steer away from lettuce though since that is harvested with manure which soaks through.
He pointed out the office, the small room for married couples, the dorm room for boys, and the larger dorm room with bunk beds for girls. Next he pointed out the living area with a couch on one side and a dinning table on the other, then the kitchen which looked modern and normal enough. Outside was the coutyard which he told us to water the tree and bushes every evening and if we opened the living room windows, they would naturally give us a cool off from the 100 degree days. He warned us of the heat but I didn’t pay enough attention.
Our room was next to the kitchen. It had one double bed and another cot next to that. We found out there was another caretaker, Dolores, from a small village in the south of Sonora (the state we were in). How much care did this not so big place need?
Lastly he pointed out we had a blower to keep us cool at night and a rock outside to wash our clothes. I would personally be making my jeans stone wahed.
Soon enough Dolores arrived home from work. She was friendly and laughed at my jokes so immediately I was happy to share the place with her. Norman took us all out to do the laundry at the lavandaria since we had to clean all the bed sheets for a group of students who would be arriving shortly. On the ride back he pointed out one more chore – sweep the front walk.
So the next moring I woke up early before the heat and swept the walk. It was half a block and took much longer than I thought. The heat rose quickly. I went inside and tried to lay down. Sheila was taking a shower. I asked if I could come in. She said sure. I wasn’t feeling well. I threw up into the toilet as she tried to get clean.
Well, everyone gave their two cents on what I had – food poisoning? Sunstroke? Travel weariness? I just knew I had to watch that sun and heat, take it slow. I went to bed the rest of the day.
I did wake up enough to hear that Norman actually didn’t want three women running the guest house. He asked Sheila to go up to the American Friend’s Service Committee project in the Sierra Mountains. She accepted. I felt sick again. Left alone? That’s not what I had planned? Plus, he wanted me to go up in the fall. I wasn’t sure. Didn’t he mention they don’t have any electricity or running water up there? I wanted to learn Spanish, not survival techniques.
After I got over all my illnesses I enjoyed all the people that would come and go through this place. It wasn’t just a hotel but more like a resting stop for people going up to the Sierra to do service projects. A group of college kids would be arriving shortly but the leaders, Jenn and Jim, a married couple from Colorado, had arrived first to get ready. Another couple from England, were staying after they had been up to the mountain for months and now were returning to their side of the pond. Sheila would be replacing them.
Besides the guests, there were also members of the service groups that would visit. These were locals who joined the American students and built roads and latrines up in the rural mountain villages. Some were young universitystudents and currently helping with projects. Others were what I considered old because they were in their 30s! They were once students who had participated in the projects. Now they helped drive the groups up, bring supplies, even lead groups from time to time. They also helped with organizing meetings and taking care of the house.
After being sick I worried if my birthday would be any fun. I had just arrived – how much fun could turning twenty-two in a strange country be? It’s not like twenty-one which actually wasn’t so exciting since I don’t drink, well rarely. The day before my b-day, a man named Orlando came in to the Casa de los Amigos and worked around the house. He was nice but was busy tinkering with all the things to fix all day. He was one of the old ones. Soon he let in two young guys, Mario and his friend, Annel. Mario was super outgoing and talked all afternoon to Sheila and I. He was so excited to meet English speakers and for his upcoming summer with a group of students in the mountains. We all ignored Orlando fixing who knows what but Mario must have felt guilty. He wanted to help out too. He grabbed the cutters and tried to cut the small courtyard lawn – one patch of grass at a time.
He barely started when he realized he cut the hose to our blower. So I learned my first new word in Spanish “mangera” which means hose. Mario drove us to the hardware store and got a new piece of mangera. As he and Annel put that piece on another piece that old piece broke off – worn away by other helpful volunteers perhaps. We laughed as we returned to the hardware store. Luckily it was all fixed by the time Sheila, Dolores, and I shared the bedroom and eventhough it only blew in some mildly wet cold air, it kept the oppressive heat out.
I always worry that I won’t have a fun birthday. It was especially tough all those years traveling since inevitably I would be traveling in June and that’s where my birthday lay. But Mario promised a good time and he was such a friendly guy, I trusted him. I hung around all day – helping to clean up the house and prepare for the work campers arrival. One young man arrived early and he brought a birthday surprise. A letter from Elizabeth since he also stopped by their non-profit organization on his way to Hermosillo. After I read the letter and took a shower, Sheila informed me that Norman had something to tell me. Oh no, I thought, another bombshell like being dragged out to the middle of nowhere for a year! Instead I found the workcamp leaders Jim and Jenn standing together in front of the kitchen table, wearing silly grins. They separated to show another birthday surprise – a cake that Sheila and Dolores had whipped up. They sang happy birthday. I blew out the candles wishing to have a fun year in Mexico.
Later at exactly eight which surprised us since we heard Mexicans were relaxed on time, Mario arrived to bring Sheila and I on a night out on the town. I was disappointed that his idea started with a church group. I wasn’t used to hearing prayers out loud and was uncomfortable since I grew up in an atheist household. I almost even became depressed because this was my birthday. Luckily the praying ended and they used their guitar to sing the Mananitas -the Mexican birthday song. The Mananitas are usually sung early in the morning, waking someone up at three by serenading under their windowsill. I didn’t mind that it was at night instead.
Mario kept his promise and we did have a night on the town. He picked up Annel and brought us to a discoteque called Nova. I was surprised how it looked like the nightclubs of the 1950s – sit down tables, a dance floor. Immediately the dancing caught my attention. The men guided the women across the floor. The women’s skirts swayed back and forth as they were twirled and swirled by some strapping cowboy. Soon I got a chance to try the dancing even though I could watch it all day if I had to.
Annel lead me to the floor and Mario took Sheila. Luckily it was American Rock so we danced apart. We did the same for the Spanish pop songs. Then the cumbias started. They were kinda like salsa but a bit different. Either way, it was time to dance together. Annel was sweet enough to take me by the hand and show me how to just follow him. I started to catch on. Just relax, let him lead. It was fun being twirled by a cowboy. Yet he seemed too cowboy to me. Button down shirt, crocodile boots, big white hat. Too foreign. Too Mexican. Mario seemed modern, normal. Plus watching him dance I could tell he was good at it. A Mexican John Travolta.
Between dances they held our hands. It was awkward for me to stand there, middle of the dance floor, holding hands. But it soon became obvious it was just part of the ritual, it didn’t mean holding hands for real like it does in my country.
I was also lucky enough to be able to dance with Mario. He lead faster and smoother. I felt like we could be friends forever. For now he was my social life. What would I do all summer with him in the work camp? And Sheila gone too? What would the future hold?
The night ended. I was a year older. It was midnight and I didn’t have to deal with an expected kiss goodnight. They just bid us adios and that was that. Another country, another birthday, now another day.
The next few days was a heat wave of activity. The house filled up with twenty college students. The Mexican college students came for the nightly meetings in the final preparations for the cross cultural project. Yet it seemed that as soon as they all arrived, they packed up the red Suburban van and headed off to the Sierra Mountains. We were left with a quiet house and many sheets to wash, again.
Sheila and I settled into our lives at the Casa. We laughed at how ridiculous our circumstances were. The bed kept falling – the wooden boards collapsing, especially when we would try to sneak in late and not wake up Dolores on her cot. The thump and our laughter would wake her. It was no use but Sheila tried to fix the bed boards with Elmer’s Glue.
We also learned how the toilets work. Or better said, not work. The water pressure was so low that you couldn’t put toilet paper in the bowl itself but into the trash can instead that rest next to the toilet. Luckily that was covered with a plastic bag and we soon learned it was our job to tie up the plastic bags and throw the whole thing out. Plus, we were constantly graced with the site of floating terds since the water pressure didn’t always suck those down either.
I was also getting used to the frequent visitors. Orlando seemed to keep to himself and just fix something around the house. It took awhile to get to know him. Other times it would be one of Norman’s sons who were nice enough to speak Spanish with me even though they were fluent in their parent’s English. The best part of these visits was taking the limes off the tree out in the patio, squeezing them every afternoon, adding some sugar and ice and having a treat to offer the drop ins.
Unless it was one of these Norman pre-approved visitors, I never even opened more than the door panel and let the bars separate me from whoever rang the door. Sometimes an old man would pass by trying to sell some sweet bread out of their bags. They seemed suspect. Was it poison in their bag? Why would I buy food from a door to door salesman? Was it really a ruse to steal young American women?
The morning after we invited all the old volunteers to a party to celebrate our Independence Day holiday, they stole Shiela away to that mysterious placed called the Sierra. I stayed up all night reading a feminist novel so she could travel with it to keep her company. By five in the morning her food for the summer (no electricity, no running water, nor stores) and they gently put it in the Suburban. Her bags were packed and she was gone. The house felt empty with out her. For the first time it dawned on me – I was a graduate now and I was all alone. Luckily I got my first call from some real guests – a traveling couple from Germany. They statyed one night and wandered off but at least my mind was distracted.
All summer I found other ways to keep busy and distract my lonliness. Every morning I would sweep the whole house, eat my favorite breakfast ( fried eggs, a can of refried beans and corn tortillas made fresh from the tortillera around the corner), then read, do an aerobics workout, take a siesta after the wonderful meal Dolores came home from work to make, walk around town in the shade of the afternoon, then make limade and hang out with the visitor de jour. I also volunteered every afternoon at an orphanage where the children taught me crazy songs and games. Plus, some nights I’d go out with a very handsome Yoga teacher. He seemed perfect, the one. I mean, I graduated from College now, there was nothing holding me back. This one, the next one, could be the one I marry. Yet there was a big problem, his yoga center was also a cult and his cult leader put an axe to his extracurricular activity of me.
Of course this caused great heartbreak and Dolores tried to help me with another distraction – a visit to her hometown – San Bernadino. I agreed not knowing what I was getting into. It was my first taste of rural Mexico. Rural not like the rural I experienced in Minnesota. At least in the Midwest they had highways and road kill. Our trip to San Bernadino was so slow, there was no possibility of road kill.
They were smart to start the drive down at 10PM. We drove past all the desert towns of Sonora in the cool of the night – Guaymas , Obregon, Navojoa, Alamos. We stopped once to go to the bathroom. There weren’t any stores or rest stops, so we just pulled off the dark lampless highway. Dolores and I wondered off into the big desert toilet. I was afraid we’d piss on a rattlesnake and piss it off.
In Navojoa we stopped and picked up Dolores’ sister and her two sons. They sat in the back of the pick up whereas Dolores, her boyfriend and I sat in the front.
From Navojoa we ventured off the highway and into the dirt roads and back roads of the base of the Sierra mountains. It was a long eight hour drive – in the heat. Slower due to the animals – cows on the side of the road, donkeys in the middle who stubbornly moved out of our way, eventually. The boys being in back were helpful since they would jump out and open the gates for those cows that had boundaries.
Eventually we arrived in San Bernandino. We met Dolores’ mother – she was obviously the matriarch and the one in charge of the family. She seemed so strong to me – surviving a husband abandoning her and dealing with a second husband. He was completely useless – drunk and asleep most of the weekend.
Dolores’ other sister lived here. All of her sisters married at 16 and now in their 20s felt miserable and trapped with multiple children, no education, and fewer choices. Dolores obviously was on a different track – living in the big city of Hermosillo, waiting to go study in the US, thanks to a mentor friend in Arizona or her same religion affiliation. She was going to break out.
We spent the weekend talking and joking around. I watched them make homemade corn tortillas. I moved the dough from one hand to another, trying to smooth it out into a circle but instead it crashed into the dirt floor. Luckily everyone laughed and didn’t fret over lost food. Dolores had more luck and hers landed on the metal tray over the fire pit of a stove. For people living so poor they seemed pretty happy.
The next day I woke up late – at seven – whereas everyone else got up at four. I went to the outhouse as the chickens serenaded me. It seemed like my butt didn’t fit. I thought I was really roughing it until later I’d consider the outhouse a luxury when we went to another part of these hills, the bathroom was the woods itself and a little toad hopping would watch me perform my duties.
They talked about taking a hike. I thought we were going on a picnic. I wondered how Dolores’ mother was going to cook up the dozen eggs she was carrying. But after a two-hour walk through hills filled with prickley bushes and cacti, I realized it was a practical “hike” to Dolores’ other sister’s house. The eggs were for her.
Her husband was in charge of observing the river. So he had a trolley zip line to cross the river. I thought it was fun – but it was for more practical reasons – to cross and observe the river. Cheaper than a bridge I gather.
After walking home another two hours and sleeping extremely well that night, we woke up early to catch the 5:00 am bus since Dolores’ boyfriend left the day before to get to work. The bus arrived at 5:20 and off we went.
The bus seemed to get us to the city fast enough but we had to jump on a bus to Hermosillo so we didn’t have a chance to go to the bathroom, yet. I thought we could jump off at the next big city but the bus driver said he would just leave us so we sat down after our failed attempt for relief.
“Okay” I thought, “I’ll just fart for five hours”
Once back, we both walked home as fast as possible. All of Hermosillo looked like a blur as we both rushed to the bathroom. Eight hours having to go was too much. After I stripped down and took a nice cleaning shower. Cleaning off all the bathroom antics of the past few days.
Soon we got more of the Mexican Sierra when the volunteers returned from their summer. Being with the workcampers was a nice bridge before bouncing up to the mountains myself. For one, they were American and brought a taste of home back into my life. Secondly they had hilarious stories of their summer in an even more isolated village than where I was going. They had to drive up to where I would be, then ride horses for a day. But they brought back stories of no outhouses, riding horses with cowboys – who tried to feel them up, and learning the politics of peeing off the path – don’t’ look up and say hi like one girl did – you have to pretend you’re not peeing or seeing anyone passing by. Now I was mentally ready.
All of the workcampers left and it was time for me to leave Hermosillo too. Norman brought me grocery shopping for what he estimated was enough for three months up in the mountains. I wondered what would happen if he was wrong. Would I starve to death? He paid the bill – about $100 US dollars. I didn’t know the project was funded by the American Friends Service at the time, I just thought he was being generous.
I went home to pack. He warned me to pack the potatos just right or they would rot. That didn’t help my nerves any. I was numb with fear. A world without a store? Electricity? Running water? Doctor? How was I going to survive? That night I dreamed that all the potatos rotted. I woke up in the middle of the night. Was I going to die up on a mountainside?
Chapter Two: Zapatillos
The next morning we packed up the car at the normal Sierra departure time – five, to avoid that desert heat. Norman, Lucy and Pancho – another couple of adult volunteers who particulary liked helping with journeys up into the mountains helped me pack up the Suburban and I pleaded for care of the precious potatoes. I said goodbye to Dolores and was sad about that. Was life after college just a series of goodbyes?
The road out of Hermosillo and up towards the mountains looked familiar – desert. Then it started to inch higher and curve around as the mountain got bigger. My road sickness kicked in and soon so would my altitude sickness. We stopped at Punta de la Cruz – point of the Crossing because it was the end of the paved road for us. If we drove 45 minutes more we would be in Yecora, but we were about to turn left – onto the dirt path to my future home. After we ate at the restaurant which is the only place at the Punta de la Cruz, we walked out back to use the outside facitlities – no facilities just outside. Lucy gave me a great tip – always travel with toilet paper because it’s not always available – especially in the great outdoors.
Up the dirt road we went, passing a small village, Mesa Campanera, after about an hour. By the next town, an hour further, we had to stop to say hello to some of the people. This town Bermudez had about 20 houses. Everyone knew Norman and were familiar with the red suburban chugging up the mountain to bringing a fresh new crop of foreigners to help out at the next lucky village to be graced with their presence.
After Bermudez we were almost there but there was a huge hill in our way. The dirt and rock homemade road didn’t make climbing the hill any easier. The tires squelled and spewed dirt. Sometimes it seemed we were going straight up and would never make it. Eventually we did and cruised down into my new town – Cordon. It was hard to call it a town or even a Pueblo. There were only six houses.
A large german Shepard with a mangy looking tail barked then wagged his tail when he saw Norman. Lobo (wolf) was his name and he had officially made himself the friend of all foreigners who lived on his side of Cordon. Sheila came out smiling from the house Lobo was guarding. We gave our hugs and I wanted to just talk and catch up with her, but we had to go visit with everyone in the village. We had coffee over at a nice couple’s house. I listened as Norman talked with them. Then we went to an old lady’s house and she served coffee also. I realized I better learn their names as fast as possible and I only had two weeks to learn as much as possible from Sheila before I was left there all by myself.
That night we watched novellas (soap operas) on the television which was powered by solar power but could only get reception in the dark – using the stored up power from the sun that day. This time we sat with the other side of Cordon – a family of one elderly patriarch, Don Jorge, and his sons, daughters in laws, and some of the daughters who were in their 40s but never married. It was nice watching TV together – like a village movie night.
Soon Sheila and I broke away to talk. As we left the building I had to gasp. I had never seen so many stars in my life. I had always grown up in the suburbs or a small town in college. But here, closer to them in the sky, and no electirciy for hundreds of miles, they were incredible – like a big blanket covering us. It was like I could touch them or feel them sparkling in my long brown hair. I knew then this was a beautiful magical place. I just hoped I could fit in and learn all the cultural rules.
In the morning, I was dreaming I was talking to the Police and having an intellectual conversation with Sting only for him to suddenly start mooing. I thought that was odd. Until I woke up and realized the little cabin that was designated for the foreign workers was surrounded by cows. Sheila and I walked out and watched everyone milking the cows. After that we went to the outhouse for our morning doo.
The outhouse had a marvelous view down the mountainside. It was open ended on that side since no one would ever walk up that way. The rest was covered with flour bags which had some holes since they were tasty to the horses that pastured in that field. A path went by the outhouse bur rarely was their a passerby at the exact moment of usage.
Sheila and I laughed the night before because it was too late to walk the 500 yards to the outhouse and instead we peed in the front of the house, and then as we gabbed on catching up about our summer adventures, peed in the back of the house too. We laughed that we pissed all over our home.
Norman walked me over to the walnut trees. That would be my official job. Take care of them. I was already worried – I had only killed house plants before. I didn’t know a thing about gardening. Luckily the cabin was stocked with books left by the other volunteers, all in English, and some were on grafting and agriculture since a few volunteers earlier were experts in such things. My job was mainly to water them, not too hard I thought – not realizing that irrigation wasn’t part of this village’s progress.
Norman, Lucy and Pancho left us to our own defenses. So I learned how to be social. First we went over to the right side of the village. I met Tala who married into the family from a village many horse rides away and she pointed out that it was that mountaintop over there. I found it quite cool to look out at the mountins, not as a tourist like when I used to hike with my brother in the Rockies, but with someone who knew everyone and everything – my village is over there on that peak.
Tala married Hereberto who was one of founder’s sons, and they had five children together. Maricela was 18 and always dressed to the nines in case some handsome cowboy would walk by. Her brother, Cheno, was my age and her younger brother was around 10. Both seemed like they never wanted to talk to me. I was still trying to figure out the social rules. The other child was a girl, India, who wasn’t much of a girl. Entering adolescence and very much a tomboy. Sheila and I imagined that maybe she was secretly a lesbian and wondered what would ever happen to her in this society if she realy was.
Hereberto’s sisters also lived on that side of town. Beatriz who married late to a man from the big city and only visited in the summers and lavished the little children she never had. Lorena had a baby but was single. No one said much about it but rumor had it wasn’t that much of a shock because they were just happy she finally shacked up with someone, even if he didn’t stick around. She also only was there for the summer with her toddler.
Another brother, Carlos, had the house at the end of that side of town. With his wife Ramona they had two children – a boy and a girl. The boy was shy and young, about ten, and I never saw him much. Riqui was about seventeen and I didn’t see her at all yet, she was in the big city for the summer. In fact, the whole family was pretty quiet and shy so out of all the families, I got to know them less.
Sheila made a map and explained that next to their house was the bachelor pad. Later that would make me laugh – there was nothing similar to a shag rug or the fancy free life of a bachelor about these two brothers, Chapo and Chue. Both “old” in their 30s, they were well taken care of by Tala’s daughters who brought their meals, did their laundry, ironed their shirts, etc. Maybe they figured they never needed wives.
The patriarch of the family was Don Jorge. He was a cousin to Don Emetereo and they bought the land together. Don Emetereo and his family were to the right of the foreigner’s cabin and Don Jorge and his bunch to the left. That day Don Emetero came back to town so I finally got to meet the big man in town. He was in his late 70s and walked in a hunch with a cane, but that never stopped him from all the hard labor of farm work.
Later we crossed over to the right. I walked into Dona Matilda’s house – the old lady I had met earlier. She introduced me to her husband Don Emetero. He had just come back from buying cows in a far off village. They invited me to coffee and like an idiot I refused because I felt I needed to sweep the porch like what was on my to do list for the day. Luckily Sheila came in and explained that social invitations take precedent over the American work ethic. So we talked and I got to know the other founder of the “town.”
Our cabin was actually Don Emetereo’s storage bin. Since he was our official host that Norman had arranged with four years earlier so that volunteers could come and take care of the walnut tree grove until the villagers could reap their harvest years later. The attic was full of corn and beans and mice that ate those goods, plus a bat. The cabin had a main room with a stove that Norman made out of a metal trash can. It had room for a fire and a flat top to boil water or make tortillas. The other room was the kitchen where Norman told me to hang the flour so the mice wouldn’t get it. All over the ceiling hung bags of grains since mice are not gymnasts and never tried to shimmy down the ropes. I would find mice in our dirty dishes if I didn’t clean up like all the proper women did. Our water system was two large canisters so we wouldn’t have to make as many trips to the well. One we used to do dishes so that had a small tub under it for doing the plates and when they had food on them, the mice would wander only to fall in the big bucket underneath to catch dribbles, and in some cases, drown mice. The other we used for drinking and that bucket only caught unused water. Both were freezing due to the high altitude so washing your face in the morning was a true wake up.
Our kitchen also had a Sierra luxury – a gas stove top. We could easily cook beans and pasta, though beans used up a lot of the gas. Norman took care of the details like hooking up the large gas container to last for months. The kitchen also had a table and some shelves. The ladder to the upstairs storage area was in the main room – our bedroom/living room. We’d roll up a cot every night and the other bed was used as a couch in the daytime. The other table was in the porch where I set up a jigsaw puzzle and it’s the only one I’ve ever completed, with the help of visitors and months of free time. The whole house was cradled by two carports filled with pick up trucks – one for each of Don Emetereo’s sons who lived in Cordon.
Next to Don Emetereo’s house was his youngest son Chemeley and his wife, Tere, who had hosted us for coffee when we first arrived. They had a daughter, Eremita, 10 who became Sheila’s shadow all summer, and a son, Marcus, 5, who Sheila informed me was a horrible brat.
Don Emetereo’s other son, Alvarro lived next to them with his wife, Rosalba who actually was a daughter of Don Jorge and frequently visited the other half of this small village, if you could call it that. They actually adopted a son from some near by Pima Tribe. That was a controversy but her familiy treated him with all the love they had for all their children. Dona Matilda’s side was a little colder to the poor 5 year old. Adoption was still suspect and new to older generations. Plus, Indigenous Mexicans were considered the lowest of the low, but me, just finishing an internship on a Native American reservation, was interested to meet the local community some day.
After spending time drinking coffee and getting to know Don Emetereo, Sheila and I tackled our house chores. I swept the porch and then she taught me how to make pasta from apples. Pasta is like paste, a step beyond jelly. I wore my goggles as we boiled the heck out of the apples. Then Tala came in to teach us how to make empanadas. These sweet pastries were filled with the apple paste. Ours tasted pretty good. Soon I would learn that fall was all about making fruit paste and empanadas. I’d get lots of practice.
I was so happy to have Sheila teach me everything. I even took notes. She’d show me how to cook everything I needed like tortillas and where to fetch the daily water, etc. She also had explained who was who and gave me what gossip she heard or observed. I was lucky to have her – she had to learn it all on her own and by the villagers who seemed a little slow to warm up to newcomers.
Her summer included funny adventures such as the time she made her first batch of tortllas. I knew from being in Dolores’ village that this is no easy task. Sheila left the kitchen a second only to return to find Lobo eating the whole pile. She was so pissed that she went to kick him away. This huge german Shepard wolf would not take that and bit her foot – straight through it. She would have gotten stiches if we were near a doctor. After that she and Lobo didn’t get along very well.
She also told me about the time she saw a huge rattlesnake slither through her porch. She wanted to yell for help but couldn’t remember the word for rattle and snake. Instead she screamed out “thing with a rattle, thing with a rattle” (cosa con una cascabel, cosa con una cascabel). All the men came running over with riffles and blasted the beejeebies out of that poor snake – properly called vibora de cascabel (snake with a rattle). I still chuckle wondering what they thought she was yelling about. A thing with a rattle? It could have been a baby.
We worked so late making tons of empanadas that we missed the novellas. Darn, I was just getting into the stories and liked the chance to talk with half of the village at one time. But I pulled out my radio powered radio and we found a surprise – we heard AM stations from all over the US. Oldies from Oklahoma and a country station from New Mexico. It was nice to hear a bit of home and now I knew I wouldn’t be totally out of touch. Later in a letter, a scientific friend explained that ionospheres bounce all over the world at night and especially being on the top of a mountain, that’s why I picked up all these AM signals. Every night it’d be from somewhere else. I learned to like country music for the first time in my life. I was also pleasantly surprised one night to pick up the drum music of a pow wow from a reservation radio station in what I assumed was the Dine (Navajo) nation.
That night as I tried to sleep I found a danger in living with an outhouse. I’d eaten too many empanadas and drank too much coffee. I had to do number two but I wasn’t going to walk all the way over to the outhouse by myself in the dark (plus they warned us that at night there is the risk of running into a dangerous narcotrafficer that do trep through avoiding the Mexican army and police to get their crops to the US).
So I went out with a shovel under the tree behind our house. A dog barked. “Great, “ I thought, “Now the whole village will come out with flashlights and riffles to see me peeing”
No one came out and neither did any poop. I had to suffer all night – farting in the cabin. I learned quickly what not to eat and to prepare myself for a night of not going to the bathroom.
Learning was what I did the next few days. Sheila gave me a lesson on tortillas and we guarded the door from hungry dogs. We went up to Nogales (literally means walnut trees so we called it that playing on the town that is on the border with Arizona). We weeded and then went back to weed the garden Sheila had planted. We also made a compost heap which didn’t work out too well since all the neighbors chickens just came in and ate it before anything had a chance to decompose.
The next day Sheila showed me how to make the beans that would be the staple of all my meals – breakfast lunch and dinner. First you have to sort them and then boil them all day long. As they boiled on our gas stove, I heard some women talking over on the left side. I went to join them and I felt like Moses – the sea split as I appeared. Luckily Beatriz, the older redheaded sister, was nice enough to talk to me. I figured she was more social now that she lives in a big city.
Later Sheila babysat the beans while I went to gather corn with Rosalba who also invited her family from the left side. The kids seemed to look at me and laugh a lot. On the cornfield Rosalba yelled at everyone – dictating commands. She cracked me up – a loud bossy woman in what I soon found out was a very patriarichal culture.
After we gathered up as much corn as we could fit on the pick up truck along with ourselves we talked for a bit. India, the tomboy, threw a dog into a mud puddle right next to me. I squelled by surprise and not happy to be filled with mud – especially since I knew I had to wash my clothes by hand. They laughed some more. As we rode back to the houses, and we all started to shuck the corn, I realized that that half of the village really didn’t like me much.
On the other half they were so warm and friendly. Tere’s husband Chemeley watched as I taught his daughter Eremita to play Frisbee and hopscotch. Later when the novellas couldn’t come on due to a thunderstorm we told fairy tales. Sheila and I relied on Brothers Grim but Don Emetereo told a fascinating long winding story of a man who turned into a lizard. Eremita and her dad walked us home with flashlights now that the clouds had taken away my beloved stars.
So it’s no surprise that the next morning I woke up feeling culture shock full swing. I didn’t want to be social. I didn’t want to make tortillas, or beans, or empanadas. I just wanted to stay in bed all day and read my English book – Fried Green Tomatoes. I had had enough of these unwelcoming people, on the right side, and just didn’t want to work so hard anymore.
I snapped out of it quickly. First Don Emetereo came to visit the next morning since he worried we had died since we stayed in most of the previous day. Rosalba came by with some of the corn I helped pick. Tere brought over cheese, Tala gave us fresch tomatoes and with that we had a whole meal made out of gifts. Maybe they were friendly and my fear of starvation would not happen.
Later that afternoon we went to visit Rosalba. Everyone from her family was in her yard. Hereberto, her brother, had just killed a skunk. I wondered why anyone would do such a thing – they stink dead. But they were the enemy – they ate chickens. There had been two and he only got one. Someone spotted the other. We all chased after Hereberto and his riffle as he tried to chase down the remaining skunk. He shot out and it only made a small ding, but he missed. The excitement was over.
We went in and talked to Rosalba who gave us coffee and cookies. She seemed pretty nice for her side of the family that I was having problems with. She started to make tortillas and sent us home with some hot fresh ones. Hers were perfect circles, unlike our flour tortillas that when we rolled out with a can (no rolling pin available to us) looked more in the shape of Africa or South America. We called them continental tortillas.
That night we ended where we usually did – at Tere and Chemeley’s. This night they had a visitor – a muchacho from Mesa Abajo – the village a ten minute flat drive on the dirt road. It was also the end of the road and from there to get to the other Mesas (plateaus and villages) you’d have to go by horse or foot. Mesa Abajo meant – the mesa down that-a-way, or upside down table, that’s how it was explained to me.
Chemeley seemed lively around the muchacho and suspiciously had invited me over for dinner. He asked me about the dance – the goodbye party for Sheila that they wanted to happen the next week before she left. I told them I love the cumbia music and the dancing I saw on my birthday. He asked if I wanted a boyfriend. I said I wanted no such thing.
Chemeley asked “What if someone falls in love with you?”
”That’s his problem” I tortly replied. The room broke out in laugher.
I figured soon I would find out more about love in the Sierra.
A week went by that I had lived in the Sierra and I was starting to love it. When I first arrived everything was a blur. But Norman did drive us over briefly to Mesa Abajo because part of our role as volunteers was to visit with all the other villages. The other two I’d have to figure out on my own, because you had to walk down the steep mountainside to get to them. But Mesa was an easy drive and only an hour walk. I was still in shock from suddenly arriving to the mountains when we first visited that I just followed Norman around to a few houses. Norman did all the talking of course. And we couldn’t visit everyone because this village was huge – at least ten houses.
We sat in one woman’s house where she showed us the sparrow’s nest in the awnings. I thought it was quant. In the corner sat a young man. He asked Norman when the next batch of college student volunteer campers would come through. I thought that guy was cute, but obviously he wanted other volunteers, he didn’t think the same of me.
Now exactly a week later, he and his cousin knocked on our door. They were driving through and came by to say hello to Sheila and I.
We were busy slicing up peaches to dry them into oreillones (big ears), dried fruit. Okay they didn’t knock on our door since the door was never shut except when we were asleep or sick, but they appeared. They walked up onto our porch and we all started talking. Chemeley came by and started teasing me at how slow I was cutting up the peaches. They figured at this rate I could put the peaches out to dry in about three days. Then, Lupe asked if I had a boyfriend. I said I was no longer interested in Mexican boys since one had broken my heart that summer.
I admired Sheila, she just ignored the question. She was so strong willed – wouldn’t even get involved in that game. She had no interest in dating even if she wondered how long she could keep her hormones at bay.
Soon Chemeley walked away and Lupe and Sheila decided to go visit Rosalba. I put down the peaches and decided to go along too. Jose Luis got up, figuring he didn’t want to be on the porch by himself but his hesitation made me wonder – did he want to stay and talk to little ol’ me?
At Rosalba’s I met Jose Luis’ mother. She had the warmest smile. It looked bright against her brown Taramori Indian heritage skin. Some of Rosalba’s sisters came over and the place seemed welcoming for a change with that side of town. Soon Manuel came in – Jose Luis father, and he immediately soaked up all the attention. He asked if I was coming to Mesa Abajo. I said I wasn’t sure how I’d get home but I was curious about the three mile walk Norman had mentioned. I wanted the exercise. Then Jose Luis asked if I was going. That made up my mind. I went back to the cabin, brushed my teeth and found the necessities I needed – just a Frisbee.
Rosalba, her sisters, Sheila, and Manuel got in the back of his pick up truck. For some reason I was chosen to sit up front in between Jose Luis and his mother. I looked up to see an elaborate colorful truck carpeted ceiling designed with an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe – the patron saint of Mexico. I had never seen a truck so pretty.
We stopped at Rosalba’s cornfield and everyone grabbed as much as possible. We filled up the truck with corn and everyone from Cordon was ready to walk back. Sheila said that I might have to spend the night if it got to dark. I asked if I would be allright – she assured I’d be fine, I’d be with a woman, Lupe.
When we got to Mesa Abajo I tried to go to Lupe’s house but she mysteriously disappeared quickly. So when Jose Luis’ mom said “pasale” (come on in) so I did. I talked with all three of them. Their daughter was staying with relatives in the big city – learning to be a secretary.
Somehow Jose Luis’ parents kept disappearing too. What was up with this town? Trying to set me up? Why did they come to Cordon that day? Was this all part of their dating game? Did Jose Luis initiate this? At least I found him attractive – tall, dark, and a true cowboy – hat and button down shirt and boots. The town considered him ugly, probably because of his dark skin but that was a plus on my side of the border.
He even asked me to visit the bordo – the cliff of the town. Out alone in the woods? Lupe would be going too, so then I consented. I could have stayed there forever – so pretty with the pine trees and mountains all around. But soon we went back, to Lupe’s house this time. Now Jose Luis disappeared.
I still hadn’t decided if I should stay all night or not but the idea of tamales made me want to at least stay for dinner.
Jose Luis appeared again. Lupe soon asked if I’d marry a Mexican man. I thought the boyfriend question was tough, now they upped the ante. I got embarrassed – all this flirtaion and set up in the air and Jose Luis right there.
I said “Maybe, if he’d move to the US but I don’t want to think about that now”.
Jose Luis saved me from the conversation getting any scarier by saying the tamales were ready and I could come over to his house again.
After the delicious fresh made tamales – from fresh corn, I did decide to go home. Manuel wasn’t happy about it and gave me a guilt trip. Everyone kept asking if I’d ride with Jose Luis – I did and his dad. Maybe that’s why his dad was mad – wanted me to stay over, with his son. Jose Luis said it was fine that I went home. And I’m glad they drove me instead of me walking because it was already dark. I thanked them and joined Sheila watching TV at Tere’s house.
Soon I regretted not spenind the night in Mesa where the dip in the mountain makes it impossible for them to have TV. The novella was okay but then they watched another one that bored me. I just wanted to smash all televisions. All the conversations and people visiting was so much more interesting than television could ever provide.
The next day it was time to visit another village. Norman told us we had to be fair. If we visited one house first, then next time visit another family first. This was important. Same with visiting one village – then go see another. Sheila hadn’t ventured out much since her feet were still repairing. She had some problems when we were in college and I remember seeing her in a wheelchair for a few months. Now it was better but she put electric shock type of things on them a few minutes every night.
So, we ventured slowly down the mountain to Campo Americano. There were cut backs on the path and at each turn she’d sit and rest. Everyone in Cordon warned us that we would have to yell down as we got close by or their dogs would eat us alive. So when we saw the four houses in sight I yelled with all my might. “Buenos Dias. Que cuidan los perros por favor.”
“Good day. Take care of the dogs, please.”
There was no answer.
As we got closer we kept yelling. The third time we heard an answer but couldn’t understand what they had screamed back. Would we be “lunche” for the dogs?
Finally we emerged from the trees and walked through a green field, a big woman with an even bigger smile greeted us at the gate. Rosa said she put the dogs away and welcomed us warmly. We followed her to her house with a long porch. This was a special house in the village where the Americans first arrived. I don’t mean us foreigners with the Quakers, but the Clark family about one hundred years earlier.
Dark skinned tones of people were not appreciated in this area because most everyone was tall and blond – all from their US heritage. Three men with the last names Clark, Moore and DeMoss all migrated from North Carolina to the mines of Arizona. One of them even witnessed the last shoot out of Jesse James, supposedly. Then to make more money in mines they migrated south of the border only to find themselves on the wrong side of the Revolutionary war in Mexico. Pancho Villa was rumored to cut off the ears of those from the US so they went up to the mountains to hide. That’s where they found some indigenous women to marry and now almost everyone I met in the Sierra had an American last name. This is the place where they first landed, hence the name, Campo Americano.
The vibe in this town – of four families if it graces the name town, was warm also. Why were all the villages except the one I was supposed to live in so nice? Cordon was lucky to host the foreigners. Did they take us for granted? Or tired of meeting new ones?
First there was Sidonia who started the walnut grove with her agriculture expertise. Then there was the couple from England. Now Shiela and soon to transition to me and some woman from Califonia who would arrive as Sheila departed. They also had hosted at least one summer of work campers. Mesa Abajo did too but Campo never did. Maybe that’s why they were so friendly, politicing to get some foreign volunteers.
Rosa talked our ears off but we loved it. She was so nice. Then we made the rounds. Next we met a young couple – Beto and Rosita. Beto was making a water filter out of special stone called Filo. Visiting never interrupted work and I enjoyed watching all the hard labor and inventiveness. It wasn’t like you could call for a gardner or landscaper or contractor. There wasn’t even a store for goodness sake!!!
Next we crossed over a tiny creek to Sophia and Billy’s house. They looked like they had just arrived from North Carolina. They and their children were round and blond with blue eyes. Looked like the family had just picked up some happy meals and came out here for a picnic. But luckily they lived here and cooked us an amazing lunch of rice and beans with a jambalaya type of feel – a little bit of everything in it. They too were nice and jolly and immediately I wanted to kidnap little Lupita, a 6 year old jem. She enjoyed the Americans tickling her and paying so much attention.
Before we left, Sophia gave me a huge zuccini. She told me how they prepare it. It was so big I cooked it up once with a recipee from Joy of Cooking and then her way. Both were delicious.
The last house was with Ramona from Cordon’s sister, Maria, and her husband Rubeun. I was shocked to find Rubuen asking me about my visit to Mesa de Abajo. How did he know? How did the news travel so fast when there weren’t any phones? The only line of communication was the solar powered radio from the big city which they could hear in the daytime. It was full of news and personal greetings. Later I would learn I could call Radio Alegria and say things like “Carol needs a ride, pick her up at Punto de la Cruz” or my parents could call saying “come home quick Mom’s in the hospital”. Luckily that never happened to me but Radio Alegria was the way everyone got personal news.
Finally I figured out that Rebuen happened to be visiting Mesa de Abajo too and he heard I was there. I hadn’t gotten to that whole village yet – so many houses, so little time. But he also heard I gave Jose Luis my watch. A simple jewlry exchange. I was worried that the next thing I knew the rumors would say we were engaged. I squashed this rumor – I let him wear it for a few minutes, nothing else.
We had to back track as we left to go up the hill. Back at Rosa’s house we met her two sisters Lencha and Socorro. They too were big and all sported long hair in braids. They were the “Tres Muchachas”, three unmarried women, as wveryone referred to them. Immediately I loved them. Hearing them talk over one each other, welcoming us so heartedly, and being so independent. They were running the house and farm and field all by themselves. I figured if I ever got sick of the macho world I would swing down and visit them.
We climbed back up slowly. It wasn’t as hard going down but going up winded us. I knew I’d visit weekly now – great exercise. Sheila knew this would be her first and last visit, not only since she was leaving, but also her feet were not enjoyeing all the rock terrain under them. She stopped, again, a lot to rest. I didn’t mind, just nervous that it was getting dark.
We returned safely to Cordon and heard the big news. A mountain lion had killed one of their $300 calves. So the men were rounding up a possy to go camping and catch that cat. Sheila thought it was a big excuse to go camping, get away from the women, and get good and drunk. Since they never returned with a cat, I think she wss right.
I didn’t sleep well that night. Visiting and drinking all the coffee was driving my nerves into hyperspeed. I had an awful headache and couldn’t sleep. Soon Norman would return and tell me I only had to coffee at the first house I visited. That trick worked – I never had a headache again. And years later I would remember that – never even a stress headache. Was modern living unhealthy?
So in the morning I thought maybe I wouldn’t go visit Mesa Abajo like I promised but then I thought I love Mesa, of course I’ll go. So I told walked the hour down the road to get there. First I found a blond girl playing outside her house. She fetched her mother and father and we sat and talked. I was learning how to talk farm – how many cows do you have? How are the crops? I got so good at it at it that eventually I had to put down the historical and intellectual books I had brought with me to read for pleasure, This wasn’t a literate society – Don Emetero didn’t even know how to read at all. It was changing – Jose Luis and his sister lived in the big city half the year just to go to high school and then career schools.
I stayed about an hour to fulfill my visiting duties. While there she didn’t give me coffee but a great treat instead – corn on the cob with hard paremsean type cheese (that they make) on top. I preferred that to coffee any day. She also wouldn’t let me leave empty handed and gave me some fresh peaches. My favorite.
I wandered to the next house which held a widow. I knew because of her black dress. She was married to the patriarch of Mesa Abajo – and father to most who still lived there. She was being taken care of by her son and his new 22 year-old wife. Blanca, the wife, was beautiful – dark eyes and big black hair – the 80s had barely left us. I sat and talked with them for the required hour and said I was going. But Blanca said she was preparing lunch so I had to wait. This was an honor – to cook and feed the guest. But it took longer than I hoped and by the time we finished I was eager to cross the fence over to the side of the village I knew best – Jose Luis’ side.
Off I went, greeting Beatriz, the woman with the porch and swallows who now had flown up north to my side of the world. Then visiting with Lupe again. She went over to her sister and law’s Elia’s house and I met their cute as a button two year old, Asuzana. The way everyone lavished affection on her, she must have known she was cute. Soon two cowboys came, on horseback even. I looked up to see Jose Luis. I realized how exciting it was to see a handsome cowboy riding up on his horse to smile at you. I liked this Old West living. Now I understood why Maricela back in Cordon always made sure to look her best.
Not only were there cowboys but the living seemed like it was when the Americans first arrived from North Carolina. Wood stoves just like in the 1800s. Irons to be heated on the stoves. Washbasins. Buckets for water. Dirt roads. And the way dances meant everything to their soceity, I felt like I had gone back in time.
Jose Luis and Masimo (Elia’s husband and Lupe’s brother) went to tie up their beasts then came over and both shoke my hand saying “Buenas Tardes”
I soon found a way to end up at Jose Luis’ house and talked with his mother and father until he appeared. We all talked and joked. I wanted to relish the time because I knew it would soon be time for dinner and I had already been invited to Beatriz’ s and figured that’s where I would end up for the night. So I was surprised when Tita gave me a plate of food. I told her I was going to Beatriz’s.
“Here is dinner, so eat,” She retorted like I imagined my great grandmother’s from Sicily must have done.
Luckily they serve a small amount so later when Beatriz came by to tell me supper was ready (I avoided being there during preparations since I felt so trapped earlier at Blanca’s), I left sadly thinking that was the last I’d see of Jose Luis. In a few days he would be returning to the big city. I ate another plate and did enjoy talking with Beatriz and her son, Jaimie. Jaime relished in my foreign attention and rambled without a care that I might not understand it all at such quick pace.After eating we played card games. I taught them how to play war and they loved that game.
Lupe and her older sister, Minda, dropped by and enjoyed the game too. I was hoping Jose Luis would visit and when I heard a knock at the door and saw it was him I was overjoyed but held a pokerface. I taught them Go Fish and Black Jack. Playing Black Jack was a riot. No one could keep a poker face. At every hand I’d sneak a look up at Jose Luis in the dim light of a kerosene lamp. He would smile back. All the new rules and games seemed to overwelm them and Jose Luis seemed the slowest to catch on. I just thought it was country bumpkin cute.
At nine everyone left to go to bed. Beatriz showed me a room with just a bed in it. I didn’t sleep well being somewhere new and on account of a lot of mice noise. In the moring we had coffee and I went to say goodbye to everyone before I would walk back. I found Jose Luis chopping wood. He said they’d be leaving early the next morning and would miss Sheila’s goodbye dance party. He said he’d be back here for some harvest thing in October.
His parents kept yelling at him to get back to work but he ignored them. He asked if I’d meet him in the morning as they drove by and give me some of the cookies I told him we were making for the fete. I said I would. So with that we said goodbye.
I returned to Cordon and helped Sheila make some cookies. I put them aside, waiting to wake up and say good bye. To my horror in the moring they sped by, never stopping. I ran out of the front porch and could only see dust. Maybe his parents werent’ so into the idea of him getting to know me. Was it because I said I’d only marry someone who would go to the US? I didn’t mean anything by it. I already figured this is fun flirting, but marriage – I doubt it’d work out. We’re from two different worlds. I’m from the present.
Soon, I got too busy to think about being deserted with my cookies. I tried to make a cake for the party. It was a huge disaster. Eremita helped make the dough and that went fine – I even made a peach cake out of my Joy of Cooking, part two, baking book. The problem was the trash can we had that Norman had made into a stove. It smoked the cake, not baked it. Plus it smoked the whole house right before our big day.
Sheila cooked as much food as she could. That summer she went visiting in some far off village and was impressed that social mores dictated the guests eat more than humanly possible – everyone went out back to throw up and refill. I was terrified I’d have to do this too but I never saw that part of the festivities so maybe Sheila misinterpreted as I’m sure I have in many occasions in these cross cultural things.
Just in case, she made rigatoni in tomato sauce and baked beans. Later I would find out everyone hated it – no one wanted to try some international cuisine. It confirmed Sheila’s fears. She sensed their fears and told me she felt like saying to her guests “I’ll give you ten bucks to tell me what you really think of the food.” They ate, no matter what so maybe Sheila’s cultural interpretations were correct.
The whole day was filled with anticipation. Everyone took baths and dressed up just in case. Would the gringas have a dance? I didn’t know at the time how important dances were. They were the main form of entertainment, after the novellas of course. And the key ingredient to marry off the young since this was the only way to “date”. In order to hold a dance you couldn’t just play music, you needed enough unmarried girls – muchachas that weren’t related to all the muchachos (boys). Sheila and I automatically upped the odds.
I cleaned and Sheila cooked all day. We squeezed in baths and traded off times of stress. Why did we have to do this shindig anyways? Sheila said it was important to give back. But I still didn’t understand how to be a good hostess? We had to serve everyone, right?
It got late and no one showed up – especially the people we most wanted to see – Norman, Lucy and Pancho – Sheila’s ride home. Sheila grew up in rural America and never really liked the mountains of Mexico much. She thought Hermosillo was fascinating. I was the opposite. This place was all new and exciting to a suburban grown girl.
The real suburban van soon chugged up and Lobo greeted them with the happy round the world tag wag. Sheila was free! But to my shock her replacement seemed like a pesadilla – nightmare. Her name was Carolyn which was the same translation for my name – Carolina. Soon she would be known as Carolina Grande (big Carolina) and me Carolina Chica, both for the age difference and size. She was a round woman in her early 50s from California. To my horror, she didn’t know a word of Spanish. I heard her communicate with Lucy and Panch in English! What was Norman thinking? I didn’t have much time to think about it since after we served them dinner, two young men showed up on their horses ready for the party.
They went to Don Emetereo’s house so Sheila knowing the right thing to do, went over and invited them over for dinner. She worked in the kitchen as I ran back and forth like a waitress making sure everyone was allright. I was feeling overwhelmed. I had never been taught to serve nor to be a good housewife – only to study and go out and do something big in the world, which for now didn’t seem like it was happening.
One of the young men was from Mesa Abajo. His name was Jesus. He was a sweet man but Sheila had told me the low down. Not only had this kid been struck by ligtening twice and lived with his two aunts and one uncle (a gossip story for another day) but he had a rebellious streak. Seems like over the summer he went down to visit relatives in the big city and came back with, hold your breath, red pants. His aunts couldn’t believe what these kids were up to these days. Sheila and I thought it was hilarious until I learned the hard way that red pants and cows and horses don’t mix. I learned why bullfighers use a red cape. Maybe Jesus was a man living on the edge.
His friend came all the way from Mesa Colorado – a day away by horse. Soon more men kept coming. I was frantic but Sheila was happy cooking. She called it the Whislte Stop Café like in Fried Green Tomatoes that we read out loud to each other. That calmed me a bit, thinking of this as work – like I had as a teen, in a restaurant.
Until after dinner. We couldn’t find batteries for a boom box to start the dance. Suddenly music blasted – from Alvarro’s car. This town was gonna have a dance no matter what. Now it was time to wait for someone to act upon the music.
All the adults sat around the dance floor – our living room – stripped of the beds that now laid stuffed in the kitchen. I thought how nice that they would all stare at us while we danced – no wonder no one kissed before marriage.
I complained to Tala that no one was dancing and I didn’t even know they did the dance moves here. She and Tere took Sheila and I out to the dance, our dirt floor of the cabin, and gave us a lesson. Soon the man from Mesa Colorado, Baldito, tapped Tala on the shoulder to invite me to dance. I was honored. I was the first one asked to dance. It was fun trying the rancheros more country style dancing and sliding sideways around the dirt floor. In our shadows we looked like a true cow couple at a fiesta. But I was a bit embarrassed abeing the only ones out there and after the three-song rule I said I wanted to rest. I sat down and there was no one dancing again. I felt like I might have ruined it for the night. But Norman had warned us – never dance more than three songs – then they’ll want and expect to marry you.
I was hoping someone would start dancing again, and that Maricela could have her big chance. She was always waiting for Mr. right? Would this be the night? Baldito invited her to dance. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Eremita came with me in the kitchen and we danced a ranchero, she showing me how. Then she gave me all the chismes – rumors. Baldito was really the novio (boyfriend) of Lupe in Mesa Abajo. Then why wasn’t she here? Why did he invite me to dance? What was he doing with Maricela? Was I ruining Maricela and Lupe’s future marriages?
Maricela was smart and let him go after a few dances too. She knew her proper place. Next time he asked me to dance I asked if he was Lupe’s novio. He seemed shocked that I knew his secret. Even gringas learned fast everything that happened up here. Then he seemed mad – caught red handed. He didn’t seem to mind when I let him sit me down this time.
Chapo asked me to dance. He was nice but I felt uncomfortable. He was one of the bachelors in town. I didn’t want him to like me. That’d be weird. Jose Luis was safe – in another village. Jose caught me next. He danced smooth and just walked me back and forth around the dance floor which had now become a dust bowl. He didn’t seem wild like his red pants would suggest.
We did not know the proper care of a dirt floor; you had to sprinkle it down everyday with water, then sweep it. So with all these dancers, dust was picking up. People were coughing – stuck inside due to a rainstorm outside. Carolyn decided to take action. She took a cup of water and sprinkled it around. Everyone just laughed – too little too late. She looked foolish.
The few times a Zapatillo song would play, where you danced separatly and tapped your zapatos (shoes) around , hence the name, Cheno would ask me to dance. I thought that was sweet since I already knew he was engaged so this was a safe way to get to know each other and dance. Plus I was just happy he wasn’t scared of me like when we first met, a mere week ago.
The dance seemed a success. I liked the fact that I knew everyone there or knew about them. It was a safe feeling – not the scary who knows what you meet in a bar feeling. I could really dig this mountain community.
The next morning everyone asked if I slept okay after all the dancing. Did I dance too much or is this the normal post fiesta greeting. Then Lucy and Pancho brought us to Mesa Abajo. We visited the houses I skipped before and they didn’t let me forget it.
Carolyn kept getting worse in my eyes. See, I had always tried to blend in and immerse myself when I was an exchange student in France in high school and a college student in Spain. Carolyn was the opposite – completely sticking out. She embarrassed us by not knowing Spanish and speaking English to everyone eventhough only the city slickers knew anything. Only a few previledged Sierra people who had volunteers caught a few cuss words that they overheard the workcampers yell out,
Carolyn got bit by an insect and wanted to walk home. It took me an hour to walk there the other day. She just got here – she’d take forever, and get lost. We told her she had to be polite and stay and visit – that was basically our job. Then when she was meeting everyone she kept shaking their hands long after they had given the obligatory floppy fish hand hello. I had no patience for novice travelers.
We survived the visit and returned to Cordon. I napped in the hammock Carolyn had brought and hung up on our porch. Well that was one good thing about her. After I woke up, Sheila and I took a long walk. I was so sad that she was leaving. We both complained about Carolyn and wondered how I would survive alone up on a mountaintop with her and no means of communication. I thought it was a great set up for a murder mystery.
The next morning the story began – Sheila got into the Norman mobile and rode away. I was left waving goodbye with the rest of Cordon. I wanted to join Eremita in her burst of tears. Sheila had become so close to her that she surprised her that day with a doll house Sheila had built out of wood – with furniture, people, and all. So I played with Eremita and the new casa to stuff our feelings away.
Later I wandered over to the left where I finally started to like Carolyn. They were laughing at her – at the way she laughed and the way she didn’t speak Spanish. I think she had no idea they were teasing her but I did and was reminded of when they got me muddy and laughed at me in the corn field. I started to have compassion for this beginner. Maybe we would survive together.