see the one holding half of the snake?
that is bere.
she was fearless.
she also spoke spanish fluently.
and that no-make-up wearing robin had just learned to roll her rrrrrs.
yes we are standing in a cemetery. i’ll explain.
it was the fall of 1998, 9 years ago. a group of 7 american byu kids found themselves in the heart of mexico. four of us lived in nealtican, puebla, mexico. the other three were up the road a bit in xalitzintla. nealtican is in the state of puebla just south of mexico city. although i grew up in arizona, i never really had a desire to visit mexico (other than our high school spanish class trips to nogales). that all changed my sophomore year of college. a green sign posted to the wall in the language building jumped out at me. mexico literacy program. after a whirlwind interview and a several negotiations with my communications department i called home to inform my parents that i was going to live by a volcano.
the ruins. the culture. the bread. the heritage. the art. the music. the tacos. i fell in love.
our job was to help illiterate and under educated teenagers and adults learn how to read and write and do basic arithmetic. living in a pueblito, surrounded by corn fileds with only one paved road out of town, people were less concerned about education and more focused on working in the fileds, making a living and feeding their families.
there were still those explosive moments where a tiny abuelita, shriveled with age and disease, barefoot, sitting on the one chair in a home with a dirt floor, gripped her pencil, and after much concentration made the final loops of her name for the first time.
or there was the time when feeling desperate for all that lacked for these people, i walked down a dusty road and heard laughter. i stopped to watch a group of small boys, all barefoot and wearing filthy clothing. they had a pretty beat up soccer ball, and as they kicked it and played i felt their happiness despite their circumstances.
it was especially fun to be in mexico during día de los muertos. as a service for the catholic residents of nealtican, all the mormons helped prepare the cemetery for the occasion. we weeded, and as you can see above, disposed of unwanted serpents. we returned on día de los muertos to see the fruits of our labor. all the traditional flowers graced the beautifully manicured graves.
bere made my mexico experience just that much better. my focus there was my international communications class. i watched the news when my host family wasn’t watching telenovas, i bought newspapers and i followed the campaign with its myriad of parties. bere studied the arts of mexico. i accompanied her on trips almost every other weekend in to puebla or mexico city to see the works of the great mexican muralists and the palacio de bellas artes.
mexico changed me. i still find myself homesick for mexico.
bere asked me to share a few things about myself… and since i’ve done several of these lists before, i thought instead i’d tell you some little known facts about our mexican semester.
uno. bere, (e)steve and i accompanied my host dad domingo and his business partner on a trip to the south! let’s all remember that this is 1998. zapatistas were in the news. the u.s. embassy cautioned americans to not travel to chiapas. so where did we head? oh, chiapas. before getting there we took a lovely drive along the gulf of mexico where we stopped to eat mariscos. i had never had mariscos. i did not want to eat the mariscos. the voice in my head told me not to eat the mariscos. i ate the mariscos. i was sick for a good part of the trip. so much so, that somewhere in campeche we stopped at a farmacia to buy medicine. we then took that medicine to the red cross so the nurse (?) could put it in a needle and then inject me… in the butt. after said injection, we were driving in domingo’s big black suburban. i felt more than queasy. it happened all at once. i rolled down the window, aimed towards the back of the car and vomited out whatever was ailing me. unfortunately for me i aimed the wrong direction. when a vehicle is in motion it is best to aim the direction the vehicle is traveling. after that i felt much better!
dos. somewhere between palenque and san cristobal de las casas domingo started getting concerned that he had three americans in his car. we would drive only during daylight hours and made sure to be locked in a hotel room by sundown. despite these valiant efforts… we did in fact get pulled over by armed men.
tres. one night we were eating at a little restaurant. domingo’s meat looked a little suspicious. he saw me eyeing it and cut a piece for me to try. he said, smiling like a little kid, “coma! es carne buena!” i chewed and chewed and chewed before i realized this wasn’t normal meat. bere helped me translate hígado.
cuatro. while at a regional young adult dance for church the spanish techno version of “my heart will go on” played repeatedly. also while listening to a live band in the nealtican plaza one night we danced to mana covers and other good music… when all of a sudden they started singing “no rompas mas, mi pobre corezon!” (don’t break my heart, my achy, breaky heart…. the crowd went wild.
cinco. when i was still considered a very fresh gringa in their home, the idea of machismo was brutally shocking to me. one night at dinner domingo sat with his back literally in front of the cabinet with the silverware drawer. when he realized he needed a knife he asked his daughter who sat on the opposite side of the table to get him one (from the drawer directly behind him). she obediently got up and served her father. with my jaw dropped i laughed, and informed him the knife was behind him. i could feel the tension instantly from the women in the room (four daughters and his wife). we all waited for his reaction… he smiled. after that he didn’t ask for silverware.
seis. bere and i tried out a taco stand one day near the paved road by the combi stop. we tried them out and as i ate them i realized these weren’t just ordinary tacos! they were amazing!! we asked the guys what was in them. “casi puro carne” was the response…. almost all meat!? we pressed and finally the answer came… brains, stomach, tongue…. i actually finished my tacos, but did not return.
siete. one weekend bere, (e)steve, selene and i wanted to get away. alcapulco sounded like a nice enough locale. we packed up and grabbed a combi that dumped us in the puebla bus terminal in the middle of the night. little did we know we were heading to a vacation spot on a mexican holiday weekend. our cab driver found us one of the last hotel openings. i drew the short straw and shared a bed with (e)steve (don’t tell byu). our hotel lost water when we came back from the beach covered in sand. and when we buried (e)steve in the sand my hand came within inches of a hypodermic needle.
ocho. when boys like girls and come calling they do a whistle for you. apparently knocking on the door is too big of a hassle! after ignoring several love whistles my host family, taught me the ways of mexican wooing. i still would feign ignorance.
nuevo. i was kissed in a cholula plaza. the phrase “no te vayas” has a whole new meaning after that! it’s not just something people say with an enormous amount of make up and fake eye-lashes on a telenovela!
diez. we threw our host families an american thanksgiving dinner. ingredients were a little difficult to come by. i made pumpkin pie (from scratch) and was impressed with myself when it actually tasted like pumpkin pie. i also made stuffing from scratch. i left the bravery to bere, who, with (e)steve killed and bled and cooked a turkey for our meal!
did i mention the volcano erupted that night?