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>Enrique & A Day Trip

February 28, 2010


My sister and I could have spent our time in Mexico like so many other Americans, living in little enclaves, going to the American School, refusing (or at least resisting) any accommodation with our host country’s culture. Mom, however, would have none of that, and I owe much to her because of her insistence on “When in Mexico, do as the Mexicans.” This week’s post recounts my second foray into the real Mexico, the first being my trips to Mercado Juarez. Looking back, I believe the day trip to Enrique’s village did much to set me on the path to acculturation, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
(PS: You’ll notice I’ve changed the format of the blog. I think this one’s easier on the eye.)
September, 1956 – time for a sigh of relief, at least on Mom’s part. She had delivered us successfully and safely to our new life, made a home for us and made new friends. Her apprehensions about being alone in a foreign country and facing an uncertain life diminished. She no longer felt, as she put it, “like a goose in a new world.” Dad had been dead not quite a year. Their marriage had not been a model one, at least not after the first couple of years. I’m sure Dad’s death was upsetting to Mom, but I’m also sure there was a sense of relief, of liberation.

Still there was loneliness, and perhaps now, far from what used to be home, more than ever. I could see it sometimes in her eyes and hear it in her voice. She was thirty-seven, still attractive and willing to test the waters.

Not long after settling into the house on Juan Bernardino, she met Enrique Jauregui. Enrique was pure Indian except for his first name. He was college-educated, spoke fluent English and owned an alfareria, a pottery shop, just south of Guadalajara, in Tlaquepaque. He was thirty-three, slender and not much taller than five-foot-four Mom. His pencil-thin mustache was flexed by his frequent and engaging smile. He always wore khaki pants, long-sleeved white shirts and huaraches, Mexican sandals made from discarded tire treads.

SNAPSHOT: The Ford is in the driveway. Mom and Enrique are sitting in it, Enrique in the driver’s seat. I can see them clearly from my bedroom window. You could almost read by the late night full moon.

The only reason I knew their relationship, however brief, was more than casual was because my bedroom was over the garage. Late one night I woke up to the sound of our car pulling into the driveway. I got up, went to the window and looked out. The car had stopped just below my window and I could look down through the windshield into it. At first I couldn’t see anything, which was strange because I knew they hadn’t yet come in the house. Then I saw movement. Enrique had been driving and Mom was sitting right next to him. She turned to him. They embraced and then enjoyed a long, passionate kiss, holding each other tight while their bodies moved together in the close confines of the car. I was shocked and embarrassed, thinking that Mom was much too old to be doing that kind of thing. Heck, at thirteen I was embarrassed even thinking about me doing something like that. But it remained my secret. I didn’t even tell Valerie.

A Soccer Match
One Sunday Enrique came over to take me to a soccer game between Atlas and Guadalajara, the two local clubs. The Guadalajara club, with its instantly recognizable red-and-white-striped shirts, was nicknamed “Chivas”, the Goats. It was Mexico’s team in the same sense that, years later, the Dallas Cowboys became “America’s team.” Chivas was (and still is) the working man’s club – the laborer, the vendor, the bus driver, the clerk. Cabs, buses, trucks, cars, vendors’ carts, businesses, and windows in houses, all sported little decals with a red-and-white-striped shield and the slogan “Soy Chiva, y que?”. This was not much different from a New Yorker saying, “I’m a Yankee! You gotta problem with that?” The Atlas club, known as the Zorros (the Foxes), sported red and black colors. They were (and still are) the team of the upper classes and there was no comparable public support for them. No slogans, no decals; it was as if the club didn’t exist.

I’d never seen a soccer match before, knew nothing about the game, and wasn’t particularly interested in going to one now. Enrique had tried to spur my interest by pointing out they played in shorts and shirts, and used no pads or protective gear as in American football. Watching the game, I wasn’t impressed. Of course they didn’t wear pads! There wasn’t much contact, I thought, not like in“real” football, so what’s the big deal?

 I watched as the players ran full tilt up and down the field. I knew the idea was to kick the ball in the net but . . .so what? The subtleties, the intricacies, the beauty of the game were lost on me. But something Enrique told me did make an impression. It was half time and we were standing in the concessions line. I was deciding between popcorn and a Coke or a taco and a Coke when he interrupted. “Watch the players when they come back. You’d think they’d be exhausted after playing so hard in the first half but they’ll have just as much energy in the second half. You know why?“

I shook my head, deciding on the taco.

“All the players get an injection of vitamins to give them energy for the second half,” he explained.

“Yuuggh!” The taco almost flew out of my hand and I shuddered. “I’d never be a soccer player if I had to get a shot every game!” I told him. Now I simply wonder: What were those lads getting shot up with?

A Day Trip to Enrique’s Village

On another occasion, Enrique invited me to accompany him to visit the village where he was born and grew up. “We’ll go next week. We’ll take a bus, travel about an hour out of town and then walk the rest of the way.”

 I really didn’t want to venture out of my recently established comfort zone and into territory even more foreign. I complained to Mom. “What if I get lost? What if they don’t like me because I’m an American? What if I get hungry and don’t like the food? What if it’s too hot? What if there’s no water? What if I get blisters?” I was desperate to get Mom to see the dangers in this trip and I had another half dozen excuses ready to offer when she cut me off. “Enough, David,” she said, “you’re going.” I went.

SNAPSHOT: Dust swirls around Enrique and me as we wait for a bus, traffic rushing by on the two-lane blacktop road. There’s no bus stop here, no bench, no shade and it’s warm already, even though it’s only eight in the morning.

“Here’s where we get our bus,” Enrique said, cheerfully. I looked around, expecting to see a bus bench, bus stop, a bus sign – something to show me where “here” was. Nothing. Enrique noticed my confusion and smiled. “When the bus comes along, we just flag it down. You’ll see.” I knew you could do that in the city, but out in the country? Weird.

As the bus approached, Enrique waved his arm and as it rolled to a brake-grinding stop I got my second surprise. This wasn’t the big, comfortable flat-nose bus I was expecting; it was like a school bus but even less comfortable. And it wasn’t painted in conservative reds and grays or blues and creams. This was no boring bus. It was violet. Or most of it was, with pink fenders and a row of small Mexican flags painted just above the windshield. What’s more, there was a goat tethered to the roof. Tethered to what I had no idea.

As we boarded I saw a rosary swinging gently back and forth from the mirror; a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe was glued to the dashboard right next to the ubiquitous “Soy Chiva, y que?” decal. The driver was a big burly man in a dirty white tee-shirt, with several days of beard.

Enrique handed several pesos and change to the driver and we made our way into the interior of the almost-full bus. My third surprise. There were no seats. A bench hugged the perimeter of the interior. Enrique tapped my shoulder, moved ahead of me and motioned me to follow as he made his way to a couple of empty spaces towards the rear. I stepped around two big burlap bags of onions piled in the open space in the middle, along with a precariously balanced stack of charro hats (the typical Mexican sombrero inlaid with small silver decorations and fancy stitching around the brim). I followed Enrique and we carefully stepped over a beautiful new saddle, some bags and battered suitcases. We sat between a woman transporting chickens and rabbits in small cages and the man with the charro hats. I felt both nervous and intrigued by all this. It was like Travel Magazine meets Alice in Wonderland.

The woman with the chickens and rabbits also had three children with her. The oldest, a boy about my age, said something to me, gesturing, and then looked at me inquisitively when he finished, expecting a response. I shrugged my shoulders and smiled nervously. He tried again, talking slower and louder, exaggerating the words. Didn’t help. I turned to Enrique, who was watching in amusement. He explained to the boy and his listening family who we were and where we were headed. The boy didn’t try to talk to me after that but I was the recipient of many curious glances the remainder of the trip.

            For an hour or so we traveled, the bus making frequent stops along the highway to pick up and discharge passengers. The man with the saddle left, replaced by another man struggling with four guitars. The woman with the children, chicken and rabbits was replaced by a small girl trying to keep her balance carrying two big metal canisters to her seat. “Fresh milk,” Enrique told me. All the while he was pointing out things of interest along the highway but I was more fascinated by everything in the bus. Then, prompted by some landmark, he shouted to the driver, the bus slowed, stopped and we got off. The goat was still on the roof.

            Once again we were standing along a dusty highway, this time facing away from the blacktop. “This is the finest land in the world!” Enrique exclaimed proudly. “You can grow anything here.”

SNAPSHOT: A man plowing behind a yoke of oxen adds another furrow of freshly turned earth to the field that stretches out before us. Three hawks circle in the blue air high above. A copse of oaks stands in the distance beside a stream that nourishes lush plant life on either bank. Two horsemen amble by.
            The riders shouted out a cheery “¡Que hubo, compadres!” to us, a greeting returned by Enrique. This was definitely not LA! And, while it was farmland it wasn’t anything like being at my grandparents’ farm in the San Joaquin Valley, where I’d spent several summer vacations. Also unlike L.A., the skies were blue and clear, dotted with feathery white clouds. Distant mountains were sharply outlined. I began to relax.

            “¡Vamonos!,” Enrique said and we started off over the plowed fields. He’s
in his usual attire, white shirt, khaki pants, huaraches, topped with a straw hat. I’m in my usual attire, jeans, black high-top Keds and striped tee. As we walk, he talks, eager to tell me all about this part of the countryside, its history, its crops, in what direction and how many kilometers distant this or that village lies. None of these villages has electricity or running water, he tells me. Some, including his, are not even on any kind of road. That was why we were walking. He was animated, enthused and clearly felt much closer to the land of the countryside, his land, than he did to the paved streets and walled lots of the city. I still preferred the paved streets and walled lots of the city, even though I could feel a sense of interest and excitement beginning to grow in me. Enrique’s enthusiasm was infectious.

We walked and we walked, my feet and legs tiring from sinking into the soft, recently turned soil but I wasn’t about to complain. Enrique seemed tireless.

Soon he pointed out a path worn smooth and hard over the years by countless people, cattle and horses. “We’re almost there,” he said, turning onto the path. “This is the last leg.” The path crested a hill and shepherded us down into the village. I don’t know its name, how far from Guadalajara it was, nor in what direction. But in memory, it remains idyllic.

Whether by chance or by design, it was laid out with almost geometric precision: two streets ran parallel in one direction, two others intersected them perpendicularly, a giant tic-tac-toe grid. As we walked down into the village, I tried to find anything in my memory or experience that resembled this, something I could look back on, make a connection to and say, “Oh, yeah, this is kinda like . . .” fill in the blank. The only thing that came to mind was the western towns I remembered from all the cowboy movies I’d watched and visits to Chatsworth, where many of them were filmed. But here there were no planked sidewalks, no swinging door saloons, no hitchin’ posts, no clapboard store fronts. Only the dusty, unpaved streets offered any comparison.

One-story adobe structures were the rule here. Older ones were distinguished from newer ones because wind and rain had softened the corners and edges of their adobe bricks. Enrique had already told me about the lack of electricity but, even so, the lack of phone poles, of overhead wires, of TV antennas, was startling.

It was early afternoon when we found ourselves at the first adobe houses. It had been a hot tramp as well as a long one. The first thing we did was step into a tiny but cool tienda to buy some agua fresca.

As soon as we walked in a big smile covered the owner’s face. He came out from behind the counter and gave Enrique a big abrazo. They exchanged greetings and, I assumed, news, gossip and information of mutual interest. It reminded me again of those times I listened to Mexican radio stations broadcasting from Tijuana; I didn’t understand those, either.

I looked around the cool interior of the little store. Sunlight spilled through its two windows and the door. There were shelves on the wall opposite the door, stocked with cans and bottles. To my left three wooden chairs stood empty around a rickety card table with a newspaper on it. To my right was the counter, and behind it several more shelves with the same kinds of things I had seen often enough in the tiendas in Chapalita. The floor was hard-packed dirt.

As the two men talked I went over to the table and picked up the newspaper, curious to see if I could read any of it. It was the Excelsior, a national newspaper, dated a couple of weeks earlier. I made out a few words: gobernador, ciudad, importante and the like, but no context.

After a few minutes Enrique pointed at me and I heard him say my name. “David, this is my father,” he said. The man came over, stuck out his hand and spoke probably the only English words he knew: “Tenk you! Tenk you!”

Not knowing what else to say, I responded, “You’re welcome!” and shook his hand. I was nonplused at this exchange of improbable pleasantries.

Enrique pointed out the three-gallon barrel-shaped glass containers on the counter. “This is agua fresca,” he explained. “It’s water flavored with fresh fruit and fruit juice. It comes in many flavors. Don Julio here has fresa, tamarindo and coco, strawberry, tamarind and coconut. What would you like?”

Strawberry sounded safest to me while Enrique settled on the tamarind. Don Julio picked up a big ladle and dipped it twice into one of the big containers and filled a glass for me, then one for Enrique. I could see pieces of strawberries floating in the red-tinged agua fresca. There was no ice but the drink was cool, nonetheless, and very refreshing, just as its name implied.

SNAPSHOT: A handful of small boys play a dusty game of barefoot futbol. A woman walks by balancing a stack of fresh, hot tortillas wrapped in a cloth on her head. Other women have baskets of clothes balanced on their heads as they walk to a nearby stream to wash them. Some are already there, splashing the garments in the water and pounding them on flat stones. Two men lead donkeys hitched to wagons, another group erects an adobe house. Stacks of the adobe bricks lie close at hand.

I wondered about the wisps of straw I saw poking out of the bricks. Enrique explained that the straw was mixed in with the mud for strength.

Enrique’s village was small, laid out so as to take full advantage of the shady coolness provided by a number of very old, very large trees. The men dressed simply, like Enrique. The women dressed equally simply in dark ankle-length skirts and a rebozo wrapped around their shoulders.

I was perplexed by what I saw. It refuted everything I’d ever been told about Mexico and Mexicans – that they were desperately poor, lazy and dirty; they had no sense of order and organization. Even listening to Spanish on the radio back home tended to confirm this in my mind; it sounded so disordered and disorganized. This village painted a different picture. The people were industrious. The adobe dwellings were neatly laid out along the village’s unpaved streets. The children I saw seemed happy and healthy. Like the adults, their clothes were simple but clean. I began to take a much greater interest in what this day was offering me.

 A group of children trailed after us, smiling shyly. Enrique sent them off with a few gentle words.

“Where do they go to school, Enrique?”

“There’s a larger village about five kilometers from here with a school,” he said, pointing in that direction. “Children from several smaller villages attend there.”

“How far is that in miles?”
“It’s about three miles.”

“But how do they get there?” I wanted to know.

“They walk,” was the laconic reply.

More puzzlement. Why would their parents make them walk that far? Mom would never let me do that, let alone make me. But then, if their parents didn’t make them, they couldn’t go to school at all.

We spent a couple of hours in Enrique’s village. Enrique knew just about everybody and everybody was glad to see him. He explained to each person or group of people who I was and why I was there. I’d never before been on the receiving end of so many smiles and handshakes.

We had our comida, the main meal of the day, at his aunt’s house. It was simple fare: a little pork mixed with rice and beans and some flavorings new to me. Fresh, hot tortillas and more agua fresca accompanied the meal. It wasn’t peanut butter and jelly and it wasn’t hamburgers or hot dogs and it wasn’t spaghetti or pizza. It was just very good.

I have no snapshot-memory of the walk back to the highway or the bus trip back home that day. What I do remember is just before leaving Enrique took me back into his father’s tienda . On the counter was another big glass jar, the same kind of jar a deli might use for dill pickles, only larger. It was full of large hot chiles. Enrique plunked down his veinte (twenty centavos – about three cents) on the counter, pulled out the biggest one he could find and began eating it. “Want one?” he asked.

“I don’t think so, thank you,” I politely but quickly replied. Eating a hot chile was not on the list of things I wanted to do in life.

“Too bad,” he said, smiling as he finished it, “They’re really good.” I think he enjoyed my wonder as much as he enjoyed his snack.

I don’t know if I ever thanked Enrique for that day, that trip. I do so now.

NEXT: Georgina  &  The Vets

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 1, 2010 6:30 am

    >A great catch of village life. The few times I've been through farm country and small villages in Mexico, I have found them still to be very similar – although now-a-days they almost all have power lines of some sort running into them. And the people are still very clean (and some still wash their laundry in the rivers) and industrious – something most Americans don't seem to want to accept.Siya Manana

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