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>don Pepe & Valerie

April 18, 2010


The second section of this week’s post is about my sister, Valerie. She died, or took her life, at the young age of 30. I’ve tried to express one of the great regrets of my life in this section, but have just barely touched on it. It’s hard to write about, but I need to keep trying.

don Pepe
SNAPSHOT: Don Pepe’s cart is green, white and red, Mexico’s national colors, with the legends “¡Viva Mexico!” and “Para Su Gusto” (For Your Pleasure) on the front and side. Plus the football mantra, of course. It’s noon and there are half a dozen of us standing around, waiting for don Pepe to take our orders.
It was Luis who introduced me to don Pepe and the pleasures of buying and eating food from his pushcart. Pushcart vendors were a common sight in the United States a century ago, selling fruits, vegetables, bread, milk, clothing, utensils, tools, hardware, medicines and just about anything else people needed. They began disappearing during the Great Depression, but not in Mexico. To this day there are pushcart vendors of nuts, candies, ice cream, tacos, hot dogs, flowers and the ubiquitous fresh fruits and vegetables. These vendors ply routes they’ve either established on their own or taken over from someone else. At first I paid them little attention; they were simply a novelty. But before long they became something I looked forward to every day: They offered food that I liked and could always afford.

Their livelihood was carried out from large, wooden two-wheeled carts, with a wooden leg at the front that it rested on when stopped. They stocked their carts in the morning after a trip to the nearest public market or some other supplier. Some pushed their cart from one to another of a series of established locations throughout the day; some simply trundled their cart along the streets over established routes. Often the carts were brightly painted, sometimes in solid colors, sometimes with designs or pictures. More often, they looked road-weary and weather-worn.

The painted ones sometimes had the owner’s name on it, or a phrase or even a name for the cart. Some carts called on the protection of the Virgin Mary or Our Lady of Guadalupe: “Cuidame, Virgencita.” “La Culebra” was accompanied by a painting of a deadly-looking snake. A pair of dice might accompany “El Juego de la Vida,” the Game of Life. And, of course, there was the ever-present “Soy Chiva, Y Que?

    There were three times a day when we knew don Pepe’s cart with its agua fresca and selection of fruits and vegetables would be just outside the walls of Colegio Cervantes: noon, three o’clock and five o’clock. These were the times we left school for lunch, returned for afternoon classes and then left again at the end of the day. Our school was in an upper-middle class neighborhood, miles from any barrio where don Pepe would live and I wondered how far he had to push his cart to get here. I also wondered how he got along during the summer when school was out.
SNAPSHOT: Don Pepe stands beside his cart, a broad smile revealing two rows of even teeth. He’s short and slender, weighing no more than 135 pounds; if he were a boxer he’d be a lightweight. His short hair is tucked under the baseball cap he habitually wears.
I liked don Pepe. He was a cheerful man, bantering comfortably with us as he prepared our snacks, ignoring the occasional snide comment from some rich kid. When we tried to guess his age he would just smile. We figured he was old – around forty. He dressed pretty much the same every day: huaraches, a white shirt and gray or black pants, well worn.

His food, like his cart, was no different from that of hundreds of others. The more perishable fruits, such as papaya and watermelon, were kept on ice in a glass box taking up maybe a quarter of the cart’s space. Fresh pineapple was sometimes kept there also, depending on whether or not it had been sliced. About half the cart held the other fruits and vegetables he sold: mangos, coconut, cucumbers and jicama. In the front of the cart were three barrel-shaped glass containers, just like the ones I had seen on my day trip with Enrique, each holding three or four gallons of agua fresca. The flavors varied: strawberry, pineapple, tamarindo, lemon and others whose names escape me. A glass usually cost a toston (fifty centavos, four cents American).
SNAPSHOT: That’s me, picking myself up off the ground alongside don Pepe’s cart. Three older boys stand in front of the cart, ignoring me.
I went out to his cart for the first time one day at noon, along with a crowd of other boys, most of whom were in no particular hurry. I thought it was strange that they weren’t rushing to be first in line. Well, all the better for me.

There were only two ahead of me when I stopped in front of the cart. They were quickly served and, in my still halting Spanish, I told don Pepe what I wanted. In the same instant another boy grabbed me from behind, yanked me aside and threw me to the ground, snarling something I couldn’t understand but I was sure wasn’t complimentary.

I heard a chuckle. “Don’t take it personally, Dave. Happened to me, too, the first time I ordered something.” I looked up and there was Valentine Rathbun, another guero in school. I took his extended hand, got to my feet and brushed myself off. “The older guys, the upperclassmen, they always get theirs first, then the rest of us.” We hung around until the older boys had all left and then we placed our order with don Pepe. As I said, respect was a way of life. Sometimes it had to be enforced.

Don Pepe did a brisk business with all of us. A request for a cucumber resulted in one being deftly prepared: peel it, two quick vertical slices to within an inch or so of the bottom to halve, then quarter it, squeeze some fresh lime over it, sprinkle it with salt (the kind used to salt the rim of a margarita) and chile powder and it was ready. The mangos, coconut and jicama were all done quickly in the same way. It was fascinating to watch him prepare jicama, with its hamburger bun shape. The jicamas, lying on ice in the glass box, were always peeled ahead of time. One peso bought a half a jicama. Don Pepe picked it out and with his knife made a series of quick, precise jabs into the center of the jicama around the circumference in a serrated pattern. In a matter of seconds it would come apart in his hands, each half with a series of little peaks and valleys perfect for retaining the lime, salt and chili.

SNAPSHOT: Irene, one of our maids, stands at the stove, wiping it down. Her fifteen-year-old daughter, Socorro, is at the sink, washing dishes. They’re a captive audience for Valerie to talk to, sitting on the stepstool by the stove. You can just see me disappearing through the back door.
It’s June, a year since our odyssey began, and Valerie and I headed into summer. Both of us were completely fluent now in Spanish and completely comfortable in the culture. Mom, too, has adapted to our new way of life, though her Spanish would never progress much beyond the primitive stage. She regularly headed downtown, with or without one or the other of us, to do whatever shopping she had in mind (although always in the car, never the bus). Val spent a lot of time with the maids, for a couple of reasons. First, girls in Mexico didn’t go out and “play;” they had to be chaperoned to the park or to and from their friends’ houses. So, unless one of her Mexican classmates came over (chaperoned, of course) or someone was free to accompany her to a friend’s house, she spent a lot of time at home talking with the maids, Irene and her daughter, Socorro. If one of them is free, Valerie can go visiting. But, being working women, they have a lot to do. I made myself as scarce as possible.

Val, age 9, and her friend, Rosa.

Here, again, I have to pause and look back on my relationship with my little sister, a relationship that I could have, should have, nurtured but didn’t. In Mexico most sibling relationships are very close, particularly when the age difference is great, as was the case with Valerie and me: seven years. Older siblings take very good care of the younger ones. They watch out for them, help them with schoolwork and other things, take their hand when walking, play with them. I never did any of that with or for Val. That particular aspect of Mexican culture eluded me. Or I it.

On the other hand, being a boy afforded me tremendous freedom to come and go and I took full advantage of it. It was always more important for me to be with my friends than to spend any time at all with my sister, and I rarely did. I know Valerie looked up to me, her big brother, but I always took that as an annoyance, not something to be proud of. This rejection of Val continued all the way up to her untimely death at the age of thirty. Now, all I have is the guilt and the terrible sadness, the hole in my life where my sister should be. Maybe, if I’d been a better brother, she’d still be alive.
                                            Val’s ID card from Colegio Ingles,
                                             1963. She was 12. 

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 19, 2010 3:58 am

    >I knew Val as both a "tenny-bopper" and a young adult, and I know she looked up to you and loved you. She was a flighty little bee most of the time, but I don't think you were the cause of her final problems, nor could have been the total solution. But, we all wish we could have done something different in our lives, especially with family, and the truth is that any fantasies about changing the past are probably just that – she was who she was, and her quirky personality was unique to her and I think probably not very changeable. Had she been living in proximity, perhaps she would have talked to you more – but she was off in her own world as an adult and I believe you had little to do with her later problems. Unfortunately, I also had talked with her a few times in her adulthood, and I sensed she had some misgivings about things around her, but they were created out of that time and situation – not from some past "neglect" – and it took a few years after her death to not feel that maybe I could have talked more with her too. Her love for you was real, and I remember her dearly also.Pepi DiBois

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