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>Santa Anita & Jose and Maria

September 19, 2010


The photos of Jose and Maria, our hired hands who lived on the farm, were taken at the Guadalajara municipal airport, probably in 1961 or ’62. I had totally forgotten that we had a little white dog until I saw the photo with Jose holding her. As soon as I saw it, her name, Mitzi, came back to me. Curious how memory works.

 Santa Anita
A few months after our move to Granja La Rosita, my friend Val and his family moved into a house in a new colonia about three miles down the road from us. This was a bright spot in my life, a chink in my wall of misery, as I now had a friend living reasonably close. True, I could still go to Chapalita pretty much whenever I wanted by bus or in our car, but it was always a crapshoot: Would anyone be home? Or free? Like us, none of my friends had a phone so even going into Santa Anita to use the one telephone (in the barbershop of all places; how did he ever get a phone?) wouldn’t have done any good. Having my friend Val nearby was great. And, to make it even better, I could saddle up Rocinante, one of our two horses, and ride over to his house.

SNAPSHOT: My friend Val and I are horseback riding in one of the many ravines that criss-cross the fields. This ravine is probably ten feet across and seven or eight feet deep. It twists to the left and my friend Val and I are just disappearing around that bend on horseback.
Val and I went on horseback explorations, me on Rocinante, he on our other horse, Sancho Panza. At least I got something from my Spanish literature class – I knew these were names from Don Quijote.
 Other than the town of Santa Anita, with its population of maybe five hundred souls, the area was very sparsely populated. The land around our farm was criss-crossed with ravines and dotted with fields Some fields were cultivated, some used for pasture, some were lying fallow or just plain neglected. In addition, there were large areas that had never been cultivated and apparently belonged to no one. There were no fences. We were free to roam where we wanted, and we did. At times we galloped across the grass- and scrub-covered land, enjoying the exhilaration of running unrestrained. Other times we simply let the horses wander, exploring by chance. We came to know all the ravines between Val’s house and mine. It was a knowledge that may well have saved our lives a few months later. (See next week’s post.)
Stands of trees dotted the landscape and we often headed for one in particular, a few miles from the farm. It was by a small stream that provided water for our horses. There were dangers out here, chiefly coyotes, rattlesnakes and scorpions, but we never gave them much thought. We were young and death was so remote as to be impossible. Even on my most miserable days death never crossed my mind.
SNAPSHOT: The small town of Santa Anita. Whitewashed adobe dwellings butt against the hard-packed dirt street, which runs alongside the plaza in the center of town. You can see all the important buildings that surround the plaza: the mayor’s office, the post office, the police department, the church and the town’s administrative offices. A couple of cars are parked on the street, a man on a bicycle trails two others on horseback. Just as the dust never settles in the snapshot, it never settles in the town, either.
Santa Anita, a hub for farmers and ranchers in the area, was a small, rural town two miles from our farm. Only the municipal buildings and the more well-to-do townspeople had electricity and running water; the majority did not.
Americans were a rarity in Santa Anita, somewhat akin to finding a cat in a phone booth. When Val and I rode into town one afternoon, two gueros, two light-skinned, blue-eyed, American boys riding in on horseback from the fields, we must have been a curious sight. I had been to town several times with Jose or Antonio to buy supplies or talk with the veterinarian but not enough to stop being a curiosity.
We clop-clopped along one of the cobblestone streets on the edge of town, both of us enjoying the attention and feeling very worldly, if not superior.
SNAPSHOT: On our right is a barber shop, and sitting in a straight-back wooden chair is Jose, a sheet covering him from the neck down and a bowl on his head.
We passed the barber shop with the phone and there was Jose, our hired hand, in the chair, getting a haircut. I had heard the term “bowl cut” before and now I understood what it meant. Jose had a white sheet draped around him and a bowl on his head. The barber was simply trimming all the hair that stuck out from under the bowl. Jose smiled and gave us a wave as we went by. We shouted out a greeting to him, waved in return and went on.
We soon came to the plaza and I remembered there was a pool hall on the corner in the next block. Jose had taken me in there once when he was looking for somebody and we had stayed to shoot some pool.
“How about we shoot some pool?” I asked Val, and with his affirmative response we headed down that block.
Like most of the other buildings, this one was of whitewashed adobe without the formality of a sidewalk, its door opening directly to the street. We tied up our horses alongside some others and walked in. The interior was dim, with no windows to let in light. The light bulbs hanging over the bar and each of the three pool tables cast a dingy light that tried to make its way through the cigarette smoke and the dust hanging in the air. The floor was rough-hewn planks and the walls were whitewashed the same as the exterior. There was a framed picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe above the door, a couple of calendars behind the bar to remind us of years gone by and a few cheesecake shots taken from magazines nailed to the wall. A trough extended halfway along the back wall and as we stood there, our eyes adjusting to the light, a man stepped up to the trough, unzipped his pants and relieved himself. Val and I looked at each other, fortunately managing to suppress a giggle. We went over to the bar and ordered a Caballitos, a Mexican soft drink. All three pool tables were in play so we just stood around and watched, drinking our pop, both of us conscious of being the center of polite attention. But being scrutinized closely is not the same as being scrutinized in passing. We finished our pop and left, feeling a little too conspicuous.
Maria and Jose at the Guadalajara airport

Jose and Maria
Jose and Maria were the married couple who worked for us. They were born and raised right there in the area and their whole lives centered on the land. Their children worked their parents’ land and Jose and Maria hired themselves out to bring in extra money. She was older than he, probably fifty or so to his early forties. My mental snapshot of Maria is of a Mother Katzenjammer look-alike. She was stout and taller than the average Mexican woman with her graying hair pulled back tightly in a bun. Her clothes, including the big white apron she always wore around her ample middle, had seen better days but they were always clean and pressed. She was good-natured and smiled a lot but she had her ways. Whether it was tending the truck garden, washing clothes or fixing a meal (or setting off fireworks), she brooked no interference.
SNAPSHOT: That’s Maria out in the grassy field next to our farm. She’s carrying a basket and she’s bent over, looking intently for something.
Like many country people without ready access to doctors or medicines, she was adept at diagnosing and treating minor health problems.
She told me, “I never had any training and I never went to school past fourth grade. But send me someone with a cut or a bruise or an upset stomach or if they’re constipated, I know what to do,” and she smiled knowingly, plucking another handful of feathers from the chicken in her lap. “I can set broken bones, cure fevers and rid people of the evil eye.” Another handful went into the basket at her feet.
“And just how do you know all those things, Maria?” I asked in what I’m sure must have been a condescending tone of voice.
“Well, you have to know about all the plants and trees and roots that grow around here. Many of them are useful in treating people’s problems. But you have to be careful – some are also poisonous! I go out into the fields and bring back the right plant. Then I make a poultice out of it and apply it to a cut or I chop it and boil a tea to be sipped.”
In my smug, adolescent way I thought this was all very quaint but of little real value. Then I got a toothache one day, a terrible one that Mejoral (a Mexican brand of aspirin) didn’t touch. As soon as Maria heard she first scolded me for not telling her immediately. My pain forced me to suspend my skepticism as I watched her march out to the field where our cows grazed. It took her only a few minutes to find the plant she needed and when she returned she motioned me to follow her into their quarters.
SNAPSHOT: The wooden chair I’m sitting on is missing a couple of slats from its back. Behind me is a double bed with an old, threadbare quilt. Dishes are stacked on the plank shelves over the sink and a picture of Lazaro Cardenas, progressive president of Mexico two decades earlier, stares at me. Maria is boiling water on an old Coleman stove.
“Sit down,” she said brusquely. “We’ll have you feeling fine in no time at all. That Mejoral didn’t work, did it? Well, I’m not surprised. You should have come to me right away. I know just what to do.” And she did. She prepared a tea using the plant she had brought back and told me to drink it. Within fifteen minutes the pain had subsided and within half an hour it was gone. Along with it went some of my adolescent confidence that I pretty much knew everything that was important to know, and its corollary, that other people didn’t.
Mom and Maria got along very well. Mom liked Maria’s competence and she respected her knowledge of folk medicine. This, in turn, pleased Maria, who felt comfortable making suggestions to Mom about our health. It must have been Maria who talked to Mom about vitamins, specifically vitamin B-12. Now, I have no idea what vitamin B-12 does or how much a person needs or how Maria came to know of it. Nonetheless, Maria and Mom started a crusade to make sure that everybody on the farm had enough vitamin B-12. So each Monday we were all to receive a B-12 injection. I dreaded it.
First, I didn’t much care for shots at all. Second, this was a particularly painful one. It was a thick yellow liquid, thick like molasses is thick. And it hurt like the dickens going in. To make it worse, this was no quick, in-and-out shot. It took probably half a minute to get it all injected into my buttock, thirty seconds of agony with me groaning loudly the whole time. When it was over, sweat covered my body and I felt drained as well as drenched. And each time it was over, Maria (who administered the shots to everybody) would say, “See, it wasn’t that bad, was it?” Yeah, it was that bad. That bad and a lot worse.
Jose (holding Mitzi), Maria, their neice, Rosa, and Valerie
I liked Jose, her husband, a lot. He was slender, a little over six feet, tall for a Mexican, and had luxuriant black hair that he, like so many Mexican men, combed straight back. His long, narrow face, topped off with a large charro-style hat, made him seem even taller. He had a way of pausing before responding to a question or to a comment that required some reply from him. And then his speech was slow, as if the words would come out only reluctantly. He would sometimes take off his hat and scratch his head while forming his thoughts, eyes slightly squinted, staring off over everybody’s head. To a casual observer Jose may well have seemed slow-witted; however, he was anything but. He was knowledgeable on just about anything having to do with crops, weather, farm animals, soils and prices. Mom and Antonio referred to him as shrewd when it came to negotiating a price for something we wanted to buy or sell.

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 6:31 pm

    >Maybe Maria was onto something there. B-12 has been used in treating alcoholics for many years, and I believe it helps liver functioning. Who knows? At any rate, nowadays they are finding much value in some of the old folk medicines and actively researching plants for medicinal values. You continue to weave a great set of stories within a story…cink

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