Saturday, July 21, 2007

The Children's Tribe

It felt awkward. I was finally in Oxkutzcab and there were people I was supposed to meet. The problem was, I wasn´t sure what I´d say. "Hi. I taught your grandson Rey last year and I want to learn about Mayan culture and . . ."

And what?

Many families here live in the chozas, oval-shaped huts with palm-frond roofs. The walls are made up of sticks lined up vertically and stuck into concrete flooring. Indoor plumbing is a luxury; stoves are, too. Mayans have been living this way or similarly for thousands of years. It's normal for them. Meanwhile Miss Judy has been staying at the most expensive hotel in town (a whopping $22 a night) and complaining: it's nice that they keep it clean, but must they bathe the entire room in disinfectant? Why don't they keep the restaurant open during the hours posted on the sign? Spoiled, spoiled me. What could I possibly have in common with people who live on a few dollars a day?

I met Maya´s aunt, Dolores. On the phone she wasn't enthusiastic, but she perked up when I arrived with a photo of Maya. I took pictures of Dolores, her mother, two of her children and some cousins. Next thing I knew, she and her mother were talking animatedly in Mayan. They handed me a terno (it's a more elaborate version of an hipil, for special occasions only) and sent me into the house to put it on. They took pictures of me and offered to help me pick out a nice hipil at the market. I went away feeling like I'd made a connection. Even so, what I'd seen had depressed me. Dolores and her family live in a series of concrete block houses, the modern variation on the classic family plot of chozas. On their small dirt patch they have a few chickens, two fierce dogs and a lot of old bottles and bags. Not much else. Dolores told me that her children's father moved to Oregon. He told her she'd better learn to fend for herself. He won't even give her his cell phone number. Suddenly I wished I'd brought more for the children than pencils and stickers.

Rey and Jesus's paternal grandmother Juanita Nah had stopped by the hotel while I was out. I called: she said they'd come pick me up in the truck. "When, now?" I asked. "Sí, ahora." That was at 2:30pm. I settled in to the lobby. I had a nice chat with the desk clerk. We watched an interesting documentary on bees. I did a little writing and drank the gloriously chilled water from the cooler. By the time Doña Juanita showed up, I'd chilled out, too. A pick-up came up to the curb at 4:oopm and she jumped out, along with a bushel of Nah/Cuouh kids. I greeted them with my new come-what-may disposition. Then we were off to Akil, where Rey, Jesus, their mother, father and countless generations of Couohs, Góngoras and Nahs have been born.

Juanita's oldest son Juan drove -- he's a 21-year-old version of Rey. I squeezed between him and Juanita, with the kids bouncing behind us in the truck bed. Juanita talked a lot. She told me where we were going (several places) and who I'd meet (tons of people). I had trouble understanding her Mayan-tinged Spanish. I decided not to worry about learning all the names. There was no way I was going to keep track of how everyone was related. It made more sense to just experience whatever there was to experience.

We stopped by Rey's maternal grandmother's choza. It was clean and attractive, with colorful hammocks and family photo enlargements on the walls. A pleasant breeze came in, passing through the gaps between the sticks. The concrete floor was wonderfully cool. Maternal and paternal grandmother greeted each other affectionately as I passed around the photo album Rey's mother sent. We sat there for a long time looking at the pictures. The two older women, both in hipiles, talked over the pictures in Mayan, reminding each other who was who. The children listened quietly.We got back in the truck and zoomed off to the Couoh family land plot. In one choza, a woman was weaving a hammock on a wooden frame. In another, a different woman embroidered. In yet another choza a very old woman in a spotless hipil was resting in a hammock. She was tiny and beautiful, with high cheekbones and silver-gray hair. This was Rey's great-grandmother: she's ninety years old! Juanita explained who I was -- she spoke in Mayan but I heard her repeat the name 'Rey Antonio'. The woman looked confused. She sat up and directed a long stream of Mayan at me, Juanita translated some fragments. The gist was she wished all her family was with her in Akil. She didn't see why so many of her children and grandchildren found it necessary to move to the U.S. She didn't seem to be angry at me in particular, but her words gave me pause.In the yard I took pictures of their pigs, turkeys and chickens. Then we got in the truck again. "I thought you might want to see some real mestizas," Juanita said, "so we're going to Xohuayan." This sentence puzzled me: when Yucatecans say mestizos, they mean real, authentic Mayans (paradoxically: mestizo means mixed, usually indigenous/Spanish). Weren´t Juanita and her family true Mayans?In another twenty minutes we arrived in Xohuayan, a tiny town not listed on my Yucatan road map. We parked in front of another set of chozas and I met another set of women in hipiles. This time besides the usual chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs and dogs, there were also brahma cattle. Brahmas are huge, gentle white animals with massive humps behind the shoulders. I looked at them while Doña Juanita talked to her friend. She suggested I take the children for a walk.
Off we strolled, the children and I. We met a trio of pretty young women in hipiles. I wondered if that was what Juanita meant by mestizas: in Oxkutscab and Akil, the young women wear jeans. "Look," said our group's Manuel, a little black-eyed cutey of a seven-year-old. "They just slaughtered a pig!" A group of men surrounded the carcass, knives poised for butchering. They had a huge cauldron ready for rendering.When we got to the center of town, there was a church and a small plaza. There wasn't much else. At a rusty little playground, I climbed on the rickety see-saw. I convinced a couple of our smaller children to get on the other end and we bounced up and down a couple of times. "This playground isn't very good," Manuel said, so off we went into the steamy heat again, my tribe of children and I. We admired every pig and turkey. The older girls told us the names of the plants. When dogs barked at us, we closed ranks. When we were all feeling a little wilted, I bought sodas for everyone at a dingy little refresquería. We walked that whole little town without seeing more than a handful of people. Finally, we went back to find Doña Juanita.She and her friend were waiting for us in one of the chozas with tray of hot, fresh corn empanadas. "Do you feel like eating?" "Ui hen," I said -- I'm hungry. The empanadas were light and crisp, a little spicy meat inside an airy pocket. "She cooked these in here?" I asked. Juanita nodded. There was a small woodfire right there on the concrete floor. Even so, the air was fairly fresh and breathable: most of the smoke went right out through the openings in the walls. We ate quietly. The cattle moaned. The pigs snorted. The turkeys gibbered. The roosters crowed. A few brave (or clueless) chicks wandered into the choza while we were eating, only to be shooed out again. After eating we went back out into the yard. "Look," said Manuel, "there's the new calf!" She acted like an overgrown cat, nuzzling us and leaning her head down for a scratch between the ears.When were ready to leave, I decided to ride in the back with the children. The youngest girl did something that puzzled me: she grabbed a handful of gravel. It wasn't until we got to the first stop sign that I understood: ping ping ping! All the children, even the adolescent girls, let loose with the gravel. Every time we came to another sign they fired away, and mostly they scored, too. Standing in a moving truck and throwing rocks is not exactly teacher-approved behavior, but I couldn't help being impressed by their aim. I thought of something: I hadn't seen any toys at their houses other than the small, Styrofoam airplane I gave one of the boys. I hadn't even seen a ball.

As they dropped me off at my hotel, Juanita invited me to come back again in a couple of days to make pibes. "Sure!" I said. I had no idea what kind of food pibes were. I only knew that I would happily spend another day with these wonderful, interesting people.

I fell asleep happy with my hair still exuding the sweet, dark scent of wood smoke, but a thought woke up in the middle of the night: I'd met plenty of women and children, but very few men. Where were the men?

It was then I thought of Rey's ninety-year old great-grandmother in her hammock, lamenting the absence of so many of her relations. I thought of Dolores too, with her children's father far away and inaccessible. Then I thought of all the new but empty houses I'd seen around Oxkutscab and Akil, paid for by people who were working in the US. I've heard that most of those who move plan to come back 'some day', but then that day never comes. It's a long way from the Yucatan to the U.S., and the distance is more than geographical. It's a shame how many Yucatecans emigrate to the U.S. not because they want to, but because they feel they have no choice.