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A Country Both Rich and Poor
¿Hombra, spare a bit for your needy brother?
¿Señorita, my children are starving. A bit of food to tide them over?
Hey man, I just lost my job. Can you lend me a little dough, ese? Just for a little while.
¡Hola! Try this new quesillo, freshly made!
A stranger in this land known as Mexico, people were always assaulting me with pleas, everywhere I turned. Whether they told the truth or not, I could not be sure, but their cries followed me, long after I had dumped a few pesos in their hands. Perhaps they really were needy, or maybe they just saw a foreign bloke like me and thought they could make a fast buck off a soft heart. Who knows? I always was a softie.
I had come to Mexico prepared. I had a hat and sunscreen, I had money, and I had a pocket on the inside of my jeans to keep my money in – to avoid muggers stealing my savings – and I had a Webster’s Spanish dictionary. I had my notebook and pencil and camera, to complete my assignment for school, which was to make a report on your first-hand experience in another country. I hadn’t exactly wanted to come to Mexico – I’d been hoping to go to England so I wouldn’t have to learn a new language – but circumstances being what they were, I was accompanying a friend of mine to Mexico City for our report trip.
But I hadn’t been prepared for all these people, begging me to give them money for this or that, compelling me to buy this, or to try this food. I hadn’t been prepared for all the people desperate for business, desperate for the pesos I had, desperate for the American to think highly of or feel badly for them and give out tips and donations. I wasn’t fluent in Spanish: I could count to ten and say “Hello!” and “Today is Wednesday (or Monday, or Tuesday or Sunday)” and “My dog is ugly”, and that was about all. I couldn’t tell these people no, I couldn’t say sorry, I’m busy. I couldn’t refuse their reaching hands.
“This place is so awesome!” Anna, my friend and travel partner, exclaimed. “Look at this! It’s a mango shaped like a flower!”
She held out a mango on a stick, delicately carved to resemble a flower, that an elderly lady was selling like popsicles behind us. Anna held it out for me to hold while she wrote Beautiful food, artistically crafted, in her notebook. She had no fear of me eating it, as I disliked fruits of almost every kind.
I walked by a stall, and a man who claimed that he couldn’t pay the mortgage on his house sold me a piñata, which I reluctantly put in my bag. He could have been lying. He probably was. Why couldn’t I just say no? “No” is just the same in Spanish as it is in English. I shouldn’t worry about hurting these people’s feelings… it’s not like I would see them again.
“What should we do now? I’ve got all the market place rituals down,” Anna said. She had been leading me around for the most part. “What else should we do?”
“Let’s go to a church,” I suggested, since I knew nobody would be selling anything there. They couldn’t sway me into buying their wares. “It’s a big part of Mexican and Spanish culture. We could observe them, that kind of thing.”
We hurried down the bustling, crowded streets into a nearby cathedral.
As soon as we stepped inside, it was like another world. Gone were the noisy protests and imploring. Gone were the throngs of people, shoving and pushing. Gone was the chaotic atmosphere. The cathedral was dark and cool, faint light and dust motes coming in from the stained-glass windows near the top of the church. The faint glow of candles near the alter gave off a sacred feeling, much more than the electric lighting back at my own church in the States. The stone floor echoed as we walked, though we tried not to drag our feet. The emptiness was full, somehow.
The cathedral was empty, save for one woman, bent low over her rosary. Her soft murmuring was almost like music, in this sacred house. Cautiously Anna and I slid into a pew – we were both Catholics, so we knew our way around churches – and knelt down to pray, although I know not what for. Perhaps we just wanted to in some way be a part of this wonderful scene.
“It’s so empty in here,” Anna whispered to me. “You’d think there would be a lot of people in this big, beautiful church.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought religion was a big part of their lives over here. I mean, we looked it up beforehand and that’s what it said, isn’t it?”
Quietly Anna slipped her notebook out of her bag. Beautifully built cathedrals, yet hardly anyone to appreciate them.
The woman with her rosary moved on to the next bead.
Slowly we got up and walked around the church. As I got closer, I saw little things that were less prosperous than what I’d assumed: a few scratches in the wooden pew; the candles on the alter in a puddle of wax, so small they were hardly anything more than nubs; frayed hangings on the walls; the dusty sills of the windows; the Monstrous, despite its gloried shape, tarnished; the curtain in the tabernacle was unraveling at the bottom. Yet despite all this, you could see that the church was cared for lovingly by its followers and leaders. It was a saddening sight, yet heartening too.
“It wasn’t always like this.”
Anna and I spun around guiltily, facing the voice. It was the woman with the rosary. She smiled and patted the seat next to her on the pews, gesturing for us to sit down. We sat.
“I remember coming to this church as a little girl. People were always in this church, worshipping and admiring the Lord.” Her broken English had a gentle, comforting tone. “There was a choir, and they would sing at Mass on Sundays. If you came at the right time in the afternoon, you could hear them practicing. The candles were always so tall and white, and the glass was like jewels.”
“What happened?” I asked.
The woman shook her head. “People became busier. You know how it is, señoritas, with your life all ahead of you. There is no time to spend in a church for the young. People just stopped coming. A few still come on Sundays for the Mass, but it is empty otherwise.”
“That’s sad. Such a pretty church, like this,” Anna sighed.
“Only us old-timers appreciate her still. Just me and Señor Pica.”
“Señor Pica?” we looked around. “Where is he? I don’t see him.”
“He has had a very bad cough in his lungs for a long time. He collapsed a few months ago, and he has been in his bed ever since. He has no money to pay for a doctor, and I fear for him.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, sadly.
“Me too,” Anna whispered, eyes large.
“Oh, no!” the woman exclaimed, smiling. “It is not your fault at all. Nothing there to be sorry about! I am sorry for complaining like this,” she apologized. “It is just so wonderful to see two new faces in this church.”
“It was very nice to visit here,” Anna said, and I agreed. Looking at her watch though, she sighed. “Mary, I think we have to leave.”
We stood and thanked the woman for her time. As we left, I saw her stoop to straighten some flowers by the alter, lovingly pouring some water into their vase to keep them fresh.
“Hang on a minute, Anna. I’ll be right back.” Leaving her standing in the doorway, I ran back to the woman and thrust her my wallet full of pesos from my secret pocket.
“Please give this to Señor Pica,” I said breathlessly. “So he can come back to the church again.”
Then I ran off, face burning, though I had no reason to be embarrassed, to Anna who was waiting at the door.
“God Bless You!” the woman called, as the doors swung shut.
¿Señorita, a few pesos for a friend?
¡Ma’am, new picante peppers, very cheap and freshly shipped in!
Please, spare a few coins. I know you are kind.
Passing through the streets, I had no money to give them. With a smile and a shake of the head, I warded them off, weaving through the streets with Anna back to our hotel room. There wasn’t much time left on our trip, and I hadn’t written anything down in my notebook.
“Want to go get a souvenir for your family?” Anna asked me.
“Sorry, I can’t. I didn’t write anything down at all! I really need to get to work on this.” Procrastination is not as big a sin as Sloth, but sometimes I fear it works the same way. “You can go, if you want.”
“Nah, I’ll stay with you. We can write together.”
We flopped on the beds, pencils at ready, Anna flipping through her notes while I sat back and considered. I’ve never been one for notes. I might as well just start on the rough draft now, skip the boring parts.
Mexico is a country full of needy people. Or at least, they seem needy. Nah.
Mexico is a country concerned greatly with its markets and the marketing process. No way.
Mexico has its ups and downs, its goods and bads. Different kinds of people, different kinds of foods, unique heritage… Well, obviously. But no, that was just kind of… it didn’t sound right.
I thought back to all the people in the streets, begging for money. How they looked, how they smiled when I gave them a few pesos, however reluctantly. How they gave up easily after the slight shake of my head, the taste of defeat upon their tongues.
I thought of the church. How lonely and dull it seemed, a shadow of its prime, but still a glorious place full of beauty and wonder. How even though it was no longer the structure of might it once was, there were still people who cared for it deeply enough to come when nobody else did. How it shined throughout its plight.
Mexico is a rich country, inspiring in many ways to those like me, who cannot even comprehend the love that goes into its workings. A bit sappy, but it summed it up.
Quickly I got out my pencil.
Four Years Later
Once again, I am here in Mexico with Anna. But this time we’ve graduated from college and are here just for the sake of being here. Through the crowded streets we ramble, just like the trip so long ago.
“Hey! There’s that lady with the mangoes!” Anna exclaimed, pointing the elderly woman with her small stand, sticks at ready as she peels. It’s like no time has passed.
“Let’s go to the church,” I said, pointing to the Cathedral. We amble along, opening the large doors with hesitation.
It’s just like I remember it, only now I’m a bit taller (ha). The same lighting, the same pews, the same beautiful windows. It’s breathtaking.
A man turns in to look at us, and we shuffle our feet, embarrassed for disturbing the peace.
“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” he asked, smiling at us through his mustache. I took Spanish in college, so now I can understand his native tongue. “I enjoy coming here.”
“We came here once long ago too,” Anna said, smiling. “We were enchanted.”
“It was so lovely,” I agreed.
“Yes, it certainly was,” he agreed. “I’ve been so lonely. It’s good to see others in this church.”
“Lonely?” Anna asked, eyes wide. “Isn’t there a woman who comes here regularly?”
“Oh, there was,” the man smiled, sadly. “I’m afraid she passed away last year. She loved this church.”
“I’m sorry,” we said at the same time, tears coming to our eyes unexpectedly.
“No, no, don’t be. Juanita once said that she met two young girls here in this church, and she thought of them as friends. I’m sure she wouldn’t want them to be sad.” He paused. “You are they, no?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Then I thank you. Juanita would be so glad to see that you are still coming to this church.” He smiled at us, and we smiled back, slowly walking back out.
“And God bless you,” he called after us.
“God Bless You!” we called, heading back into the open air.
“You think that was Señor Pica?” Anna asked as we walked out in the glaring sunshine.
“I bet it was.” I said. “Come on, let’s go.”
As we headed back towards the plaza, a hand grabbed my arm. A Mexican man, looking slightly familiar, smiled at me.
“Young lady,” he said. “I remember you. Thank you so much. If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t have paid the mortgage on my house four years ago. Thank you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, and we parted.