As I knelt on the cold, concrete floor of the open-air chapel, I wondered, not for the first time, how a nice agnostic girl from western Massachusetts ended up as a Catholic missionary in Mexico. After all, my intellectual parents did everything they could to shelter me from the alleged dangers of organized religion.
[quote]The children were the first people we met, materializing out of the rugged landscape to press their eager faces against the windows of the schoolhouse where we were staying. [/quote]
Maybe this was my way of rebelling. But instead of leather pants and piercings, I’d donned a broad sombrero of petate (woven palm fronds) and a big wooden cross on a string around my neck.
When I arrived in Oaxaca to teach English, my involvement in the Catholic Church seemed a natural part of my integration into the community, where the infusion of ancient indigenous customs brings the faith colorfully to life.
Through Oaxacan friends I found the Jóvenes Resurreccionistas. Unlike the rest of the country, this group about 40 students and professionals, ages 15-30, doesn’t escape to the beach during the Semana Santa (Holy Week) vacation. Instead, they go forth into the wilderness – in actuality the Sierra Mixteca, about three hours northwest of Oaxaca city – on a mission to bring Holy Week celebrations to isolated indigenous communities.
In the US, the Easter holiday is just a long weekend, most religious significance lost in a tangle of day-glow Easter grass, eggs and bunnies. But in Mexico it’s common for schools and businesses to take off one, or even two weeks for Easter. Every day of Holy Week the streets are full of religious pomp and ceremony: Wednesday commemorates Judas’s betrayal, Thursday is the Last Supper, and finally there’s Good Friday’s gut-wrenching Vía crusis, a step by step reenactment of the passion, which makes Easter Sunday seem almost anticlimactic by comparison.
Due to a shortage of clerics in the Mixtec region, the Church trains select young men to perform services during Holy Week, so that even the most remote communities may participate. The job of the missionary team is to assist the minister in pascual celebrations, teach catechism and organize religious workshop. But the real mission, it quickly became apparent, was to expose us city kids to a simpler way of life.
My team of five missionaries was assigned to the community of Dolores, population 50, a dozen tin-roofed, clapboard shacks strung out along the pine-studded slopes of an eroded valley. A full-sized basketball court roughly marked the center of town. It was surrounded by a cluster of shacks used for communal purposes: a schoolhouse, kitchen, cantina and the municipal agency, which blared announcements in Mixtec language from a loudspeaker on the roof.
The children were the first people we met, materializing out of the rugged landscape to press their eager faces against the windows of the schoolhouse where we were staying. In Dolores you notice right away the scarcity of people between the ages of 15 and 40. Erosion caused by overgrazing (notably during colonial times) has left this traditionally agricultural region with little arable land. People are migrating to the state capital, Mexico City or the US in search of work.
The Mixtec are a reserved people by mainstream Mexican standards, which can come as a big culture shock for Mexican missionaries. The town elders greeted us with warm words and strong handshakes but none of the ecstatic embracing and cheek kissing that are customary in Oaxaca city.
For me it was actually a relief not to have to kiss strange men and be bombarded with the questions (Are your eyes really that color or do you wear contacts? Do you like Mexican men? Would you marry one? Really? How about my cousin Carlos over there?).
The missionary’s day begins at dawn (much to my disgruntlement) when pink light illuminates the muscular ridges of the Sierra Mixteca. After a quick, alleviating trip to the bathroom (a chipped porcelain bowl perched on the precipice of a reeking pit) my four teammates and I huddled in the “kitchen,” a log cabin with a dirt floor and a circle of rocks where we made our fire for cooking. We drank steaming atole, a thick white gelatinous drink made from corn masa flavored with sugar and cinnamon. The women of the community provided us with beans and tortillas, which we heated on a comal, a circular iron griddle placed directly over the open flame. These tortillas were nothing like the pale, flimsy discs you buy in the city. They were made from blue corn meal, thick and chewy, the diameter of a dinner plate. We were roused from our post-sleep stupor by the cackling laughter and the maudlin wail of ranchera music from the next room, which served as a makeshift cantina. At 7AM the men of the community were already gathering to drink homebrewed agua ardiente, “firewater,” an alcohol made from the agave plant that’s even more potent than mescal.
One morning Don Mario, the town’s most notorious drunk, lurched into the kitchen doorway.
“Don Diego!” he wailed, addressing our minister, a young-looking 23-year-old who in his other life was a chemistry student.
“You have to help me!” Diego and Victor, 16, sprang up to save Don Mario from reeling into fire and sat him down on the bench between them.
Don Mario’s slurred Spanish was almost incomprehensible, but his angst was all too clearly communicated, as he blubbered about his alcohol problem, about his 8-year-old boy, how he didn’t want him to grow up to be a drunk too. I didn’t know what to say. Love yourself? Break the cycle? My culture’s catch phrases had no meaning in Dolores, where history has conspired to take away a people’s identity. But Diego spoke calmly about Jesus and his undying, all forgiving love. Don Mario went quiet, head sinking between his sagged shoulders, comforted or numbed by alcohol.
I spent most of my time in Dolores with the children. After a quick catechism lesson (which I left to a more qualified companion) my job was to keep them out of the parents’ hair while they attended religious workshops. I soon attracted a following of little girls. While the boys played soccer or basketball we sat in the shade with a box of crayolas and filled long rolls of butcher paper with one-dimensional houses and smiling stick figures. Or we braided each other’s hair. For them my fine sandy brown hair was quite exotic, they never tired to styling it: I was their Missionary Barbie. Israel, Don Mario’s son, often tagged along. He was a quiet, contemplative boy with one good eye: the other protruded sightlessly, covered in a cloudy white membrane.
It’s not immediately apparent that the children of Dolores, brimming over with affection and energy, are victims of poverty and abuse.
“Does your daddy drink?” I asked 7-year-old Hermalinda, who spent most of the week clamped onto my arm like an extra appendage.
“All the men in the pueblo drink,” she said importantly. “And some of the moms,” she added, seeing my scandalized look.
“Does your daddy ever hit you?” She nodded. I held her closer.
“Don’t let anyone hit you. No one deserves to be hit.” Hermalinda looked at me like I was being over dramatic. She squeezed my hand as if I were the one in need of comfort.
[quote]since during his sermons he had to compete with the yelps of raggedy dogs who fought and copulated up and down the aisle, children running and giggling, and the interjections of the drunks[/quote]
Good Thursday was when we really got down to the business of Easter. The anniversary of the last supper, Good Thursday is the lavatorio de pies, a reenactment of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
The chilly weather added to the intimacy of the open-air capilla (chapel) where we gathered. The altar was surrounded by dozens of votive candles and plastic buckets filled white Calla lilies. Through the tissue paper banners the flickering candles cast colored light on the images of Christ and the Virgin. I tried to focus on them to forget the pain in my legs from kneeling on the cold concrete. I would not make a good martyr, I thought.
To stand in as the disciples, we had asked six parents to participate with their children. They sat in two rows in front of the congregation, red crepe garlands draped over their shoulders. Among them were Don Mario, sober for the first time all week, and Israel, fidgeting nervously on the bench beside him.
Diego changed personality when he donned his black robe to administer the sacraments. The fun-loving, flirtatious college assumed an impressive solemnity, especially since during his sermons he had to compete with the yelps of raggedy dogs who fought and copulated up and down the aisle, children running and giggling, and the interjections of the drunks.
“Hey Don Diego! Don’t be a party-pooper! Come on, have a drink!” Diego didn’t so much as acknowledge the remarks, but continued reading from John 13:1-15.
“…If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet…”
“Come on Don Diego, you know that’s a load bull…” The municipal agent stood up quietly and with the help of another man grabbed the offending party by the shoulders. Between them they half-walked, half-dragged him beyond the light of the capilla. His shouts reached us faintly across the dark fields.
When Diego finished the reading, he passed around buckets of soap and water and the volunteers washed each other’s feet. Don Mario knelt before Israel; he carefully removed the tattered sneakers and caressed his son’s pale calloused foot, concentrating to control the tremor in his hands.
The next evening, Good Friday, we followed Diego as he led the Vía crucis procession, bent under the weight of the four-foot wooden crucifix on his shoulder. Lighting the way with candles we made the rounds of the fourteen crude wooden crosses, chanting in haunting minor key. The children sidled up to me in the dark and found my hands. The town elders held clay pots of burning embers, pre-Hispanic copal incense, the humid, pine-scented smoke turning back the centuries.
We paused at each station to pray and contemplate each image of Christ’s trial, even the most graphic gaily adorned with white and purple streamers. The children, morbidly curious, pushed in to get a closer look.
At the twelve station, “Jesus Dies on the Cross”, Diego extinguished his candle to symbolize the death of the savoir. We all followed suit. But the community was not left in darkness; the starry sky illuminated us. I felt the warmth of the children huddled beside me and heard our synchronized breathing in the reverent quiet. If this was organized religion, I thought, it wasn’t so bad.
Photo: Catedrales e Iglesias
Anna Laird Barto – After several years living and working in Oaxaca, Mexico I recently moved back to the US to pursue a creative writing MFA at Emerson College. My work has previously appeared in Transitions Abroad , Artist-at-Large.com, Zócalo Literary Quarterly, Another Day in Paradise, Matador and http://www.developingwords.com/