Here Is Your Neighbor
This is Mexico
Whenever I enter into a house in Mexico, I look for it: the stopped clock in the living room or kitchen, a clear sign that Si! we are on Mexican time. Some clocks are completely stopped. Others have shaking hands wanting so badly to reach for that next minute, held back by the tangible time change that happens south of the border.
We’re no longer speeding at the pace of North American productivity and consumerism. “On time” is a relative term.
It’s not that people are lazy or don’t want to change the batteries. The clock isn’t where Mexican eyes travel. Lateness and slowness are a part of the culture in traffic, in the workplace, in schools, in day-to-day routines, and social events. It’s been a lesson in patience to receive packages and mail a month later than dated, and to expect most of my Saturday English class of “adult/adolescent” students to arrive somewhere between 6:15 and 7:30 p.m. when we are scheduled to start at 6 o’clock. Sometimes, they don’t come at all.
The only thing that starts on time is the church service at the Iglesia Presbyteriana Nacional (National Presbyterian Church) where I attend. That doesn’t stop the service from going overtime, which can be unfortunate for all of us, especially during extended “special services” like la Consegracion where every single family in the church gets up to exhibit some kind of hymn or reading from the Bible until every bum in the house is numb. Oh, my Mexican life.
I am working as a short-term missionary for one year in a small pueblo outside Mexico City called Valle de Chalco. I am a sort-of intern for a practically Mexican full-time American missionary named Rebekah who runs a library ministry for kids from five to eleven years old.
Rebekah has been here for almost thirteen years working in the community, lending books, tutoring children, working for the local church, doing Bible clubs all over the area, and leading studies with families. She also runs camps, teaches literacy programs in the schools, visits other parts of the country to do vacation bible schools in churches. If she isn’t working, it’s probably because she’s asleep. The reality of a ministry is that life is work and work is life. Relationships are part of the job, so it really is “full-time” for her. For six months I’ve been helping her out, following her around, and applying what little prior knowledge I had of childcare and teaching.
When I arrived in January, I lived in Rebekah’s house, which is the apartment above the library. My experiences were so new and inspiring that they excited me more and more with each family, place, or challenge we encountered.
Although I struggled with Spanish and communicating, I could understand practically everything, so I took it as a time to learn how to listen. I liked the heat, and even though the climate is often uncomfortably hot and dry, I preferred it to the cold winter that was overtaking my hometown in New Jersey. We were often served dinner at the houses we visited and I felt like part of the family. I was, and continue to be, awed by the ability of the working class on the edge of poverty to give away everything they almost don’t have.
I was fascinated by the way every woman could be found cheerfully behind her stove, warming tortillas on identical black skillets in identical plaid aprons with little pockets on the front. Although the floors were dirt, and the windows replaced by panels of sheet metal, and the shower was a bucket full of water, people seemed content and believed that God was providing.
The kids all seemed like gems; I imagined they had never yelled at anyone or fought over the Play Station (which of course they hadn’t because they didn’t own one) and that somehow their poverty had made them more holy than American children, who, in my new vision of the world, were spoiled little Chucky dolls.
It was evident to me from the beginning that a lot of fathers had skipped out, or were absent the majority of the time, leaving women alone to their work and child raising. Some had gone to the States to work; others were simply avoiding responsibility and fatherhood. This only made me love the kids more, and see their mothers as martyrs. I hardly thought of being back home.
At some point, however, the honeymoon ended. Frustration, anger at the ridiculous injustice of this country’s social state versus my own, and the overall irritations and confusions that come with being a foreigner, started to set in.
It began to occur to me that I was a foreigner. I’ve discovered that to be a foreigner is: to be far away from one’s home; to be exposed to a multitude of potential culture clashes; to fall into one of those clashes in order to learn how to avoid it; to not be able to communicate one’s needs; and eventually to assimilate or perish.
That’s the short list. Living within a community that is different from one’s own in terms of access to comfort, cultural norms, and values that are usually taken for granted, poses a new set of issues.
I started to realize why so many Mexican men and women have elected to cross the border, risking the loss of everything that they know as familiar and sacred, including their lives, to seek some kind of better life in the U.S. It’s because the conditions here require it. I came to the country they left, and I learn all the time why they leave, for life is not always easy and certainly not fair.
Valle de Chalco is not a pretty place to live. It is, in a word, dusty. It’s an unmarked exit off the autopista where half the roads are unpaved and the other half are riddled with giant potholes. Different parts of the roads are blocked off daily by randomly appearing tianguis which are floods of tented stands selling all variety of fare, stolen or not. People don’t have any grass or trees in their yards; they burn their garbage in the street. Kids play soccer on dirt fields. Styrofoam and plastic bottles build up on little hills. On the side of the highways, mangy street dogs camp out and overpopulate the sidewalks, and the air around 4 p.m. blows in from the open sewage canal at the city’s edge, bringing the putrid aroma from three towns’ excrement with it.
At the same time, Valle de Chalco is home to lots of brown-skinned, ridiculously cute little girls and boys, many of whom sadly cannot read or write even though their age would suggest that they should. Since we opened the library in January, we’ve had a steady flow of kids between five and thirteen years old, all with differing levels of reading ability and math skills. I learned quickly that just because a child says he or she is in a certain grade doesn’t mean she has what I would consider grade-level skills.
We have a girl named Claudia who comes in for tutoring with her two younger siblings clinging silently to her sides. Her mother is a large, top heavy woman who comes to drop them off with a ruddy-cheeked baby strapped to her chest at all times. Claudia, her brother, and her sister all come looking pretty dirty, with worn-out shoes and no socks. They always appear at the door, a little malnourished. The way I can tell this is because what should be beautiful golden-brown skin is white and splotchy on the cheeks. Their eyes look dull; they can’t concentrate as well as the other kids can. Sometimes Claudia comes in crying, not wanting to come to the library, but also not wanting to go back home with her mama. She’s the oldest, clearly the strong one in the family; she shields her little siblings as if the world were against them with her attitude and her frail body.
When she first came in, she told us she was in first grade. One day, when we got all the kids situated at their tables, I went over and started working with her. After about five minutes of asking her some questions and getting to know her as much as you can about an eight year old, I realized she couldn’t read. The first grade work sheet I gave her had a lot of directions that she couldn’t figure out, so I went and got some kindergarten worksheets. An hour or so later, we were still working on pronouncing letters. She didn’t even know her ABCs, and she could barely pronounce the Spanish “g” sound which is more like “hey”, or “r” which has a roll to it. She made some gurgly noises imitating me, and I got her to start writing her letters and copying and recopying her name.
As we went on, she picked up and filled out the sheets one after another. I tried to explain syllables to her, but she only repeated everything I said back to me, until we started working with two-syllable words like “Mama” and “ala”. Then she started to get the hang of it. Still, I sometimes feel like she goes in and out between conscious listening and just nodding.
Our library is open from 3 until 6 most afternoons. On Thursdays, we host the Bible school for the church next door. We have a group of kids who stay after tutoring while their parents go to the service. These kids are very literate, and have great focus and memories. I sometimes forget what a tool literacy can be, even in these days.
As I watch the kids act out “Sodom and Gomorrah,” running around like crazy animals and screaming while fire comes down from heaven, or on another morning when I am studying Genesis, I am reminded that nothing about humanity really changes. We can still understand feelings and the time it takes to get things done; we sympathize, empathize, and relate. And we can do all this through reading.