An Extraordinary Lesson

‘He who dares to teach must never cease to learn.’

I have a lot to be humble about.

I had a lesson in humility last week when two students of mine picked me up to take me to a community of migrant workers, a place in which the gringos of Barra and Melaque have volunteered their time and resources over the years to help build a sustainable ‘home’ for them, consisting of several small houses, a school, kitchen and washing areas, a garden.. What dominates the outside is a mural that another student of mine is presently painting: what captured me about this mural was its typical ‘Mexicanness’ after the style of Diego Rivera, with its Guadalupe up high, in blue, in the middle, Benito Juarez with his Indian features, a well-painted bull with huge horns and a brightly squawking ‘gallo’ in the foreground. And horses, of course. Obvious image-bearers of their culture, past and present. There were various other animals as well, and another ‘part’ of the mural features the migrant workers’ truck of an earth-colored clay with a reddish tinge, dusty men tumbling out after a long day in the fields, and it was this aspect which made it unique and gave it much of its charm.

I went armed with books, mostly in Spanish, although I knew the people spoke Mixteco. Kids’ stories. Among them was one very special and expensive book that a friend of mine had lent me when my young grandson was here, called “Mis Amigos los Animales,” a tall, hard-covered book full of colorful illustrations displaying many of the world’s animals. I almost didn’t take it along because I wanted to protect it, and it was awkward in my arms, the other ones being of relatively similar size. But, feeling indecisive regarding nearly everything about this outing, I took it anyway.

One of my students carried a heavy box of apple juice and crackers, and when we got there she began serving the kids, simultaneously bathing them in a favored shower with hot water, while my other friend and student fell to quickly cleaning out a fridge in the kitchen.. We were shown a sauna, or temazcal, that the men had recently built, and a brand new baby of a few hours with her mother on the floor of one of the community’s bedrooms. It just happened to be ‘Children’s Day.’ My throat caught and my eyes swelled with tears to see these people in such circumstances. It was all I could do to keep a check on my emotions. How humble I feel today, knowing what I do now. It brings me to my knees to know of such poverty close by, only a mile away, and to know how rich I am in comparison. It was one thing to realize it was over there all this time, to give it intellectual accent, and another to understand it.

And I still don’t understand it.

I wear a workers’ hook after an accident which took away much of my arm a few years ago, and kids are generally fascinated by my prosthesis, this ‘gancho’ of mine. These kids were no different. Their reticent expressions showed they were obviously interested in its mechanisms. So, I did what I often do for interested onlookers – I took off my blouse to show them the strap and cable with a demonstration of how it works, only to cause one tiny little girl with a horrified look on her sweet face to burst into frightened tears and run off. My emotional state, being even worse now, caused me to realize how foreign the hook is, and scary too, and how foreign I am as well. An outsider. Maybe they see me as linked to that race of foreign devils who repeatedly invaded, raped and conquered their country until they nearly destroyed it..? I wondered if I have the intellectual and emotional horsepower for this mission, or was I living the cosseted and protected life we foreigners tend to live in Mexico?

The hard-covered book won the day, of course, as they valued it more than the others. After their apple juice and crackers they read it with me, using the Spanish name for all the animals… Rinoceronte, leopardo, tigre, tiburón, águila.. Then they began drawing them and coloring them. There was an abundance of mariposas and peces, but also a quirky camel with intricate spots and realistic colors – in short, they were wonderful. And advanced compared to anything I’d ever seen by kids this age. The detail a small 6 year old Jorge used was amazing, and he churned out picture after picture in a matter of a few minutes.

When it was time to go, my friends and I stood outside, looking again at the unfinished mural, now lit brightly by a speculation sunset. Like these indigenous kids, I thought how the artist of this mural had a similar genius for bestowing a succession of forms, in which the form itself – like the stylized, whimsical camel that Adriana had drawn – becomes the purpose, and with that purpose, the passion. A static, piling up of figures transforms into a mural telling a story of Indian heritage, a kind of oral history.

Once back home with those vibrant colors still alive in my mind, I gave silent thanks for the opportunity of going ‘out there’, at the same time a bit nervous over the next time, scheduled for next Tuesday. It’s an awkward reality. I want to see, as in the finished mural, how all the assembled pieces fit together so I can see the bigger picture and understand how it all fits together. Are we deceived in thinking that we can leave behind where we’ve already been, que hay un ‘ya fuimos’, hay un ‘ estamos siendo’?

No somos una isla aparte.

I’m going next week, not with books but a willingness to just listen and appreciate every little ‘piece’ of the puzzle, surrendering the need to see them all together.

Wish me luck.