International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Mexico
my youngest daughter, has spent most of her life on a tiny island.
During her last year in high school, my husband and I agreed that
she, the baby of our family, should broaden her horizons. So I arranged
for Lydia and I to take a journey together to some unfamiliar territory
where she could practice her Spanish.
We decided to take
a Spanish course for two weeks in Oaxaca. Oaxaca, the main city of the
mountainous state that makes up almost 37,000 miles of the southern
bulge of Mexico, is located within the central valley. I was drawn to
Oaxaca because it was highly recommended by archaeologist friends.
Besides anticipating friendly people and savory traditional foods, I
wanted to share with Lydia a little part of myself that I hardly knew,
since my Latino mother died while I was quite young. Also, I wanted
to prepare her for college in Upstate New York, by showing her that
her world will not collapse after leaving her home, but that it is big,
exciting, teeming with life and changes, and always expanding.
As my plans developed, I reassured Lydia that all would go smoothly.
But she was not happy about leaving home, and she passively resisted
every attempt I made for us to pack. Desperate to hang onto everything
that was familiar to her, she would not agree to take only a few essential
"Lydia, you dont need all that make-up. Theyll probably
get all squished and melt anyway. Besides, you wont need to spend
so much time covering up the freckles on your arms. Some of the most
successful models have freckly arms. And youre not going to need
your cell phone."
"How am I going to talk to my friends everyday?"
"Lydsie, you wont need to talk to them everyday. You are
going to learn Spanish. You can talk to them when you get back."
"Mom, this trip is way too long. I dont think I can last,
spending all my time with just you, and without talking to my friends
for ten whole days."
"Honey, its not like theyre going to forget you. Theyre
going to miss you so much and theyll be so excited to see you
again when you get back, and then youll all have so much to talk
Lydia just sighed and looked down at her feet. She wouldnt keep
arguing, but she was not convinced.
During our departure at the airport, she tuned me out. Expressionless,
she was ready to wear her earphones and listen to CDs all the way to
Oaxaca while I remained her silent escort.
Good grief, this is hell already, I thought. I tried to keep my composure
as our passports were being inspected at the ticket counter. But I was
worried. What if shes this way the whole time? What am I going
to do? The last thing I wanted now was for us to stay emotionally distant
from each other, the way Lydia increasingly preferred us to be.
Lydia slept for a long time the morning after our arrival, and the morning
after that, and gradually I saw that she was avoiding breakfast so that
she would not have to struggle to speak Spanish with our kind hostess
who prepared fresh tamales daily. Every morning for the first few days
whenever I tried to awaken Lydia, she would respond after each fifth
request from beneath her pillow, "Five more minutes, Mom."
An agonizing hour or so later, I was always surprised I could convince
Lydia to get dressed. We then would rush to our classes, arriving just
on time, as if our mornings had been packed full of adventure up to
After a couple of days of Spanish classes, Lydias mood improved.
She told me that she was beginning to understand her teacher although
she still spoke very little to anyone. One evening that first week we
walked to a nearby family restaurant called "Anteojos" which
means Eyeglasses. Not entirely satisfied with the odd translation of
the restaurants name, I rechecked the word in my Spanish pocket
dictionary and found that a similar-looking word, "antojitos,"
means Mexican food. Deciding to myself that this was the word the owners
intended for the restaurant, I sat with Lydia as the only customers
at the Anteojos bar, where we sampled tacos, the daily special cooked
by an elderly couple, and watched one Mexican television program after
another until we both got tired and returned to our apartment cloistered
within the Gonzaless compound.
or four days later we felt confident enough to leave town after
our classes, and so we ventured to little towns that had so much
in common that after a while they merged in our minds. They all
were poor and dusty and had little to offer us as tourists besides
an occasional handicraft display spread out on a blanket or table.
Nonetheless, I was determined to make our excursions memorable by
pointing out historic buildings and reading appropriate excerpts
from a guidebook. For our first late afternoon trip, we traveled
with other students in a school van to see the Tule Tree, a Mexican
cypress over two thousand years old that is most likely the biggest
and oldest tree in Latin America.
Its gnarled trunk,
which is as wide as a vernacular Mexican home, divides into a myriad
of elephantine limbs rising up to fifteen stories above the ground.
Mexican town names consist of two pieces, an original name followed
by the name of the towns patron saint, reflecting the countrys
predominant Roman Catholic faith. Hence, the small town of Santa Maria
del Tule, whose crafts market, church and town plaza have literally
been built around the tree, has a celebration every early October in
honor of Santa Maria.
Following our walking tour of Tule, we rode nine miles east to Teotitlan,
a Zapotec town that was settled two thousand years ago at the foot of
the Sierras. Nearly every house in the "Place of the Gods"
is a mini-factory requiring the labor of family members who card, spin,
color wool, often using hand-gathered natural dyes, and then weave rugs
on traditional wooden looms. I reasoned that living and working with
the people you love most to create art would make any home a place of
the gods. Lydia liked my joke.
our next afternoon trip, Lydia and I took a taxi to another small,
nearly deserted town about thirty miles from Oaxaca called Mitla,
or Liobaa meaning "Place of the Dead." It was hard to
believe that the small, sleepy town we were visiting was once a
feudalistic Mexican city-state with a population of 10,000 people
at its apex in 1350 A.D. But Lydia was more interested in the fabrics
inside the handicraft stores than the ancient ruins left by the
Zapotec Indians. We found an orange and yellow striped bedspread,
just like the ones in our room in Oaxaca.
the Land of the Dead. To remind you of sleep in Oaxaca," I grinned.
Lydia looked a little embarrassed and I felt guilt for wrongly increasing
her self-awareness, but she giggled anyway.
We took a bus ten miles south to Zaachila the next afternoon, where
there was nothing open except for the local food market, a cement building
divided into stalls that were covered with swarming
Insects. An occasional yellowish brown crested bird stood guard so that
the dense plumage from its long neck to its long black and white tail
created a very still, vertical line. Although the long legs make running
easy, I found out later that seriemas hardly fly. Lydia and I carefully
avoided the skinny, mean dogs that sometimes stepped in front of us
from nowhere and blocked our way. Like Mitla, Zaachila is an ancient
Zapotec capital city built over its ruins. Both rose to prominence after
the decline of Monte Alban, the archaeological complex of hundreds of
acres of unexplored ancient remains that would be our destination at
the end of the week.
next day we took a bus fourteen miles south, passing Zaachila to
San Bartelo Coyopetec to view the black clay pottery for which the
town is famous. The small town, which means "Hill of the Coyote,"
consists of dirt roads, another cement marketplace, and a large
cathedral. The people who live there regularly turn out acres of
glistening black plates, bowls, pots and animal figurines lined
along the edges of the dusty street. After searching a long time
for a coyote to remind us of the name of the town, I quickly bought
Lydia a clay turtle whistle so that we could catch the next bus
back to Oaxaca.
For our last afternoon
outing, Lydia and I took a taxi to Atzompa, another quiet and poor neighboring
town where most of the people engaged in arts and crafts. Cows, donkeys,
and dogs roamed the streets as Lydia and I aimlessly walked. We found
an elderly man painting landscape scenes inside his open studio. While
his paintings seemed simple and rather crude, the serenity on his face
as he painted with such concentration and devotion moved us. Lydia smiled
broadly after he carefully said to her in Spanish, "There is no
place like these pictures. I paint from my imagination. Here inside."
As he spoke, he touched his head and his chest, and I felt proud that
Lydia understood what he said about placing importance on what is inside
you, and not on your physical appearance or your possessions.
The villager made me think of my grandfather. A Puerto Rican sugar cane
worker with forebears from Portugal and a Carib Indian tribe, he settled
on the drier, eastern side of St. Thomas after the wealthy landowner
he had served rewarded him with an estate there. Abuelo became an independent
farmer and, sometimes to the dismay of other family members including
his more cosmopolitan Spanish wife, spent all of his time outdoors,
tending to his chickens, goats, pigs, a horse and several parrots. I
spent a year with him as a young child and knew that he lived the same
way as the painter from Atzompa that you have to please your
heart to be content and that was why I always loved Abuelo dearly,
and admired his simple, graceful life.
That day I
moved a little closer to something inside me that I had forgotten,
and I felt that Lydia finally was catching on, too. She not only
understood Spanish now, but she appreciated why we even bothered
to travel so many miles to reach this somewhat desolate part of
© Maria Ausherman June 23rd 2009
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibility
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.