Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Often when we tell stories the original event becomes bigger in the retelling. Even when the stories are true, in the retelling we dress up nouns with fantastic adjectives and enhance verbs with dramatic pauses and accent everything with physical gestures and facial expressions; the process is not unlike like a painter recreating a scenic vista or a photographer framing a shot in order to capture a moment to remember later or to share with others who are not there.

And then there are times when no matter how you tell the story, no matter how many colors you use or how far back you pull your camera’s wide-angle lens you know that you will never be able to capture the experience in any recreated form. In the retelling of this kind of story the actual event cannot be enlarged but only, inevitably, inescapably diminished.

This evening we drove to a barranca (ravine) on the edge of town, and then walked for fifteen minutes down an almost vertical pathway to visit the home of a single mother in Cuernavaca. She and her four children live in a one-room house that is smaller than the one-room studio apartment Chris and I shared during our first year together in Bloomington. The house is made of cement and a corrugated metal roof. The corrugated metal roof is new; only a few months ago they lived under roof full of holes that leaked whenever it rained. It rains almost every day.

She was born in the neighboring state of Guerrero, one of the poorest states in a poor country. She married when she was sixteen and bore her first child shortly after that. Three more children followed, nearly one every year for the first four years of marriage.

During all this time her husband was physically and emotionally abusive. He threatened to kill her if she left him. She would cry in the night and the neighbors would ask her what was wrong and she would say “nothing, nothing.” One day she asked her husband if things could change. He told her that she was a woman and knew nothing, that she was a woman and was worthless, that she was a woman and was nothing without him. In that moment she realized that it was never going to change: he would continue to abuse her and she would continue to have more and more and more children. And so she decided to take her four children, one only three months old, and leave.

She could think of nowhere to go except to an aunt she had in Cuernavaca, a city far from her home. Her aunt did not have much to give – she did not have much herself – but she helped her niece find a job cleaning houses and found her a little patch of land near the bottom of the ravine on the edge of town. This neighborhood is Altavista, already relatively poor, but as you descend the ravine the economic level drops ever more precipitously. There is no mistaking it from the changing construction of the homes as you walk further and further down the steps.

And the lack of adequate money makes everything harder. In Mexico public education is free, but there is still a 500 peso (about 50 US dollars) registration fee for each child at the beginning of the school year, and children must arrive at school on the first day with not only notebooks and pencils but also uniforms and textbooks, none of which is provided by the school. The family’s income is 900 pesos (about 90 US dollars) a week. Back-to-school is one of the most difficult times of the year.

Yet despite the heavy burdens that the family carries there is something impossible here, something as impossible as remembering a baptism in the face of death, something as impossible as an empty tomb. Joy. More: faith, hope, dreams, laughter. Mostly: Love.

Do not allow me to portray this love as something you might find in a Hallmark movie. No. This is a burning fiery love, the kind of love that walks for miles with four very young children to rescue them from a life of death, the kind of love that forbids the children from cursing their abusive father for fear it will sow bitterness in their young hearts, the kind of love that burns away illusions to reveal the holiness inside this home.

The woman who spoke to us, today age thirty-two, was a little nervous and wiped away tears as she told us her story, but something inside of her must be made of steel for her to lead her family the way she has. And yet whatever is in her to make her as steely on the inside as she has had to be has also managed to create an atmosphere of breathe-able happiness inside this home. When we arrived the children lined up nervously, giggling as the oldest daughter, now high school age, explained that they needed to go because they were going to play with their cousins. Before they left our teacher asked them a few questions: What did they like to do, etc. They liked to read and listen to music, to watch movies and to dance, they told us with the biggest grins you’ve ever seen.

One of our group, who with his wife has brought two young children along on this language immersion trip, asked her if she had any advice for raising kids. Me?! she asked with a shocked laugh. Si, said our teacher, smiling, eres una persona con muchas experiencia! (you are a person with much experience!). She took a deep breath, and then talked for ten minutes straight barely stopping to take a breath. But all I can remember is this: You must make a home with love. When her children get home from school, she says, she makes sure that the family spends time talking to each other – and even writing to each other. She writes them notes telling them how much she loves them. And they write her notes, stuffing them in with her lunch where they know she will find them when she is at work, notes telling her how strong they think she is to be raising them all alone, and how much they look up to her, and how much they love her.

Another of our group asks where she finds her strength. Instead of answering in the abstract she talks about one of our teachers, her friend, who she met at church. Our teacher noticed that she always seemed so sad, that she would cry at mass, but that she cared for her children with such tenderness and love. They became friends, and our teacher, who has quite a life story herself, began to help her any way she could, sometimes watching the children, sometimes making sure the family got food, sometimes distributing notebooks and pencils at the beginning of the school year, and always with encouragement, encouragement, encouragement.

As we are preparing to leave, one of our teachers tells us why we are here. You have not been brought here, she said, to feel bad for this woman, to think what a sad story it is, what a hard life she has. You have been brought here to understand that she is not the only one, that her neighbors all have similar stories, that there are others throughout the country with stories like this, and that there are people in your community, too, who have stories just like this, people who are some of the hardest-working in the world but who still struggle to afford something as simple as notebooks and pencils for their children at the beginning of the school year. Remember them. You need them as much as they need you.

O God, be with your people. Amen.

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