An acquaintance, an elderly man who lived in a nearby rural community some 20 odd years ago, seemed to be dying. I say “seemed” because he had yet to see a medically trained doctor. He was being treated by a curandera of considerable local reputation. The man’s neighbors said he had cancer. The curandera didn’t talk much to strangers about the illnesses of her clients.
The man, Don Apolinar Macias, was in his late 70s. He was not really sure when he was born because his birth was never registered. He was born during the 1910-1924 Revolution and such formalities had little meaning to campesino families living any distance from regional administrative centers in those days. He often said he was 78. Sometimes, when he was feeling frisky, he claimed he was 73.
A campesino life
He had worked almost every day of his life since he was a child as a campesino, a farmer of corn, beans and squash. Whenever the land he rented became too expensive, he chopped wood in the surrounding mountainsides and brought it down by the burro-load to sell. He had long lived at the edge of the village on land that then was in conflict. Several people claimed they owned it, but none of them had convincing documents to prove such claims. Don Apolinar settled there some 45 years ago when a friend, who is dead, gave him the five-meter by 13-meter parcel to pay off a debt to his family, he said. That person, also, evidently had no documents to back his claim. Don Apolinar lived in a hut made of poles and adobe brick with a roof of tar paper held fast by rocks and beer-cap-head nails — the beer caps keep the nails from tearing through the tar papers.
A neighbor woman, nearly as old as Don Apolinar, often made meals for him. Mostly, he did all his chores himself. Some days he could, other days, he couldn’t, and if the woman didn’t come those days he went without eating. He refused to visit a conventional doctor, or the clinic located in a larger pueblo several kilometers away. He had no relatives, and most of his long-time friends were dead. In fact, almost all his peers were dead.
He once visited a sanatorio in a nearby town to see a friend who had been hit by a truck. The sight of the man, bound in a cast and bandages, wrapped in a white sheet, lying flat in a high hospital bed, hooked up to a bottle of glucose, with enamel pans and bottles and syringes cluttered around him, being watched by a nurse who was muy corajuda convinced Don Apolinar never to have anything to do with modern medicine or hospitals.
He was like many of the people one met throughout this country in the 1960s who didn’t trust official Mexico in any aspect. Even 20 years ago, he was considered old-fashioned. He would never talk to the comisario (similar to the mayor in a small pueblo) or the local comandante on official matters if he could help it, or go into a bank or any government office, and he even looked on the postal service operating in a nearby town dismissively. Of course, because he did not read or write well — though he attended school off and on for three years — the activities of many of these people and agencies were superfluous to his life.
The indio view?
Don Apolinar was clearly an indio — he claimed that identity with no hesitation — probably Sayultecan, with prominent cheekbones, a broad-based, keel-like nose and full lips. His full head of coarse hair was still not completely white. His skin was mahogany colored and well-wrinkled.
As an indio, Don Apolinar’s view of the world was rather different than that of the mestizos who were his neighbors. Someone has described the indio’s perception of life as a structure possessing an order to which he seeks a harmonious relationship. That, in fact, is the object of living: to become consonant with the given order of the world.
The mestizo, some cultural historians have pointed out, understands life as combat. “Life does not have troubles, it is trouble, as one social anthropologist defined the mestizo perception of the world.
When I visited Don Apolinar one day in early June 1992, he was kneeling in front of his house in the hot sun sifting shelled corn. He paused to explain how important sifting maiz is. “The little rocks, you have to get rid of them as well as the chaff. If you bite down on one of those, it’ll split your tooth like a machete.
At my age, I don’t have any teeth to spare.” He laughed and went on working, the dust from the corn making him cough as he sweated in the mid-afternoon heat.
“Don Apolinar, why don’t you wait until later in the afternoon, when it’s cooler?” I asked.
“If I don’t do it now when else can I do it?” he answered brusquely. Then he squinted at me. He suspected gringos were not quite bright about the world’s most fundamental, simplest ways. “Later, Señor, I may not have the strength,” he said quietly.
“Well, why don’t you get one of the neighbor kids to do it for you?” Neighbor children often did mandados for him.
“Others are not me,” he said stiffly. I waited for him to explain that, but he never did. Maybe he thought that message was so obvious that not even I could miss it.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later, when I was helping him mend the stone wall where one of his pigs had knocked it down, that I finally understood what he was talking about. A rock the size of a birote slipped from his thin hands and fell on his toe. He wore huaraches and the pain must have been considerable.
He swore and grabbed his foot. “Damn that slippery filthy stone for jumping out of my hand like that.” Then he laughed. “Ay, what a joy it is to still be able to feel pain, eh? That, Señor, is a gift. Most people don’t understand that. Or at least they don’t until it’s too late.” He gripped my shoulder with a claw-like grasp as he massaged his foot, swearing and grinning. “It’s a lesson a youngster like you doesn’t know yet. Well, you are a foreigner, so you may never know it. Still, it’s God’s truth.”
I told Don Apolinar to sit down and I would finish fixing the fence. He looked at me sharply. “You can not live my life for me, Señor. Not the hard things, nor the easy things. My work, that sow’s mischief with the fence, the arthritis in my back, a cervecita now and then. These are the things of my life. I do not want them to stop just because I am sick now. This life is too precious to let others try to live it for me, just because I have a lot of years and this damned fever, or whatever it is.”
A strange idea
The next time I saw him he was complaining about Jorge Muñoz, a neighbor who had suggested Don Apolinar give up planting the corral of his house with corn and beans and squash, sell his cow, his two hogs and chickens and just take it easy. “That kid (Jorge was in his mid-fiftes) said I should have a nice long vacation before I die,” Don Apolinar snorted. The old man was re-seeding his corral because a dry spell had killed off his first planting. It was hot and beneath his old-fashioned, slant-crowned sombrero, his face was sweaty.
I mentioned that the idea of retirement was a major concept and motivating force in the industrialized nations and today in much of Mexico. “Ay Señor, those are rare ideas of foreigners and strangers from the city.” What Don Apolinar meant was that such a concept was not an indio idea.
Working the earth
He leaned on the talache with which he was digging holes for the seeds he was planting. “I have always been a milpero.” He used the ancient term for one who farms corn. “So did my father and my grandfather and his father. I don’t know about those before that. But surely they too would have planted and cultivated corn and other crops, no? That’s what indios do, we work with the earth. Thank God,” he grinned, “for I have never liked staying indoors. Even the women of this family wanted to work in the fields. I miss going up into the cerro to work the milpas there. But with this sickness, I don’t have the strength to go all the way. Or,” he laughed, “sometimes to get back down. If I get dizzy, I could fall into a cactus or a huisache bush. But I’m not some feeble-souled pensionero who suddenly has to change his entire life because he’s too discontented to continue la lucha.” He gazed up at the surrounding mountainsides.
“That would mean that going to the fields was something I had never liked, that planting was something that never made my soul happy. That every day of my life had been a lie. No, Señor. If it is time for me to die then I am ready to die. But I am not ready to stop living just because I might die tomorrow, or next week, or a month from now. I may get weak. I may even be weak, as this child, Muñoz and others say. But I am not ready to give up living, to give up even the hardest day, just because of that.”