Quieta Zepeda, the Huichol girl, told me this when Jilotitlan was barely a pueblo, ornamented with milpas scattered near the center.
The first day I came into town, she said, the Franciscans let me sleep in their church bodgea. But then I got into a fight with the sacristan. “I have to go earn some money,” I told him. Because I was a Huichol, he tried to keep me digging ditches, pulling weeds, cleaning the padre’s toilets – without pay.
“You Indian whore,” he cried, when I knocked him down.
Before anybody could come put me in jail, I went to the other side of Jilotitlan, looking for a girl I knew. Elodia Mireles came down from our rancheria in the Sierra Nayarit with a Mexican boy she had married. I was sure she would lend me money.
But I was out of luck. Pepe Salazar decided he didn’t like being married to an Indian, after all. And Elodia didn’t have a centavo to spare.
She had lost her plumpness, and though she could speak Spanish now, she still went barefoot.
“He never bought those green shoes you wanted?”
“I have a plan to make some money,” Elodia said.
“Listen,” I told her, “I was looking for something to eat.”
“Join me, and we’ll get enough for a fiesta.”
“I was just thinking about some tortillas, maybe some beans.”
In the rutted street, Elodia told me: “We have to get into his house for tools.”
“That’s your plan?”
She walked fast, dodging rickety cars as easily as the horses and burros.
“Is he going to want to loan these tools of his?”
Elodia looked at me as if I were dumb. “Right now, he and his new woman are butchering fish at the municipal market.” She pushed past a wagon filled with fresh vegetables. I wanted to grab something to eat, but Elodia shouted, “Hurry or these Mexicans will run you down.”
When we passed by the municipal jail, I took fright. Armed guards called at us. I covered my face with my rebozo, sure they were hunting me.
We were on a wide dirt road. On one side, an unfinished adobe wall stretched an entire block. There were windows every so often. Some were smashed out. In some places the wall was painted the color of the sky.
“See that blue one there that’s not broken?” Elodia pointed across the street. “Walk past it and see if anybody’s home.” I squinted at her. She had become a city Huichol, full of sly ways and sharp orders.
But across the street, the window, the kind you can’t see through, was locked tight. So was the door.
When I came back, she said: “Stand by this tree and watch. If Pepe comes ...” She frowned. “Well, you better whistle.”
“Real loud. I’m going to be in there looking under the bed.”
I squinted down the street. “All these mestizos look the same, no?”
Elodia shook her head. “His right foot turns in a little.” I didn’t say anything and she added, “He’s handsome, too.”
“So if a cute mestizo who limps and doesn’t like Indians comes up, I should whistle loud?”
She scowled at me and went across the street.
I got dizzy twisting my head around. I was afraid this Pepe would sneak past without me seeing him. Several women with children came out and walked away. Then Elodia, lugging a sack, crossed the street in a hurry.
“It worked,” I said.
“Of course it did” She put a crowbar, screw drivers and pipe wrenches in a rebozo and handed it to me.
Soon there were fewer houses and dry, yellowed fields beyond. It reminded me of the Sierra: a lot of people up there didn’t have much to eat this year. That’s why I’d left my two-year-old daughter and my mother. To find work down here.
Near the dried-up fields somebody had started building a bunch of houses but had given up. Some houses didn’t have roofs, others had only three walls. Elodia walked through the silent development, looking into each house she passed. Straying livestock had left manure in front rooms.
“What happened here?” I had never seen anything like it.
“They ran out of materials when government jefes took all the money.”
Finally there was a house with all its walls and half a roof. Planks were nailed over the doors. We knocked glass splinters out of a bottom window and climbed in. I felt like we were in someone’s front room, and would be discovered any minute. “Who lives here?” I whispered.
“Don’t whisper, dummy,” Elodia laughed. “Nobody’s here.” With a green screwdriver she began taking apart the front door from inside. “Get the petate doors they left on the closets, the bedrooms,” she told me. “The hinges, too.”
I hurried to keep up, piling woven straw closet doors in the middle of the room, spreading plumbing fixtures on top.
I hadn’t eaten for a day and a half, and was getting woozy. “I was thinking of finding some water.” I plopped on the floor. Elodia, under the kitchen sink, banged the drainage pipe. “No water in this place.”
“Fancy pipes but no water.” I kicked the elbow of the pipe. It screeched. Swearing, we quickly yanked it free. Jumping up, I began singing, telling the gods I should be up in the Sierra skinning a squirrel. “I’m tired and thirsty and hungry, and it’s making me dizzy,” I shouted.
“You are a crazy Indian is what you are,” she said.
I balanced the woven-straw-doors one on top of the other on my head, and we went looking for a place to sell it all. Finally, Elodia stopped in front of an eating house. “Don Nacho’s Indian, part Cora. He won’t cheat us.” She called out, “Oye, Don Nacho. Por favor, we are selling these new fixtures.”
A gray-haired man looked at Elodio’s untied rebozo. “My son-in-law can use these.” Don Nacho was a fair bargainer. Elodia argued on every piece. Nacho smiled, sticking to his price.
As we left, I was dreaming a list: Beans, rice, tortillas, chiles, jitomates, even a piece of meat. “I want to thank that Don Nacho for saving my life,” I declared.
Elodia detoured to get to the long building again. “I’ve got to give the tools back.”
“I’ll go for you.” I was in a hurry for some supper.
“Another Indian might be more than Pepe can stand.”
I gently knocked on the door.
Pepe scowled and stepped to block me from his new wife’s view. “Get out or I’ll set the police on you.”
But I called out, “Buenas tardes, Señora,” and dropped the heavy bag down. “We borrowed these. Elodia didn’t have a centavo to buy anything to eat,” I sang out so the neighbors could hear. “So we borrowed your tools to make some money.”
Looking alarmed, Pepe grabbed the bag.
“Don’t worry, man. We had a job but no tools is all.” As I went out, I called past his shoulder. “Good night, Señora. God be with you, eh?”
Pepe swore at me. And I called out, “Ay, Pepito. You’re so sweet. Always so kind.”
Elodia caught up with me, choking with laughter. As she scampered down the cobbles, the early evening sky was turning purple. Instead of going to a grocery store, she went to Don Nacho’s El Huequito – The Hole in the Wall.
“Ah, señoritas.” Don Nacho grinned. Welcome to the best pozole kitchen in the whole state. Eight pesos for a big bowl – with all the tostadas you can eat.” The place was filling with working families. Familiar campesino talk made me grin.
I had come down from the Sierra scared of this world of devilish strangers, carrying a big one-peso coin. My mistake, hitting that priest, could mean someone was looking for me. Yet right then, this day made me grin, made me dream of Sierra hawks wheeling in purple sunlight.