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South of North - Two species of illiteracy, both gravely handicapped in hidden ways, create intricate tangles of confusion, frustration

December 10, 2008, an intriguing, romantic and tragic German-American film titled “The Reader” was released.  It was produced by two great film-makers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, both of whom died before it was released.  Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet starred.  It remains a movingly fateful love story with a stinging twist shaping the end in which a woman kills herself to hide her illiteracy.  Winslet  won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  

Such a carefully hidden illiteracy is a condition which foreigners to Mexico run into more often than they realize.  Many are unable to either recognize or believe such a “handicap” stands before them: a workman explaining in Spanish what’s wrong with a malfunctioning appliance, and how it can be easily and cheaply repaired.  At the same time out of habit he’s deftly disguising that fierce secret, illiteracy.  

At Lakeside many Mexicans work in Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan, Chapala but live in other, smaller pueblos, villages where schooling arrived for them late and in ragged form.  Example: Chava Navarro, born in 1964, was carried into the family’s milpa wrapped to his mother’s back in her rebozo as she and his father began July’s final weeding of their rocky mountainside corn field.  A poor family, the Navarros had no time nor the small sums needed to deliver their children into the care of thinly educated, sleepy young female teachers who arrived often by home-made bus every week day morning from larger villages. Unfortunately their teachers tended to devote much of their time under the huge higuera tree in front of the school gossiping and smoking cheap Faro cigarettes.  

Thus, Chava learned early on to crawl around cacti to push smaller stones out of last year’s rows dug for corn, beans and squash in the mountain overlooking the unpaved barrio below.  The Navarros never “got ahead” enough to place Chava and his siblings in school.  Authorities had no interest in this dilemma.  Schooling was then considered a useless luxury for the offspring of poor and illiterate families.  

Born in 1964, Chavo was 17 when I hired him as peon – unskilled handyman – as my wife and I began building our house just below the Navarros’ mountain milpa.  Local teaching was so tacky that illiteracy wasn’t immediately apparent.  The long-standing non-linear wrestling match with Spanish even among top government levels continued well into the present decade,  That caliber of teaching so touched small countryside schools that a bumpy kind of verbal fencing tended to be something of a constant between the poorly taught and the well-schooled.  Flawed basic logic at that time remained widespread in political speeches, priestly sermons, storekeepers’ parlance, and even university instruction. Certainly it made street-side and cantina conversation a colorful adventures. 

This lack of accurately fitting cause and effect together in speaking of anything but the basics of very simple campesino life was plentiful.  Today those untutored children are now adults dodging around the blank spots ornamenting their verbal and intellectual world.  They try to avoid asking open-ended questions regarding their work day.  Their contact with  dueños – owners of a house, persons for whom they work – is carefully parsed.  Experience has taught Chavo, now 51, to recognize those persons who are metiches, “butinskies.”  Such people, consciously or unconsciously, try to control every affair. Such dueños de la situacion are to  be avoided.  He nods, says yes, and because he understands little of what they’re insisting upon, goes off to do his menial tasks, which mirrors his childhood field work.  If the dueño speaks Spanish he repeats the directions in his own words until there seems to be mutual accord.

Gringos who wish to play “being the jefe become demanding and impatient, often ignorant that they’re dealing with someone whose basic exposure to the modern structural use of language and linear logic is unbendingly scarce.  Often such “educated” people use verbal superiority to belittle obviously poorly educated workers.  Some think they’re closely supervising employees.  But such supervision can quickly become boring, needlessly onerous.  Things begin to go awry.  Windows are left open during the rains, doors left unlocked, refrigerator doors stand ajar, things being fixed migrate to becoming worse.  The “obvious logic” of repairing, cleaning and leaving things in order – “the way logic would dictate,” as gringos declare – suddenly go askew.  

Not all of this has the same cause.  The skewed logic of some workers is merely a natural outcome of their lack of schooling.    Obviously this limits workers’ adventures into new visions of thought.  For such a search, often an escape from boredom, tends to have no map.  Birth of bumpy adventures are sometime abetted by gringos over-estimating their newly acquired Spanish.  When Chavo was young he frequently walked away from jobs because of this or because it seemed that his “secret” was about to be revealed.  He goal was to stem the flow of embarrassing truth. 

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