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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Mexico

Expanded Horizons
Maria Ausherman

Lydia, 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 belongings.

"Lydia, you don’t need all that make-up. They’ll probably get all squished and melt anyway. Besides, you won’t need to spend so much time covering up the freckles on your arms. Some of the most successful models have freckly arms. And you’re not going to need your cell phone."

"How am I going to talk to my friends everyday?"

"Lydsie, you won’t 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 don’t think I can last, spending all my time with just you, and without talking to my friends for ten whole days."

"Honey, it’s not like they’re going to forget you. They’re going to miss you so much and they’ll be so excited to see you again when you get back, and then you’ll all have so much to talk about."

Lydia just sighed and looked down at her feet. She wouldn’t 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 she’s 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 that moment.

After a couple of days of Spanish classes, Lydia’s 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 restaurant’s 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 Gonzales’s compound.

Three 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 town’s patron saint, reflecting the country’s 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.

For 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.

"From Mitla, 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.

The 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 Mexico.

©  Maria Ausherman June 23rd 2009

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