The International Writers Magazine: Missionary Life in Mexico (Long piece)
The Mission to Mexico
Fred C. Wilson III
Once in Mexico City’s airport, a dismal gray and grim place, you have to check the flight monitors in order to locate the gate of your connecting flight; but if you get confused, the airport authorities have assistants to help you locate your gate of departure. Once we made our connection it was off for the short flight to sunny Acapulco!
Acapulco is the largest and most magnificent resort city in Mexico. Its many gorgeous beaches, excellent year round climate, and the spectacular scenery of this city on hills make the place a favorite destination for tourists the world over. Its world class port has been dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’ and the climate osculates between 15 and 20 degrees Celsius year round.
In 1566 Acapulco, during the time when Spain mismanaged things, was the jumping off point of Spanish ships in route to East Asia. The black painted treasure ships known as Manila Galleons sailed from the Mexican port city to China and the Philippines, then a Spanish colony. It was during this time when Spain sat on top of the world, countries like England and Holland, hostile to the Church and Spain, use to raid, rape, and pillage the width of the Pacific coastal cities and towns. Acapulco’s Fort San Diego was established to protect the city from pirate raiders, called ‘Privateers,’ including the infamous Sir. Francis Drake, who was once known as El Draque’ (The Dragon) for his ferocity and daring do in his attacks against the Spanish Empire. Drake never attacked Acapulco due to its heavy fortifications; Drake and Thomas Cavendish, another English pirate, attacked and sacked the nearby Port of Tehuantepec in 1579 and again in 1587.
||Acapulco is a city of contrasts. The city is one of the loveliest in Mexico and the world, but the slums are some of the worlds’ worst. I experienced this first hand. As a lay volunteer working with the Franciscans the religious order founded by St. Francis in the 12th Century that devotes itself to worlds’ poor people, the slums are dirty, over crowded, and over populated.
It was ironic that our mission station was situated on a high hill the overlooked the majestic city. As I peered down on Acapulco from where I stood I could easily see the almost visible diving line of rows upon rows of the dwellings of the poor in contrast with the fancy hotels and homes of the rich.
The friary (rectory/parsonage) where Fr. John Calgaro Brother Pascal, and our cook lived reflected Franciscan poverty. Showers were cold, the ice box was bare, and our dinner that night was a terse preview of the sort of dining I would be experiencing for my duration ‘in country.’ Black beans, water, and warm tortillas would be our staples for most meals... all of them for the next 28 days. Franciscans live poverty they don’t talk about it - big difference. Why was I in Mexico and not back home in our luxurious 16th floor lake view condominium on Chicago’s North Side? Living in the squalid section of one of the richest places in the world and not in among the rich and famous?
I was invited to come to Mexico to develop a ceramic arts program for the local high school and help assist Fr. John Calgaro or Padre Juan as he’s affectionately called by his large flock of 35,000 souls with his religious mission. Having taught school at all levels in Chicago for nearly 32 years including a three year stint teaching adults at the city college level, I’m a professional ceramicist by avocation, a lay minister at my parish church, and photographer, and wannabe writer. I was eager to ‘get in there and pitch;’ to do my bit ‘for King and country.’ With dinner mercifully over we went to the makeshift chapel for Night Prayer.
After prayers I showered and thought to myself as I lay in bed under an ancient fan - only hours before I was dining on steak, ribs, various other gourmet meats, smoked salmon, and the all-you-can-eat salad bar at Chicago’s prestigious Fogo de Chao restaurant that specializes in Brazilian cuisine. I was once a poor Project (Robert Taylor Housing Projects) kid who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. I know what it’s like to be poor. The material privations of my child and early manhood prepared me for what I was to shortly experience; extreme poverty at its worst. Late that night as I lay in bed staring up at the bare white ceiling I prayed for strength to endure what was in store.
The next morning Fr. John celebrated Mass in our tiny chapel then we had breakfast. After that we drove to the countryside to pick up four students attending Summer Bible Camp. Once we picked up the kids we headed towards Xochistlahuaca a large town west of the resort city. This town was to serve as Base Camp One for the duration of my stay in Mexico.
|The long drive to Xochi (so-chi), as the village of Xochistlahuaca is popularly called, took about 5 hours through some of the world’s most magnificent scenery. We made that long drive in Fr. John’s beat-up hotbox of a red Volkswagen van through the green hills and mountains of the most mountainous state in Mexico.
The Mexican countryside with its majestic green mountains was magnificent. The long drive was an ordeal. The boys sitting alongside me on the back seat were sweating profusely. The mini-bus didn’t have any air conditioner. The only measure of relief was from the two front windows that were open in the front. Hours later Brother Paschal our driver mercifully stopped for cold drinks. Hours later the mini-bus drove up to the side of the parish church. The Parroquia (church) of San Miguel Arcangel (Archangel) had recently celebrated it's 400th birthday. The parish community was organized in 1604 and was one of the longest continuous religious communities in North America.
The village was well over 1,000 years old and reflected the agelessness beauty of so many Indian and Mexican buildings. The present blue and white colored church was built recently. It's hard to comprehend that this parish was functioning when most of the present United States was either Spanish or French when the continent was mostly forests and wild spaces. What’s even harder to comprehend was that when the Barbarians in Europe had overthrown the Western Roman Empire the village of Xochi was as it is today a thriving busy community producing some of the finest embroidery in the world.
||The State of Guerrero is situated in the southern part of the country on the Pacific littoral. The state is a combination of modernist architecture, ancient villages, and high mountains. The village of ‘Xochi’ is located in the southeastern section of Guerrero State.
Its locality make it a vital part of the autonomous Xochi Municipio. Most of the townspeople are members of the Amuzgo and Mestizo Indian communities; fiercely independent, having their own spoken and written languages, unique customs and government they brook no nonsense from outsiders, whether the national government, self-centered do-gooders, or snoopy tourists. When we drove into town we were greeted with polite handshakes, bows, and the familiar greeting of “Shaman do.” This common Indian greeting is akin to Welcome, Sayonara, Aloha.
The men of Xochi wear anything from contemporary western clothes to the familiar white pants and long shirt made famous in Mexican Westerns in the States. It’s customary for Amuzgo women to wear two distinctive garments. A bright colored dress which served as an inner garment and the more folksy Amuzgo huipile a fancy brocaded blouse, usually white with two distinctive strips, usually red, worn along either side sort of like a liturgical vestment a deacon would wear at Liturgy; very beautiful. As a matter of fact one priest did, according to Fr. John, my long time friend whom I met in the 1960’s when I was seriously thinking about taking Holy Orders, actually tried to wear a huipile for Mass only to be told by his congregation that it was a woman’s garment and if he dared to wear it again he’d be banned from church. Taking the hint the good man returned to the traditional Catholic chasuble.
It was in Xochi that I learned about the legendary warrior-priest the Fr. Uriel Sanchez, not his real name for fear that the real Mc Coy might fly to Chicago, find where I live, and beat the living crap outta’ me, so Sanchez will have to do... But anyway since the 1940’s this priest has been kicking butts and takin’ names. Currently the active pastor of one of the grandest churches in all of Mexico this holy terror has government permission to tote an assortment of pistols, automatic weapons, and official police powers to put miscreants away temporarily or permanently depending on the law breaker.
In one of his more dramatic acts Fr. Sanchez actually killed a man who was trying to murder one of his priests during a disagreement by members of his parish council over some money matters. As that story goes just at the point when the not-so-happy villagers were in the process of making this poor padre into one of the holy martyrs, in rides the good Reverend Sanchez guns a blazing like something out of the Wild West. Naturally the riot stopped but as in any such circumstance, there’s always one brave fool who just didn’t get it. The wannabe Rambo charged the good reverend father only to be stopped dead in his tracks by the gun totting padre who drilled him into the next world with only one shot! The local court ruled it as justifiable homicide.
Fr. Sanchez also flattened a school teacher who dared cross him, knocking him out cold with an uppercut, blew up an airplane on the runway that was scheduled to fly in persons he deemed detrimental to the Catholic Faith, threaten to blow away a newspaper editor who once wrote a derogatory article against him by storming into his office holding a gun at the man’s head, plus has a history of coming to church meetings with his hand bandaged after punching somebody’s ‘lights’ out. This Mexican Don Camillo is one rough mother not to be trifled with. On the flip side Fr. Sanchez has a sterling reputation of being the people’s priest, a gentle, most kind confessor, and extremely dedicated to GOD and the people. Just don’t cross him.
My second day in Mexico, first in Xochistlahuaca I didn’t get to see much ‘action.’ Fr. Calgaro, Brother Paschal and I mostly spent the day planning upcoming trips to his mountain parishes. We talked about the extremely high number of HIV parishioners dying from AIDS, the large number of gays, lesbians, and gay bars for a town as small as Xochi. We also discussed how the Catholic Church in this part of the world was working overtime to undo centuries of Spanish colonial misrule, cultural stagnation, general apathy, ignorance, racism, careerist clerics, and the dire need for native priests, doctors, teachers, and other professionals. The mission once had five priests. After only a few years only Padre Juan and Brother Paschal remain. The burn-out factor is extremely high in the Amuzgo parish.
To be precise Xochistlahuaca is 95% Amuzgo and 5% Mestizo Indians, has a population of about 28,000 souls all total. 85% of the town is Roman Catholic the rest members of various Protestant groups. The local Protestants belong to an assortment of sects ranging from Baptist, Assemblies of God, Jehovah’s Witnesses, to Presbyterians. But sad to say, unlike Catholics and Protestants in the United States who inter-marry, inter-worship, exchange ecumenical dialogue, have a sense of openness despite their very real denominational differences, in Mexico the word ecumenical is just a word. Friendly exchanges between the two Christian sects are rare. Case in point one time when Fr. John and I were dropping off some passengers who used our pick-up truck as a bus, there was this Protestant guy who deliberately went out of his way to drive up to the priest and start honking his horn for our truck to let him make a left turn. This guy could have made his turn minutes before we even drove up to the corner to let our passengers off. He was laying waiting for us to pass near him so that he could have an excuse for an altercation with us. This is just one example of the hard feelings that exist between the two denominations in Mexico. But things could be worse; in the nearby State of Chiapas further south hostilities between the two denominations has led to open warfare with people being murdered on both sides of the religious equation. How sad…
The town itself sits on several high hills giving it a sort of San Francisco look. Some streets would even make the legendary Lombard Street appear straight. Wanna loose weight spend a month or more in ‘Xochi.’ You may come there large but you’ll leave lean. This writer lost 23 pounds coming down from a very large 321 pounds to a less than fat 298 pounds! Climbing through the streets of Xochi combines power walking, the stair master, and aerobics into one strenuous exercise. Just walking a block through the large towns, Xochi is joined to another town, presented a real fitness challenge.
The town architecture was something out of an old Spanish daguerreotype replete with colonial style buildings that’s been around for hundreds of years, a few neo-modern building of the local rich and famous, to the simple dwellings of ordinary residents. Most of the buildings are well kept and quite clean, but a few could make do with a good paint job. Xochi has the typical village plaza at the town center, a market, government building, and several cantinas that Padre Juan warned me to never to set foot in for fear of getting macheted. In Mexico there isn’t any no-drink limit at bars and this makes for an extremely dangerous situation.
The pastor rattled off numerous examples of people getting stomped, bludgeoned, or macheted to death over trivial issues in local cantinas. He even told me about a prominent member of our household staff who lost a brother, a medical doctor, who was stomped to death, by a school teacher over some trivial matter. And forget about due process; if someone harms you or a member of your family its common practice to settle things yourself, much as the way problems were solved in the American West during the 1870’s-Vigilante style. Like Chicago, Guerrero State is one place where it pays to be cool at all times since its infamous for its high rate of blood feuds, vendettas, murders, and according to Amnesty International, only a few short years ago the state was also known for its then high number of extra judicial drug related ‘executions.’ Xochi is defiantly one place where you really don’t want to rub the local folks the wrong way. Diplomacy pays.
The people of Xochi are friendly to a fault. They’re kind, courteous, very generous, and safe. Xochi is one of the few places I’ve been anywhere where it’s totally safe to walk the streets and rain forest during all hours of the day or night without worrying about getting mugged. It’s a common site to see small children of either gender playing alone or in small groups during all hours of day and night in and out of town without fear. Children are loved and treasured in Xochi and crimes against them are considered intolerable, unlike in the United States with its horror stories of children being brutalized. Crimes against children are exceedingly rare in Guerrero.
Mexico is a land of paradoxes. In Xochi there’s a wireless Internet café. Some homes have cable television but for some weird reason when the rain come the lights go off. In many cases just a thunderclap is all that’s needed to knock the power out, sort of like my cable service in Chicago; a few rain drops my cable network is out for the count. Once it's dark it takes days or longer for linemen to reestablish the towns’ electricity. Oddly enough I didn’t see one cell phone the whole month I was there. People complain about the national telephone system as a running joke but I found that phone service connecting Mexico to the U.S. is pretty good. My wife called me every day to see if I was still alive.
Every morning there was this woman whom I nick-named ‘Mexicali Rose’ who would get on a loud speaker and literally shout out what she was selling for that day. Every day the beautiful calm of the morning was shattered by her loud booming voice selling all sorts of things. These noisy broadcasts would last for hours on end but nobody complained. They took her loud incessant bantering the Xochi way in good style. Xochi, except for things religious, political, or cultural, is a city of tolerance. A general live-and-let-live attitude pervades over the people; a sort of ‘you don’t bother me and I won’t bother you.’ Not a bad philosophy.
Xochi has some of the best ‘sleeping weather’ anywhere. The nights are mild and the quality of air is unlike it anywhere else in the world so pure, so fresh that if they were to ‘bottle’ it the air there would be an industry unto itself. Occasionally during the late night or the very early morning hours you can hear a band playing in the background signaling that someone was getting married, had became engaged, or perhaps died. This is a traditional Mexican serenade; a celebration of life and death.
Economically Xochi was in comparison with most if not all of the other hamlets, towns, and villages that I visited, clean and doing very well for it self. All sorts of small industries abounded. I had a chance to visit a tortilla factory, a major bakery, some markets, and a few restaurants. Politically the city was torn between two mayors; Mayor Senora Aceadeth Rocha Ramirez the dynamic, reforming, no-nonsense, kick-ass and autocratic former then reelected mayor representing the once all powerful PRI Party. Her rival is the illegally elected mayor representing the PRD Party who took over and occupied the mayoral mansion. Fearing guerrilla warfare between the two rival factions the national government refrained from getting involved preferring them to work it out among themselves. At the time of this writing Senora Ramirez rules from a much smaller building in town whereas the PRD man has no power occupies the government mansion.
Our typical day started with praying the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) a Catholic collection of prayers, Scripture passages, sacred poems, lives of some saints, and a collection of hymns. The Divine Office or ‘Breviary’ is further divided into daily time slots meaning that certain sections are to be read at certain hours of the day. Usually priests and religious pray the Office but with the Church’s emphasis on lay religious involvement more lay people, including this writer, make it a common prayer practice. After Morning Prayer we had Mass in the 400 plus year old Church of St. Michael the Archangel then it was time of breakfast.
Ordinary Amuzgo cuisine is a simple affair centering on tortillas, black beans, and usually a meat item. If you want to learn how to really cook Amuzgo and or any of the other Indian dishes please log into: www.oaxaca-restaurant.com or log into similar culinary sites. There are scores of food sites that specialize in the cuisine of Mexico’s many indigenous peoples.
After a breakfast of black beans, tortillas, mineral water, scrambled eggs blended with green beans, and a chocolate drink prepared the original Indian way, Padre Juan (Fr. John Calgaro) and I set off for the tiny village of Plan Maguey II. The ride to the village was about an hours drive from our parish in Xochi but what made the trip a rough one were the roads. The main road that led through Xochi to Ometepec, the nearest big city, to Acapulco was paved except for entire sections that the rain washed away making travel extremely hazardous; problem was that nearly all of our mission outposts were off the main road and consisted of unpaved red clay dirt roads.
August is in the rainy season. After several nights of steady raining by morning the roads had turned into muddy quagmire with pot holes that ranged from a few inches to around 24 or more deep inches deep. This made driving very hazardous. Luckily Padre Juan’s truck was 4 wheel-drive and could take on even the toughest roads. But even with the extra ‘kick’ the truck provided it was still rough going up and down these slippery mountain passages. In many places large chunks of ‘road’ was washed away leaving dangerous drops of as much as 300 feet off cliffs, or washed out altogether from the intense raining, had boulders in front of them from mud slides, or was simply impassable. Father was either good, lucky, or both. All the time I was in country he somehow managed to make every village stop leaving some of the more seasoned and local drivers we met along the way stranded in the deep mud.
The village was situated on a series of high hills. The church of St. Michael, not the large one in Xochi, was in the green valley outside the Plan Maguey II. When our pick-up arrived we were literally surrounded by happy villagers who hadn’t seen a priest in months. Padre Juan is the only Catholic priest in his large parish of 60 plus individual churches. Considering the toughness of the terrain, poor to rancid food, 16 hour work days, elements of intense anti-clericalism, a mean Mother Nature, we even had an earthquake 4.3 on the Richter Scale when we were at table one night-scary-missionaries got to be tough; not a job for wimps.
The day was August 6th the Fiesta La Transfiguracion Del Senor. (Transfiguration of Jesus) It commemorates one of the greatest religious events in Christendom. Once we ‘set up shop’ Father heard Confessions. Then we had Liturgy after that a grand procession with band replete with pealing church bells, a life-sized crucifix that was carried by several villagers across the open field from church to town followed by the entire village as the town band played religious hymns. The entire spectacle was out of a tourist poster. It was all very beautiful and very Mexican.
After the procession we lunched on tortillas and generous helpings of Rooster Soup. The soup was simply delicious but the old rooster was pretty hard on my false teeth. Villages prefer to cook old roosters instead of chickens since the latter is valued for its egg producing qualities. Father and I couldn’t stay at table too long since everybody else had to eat. It was common practice during grand celebrations that people eat in shifts. Lunch over we quickly made way for the next group of diners; we left the village amid the smiles and well wishers who surrounded our pick-up and wished us well as we drove off. Fr. John and I left as quietly and quickly as we came and drove back to Xochi. It was my first missionary experience since 1970 when I worked in Canada with the Cree Indians.
Sunday in Xochi is quite an experience. Padre Juan celebrates the Eucharistic Liturgy in the town's two churches. Eight o’clock at the church in the adjoining village that sits on top of a hill and at Xochi’s San Miguel’s at 10 in the morning. Every Sunday I went to his 8 AM Liturgy. The church interior is a cavalcade of Amerindian folk art-beautiful. When you enter this church it's like no other house of worship you’ve ever entered before. The bright colored candles, the home made statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the angels, saints, the multi-colored votive candles flickering in the bright sunlight that shone through the stain glass windows, spiritually transported me back in time to another era where life and social issues were more black and white. In Amuzgo churches it’s customary for the sexes to sit of opposite sides of the church with men on the left and women on the right though a tiny minority of female congregants sits alongside their husbands or male children. Everybody sings loud which is so unlike too many Catholic churches in the States when a bored assembly count time on their wrist watches or read the church bulletin instead of participating in the Mass.
Until Vatican Council II (1962-1965) congregational singing was largely limited to Protestants. Catholics merely ‘heard’ Mass though they did have the option of group participation thanks to reformist Pope Pius XI. In Xochi the love for the Lord expresses itself not only by human voices but to a full accompaniment of trombones, trumpets blaring and outside a cacophony of rockets, firecrackers, and bombs making the entire religious experience a feast for the soul and senses an enduring experience for the total person. Having a missal (Mass book) in Spanish it was easy for me to participate with the people. The Mass was in Spanish but the homily (sermon) was bi-lingual with the Spanish being translated into Amuzgo for the mostly non-Spanish speaking Indian congregation to easily understand.
After church Brother Paschal and I took the long way back to the friary through the village greeting the people in the familiar ‘Shaman do’ along the way. The villages themselves wore like pretty postcards but we had to watch our steps to avoid sliding into mounds of dog and pig shit. We had to also watch out for the legions of pigs of all sizes and colors that roamed the streets that dined on doggy doo. After seeing what the pig’s daily diet consisted of I naturally avoided eating any pork products. When we arrived back to the mission we all had the usual breakfast of black beans, tortilla, cold water, and a meat item but no pork.
Sunday is my day of rest. This Sunday was no different. I spent the better part of my Sabbaths in my room writing, planning, and cataloging my photographs. Father didn’t have that luxury. Being the pastor Sunday was a day of work as streams of people poured into his parish office often lining up outside his door with some waiting for hours to see him. On Sundays Padre Juan held marriage preparation classes, gave religious instruction, signed important documents such as baptismal and marriage certificates, blessed people who were sick, and counseled people who were hurting. This was all in a days work for any missionary pastor.
I filled my weeks in Mexico assisting Padre Juan. Everyday including some Sundays he would drive his pick-up to make his mission rounds usually deep into the bush and high up in the mountains ministering to his many parishioners scattered in tiny villages and hamlets throughout his huge parish that in most countries would constitute a separate diocese replete with a bishop, and a staff of priests, deacons, nuns, and dedicated lay people.
Our daily mission rounds included villages with such melodic names as: Arroyo Montana a tiny hamlet about 10 miles from Xochi reachable by a heavily potholed red clay dirt road. It was on the way to Arroyo Montana that Father told me about the time he took a small 7 year boy to the hospital after the poor kid took a bullet to the brain. Seems like the boy and his older brother were witnessing one of the many literal highway robberies when after the robbery the bandits, not wanting to leave any witnesses, starting chasing the two brothers; the older brother out ran the crooks and got away but his younger and slower sibling wasn’t so lucky. The bandits out ran the boy then murdered him outright. With the dying boy’s brain leaking through his nose the child was pronounced dead upon arrival at a local clinic but the story didn’t end there. As mentioned before Mexicans find crimes against children intolerable. After a combined Army-Police roadblock accompanied by house-to-house checks of every person in the vicinity of the child’s murder, the two robbers were apprehended. From the way Padre Juan explained it, these two thugs are doing life sentences without possibility of parole cursing the day they were born.
We arrived in Arroyo Montana August 8th. We were greeted by throngs of eager people who hadn’t seen a priest for months. When I wasn’t helping out I watched him work. Father had the village visit routine down to a fine science. Every place that we went to Fr. John would try to sell musical CD’s produced by local artists. The songs were mostly religious tunes set to the beat and rhythm of the native Amuzgo Indians. Not only were the CD’s hot sellers they were professionally done. Proceeds from the sale of these wonderful CD’s went to the artists, to cover manufacturing costs, and some to the church that sponsored them. After he sold some tapes, I assisted him as he prepared baptismal and Marriage certificates, as well as any other documents that the people needed his assistance with.
||Fr. John heard Confessions at Arroyo Montana and before Mass at every mission station that we visited and most times the entire villages lined up. With Confession over we had Mass which was in traditional terms a ‘High Mass’ meaning the Liturgy was sung by priest and choir. After the Liturgy there were a number of person’s mostly babies that had to be baptized. When the newest Christians were finally greeted, there was the mid-day meal of tortillas, an icy soft drink and or bottle water, and a delicious meat and vegetable soup. With lunch over I accompanied my friend on his house calls. Out of simple respect I refrained from taking pictures inside the tiny dirt floor hovels that the people called home.
Taking a photograph of a person in pain, lying on a dirty cot, on a red dirt floor, in filthy rags, dying from AIDS is something I couldn’t bring myself to do. Once Padre Juan completed his sick calls (Confessions, Communions, house blessings, etc.) we got back into his pick-up, usually with a number of people hitching a ride, and returned to Xochi.
|Our routine varied little from village to village. At each place we visited Father heard Confessions, celebrated the Liturgy, Baptized people, lunched, then heard the last Confessions of the dying on sick calls. On rare occasions I served as an acolyte at Mass. Sometimes my duties as acolyte had me holding a flashlight during the Mass over the lay readers and priest during the Service in villages where we had lost power.
I was learning the ways of Mexico’s aboriginal peoples first hand and from listening to Padre Juan’s past adventures. Having lived in the region for nearly 24 years he had a lot to tell. If I were to list all the many stories he told as well as the sum total of my Mexican experiences I would have to write a very thick book.
That following Tuesday (August 9th) as Padre Juan and I were in route to the village of Manantial Mojarra, another tiny place accessible only by red dirt ‘road’ we discussed such diverse topics ranging from how beautiful the Mexican countryside is, the sexy naked woman sexy on the billboard in Acapulco who was selling a product I forgot (who cares!), the Franciscan love for the natural environment ala Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, how Mexican public schools are out-of-control in terms of classroom discipline, to why too many Mexicans have negative racial attitudes about their darker brothers/sisters as reflected in local television programs, Mexican movie stars, magazines, billboard ads, (though the naked girl on the Acapulco ad was dark and lovely) where the personages are usually whiter than white in spite of the majority of Mexicans are mixed or dark. But in the writer’s travels this attitude of ‘bright is right’ is indicative in most if not all Latin cultures. It’s also shows its ugly face even in the Philippines once a Spanish possession for hundreds of years where skin whiteners are in high demand.
Arriving at our destination we had the usual rounds of Confessions, Mass, Baptisms, a meal, and home visitations before returned back to Xochi. Mission life is like war. Most of the time it’s boring but on not so rare occasion’s things can heat up dramatically. As Providence would have it our trip to Manantial Mojarra was quiet.
The next day (August 10th) we had three villages to cover. We were required us to stay over night in the second one we visited. Our first stop was La Junta de Arroyo Grande another Amuzgo town. After Father sold a few CD’s for the local artists, he heard Confessions than there was Mass. Attending Mass in one of the villages was so different from the grand churches of Chicago where I live. As mentioned before men and women sit on separate sides of the church except on rare occasions. It’s the kids who liven things up. All during the Liturgy the kids run up the aisles playing, talk, talk, talk during Services, interfere with the priest or server at Mass, will stare at visitors like one would look at someone from another planet who decided to drop by for church, in general create quite a commotion all with the tacit approval of nearby parents who merely laugh at their unruly male children. The girls sat quietly in their pews next to their mothers while the boys clowned. After a few Masses like this I, along with the other presumably more serious church goers, simply shrugged it off with the sigh.
The village of La Junta Rio Grande was about the only place where the village church wasn’t placed atop of a high hill. Considering that this writer isn’t the outdoor type working at ground level made ministry all that more enjoyable.
Most of the village churches are ‘hotboxes;’ neither fans, nor large open windows for cross ventilation, and tiny windows made the church experience a real penance. But it had rained which cooled the small white and blue building down considerable. La Junta was a very tiny hamlet so we breezed in and out of there within hours. Driving through the red goo that was once the main ‘road’ provided some chills and thrills but we made it thanks to Padre Juan’s skills at all terrain driving. Given his road experience that man could easily drive and win the torturous Baja 1000 auto race.
We left that village for Plan de Guadalupe. Arriving at our first and only Aztec village, of course these Indians refrain from calling themselves Aztecs these days (bad historical vibes I guess) anyone could see why in former times they ruled the entire country. Guadalupe was very clean. There were a large number of cable satellite dishes, the buildings were freshly painted and well maintained, the close cut lawns, no pigs roaming through the streets, the sanitario (washroom with shower) were modern, clean, and there were a number of elementary and high schools.
Unlike other villages before and after we visited Guadalupe, no one wore Indian clothes but were arrayed in only the latest American fashions. This town had $$$$. Father later told me that 25% or more of the people who lived there worked jobs in the United States for about half the year and resided in Guadalupe the other half year in the United States… legally. All lands, a considerable slice of real estate, were seized from an American corporation a few years ago but is now owned and operated by the townspeople most of whom spoke excellent English. Like the once conquered Axis nations of World War II; yah’ just can’t keep a good world conqueror down now can yah?’
Mass there was more organized. There were very few if any kids running about, everybody sang and loudly, and the congregants responded to the prayed responses in military precision. Our room with its two beds and clean sheets provided for a sound and refreshing sleep, When we got up the next morning we had Morning Prayer, a nice breakfast, then drove for Rancho Cerro Bronco.
The road to Cerro Bronco was a bumpy one. Last nights heavy rain again turned our ‘road’ to a thick, mud red, goo. Once we arrived in town Father and I went through our familiar routine. But there were no sick calls that day.
Cerro Bronco was the only place where I ticked-off some of the locals because I didn’t speak Amuzgo. It was as though they actually expected me to be able to rattle off Amuzgo words and phrases but I-politely-and you must remember that every man and boy carries a razor sharp machete at all times-laughed it off and was damn happy to leave that place as quickly as I did.
Once back in Xochi I cold showered, wrote in my journal, said some prayers, and then hung-out with the locals who gathered in front of the priest’s home. Late that night as per custom we had a late dinner around 9 PM after which I went to bed after a few hours of more writing.
Saturday (August 13th) was a welcome relief from three very difficult days. I told Father that if I were a priest assigned to Xochi and I were to quit my post that it would have been because of geography if nothing else. The physical terrain could kill any person used to the sedimentary lifestyle of a city which is in my opinion why Padre Juan can’t get assistants. If the ‘same-o-same-o’ food and daily routine won’t get you the topography will.
We had only one mission to minister that day. A tiny place called Arroyo Gente with the village church perched on the usual high hill. Our pick-up almost slid down the hill after we lost traction making this treacherous hill climb but once up the hill Father and I set up for Mass, Confession, Baptisms, and possible sick calls after lunch.
Fr. John’s in charge of the priestly ministry but Brother Paschal’s in charge of everything else like keeping in running shape the parishes four vehicles, the plumbing, the seven deer, roosters, chickens, the pet squirrel, electrical fixtures, repairs to the large parish church, repairs to the school, the meeting hall, large bread oven/kiln, making weekly trips to Ometepec and Acapulco, plus balancing the parish books. Both men work as good a team as the old Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame double play team Tinker, Evers, and Chance.
From (August 14th thru August 27th) we covered most of the large parish. The other villages that we ministered to were:
· Arroyo Blanquillo
· Guadalupe Victoria
· Cerro Centzas
· Los Liros
· Plan de los Muertos (Plain of Death)-believe it!
· Arroyo Pajaro
· Guadalupe Mano de Leon
· La Soledad
· El Santiago
· Guadalupe Victoria
||It was in the Amuzgo town of Huehuetonoc when my routine was broken. Huehuetonoc, along with it's cathedral sized church, is one of the largest towns in the parish. The town noted for its superb semi-professional choir that records nearly all of Padre Juan’s CD’s.On the downside the small city is also home of the infamous ‘Mr. V’ one of the many hundreds of fake clerics that pollutes the Archdiocese of Acapulco preying on the mostly illiterate Amuzgo-Meztico Indians in the region by actually ‘selling’ them the services of the Church. Nearly immune from rule of law Mr. V hawks his phony sacraments with impunity.
Padre Juan and I had to fix one of Mr. V’s screw-ups in one village. There was this young married woman who was ‘baptized,’ ‘confirmed,’ and ‘married’ by this charlatan. To make matters worse ‘V’ issued the girl a bogus birth certificate so the poor girl didn’t even know when she was born! No birthday so we had to estimate her age, assign her and her newborn baby birthdays, re baptize, re marry, and will eventually re confirm her when the real bishop arrives. Why the guy hasn’t been excommunicated beats me.
After spending a night in Huehuetonoc Padre Juan, our guide, and myself left town for the village of Guadalupe Mano de Leon-on horseback! Mexican horses and pack animals are considerably smaller in comparison to their United States counterparts a big problem for me. At first they gave me a horse to ride. Try as I might neither Padre Juan, the hired guide, nor two men standing on the sidelines couldn’t lift my fat ass on that horse so they substituted a donkey instead. The last time I rode a horse was in 1968 when I was a thin kid. Try as they might it took those men about 25 minutes to help me mount that donkey. To make matters worse about an hour into our ride my animal made a sudden stop, turned its gray head and looked at me eyeball-to-eyeball, then casually tossed all 320 pounds of me off its back. No wonder he tossed me. Had I been in his situation I would have did the same thing. Now on foot Padre ordered me to take a bus to the next mission.
After the roughest ride of my life in the back of a cattle truck that had no shock absorbers, no seats, no handholds, and a large leaky half-opened dripping container of gasoline being heavily tossed from side to side as the truck sped along the mountain trail; one stray spark could have made angels, or devils, out of all eight of us. They delivered me nervous and shaking at the tiny Mestizo town of Guadalupe Mano De Leon. There was a Mexican Army patrol doing house-to-house searches for illegal drugs. As the soldiers carried automatic weapons in hand checked for drugs, my mind drifted to the stories and photographs of atrocities committed against missionaries, journalists, and human rights activists in this part of the world.
I thought about the two human rights activists Padre told me about who were slowly roasted to death in human sized ovens and the priest who was castrated than shot only months before my arrival in nearby Village of Honduras, I got even more scared and suggested that “an Act of Contrition would be in order guys” to some construction workers and children I was talking with. My luck held out. After doing two sweeps of the village and one soldier taking a keen interest in me, they left town. About 30 minutes later Padre Juan and the guide rode up.
On August 30th Brother Paschal drove me back to our friary in Acapulco. That night we attended evening Mass at Acapulco’s cathedral then treated ourselves to ice cream in the shopping mall in the cathedral square. The next day the Brother drove me to the airport after an early morning shop at Wal-Mart. An hour later we bade each other final goodbyes-until next year! I checked my one luggage in to Chicago, whizzed through the airport security check point, and had a breakfast of ham, eggs, black beans (again?) and two icy cold Corona beers. About an hour later I was on my way back to Mexico City where I made my connecting flight to Chicago. Hours later I happily filed through U.S. Customs and mighty glad to be home at last!
There has been some changes since I last visited the Parish of St. Michael the Archangel; some of them good others not so. At long last the drug wars have reached southern Mexico. You may have read that during the continuing drug war police found a number of dead bodies of cartel members minus their heads. Also kidnap gangs operating in and around Acapulco has made travel even more perilous.
There is a serious U.S. State Department Travel Advisory for the entire country. Mexico is a very dangerous place. Drug gangs rule large sections of the country and life is cheap. I nearly got shot traveling through a mountainside town that was being patrolled by government soldiers. This article was written to inform you what life is like in that part of the world. I’ve traveled through the length and breath of Mexico. I love the people however I have serious reservations of ever going back to that country. Through the years I’ve lobbied for volunteers, medical, clerical, and educational missionaries give my friends a helping hand. So far I’ve had no takers. A few months ago Fr. John and Brother Paschal were transferred back to the States; Padre John to Austin, Texas with Brother Paschal here in Chicago. Both men are doing well.
© Fred C. Wilson III January 2014
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Fred C Wilson III
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