What gave me the right to think, let alone speak aloud, “Maybe we ought not take that stuffed animal home with us?” It was his gift, from the girls, after a week of him, playing father, instead of builder. He might have preferred swinging a hammer. How does a man with two nearly grown children remember the games that entertain seven-year-old and eight-year-old girls? How does he navigate those games with bubbles, coloring books, a soccer ball, a volleyball and a language barrier? He knows phrases in Spanish. Katy and Kimberly knew no English.
|Fr. Joel with "Katy" or Katherine outside |
the house on the last day of building.
He clutched it to his chest as he heaved himself into the rental van, babying his damaged knee, not thinking about what might be crawling from the furry panda onto his shoulder and into his hair.
“They gave this me,” he said. They are Katy and Kimberly, who hover behind him, having hugged him goodbye. The teenage girl on our team who also played with them all week invites them into the van to hug us all, me included. To do so, they must bust through an invisible barrier under the shadow of the van out of the sunny street in front of their compound.
Did my husband see me grit the back of my jaw make psychic waves of objection, subtle but as real as if the words I was thinking took form as sound waves?
“Oh, honey. Probably we should not. Probably we should not take that back to the States. I mean, that’s so sweet of them. Do they really want to give up their toy?” To a grown man, a priest. I mean we don’t know what’s in that fur, in that stuffing? Are there bed bugs in Rosarito? Or worse vermin? I don’t know native insects in Mexico, except the black widows we crushed with our shoes back at the orphanage and the earwigs that I would smoosh in my purse as we inched along towards border security.
I wondered at once from what house did the toy usher forth and would it make a difference? Had the girls cuddled it after cuddling the feisty kitten, the one that their mother scowled at them for handling, even though our teenagers had picked up with pity? “She says it’s sick,” said the Spanish teacher on our team.
|Katy, Kimberly and Sofia lived with family around them, |
like this aunt' next door until we finished with the house.
By the night after we finished,
Sofia had put in beds, a refrigerator and they'd slept there.
Had the panda been cuddled by the Chihuahua putzing around our feet with stole of ticks around its neck and a squinty left eye that leaked pus. Frankenhuahua, the kids had called it. Its face looked fused from parts, the scars of fights from bigger dogs on the street. Dogs, everywhere dogs: pit bulls mostly, but other Chihuahuas. The fire that had burned most of the girls’ house, the fire that brought Sofia to the mission organization asking for a house, had nearly killed this little guy. Sofia, who had lived between her tía next door and her tía in front of her once and future home, had shuffled between the homes since the fire in January. Her tío, a bombero, had rescued Sofia and the girls from the house, had ushered the other bomberos and stopped the fire from spreading past her house, then had given Frankenhuahua mouth-to-mouth.
He put the panda on the seat next to him and positioned his knee using both hands to stabilize it before we started the drive first out of Rosarito, then onto unpaved dust roads to the orphanage. We rocked and rolled in the fifteen passenger van. He winced up and down, side-to-side. What had he done to earn this toy? In exchange, our team provided six packs of pompas, distributed among the neighborhood kids. Crayons, markers, coloring books of Disney Princesses, and two other bags of Dollar Tree treats. Cheap plastic baubles and diversions with half the shelf life of the panda.
Sometimes life humbles us.
He meant to go to Rosarito as he’d gone to New Orleans three years in row after Hurricane Katrina, ready to beat the heat, bust thumbs and even brave the roof, even asked. He hates heights, but the modest constructions of Mexico, two rooms, one floor, the size of a one-car garage with a concrete slab floor, stucco walls and barely sloped roofs, would seem a breeze. Compare these to the single story, two or three bedroom homes north of Lake Ponchartrain or more brazenly compared to the two story, multi-gabled Victorian in which we lived in Indiana, this would be an easy construction. It takes a couple months to finish a house for Habitat in the US, a week to finish what we put up for Sofia and the girls that week. No wiring. No plumbing.
|Katy helped sponge wet stucco. Sofia helped build.|
Is that worth the panda he clutched? The indulged American in me thinks not. I’m coming home to wi-fi, hot showers, flushable toilets I keep clean enough to drink from. Potable water from my garden hose, wine with dinner, chocolates for dessert.
On the side of the hill, where Sofia’s tía tossed out scraps, two small tomato plants, sporting a dozen cherry-sized tomatoes survive most of the week. I’d eat these for lunch at home. I have five times this started in neat five-by-five boxes along my driveway in Indiana. By the time we stack two lunch coolers, spread a white table cloth over them, perch three icons, of Christ, the Theotokos –the Mother of God -- and a cross for the final blessing, the tomatoes have been doused with stucco water from tambos of water to clean the cement tubs. I feel sad that tia did not pick the half ripe fruits to mix into the red chile sauce she served with stewed chicken, rice, carrots and macaroni and hot fried tortillas. Verderas, vegetables, are a condiment here, though we drove through market day where bins of napolito, tomatillo, tomatoes, fresh chiles, greens and beans were sold with second-hand clothes, shoes, household goods and tacos or tostilocos and dolces, that is sweets, like hellado or ice cream bars. Why so few vegetables? Why did the vendor at Tacos Manuel seem confused when I asked for a plate of vegetales but when a local translated verderas he allowed me a whole plate of roasted jalapenos, radishes, cilantro, peeled cucumbers, chile salsa and guacamole? He kept offering tortillas maiz or flor (wheat flour). How could I explain that queso, wheat, corn, and meat were foods my American stomach no longer tolerated?
Gringos, I insulted myself, as I peered around my husband at the panda. Perhaps we could give it to Melina for the tiendita on the ranch? He could pose with it for a picture before we left it behind, with its Mexican vermin? The violence of the thought, the belief that we bring something cleaner, when I’ve been ushered out of Philadelphia resorts due to the resurgence of bed bugs, when my friends and family suffer from the long-term effects of untreated tick-borne Lyme disease, when we American gringos sprayed Mexican day workers who crossed the border with chemicals no less poisonous than what has reduced my diet to mere fruits, vegetables and completely unprocessed animal products? What makes me think we have it cleaner? I will go home to water that tastes like a chlorine pool. The kids in my town will die, one a week or more, from heroin overdoses.
He says to me, “We can leave it at the tiendita.”
I reply, “I have an extra plastic bag. We’ll wash it in hot water when we get home. It’s part of the story.” He replies, “We use it for the presentation.”
We are quiet together until he says, “It’s really beautiful here.” He says later, “This was just what I needed.” I know he was humbled by his broken knee and by not being able to show his muscle on this trip. He was glad to escape all the other poison of our native culture- Facebook, texts, emails. He says, “We’ll be returning often.” Then we need the panda to tell the story. For we cannot pay for annual work trips to Mexico without all the people who cannot travel but who can support this work.
|The make-shift altar for the house blessing |
included Frankenhuahua, sleeping at its base.
While the panda tumbles in the washer and dryer at home, waiting for its perch on our church shelves, and its turn in the narrative of our lives, the lives of people who put us in Mexico, he says, “That was my kind of vacation, you know. We build. Sure, we work, but we get to see the people too.” And we did. We vacationed in a way that feeds my husband and me. We stood on the cold Tijuana beach. We bargained for futbol jerseys and a few gifts at the market. We watched fellow American tourists, mostly college students with their American buttcheeks hanging out of their doily-swim bottoms, wearing what they call “drug-rugs,” the hand-woven warm cover-ups perfect for the mild days and cool nights in Tijuana. While there we and the team prayed morning and night, at the site, all the time. We prayed “Padre Nuestro, Que estas in los cielos, Sanctificado sea tu Nombre”—Our Father Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy name. And privately, we prayed, “Lord Have Mercy.” But on whom? Us, with our prejudices or the kids who gave us their best in exchange for a bit from us, a week, two rooms, dollar tree toys?