My friends and workers, the families I have come to know in Puerto Perdido --- outside of education, background, upbringing, culture, language, interests, family life, and religion --- are not that much different than the rest of us. We are all humans --- two legs, two arms, head, heart, love, hate, fear, joy.

There are, however, on occasion, slight differences that pop up. For instance, recently I bought some fruit trees for the place where I live --- grapefruit, mandarinas (tangerines), and limones. I wanted to plant them at once, but worker Juan tells me we have to wait until the full moon. Otherwise, they will not grow and bear fruit.

The full moon has many powers. Juan also said that the army ants that invade house and home only do so when there has been a fight, when someone in the house is angry. But, he says, to compensate, they will not sting during the full moon.

When one indulges the beast with two backs --- one must never allow conception during the full moon. The child that results will be hairy, and will, possibly, even turn out to be a wolf.

Pancho tells me that one must never climb a palm looking for coconuts when one has a hangover. If you do so, se hace seca --- it will go dry, die. By the same token one must never piss on a palm tree immediately after intercourse; that too will kill the tree.

He also told me that if it is night, and if there is a wind, and you hear voices --- it is the children from this area who have died before they could be baptised. Their tiny souls toss about forever in the winds, never coming to rest, whispering feverishly in your ear.

Several years ago, after two devastating hurricanes hit the Puerto Perdido area, word was that a child was born in a nearby community. The babe had blue eyes, a full beard, teeth --- could even speak. He proclaimed that earthquakes, a deluge, and three more hurricanes were on their way.

Witches are everywhere, and can be dangerous. Friend Jórge, a sensible type, explained to me that his step-father died because some of the neighbors were jealous of his land holdings. They hired a witch to put a curse on him and the old man died soon after the curse was laid.

I suggested to Jórge that perhaps the fact that his step-father was seventy-five, and smoked Faro cigarettes (two packs a day, black, no filter) might have had something to do with it. No --- it was the curse pure and simple.

§     §     §

But the profoundest truth of the difference in culture --- mine, theirs --- came to me with María Gonzalez.

María's cousin had worked for me for several years, and I had gotten to know the family well --- spent time with them, ate with them on occasion. They were relatively prosperous, owned an hectare or two, several goats and cows. They were and are good solid people.

Like many Mexicans, it's a matriarchal family. The father and two of María's brothers have moved to the United States. They send monies back from time to time --- but since they have no documents, it's hard for them to come visit. If they did, they might not be able to get back north across the border to their gardening jobs in Modesto. So it's mostly by means of money orders and occasional telephone calls that they keep in touch.

María's mother is plump, has a mouth full of bad teeth, talks a blue streak --- most of which I can't understand --- and is as kind as they come. She's also a dynamite mother. All ten of the kids, both in the house and out in the world, as far as I can see, are well-mannered, polite, hard-working.

Daughter María was born with a cleft-palate, and by the time I got to know them, she was sixteen. She was painfully shy, but in her own way --- with her long black hair that fell naturally half-way down her back, with her startling deer eyes --- she's as lovely as one could wish.

I made enquiry and found that the Shriner's have a hospital in Mexico City where poor people can come for medical help. It's staffed by volunteer doctors from the United States. They also have an outreach program. For María, that meant that she could go to a clinic in Oaxaca to have the relatively simple procedure done so that she could speak normally.

I knew that once she's given the chance, her natural beauty will bloom, and instead of being shunned by her peers, staying home most of the time, helping her mother, baby-sitting the three younger brothers and sisters --- she'd begin to go to the local fiestas, those noisy weekend block parties where most of the town courtship routines come to pass. Soon enough she would have a novio, would get married, start her own family.

I made the necesssary contact with the Shriner's organization, then went to Sra. Gonzalez. I told her what I knew about the operation, that she --- the mother --- would be expected to accompany María to Oaxaca, and to stay for the few days of convalescence. I told her that I could make an appointment immediately.

She said she would let me know when, but the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and still she dithered. Finally, I told her that I was going to be leaving soon, and I wanted the operation to happen before I left.

No quierímos hacerlo. We don't want to do it, she said.

Discúlpame. No entiendo. Excuse me. I don't understand.

We can't to do it, she said.

Why not?

We've heard that after the operation, María won't be able to talk anymore.

No, I tell her. That's not true. I swear to you. Ask anyone. It's not true.

No, she replied. We've asked. They tell me that María won't be able to speak afterwards.

And no matter how I tried to change her mind (I even offered to bring in a doctor to convince her) there was no budging her. She had heard it, it was true, and there was nothing to be done about it.

Now, two years later, lovely María is still at home, doesn't go out at all, is still painfully shy, still speaks with that characteristic blur of the cleft palate.

Sra. Gonzalez had watched María's brothers and sisters grow up, and --- one by one --- leave the nest for marriage and work. When the youngest children grow up, they, too, will leave. But there'll always be one to stay home --- sweet Maria. To help her mother, and, when everyone else is gone, to keep her from being lonely.

--- Carlos Amantea

[This article appeared previously in Salon]

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