After almost a year working together, monthly trips to the puebito of Zamachihue near the Tamulipas boarder for our sustainable development sessions, the Zama Mamas still call me Usted.
As Angela and Abuela feed chunks of fresh goat cheese through the grinder under the wisachi tree, I muster the courage to ask them why.
Because of my age and education, of course, Abuela responds matter-of-factly. It’s a matter of respect, she adds.
The age part is slightly bothersome, but the education part is heartbreaking. Because I’ve had the privilege of education, and the Zama Mamas are lucky if they been through a few grades of primary school, they have to address me formally?
I make my American equality argument: But we’re a team, working together on this vivero project, and we are friends now. Honestly, you can call me Tu.
But even as I’m saying this I feel like I’m breaking a custom. I notice that Angela, a grown women with children of her own, calls Abuela, her Tia, Usted.
So I backpedal a bit: Okay, the women can call me Tu, but Juanito, no.
Angela’s 10-year-old son with the winning smile swings from a branch, observing, listening, bragging in Spanish that he can speak English, and petitioning: Will you bring more books next time? Phew, he’s using Usted.
Tiene rason, you are right, Abuela nods as she grinds, still speaking in the Usted.
It will take time to make the change – and we have only months, three or four more visits, before I vanish.
The emotional reality of this just hits me, standing there in the backyard, the chickens poking around my feet, the smell of wood smoke in the air. Up to now it’s been all workshops and plans, calendars and prioritizing – the Head working hard to jam another year of team-building and training into two tiny months.
But this here, under the wisachi tree, is the Heart part. Abuela Una breaks-off a chunk of the raw goat cheese. Proba, she says, taste. It’s creamy and sweet – melts in my mouth - my eyes widen in delight – and the Mamas nod with satisfaction, appreciating that I appreciate their comida Mexicana gifts.
The Head part is so much harder: a 3-hour session with the Zama Mama’s to review our progress, our challenges, our next steps. I start with the progress, to keep their spirits up – asking Angelica to help me we report on our trip to the Municipio to finalize the Registro.
Yes, we did have some logras today: we wound through the business registration process in the Municipio for four hours in the heat – got past the scare of a $1750-peso registration fee (a 15-page Acta @ 150 pesos per page), and miraculously convinced the office of Finances that we were a government-funded project and didn’t have that kind of money. We didn’t even have any sales yet – and the only equity the women have had to invest has been their sweat! We walked out of there with a mere $150 pesito fee, high-fiving each other in the plaza when we were good and out of site.
Of course the process is far from over: we still have a trip to the capital and an appointment with Hacienda, the Mexican IRS, to secure an official RFC that will allow the women to sell their trees ‘arriba de la mesa.’ Who knows what ‘aspantas’ we might encounter there, says Angelica.
Paso por paso, I tell them, but really I’m trying to remind myself.
The Zama Mama’s applaud our success. And, I add, we can use that leftover money for a fiesta! More applause.
As the meeting proceeds, I try to get a vote on the logotipo – there’s not much interest – the kids are starting to get restless – the mama’s are unfocused – the sun is going down. I notice a cloud the size of a spaceship landing on the hill just behind my Powerpoint presentation – and it’s lit-up like an exploding peach. I try to stay focused too.
We have to get an agreement on when to plant the next cosecha of trees, even though the others still have not been sold. We talk about this: I feel like I’m making excuses: with the election this year, the number of reforestation projects was down, you know what they say, Ano de Hidalgo, most of the money goes under the table and into someone’s pockets, and unless you know how to play the laundering game…charging five and taking four and giving them the extra pesito for their bolsas…you’re MOL, mierda out of luck.
We close the evening on a high-note: chocolate-covered macadamia nuts brought back from the USA. The box goes around and everyone chews silently, in delight. Even the ninos are finally quiet.
And back to the Heart, which in Mexico includes the stomach…
We sit down to a late-night cena in Angelica’s kitchen, two abuelas, two hijas, Angelica, her husband and me. They’re rolling out flour tortillas on the wood table, and they invite me to give it a try. Reminds me of Grandma Lena’s pizza dough – with a makeshift rolling pin narrow as a stickball bat I flatten the dough, turn it over, roll again, not too much pressure, and sprinkle some flour to prevent sticking, flip it and roll again, until they stay listo. Then Abuela takes my amoeba-shaped product and rotates it like a steering wheel in the air, stretching it nice and thin before tossing it on the hot comal.
It comes out bubbly and light as a fried cloud. Rolled with black beans and goat cheese and a spoonful of spicy salsa, it’s like a bite of heaven.
Just before bed I watch Abula Una do an energy-cleansing on Juanito. A snake crossed his path in the milpa today, and he can get rid of his fear. She whacks him with branches of mint and mumbles prayers to the saint of aspantas, grasping his skull in her strong working hands, then releasing and commanding the snake spirits out.
I retire to Abuela’s room stuffed, exhausted, content. As usual she’s graciously given-up her bed for me, bunking with her granddaughters next door. The soft mattress folds around me like that warm flour tortilla – I’m the carne.
I smell of Nacho’s herbal rub: Abuela smeared it on my neck and back – and Angelica fed me her potion of honey and limon – to clear my sinusitis away. And I do feel better – just to be cared for, when normally any medical treatments are self-administered from my Peace Corps first aid kit.
I have just enough energy to take-in the campo sounds: the crickets singing in hills that surround the pueblito; the raucous chorus of dogs and burros making their final refrain; and Angelica’s busy-ness on the patio, the last of the chores before bed, rinsing and soaking the granos of corn for tomorrow’s tortillas.