During a 10-day Jungian retreat, three of us were placed in the household of Enrique and Concepcion, indigenous elders who lived in a small native village outside of Oaxaca, Mexico. The occasion was Day of the Dead, November 1993. We spent three days with Enrique and his family. The experience was so rich that I have thought of them every single Day of the Dead ever since.
Yesterday was no exception. While honoring the spirits of my ancestors, memories of the meaningful time spent with this poor-by-Western standards family flooded my mind. I could see clearly the small-statured Enrique in his dirt-stained worn out blue and white jacket and blue jeans, and Concepcion, dressed with an ochre head wrap, long colorful skirt and blouse. Their smiles, oh I could see their smiles. And feel their beautiful hearts.
On the third day of Day of the Dead, we visitors were sent on a long hike with Enrique while the women of the household prepared food in their earthen floored kitchen. Cooking pots sat on top of burning embers in long ago hollowed out ground. Having witnessed, with great laughter, our feeble attempts the day before to grind hard, dry ears of corn on a stone metate, I think the women thought it better that we not be in the kitchen. They didn’t need any more bloodied fingers. We didn’t mind being sent on a trek. A beautiful blue-skied chilly day, it was a perfect occasion to be outdoors.
Enrique talked as we walked his fields. When he was a young boy, first his mother died. Then, his father. The land was to be passed down to him. But a greedy uncle denied Enrique’s claim. Eight years old, he fled his family’s historical land, traveled to a nearby city where he lived on the streets for several years. At the age of fourteen, he returned to claim rightful ownership of the land and the two bulls without whom he could not till the land. Before running away, he had buried legal documents which he found again easily. Initially a court magistrate stood with his greedy relatives to deny his claim. Enrique persisted until his true ownership was recognized. He sought to reclaim the two bulls. His uncle told him they had wandered off into the desert and most likely had died. Enrique searched several days and nights for the bulls. He did not believe his uncle. Eventually, his uncle’s wife took pity on him, told him where the bulls could be found. Enrique was then able to continue in his family’s tradition of farming.
His heart had been broken by so much loss and betrayal. Nonetheless he prevailed, married Concepcion, had two children who now have their own children. Enrique’s fields were lush and green, the crops healthy and tall. Corn, beans and squash, the traditional indigenous crops, were thriving under his care. The fields next to his were quite the opposite-dry with withered corn stalks. Those were the fields of the uncle who had betrayed him. The moral of the story was obvious.
I commented on how many grasshoppers-millions of them-jumped in his cornfields. When asked if he used pesticides to get rid of them, Enrique responded with horror: “Oh no, I could not do that! There’s enough food for all of us. That would hurt the earth.” He went on to state his clear understanding that he and his family are only stewards of the land, that they are to respect, honor and protect the earth.
Enrique continued to talk as we looped back towards his home. He took us to the town cemetery. It was gaily adorned with brilliant orange, yellow and red flowers set atop the scrubbed-clean markers. Music blared from boom boxes. People cried, laughed, prayed and danced among the gravestones of their deceased relatives. He cried tears of sadness at not being able to locate his mother’s memorial marker. He was illiterate. We searched, eventually found her resting place. This brought peace to his sorrowful heart.
He showed us the church for which he was a valued deacon. Enrique said he had been chosen because of his devotion and integrity; people trusted him.
His son, a lawyer in Mexico City, had a modern home built for Enrique and Concepcion, complete with indoor plumbing and tiled floors. This old-ways couple chose to remain in their homey humble residence. They were accustomed to the outdoor privy and earthen floored kitchen. Their dining room, the center of activity during Day of the Dead, had an altar that was resplendently decorated with candles, special breads, white sugar skulls, candies, nuts, religious icons, burning incense called copal, and photos of departed family members. It was beautiful.
After a most delicious feast of chicken mole, we gathered on low stools in a small room beside the kitchen to review our time together. Enrique asked pointed questions. The one that most stood out for me was this: “Which way is better? Yours or ours?” And then he turned to me with this request: “Have you heard everything that I have had to say? You are to carry my message to other people in the world.”
Of course, I said yes. It has been many years since I last told his story. And so again, for you, dear readers, I share Enrique’s saga of loss, betrayal, determination, integrity, persistence, earth-based values and morals. Rather a timely remembrance, don’t you think?
© Barbara J. Woolley, author, Thursday, November 3, 2022