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A Mayan Woman's Education

Maria, Doña Us’ daughter, came to Molly’s house twice a week to clean. This one particular visit I was staying with Molly and Luis Felipe, before my own house was finished. I was outside reading on the patio when I heard the high-pitched sing-song voice of a child coming from the kitchen. I am drawn to children like a moth to nectar, so I got up, put down the book and went inside under the pretense of getting a cup of coffee. As I came into the kitchen, a little girl about six years old looked up at me quizzically from under a lock of black hair that had fallen across her eyes. She moved closer to her mother and held onto her skirt.


“Hola, Maria,” I smiled. “Hola,” I said to the child. I got a cup from the counter and poured some still hot coffee into it, along with some sweetener and Lala whole milk, which I loved. Milk in Mexico can be stored in an unopened carton on a closet shelf for six months without the need for refrigeration because of the way it’s pasteurized. It tastes creamy and delicious. I took a sip of my coffee. “Bueno,” i said, feeling the child’s black eyes following my every movement, as though I were doing something entirely unique.

I didn’t know enough Spanish to have a conversation, but I wanted to make a connection. “Julie,” I said, pointing to myself. “And what’s your name?,” pointing to her. Those dark eyes searched my face as though she’d find the answer there. When she didn’t respond, her mother spoke for her. “Izel, Señora.” “Izel,” I repeated. “Bonita.” I had never heard that name before. Later I learned Izel means “rainbow woman” in Mayan, and in Spanish it means “Unico. Only One.”

I wished I had some toys or a game to give her to play with, but I had only brought from the US the things from Molly’s list that she couldn’t find in the market: at that time baking chocolate, whole wheat flour, and a half suitcase of bagels for the freezer. Sometimes when I visited other items were unavailable and I brought those. I looked around the kitchen and spotted my pen and notebook on the counter where I had left them the night before. I drew a box on the paper and lifted the page to show her. “See, I said.” Letting go of her mother’s skirt she edged closer. I drew another box with her watching. And then a circle. “Now you.” I offered her the pen. Slowly she took it from me, holding it with her first, turning it over and over. Clearly this was new to her. She wanted to make her own mark on the paper but couldn’t manipulate the pen well enough to produce more than faint chicken scratches. She looked disappointed. I tried to help her place her fingers so she’d have more control, but she wanted none of that. After a few minutes she got tired of trying and went back to her mother’s side at the sink.

I didn’t see Izel after that one visit, but I heard years later that she had gotten married before her fifteenth birthday and was pregnant with her first child. She never went to school. But she had learned from her mother the essentials of being a Mayan woman; how to flirt and attract a husband, how to clean a house and make tortillas and turkey mole, how to be a loyal and faithful wife, and above all a devoted mother. She and her husband lived in the same house with her parents, Us and Doña Us, according to Mayan custom.

Eventually Izel’s husband would have a mistress, or several, on the side, if he didn’t already have one. Maybe he would even have children with that other woman, which would be typical for macho men in Mexico, no matter their social or economic standing. Izel would accept her situation stoically, as a woman’s lot in life, without considering divorce as an option. I hoped at least her husband would be kind to her.

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