Last Saturday was the first time Candida cried in front of me. She was talking about her son Paco, whose wife has MS and has recently deteriorated to the point where she can only eat by sucking the juice from fruit. Fruit is expensive, and since Paco can’t work and has to stay home to take care of her and his son, who is also disabled, the family has no income, other than the occasions on which we hire him as a driver. I know Candida and her husband help as much as they can, but they too are financially challenged now that there are no students paying to live with them on a home-stay program arranged by the Academia HispañoAmericano. The pandemic has hit many Mexicans hard with fewer tourists these past two years coming to San Miguel. Candida is a lovely and gracious woman who does not complain about the hardships they face, which have been heavier than I can imagine. Of 5 adult children, she has lost both a son and a daughter to illness and accidents, but accepts all that happens is “in God’s plan. And we have many blessings.” In spite of the tragedies she has faced, she is the most generous person, offering all that she has to share.
Her tears came and went quickly, and soon she was on to speaking of other things. But it was my first glimpse into the pain Candida lives with. We are now friends on a different level. But the challenge the majority of Mexicans face surviving in a city where costs have been constantly rising because of the American tastes and ability to pay is heavy. Yet they experience joy and live with passion and overflowing kindness. I texted Paco and told him we wanted to buy some fruit for his family, but since I didn’t know what kind he preferred, I asked him to meet us at the local fruteria in townso he could choose his own, and bring his father’s car. He accepted the offer immediately without further comment. The next day at the appointed time we met for a whirlwind tour of the fruteria. Candida had come along and had brought us meat, carrot and rice filled chilies rellenos still warm from her stove. There is no way to give to them without receiving.
Later this week Alicia, our house-cleaner, said she had something to discuss with me. I panicked thinking she was going to quit. But no, she went on to explain slowly in Spanish that her father, who had gone to Texas to visit her brother many months ago and had a cerebral aneurism, with surgery that kept him alive but unable to move or recognize anyone, is being discharged from the hospital. He will need an ambulance to get him from the airport in the city where he will arrive to San Miguel, and that will cost a fortune. All of the children will pitch in to cover the cost, but in order to pay her share, she wants to work an extra day for me. There is dignity in her request. She was not asking for charity, but to work and earn more. As it is, we have her at our house 2 days a week, which is far more than we need, but it is the luxury that is fairly expected here for ex-pats in houses they own or rent. Knowing that Alicia likes to cook, I suggested that on her 3rd day a week she cooks for us rather than cleaning. She brightened at the suggestion and asked what we’d like her to prepare. I told her that she should make whatever her family enjoys. That way we may taste new dishes, and we will enjoy whatever it is.
The unstated relationship between people of unequal status, whether it be financial or political, is based on the old fuedal system of Patron-client. It is a system that determined the way society functioned in Mexico ever since the Middle Ages until recent days. “Patron-client relationships are formed between people of unequal status in exchange for goods or favors.” It was the type of political strategy that dominated Mexican politics and allowed the PRI to stay in power from the 1920”s until the year 2000. Politicians granted national benefits only to regions or people who supported them in elections. On a personal level, in the Yucatan as well as in this northern city, poorer people customarily turn to the wealthier more powerful people in their lives in times of need. It is not unusual, but it is an expected, though unstated, part of the relationship It is different from merely being boss and employee. It is personal. It is a responsibility and a privilege for ex-pats who live here. And I m just beginning to scratch the surface of understanding. It is the least we can do.