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Changing Roles: When Illness Strikes

On Wednesdays when Alicia finishes cleaning our house, she asks what we would like her to cook for us the next day. Thursdays are extra days she requested to work when her father became critically ill and she needed to earn extra money to help pay for his expenses. I came up with the idea that she cook for us that extra day , since I knew cooking was something she enjoyed. It’s worked out perfectly. Sometimes we request something she’s made before, sometimes she suggests a new dish for us to try. When she leaves on Wednesday, we give her cash for the groceries she will need to buy and begin to look forward to Thursday’s lunch. Sometimes we invite friends to join us, but most of the time it’s just Jack and me. The next day around 11:30 she shows up with bags full of groceries; meat, fish or chicken, vegetables, canned goods, and whatever seasonings the recipe of the day calls for that we don’t have on hand. She knows where to shop to buy the freshest and cheapest produce in town. Always there are tortillas and a variety of peppers.

With a smile and a bit of conversation between us, she unloads her goods onto the kitchen counter and gets to work. She puts on her long black apron and readies pots and pans and utensils quickly, confidently, and happily. She is not a trained chef, but a home cook who loves to make meals for her family. They rarely go out to eat. Once she gets the pots and pans going, before long, tantalizing aromas waft through the open living dining room. We know whatever is coming will be wonderful. Over the 6 months that we’ve had this arrangement, Alicia has made a great variety of dishes, green and red enchiladas filled with a choice of chicken or beef; chili rellenos with meat or cheese; mexican stew, and even, surprisingly, chicken cordon bleu, which was her suggestion, just to name a few. Along with the main dish, there is usually guacamole (some of the best we’ve tasted in San Miguel) potatoes or rice with vegetables, and a side vegetable. Last week she made arrachera (a cut of beef in a marinade that she sautés in a pan with olive oil along with onion. Our friend Tony grills it instead when he serves it at a bar-b-que, but I especially like the flavor of the arrachera that Alicia made) To accompany the meat, she made a large garden salad and spaghetti with poblano sauce, which is hands down my favorite spaghetti, now that I’ve tasted it made that way.

Alicia knows from the sounds we make as we eat that we love her cooking. Also because Jack goes back for seconds, and there is never anything left on our plates when we finish the meal, there is proof positive. She is pleased to be so appreciated, and we are equally pleased to be so satisfied. As we eat, she puts the extra food away (there’s always enough for at least one more meal, and often more), and leaves at 1:30 to pick up her 10-year-old daughter at school and bring her to our house with her. When they get back, we invite them to have some of our lunch, after which Alicia does the dishes and cleans the kitchen.

This extra day of work per week has helped Alicia contribute to the cost of her father’s medicine and therapy since he has come back from the US where he was hospitalized for more than five months after a cerebral aneurism.She did not want a hand-out, she wanted to work for the extra income. Now that her father is home from the US where he was hospitalized. I am so impressed with the family’s care, and how each one takes part. Alicia is one of 4 siblings who live in San Miguel. Each one takes a turn staying at night with their father, bathing him, feeding him, changing his diapers, as he is totally bed-ridden, half-paralyzed and unable to speak. How much he comprehends is questionable. The two other siblings who live in other cities send money to help cover their father’s high medical costs. Alicia says, “He was not a good father. But this doesn’t matter now. We are a unit, and we want to take care of him. He will never be alone” This is the way it is with Mexican families, without complaints, without resentment, they pull together and care for each other.

Alicia is also now attending a government subsidized program to get a nursing certificate. The program is new, and the cost is very minimal with the government’s help. The school is in San Miguel and classes are held on Saturdays for 6 months. Meanwhile, even before she is certified, she now can take blood pressure, measure oxygen intake, give injections and draw blood, all skills she then applies to help her father. We have rearranged her schedule on Fridays so she comes in the afternoon after working at another house in the morning so she has Saturdays free to go to school. Somehow she gets it all done. and never seems tired.

After her work on Thursday is done, she and her daughter sit next to me on the couch for their English lesson. She is determined to learn because she knows that once she has a nursing certificate, most employers will likely be ex-pat individuals who will want her to speak at least some English. Our lessons are fun for all three of us. "You are a very good person," she says to me sincerely, in Spanish, as I copy some homework onto her phone for her and her daughter.

I am thrilled to be part of this young woman’s advancement in life, even if it means one day in the future she will move on to a better position than housekeeper. When that day comes, we will will so miss her and her indominitable spirit. To say nothing of how much we will miss our Thursday feasts.

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