Jesse was a great-looking Mexican in his late twenties who was hanging around outside our hotel looking to pick up passengers to take on tours of the city. He struck up a conversation with my father, and Dad hired him right away. I was smitten by Jesse’s easy-going manner, his engaging smile, and his accent when he spoke English. He took us to see the decorated boats on the Xochomilco canal, the massive mural by David Alfaro Siquieros at the National University, the outdoor market selling live turkeys and hens. We went to the fanciest restaurant I’d ever seen, with a waterfall cascading down one wall, and the following day to a bull-fight. I hated the picadores that jabbed the bull relentlessly with their lances, and hid my face when the desperate bull’s legs cleared the first fence, his enormous head and horns reaching into the first row of spectators, nearly goring someone. The bull-fight was the country’s festival and we were foreigners. and I didn’t want to judge. Besides, I loved the pagentry, the life, the excitement of it all.
Driving to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe the next day, Jesse explained that his real name is Jesus, (Hay-zoos, with the accent on the second syllable, as he pronounced it) and that Christmas also happens to be his birthday. When he was a very young child he thought Christmas was a birthday party for him because even strangers kept sayng his name, Hay-zoos, Hay-zoos. “It is a very Catholic country, but I don’t go to church much anymore.”
We arrived inside the gates to the shrine and the wide boulevard leading to the Basilica. A line of people that seemed to stretch for miles was making its way on their knees toward the church. Some had traveled for days to get there, and looked so aged and feeble, without the strength to stand, much less crawl. Some used their crutches to lean on as they placed one devout, bloody knee in front of the other on the hard cement. Fathers held babies to their chests, children walked beside expectant mothers. Many had come to pray for their health, or someone else’s. They believed the Blessed Mary, for whom this church had been built, would heal them. The majestic interior was filled with marble colums, gold and silver railings, massive statues and paintings, the display of opulence everywhere. Priests in elegant vestments stepped among the kneeling peasants collecting the coins that the people had scrimped all year to save, according to Jesse. The priests did not look at the faces of the people. I began to feel violently ill as I watched the priests’ haughty aloofness and disregard. “Those people don’t need prayers. They need milk stations,” I said, telling my parents I’d wait for them outside. I understood that belief can be healing, that faith can give people hope for the days to come. But how much does religion prevent people from doing what they can to improve their own lives while here on earth? How much does the wealth of the church come from bilking the the poor, uneducated worshipers? They are questions with no easy answers.
Jesse drove us from Mexico City down the Coast, with overnight stays in Taxco and Cuernavaca, the city of Eternal Springtime, and finally to Acapulco, where, under an outrageously blue sky, Mexican teen-aged boys shepherded my sister and me in pink and white striped jeeps from our pink casita with its own pool down to the Caribbean Sea and back up again. One afternoon we went deep sea fishing, and thanks to the strength and expertise of one of the fishermen on board who helped, I caught a 5’9’’ sailfish that flashed purple, blue and green as it was hauled into the boat.
By the time our trip ended, I was entranced with Mexico, but unaware how many times as an adult I would return. Irrational as it was, I half-expected to run into Jesse. He would be older, but standing in front of my hotel, smiling, waiting by his car.