Practical spirituality for a complicated world.
Several people wrote recently to ask about how I got to know Mexico so intimately. I've sent them emails telling them to watch for my column of May 24, and I'd write about it. I began
studying Spanish in the 9th grade, and then had several years of Spanish in college. I wasn't involved in athletics, but I won the medal for Spanish I and Spanish II in high school, as well as the Spanish Spelling Bee. For as long as I can remember, I've loved the Spanish language. In fact, my first job was teaching high school Spanish in Gulfport, Mississippi. Today, I enjoy watching Mexican novellas and I adore the 'La India Maria' comedies. For terrific music, it's hard to beat Mexican Rancheras and Corridos.
After I finished school, I had an opportunity to go to Mexico and work as a volunteer with two Catholic priests from Mississippi who ran a large mission in Saltillo, Coahuila. I spent quite a bit of time there. These two were totally dedicated to the Church, and believe me, they walked their talk. Looking back, I can't say the same about most of the priests and nuns I've come into contact with.
The priests were in charge of a large parish in Saltillo, which is the capital city of the State of Coahuila. Saltillo is an old Spanish colonial city, one of the oldest in Mexico, having been founded in the 1570's, about fifty years after the Conquista. The cathedral in Saltillo is one of the most magnificent in Mexico, which is a country well known for impressive colonial architecture. Saltillo is in the high desert, up in the Sierra Madre Oriental, at an altitude of about 5,300 feet. While I was there, they celebrated the 400th anniversary of the founding of the city. It was quite a fiesta.
The parish staffed by the Mississippi priests was in a poorer section of town, but was very, very active. Mexican Catholicism is a colourful, vibrant, sometimes noisy expression of the Faith, at least to Americans descended from more sedate Northern Europeans. But, I loved it. From the first moment I arrived in Mexico, I felt at home. I knew I had lived there before, because it was all so familiar to me. I felt as if I had come home, after a long, long trip away.
The priests were also in charge of a dozen or more missions out in the desert and Sierra, located in what were called "ranchos". They weren't ranches in the strict sense of the word, but rather more like villages. They were small, isolated, dusty and poor. Most of them had recently brought in electricity, but not running water. They hauled water from community wells. There were no outhouses. Usually, there was a large clump of prickly pear cactus, called 'nopales', behind which people did their business. Occasionally, they would shovel off whatever the dogs, chickens and pigs hadn't eaten. They also had other large stands of cactus, often over six feet tall, from which they harvested new cactus pads, called 'nopalitos' and fruit, called 'tuna'. They discouraged people from using the bathroom around this cactus. Often, there would be a little wooden sign saying, "No te cagues aqui", which means "Don't poo-poo here". The priest only got to each rancho about twice a year, and my main job was to go with him to these isolated places, distribute dried beans, corn, vitamins, and other medicines, as well as assist at Mass in the little chapels called 'visitas'. I enjoyed every minute of it. It was like living in another century. Usually when the priest came, they'd have a fiesta. They'd kill a goat and make cabrito, which northern Mexico, especially Coahuila, is famous for. Sometimes, for example, El 16 de Septiembre (Mexican Independence Day), or the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, they'd make 'barbacoa', wrapping the meat in wet burlap, and cooking it overnight in a pit in the ground, covered with coals. And always, always, there was frijol (beans), stacks of fresh corn tortillas, and chile....lots and lots of chile. I remember once having some red chile that was delicious, but very hot. After about three spoons full, my mouth went numb, like it would after a shot at the dentist office. That was the good part, for soon it started hurting. The chile was so hot, it felt like someone was stabbing a dull screwdriver in my mouth. I love hot chile, but this was way, way beyond hot! I'll never forget it. After that particular fiesta, I was a bit more careful about believing them if they said the chile was too hot.
It was in many ways, an education for me, to live in a foreign country, and to live in a foreign language. I learned to look at things from someone else's perspective, especially history. I had studied about the Mexican-American War in school, but not in any depth. I certainly didn't know that the US had invaded and occupied Mexico. How could I have gone through school, and not known that? I learned in school that the Mexicans invaded Texas and killed everyone at the Alamo. That's not exactly what happened. I learned to look at things through the eyes of my Mexican friends. They were not hostile toward me at all. In fact, I found the Mexicans to be the most friendly, open, caring people I'd ever known. But, they were aware that many Americans looked down on them because they were poor, and because they were Catholic. Most of the Americans they saw were tourists or Protestant missionaries. They were surprised to learn that there were Catholics in the US. Even though I wasn't personally such a good Catholic, I did enjoy working with the priests, and the Mexicans were impressed that we would leave the rich US and want to live amongst them. I think they found it difficult to comprehend that we really, truly enjoyed living with them, and loved their culture.
I also discovered what an 'ejido' was. These were communal grants given to landless farmers after the last Mexican revolution. The programme began in the 1920's and was patterned on the Soviet Union. Unfortunately for Mexico, the ejidos were run by atheistic Marxists who hated God, hated the Church, and believed they could create a humanistic paradise on earth without spirituality. Many of the ejidos wouldn't allow Mass to be said, and the residents were forced to go somewhere else to get married or have their children baptised. Sometimes we had to drive through an ejido, as the road took us there. The priests told me that they had actually been fired upon several times by communists in the ejidos. All my illusions about Marxism and liberation theology were dispelled when I saw how the Marxists were even more cruel than the old Patron system had been.
I have returned to Mexico many, many times since working with the priests all those years ago. I left the Church, and began my spiritual journey through Hinduism, but I am still a cultural Catholic, if not a believing one. The Mexican expression of Catholicism is one I find comforting and appealing. Most of the churches there are still beautiful, not like the cold, bare Protestant gymnasium buildings the Catholics in the US seem to favour. Even in the simple cement block or adobe visitas in the ranchos, the people decorated them from their hearts. You always knew you were in a holy place.
Today, there is talk of building a wall along the Mexican border. Just remember this: Walls keep people in, as well as out. After WW II, Eastern Europe learned that the hard way. Let's not repeat their mistake.
Perhaps you've learned more about the history of the Redneck Hindu's spiritual pilgrimage through this material world, than you ever cared about knowing. In any event, I enjoyed thinking and writing about those days in Mexico. I hope you enjoyed reading about them. Viva Mexico! OM
Robert Ransom Odom is an internationally published author and teacher. Robert has been a leading figure in the metaphysical spiritual community of Santa Fe since 1990.To ask Robert a question, visit his website at www.RobertOdom.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send mail to PO Box 33, Santa Fe, NM 87504.