The people of San Martin bring to these bare, hard confines a richness which I have only glimpsed in rare moments before.
We sit in the outer room of the Clinica San Martin, trading words like amulets. Each one, an additive charm, wards off the silence of estrangement, builds bridges of humor at the difficulty of our situation. Niño, child, carro, car. What grand illusion ever made me think I could enter this small suburb of Tijuana where nearly no one speaks any English and find out what these people are like, what is their life? So we sit, and smile, and go word-for-word. Bonita, beautiful, madre, mother, poquito, little...
Clinica San Martin. She tells us, quite matter-of-factly, how once when it was growing larger and larger, she cut it open herself and removed a great chunk of bone.
It is Señora Rosa who takes the situation, and me, in hand. Hers is the indisputably dominating presence, and she does so with such natural talent that everyone here seems to come happily and respectfully under her dominion, she is, of course, the president of the clinic.
"Travaillo, mucho travaillo, mucho tiempo," sighs Señora Rosa to me. This I understand. The señora is large, handsome with slight greying dark hair; she looks somewhat older than her 43 years. Her physical stature is appropriate to her nature, all expansiveness, inexhaustible abundance. I am not surprised to hear that she has had 11 children — the eldest is a girl in her late 20s, the youngest a boy of three — and she laughs, yes, it would be nice to have more, a little girl.
Through the American doctor, Señora Rosa begins to tell a little of the story of San Martin. About eight years ago, this was the dump for all of Tijuana. She and some of the others had built homes on the banks of the river which is now a dry river bed running through San Martin; floods came and washed away their houses, and they decided to build on safer ground — which was the dump. They covered over the garbage, most of it, and built.
The doctor tells me that on the economic ladder of Tijuana, San Martin ranks just slightly higher than the poorest, Cartolandia, where houses are made of cardboard; here, most are built from scrap wood. But the incontestable poverty of this colony — with its dirt streets and no running water and one-or-two-room wooden shacks, each asserting tight boundaries in haphazard union of boards and chicken wire, is only part of the story of San Martin.
They chose St. Martin as their patron saint, the señora explains, because he was a friend of to the poor — because he was black and they too are, she says, a little dark (the majority of the people look much more Indian than Spanish). At the altar of the church stands a statue of the saint, holding a broom — Señora Rosa explains that he worked hard all of his life, swept floors in a hospital. She refers to him now and then in a term of familiar endearment, "San Martincito": in describing his life, she interrupts herself, affecting a swoon, and says, "And oh! those eyes..."
Señora Rosa informs us with some pride that she was on the official founding committee of this colony, which has now grown to about 1500 inhabitants. Committee-forming is key here, as in many small Mexican towns; people began to organize when only the barest, most rudimentary elements of a community were present. Today, there is a clinic committee, a church committee, a school committee corresponding to the American PTA, although there is only one teacher in the three-room schoolhouse, and — Señora Rosa's newest project — a committee to bring running water to the town.
There was also an electricity committee, but that disbanded when it achieved its aim, about three years ago. "We were wandering around in darkness, until then," a friend of Señora Rosa's contributes. Adds another, "Even the cows in the other parts had light — but we had none!" At this, all the women in the waiting room begin to shake with laughter — humor about themselves, their situation, is the most infectious and constant.
It was Señora Rosa who organized to build the school — there were, she laughs, "muchos niños" always, as many women have between 10 and 15 children — and once that was done, she set about building the clinic, with the help of MANO (Mexican-American Neighbors Organization).
Even the señora's formidable talents, however, did not produce immediate results. "At first," she explains, "we had the clinic but no doctors. Then the nuns came. Once a week they handed out vitamins, and 300 or 400 people would line up outside the clinic door."
After the nuns came some Mexican doctors, but they charged for their services, so the people stopped coming. In the last year, the clinic has been manned by American graduates of Mexican medical school, who thus fulfill their required ear of social service. Consultations are free or cost 50 cents, depending solely on Señora Rosa's assessment of who can pay and who can't (she says that she knows exactly how much everyone earns, and I never see her decision contested) — and most medicines are free, largely supplied by the American doctors.
On my second visit to the clinic Señora Rosa has brought with her a brown envelope in which she keeps letters and documents, all attesting to her role as an organizer wherever she has lived — Zacatecas, Mexicali, San Martin. But isn't this unusual, I remark, for a Mexican woman to be playing such a vital role in the political world?
The señora gives her characteristic shrug, smiles, "This is what I do. Everyone does something. I do this."
But she did not like my use of the word "political," and she quickly insists that she tries not to get too involved with that. Politics to her signifies corruption and infighting; and she tells me, sighing heavily as she does, that some villagers have accused her of raking some off the top of the money Americans send her for her clinic. Then, too, there are factions here; the man who owns he small cafe down the street wanted the clinic to be built on his property, and when this failed to materialize, he insisted on having the once-a-year polio vaccines given at his store. This year, the American doctors moved the vaccination site to the clinic, and he retaliated by telling the people who brought their children, as before, to his store, that there were no vaccines being given. Either believing him or respecting his authority, many returned home.
A young woman, one of the more unusual cases, comes to the clinic while I am there, and I notice that in the midday heat, she wears a poncho of heavy wool. Dr. Davis, one of the American doctors, calls me into the examining room and instructs the woman to remove her poncho — telling me I will see something I never could in the States.
I had thought at first that perhaps she was carrying a small baby under the cape: but the bulge I noticed is a massive one growth, spanning the area from her arm, molding this way and that into ridges and projections.
She did not come because of this. She has had it since birth, and once, as a young girl, she went to a doctor to see if something could be done. He told her he would have to cut off her arm, and since with it she is able to use her hand, she decided then that she would rather die with it. Not that it does not cause her anguish — she keeps it covered always. But, she explains, it is something that she lives with; she has even found that is is good for rocking her little ones.
What brings her here today is that she is gradually losing her vision and has continual head pain; Davis conjectures that she has a similar growth in her brain, now starting to press on her optical nerve. He explains to her that doctors at University Hospital in San Diego can in fact remove the growth from her arm — and he tells me that they will at the same time investigate the possibility of a brain tumor. Worried that she will not return on the appointed day for fear of the cost, he emphasizes again and again, "No pesos, no pesos — teh operation will be free.
Now that she has exposed her arm, she is eager to talk about it. She tells us, quite matter-of-factly, how once when it was growing larger and larger (Davis surmises osteomyletis), she cut it open herself and removed a great chunk of bone. Also, it is hereditary; her brothers and sisters have similar growths, and none ever considered that something could be done.
We sit on Señora Rosa's bed, our laps full of picture albums, and one by one we are introduced to her family — children, aunts, nephews, cousins, parents, in-laws, we meet them all. Documentation is important to the señora: in the clinic, she brought us the letters and certificates of her public role, and here she displays photographs of her private life. Four of her boys are eating lunch in the small kitchen when we enter; she hugs the smallest, lets loose a torrent of endearments, teases, and directives, but she does not introduce them to us — this she does through their pictures, formally naming each one, while the living likeness stands shyly before us.
Turning the pages, I come to picture which stops me: three little girls, unmistakably sisters — but the smallest is lying down, covered to her shoulders with flowers, her face strangely stilled, and the other two stand over her.
"That is Elvia," says Señora Rosa. "Muerte." It is different here, these people are so much more attuned to the natural rhythms. So it is appropriate for the picture of the dead little one to be included — several times over — in the family photo album, for death is quite simply a part of life, and there is no taboo. Similarly, old age carries no stigma, for how should it? The old women I see look positively ancient, though they may well not be; they are bent, worn with the years, their faces deeply wrinkled and utterly tranquil. Surrounded by the ever-widening, quick-spinning circles of children, grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren, they are the quiet, still center.
"My house," says Señora Rosa, making an all inclusive gesture to the surrounding space, "it is poor, yes...?" She looks at us, and we cannot say otherwise — "But, I am happy."
It is Friday, and the "doctor-of-the-pipe" is two hours late, again — so the women walk their ailing babies up and down, and we talk. Many of them, like Señora Rosa, have come to San Martin from areas near Guadalajara. The señora was born in Zacatecas — "two hours by burro from Guadalajara" — and she came here, as did they all, seeking the better life.
Whether that is what they have found is not clear. According to the señora, 80% of the people would return tot eh place they came from if it were not for their children. They sill believe that opportunities are here — not for them, as they once thought — but for the young, who may make it to the States.
It is true that they are making more money here than they did in central and southern Mexico, but the cost of living is so much greater that it really cancels out the difference.
"In Zacatecas, we grew our own food," Señora Rosa explains. "My husband plowed, and I walked behind him, throwing the seeds into the ground. We had corn, beans, tomatoes, everything."
Her husband works construction now and makes $4 a day; but they were able to live as well on the three pesos (one quarter) a day he made there. A neighbor of Señora Rosa's explains that her husband makes $4 a day too, working as a mechanic; but she must buy four kilos of tortillas a week to feed their eight children, she pays 25 cents a day for bottled water — and all in all, it is difficult to survive.
The eight-hour day is not the rule here, not is there overtime pay; many of the men simply work a 12- to 15-hour day — which explains why I never see most of them, even when I arrive in San Martin at 8:30 in the morning. So they can participate little in the serenity of the domestic scene that I witness; and the doctor tells me that alcoholism is prevalent among the men of San Martin, as it is in much of Mexico.
When her family first moved to San Martin, Señora Rosa says, it was with the thought of someday migrating to the States; but for the past two years, they have not been able to cross the border even for a day. She tells the story of having gone to the border to get a pass for her whole family to visit relatives in L.A., returning home for husband and children, and setting off. But when they were stopped at San Onofre for a passport check, it turned out that the American official had neglected to include her children on the pass — and not reading English, she could not know this Señora Rosa was accused of trying to smuggle illegal aliens into this country, and her pasport was revoked. For two years, she has been writing letters, trying to get it back.
I ask the señora, that if she could by some chance get not only the passport but also the migration papers she once thought she wanted, would she now move to the States? Not is is for her children, but not for her. most of the other women agree. It is too cold in the States, they say, everyone is so isolated, the streets are so empty ... they love having music everywhere, people playing guitars, singing, "Mucho barracho," they laugh, much drunkenness.
Elizabeth, a six-year-old who knows some English from having gone to school in the States, invites me to come to her house. She is staying with her grandmother, who is pleased that my friend and I say we would like to come, and the four of us set out from the clinic.
"Welcome to Tijuana!" From a group of teenage boys, lounging around a storefront. It is not intended as a greeting. Elizabeth and her grandmother appear not to notice, and we continue on in the dazing sun, crossing the dry riverbed. This is where the garbage is, new garbage and garbage not covered over from the times when this whole area was the city dump. Tiny shacks ware raised high off the ground by stacks of old tires. Hundreds more, not yet conscripted, are strewn through the garbage. The scene grows more and more unreal, the river bed filled with garbage, the shacks on their strange stilts, I behind to think vaguely of pictures I have seen of ... where? ... India? China? My mind is miasmic, slowing to a halt, I see myself phasing out.
Elizabeth's house is on the first ridge above the river bed. It is raised high enough that you must climb two steps to enter. The second one is broken, and I stumble in to a kitchen, too small for all of us to stand in.
"Sit down," Elizabeth orders, pushing me into the one chair. The air thick with flies. For the first time since coming to San Martin, I am fervently glad that I don't speak Spanish. I turn to my friend, the Spanish-speaker, and wonder what he will say. He rises, more or less, to the occasion.
"Buena vista," he remarks enthusiastically, gesturing out the open door. Knowing, even in the depths of my torpor, that we overlook the garbage, I think for a moment that he has succumbed, taken temporary but definite leave. But then I look out the door, following her gaze, and see that from this height what is visible is a weeping willow tree on the other side of the river bed, and some hills beyond.
"Yes," smiles Elizabeth's grandmother, "the hills."
Then she offers us lunch of torillas and beans, offers it again and again. She tells us how she lives there with Elizabeth and the older girl, who she took out of an orphanage in Ensenada, and how she supports them by sewing patchwork bedspreads; each one takes her two days to make, and she charges two dollars apiece.
I make the inevitable, inadequate gesture, buy the bedspread too small for my bed, and thank her.
The people of San Martin are certainly not content with the conditions in which they live; they have a sense of an overall injustice; they must struggle daily to survive, and they simply hope that it will be better for their children. But they bring to these bare, hard confines a richness which I have only glimpsed in rare moments before. In writing this story, I intruded into their lives, and they nonetheless accepted that intrusion with a characteristic warmth and graciousness which in full degree I could not, on any written page, convey.