Friday, February 15, 2013

Casa Azul

     A trip to Mexico will always be an encounter that taught me to never stop appreciating all that I had, while others had so little. When I was sixteen years old, I traveled with my high school church group via school bus from Oregon, to a tiny slum in Cerro Azul, (‘Blue Hill’) Veracruz, Mexico, formed on the bottom slope of a dry, rocky and dusty hillside. I was part of an outreach program that would build shelter houses, and teach vacation bible school.

     I’d seen photographs in National Geographic Magazine of different countries that had slums or destitute areas on the outskirts of fine cities or picturesque villages. I’d also been dazzled by the touristy ads and T.V. commercials of places like Baja, Albuquerque and Tijuana, luring me into that sense of escapism. However, not even my Minister, or the outreach program’s missionaries could have prepared me for the surprise I received.

     Our group was expected in the area, and when the local children saw our bright yellow school buses arriving, they ran beside it, laughing and crying out "Ellos están aquí!" (“They’re here!”) Looking out the window of our dust-covered bus, I saw nary a tree to climb, nor a body of water for the children to swim in, in this virtual dust-bowl. Only rocks, dirt, and scorching sunlight.

     Adrienne Rich’s poem, An Atlas of a Difficult World, reads: “What homage will be paid to beauty that insists on speaking truth, knows the two are not always the same.” The lush, wet, greenness that I find so appealing in our Pacific-Northwest region is far different than this arid and rocky land that I can’t ever imagine living in. And yet, the welcoming smiles on the faces of the local children seemed to say, “We don’t miss what we never had.”

     Though I never learned Paco’s last name, I won’t forget the first time I met the short, weather-beaten old man, as our group approached his ‘spot’ of land and offered to build him a house. He gave a nearly toothless grin and said, through an interpreter, that though he had no need of one for himself, he would like one built near his home for his son’s family. 

     This stunned some of us, as his ‘house’ was no different than the several others on the hillside;
7' x 7' in measurement, consisting of no more than wood or plastic walls fitted against each other with rope-ties, and wide tin plates or tarp roofing. The earth’s surface was their floor. These homes were literally tin-shacks. Their drinking water and bath water came from the same community pump-well. The wooden houses our group were building for those that wanted them, were really no more than 20' long and 8' wide; a single door opening and two glass-less windows with a firmly-packed dirt floor.  

     And yet, we were made to understand that these shelters were considered an upscale home in their impoverished community. A family of eight could live comfortably in the house I helped build; sawing wood, pounding nails, and slapping on a coat of blue paint would protect these people from the rain, and the searing sun on this ‘Blue Hill’.  

     Sifting back through this memory brings to mind Elizabeth Bishop’s passage in Questions of Travel, in which she writes, “Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? Where should we be today? Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theatre? What childishness is it that while there’s breath of life in our bodies, we are determined to rush to see the sun the other way around?”  No flashy, colorful ad or T.V. commercial could have told me what I would see and do. Like Bishop’s passage, I literally had to see Mexico’s ‘sun’ for myself.  

     My conscious self knows now that this was the opportunity of my lifetime; I haven’t repeated it since. I went on this trip in the first place because all my church friends were going. I thought only of building houses, and volunteering with the missionaries. But when I got home, and my mom asked me what it was like, I couldn’t find words enough to describe all that I’d seen and experienced.

     That night, I washed two weeks worth of clothes in our washing machine, took a hot, cleansing shower, and sat down to a well-cooked meal with my family around our dining-room table. But in my mind’s eye, I saw the welcoming smiles as I got off the bus in Cerro Azul, and remembered the scent of blue paint.

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