Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ballad Of Rio Balsas

This is the time of the year where Baja shadows begin to crawl noticeably northward, and there are some days that people wear jackets. The dogs in the street aren’t panting anymore, and the ice cream vendors aren’t doing so well as they were a week ago. Yesterday was Columbus Day, and my mother’s birthday. Sunday was my wife’s birthday. We had a large party with pozole and chocolate cake.

Pozole is a soup-like dish made differently in all parts of Mexico. The main ingredient is hominy, or nixtamalized corn kernels. Other ingredients include some sort of meat like pork or chicken, and chiles and onions and other spices. The ancient Mexicans believed that the Gods created humans using cornmeal dough. I have read far more preposterous religious postulates over the years than the simple idea that perhaps our creator made us out of masa. Why not corn flour and water?

Rocio is twenty-nine. She has been twenty-nine for several years now, and I expect her to remain twenty-nine for many more years to come. My mother did not raise a fool. All women are twenty-nine until they tell you they aren’t. If you don’t believe this, then you are on your own where women are concerned, and don’t complain when it doesn’t go well. You did it to yourself.

* * * *

Rio Balsas, a small puebla in the Mexican State of Guerrero near Coyuca de Catalán, and about five miles from the border with Michoacán State, is still there, but approximately half of what once was is now under water. Rocio grew up in that place, with her grandmother, on a small ranchito with no electricity. They had a well, and some chickens, and some goats. There were uncles and aunts and cousins living nearby, and cornfields they all harvested year-round that were reachable by horseback or on foot using a mule to pack the corn. So far as the water from that well, Rocio swears it is the best water she ever tasted.

Rocio was born in Mexico City and quickly taken to Rio Balsas to live with her grandmother. The taker was an aunt, who wound up taking almost all of Rocio’s mother’s children and placing them with various relatives. The aunt then encouraged Rocio’s mother to seek out her fortune in the United States of America. This is how life used to be back then. A lot of good Mexicans were encouraged by their families to go north and make money harvesting crops or cleaning houses or cooking.

Meanwhile Rocio, who never knew her real father, grew up and went to school and came home and tended the ranchito in Rio Balsas with her grandmother. She was never permitted to go to the river, which was a mere hundred yards away. Her grandmother never let her accompany other relatives to go and bring back the corn. There were two times as a young child she was permitted to join relatives for trips to another town in order to attend a carnival that came every year. She never made it either time.

Listen to this: Scorpions prevented Rocio from going on the trip to the carnival both times! What are the odds of that happening? The first time, Rocio’s grandmother told her the night before that she could go if she rose early and did her chores. While reaching into the feed bag to feed the chickens, a scorpion stung her hand. She recovered. The next year, with the same deal in place, Rocio awoke and got out of bed and promptly stepped on another scorpion! I’ve never known anyone who was ever stung by a scorpion once, much less twice.

"There had to be a reason that it happened," Rocio once told me. "There are no accidents. There was a reason that I wasn’t supposed to go to that carnival. I think that my real father would have been there, and that would have brought trouble."

* * * *

The inland of Guerrero State is a lush, green, beautiful region of Mexico where crops can be grown year-round, rivers are abundant, and there is a rainy season. Baja is not so lush, not so green, and not wet by anyone’s standards. Mexico City is another thing entirely, a flat swampland built a mile high, it is practically a country unto itself. Rocio has a brother she has never met, a light-skinned chilango, raised in much more affluent circumstances than was Rocio. Rocio has blamed her aunt, for all of these years, in all such matters while I have pointed out to her on several occasions that her mother is probably more culpable. Rocio does not really listen, and I don’t blame her for ignoring me. I didn’t grow up in Rio Balsas, after all.

This brother of Rocio has recently contacted her, and now they are communicating by email and by telephone. He is coming up here next month. Mexicans never travel alone, so he is bringing three with him. We have one extra room and a sofa bed in the living room. I will make it a point to cook some gringo food for them while they are here. Perhaps Rocio’s mother will whip up another pot of pozole. Pozole is another good Mexican soul food, even in Mexico City, even in Tijuana, and even in Rio Balsas.

I’m not sure what will come of this meeting up; it can’t be a reunion since they’ve never met. Rocio’s pent-up anger directed at her aunt will have to stay in check since her brother holds his aunt in high esteem. I hope they find some common ground. I hope that both of them have great childhood memories to share. Most of all, I hope that this experience for Rocio is a way to release all of that anger. That anger was best left in Rio Balsas.

* * * *

It wasn’t until Rocio was twelve years of age, back in Rio Balsas, that her grandmother – staying at Rocio’s uncle’s house and in very poor medical condition – finally permitted Rocio to accompany her cousins to the cornfields to bring back the corn. Rocio set out, on foot with them, a donkey in tow. It was quite a walk simply to arrive in and pass through town to get to the fields, and as they passed the church, the bells rang. Rocio stopped.

“When the church bells rang, there were different meanings, and we all knew what they were. When the bells ring for morning mass, they ring a certain way. When the bells ring for a Catholic festival, they ring another way. For a wedding, there was a distinct way that the bells sounded. And when I heard the church bells passing through town, I knew that my grandmother had passed. I walked back to my uncle’s house in tears,” she said.

After the funeral, she stayed with her aunt, and apparently was not well treated. To this day, Rocio’s inability to eat onions comes from having them forced on her when she stayed with that aunt. When word finally reached Rocio’s mother, Rocio was eventually brought to Tijuana. Rocio’s mother had never crossed into the United States, and to this day has never stepped foot outside of Mexico. She met a man who, like herself, was sent north in order to cross over but instead found a way to make a living in Baja.

Rocio grew up in Tijuana from age thirteen, avoiding its pitfalls and gimmicks, with a different notion of another part of Mexico. I talked to her about Rio Balsas on her birthday. I talked to her about her grandmother, the scorpions, her aunt, and the brother she had never met. I asked her if she misses her life in Guerrero.

"Rio Balsas is my past," she said. "I’ll never forget it. But once I arrived in Tijuana, I knew that this was my future. Everything that has happened, has happened for a reason."

I reckon that in a few weeks, we’ll see if that brother of hers - the brother she’s never met - has taken that same philosophy from Mexico City that Rocio took from Rio Balsas. It wouldn’t be as rare as someone twice-stung by scorpions, but it would make for one hell of a ballad.


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