Chapter 2: Becoming “Teacher”
In Mexico, the second day of November is El Día de los Muertos – The Day of the Dead. I had been taken with the trappings of this holiday before I moved to Xalapa, but I had no idea what it really meant to people until I met Julio. Even the story of his birth conspired to make me fall in love. His father had been a poet, musician, and anarchist. After Julio’s two older brothers were born, many years passed before his mother conceived again. In his excitement, Julio’s father rented a car and drove to pick up some musician friends in the next town, with the aim of bringing them back to serenade his pregnant wife from beneath her bedroom window. But it rained heavily that day. On the way home, the car careened off the road. Julio’s father was killed instantly, and a widowed mother gave birth to her third son on New Year’s Eve.
Although he never met his father, Julio always believed that his life was witnessed by the dead man’s spirit. He often spoke to one particular star in the sky, certain his father could hear. And so, on The Day of the Dead, we built an elaborate altar to celebrate the life of his padre. The flowers and the bread of the dead were there, as well as some of his favorite sweets. He hadn’t been a drinker, so he received water instead of liquor. On the tier below him, both our childhood dogs were honored with bones and bowls of food, and the bottom shelf was reserved for La Alma Solitaria. We were both tenderhearted and a bit superstitious, so The Lonely Soul was made welcome in our home.
Soon after, following the circle of life, it was time to celebrate the day of my birth. I was surprised with an excursion to the beach, with plans to swim and kayak through sea caves all day long. Instead, we spent the day under the tin roof of a local seafood shack, hoping to outlast a stubborn and torrential rain. In the meantime, I tumbled on the dirt floor with some very new puppies, unaware that my life was about to change.
Out of all the puppies, there was one with a large lavender spot on her haunch. The color came from a popular antiseptic, and the fur there was rubbed off. “We just don’t have enough food for the mother dog,” the owner said, “So, she doesn’t make enough milk. The pups are hungry and try to steal her food, and she defends it with her teeth. I’m really not sure what to do. Say… Would you want to take one home?”
And yes, of course the answer was yes, and of course the one that owned my heart was the tiny purple puppy. She was the runt of the litter, with a pig’s corkscrewed tail and a fiercely defiant black snout. We bundled her into a shoe box lined with rags, but on the ride home she hauled her tiny body out of the box and crawled up onto my chest. She gazed deeply and trustingly into my eyes, then coated my shirt in vomit. I was in love.
The next day was November 20, the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution. In that war, women soldiers who fought beside the men were called Las Adelitas, and so my little girl was named Adelita, too. She had the spirit, and the needle-sharp teeth, and although she’s now called Adi for brevity’s sake, she deserves her name.
Popular entre la tropa era Adelita Popular among the troops was Adelita,
la mujer que el sargento idolatraba the woman who the sergeant idolized,
que ademas de ser valiente era bonita and besides being brave, she was pretty,
que hasta el mismo coronel la respetaba. so that even the colonel respected her.
~ La Adelita, Isaak Osipovich Dunayevsky
Adi first came home to the orange castle in the centro, but she was too young for vaccines and my vet warned against walking her on the dirty city streets with no protection. After a few weeks of letting her piss on newspaper placed around our rooftop patio, I was tired of chasing her every second to make sure she didn’t slip between the railing bars and tumble three stories to her doom. So, we did what good parents do. We put our little one first, and moved to the country. And thus began the happiest era of my life in Mexico.
In Xico, a rural village the maps forgot, I lived in a home made all of windows and light. It was set in the pulsing heart of a garden replete with flowers, banana trees, and coffee bushes. There was a waterfall that trickled between the three levels of the yard, and a stone grill built into a wall where I cooked most of our dinners. Every morning, Adi and I would walk into town for supplies, or up into the hills where locals swore the devil lived. We never ran into him, but we did meet farmers, donkeys, cows, and a full rainbow assortment of birds.
It’s funny how there’s not much to say about the happiest of times. The days are not distinct, but blur into one long joy of cooking, sleeping, and lying in the sun. I continued to teach, and took trips to Guatemala and Belize. Mostly, though, I loved my little family, I loved my rustic home, and I loved the kind people of Xico who didn’t mind this white girl marching through town with the machete I’d bought to cut my grass.
When I wrote my first story about Mexico, Mark asked me a question in the comments: “When you were in the heart of all this, did you think it could last forever or did you know, deep down inside, that it would all eventually come to an end?”
The truth is, that then, I thought it never, ever would.
To read the last part of this story, click here.