The summer between high school and college, a week before our family trip to Mexico, when I was 110 lbs. of new ideas and energy, I eavesdropped on a conversation my mom was having on the phone.
“Si Señora, that’s right. Cafecito please because our saint is very light skinned. His eyes are claritos too.” The voice on the receiver, not much louder than a mouse, perked up just a bit “Si Señora. I’m extremely grateful. God bless you so much.”
Hanging up, my mom turned around and gave me a list. “Here gossip girl.”
Luke Skywalker would be jealous of my mother’s powers to sense the invisible.
The list was short but very specific: Find a light brown, high quality wig to dress a saint. In the mind of an American teenager, I found it to be a strange, albeit interesting task, pregnant for adventure.
Looking back, I see my mother’s intention to keep me busy: Since I had no car, I spent five days cycling across the southern part of the city looking for the exalted wig, thus expelling any extra energy. After searching and searching for five days I found the perfect hair.
A couple of days later, we left for our family trip to Mexico. While my dad and sister went to the capital of the country, my mom took me to a ranch called “La Tinaja de Gonzales”. My mother, a teacher of English as a Second Language, had one class where almost all of the students had relatives—grandparents, uncles, cousins—in La Tinaja de Gonzales.
To reach the village was an adventure unto itself: From the capital, we took two luxury buses that provided little lunch bags and orange Fantas. Three hours later, we boarded a city bus until we arrived at a medium large ranch both dusty and confused. A campesino (farmer) came out to inform us that La Tinaja was approximately 8km south of there. The son of the campesino gave us a ride across the river and we walked the rest of the way.
When we arrived at the town square at La Tinaja de Gonzales, the people received my mother and I with great joy and kindness. The priest of the Capilla at La Tinaja de Gonzales introduced us to Señorita Esperanza, a 30-something woman just short of 90 pounds. Pale and sickly, the priest explained that she had almost been immobilized by arthritis, which had confined her to bed for nearly a year. Every time the word arthritis was spoken, drops of sweat palm started to form on my neck and my t-shirt felt more like a straightjacket around the collar. When Esperanza would come up in conversation, the villagers would look down at the ground and shake their heads, sighing, Pobrecita (poor little thing). Diagnosed since the age of 12, did people think the same about me?!
WhenEsperanza thanked us with her voice de ratoncito (voice of a mouse) I knew this was the woman we had traveled all this way for. Esperanza took the brown wig and, with much love and affection, as it were her own child, dressed the saint.
Although I was still a teenager, after meeting Esperanza, I very much understood the situation. The village found an occupation for her: to care for the church and its saints like it was her own family. Not only was she likely never to marry but quite literally, se quedó para vestir los santos (She was left to dress the saints) That day, I made a promise to myself: ¡de esa agua jamás beberé! (That will never happen to me!)
Twelve years later, I still think of Esperanza. In Mexico, for people with disabilities, family and often the church, seek opportunities for them that keep them close to home. People with disabilities, especially in the rural areas, stay with their family, don’t pursue higher education and rarely marry. There, in El Tinaco de Gonzales, Esperanza could have a family of her own: taking care of the little saints.
For me, Esperanza is a symbol of the difference between American and Mexican culture: Without access to the medicine I had growing up, perhaps I would be dressing saints too.
Yet, the Mexican part of my soul tugs at me, especially when I have hard days with the JRA. Mexicans with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses are almost always surrounded by family and loved ones. When one is struggling with a chronic illness, isolation can make the disease just that much harder.
More than a decade later, have I figured out a good balance? The answer is no.
At night, as I turn off the light which is on the nightstand next to the Saint Anthony, I still wonder about Señorita Esperanza and if she is still dressing the saints.
If I ever have a daughter I will name her Esperanza, which is Spanish for Hope.