The other day I joined a group of Canadians celebrating the opening of a new library. The library was at a rural school not far from San Miguel de Allende. I’ve told you how outsiders living here are expected to contribute money and energy in support of the impoverished local Mexicans. Bram Morrison, famous for his performances with Shirley, Lois and Bram, spends the winter here in San Miguel. Bram often performs for charity. He’d been practicing songs in Spanish for the library celebration.
About fifty of us North Americans headed for the country in a convoy of cars. The ride started out smoothly enough on a paved highway. It was not much different from what you’d expect back home. Alas, the smooth ride was not to last. We turned off the highway and bumped and scraped along a dirt road’s sharp, pointy rocks.
At last we spotted the school, a white stucco one storey building. The new matching library stands beside it. Children, in grades one to six, all impeccable in their school uniforms, stand waiting for us under a tree. They giggle with excitement as we get out of our cars and gather to face them. Emma, the energetic teacher, speaks in Spanish to the children. I don’t understand what she’s telling them, but suddenly the children are moving towards us. Each child takes an adult by the hand, ready to guide us on the tour of their school and new library.
My little person, Nancy, turns out to be a grade one student. Her tiny hand is soft in mine. She’s clearly delighted to have a visitor interested in her and her school. Nancy is tinier than my five-year-old Canadian granddaughter. Most of the children seem small for their age. She takes me by the hand to her desk inside the school and proudly shows me her colouring book. She opens the page to a princess. Nancy has coloured her princess purple. My granddaughter also has a fondness for princesses. Purple is her favourite colour too. My heart melts.
Next, Nancy leads me to the playground to show me how she can teeter totter, slide and swing. She squeals with delight when I push her high on the swing.
It was about then that I noticed that Nancy’s tiny teeth are spotted brown. The water, that’s what did that. We go inside on this warm day and all the children head for the one tap. They drank from it and wash their cups with their hands and no soap. I started wondering about potable water.
That’s when Nancy and I double back to take another look at the new cistern behind the library. Emma tells the story. For years she’d been asking the government to provide a cistern so that the children and their parents in the village would have safe drinking water. Four years passed before a large truck drove up and dumped off all the equipment needed to build a cistern. Who was going to build it? No labourers came with the supplies. Resourceful Emma organized the children’s fathers to take on the job. When I visited, the concrete was still drying.
I didn’t see the village but I hear that unemployment is about 100%. The men are mostly bricklayers and, apparently, not many bricks are being laid these days. I learned, too, that there isn’t a car or a truck in the village. Its inhabitants are complete strangers to flat tires and overheated engines. Emma carries her bicycle in her car as she drives to and from the school.
We are called to sit down at picnic benches. The mothers have prepared a meal. Black beans, rice, chicken and molle. Molle is a sauce containing chocolate. It‘s labour intensive and the culinary prize of these women. They make it once or twice a year in large quantities. Emma buys many jars of molle for her freezer.
Meanwhile, Bram is settling in under a spreading tree with his guitar. He’s surrounded by uniformed boys and girls. They actually know some of his songs in English but, as promised, he sings mostly in Spanish. The children are enthralled.
Then it’s time to cut the ribbon on the new library. We gather in front of the door. A red ribbon is pinned to the doorframe. Before cutting the ribbon, a fellow Canadian, one of the people responsible for this volunteer project, speaks of the importance of libraries to Mexico’s children. We all troop inside. The students take their places at their assigned desks. We adults head for piles of brand new books with prices marked on them. Now it’s our turn to help by buying the books, writing our names and where we’re from in them before donating them to the new library.
Bumping over the road on the way back to San Miguel, I contemplate the meaning of what I’ve just witnessed. There are thousands of isolated villages in Mexico’s countryside where children grow up without any sense of a wider world. Imagine, first of all, interacting with us strange Canadians who are rich enough to change their lives for the better.
Then there are the books. I visualize a youngster picking up a book and reading my strange name and that I’m from a place called Canada. Wouldn’t that pique a child’s curiosity about a world beyond poverty and isolation? Then there are the books: What better way to absorb the importance of clean water and a decent standard of living? These people are so hard working. They manage to exist on amazingly little.
Expats living here do a lot to improve the lives of local people. Where will all this lead? Will there be a revolution once people realize how impoverished they are compared to those living north of their border? Or are the Mexican people really as happy as they seem as they celebrate their many festivals with firecrackers and good-natured singing and dancing in the public square? I’ll be watching with interest to see how Mexico goes forward in the coming years.
Feel free to leave your comments. I’d really like to hear your thoughts.