Every small gesture matters, especially now
One day, an old man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked, he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir”. The old man chuckled aloud, “Son, there are thousands of starfish and only one of you. What difference can you make?”
The boy picked up a starfish, gently tossed it into the water and turning to the man, said, “I made a difference to that one!” Starfish: The Parable
Most of my starfish live in the tiny mountain village of Teotitlán del Valle, in Mexico’s next-to-most-southern-state of Oaxaca, where virtually no one has seen the beautiful Pacific Ocean that’s a wrenching 10-hour bus ride up and over the mountains. A decade ago, I went to Mexico to learn Spanish and found I didn’t want to leave. I moved from San Miguel de Allende to Guanajuato and finally to Oaxaca, where I fell in love so deeply with the city and culture it was almost spiritual.
When I first joined the ranks of En Vía, a fledgling local women’s microfinance organization, I taught English as a Second Language to the borrowers. We met twice a week for an hour and a half in the big open municipal building, right next to its one jail cell.
I was well aware that classes – at that time for which there was no curriculum; you had to craft your own lesson plans each time – had to be fun for these weavers who were carving time out of their 12-hour work days to learn a little English. I asked my friend Francine, who had taught ESL all over the world in her career (though currently a yurt-living, pot-farming citizen of off-grid northern California), for a few pointers: role play, she counseled. Give them a scenario like going on vacation. So we went to the beach.
I gave old magazines to my students to cut out pictures of what they’d be packing in their suitcases and then had them describe them in English. Mind you, these are people whose first language is mostly Zapotec, then Spanish as a second language. A few words of English would be their attempt at a third – mostly to communicate to the tourist who bought their wares. Eulalia, pushing 60 and wearing the blue-ribboned braids that most women in the village wear, picked out a yellow bikini. Celyflor, in her 20s, chose a colorful straw tote and pink high-heeled sandals. The two guys in the class selected cell phones, boom boxes and hats – no clothing necessary if you have electronics.
I bought play money at the educational store and handed out $100 pesos (then the equivalent of about $5 U.S.) to each one. I’d made menus with prices and brought an apron. The students took turns being the waiter and ordering from the menu in English. “A hundred pesos for one meal!” exclaimed Crispina. “That’s half a week’s food budget!” Eulalia wanted a beer; she’d never ordered one in a restaurant. They asked if they had to tip – ten per cent is customary in Mexico.
For activities at the beach, they could choose from ziplining, paragliding, fishing, or just sitting in a chair with a cold drink. Most chose the chair, though feisty little Eulalia wanted to try ziplining once I explained what it was. I thought we might play the vacation game for a class or two, but it proved so popular that we played it all month. I’d thought the students might find it silly, but they (and I) loved the pretending. One whole class we got off on the topic that a waiter in Oaxaca made approximately in a week what a U.S. waiter made in a day.
Fast forward ten years. I had taught English as a volunteer for En Vía for three years before switching to serving as a translator guide for the tours that fund the loans. For most of the decade, I’d worked remotely from Oaxaca writing web content and managing communication projects for Dallas College, but that too had finally gone by the wayside, along with my apartment in Dallas.
I moved my U.S. base to Waco, where my oldest son lived, and bought a little house last winter thinking of the future, not really the immediate present. For the past year, I’d been importing woven goods from my longtime friends in Teotitlán and Oaxaca, selling them in fair-trade stores around central Texas. I spent about eight months in Mexico each year, four in the U.S. My dual life was rich with experiences and friends in two languages and cultures.
Then a global pandemic hit. When I heard in late February that a local doctor was predicting a rapid spread of the virus with travel becoming problematic, I bought an airplane ticket, paid three months’ rent to my landlady, shut off the gas in my modest little apartment in Oaxaca, and walked out with two suitcases. I don’t know when I’ll get back.
I had left several special orders for products, some ordered by clients and some I thought I’d just try, like cotton Turkish towels, woven on smaller looms than wool. Guadalupe and Luci were working on prototypes for those. Alicia had an order to make half a dozen wool cellphone purses with leather straps.
Eulalia was weaving coasters and table rugs. Normally I pay 50% up front to buy materials and get started, then the remaining half when I pick up products. Only having stayed there just a month instead of three, none of the orders were ready when I split town so suddenly.
I contacted the artisans from my house in Waco, where I’m sheltering, to say I could pay them in full if necessary, but all said to wait until I picked up the products, whenever that might be. I emphasized that if the need for money arose, they could always call in their chips. The Sunday market in Tlacolula, where many sell their wares, closed in late March. Tourism dried up to nothing; all of the foreigners, except a few who lived there full-time, had gone home. There was no money coming in.
The calls started coming last week, and I became rapidly familiar with how to manage the Western Union app on my phone. Even though they were sheltering in place in Teotitlán, there were still buses running to the larger town of Tlacolula where was a Western Union office. I left Eulalia, who doesn’t have a phone, a message with her cousin Conchita, who runs a small restaurant where Eulalia – who’s single and lives way up on the hill – sometimes eats lunch.
Only of course the restaurant was closed, but Conchita said she’d try to find Eulalia in the morning market and have her call me. Eulalia called from the restaurant a few days later while I was doing my escape-from-shelter walk down by the Brazos River and said she was doing fine and would rather get the money in another month or so when she was getting out – the only one of the group to defer immediate payment.
Owing each of the weavers anywhere from $75-125 U.S. for orders, I doubled my payments. Alicia was apologetic in having to ask, she said, but her and Evaristo’s three kids needed to eat healthy food to avoid getting sick. When Mexico enters Phase 3 of the pandemic this week, it will be overwhelmed immediately in terms of health care facilities. There are probably as many ventilators in the whole country as there are in one New York City hospital.
Most of the villages don’t have a clinic or even a doctor, though Teotitlán, a town of about 6,000, does have a small hospital. How do you keep everything sterilized when your kitchen has a dirt floor and the bathroom is an outhouse up the hill? How do you store two weeks of groceries when you don’t have a refrigerator? How do you buy food where there is no money, nada, coming in and no margin to last a week – let alone a month – without it?
As bad as the pandemic is in the U.S., it’s about to be worse in Mexico with its some 50% or more of businesses off-grid and under the federal radar. There is virtually no health insurance, no federal bailout program, no small loans for unregistered businesses, few social services and no margin. It makes my heart hurt for the friends who I know work so hard, with so much dignity and skill, for so little even in good times. And these aren’t good times.
Like believing in the beach they had never seen to go on a pretend vacation, my former students and now friends are asked to believe that terrible times are coming from a government they don’t trust, caused by a virus they can’t see, from a world they don’t know much about. Believe me, as difficult as sheltering in place is in a first-world country like the U.S., it’s exponentially worse in the second world like Mexico. Third-world countries – Syria and much of the middle East, India and most of Africa – are unimaginable in the scope of misery that will be the fallout of this global pandemic.
It’s not much, paying my accounts in full for products I’ll most likely never see. It’s not much passing along information in Spanish since they have so little internet connection to the world and literally don’t know what’s happening except they’re supposed to stay inside and wash their hands a lot. It’s not much at all.
But Luci, Isabel, Eulalia, Teresa, Guadalupe and Crispina are my starfish. Who are yours?
Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org, April 22, 2020
Lupita, one of my dearest starfish, lost her battle to breast cancer last year at the age of 47. Widowed a decade earlier from an abusive, alcoholic husband, she left behind three sons who are polite, disciplined and hard-working as she trained them to be. Hugo, 25, is in his third year of law school though classes have been cancelled for the rest of the semester due to corona virus; Dany, 21, had finished barber school and was cutting hair in Oaxaca City though that’s closed too. Cristóbal at 15 just started high school though that too is cancelled for the rest of the school year. A small group of gringos who knew and loved Lupita send money to the boys when they can; they have become our starfish too. See Losing Lupita for her story.