Tag Archives: Mexican Life

On Mexican Time

On Mexican Time

2:59 PM Damn. You would not believe what a day this has been.

Today was Pasiano’s day to come clean and refill the hot tub and pool and to do the regular gardening. On Wednesday he’ll be very busy as they are due to deliver a truckload of plants to put in the recently cleared-out spare lot next door, where they finished putting the fence up two days ago. The first plants we put in were molested by passing cows who stopped by for a light lunch and so planting was delayed until the fence was up.  Today was also Yolanda’s day to come clean and Oscar’s day to come walk the dogs and give them both baths.

I woke up very early this morning so was working on my third blog of the day when Alberto the plumber called to say he had the part to fix the pool filter pump and that he’d be coming to do that. He arrived and Pasiano, Oscar and Yolanda left. Got a call at noon, after Pasiano left, that although they were supposed to deliver the plants tomorrow at 5 so Pasiano could plant them on Wednesday, they were instead delivering  today at 1!! I tried to call Pasiano as he has the only keys to the padlocks for the gates  to the lot and his phones didn’t answer. Called three times and finally got him and he said the padlocks weren’t on the gates. So, about 1:05, the plumber tells me there is someone at the gate. I go out, don’t see anyone and figure they are down in the lot. The street is full of cars but I don’t see a truck! It turns out they are having an open house across the street. So I get down to the lot and no truck. I trudge back up the hill and find it isn’t the plants that have arrived, but rather a truck with my new stove and dishwasher in it–a month early! I desperately try to call Yolanda to see if she’s sure she wants both my old stove, which works fine except for the absence of two dial handles which I’ve been trying to replace for the past year with no luck and the dishwasher, which doesn’t work, but no one answers. Either line. Her son Juan Pablo’s line doesn’t answer either. Then the delivery people tell me they don’t take away the old appliances anyway and having brought the boxed appliances in and depositing them in the kitchen, they depart. I have a kitchen island I had built in the middle of my kitchen which luckily, I had put on wheels. It is scooted over to in front of the cabinets and sink and the rest of the kitchen is filled with appliances!

In the meantime, the plants arrive and I go back down the hill to show them where to put them. They start downloading and I run up to the house to call the store where I bought the appliances, if, since the appliances have been delivered a month early,  they have, as promised, arranged for someone to come install them, and they say no!! Luckily, Alberto the plumber comes up from having installed the pump and I ask if he knows how to install the stove and dishwasher. By then the appliance delivery guys have left and he says yes, but he’ll need help lifting the stove out. I help him do that but wonder how we are going to get it up the steps to the garage.

The doorbell rings. It is the plant guys who have put all the plants into the spare lot and are ready to be paid. I ask the guy they’ve hired to help if he will help Alberto carry the dishwasher up the steps to the garage, which he does. I tip him and they leave. Alberto installs the new stove and gets it going, then learns they haven’t delivered a hose with the dishwasher. We also discover ten years of cockroach poop behind the dishwasher. He puts the dishwasher out on the terraza and I try calling Yolanda for the sixth time and she answers! Yes, they want both appliances and will come to get them tonight. Alberto departs to drive to Jocotepec to get a new hose.

I go to sit in front of the fan and take my mask off as I’m now soaking wet and my glasses are totally fogged over from all that running up and down the hill and breathing hot air that leaked out around the top of the mask right up to inside my glasses. What a day!! All mistimed appearances that somehow meshed. If Alberto hadn’t been here I would have had no one to install the appliances. If the plant guys hadn’t come a day early, there would have been no one to help him carry the stove up the stairs to the garage, but as things turned out, everything jelled. And that, my dears, is a perfect description of Mexico for you. Things that seem pandemonium just seem to work out. Not in the time you’d planned for them to work out and certainly not in the way you’d planned for them to turn out, but nonetheless, they turn out!

P.S. Yolanda just called to say they will come for the appliances tomorrow. “But the dishwasher is standing out on the terrace. What if it rains?” I ask. “It will be fine. The dishwasher will be fine,” she answers. And she is probably right.

 

Open Mike at the Chapala Coffee House

I was the token poet reading at this Open Mike in Chapala on Friday. Lots of good music by talented musicians. (Click on first photo to enlarge all.)

All good things must end.  Heading home from the open mike!!

San Juan Festival, 2019

The patron saint of my little town is St. John the Baptist and his festival has been going on all week with the most fireworks I’ve ever heard.. No pretty colors. Just NOISE–by the thousands.  Here are some photos of the parade.  Click on any photo to enlarge all and read captions.

Click on any photo to enlarge all and read captions.

Mexican Alarm Clocks

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For sixteen years, I’ve been watching Canadian and American expats flood into Mexico and most, no matter how charmed they might be with Mexico, have the same main complaint—the profusion of VERY LOUD sky rockets that are set off by the thousands during festivals, beginning at the very early hour (by gringo standards) of 6 A.M.

I have a piece myself, written on my first morning in Mexico 22 years ago when my husband and I awoke to what we were sure must be the cannon fire of a revolution in Oaxaca.  Alarmed, we sat cowering in our room that thankfully opened onto an inside courtyard until the artillery ceased and the city seemed to awaken to a normal day.  Familiar sounds of cars, donkeys, water vendors, gas vendors, vegetable vendors and motorcycles filled the morning air and we ventured out.  Knowing no Spanish at the time, there was no one to ask about the early morning sounds of battle until we met another gringo couple in the Zocalo and asked if they knew what the early morning artillery fire had been about.  They were polite and didn’t laugh too loud as they explained the Mexican fondness for cohetes (skyrockets) and their purpose.

After moving to Mexico a few years later, I became very well acquainted with their presence not only during holy festivals but also fiestas and celebrations of all sorts: weddings, birthdays, mother’s day, quinceañeras, christenings. After 16 years of living in this country of vivid colors, tastes  and smells,  noise seems to be as important as any other sensory excess while celebrating and living life. This poem, discovered in the bowels of my computer and written 20 years ago or more, now seems the norm:

San Miguel Morning

The sounds of rooting cats
like infanticide
accompany
tuba music
in 4/4 time.
Fireworks.
Roosters.
Donkey brays.
6:29 in the morning.

All’s right with the world.

If you are curious about just why all these skyrockets are necessary and why the complaints of gringo invaders will always fall on deaf ears, read this excellent article on cohetes by Craig Dietz.

The prompt today was noise.

The Tile Layers

 

The Tile Layers

The tile cutter on his knees whistles “Fur Elise—”
five measures over and over—all day with no surcease.
A younger man behind him, in another room,
whistles tunelessly in rhythm as he wields a broom.
Hod carriers laugh and loudly call. Comida will be soon.
One of the youngest sings out a jolly ribald tune.
Their labors hard, their hours long as they hauled and carried,
and yet they have not seemed distressed, back sore, stressed or harried.

As they go to take comida, they move with one assent
as if to be relieved of where their labor time is spent.
Outside my wall they line the curb, their legs stretched in the street
to eat their warm tortillas­­­­––their chiles, beans and meat.
The only time they’re quiet is now their mouths are chewing,
for they are never silent when they are up and doing.
Five minutes and then ten pass as the silence swells around me,
until I feel the magnitude of silence might astound me.

Then one quiet voice is heard, and then another slowly after.
But still no music, calling out, whistling or laughter.
I can imagine well the scene. They’re spread out in the shade,
on their backs just resting in the shadows trees have made.
An hour’s camaraderie, like school kids taking naps,
their ankles crossed, their dusted clothes, their work hats in their laps.
Against their quietness, a motor hums out from afar.
Persistent birdcalls interrupt the tire crunch of a car.

A lawnmower chops at grass below. My clock ticks out the time.
This hour’s quiet interlude is almost sublime.
They must wonder what I do clattering on these keys––
my room cut off from all the dust , but also from the breeze.
The large dog’s bed is in a cage with an open door.
The little dog forsakes his bed to curl up on the floor
nearer the larger, older dog, although he’s sound asleep.
They too prefer to sleep as one, their brotherhood to keep.

An hour passed, the jefe wakes and jostles all his neighbors
who find their voices as they waken to resume their labors.
The gentle scrape of trowels sets the rhythm for
young men shouldering hods of what old men spread on the floor.
The jefe scolds for tiles mismeasured, rails against the waste
of both time and materials lost because of haste.
After the day’s siesta, they work three hours more.
They measure, chip and cut and smooth, then fit and trim each door.

By day’s end, hands are coated, and collars ringed with sweat.
The dust of their day’s labors in their work clothes firmly set.
But folded in each backpack they once rested heads upon
is a fresh change of clothing that later they will don.
Cleaned and pressed, they’ll walk on home unmarked by dust or dirt,
ready for the ladies to admire and to flirt.
For a man’s not made of merely the work that he might do,
and when he leaves his labors, his day begins anew.

Actually, I was imagining the scene described in the poem as the house hushed for an hour after a morning and early afternoon of extreme noise. Diego and Morrie were imprisoned in the small run outside my door but in sight of the front entrance gate all the men had vanished through, tortured by observing all the activity they couldn’t get their paws on, not to mention all those lunches in the back packs.  Then, after I wrote the poem and started to hear a few voices from what seemed to be a direction not anticipated in my poem, I went out to the living room to see the younger members of the crew hunched over their smart phones on my patio, first watching some drama, then talking to what sounded like female voices. One lay stretched out as expected, but by the pool rather than out on the sidewalk. (I had earlier invited them to eat at the patio table and the table in the gazebo, but they had preferred to warm their tortillas in my microwave and then go eat in the street.) My former stereotypes dashed, I then ventured beyond my walls into the street, and there found the older generation living up to former experience and present expectations.

(Click on first photo to enlarge all.) 

Kewpie Dolls and Churros

Some of my favorite memories when I was small involved the traveling carnivals and circuses that would set up in my small town.  The rides seemed incredibly large, thrilling and exotic to me.  I loved being turned upside down and jerked this way and that and spun around in circles on merry-go-rounds and more adventurous rides by the name of  “Tilt-a-Whirl” and “The Bullet.”

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There were strange sights sealed up in tents that my mother never let me go into, but I overheard her discussions with her friends of just what shocking sight they had seen.  It wasn’t until I read Truman Capote and other southern authors that I first heard the term “geek show,”  but coming from  a northern state, I never would have heard these shows referred to by this pejorative term.

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There was cotton candy and candied apples, be-feathered kewpie dolls made of plastic so thin that you could dent them if you squeezed them too hard during the thrills of the ferris wheel. There were nickels skimmed across carnival glass plates with carnival glass bowls and cups as prizes for getting one to stay on a plate.

IMG_1105 IMG_1089 IMG_1086There were cheap toys, cheap thrills and, as we grew into our preteen and teen years, exotic carnies from out of town.  We looked beyond their grubby clothes, grease-encrusted fingernails, ruffled too-long hair and too-wise leers to imagine them as romantic gypsies or James Dean come to discover us in our small prairie town.  Nothing ever came of these dreams, for we ran at the first suggestion of anything remotely sexual, but they fueled our dreams as surely as the Saturday night show and Emily Loring romances.

These memories are fueled by a festival of a different sort, and these pictures were in fact taken last night when my friend and I strolled through the streets of San Juan Cosala during their 11-day yearly religious fiesta in honor of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of the pueblo.  We ate pizza cooked in gas ovens on the spot, waffle cones filled with galleta ice cream and strawberry ices and churros–the Mexican extruded donuts–dipped delicious from their vat of hot oil and rolled in sugar.  We passed over the micheladas, tacos, tamales, the thick hot pancakes and the egg bread that was as much of an art form as a comestible.

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We did not throw darts at balloons or ride toy cars or swirl through the night on Dumbo or plastic giraffes.  We were tempted by the bumper cars, but could not bring ourselves to bump the small children who were their only other occupants.

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Instead, we strolled by the Hospitalito–the remains of one of the oldest churches in Jalisco, whose ruins now consist of merely this dome with cacti growing out of it and the one remaining broad wall that supports it.

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One sinister detail of the otherwise image-filled night was the small girl–perhaps 10 or 11 years old, who peered over my shoulder, coming very close as I photographed the cotton-candy spinner.  “She must be interested in photography,” my friend told me, “because she was looking so closely at your camera.”  As we walked away, she followed us, and asked a question of me that neither of us could understand.  She was not asking for money.  We asked again what she wanted, but again could not understand what she said.  As we walked away she followed–down row after row of booths offering toys, cookware, cosmetics, religious statues and games and eatables of many varieties.  Finally, it grew sinister.  We would spin and face her and walk in the opposite direction and she would spin and walk after us.  I finally refused to walk to the end of any rows, preferring to stay in more frequented areas.  I kept hands in pockets over my money and camera.

My friend, too, felt strangely threatened.  She revealed that while at the cosmetics booth, the girl had crowded her close on one side while a seedy-looking man had come up close on her other side.  When she looked at him, he feigned an interest in the lipsticks in front of him, picking one up and examining it closely.  Not very convincing, this interest in women’s cosmetics. My friend said she backed up quickly and walked away.  The girl  continued to follow her.  The man didn’t.

The calm demeanor of this girl came to feel specter-like.  She was a ghost child following us through cobblestone streets, never speaking, never varying her distance. We started to devise excuses to look behind us, but we needn’t have bothered.  She was always there.  After 45 minutes of being followed, we devised a plan to spin around and face her and walk in the opposite direction.  We did this four times in rapid succession, but she just calmly turned around and followed us each time.  When I paid for a purchase, she looked closely at how much money I took out of my pocket. I was very aware of her interest, as she followed closely with no obvious attempt to talk to us and making no effort to escape our notice.

Finally,  my friend said, “Why don’t you ask her why she is following us?”  Instead, I had another idea. Turning around so quickly that she almost ran into us, I said in Spanish, “Do you know where the police are?  I need the police!”  My friend said she saw a brief emotion flick over the girl’s face before she looked to the right and looked to the left, as though she really was looking for the police.  Then I looked at the vendors in the booths near by and asked the same question–very loudly.  One woman said they would be there later that night.

Both my friend and I did not see the girl leave.  It was as though she’d been conjured and simply disappeared.  We did not see her again that night, but we continued to scan the crowd for her as we sat on the steps of the plaza surveying the crowd and eating our guilty pleasures.  At one point, another small girl and her smaller brother approached me and asked a question.  Again, she used a term I’d never heard before, and my friend did not understand either.

“She is asking you for the time, said the woman frying churros.”  “Ten after nine,” I told the small girl, in Spanish, and she walked away.  “I think that’s what the other girl was asking us,” I said, and eyed my watch, glad to still be wearing it. I squeezed my pocket as well.  I was still in possession of my camera.  We took the best-lit route back to my car and went home perhaps an hour before we would have chosen to, but suddenly the night had turned just the slightest bit sinister again.  We sought the comfort of locked doors and the short drive home.

(Disclaimer:  I need to add here that this is the first time in 14 years that I’ve ever felt targeted in my pueblo or perhaps anywhere in Mexico.  It was complicated by the fact that this child looked like a well-mannered little girl who would be a teacher’s pet–the smartest girl in the class–one you’d choose to babysit your kids.  That she was the accomplice in some little robbery scheme was rather heartbreaking.)

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/toy-story/

Agustin’s Story

Update Dec. 14, 2017: I’m very curious about why, three years after I posted this story about Agustin on my blog, I’ve suddenly had over 200 viewings of it in one day. If you’re reading this, would you please add a comment to tell me how you came to do so? Thanks, and thanks for viewing it!

The Prompt: Second-Hand Stories—What’s the best story someone else has recently told you (in person, preferably)? Share it with us, and feel free to embellish — that’s how good stories become great, after all.

Agustin Vazquez Calvario: Renaissance Man and Good Samaritan of San Juan Cosalá

I have been told many stories by Agustin, and some day I will share them with you, but I think they’ll have more power if you know more about the man, so today I want to tell you about him.

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A number of years ago, a popular situation comedy in the U.S. was “Cheers,” a story about a Boston pub that became a home away from home for its regulars. Some of the lyrics from its enormously popular theme song were:

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot. . . .
You wanna go where people know people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows your name.

 In San Juan Cosalá, Mexico, a pueblo of 6,000 on Lake Chapala, about an hour’s drive away from Guadalajara, that place is Agustin Vazquez’s restaurant, Viva Mexico. It is a warm, art-filled social center for the community that in my opinion also happens to serve the best food lakeside. Here as in the rest of his life, Agustin functions as half scholar, half artist, surveying other restaurants, cookbooks, websites and even literature such as Like Water for Chocolate for recipes that will enable him to bring to life again Mexico’s rich culinary history.

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Quail in rose petal sauce is one such recipe which joins other special menu offerings such as fish fillets cooked in banana leaves with fresh herbs, chiles en nogada, pork shank, and ribs simmered in Agustin’s homemade sauce. Other traditional favorites are pozole (a rich pork and hominy stew) and molcajetes (beef, chicken or shrimp with sweet green peppers, onions, panela and other cheeses with a red or green sauce, cooked in a traditional stone receptacle). My favorite is a molcajete of chicken breast cooked in green sauce. Mmmmmmm. No one I’ve ever recommended it to has been disappointed, and I recommend it to everyone I see who is about to order.

More artistry is displayed in the presentation. Vegetables are fanned in flower shapes, organic lettuce supports the freshest tomato slices, and the entire plate becomes an artistic pleasure that makes one pause a moment to survey the plate before succumbing to the wonderful odors that presage delightful tastes and textures to be experienced.

DSCF8268Chiles en Nogada is a popular item on the menu.

 A lifelong local resident who has his community and its people in his heart, Agustin is so busy that it is hard to imagine how he fits all of his obligations into one day, for his creation of one of the most popular restaurants in the area is just one small part of his life. He also helps to direct a charitable food operation that now feeds 100 families in his home village, personally purchasing the food and for years, delivering it to each family once a week. (Now the families come to receive their weekly ration from a new region of his restaurant  that serves as a storage space and dispensa for Operation Feed.) Since he joined the program a few years ago, his skill in bargaining has allowed them to double the number of families who are helped by the program. He does not allow them to reimburse him for his gas or his time.

DSCF8675With his knowledge of the village, Agustin has cut the time for weekly food deliveries in half in the year since he has been doing the driving.

I first met Agustin in 2002  when I became involved with a group of local Mexican artists. Agustin, who at the time was working as a real estate agent and contractor, had long been their patrón (sponsor) and so when I approached them about helping to stage a children’s art experience where they would paint pictures on the theme of cleaning up the lakeside and their village, Agustin immediately became a major supporter of the project, helping to buy backpacks and school supplies for the prizes. When we staged a fundraising concert to send a young opera singer to the U.S., Agustin fed us all afterwards in what was then his Aunt Lupita’s pozole restaurant. At the time, it was dirt-floored, the simple kitchen was open to the air and parts of the restaurant were without a ceiling.

DSCN1336Agustin greets Isidro Xilonzochitl and other artists and friends who are regulars at Viva Mexico.

Now, ten years later, Agustin has added a beautiful stone floor, screened in the kitchen, added ceiling fans, colorful tablecloths and equipale chairs, purchased all new appliances and kitchen equipment, new bathrooms and a bar where local artists continue to meet most nights. If they are a bit short of money to pay for meals, it is fairly certain that they’ll be served a meal anyway. The walls reflect his support of local artists. Floor to ceiling on all sides, they are covered with their framed paintings, except for the east wall, which is entirely covered by a mural by Isidro Xilonzochitl. It depicts San Juan Cosalá as it was hundreds of years ago. “These guys—these artists and writers and musicians—have to be supported,” Agustin told me recently, “They are part of our community, as you, who live here also, are part of it.”

That statement forms the crux of the magic of a place like Agustin’s. It really is the place that binds us all—Mexican and expats—together. This first started to happen on September 12 of 2007, when weeks of rain were followed by a tromba (waterspout) that dumped water into the hills above the Raquet Club and the town, causing a tremendous downrush of water that brought boulders, dirt and everything in its path down the mountainside and into the town. Walls, buildings and roads gave way to the avalanche of water and rock, leaving much of the town devastated.

Agustin, who had recently purchased his aunt’s restaurant, stepped immediately into the fray, feeding the thousand or so displaced residents and relief workers three meals a day. Originally paying for the food out of his own pocket, he was eventually given food and aid by other residents, both Anglo and Mexican; and this is how the Mexican and Anglo communities were given a chance to mingle and get to know each other on a more intimate level. When I volunteered, Agustin first gave me a broom to sweep the dirt floor. By the end of the week, I was stirring huge pots of beef and waiting on tables as his restaurant filled three times a day.

The work was exhausting as Agustin and eventually, 25 volunteers, most of them family members, worked to provide three meals a day. By the end of ten days, this amounted to over 3,000 meals! By the time he had persuaded local politicians to take over this task, in addition to losing out on almost two weeks of income, Agustin was so in debt for supplies he had bought out of his own pocket that for two months, he questioned his ability to reopen the restaurant. Most of his knives, forks and salt and pepper shakers had been thoughtlessly carried away with carry-out meals. Teary-eyed, Agustin told me about local neighbors, poor themselves, who heard of his plight and offered him hands full of change to try to help, but in the end, he was still $75,000 pesos in debt.

With three sons and a wife to support, Agustin could not afford to take more of a break than was absolutely necessary, so mustering his courage, he somehow found the means to again open the restaurant which four years later has become the heart of the community.

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Any night of the week that you venture into Viva Mexico, you are likely to encounter one of these “regulars.”

What factors go together to create these great qualities of entrepreneurism, courage, generosity and artistic sensibility in a man? Knowing a bit more about Agustin’s history might give us a clue. When he was born in San Juan Cosalá in 1966, the midwife told Agustin’s mother that this child was different and special, that he would bring luck to his family and all around him. When I asked Agustin what quality the midwife had noticed, he did not know, but later when we talked again, I asked him if he had been born with a caul over his head, as this is the traditional sign world-wide that a child is destined to greater things.  When I described what this meant, Agustin nodded his head in agreement.  This is how the midwife had described it, but he had never known the term for it.

When Agustin was born, his father went to the United States to find work to support his family. At that time, Agustin was the fourth child but the first son born into a family that would eventually grow to five brothers, five sisters. Agustin himself began work at the age of six, cutting firewood or helping his grandpa with his fisherman’s nets after school. “My mother, she always pushed us to go to school,” said Agustin. “She could not read or write herself, but she was always encouraging me to look for another way to live. ‘I don’t want you to be like me,’ she said. Now I say the same thing to my sons.”

“I was a troublemaker in secondaria,” Agustin confessed to me, “because I always questioned the priest, wanting to know more.” Agustin credits Padre Adalberto Macias with changing the town through education. “He didn’t want me there, though, because all those questions were a disruption,” admits Agustin. Ironically, Agustin is now the man who drives to the Abastos (wholesale market) in Guadalajara each month to procure food and deliver it to Casa de Ninos y Jovenes, the residential school for disadvantaged youth run by Padre Adalberto.

In July of 1978, at the age of twelve, Agustin went north to the U.S. for the first time. His father put him in school in Lompoc, California for three or four months, but as one of only four Mexicans in the school, he was not treated well and he begged to be sent back to Mexico. Sadly, although he did manage to complete secondaria (tenth grade), there was no money to send him to preparatorio. Instead, at the age of 14, he quit school to blast rock at the Piedra Barrenada, the stone cliff north of the fish restaurants on the carretera (highway) east of San Juan Cosalá. “On Saturday and Sunday, I worked as a waiter,” Agustin told me.

DSCF8508When Agustin accepted his first job as a waiter, did he ever dream that one day he would be serving customers in his own restaurant, wearing a designer chef’s coat that was the gift of a customer?

“I worked many jobs. I cut chayote plants and corn with my family. For one year I was a carpenter with my cousin. When a company came to export chayote to the United States, they made me manager at the age of 15, even though I was the youngest. I don’t know why. Next, I was a waiter at the balneario (hot mineral water spa) until I went to the states with my brother in 1984.”

It was his mother who had intended to go north to find his father, whom they had not seen for three years. She had heard rumors that he was very ill and living in Tijuana, but how could she leave with so many children to cook for, she asked, and begged him to go in her place. He lived for one month in the streets of Tijuana, looking for his father. When he found him, his father was in a hospital, having just undergone surgery. Once he recovered, they had no money to return home, so they went to the U.S. where this time, Agustin worked in the fields with his father for one year. “Cities on the borderline are horrible,” he told me. “They are so sad. Many people from different countries with no money to leave. So sad.” After one year of working in the states, he came back to Mexico to work in construction.

He went back one more time to the States, to get his ailing father so he could die in Mexico. When his father died in 1989, as the oldest son, Agustin inherited responsibility for the family he had been helping to support for most of his life. “My father was a generous man,” Agustin told me, “who would give his shirt if people liked it. When I was a young boy, my uncle, who remained in San Juan, had a pool hall. It was a long time before I knew that my father had given him the pool tables, and that the nets my grandfather used as a fisherman were actually my father’s nets. He was a nice man, my father, but he had to go to the states to support his family. He went to the states when I was born and worked there until I was twenty years old, when he came home to die.”

In 1990, Agustin married Antonia, a local beauty queen. “I saw her at a dance,” he said, and chuckled guiltily as he added, “She was with my friend, but when I saw her, I just had to ask her to dance, and so I took her away from him. My mother didn’t want me to get married, wanted me to wait. I was already feeding ten people in my family, but I wanted to get married, and so I did.

DSCF8364Twenty-two years later, Antonia and Agustin share cooking duties in their newly refurbished kitchen.

I was intrigued over how a young man with a wife and ten other dependents was ever able to become the self-educated, well-read community-minded restaurateur that Agustin is. “How did you ever manage to get where you are today?” I asked, and Agustin, a natural-born storyteller, pulled up a chair to the table where I sat over my molcajete and resumed his tale.

“I got a job at a restaurant in Ajijic that was run by a couple from San Francisco. They had three restaurants: in Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta and here. The woman was very tough, but nice, and I learned a lot from her. For one thing, I learned to focus. Four people together couldn’t compare to her chopping. While I was there, they taught me how to cook and to flambé. They helped me to be in contact with people. First I replaced the chief of waiters when he was gone, and after that I was the replacement for the bartender, waiter and cook. At that place I learned everything, but after one year, I had to quit. The cold and hot probably hurt my hands, because I started to get their kind of bones–the kind that grow (arthritis.)”

“When I went to apply for a job at Mama Chuy (a resort hotel near San Juan Cosalá) my wife was pregnant with our first son. I had to have a job, so I feigned experience. When they asked me if I knew English, I said yes. When they asked me how old I was, I said 28 or 29, but I was really 23. Everything they asked me, I said I knew how to do—except for maintaining the pools. ‘No, I said, but I can learn.’ When they asked me how much I wanted to be paid, I said, ‘Whatever you want to pay me,’ and I was hired on probation.”

“I worked there for five years and learned to speak English. I learned a lot at Mama Chuy’s. My first day, a guy from Massachusetts who was a guest there asked me if I wanted to learn English. When I said okay, he told me to be there tomorrow at six. That first day, he gave me the book Aztec by Gary Jennings and told me to read 20 or 30 pages. It was in Spanish, and that night I told my wife that for me it was an insult for him to give me this kind of book. But my wife told me to do what he told me.”

“When I saw him the next day, he asked if I had read the book and I said yes, but when he questioned me, he knew I hadn’t. Then he explained why he gave me the book. ‘The first thing you have to know is who you are,’ he said, ‘This book will teach you your own history.’ That was when I learned that you should never say ‘can’t.’ What you want, you have to go for. From that man, I learned everyday English. All the people at Mama Chuy helped me. In the five years I was there, I learned so many things. That man was a snowbird who came back every year and he taught me so many things. We became good friends. He 88 years old now…and in the states with Alzheimer’s.”

“During this time and afterwards, I taught English to 400 to 500 people from San Juan: gardeners, maids, taxi drivers, and students. This made me feel okay. I taught them for free or for one peso per class to buy diapers for my sons. Afterwards, I went to one or two schools to teach as well.

DSCF8754Three generations work together at Viva Mexico: Agustin, his Tia Lupita and his sons.

In the years to come, Agustin expanded his already extensive resume. First he became a contractor. “The best guys in town work for me,” he told me. “Just 5 guys. I don’t need more. They have worked for me for 18 years, whenever I need them.” When I asked him how he obtained his contracting experience, he admitted that here, too, he was self-educated. “I knew it in my dreams how to do it,” he confided. I was reminded of my recent trip to see Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio near Scottsdale, Arizona, where I had discovered that the same was true of Wright, who never had any formal architectural training.

“Trains pass by on a regular basis and I jumped on every one to see where it would take me.” said Agustin, referring to his ability to seize any available chance to self-educate. “The train, it doesn’t stop. You have to jump, run a little bit and get into the train.”

Other years were spent as a real estate broker. When he first was hired to work at Laguna Real Estate, he had no car, so he bought one. It was very hard, he said, because most of the customers were American and Canadian, so they preferred to work with the American and Canadian agents. He took classes in English, which were hard—a different level of English than he had learned formerly. In the first week, he sold a house, but received no commission.

For the next six or seven months, he sold no other houses and was ready to quit. The owner of the agency persuaded him to finish out the week. He made many phone calls, and ended up selling $2 million dollars US in two weeks. He worked there for five years, then changed agencies to work with another Mexican broker. “We took the leftovers,” he said, “the houses that didn’t cost so much, that the other brokers didn’t want; and we ended up doing six to seven closings a month.”

“If someone comes and offers me something, I will learn. Life is simple. We complicate our lives by wanting to have our own way. Like a bull. If you let him go, you can follow where he wants to go and it is easy to hold onto the bull. But if you pull, it’s not easy.”

When I asked him what his goals are for his sons, he answered, “Goals. I know my son’s life is not my life. I know it is his life. My first son is almost finished with University and will be an agricultural engineer, the second is in technical school to be a pilot and will be safe. The third (who quit school last year to support his girlfriend and baby, but who intends to go back to school next year) needs a push. This restaurant is for me, not necessarily for them. They need to find their own way. The people who work for me, I always try to help them as well.”

DSCF8757Agustin, his Tia Lupita and other members of his staff display their usual smiles.

“What is left in life for you?” I ask him, and he answers, “Travel. If I had only myself to worry about, I would travel. People who travel live twice in their minds. Instead, I read, for people who read travel in their minds. Outside of his three trips to the U.S., what traveling he has done is in Mexico—every state except Chihuahua, Veracruz or Chiapas.

I know from an American friend who has had much advice from Agustin about what books to read, that Agustin is widely and well-read. When I ask him his favorite authors, he says, “I’d have many of those. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo? Why not?”

When Ninos y Jovenes asked him to take over the purchasing  of food and supplies for their residence school for disadvantaged children, his answer was yes, and he added this monthly task to his weekly trips to Guadalajara to buy food for Operation Feed. When Earl Smithburg, the former director of Operation Feed, died, Agustin provided the buses to transport people to his funeral.

When I asked him to drive me into some of the areas worst hit by the tromba for a follow-up story two years later, the answer was yes. When I asked his construction company to repair my roof, the answer was yes, and I don’t believe I ever received a final bill. I’ve asked about this countless times, and he never quite remembers what the amount is that I owe him.

He has amazing skills: carpenter, mason, real estate broker, resort manager, construction design, construction manager, restaurateur and chef. In addition to this, he is an outstanding family man, father, neighbor and friend. It came as no surprise to me at all that when I asked him if he’d ever had his IQ tested that he said yes. With prodding, I got him to confess that his IQ was 144—genius level.

In closing, I’d like to quote just a few of the statements that people made when I asked them their impressions of Agustin:

“Agustin consistently puts his personal needs behind the needs of others. He always thinks of others first when making decisions that will impact those around him.”

“Agustin recommended this incredible reading list for me. He is a self-taught scholar. He was a big reason why I stayed in Mexico. He has a heart that includes absolutely everyone.”

DSCF7754Agustin takes time out to talk with one of his regulars; and yes, they were talking about books.

“He is the most unselfish man you will ever meet. He will give of himself by whatever means he has without thinking about the personal sacrifices that giving will cause.”

“He is a very trusting individual. If you pledge trust in return, you will enjoy a level of personal friendship that is truly without borders.”

“He is probably one of the last breeds of good old Mexican folk who grabs on to the land and to the culture of a bleeding patria (native land).”

“Humble and slow like an old dog who has been left the hard task of looking out to all those who depend on him and think of him as the ultimate guardian.”

“An absolute perfect host. He greets each person in his restaurant. If he is cooking at the time, he will wait until you are eating or afterwards, and then come up to your table, stand and talk for awhile, or if it’s a slow night, pull up a chair and talk to you.

“Multi-talented, really smart, Renaissance man. Genuinely cares about people. No haughtiness or pretense.”

“He has gotten to where he is by being absolutely nonpolitical. Everything he does, he does out of the goodness of his own heart, without a thought of his own gain. The help he furnished during the landslide was not for political reasons or anything other than that’s the kind of guy he is.”

“Agustin is an artist at work. He goes to the food sellers and warehouses for the charities he buys food for and he beats them down so badly on the prices that they aren’t making a whole lot of money.”

Energetic, generous, personable, devoted father, teacher, philanthropist, self-taught pillar of his family and community, a man with a heart of gold who goes out of his way to help others, Agustin Vasquez Calvario is a living testament to the truth that one person can make a difference.

(Viva Mexico is located two blocks west of the San Juan Cosalá Plaza at Porfirio Diaz #92. Call 387-761-1058 for directions or reservations.)

Judy’s note: This article was written a few years ago for an online magazine that is no more.  In the years since then, Agustin has created a huge gourmet kitchen and  doubled the size of his restaurant. The same artist who painted the mural inside has covered the outside of the restaurant with a huge mural that depicts the inside of the restaurant with every table filled with Agustin’s regular customers depicted.  I’m at a table in the front row with my best friends around me.  Sadly, I am the only one who still lives in Mexico.

Agustin has had many health challenges that have forced him to slow down and allow others to share some of the responsibilities he has always assumed.  Although he has more helpers, new projects continue.  He teaches English to Mexican adults and children, a children’s chorus now meets in the new half of his restaurant that only opens on weekends. A children’s orchestra has been started with instruments provided by solicitation of locals supportive of Agustin’s continuing schemes to give the youth of San Juan Cosala something to do more interesting than drugs and alcohol.

DSC07577 San Juan Cosala Children’s Choir.  That’s Agustin’s granddaughter with the pink hair ribbon!

Twice a year, clothes are handed out here to the pueblo’s poorest and every week, food is dispensed to the 100 poorest families.  Meat, vegetables and fruit have been added to the rations which formerly included only dry foodstuffs and oil. Things change and change as things do, but one thing that never changes is that Viva Mexico remains the heart of the community:  both expat and Mexican.

DSC08075 DSC08074Changes continue as the real Agustin, customers and friends  all seem to be supervising the installation of new pavers that replace the former cobblestones of the road leading from the plaza to Viva Mexico.

UPDATE NOV. 29, 2016: We celebrated Agustin’s 50th birthday at Viva Mexico last night. See the story and photos in a new post HERE.

Interloper (Day 13 of NaPoWriMo)

The assignment today was to take a walk and to translate that experience into a poem. It was a very busy day and I didn’t get around to taking my walk until about an hour before sunset. I finally finished my poem at around 11 PM. An hour to spare! Takes the pressure off a bit. The lady I’m talking about who spreads her skirts under the extinct volcano known as Señor Garcia is Lake Chapala, the usually beautiful lake whose shores I have lived upon for twelve years. Ringed by the Sierra Madre mountains, she reclines in the heart of Mexico, about an hour from Guadalajara. It is a view of her from Tony’s porch that graces the cover of our book. When I moved here twelve years ago, they thought the lake would be completely dried up within five years due to low rainfall and three big dams further upstream which drew off most of the water. At that time, the sixty-mile long lake had shrunk to a point where it was actually necessary to take a taxi from the Chapala pier to get out to the water! It was at this time that I started to take my daily walks on a lakebed that was once under water. This land had sprouted a new civilization of herds of horses left to wander free, cattle, burros, wild dogs, flower nurseries, fishermen’s shacks, small palapa restaurants, huge thickets of willow trees and acres and acres of tall cattails. A few years later, when the lake filled up again, all of this was lost. Of course, it was fortunate that rains and legislation concerning water usage swelled the dying lake; so although I missed my old walking ground, I did not mourn it. Unfortunately, the lake is again in dire straits. It has once again shrunk, but this time it has left a wasteland of rocks, dead tree stumps and a beach littered with fresh water shells and abandoned graveyards of soda bottles. This was the first time I’d walked in my old walking grounds and it was a somewhat depressing experience that nonetheless contained some hopeful signs toward the end. I hope to include some pictures to accompany this piece.

Interloper

If you live long enough,
what others consider history
will become your life.

Twelve years ago,
I walked for hours every day
on this dry lake bottom,
in places the lake
a mile further out
from its usual banks.

Then, five years
from its supposed extinction,
the rains came.
The floodgates
of the dams upstream
opened as well
and the lake swelled to its former girth.

My old walking trails
through the cattails
and the willows
became suffused in a watery world.
Tree tops became the perches for egrets
scant inches above the waterline,
and the lake became once more
the private property
of homes and landowners who fronted
on the water.

But now, again,
the water has retreated,
and for the first time
in eleven years,
I am again walking
on what was once lake bottom.
I see for myself how this
venerable lady
who spreads her skirts under the mountain
known as Señor Garcia,
has done so in a curtsy,
before beating a hasty retreat.

Freshwater shells pave the dry silt.
Discarded soda bottles , moss-covered and corroded,
lie in a pile as though emptied like catch from a fisherman’s net.

Coots and grackles replace the white pelicans
who have circled over in their last goodbye
like other snowbirds heading north.
Sandpipers whistle their reedy pipes,
as if to rein in the small boy
who runs with a rag of kite
streaming out behind him,
creating his own wind.

A man in red shorts wades out
to a bright yellow boat,
lugging a five gallon gas container.

The kite pilot
and his two brothers,
as tattered as their kite,
walk past,
then circle as though I’m prey,
to sit behind me on an archipelago
of large stones
that form a Stonehenge
around the sheared-off skeletons of willows.

I wrote about these willows in their prime—
when the villagers had come to clear and burn them
eleven years ago,
not knowing they would not grow back.

What had been foremost in their prayers for years would soon happen.
The lake would rise
again to her former banks.

But now she once again
beats a hasty retreat,
leaving the stubs and skeletons
of trees revealed again.
It is a wasteland
stripped of
the life of water or of leaves.

“Rapido!” the boy in the green shirt
demands of his brother.
Their sister pulls the bones of the kite
from their plastic shroud.
Rags turn back to rags,
their flight over.

The brother in the black Wesley Snipes T Shirt
winds the coil of string as though it is valuable
and can’t be tangled or lost.

The sun is half an hour from setting.
“Be off the beach by nightfall,”
a man had warned me
as I set off for my walk.
He was a gringo,
yet still I am ready
to start back.
I remember the banks of blackbirds
that used to settle in clouds in the reeds—
acres and acres of cattails—
enough to get seriously lost in.
At sunset, the birds would lift in funnels
by the thousands–
a moving tornado of winged black
that moved as one.
But they are history, now.

La Sangerona—
that bright yellow boat
whose name translates
as “the annoying one”
does not disappoint.
Despite her fresh infusion of fuel,
she has to be pulled manually ashore.
She is like a princess
being towed
up the Nile.
She expends no energy
to further her own movement.

A red dog,
wet sand to his high tide mark,
settles politely in the sand beside me.
Like iron filings drawn to their pole,
the children gather closer.
They pull at the rocks
as though mining for worms—
prod at the packed sand,
casting eyes up, then away.
Curious but silent.

Now, all run away.
I am left with one grackle,
three sandpipers
and fourteen coots,
drawn out by the waves
and pushed back in,
over and over
in a lullaby.

As I climb to the malecon,
the sun dissolves
into the mountains
to the west.
Shadows of palms
are blown in a singular direction,
all pointing north.
Below them,
the skirts of lesser trees,
as low as bushes
but lush in their fullness,
toss with abandon,
as though this lower wind
did not know its own direction.
I have a hunch, go closer and examine.
I am rewarded.
They are willows,
swaying to obscure
a fresh stand of cattails,
once again beginning their
long march of dominance.
The water that was interloper
is history. And I am part of it.

Dry lakebed.  Once again revealed

Dry lakebed. Once again revealed   (CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE)

Freshwater shells revealed by retreat of lake
Freshwater shells revealed by retreat of lake

new serpentine shoreline
new serpentine shoreline

bones of the old willows again revealed
bones of the old willows again revealed

closeup of freshwater shells

closeup of freshwater shellsFresh catch!Fresh catch!

DSC07734Creating a breeze

DSC07741The kite flyer

DSC07719

palms point northwards in the sunset breeze

palms point northwards in the sunset breeze

The first surprise.  New willows!

The first surprise. New willows, and, below, cattails!!!

DSC07751

A lake sunset
A lake sunset