Some 28 years ago I spent a week in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City.
At that time, Coyoacan had its upscale, semi-Bohemian streets, and I stayed with a woman who lived in a modern apartment building with all the amenities. During the days I walked around. I spent time sitting on a bench at the Plaza Hidalgo and eating ice cream. But most of all, I liked to go into the Iglesia de Juan Bautista, one of the oldest churches in Mexico located in a poorer area.
The Iglesia de Juan Bautista is famous for its beautiful central altar and frescoes, but I preferred the darker side aisles. One of these brought me to a small altar in front of a painting of the Virgin, white and golden-haired. It wasn’t she who drew me, but rather the wooden statue of Mary Magdalene on the other side.
She was without halo and without gold. A simple cloak covered her hair, fell down to her shoulders and over an old, folded skirt. Of the entire figure only the face and hands showed, turned towards the dark aisle and focusing on a low point rather than up at heaven. Her eyes were wide open and dark, the arms beneath the folds of the cloak stretched out, the palms open in supplication. Her garments were those of a peasant woman from biblical times, selling her wares in town or else gathering wheat in the fields, her face tired and crisscrossed by lines.
I used to sit there for hours on an adjacent bench, watched over by her. She was my guardian, not the white, haloed, glorious Virgin with angels flying above her head.
One day I came to my favorite perch, and soon noticed a line had formed close by. It must have been a Sunday. Indian women lined up, their long hair hidden inside kerchiefs, wearing serapes over long cotton skirts, the brown-skinned men in baggy slacks and plain white shirts, holding straw hats in their hands. The line advanced slowly. and I realized from the booth deep in the wall recess that they were lining up for confession.
I watched them, conscious of my clothes, the bag, the sandals. What do you have to confess, I wanted to ask them? That you drank too much, you didn’t have food ready on the table for your husband when he came home from work, that you desired another woman, that you beat your little boy unnecessarily, that that you filched a few dollars from a gringa in a hotel room where you cleaned? That you coveted and scolded and stole, gossiped and mocked and laughed, and forgot God?
Given their hard life, these seemed such little things. Where does anyone’s fault lie?
I remembered this yesterday when I joined Jimena de Pareja and the immigrant families she works with. I showed Jimena the wooden crosses I’d bought in Jerusalem for them, and she cautioned me that not every Latino family goes to church. So much for my generalizing along ethnic/religious lines. I bought this gift for them with my own money. Each time someone came for a food card, she let me know if I should put a small crucifix in the envelope containing the food card. But after an hour, most of the crosses were gone.
Sometimes she asked them to sign a form she has from the schools advising them of the current reopening situation (online distance learning only) and what they need to be aware of. I’m used to sitting aside at that point and trying to follow her Spanish rattle.
I hope that the food cards make the discussion on forms and requirements easier on them; this time the schools are demanding more concrete criteria for participation, not easy on parents who usually work out of the house, as these do. They work on farms (though many are now closing with the onset of fall) and in factories that don’t ask too many questions; no one that I have met works online from home, they don’t have those kinds of jobs.
One woman, Eva (not her real name), looked as if she’d just come back from church. Usually they collect the food cards, chat a little, thank us, and leave to make room for the next person (we can’t afford to meet in a group). But Eva, beautiful in a black and white dress, was tired and settled down near me, all of us in masks. She lives alone with three children and talked at length with Jimena about current school requirements. She doesn’t have WIFI but this can be remedied since Comcast is offering parents a subscription for $10 a month for 6 months.
She fingered the cross fondly, saying she wanted to wear it as a necklace. She has no husband and was just laid off from the farm where she worked because it’s closing for the season. She thinks she can work in a local small factory doing the midnight shift, but the factory will probably close also in about two months, and then she doesn’t know what she’ll do.
I remembered my time in Coyoacan. I also remembered the Widow’s Mite, as described in the Gospel of Mark, when Christ watched rich people give big donations, and then a widow put two small coins in the basket, the cheapest coins available, the equivalent of our pennies, and Christ said that her gift mattered more to God than all the big gifts the wealthy had put in. Eva didn’t give money, she came to receive it. But her heart was open to receiving something else—faith, hope, determination.
As a rule, the parents of these families know that their lives will be of relentless toil, lack, and fear. They come here less for themselves than for their children. They come for a future that won’t be theirs. They sit the kids down in front of iPads, sometimes 3 or 4 in a room doing separate classes. They work under a hot sun (we had a very hot summer this year) and then wonder how to make money when the farms shut down. Some go to confession, some not; if they do, I have no idea what it is they confess to because I am so taken aback by their generosity of spirit, by their ability to self-sacrifice and continually love and give.
When they thank me, I thank them. I don’t think they understand why.
Please help us continue to buy food cards and help with rent, utilities, and even funeral expenses (I’ll write about that in a future post). You can do that by hitting the Donate button below and writing in the payment Note, for food cards. Or send me a check to Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351, and write on the memo line: for food cards.
Since April 1, when we first began, we’ve given some $22,000 of help. It’s very significant for them; please, let’s continue. Thank you.