Cue Vicente Fernandez.
High level research went into preparing for this trip to Mexico. Chef’s Table, Coco, Frieda, The Distance Between Us, Vincente, probably lots of chips and salsa and a few margaritas for good measure. Basically, thank you Hollywood for any ideas I may have about what I might expect while traveling to rural Mexico. We joked about these low brow ways of learning a culture, but hey, it ended up being better than nothing.
We arrived the day after Dia de los Muertos. Coco gave a window into not just the traditional Mexican holiday, but the indelible bonds of family—The essential nature of an inseparable web which forms and cradles community. Frieda gave insight to the art and renaissance, the movement and excitement, that was and still is Mexico City. From Netflix’s Chef’s Table, Cristina Martinez told her story of conquering hardship, rebuilding a new life in a new land, while still living into and honoring her past, her heritage, and her homeland. Cristina’s story tells us of the hopes and dreams, sacrifices and struggle, and how difficult life has to get to make it worth leaving everything behind. The Distance Between Us is the story of the other side of the same coin. Still highlighting the difficult lives of the people in Mexico, Reyna Grande’s fabric of family was irrevocably torn apart by the temptation of El Otro Lado—The promised land perceived by her people, her father and eventually her mother following that idea that life may be easier on the other side. She eventually also came to America and fought her way to her own “American Dream,” but her family’s story did not end on a happier ever after fairy tale note.
It turns out experiencing through word and image is nothing like the experience of being immersed in the culture. Upon waking in Chicontla, I couldn’t make sense of the tension I felt. Tension in the beauty of the land and its people, and yet for as beautiful as it is, the poverty and underdeveloped infrastructure of their living conditions speaks to the struggle of their lives. And yet, in spite of the struggle, ALL of the people are the kindest, most generous, most sincere, happiest, largest-hearted people I’ve ever met. Clusters of cinderblock homes streak the mountainside, layered one upon the other. Some of these homes hold so many occupants they overflow into the streets. But many of the structures are skeletons of mansions being built by those who have gone North and sent money back to try and build a nicer house. There they sit unfinished. Reminders of dead or dying dreams, shells empty of that which makes a house a home. Some sacrifice everything in hopes to provide a better life for those they love and leave. Other stay, keep the little they have, keep the family intact. What is the price of these dreams? What is the price to stay? What cost is one willing to pay? I see the struggle, the sweat, the effort to put food on the table. SUCH hard work. I’ve never met harder working people. Staying is difficult. Leaving isn’t any easier, potentially even more difficult. The choice to leave, is it because they don’t think its within themselves to create and achieve the life they dream of where they are? Does hope only lie on The Other Side?
From the surface Chicontla appears to be stuck with no way out or ahead, and yet with a finger on the pulse you’ll feel a current of hope. Photos, books, movies, news media do not allow one to feel the pulse. All the reading, studying, watching from afar may give a sense of knowing. But no one knows until they go. Living the experience means I had the opportunity to feel the hope. To hope with, for, alongside. This hope will be their oxygen. Their hard work, the fuel to fan the flame. From across the distance between us I want to breathe life into this community:
“You are worthy. You are loved. You have been created in the image of God and gifted with a purpose. Find those gifts and use them! Use them for your enjoyment, for God’s pleasure and because it will provide ultimate value to your community—the community that is Family, the community of Chicontla, and the community that spans the globe now and into the future.”