We left Houston in a white minivan headed toward the Mexican border with Jim and Linda Hendrix for a visit to their home in Coatapec. I was thrilled to the point of needing extra stops to use the bathroom that we were finally going to Mexico.
Growing up in Texas, I had a very distinct impression of Mexico mainly informed through dogmatically proud Texans waffling on about the history of the Republic and by watching too many John Wayne films with my dad.
Mexico, I thought, was arid and full of sparsely scattered adobe structures where women in long braids bent over babies and calla lilies while men wearing large hats hearded cattle from the backs of little spotted horses.
The Mexicans I knew never seemed to fit into the impression I had of the place they were supposed to come from, so I was looking forward to eliminating the gap between what I knew and what I thought I knew.
It took a bit to get through the border because the Mexican authorities had to be convinced that we were not making the trip just to sell our vehicle in Mexico and avoid the importation tax that was then about equivalent to 150% of the vehicle’s value.
Once across, I could see no difference in the countryside. I set myself up for a disappointment and focused, instead, on chatting with Linda about her collection of orchids and trying to find out about where we were going through their young friend, Pepe’s, broken English.
We drove all day only seeing a few fist-fulls of other vehicles, all headed north and we were stopped once for an inspection by machine-gun-sporting policemen. We only passed one gas station all day and Jim wisely stopped to make sure the tank was full before continuing south.
That night we pulled into a small, white-washed stucco motel that had a small café built on one end and when we went inside to have a late dinner I noticed that the café with its rough tables, light yellow walls and white vinyl floor was spotlessly clean.
I don’t recall what was on anyone else’s’ plate, but I remember what I ordered: Chicken boiled in its own stock and with cumin, cilantro, mild peppers, onions and tomatoes until the meat fell off the bones and corn tortillas cut like noodles were added at the last to soak up all the liquid. It came plated with mild goat cheese shredded over it and black beans with pork on the side. I had never had the dish before, but I make it for myself every now and again with a grin.
After dinner we all went to our very sparse, very clean rooms and slid in between sheets that felt slightly damp in the cool of the intensely humid night.
The next morning we woke early, went to the café and had a breakfast that was ordered by everyone at the same time, but came out one plate at a time as the woman serving us cooked each person’s food.
We were on the road all the next day and, in the afternoon, the land began to become more green and the fences actually grew because they had been made by hammering stakes from a tree whose name meant naked indian; when the stakes were pounded into the ground they leafed out and each fence became a line of trees connected by wire.
Finally getting close to Vera Cruz we turned inland to Jalapa where every driver made his own lane wherever he could find space to squeeze a car – many of which were forty to sixty years old if a day – and working our way out of town we headed further into the rainforest at the foot of a volcano to the smaller town of Coatapec and the Hendrix’ house.
The next days were full of seeing, tasting and going everywhere and meeting everyone the Hendrix’ knew and Sunday meant a full day of church in the concrete building with its crude wooden benches where they met.
A tiny woman named Maria was the first to arrive. She lived more than an hour away, but she was always the first to arrive and the last to leave on Sundays. She was very old. No one really seemed to know how old; Maria herself was not sure, but could remember the Mexican Civil War… After her came Pepe and Manuel, their parents Pepe and Marga and all their extended family ( I remember a cousin my age named Hugo and many aunts and uncles).
After church ended in the late afternoon, we all went to Pepe (the older) and Marga’s house to eat. The living space was on the second floor and we quite filled it. Over the next few hours we ate fried stuffed squash blossoms, rice, beans, pulled meat, cold fruit (I learned how to say naranja – orange) and drank an amazingly refreshing mixture of pureed melon, tapioca, sugar and cold water.
Everyone laughed, shared stories that included a lot of large gestures and became comfortable in each other’s space. I felt mostly complete in that group and felt that they had a wealth that I could not begin to understand but could appreciate nonetheless.
Jim always had deeply penetrating eyes that could twinkle suddenly as his white-streaked black beard broke to reveal an infectious grin. Solidly built, full head of hair and gentle in everything he did, he had the appearance of the best kind of rabbi.
For the first time all day, I had broken away from the group and went over to the small window to look out over the street. Turning back to watch the room, I could feel my face warming into a slow smile and Jim walked over to lean his back against the wall beside me.
“Now you have seen Mexico,” he said as he also surveyed the room, seeing all and loving equally.
And I realized: Mexico had nothing to do with beaches, volcanos, fields of coffee trees, noises, smells or a different language. Mexico had everything to do with the people who happened to live among these things and I couldn’t help but reflect – even as a teenager – they were incredibly resilient, resourceful and more full of the joy of living than almost anyone I had ever met in my life who supposedly had more to give thanks for. The world grew considerably that evening in my understanding.
The concept of diversity has come up a few times recently in the life of the neighborhood in committee meetings for events coming this summer and over coffee with neighbors.
I didn’t have a close acquaintance with the word “diversity” on that trip to Mexico. It wasn’t nearly so popular a button to push then, I suppose. I got a sense of what was to become my understanding of that concept later in life, though: I had been caught off guard and out of my own bubble of experience so that – for the first time in my life – I simply saw the world as it was. No nagging desire to change one little thing to make the view into what I perceived to be perfect. No judgment upon the differences between their lives and mine. No question of any kind; just sight of what was and an acceptance that did not require a developed tolerance.
Diversity, then, was not an action taken or a tolerance exercised by individuals temporarily in control of a situation. Diversity was, and is, a delightful fact of humanity. The world is diverse in the same way that the world is in color and surround sound; maybe it takes a rosary of naked indian trees leading into a rainforest full of strangers to open one’s eyes properly. Maybe, but I think one moment of unguarded sight could be easier to find than that.