I woke up Friday morning at 7 a.m. to find six people in my bedroom, including a tiny old woman speaking Mixteco and waving a big slab of beef within inches of my face. And this wasn’t even the most unusual part of my stay in San Martin Peras.
But back to the beef. It all started when I arrived on Tuesday morning. Alejandro Perea, the cousin of a woman I know from Watsonville, California, picked me up at 7 a.m. in his taxi from my hotel in the slightly larger city of Juxtlahuaca. We then bounced our way on rocky dirt roads toward San Martin Peras, a distance of about 25 miles that takes nearly an hour and a half. These are not roads for the timid. There are no rails, no dividing lines. Great big clouds of tan dust obscure the road as it winds through a series of tiny mountain towns.
As we pull into town, there is a small stretch of paved road. Alejandro stops the taxi, now covered in dust, next to a crude sign that says, “gasolina.” This is home.
Alejandro and his wife Florencia have five children. They live in the same complex of half-finished concrete and adobe rooms as Alejandro’s mother Augustina and four other grandchildren. Augustina is taking care of her son’s children while they are in “el otro lado,” which means Oxnard, California. She has been taking care of them for the last three years.
This is what you notice about San Martin Peras. Old women with flowered skirts and lined faces. And children. As Alejandro tells me when we arrive in town, everyone else is gone.
Alejandro and Florencia returned from the U.S. a few years back, after three years spent picking strawberries in Watsonville. Like many other families in San Martin Peras, they put their savings toward a new concrete home and a car. For extra money, Florencia makes grape jello that she sells in little plastic cups to children in the town center. Alejandro begins work at about 5 a.m. and doesn’t come home until evening. At night, neighbors knock on the door to buy gasoline from the plastic tanks that Alejandro stacks in the corner of the kitchen.
Within five minutes of my arrival, Florencia brings out bowls of turkey in a dark mole sauce and fresh tortillas. We are in the family’s kitchen, one small room made from adobe with a dirt floor. The next room over is a new addition, a three-room concrete home constructed with the money they earned from working in the U.S.
Here in the kitchen there is a small wood table and two chairs. The children circle to mop up the sauce from Alejandro’s plate. At first, they are shy. Then, emboldened, they stare at the camera and speak to me in Mixteco. None of the children speak Spanish, except ten-year old Anahi, the eldest.
After we eat, Alejandro and I drive to San Jose. About ten minutes away, San Jose is a small community of about a dozen homes perched on the side of a hill. This is where Margarita Mendoza lives.
Margarita is the mother of Isidro Juarez, Alejandro’s cousin-in-law, who has lived in Watsonville for the last seven years. In a one-room shack with one double bed, Margarita lives with four of her grandchildren. Their parents have also gone to “El Norte.”
I am carrying with me a letter from Isidro for his mother. In a plain envelope, there is $200, a short note and photos of his three children. Alejandro reads aloud the note that Isidro’s daughter Erica wrote to her grandmother. In it, Erica writes in Spanish that she misses her grandmother and that she loves her very much. Margarita does not know how to read and she does not speak Spanish. She looks at the pictures and smiles.
And so, when I come back to Alejandro’s home on Thursday afternoon and find a bag of warm, fresh meat on my bed courtesy of Margarita Mendoza, it is tough to explain why I would prefer not to lug two kilos of beef in my backpack to California. It will go bad, I tell them. It will not dry in time. This seems the most judicious explanation.
So instead, we eat one hunk of the meat for dinner. Florencia laughs as I try to chew the tough meat and shows me how to tear it into bite-sized beef jerky bits, then roll the pieces in bites of tortilla.
Back to Friday morning. Margarita had returned to San Martin Peras to pick up this piece of meat, the one she is now waving within inches of my face. There is a quick conversation in Mixteco, laughter, a final wave of meat and Margarita leaves. I ask Florencia why Margarita was laughing and she says, “She said you don’t understand anything she says.”