South through Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan and Jitotol, for about twenty-five miles, then at Puerto Café left onto the gravel road and down, down we go across steep slopes of weedy, fallow cornfields and banana and coffee plantations, sometimes passing spectacular tree-ferns growing along the road, and always passing Tzotzil-speaking Indians walking long distances, sometimes carrying on their backs large, white bags of coffee beans, for the coffee here now is maturing... Women wear white blouses with the necks and short sleeves trimmed with red embroidery displaying tiny floral and geometrical designs. Their long black dresses are held in place by wide, red belts. While most men, especially the younger ones, wear Western-style shirts and pants, perhaps a quarter of the older men wear traditional white, baggy shorts and white, loosely-fitting shirts, both made of heavy, woven cotton. And always they wear straw hats. Usually both sexes go barefooted.
About 2500 people live in El Bosque, which lies at an elevation of about 2500 feet. Most people in El Bosque's streets today are Indians who have walked here from surrounding villages. As soon as Pastor Bercián, two nurses, the truck driver and I arrive, an announcement is made on the big loudspeaker mounted on a tall, crooked pole in the town's center:
"A team from Yerba Buena Hospital has just arrived to pull teeth and fit bridges," it blares out. "They're waiting now in Dr. Santos's office."
Dr. Santos's office lies off a steeply sloped, one-lane street near the town's center. Through a door in a wall you pass down a short, odoriferous alley between two houses, picking your way past various animal-droppings and miscellaneous accumulations of refuse. On the alley's back wall, beneath a twenty-foot Cecropia tree, a hand-painted sign reads, "Dr. Santos, Consultations and Patent Medicine. Tooth-pulling and Ear-washing. Hours... " But the hours scrawled there are completely illegible.
Below the sign and to the right, we find Dr. Santos's office to be about twelve feet wide and fifteen feet long. The room's only light enters through the open door. Stacked along the back wall are shelves holding several hundred small boxes of the type in which medicine is sold. Something about them suggests that they are empty. On the wall to the left hang two framed certificates, one showing that Dr. Santos has completed basic medical training at Yerba Buena, and the other indicating that he has graduated from a three-week first-aid course sponsored by the Mexican Government. On the small wooden table in the room's center lie various tooth-extracting tools, neatly arranged, and a black, flat, smooth stone that when passed across a patient's face is supposed to cure... dandruff.
Dr. Santos himself is a thirty-five year old Indian from nearby San Pedro Nixtalacúm, speaking Spanish with a heavy Tzotzil accent. Though he wears a perfectly clean, white hospital uniform, his whiskers haven't been shaved for several days. He welcomes us effusively and in the best-natured humor. However, he is very ill-at-ease and he seems completely overwhelmed by the fact that a tall gringo has entered his office. Before many words can be said about it, however, Indians begin filing down the alley. Three come blurry-eyed, holding wet towels to swollen cheeks. Dr. Santos helps translate for those unable to speak Spanish.
"How much do you charge to pull a tooth," the Indians ask as soon as polite greetings are exchanged.
"For the tooth-pulling we don't require that you pay anything," explains the Pastor. "But if as you leave you wish to contribute something to our program, we'll greatly appreciate anything you have to offer."
A seventy-year old man wearing traditional baggy, white shorts and baggy white shirt comes for his upper plate, ordered during a previous visit. Here plates cost the equivalent of about $7.00 U.S. "Mero lec," the old man's friends say when the plate finally is installed; "Real pretty," they say in Tzotzil. After we've worked for about four hours, one upper plate has been fitted, four bridges have been installed and about twenty teeth have been extracted.
Dr. Santos's fascination with this six foot, three inch gringo borders on being ridiculous. He keeps asking if he can ride on my back. At the lunch prepared for us after the work is done, he reveals one reason for his behavior. He tells us that as a child his family -- as was typical in those days, and perhaps still is --taught him to run from tall, white people. "Those tall gringos eat us Mexicans," he was told. Dr. Santos's uncle used to tell about meeting a tall gringo carrying a briefcase in which were carried arms and legs of Mexicans, which he planned to carry to the U. S. and sell... "to be eaten like chicharrones (pig cracklings) with tortillas."
"That's just a story your uncle told you," says Pastor Bercián, assuredly, and with no hint of mockery.
"A story?" repeats Dr. Santos, clearly having never doubted the story's veracity.
"A story... " insists the Pastor.
On the road back to Yerba Buena I ask the Pastor if in Mexico it isn't illegal for people like Dr. Santos to advertise themselves as real doctors.
"Well, yes, I suppose that it is illegal," explains the Pastor. "But Dr. Santos is an Indian doctor. He treats only those who would never have the money or be bold enough to visit a real doctor. He provides an extremely valuable service for the Indians in this region, so the government just looks the other way... "