SAN LORENZO
On Friday
(recent snapshot)
A young Tzotzil speaker pounds husks from locally grown rice
In San Lorenzo a young Tzotzil speaker pounds husks from locally grown rice.  Note chainsaw-cut boards in side of building.

At dawn on Friday morning everyone is cold except me The teacher's wife from the hut next door admits that all night she shook and her teeth chattered, but now she just laughs and says, "But, it passes." During these moments as the odors of firewood smoke and brewing local coffee drift from all of San Lorenzo's huts, I reflect on the fact that last night, because of my membership in faraway Western Technological/ Materialistic Society (and subsequently my sleeping in a blue, mummy-type sleeping bag stuffed with Polarguard) I was so toasty that I had to partially unzip my bag to keep from overheating.

In San Lorenzo, which has a total population of about 400 Tzotzil-speaking families, most houses are constructed of heavy, unpainted boards nailed to wooden frames. The boards are taken from local trees using chainsaws. Visible all along every board covering every house in town are j-shaped scars left by the chainsaw's cutting edge as it briefly paused or was redirected during the cutting process. I ask a man how chainsaws can be made to cut so regularly, for these boards are remarkably straight and of uniform thickness. He replies that it's all done by eye, and that the only secret is that one must practice.

Built thirty to fifty feet apart, San Lorenzo's homes lie on a rather steep, northeast-facing slope. Often they are separated from one another by hedges, typically composed of thickly planted tulipán, a bush-hibiscus with cup-sized, scarlet blossoms. Narrow footpaths between houses regularly degenerate into muddy quagmires. No stores of any kind are apparent, though people know that rice can be bought from this family, that the man who lives in this house sells medical supplies, that this house sometimes has nails on hand... The town's center is the basketball court, which nearly always, except in the middle of nights, is being used by at least one or two boys. During hours of late afternoon twenty or more boys and men always are playing, several wearing regular basketball uniforms with numbers, and several players being quite good.

Pastor Bercián explains that a few years ago Dionisio López Hernández, a man presently thirty-nine years of age, became dissatisfied with certain things in San Lorenzo, so he moved to a location upslope. Then with others he built a Seventh-Day Adventist school, the town's second Adventist temple, and the barracks in which we are staying. He also built several other things, such as a landing strip for missionary airplanes. This Dionisio and his airstrip arouse my curiosity; I had not expected such community spirit by anyone in such an isolated, really forlorn-looking place as San Lorenzo.

Our "barracks" is about fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide, divided into three sections along its length. The first section is home to one of the Adventist school's three teachers and his family. The section in the barrack's opposite end, where we sleep, is equipped with one bed and, along one wall, eight homemade bunk-beds, stacked four high. The barrack's middle section holds a hodgepodge of bags of shelled corn, old typewriters, carpentry tools, boxes of medicine, broken guitars, etc. Along one wall are shelves holding several hundred books.

Mostly they are primary-school books written in Spanish, but among them also I find a surprising number of English titles such as The Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (l954 Edition), The New Modern Medical Counselor (l95l), a paperback edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, and Sewing Made Easy (l952). No one can say how these books arrived here, where Tzotzil is the only language spoken by everyone, even Spanish is considered a foreign tongue, and English might as well be Urdu.

The few men who are able to read do so with the greatest sense of propriety. Ceremoniously they sit at a table and open the book squarely before them. They read aloud, slowly, and with a dignified expression on their faces. Nearly all they ever read consists of religious literature, especially the Bible, and official papers generated by the government, so to them the act of reading is a ritual permitting them entry into sacred and political matters -- things absolutely and deliciously removed from their usual world of mud, sickness, toil and isolation.

But before I realize all this, I stand beside the wallside library quickly flipping through pages, skipping here and there and half-reading, and sometimes snickering with pleasure at the old books' out-of-date fashions or modes of expression. Finally I realize that men are standing watching me, and that they are unable to comprehend my apparent lack of respect for the written word. I see no way to explain to them that for me books are different kinds of things than they are for them, but that I respect them, too. I replace the books, say that the people of San Lorenzo are lucky to have such a collection, and walk away.

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