SAN LORENZO
On Saturday
(recent snapshot)

On this Adventist day of worship we pull no teeth (about thirty were extracted yesterday). At noon, a few moments after Pastor Bercián returns from preaching, two men in their fifties come up the trail from the temple. Walking amidst rank weediness, profound muddiness, scurrying chickens and turkeys, and general isolation, they wear clean and well- pressed polyester leisure suits. With very serious looks on their faces they ask to speak privately with the Pastor. So that others can't hear their conversation, they ask the Pastor to walk with them into the weeds in front of the barracks. Curiously, they gravitate to a spot not far from where I'm sitting on a rock, reading. Maybe they don't realize that I speak Spanish, or perhaps to them it simply makes no difference whether a foreigner hears their private conversation.

The problem is that they are first cousins, and now the daughter of one wishes to marry the son of the other. They've heard that such marriage within the family is unwise, and they want to know the Pastor's opinion. They listen with pained expressions as Pastor Bercián explains that, yes, there can be problems. Sometimes the offspring of such marriages have diminished hearing, or are blind, or may even be born feeble-minded.

I feel sorry for these men, their families, and especially the young lovers involved. In these small, isolated villages where nearly everyone is related to everyone else, this is a common problem. When the Pastor is finished, the men thank him and walk away, staring distractedly and silently into the weeds.

Soon afterwards a woman from the church arrives asking if possibly at two o'clock Gudulia might return to the Temple to give a lecture about general first aid. The Pastor explains that already we are scheduled to meet with a group at 2:30 for a tour of a nearby cave, but that certainly a half-hour talk can be arranged at 2:00. At l:50 I notice that Gudulia is making no preparations for her talk. I assume that she doesn't realize how time is creeping up, so I casually mention the time. She looks at me oddly and then begins preparing. We arrive at the temple at 2:l0 but no one is there except some young men practicing on the xylophone, which in this land of marimba music is used to accompany religious hymns instead of a piano. The musicians, all young Indians from San Lorenzo, are surprisingly good. Simultaneously four of them play on one long xylophone beautifully ornamented with inlaid wood, playing familiar Adventist tunes. We ask them to continue practicing until our audience arrives. By 2:30 still no one has come. I remind the others that we've promised to be at the cave at this time, so we leave and go there. On our way we pass by the home of the church member who had asked for our special 2:00 lecture. She's sitting on a rock talking. She looks at us as if wondering why we've been in the Temple.

The cave is impressive, though most of its stalactites and stalagmites have been shattered. Our guide asks us if it is possible to find figurines in such caves. He asks this in such a manner that I must think he already has found such figurines, but does not want us to know about it. Several times back at Yerba Buena Indians have come to my door asking if I would like to buy pottery and figurines taken from caves. To my only semi-trained eyes, most of their artifacts seem to be genuine.

When we leave the cave we're met by a small group of men who ask us somewhat pointedly what happened to the talk about first aid. The Pastor explains what happened. Though my name is not mentioned, the men look at me a bit disapprovingly and then one says only half laughingly, "Yes, here we are on Mexican time, but I suppose that you work on gringo time... "

Finally I realize that I have committed a faux pas. For, it is true: Especially in places like San Lorenzo, one simply is not expected to do things on time. "Two o'clock" means "Sometimes this afternoon, probably not earlier than three." When Gudulia had been letting two o'clock approach without preparing for her talk, she had understood this, but I had not. When the woman who arranged for us to speak at two o'clock saw us leaving the temple at 2:30, surely it hadn't even occurred to her that we were leaving because no one had appeared at 2:00. Throughout the rest of the day I hear too many references to "gringo time."

In the night, finally I have a chance to sit and talk with Dionisio, the man most responsible for building the Adventist school and airstrip. Happily, if anything, he seems to admire my habitual punctuality. Since the women in his household are shelling corn and working hard to prepare supper for us, and thus need all the kerosine lanterns and candles for their work, Dionisio and I sit in a separate room talking in pitch darkness.

Dionisio preparing charcoal from the fireplace, for medicinal purposes
Dionisio preparing charcoal from the fireplace for medicinal purposes

"My father founded this colony in l939," he begins. (Though probably he speaks the best Spanish in town, he still exhibits a strong Tzotzil accent; however, his Spanish is easy to understand because he speaks slowly and simply.) "He settled here because in his home area there was not enough land. Here he could have some land for himself. At that time no one owned this land, so he just came here, cleared the forest, and began planting. Soon others joined him. At that time the forest here was full of deer, big cats, monkeys and faisán (great curassow)."

"In l953 he decided to get papers to make the settlement's presence official, so he walked across the mountains to the capital in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, wearing out four pairs of sandals on the way. But in Tuxtla, for eight days they just gave him the run-around. No one wanted to take responsibility, and no one wanted to talk with an uneducated Indian. So later my father went to the federal government in Mexico City. By then he'd learned how government people operate, so one day he simply walked up to a big administrator who was entering his office and asked to talk right then and there. That way he got the papers to make San Lorenzo official."

"In l96l, invaders came onto our land. They wanted our land for themselves, so they destroyed our coffee and citrus plantations, and ruined our crops. Because they spoke Spanish and knew how to talk to officials, and we were just Indians who couldn't yet understand Spanish well, we were very afraid. Somehow the invaders even got papers saying that they owned our land. Finally we went before the Agrarian Reform, which settled the issue by giving the invaders completely new land of their own. But for a long time those invaders made life very hard for us."

"Later I became dissatisfied with certain things. For instance, we had a government school, but the teacher would only come for a single day and then for one or two weeks not come at all. Our children were learning nothing. So we moved up here and with a few other families built this school. We asked that Adventist teachers be brought in, teachers who would show our children how to understand Spanish, and how to know what their rights are, and how to defend those rights. We also erected these other buildings."

"I got the idea that we should build an airstrip so that missionaries could fly in. Therefore a group of us men stopped work on our houses and began paying too little attention to our farming, and for several months we worked on building that runway. Every day, every day! It was hard work! But we got it finished, and a missionary group in the U. S. started helping us. We wanted to build a small hydroelectric station just downslope, where the water rushes out of the cave. They helped us by flying in bags of cement, sheets of corrugated tin, and such."

"But we had enemies and they told the government that the plane was being used to carry drugs. The Army seized the plane and put the pilot in jail. For five days they kept the pilot but were unable to find any evidence supporting the accusations. They let the pilot go but they confiscated the plane, and still have it. We had to abandon work on the hydroelectric station and now the airstrip is grown over with trees. Seeing so much work and time wasted made us all very sad."

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