By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez
The Biggest Little Man In Mexico
(Note: Norberto Mejia recently passed away at a relatively young age. But what follows was first published about 14 years ago, and is re-run now as a tribute to one of the noblest men I have ever known. But to me, he will live forever as an example of what is best in the Mexican character— and so this is also a tribute to the local Mexican people, who have always welcomed we foreigners with open arms.)
The first time I met Norberto Mejia in 1990, he reminded me of the noble native in Rudyard’s Kipling’s immortal poem, Gunga Din. Hurried (and often faulty) typecasting of just about everyone I meet is one of my many mental aberrations. Yet as I came to know Norberto better, my initial notion deepened into absolute conviction. Today, some ten years later, there is no man whom I am prouder to call my friend.
Ironically, our friendship was first forged when I tried to take advantage of him. Prior to that, I had seen him dozens of times, but never given him more than a few seconds of my (alleged) valuable time. Seriously handicapped people usually give me a mild case of the willies, stemming (I suppose) from my befuddlement over how incredibly unfair fate can sometimes be.
On this particular afternoon, I was already pretty upset, having grown desperate in trying to find a bed and breakfast place for the last three puppies one of my dogs had so thoughtfully presented me with the previous Christmas; and by now, having run out of gullible gringo prospects, I was reduced to trolling through the native population. But still no luck.
Then I spotted Norberto, sitting on his little skateboard-like platform outside a local market in Ajijic. I swiftly stammered out my offer: many pesos if he would take the three puppies off my weary hands. The money would buy enough dog food until he could find them a good home. (This was before the advent of animal shelters here at Lakeside.) I knew of course that this was a semi-dastardly deal—for if he was unable to place the pups, their life-long maintenance cost would run far beyond my initial offer of compensation.
Norberto readily agreed to these undernourished terms. But on one condition: I would have to give him a lift to his home in Jocotepec, as he could not take the dogs (albeit safely boxed) with him on the bus.
I was not especially delighted, having assumed that the short jaunt to Joco would be filled with bitter reflections on life in general, and his own in particular. Norberto was obviously nearly destitute, and greatly handicapped by a severe physical disability.
Yet not once over the course of our trip did he voice anything but the sunniest of statements about everything and everybody. He even poked gentle fun at his own deformity. The next pleasant surprise came when we reached his house, which was scarcely more than a covered enclosure that sat squeezed between two other dwellings, themselves little more than brick hovels. I had just gotten him down from my car and onto his tiny makeshift skateboard when it seemed half the small neighborhood mysteriously materialized. Kids came running toward us with those infectious smiles Mexican children seem to be born with, and within moments some half-dozen adults joined their ranks. Everyone appeared greatly relieved that the crippled beggar had made it safely home. A 12th-century knight returning from battles abroad could not have received a more heartfelt welcome.
In the months that followed, I found out much about him, yet things that the people in his neighborhood apparently had known for years. You see, it’s like this . . .
My little friend is neither priest, pastor nor rabbi—yet I doubt anyone who has ever met him has not experienced a slight twinge of spiritual awakening.
He is not a psychiatrist—yet rarely have I understood myself better than after spending a half hour in his company.
He is not a financial counselor—but the insignificant amount of money I have given him has yielded an incredible return.
He will never be a star of stage or screen—yet seldom have I encountered a more charismatic personality, or eyes that so artfully reflect the humanity inherent in every heart.
He is no more than a few feet tall—yet never have I seen any man’s children look upon their father with more pride and affection.
He has never won a medal for bravery—yet to watch him attempt something so simple as getting on and off a car is to witness courage in its most sublime form.
Finally, he is not a man with whom any of us would be eager to trade places— yet I have never met anyone who plays with more grace the lousy cards he was dealt.
So the next time you see him outside the market at Plaza Bugambilias, do yourself a favor and make his acquaintance. His warm smile and cheery manner will prove worth far more than whatever you care to press into his palm. My friend is that rare soul who can sweeten the heart of just about everyone he meets— and for that reason, as well as a dozen others, I’ll close by paraphrasing the last line of Kipling’s unforgettable poem: You’re a better man than I, Norberto Mejia.
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