Memories Of Michoacan
By Cat Gonzalez
Two young girls trudge down a dusty road in Michoacan, balancing pots of water on their heads. Both of them are so lovely, it makes your heart turn over, knowing that they, like their mothers and grandmothers before them, will marry at 14 or 15.
Now they borrow their father’s rope and throw it over the high branch of an oak tree to make a swing, and offer to twirl me around. But the rope hurts my feet and we soon abandon this entertainment. Then the girls, who are named Lupita and Concha, climb a tree barefoot to point out a nest of birds. Over my protests, they hand me down the nest so I can see it up close.
Their teenaged sisters are more sedate. They bring over fresh tortillas because they’re curious to see my tent. I admire their new clothes, which are as vivid as the bougainvilla that sprawls over the adobes. The truck which sells dresses has come to the pueblo and many of the young girls have new dresses. Some of the other clothes that are sold from the back of the truck are not permitted: torn jeans, tight shorts with lace trimmings—the Madonna influence.
Their brothers ride horses, and now pass by in a swirl of dust, The horses are clean and shiny; unlike the boys, whose only concession to the solemnity of a Sunday funeral is to wear their best sombreros. I ask the boys who is the most macho and they reply that no one is stronger or better, that everyone is equal. Most of the Tarascans hereabouts embrace the traditional ways. The exemplary indio is one who doesn’t boast of his strength or good fortune for fear of exciting envy. Negative personal emotions are perceived as a danger to the entire community.
Last night this belief was manifested at a wake in honor of a woman named Maria Concepción. Friends and relatives of the dead woman brought useful gifts to the immediate family. Esperanza gave a kilo of beans, Caterino brought maize, and Chuy gave a gift of a long length of rope. This way, the bereaved would not feel envious of those whose relatives still live, and thus this delicate balance is maintained.
We follow on foot to the church where María Concepciòn is laid to rest as simply as she had lived. Last week, trying to save Maria, a curandera had killed a pigeon, cut it length-wise, and laid it on Maria’s chest to attract the illness. Then she had pressed oak leaves to Maria’s temples to allay the raging fever.
After the church ceremony, two mournful-looking men invite me to see a surprise. At the edge of the pueblo is the house of the former sheriff, where in a grove of oak trees he has built a still. The men say that tequila is so expensive, why buy it from a store when the agaves are so plentiful?
In a large pit the cacti is cut up and mashed, then transferred to another stone-lined excavation to ferment under a tarpaulin. The entire area smells like smoke and the air is ripe with the odor of alcohol. In the final step, the mash is put into huge clay vessels and allowed to settle. Then it drips into other clay pots set over slowly burning logs of oak. Heat forces steam through copper coils where it condenses and becomes tequila.
The ex-sheriff and his brothers raise their glasses. Rest in peace, Maria Concepción.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com
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