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Touched by Mexico’s unrandom acts of kindness


The people of Mexico greatly respect a mother and child. I notice this again on a recent trip home in a bus from the Mexico City airport to Puebla, where I’ll be teaching at a university for three months. In Mexico the people of Puebla are recognized for being cold, detached and arrogant. On the bus, my 3-year-old son enjoys himself untying the shoelace of the young man sitting behind us. I know that back in the United States he would not get far in his endeavors. But this man courteously smiles and plays with Rico, my son, between cell phone calls.

Because I am a mother, I am important here. In this enormous city, I get seats on crowded buses. Young people watch over my fruit-loaded backpack, holding it for me a half-hour at a time or more. Random acts of kindness are not so random here, even in Puebla where people are supposed to be bourgeois and uppity.

Later in the state of Oaxaca, I tell a restaurant worker, busy closing up, that I am hungry and that there is nothing else open around our hotel. It’s the first day of the Candelaria, an important feast that lasts four days. He tells one of the women cooks, cleaning the kitchen, and without looking at their watches, they ask me what it is they can make for us. The clock doesn’t tick on their kindness. We eat quesadillas made with tortillas from a hot comal by the cook who will no doubt miss part of the celebration because of us.

They tell me we are lucky to be in Oaxaca on such a holiday when the Virgin of San Bartolo Coyotepec will surely bless us, even if we don’t make the sign of the cross 100 times on that day, as is the custom.

The kindnesses shown to me and my child remind me how welcome children feel in this country. I think of my recently acquired girlfriend Maribel, a single mom who utilizes every guard or store attendant available, to help discipline and advise her son. She does not feel she needs a father for him after her husband abandoned her. After all, she has a whole country willing to help her.

At the bus depot in Oaxaca I tell an indigenous woman selling blouses and other handiwork that what I was really looking for was a huipil, like hers, and ask her why she does not sell any like that. She responds, “Because they are too expensive. People don’t buy them.” She looks at me with empathy, almost sorrow, because I do not have a dress like hers. Finally she takes hers off after watching me observe her a couple of hours with longing, while I chase after my son. She tells me to take the colorful huipil she made with her own hands. She said she will never like it as much as I do, and that for that reason I deserve to have it. The money is not important. I give her all the money I have, putting it under her merchandise, because she would not take it. I take off my gold hoops and also give them to her, because they also mean so much to me.

She is not the only stranger in Mexico who has left me speechless because of this gift of generous “detachment.” The dictionary translates desprendimiento as detachment. It’s really a spiritual exercise, something a stranger can do with so much meaning, giving you something valuable to them because of the mere possibility that it would mean more to you than to them. Her last words: “You will love my dress forever, much more than I do.”

As I get on the bus, I remember the Oaxacan man who made alebrijes, wooden art pieces that represent souls. After selling me one, he followed me around for 45 minutes, leaving his street vendor space unattended, to tell me more about the spiritual uses of the little figure I had just bought from him.

On the pope’s recent visit to Mexico, I was overjoyed to see that he, too, had been touched by this generous spirit. One picture on the front page of a newspaper showed the pope being swept with orange leaves and blossoms by an indigenous woman. She was protecting him from evil.

Mexico, the country of my ancestors, and the Mexican people in the United States are a resource for my spirit, a fountain that prevents my love from running dry. Can we include in our lives those unrandom acts of kindness that other cultures have a way of teaching us? Can we bow our heads like the pope in humility and let the indigenous woman sweep all the unkind thoughts, rancor and apathy from our minds and bodies? Can we take off our physical and emotional huipil and give it to someone who will love it more than we do?

Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, a Latina poet and academic, is assistant professor of foreign languages at Seattle University.

National Catholic Reporter, September 27, 2002