We got there early. In the corral behind Eustacio Ortiz’s tarpaper jacal, we stacked gunny sacks of chayote, wild camote, jicama, oranges, limones, peanuts, sugared candies.
It was the last night of Mexico’s posada season. In the 1960s this Catholic evening ritual was considered in the campo (countryside) to be the communal “heart” of Mexico’s Christmas observance – the novena, nine days (beginning December 16), representing the nine months of Mary’s pregnancy before the birth of Jesus. Nine evenings of processions during which the Rosary was chanted aloud, and, when the selected house was reached, all those participating sang: “En el nombre del cielo/ pedimos posada/ pues no puede andar/ ya, mi esposa amada.” (‘In the name of heaven, we ask for shelter as my beloved wife cannot go any farther.”)
From inside came the brusque reply, also in song: “Aqui no es meson/ siga adelante./ No puedo abrir/ no sea algun tunante.” (“This is not an inn, go on your way. I cannot open, don’t be an idler here.”)
The mayordoma of these evening events for the small pueblo of El Salitre, beyond the western swing of Lake Chapala, was Clara Ramos. She had chosen December 24 for her gringo friends to “cater” the season’s final posada; it had been a punishingly poor rainy season, and this posada would provide the only presents many children would be getting.
“Don’t get foolish toys,” Clara had firmly told the three of us. A thin, buoyant-spirited woman of not more than five feet, addicted in the privacy of her home to puros (cheap hand-rolled cigars), she was keen-minded about both religious and practical matters. “And no clothes. They all need them, but there’ll be too many to buy them all clothes that will last more than a month. Get them what they know. Y pues, no gringo stuff, eh? It’ll just confuse everybody.”
Clara was the mayordoma because she taught children catechism in the afternoon after they were out of school and had done their early chores at home. “They like jicama, camote del cerro (wild potatoes). And as many mandarinas for each as you can. They don’t get many of those, but they’re savages about them.” She grinned, tilting her head to blow cigar smoke into the air. We had just become good enough friends with her and her husband, a campesino, for her to reveal what she called her “vices” – puros and an afternoon sip of home-made aguardiente.
We were to provide any other fruits that fit our rather slender budgets, but most surely peanuts, chayote and as much hard candy as we could afford. “Those niños will keep coming back for more than we’ll have,” Clara told us.
The posada procession began promptly at 4 p.m. from the local grade school (the securely locked chapel was seldom used, for the cura – priest – came to the tiny pueblo infrequently). Two older grade-schoolers, dressed in white worn sheets as Mary and Joseph, led a burro. Joseph carried a blazingly be-ribboned staff. And though they stopped at Maria and Eustacio Ortiz’s front door to engage in the ritual request for shelter, once that ended, the procession began to veer abruptly toward the corral. But it was brought to quick order by Clara’s assistants, brisk older girls, perhaps 16 years old.
The corral had been cleaned, the Ortiz’s three pigs, two burros and a cow penned behind the wind-canted lean-to that served as a barn. At the corral, many kids made for benches made from halved-logs perched on legs cut from stout limbs. Others stood, eyeing bulging costales of food and sweets, ready to be first in line. Very few of the boys wore huaraches, all of the girls were barefoot. So were the women, standing outside the corral, waiting to see if there would be anything left over.
But first there were more hymns. Eustacio and I set off a dozen or so short-fused cohetes that exploded so soon they left everyone slightly deaf for several minutes. Then, two overweight piñatas were broken after a dozen blindfolded tries to smash them. The scramble for chicles, gum and radishes that spilled from them nearly turned into a brawl. The melee was quickly halted by Eustacio, employing the palo used to shatter the piñatas to part the wrestling boys. “Oye, malcriados,” he barked, “I’ll drum the himno nacional (national anthem) on your backsides with this palo if you don’t behave.”
When the costales were yanked wide and their contents were being passed out, instead of saying merely, “gracias,” most of the recipients murmured, “God will pay you for this.” That impressed the three of us, who had had a certain wariness instilled in us in different ways – concerning heavenly watchfulness and our mostly unregretted transgressions. The occasion, thus, was not totally without irony – besides, our holiday spirit was sincere.
It was nightfall by the time we finished, making sure we had an apron full of peanuts, chayote, camote del cerro and a mandarina left for most of the patiently waiting women outside the corral.
Eustacio, smaller both in height and breadth than his wife Maria, and a true cerro campesino, nodded and quietly said gracias when we presented him and Maria with three pacas de lamina (tarpaper).
Maria grinned with delight, and hugged us all.
It wasn’t that Eustacio was less grateful. Tomorrow he would be busily patching the roof, weaving the new lamina into the wattle sides of what was now a very airy house. But, Clara had said, he believed the pueblo he had known all his life was getting too crowded, though it remained quite small. He had seven children, and he found life in his own home too noisy – in fact, simply too over-peopled. He had worked in mountainside milpas from the time he was five, helping his parents hand-plant crops, weeding the milpas, going with his father at night to guard the seeds and sprouts against rodents, and later, the maturing fields against thieves. He helped dry the corn, the frijol, storing them in gunny sacks, a few for selling, finding ways to keep most safe from mice and rats and the elements during the dry season – for they were the core of the Mexican diet.
The cerro furnished the pueblo with food, materials for building homes, trojes, fencing, furniture, fashioning tools and homemaking utensils. It supplied forage for animals, and a wide assembly of medicines. Eustaco now seemed to find himself more at home in the cerro than he did in his pueblo home, Clara believed. Each morning by 4 a.m. – often at midnight – he saddled his burro and went into the mountains. The pueblo’s curandero, who often went up into the cerro when the sky was barely turning pale to search for medicinal plants, would sometimes find Eustacio under a tree far off the brecha, asleep beside his grazing burro.
Probably, he would do that tonight after the excitement of the posada died down, and his wife and children were asleep: Nochebuena (Christmas Eve)in the silence of the cerro, under the glimmering wash of mountain stars.