Christie Shary

Traveler's Tales - Sunday in the Pueblo

Sunday in the Pueblo

High in Mexico's Sierra de Pachuca mountains, in a land kissed with sunshine, barrel cactus, maguey and ocotillo, lies the Otomi village of Catamaye. "Singing Hills," they call this place-the land where these indigenous people have dwelled for centuries.

We journey up the rutted road in our new van. It is beyond the Valle de Mezquital, and barely more than a donkey path and seems to climb the steep mountainside to heaven. The sky is a stark, deep blue; the rocky soil unfit for farmers' wooden plows.

Several goats scamper across the hillside before us. They are guided by a serape-wrapped mother and her young son, who carries a large crooked stick. A young couple bends at the roadside, their baby bundled on his mother's back in a dull-gray rebozo. They cultivate the barren soil, fill it with a few stark maguey plants, probably hoping for a winter's supply of pulque, the fermented drink which too-often eases their people's sorrow.

Reaching the pueblo, we find mud-floor, doorless houses made of stones. Others are built of palm fronds and surrounded by cactus fences. A tiny, crumbling church stands in the dusty village square, and a rusted bell hangs from its steeple. There is no water save but one well, barely enough to quench the thirst of the villagers and to provide water for their cooking pots. We are very aware by this time that we are about to witness the cruel face of poverty first-hand.

Soon the church bell echoes across the valley and announces our arrival. It isn't long before the villagers arrive, their black eyes wide. Skinny sun-stained children coated in dirt run to greet us first. The wear sideless shoes tied to their feet, which are hardened by cactus thorns. Their hair is snarled, noses runny. They smell of sweat, urine, the smoke of cooking fires. My husband and I both look at each other, realizing how hopeless their condition is-of how much help they need.

The older villagers also come forward, but more cautiously. They seem unsure of our blue eyes and my blond hair, our shiny new van. But still they smile as they surround us and gawk at our laden car, probably wondering what's inside.

An old toothless man in a squashed straw hats comes up to me when I get out. He nods his head in greeting, and we both nod back and smile. He watches as we open the rear of the van to display rice, beans, cooking oil and clothing, along with toys and candy for the children. He smiles when he sees the contents, and the children jump up and down as we remove a bright pink and purple pi–ata from a large plastic bag tied to the luggage rack. It seems to out of place in this dull, almost lifeless landscape.

Two blind brothers lead each other to the vehicle, their arms interlocked. A toddler, crippled and unable to walk upright, crawls in an a-frame fashion across the dirt, his large brown eyes staring at us. A filthy little girl resembling a discarded Raggedy Ann, reaches for my hand and I accept hers.

We begin to pass out our supplies as the crowd grows. A young girl with velvet eyes smiles shyly when we give her a hot pink sweatshirt. Her tiny brother wears a white sweater, hardened with dirt. It falls apart in my hands as I remove it and replace it with a sunshine yellow top. His older sister puts on her heart-splattered new socks, black leather boots and multi-colored skirt and blouse. She giggles and twirls like Cinderella in the dust.

A child with cheeks bright as cranberries clings to her new pink bunny, a green toothbrush, refusing to let go of the flower-filled wrapping paper. Her adolescent brother proudly holds his first pair of Levis, even though they are frayed at the bottom. Their mother clutches a new red plastic comb as she holds her baby to her breast, now wrapped in a new blue shawl. Her husband puts a Ram's baseball cap atop his black, shaggy hair and smiles as he shuffles across the dirt in new Reeboks much too large. The face of their blind toddler glows as he stars blankly at his musical teddy bear when it sings, It's a Small World to him.

We watch as the children play in the dirt with their new toys, and eat donuts and drink cans of warm pop. Their parents collect food from the back of our van, knowing that at least for several nights, their cooking pots will be full.

But we notice that our pile is dwindling. Why didn't we bring more? Why can't we take these villagers all home and make them a bubble bath of hot water, scrub them until they become rosy red? We want to prepare them plates of food overflowing with rice, beans and meat, and put them to bed beneath down comforters.

But, at the same time, we know they belong in Catemaye, here in the 'Singing Hills," with the souls of their ancestors. They could not survive in 'our world.'

We pose for a group picture before we depart. Both our eyes are filled with tears, and I clutch my dog, Lucky, more tightly. I think of my own children who are away at college, so fortunate and cared for. I turn and look at the children one more time and give them last-minute hugs, wondering which ones will be here in Catameye the next time we return.

But we knew we would come. We would come over and over again to bring at least a little bit of hope to this mountaintop village in the only way we knew how.