Journeys of Heart in Mexico
by Joy Pople
When the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church,
asked for volunteers to help with youth ministries overseas, and I was
assigned to Mexico.
It wasn't until the airplane started descending that I began to get
cold feet. Mexico isn't that far away from the United States. Hey, a flight
from New York to Mexico City takes less time than a flight to California.
Our countries share a border and a river. I had studied Spanish. I wasn't
going that far away.
I arrived in Mexico in the spring of 1975 with a thousand dollars in my
pocket, to be used in case of emergency. I would need to work to meet most
living expenses. And in Mexico, if you can speak English, you can earn enough
money to survive by giving English classes.
You cannot go to Mexico without being assaulted by many new sights, sounds,
smells and tastes. About one fifth of the 60,000,000 inhabitants of Mexico
live in the capital, and that was my destination. Since I assumed I would
be there for several years, if not the rest of my life, I wanted to plunge in.
It seemed like a plunge. In mid-May the weather is hot and dry,
and the atmosphere is polluted. At 7,000 feet above sea level, oxygen is
sparse. Nestled in a mountain basin, where little air circulates, and being
home to an oil refinery and untold thousands of cars with no emission controls,
Mexico City has few equals around the world in poor air quality.
My German companion, Sylvia, had arrived a few days earlier. She had rented
a room a few blocks from the tourist area. It was a ground-floor room with no
window. The adjacent bathroom had a toilet stool with a shower head immediately
above it. No sink. Whole families lived in rooms like ours that lined the
narrow courtyard. The children stared at us. The women found us amusing.
Sylvia had bought some lovely-looking green peppers at the market
and decided to cook them for me to eat along with some fresh tortillas,
to celebrate my arrival. A neighbor let us use her charcoal brazier. Our
faces turned red and sweat poured down our forehead as we chewed. Later we
learned that the veins of the chili peppers contain most of the aromatic
oils, and if you clean out the veins before you cook them, the chilis don't
burn quite as much. We learned a lot of things the hard way, by experience.
We were willing to go almost anywhere and try almost any kind of food.
The women in the markets were delighted to tell us the names of exotic
fruits and vegetables, give us samples, and tell us how to cook or serve
them. It takes an entire year to experience the whole array of tropical
bounty. Of all the fruits, mangos were my favorite. Fresh off the tree out
in a village. Lush piles of yellow, orange or reddish-green fruits in the
market. Juice dripping down your chin. Cool in the hottest of days.
We stayed for a while with a Japanese family, and I gave the children
English lessons to help pay rent. Our third companion in mission was a Japanese
man named Sato. If people from three formerly enemy nations can get along,
there is hope for world unity. The three of us had our ups and downs.
We lived in an apartment building where washing is done at sinks on the
roof and hung up on clotheslines. Being an American, I like to do things
efficiently. Therefore, I would fill buckets with water and put my clothes
in them, on the theory that it is less difficult to get the dirt out if you
pre-soak the clothes. However, all the other women would wet each piece,
rub soap on it, scrub it, and then rinse it before going on to the next
piece. One old woman constantly criticized me: "Didn't your mother teach you
how to wash?" After observing things for a while, I learned that people paid
this woman to do their wash. When I started paying her to wash clothes for
me on occasion, she stopped criticizing me.
I love music. Mexicans love music. Their traditional ranchero music
is similar to American country music in its rhythms and tales of lost or
betrayed love. Sylvia plays guitar, and she kept talking about wanting a
guitar. We asked our Heavenly Father for a guitar and at one point, we had
five-none of them much good-and Sylvia taught me some basic chord cycles.
We learned to play Mexican music, and with my guitar and a repertoire of
two Beatles songs, I was welcome at any party.
An American in Mexico runs into puzzling situations. There seems to be
a mixture of admiration, envy and resentment for Americans. I remember in
high school reading about the Mexican-American war of 1848 as a kind of
interlude between our westward expansion and the Civil War, our heroes the
valiant men who defended the Alamo against hopeless odds. Mexicans learn
about the various times the United States military invaded Mexico.
I would get so frustrated when I saw Mexicans adopting some of the
worst aspects of our popular culture. Visible evidence was the emulation
of Saturday Night Fever styles of dress and talking. I would think of the
American proverb: "You cannot keep the birds from flying over your head,
but you can keep them from building nests in your hair." Translations of
that proverb were not very favorably received.
Mexico is a land of abundance. Its geographic shape has been likened to
a horn of plenty. It has bountiful resources of food, minerals, climate,
and people. Mexicans blame their economic woes on the United States, but
when a recent Mexican president left office after his six-year term, he was
the sixth richest person in the world.
I couldn't make up for all the wrongs committed by my country. All I could
do was offer a listening ear, a caring heart, and a hand of service. One
meets a lot of beggars in Mexico. I gave people food. I collected clothes
and bedding for people who came knocking at our door. But I seldom handed
out money. A friend wanted me to meet his sister, who was in need of some
guidance or counseling. We showed up at her house, much to her surprise,
around mealtime. She fed us the stuffed chili peppers she had prepared for
her children's meal, much to my dismay.
When an American or European tries to give advice in Mexico it is often
dismissed with the comment, "Oh, that works in an advanced country such
as yours, but it wouldn't work here." However, Mexicans do admire the
Japanese. Japan never invaded Mexico and at that point did not exert a
major economic influence on the country, so the roots of resentment are
not so strong. When Japan wanted to end its centuries-old isolation it sent
emissaries around the world to observe the best aspects of each culture, which
could then be adapted by the Japanese. Japan rose out of the destruction of
war to become a major world power. Mexico could also.
We visited churches and schools. We talked to people on the streets and
in the parks, asking them if they were interested in talking about God.
Some were. Some weren't. We gave lectures and held seminars on the Divine
Principle, a systematic study of the nature of God and the universe that
encompasses three main topics: the way God envisioned the world, how things
went wrong, and how God has been working throughout history to restore the
Few young people knew very much about the Bible. They were interested
in learning to know us, and they invited us to their home villages to meet
their families. However, the idea of applying spiritual principles in daily
life seemed pretty foreign to many young people.
Some of the most serious-minded young people we met were martial arts
practitioners, and Sylvia and I enrolled at a taekwon-do school. We engaged
in spiritual and physical training and discipline. Among the students and
professors we found people who could grasp the vision of a life of sacrificial
love and service for God, for the nation, and for humankind.
We reached out to both Catholics and Protestants in a country there is
little communication between the two versions of Christianity. I became close
friends with a Jesuit priest, Padre Carlos. He had spent years of missionary
work with the Tarahuamara Indians in northern Mexico His experiences there
were the high point of his spiritual life, and it broke his heart to be
reassigned to the capital. Padre Carlos asked me to help with a project in a
poor section of the capital, where he and several families who were involved
in the Catholic charismatic movement hoped to spark a difference in the lives
of the people. I was asked to offer some English conversation classes and lead
and lead an evening song and prayer service. With some of the women, I went
door to door explaining about the school and inviting children and families
to participate. Sylvia and I had collected various simple songs and choruses,
some of Catholic origin and others from Protestant churches, which I taught
those who came. We would read Bible passages and pray, both recited prayers
and spontaneous prayers. I was so moved by the earnestness of the people.
Sometimes I stayed with one of the families who were spearheading the
community efforts. I offered to cook an American-style dinner for one
family. They were delighted. I realized I had nearly forgotten how to cook
American food. The first year I was in Mexico I ate whatever was available
and got sick about once a week, until my body adjusted. However, after four
years a bout with hepatitis seemed to indicate that it was time to return
to the United States.
Sixteen years after returning to the United States, one of my most vivid
memories is a trip with a Baptist evangelist to Chiapas, a state in southern
Mexico. Emilio traveled from village to village selling Bibles and showing
filmstrips of the life of Jesus. He invited me to join him and his family
on a trip over the Easter break. Having a gringa along would be a drawing
card for getting people to attend the gatherings. I had my guitar, as usual,
and taught people simple choruses. Sometimes, as we were walking towards
the meeting place, Emilio would say, "It's your turn to speak tonight." I
would look at the roomful of faces lit up by the single electric light bulb
hanging from the ceiling and talk in a simple way about our Heavenly Father,
who created the world out of love and who sent His son Jesus out of love
for us. The audiences were attentive, but I wondered how many of the people
understood my American-accented Spanish.
Traveling with people offers an unequaled opportunity to learn to know
them more deeply. Emilio and his family took me to villages not found on
any map. At Emilio's home village, where we spent Easter, people lived in
mud-brick houses. We sat on sections of tree trunks and slept on woven cord
mats suspended from four posts.
I met Emilio's mother and several of her children, as well as his sister
and her children. The children were pale, thin and listless. In contrast,
Emilio's three children were chubby, bright and energetic. Emilio's wife
bought food at the market and prepared it for her children, who ate while
their cousins stood with empty eyes in a circle around them.
I had nothing to offer the people but my efforts and heart. Each morning
I made tortillas for the day. It would take a couple of hours to shape the
tortillas, pound them flat and even between the palms of my hands, and cook
them just so on the round tin sheet balanced over a wood fire. A properly
cooked tortilla has a thin skin on top and bottom, with a thicker core. The
women and children watched me shape and cook one tortilla after another. If
it wasn't exactly round, I had to re-shape it.
On Easter Sunday, someone bought a scrawny chicken, cut it up into nineteen
pieces, and cooked it in a watery broth. I will never forget the eyes of the
village children as they looked at the one precious cube of meat and bone that
was their holiday treat. As the honored guest, I was served two pieces of meat.
The drive back to Mexico City took about 16 hours. Emilio was exhausted,
so I did most of the driving. Three adults, three children, a teenager
returning to school in the city, and a puppy filled the medium-sized car.
As midnight approached, our road wound up the escarpment from the
semi-tropical seacoast of Mexico to the dry central highlands. Perched on
the border between the two climates is Mexico's highest mountain, the Pico de
Orizaba. An extinct volcano capped with eternal snow, the Pico de Orizaba is
usually shrouded in fog and clouds. I was at the wheel, the only person awake
in the car, when suddenly, rounding a bend, I saw the shimmering splendor of
the Pico de Orizaba emerge in the moonlight. I pulled the car off the road and
walked over to the edge of the lookout, to absorb the awesome sight. It was as
if I was alone, facing God, the Creator and eternal loving Parent. Clouds and
fog, often of our own making, obstruct our view of Him many times. Still God
is always near, watching, waiting, longing to embrace all His children.