Sometimes it feels like we grew up at the end of an era. Where burros and ox were at the brink of retirement, arroyos and pozos were all but dried up, rocky roads and mountains just literally days away from being reshaped, redeveloped, redefined, and all the while we were oblivious to the changes happening around us. Going to the rancho meant packing our most worn clothes, tennis shoes that were on their last breath before they detached at the sole and created the illusion of having their lenguas fuera every time we lifted our feet off the ground, and preparing to work harder than we ever had to on this side of the border.
It was exhausting, but there really wasn’t anything else quite like it, especially not in our crammed little apartments de este lado. The ox wagons from our text books came to life in El Sauz, usually with my grandfather riding majestically atop them headed to the arroyos with a huge tanque to fill up with clean water, my mother’s stories about grinding fresh corn into nistamal and then into tortillas were happening right before our very eyes, even their anecdotes of how much harder everything was in Mexico became our reality as we made our way back from the pozos where we were collecting water to be warmed over fire with a pail of pond water on each shoulder. I remember thinking “man this is awful… I don’t want to take a bath.”
And a lot of times I didn’t. Instead I’d change my clothes, wipe my face with a wet towel, splash my hair with water and pretend I was clean. Nobody really minded or even noticed because the truth was that a few minutes after we took a bath and changed into something clean we’d be just as dirty once again anyway. Especially us kids who liked to spend most of the day running around the hills of the rancho, laying out on the tan-colored ground underneath trees with exceptionally large branches that were perfect for shade, and just generally getting ourselves into trouble one way or another. Eventually one of my siblings, usually my sisters, would tell mamá how I hadn’t taken a bath in days and she’d force me to grab my two little pails from the cement block kitchen, run down to the pozo and haul back enough water to take a proper bath. In these instances I’d have to heat my own water over the fire myself.
“¡Apúrale! Tienes que bañarte… ¡Apúrale, antes de que agarre un samandoque!
It never got that far. By that time I was usually feeling pretty dirty myself.
Now, that Mexico is no longer there. It is, but it’s changed. In so many ways that it feels the same but at the same time it doesn’t, if that makes any sense. Nobody rides around on an ox-wagon anymore; people don’t carry their own bathing water these days; they have running water and the pozo from our earlier visits is now just a dried up crevice on our side of the rancho; the ride to the pueblo that used to take almost an hour through mountains and difficult-to-tread-roads full of rocks and bumps now only takes about 20 minutes on newly paved streets; there’s a tortilla truck that drives around selling freshly made and warm tortillas de maíz; even televisions and video games have replaced part of the sense of adventure for children in El Sauz, along with cell phones and the Internet which they can access in the pueblo for a few pesos.
I’m reminded of the movie Muriel’s Wedding where the father of the bride kept repeating the line “you can’t stop progress!” It was about something completely unrelated, but for some reason it’s stuck in my mind for years now.
Still, not even “progress” changes everything.
One of the last times I went to Mexico, a few years ago now, I was too lazy to take a bath every day because even though technically we did have running water in my parents’ home, which now has four rooms instead of two, we did still have to heat up the water over fire so that it would be warm enough to tolerate. It was the fall and one thing we still don’t have in El Sauz is a water heater. After a few days of holding out on a shower I couldn’t take it anymore. I myself had to take a bath to be comfortable. “How cold can the water be?” I thought to myself and closed the restroom door behind me determined to take a real quick shower without any warm water. I’d done it before on this side of the border and hadn’t suffered any dire consequences “so how bad could it be?”
Despite my siblings ridiculing and then sincere concern (my younger brother actually came around the house to knock on the restroom window and make sure I hadn’t passed out) I stayed in the restroom and roughed it out in the cold water. More than a few colorful phrases escaped my mouth during the whole five minute ordeal, I’ll tell you that much! I can’t remember when I’ve taken a quicker shower en toda mi vida. I came out of the restroom feeling a little accomplished and more than anything else embarrassed for acting like I didn’t know any better.
You might not be able to stop progress, but, as it turns out, stupidity is pretty unpredictable as well.