An Escuelita and A Funeral
Three phrases were uttered over the past twenty-four hours that, taken together, almost sum up the craziness of those hours. They are below, in chronological order:
“Here’s a belt, so you can hit them when they misbehave.”
“Come to my mom’s house—she died.”
“She pissed on me.”
There you have it. Do you dare try to elaborate the skeleton of those phrases into the fleshed-out story of an entire crazy day? Don’t worry—I’ll attempt to do it for you. So strap in.
Notebook in hand, dangerously-thin rubber flip-flops on my feet, I picked my way through the rocks of Rosi’s yard. She spotted me from her house and came out to greet me. “Ready to sign up some kids?” she asked. I nodded and we set off into the sunny street, already scorching hot at 10:00am. Rosi sprang into action, grabbing any kid she saw and asking them rapid-fire questions: “Would you like to learn to read? How old are you? Are you in school? What grade are you in? Where do your parents live? What’s your first and last name? Can you bring a pencil and notebook at 3:00 this afternoon?” Often the children, some only five or six years old, were shocked into silence by Rosi’s size and energy (both considerable). Eventually we had twenty-two names written down. Each name was connected to a child who wanted to learn how to read and who had committed to showing up to my class that afternoon.
Satisfied with my morning’s success, I returned home for lunch and was met with an odd, vaguely glum feeling in the room. My niece gave me the universal finger-across-the-throat sign and said, “Se murió.” She didn’t think it important enough to tell me who had died. My doña filled in the gap, “Miriam, Anduru’s mom, died. They say it was a headache.” I was kind of shocked, not to mention suspicious (How can someone die from a “headache?”). I had just spoken with Miriam a week or two ago, and she struck me as a friendly, kind, hard-working woman. I ate my lunch and sat around talking with my family, until someone came by the house. “They brought her.”
This simple phrase was a catalyst for action. Everyone got up and rushed over to the house—right down the street from mine. A group of men were already unloading plastic chairs from a truck and building a tent to shade the neighbors who gathered in the road. An older woman, who I realized was Miriam’s mother, was alternating between quiet sobbing and fits of wailing, thrashing, and shouting. During the latter she had to be restrained by relatives. My doña, Margot, had brought a white outfit and rubber gloves with her, and I saw her sneak around the back way, into the house, and shut the door.
After a while, the door opened and Margot emerged and left for her house, peeling off the rubber gloves. She had been “bathing the dead,” basically serving as undertaker to get the body ready for the wake. Everything was ready, so we started filing down the small alley towards the house to pay our respects and view the body. The small, blue, wooden coffin lay in a small, blue, zinc house, with a white candle on either end. Miriam’s five children floated in and out while neighbors tried to comfort them with handshakes and back pats. I made my way up to the head of the coffin and looked through the window installed over the face, said a little prayer, and maneuvered back out. My escuelita was starting soon.
Ten minutes before 3:00, I went to Rosi’s house to let her know I was going to start. The center where I was going to hold class was deserted, so I grabbed the key from the house across the street and got to work setting up the desks. There was no blackboard, but I had my portable whiteboard with me. There were two rows of razor wire laying on the ground, so I built a wall of desks in an attempt to keep the kids from hurting themselves. My students trickled in and by 3:20 there were enough to start. Rosi sat next to me, shouting at the kids to pay attention, take out their notebooks, be quiet, learn. I don’t know what she hoped to accomplish there. Then she handed me a belt. “Here’s a belt, so you can hit them when they misbehave.” I took it, sternly said “No, I don’t do that,” and put it on the ground next to me.
The class, I think, was a success. I started with the basics: A, E, I, O, U, then moved on to syllables with M and P. I had them play a game where they jumped to the correct letter or syllable on the ground. There were a few older kids in the class, somehow, who kept insisting on playing the game or volunteering answers. It was clear they already know how to read and just wanted everyone to know that they knew the right answer. I think I’ll have to kick them out. I wrapped up with a reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (or, La Oruga Muy Hambrienta), sent the kids away, and locked up the center. As long as I keep at it and keep my patience about me, I think this escuelita will be successful.
On my way home, I ran into eleven-year-old Odalis, one of Miriam’s kids. He skidded to a halt next to me and said, “Come to my mom’s house—she died.” I was taken aback by his nonchalance, but recovered and told him I was there this morning but I would come later. “Okay, see you there. We’re making guandules!” He ran off, and I went home. At the house, my family was all crowded into our back patio. Orange faces grinned up at me, and I spotted the reason for their happiness—a plastic bag full of mangoes. Margot washed three for me and I sat down to de-stress in the sweetness of the fruits. At one point my neighbor called me, surely about practicing English, but I let it ring. Everything else could wait—it was mango time.
I went over to my neighbor’s house to practice English. We went through different forms of irregular verbs. Afterwards I came home, ate dinner, and read. While Margot was getting ready to go to the wake (“velorio”), I was sitting on the porch watching two kids play checkers. My little niece Puchita was fussing on the ground, so I picked her up and bounced her on my knee for a bit. Then I noticed it. My leg was warm. I slowly lifted the child and saw what I dreaded—a round, dark, wet spot. I retreated to my room, changed clothes for the velorio (for a second time), and reemerged. “Why’d you change your clothes?” one of the kids asked me. I scowled, pointed at Puchita, and said “She pissed on me.”
Margot finished getting ready and we left for the velorio. There were a lot more people there now. Two or three domino tables had appeared and the clanking of the tiles filled the air as we went down the alley to the house. Again I went in, looked at the body, comforted relatives, and left. I sat with Margot near the door. People I knew and didn’t know came down the alley to pay their respects, some greeting us with “Saludos,” others shaking my hand or squeezing my arm. It felt strange to be so close to the body and the family at a wake for someone I barely knew. The hushed voices of the event were punctuated by the shouts, wails, and loud bangs coming from Miriam’s mother and sister, who were mourning in the room adjacent to the coffin. I was not wild about sitting in silence with people I didn’t know for three hours. But here it is very important to “cumplir” with big life events; when a baby is born, when someone is sick, and when someone dies, everyone is expected to visit. So I stayed until around 11:00pm, when people started stacking the chairs and trickling out.
The funeral was the next morning. The hearse arrived a little before 10:00, and the coffin was carried up the alley and loaded in. Miriam’s mother and sister followed, each collapsing with grief in a chair in the street. The door was closed, and the hearse started forward, slowly. Then, without warning, it rocketed backward, lurching a few feet at a time. People shouted and jumped out of the way, and a little girl got knocked to the ground. Nobody was hurt, but everyone was surprised and angry. After that mishap the hearse started forward again. Inch by inch it made its way to the cemetery, followed by a crowd of sweating people on foot and motorcycles.
When we got to the cemetery, everyone rushed down to the grave. It seemed shallow, but I later learned that it was on top of another coffin. The light blue box was carefully lowered into the rocky ground as Miriam’s children stood at the side of the hole, crying. Nobody said anything, and there was no music. When the coffin was settled, everyone started throwing dirt onto it. Margot turned and said, “I don’t believe in that. Come on.” But my sister-in-law grabbed my arm and said urgently, “Brendan. Throw some dirt.” So I grabbed a handful, tossed it down, and left with the rest of my family.
As soon as I got home I went straight to the latrine to bathe off the sweat, grave dirt, and stress of the past twenty-four hours.