As the saying goes, ¨You don´t know what you´ve got ´til it´s gone¨. Anyone who has done mission work in Latin America can appreciate that saying. For those who have not been to a Latin American country, I thought it would be interesting to give you a description of my new hometown and life here.
Buenavista de Cuéllar, located in the north part of Guerrero, Mexico is a picturesque town of about 12,688 people according to the 2010 census. It is the main municipality for many of the surrounding villages. It does have electricity (albeit outages are quite common) and a distribution system of potable water, however it is not suggested for cooking or drinking. The water is stored in large polyurethane tanks called tinacos on the top of each house. Water is distributed 2 or 3 times a week and people do run out of water in between days. There is cable TV, telephone service (landline and cell) and a rudimentary sewage system. Sewage is dumped into ravines at the edge of town. Cooking is done with bottled gas. Most houses do not have hot water and bathing is often in cold water and not necessarily via shower but rather bucket. Most folks wash clothes by hand. There are washing machines available but the average household income does not allow such luxuries. The washing of clothes and dishes in most of the older houses is done on a cement washboard style sink that has a small holding tank for water right next to it. The newer houses most likely have faucet sinks. We do have a faucet sink but we wash clothes by hand on a cement washboard that I described above until just recently when we purchased a washing machine. No air conditioning or heating systems.
Most of the original houses in the town are made of adobe….mud and straw bricks. Newer constructions are cement and block. Wood is very expensive here so windows, doorways, doors etc. are usually metal. Asbestos sheets, tin sheets or terra cotta tiles are used in many houses for the roof. Newer houses have a cement roof. There are some very beautiful homes here but they were built with money from family in the States that sent money back, or with funds gained illicitly.
Employment is a problem here. There are only 3 sewing maquiladoras (assembly plants) left here in town. There were a few more and collectively they employed several thousand people. Plants were closed and the work sent to China. The three small factories that remain sew dress pants and jeans for some of the major brands in the States and in Europe. Pay is less than one dollar an hour and the work week is 6 days not 5. Those who don’t work in these small factories either work in the growing of tomatoes or the raising of cattle. Many people make and sell cheese from the milk or sell the cattle to the butcher shops. Other folks work as sandal and leather goods craftsman.
There are many needs here but the needs in the surrounding small villages are more urgent. Poverty, with all its accompaniments is prevalent in these smaller villages. Buenavista with its obvious needs would not be classified as poor. Several years ago when our language school was operational, we did a lot of work to assist a small school for handicapped kids here in town. Unfortunately in many areas, handicapped people are shunned and not included in society. There is a teenager with Down Syndrome living two doors down from me and I never knew he existed until I saw him in the window the other day. It took many years before the small school for handicapped individuals opened up here in town. Through the generosity of our Spanish language school students, we were able to get school supplies to the kids, do some minor building repairs for them and purchase a stove for the staff to cook for the kids. Money was also secured to help with the remodeling of the local Roman Catholic Church rectory.
Since the economic crisis and the worsening security situation with the drug cartels, language schools have had a decrease in enrollments. Our school and another long established language school here in town closed. Our building still exists because it is actually part of our house. The school occupies the second level of the house. The school has 6 bedrooms, (3 individual and 3 double. The individual bedrooms have a compact private bath. The others share a bath in another building. We have two rooms for classes with a kitchen area for snacks etc. There are public bathrooms for men and women. And yes, we do have hot water! We have a large outdoor patio/common area. Everything is pretty basic, not fancy.
Even though I speak the language and am used to the culture, it still was difficult to adapt to life here and I am still working on it. Speaking strictly as a spoiled American, nothing here is easy and there are many inconveniences. Access to many of the goods and services that I was used to just don’t exist here. The locals take everything in stride and I am learning to do that as well. Our street just got water back two days ago after not having water for two weeks. Fortunately we had built a large holding tank because of the school, so we had water and shared with some neighbors. Purified bottled water is used for drinking and cooking.
Buenavista has come a long way in the past ten years. There have been many improvements that I would say are because this town is now home to St. David Uribe Velasco. His skeletal remains are displayed in a class case here inside the church of San Antonio de Padua. If the town hopes to attract visitors, improvements are needed. Perhaps the most difficult thing for me to adapt to is the mentality of the people here. The prevailing thought here is, and my apologies for this remark, “screw unto others before they screw you”. Not what you would expect from a town that has a canonized saint as one of their own! Many folks are out to get what they can from you; something that you could accept and expect if you were in a Third World country. As I have been often told, Mexico in general is about 200 years behind the United States in social attitude and modern thinking. In the rural and indigenous villages they are further behind. I have not learned the art of hypocrisy that is so prevalent here in this town. My challenge is to covertly replace hypocrisy with Christian charity.
There are many positives here as well and I am glad to be here. I know God has a plan. Everything is a question of “getting used to it” and realizing there is always more than just the American way of doing things. There is a very definite need in this area to help people to be new Catholics and realize that God is a loving, all compassionate God and not the fire and brimstone God that they always hear about. This type of God works well with the older generation; that’s all they know and the path to heaven for them is only through suffering…..no pain, no gain. For the younger generation, however, this approach is incoherent and many have simply walked away. They are Catholic (Roman) if you ask them, and they wear rosary beads around their neck, some may participate in religious processions etc. but their Catholicism is really a matter of national identity and not an expression of their faith.
Bishop Tom Shortell, OSFC, D.Min. is the Bishop Ordinary for Mexico for the United American Catholic Church and currently resides in Guerrero, Mexico.