“Where do you throw the garbage?”
“Let me show you”
I held the plastic bucket full of trash and walked with Ben’s older sister to the backyard and she took the bucket from me and tossed the contents down hill into the river behind the house.
That was one of the eye-opening parts of my vacation in Veracruz. We had just arrived from the airport and I was introduced to her in Ben’s mom’s kitchen, so I thought I’d make myself useful. She was making food for that night’s meal.
I mean, I knew that Ben’s family lived in a poor, rural area, but I had no idea how poor they were/are. There is a difference between Veracruz the state, and Veracruz, the port city. The former is the entire state, which includes poor, rural areas like the neighborhood Ben grew up in; the latter is the oldest port city in Mexico and is a tourist attraction.
We spent most of our time with Ben’s family in the rural area, and a few nights in the city. It’s about 3 hours away by car. I’m choosing to focus on Ben’s neighborhood, because anyone can easily find online details of Veracruz, the city. Please excuse the cell phone photos, I packed light.
The name of the neighborhood that Ben came from, and where his mother and siblings and their extended family currently live, is called Monte Alto. Which I thought strange since there is no mountain close by at all. But then Ben explained that the “Monte” part is referring to the grass, which is “Alto” (tall in English.) It is a larger area known as “Carlos A. Carillo”. There is another area close by called Cosamaloapan, which has a grocery store where most if not all people from Monte Alto do their grocery shopping.
Everybody literally knows most everybody else, so I guess I was the big “chisme” or gossip news. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming. And the street were Ben lived consisted almost entirely of immediate and extended family as neighbors, most of whom would nod and smile at the very least, or who would chat for a couple of minutes to tell of the latest chismes, or gossip. We did a lot of to and from the grocery store, and ran into many of Ben’s relatives/neighbors.
This entire neighborhood circles a huge sugar cane field. The streets do not have sidewalks, and very few street lights. The streets have no names. It is a somewhat muddy place, with wild rabbits, snakes, brown doves in most trees, and other animals that live within the sugar cane fields and on people’s properties. It is eerily foggy over the fields in the morning, but on most days, it soon blows off and reveals warm, sunny weather. The brown doves are like pigeons, but smaller and more delicate looking, but with very distinct calls and coos.
Once a year the fields are burned to harvest and the burnt canes are loaded into many large vehicles to the factory nearby to be processed into different sugars and syrups. Most of the people from this neighborhood are employed by the sugar cane factory in some form.
The houses are simple concrete squares painted usually in pastel colors, but when you look closely, you can see that they are not neat, with paint chips and cracks, and the cement sloppily applied in areas. Most could use major repair.
Each house usually has a water well fitted with a pump, but it usually isn’t very strong, and there is no septic system for most houses, so all of the waste empties into the river behind the houses, which is also where the garbage goes. Growing up, Ben lived in a 2 bedroom house with 8 other people, which probably partly explained why he left home before age 18.
One day I went net fishing on a small boat with Ben, his cousin, and his brother. I wish I had pictures of this, but I didn’t want to risk losing my phone or getting it wet. Even though we did catch about a dozen small fish, the boat capsized and I fell over backwards into the water and in so doing, swallowed a whole bunch of muddy river water. Thankfully, this was in another area where Ben’s brother assured me that the sewage from houses does not go directly into. I chose not to question him further on this, for my own piece of mind. Amazingly, I did not get sick!
The second eye-opener occurred on New Year’s Eve. One of Ben’s cousins’ daughter, about 15 or 16, was kidnapped and held for several hours. Little is known about the kidnappers, other than they may have retrieved personal information on the family of Ben’s cousin, and initially threatened to harm the mother and father in order to get the daughter to go with them, and then threatened to harm the daughter if the parents did not pay them.
The whole kidnapping and release took several hours, starting from early afternoon to about 8pm. It was surreal. It almost seemed like nothing had happened. The family, including the daughter visited most of the people in the neighborhood that night after she was returned.
I did not want to doubt the daughter, but I felt it odd that she seemed unshaken and was talking to her friends on her phone that night after she was released. But then I thought that if she placed importance and received gratification through friendships on social media like a typical teen, then why wouldn’t she be doing that? She was just doing what comforted her during an undoubtedly rough time. The parents were in tears the entire time they hung out with us when they came to visit Ben’s mother. But it was a little surreal that the whole event happened in one afternoon and was over by 8, and everyone, including the family involved, was celebrating the new year. Maybe that was what they thought was best to do. A lot of questions remain about this event, and we were not able to get any answers.
The sugar cane factory nearby emits much smoke into the sky, which is disturbing, although it did make for beautifully hazy sunsets.
Environmental racism is the idea that it is somehow acceptable for poor people, mostly people of color, to live near things that damage their air and water. That the products from the factories they work in are more valuable than their health and well-being. This is environmental racism.
I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, other than it shocked me. I did not expect to experience a kidnapping of someone nearby. I did not expect to see such poverty. It was admittedly hard for me to deal with using the bathroom and having to throw toilet paper into a trash bin, but in light of other things, me not dealing well with using the bathroom is small potatoes.
I think what I wanted to stress was that although what I described might sound sad or bleak, the time spent with the people I met here made for one of the most satisfying vacations I’ve had in a long time. Everyone was so welcoming.
There were no barriers between people here, unlike in the city where if I asked for clarification from someone such as a hotel worker or waitperson at a fancy restaurant, they looked irritated as though I was pretending to not be a native Spanish speaker. What I’ve noticed is that there is a sort of attitude going on where the people employed as service workers are usually brown like me, and their typical patronage are of European descent, and so when they see another brown person who looks Latino, they think that they must be a Spanish speaker and can’t possibly not know how to speak or understand Spanish completely. At Monte Alto, there was no attitude of that sort.
The Spanish language skills I thought I had was actually really bad Spanglish that Ben had dealt with for over 12 years! It wasn’t cutting it, but all were very understanding and accommodating. Part of me wished that we had more time to spend with them, and possibly to help them make major improvements in Ben’s mom’s house and the other houses. Spending more time with them to help improve their living conditions would be a start, but it still wouldn’t be enough. But that’s what Ben and I will do in the next year, hopefully.
There was a screw up with the car rental where the rental company adamantly refused to honor the reservation me made online for a van that seats 7. They were quite rude about it. So, as a result, with just a four-seat sedan, we did not get to go on outings with the mom and the family as initially planned. But we dealt with that okay. So, a tip for people planning to travel to small, rural areas: Don’t try to reserve a car or van beforehand online, apparently they really don’t like that, you’ll have better luck finding a car or van of your choice once you get to the airport and work with one of the many car rental places there!
Ben’s mother, sisters, and brothers were happy and willing to open their house and hearts to me. And I found out where Ben got his cooking skills and recipes–all the food was amazing!