Monday, March 5, 2012

The Shoes Off His Feet

One of the things that makes my skin crawl is bigotry. The current political discourse (if one can so dignify the racist, sexist, religionist and elitist babble) is so rife with it that it compromises the dignity of the electoral process. Particularly offensive to me are the attacks on women, the poor, and illegal immigrants, the segments of our society least able to defend themselves and most in need of cultural support and understanding.

I am a woman and I’ve worked side by side with men, doing the same jobs better, and gotten paid half as much. I’ve been poor in my life, and gone without medical and dental care, without educational opportunities, sometimes without hope. And I’ve traveled enough to know how difficult it is to be a stranger in a strange land and to be grateful for the smallest show of kindness from a citizen of another culture.

It’s gotten me thinking about some of those incidents that are what, as they say, makes travel broadening. In particular, I have been recalling the 4000-mile odyssey my friend Javier and I took a few years ago, from one end of Mexico to the other. We were on the road for over three weeks and met many people who welcomed us and helped us in unusual and sometimes extraordinary ways. For example, the cabbie of whom we asked directions, in Mexico City; he was so concerned that we find the right road that he led us for 10 miles through the beastly traffic of that vast city, to our exit. Or the men who poured off the sidewalk in some nameless village, to push our stalled car and then to stand with Javier, with their heads under the hood, until the problem was fixed. Or the old Indian woman who prayed over us in the Colonial period chapel of one of the few haciendas to survive the burnings of the Revolution.

But of all of the experiences of that long and mysterious journey, one incident is outstanding. It began because Javier was in search of a pair of sandals like the ones worn by indigenous people, made from strips of leather and soled in tire tread. As we traveled, we searched every outdoor market, every indoor market, every low-end shoe store. We found huraches by the dozens, but not the particular, very simple sandal that Javier wanted.

Then one day, in a little village on the outskirts of Guanajuato, Javier spotted a pair of the sandals – except that they happened to be on someone’s feet. He hurried up to this person, to ask where he had gotten them. I wish that I could provide a photo of this man for you, but I was too stunned by his appearance to think of my camera.

This man was huge. In his prime he must have stood well over six and a half feet. And he had the massive skeleton of some primeval beast, the kind of thing you see in a museum of paleontology – a sabre toothed tiger or a giant sloth. A kind of Anthony Quinn on steroids.

The only thing was, he was bent almost double at the waist, obviously the victim of some kind of back injury. Javier and I debated it later. I thought he might have worked his entire life in the mines of that area, the same ones that drew the Spaniards there in the 16th century and in which they enslaved the indigenous people. Javier favored the idea that he was a farmer who had spent his years bent over a hoe.

He had hands the size of a catcher’s mitt, gnarled and grimed with use, and he was dressed in the poorest of clothing, the tattered white cotton pants and shirt of the Mexican peasant. And on his massive, calloused feet were the elusive, long-sought sandals. He was, in all, like a massive and ancient oak tree, twisted, rough as bark, broken and healed from winds and weathers and years of patient endurance. He was an icon of the labors that the indigenous peoples of Mexico have endured since the Conquest; a monument to hard work and dignity. I felt a strong desire to fall at his feet and weep.

Meanwhile, Javier was plying him with questions about his sandals and the man was answering in a Spanish so deep, so close to a growl, that I couldn’t understand it. Finally, Javier shook the man’s hand. He held it in two of his own for a long moment, and he bowed slightly over it, in respect. When Javier came from the shade of the arcade out into the street where I stood waiting, he had a strange look in his eyes.

 “What happened?” I asked. “Did he tell you where to find the sandals?”

“He made the sandals, himself,” Javier replied. “I asked him if he had any more like them, at home, but he said no. And then,” Javier’s eyes brimmed with tears, “he offered to give me the sandals. To just take them off his feet and give them to me. Can you imagine?” I looked toward the arcade. There, his massive back laboring under the effort to walk, went the simple man whose heart was a huge as the rest of him.

Eventually, we found a pair of sandals in a bin of handmade shoes in an indoor market in Guanajuato. Javier was thrilled. He wore them throughout the remainder of our journey. When we got to the ruins of Tula, the thousand year old Toltec capital, we discovered that the monumental warrior figures were wearing the same sandals. The huge warrior columns reminded us of the great man who had offered us the shoes from off his feet.

That’s the Mexico I know, where the poorest people are the most gracious, the most welcoming and the most generous. When I hear politicians demeaning Mexican immigrants, my blood boils. I wonder, if I were to inquire about their shoes, if any one of them would offer them to me. Somehow, I doubt it.

No comments: