OK, I'LL ADMIT IT: I FELL IN LOVE. Like so many others before me, I came to Mexico to be a missionary, to serve the poor, to make a difference, to bring the Good News of Jesus. Sounds holy doesn’t it? So what happened? I fell in love. How could I not? He’s a real heartbreaker, and it was love at first sight.
Let me tell you about him. His name is Zacarías, and I’ll confess, he is a little young for me. But when he smiles, he lights up the world. The usual clichés, right?
What you need to know is that Zacarías, born to an abusive, alcoholic mother, is a survivor. Deprived of sufficient nutrition before and after his birth, Zacarías is also developmentally delayed. At 10 years old, his life consists of selling Chiclets on streetcorners, doing cartwheels at stop lights to “entertain" drivers in hopes of earning a few pesos, or coming to our drop-in center for street kids. Zacarías has known very little tenderness and genuine care. He is skeptical of fickle attention, and at first resisted any show of affection. Now he eagerly receives and gives warm hugs. Officially I’m his teacher at the center. Unofficially, Zacarías is all mine, and I love him for it. He’s also one of my guides to this new missionary life I lead.
When I left the United States more than three years ago, I was given a poster that reads, “Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion is to take off our shoes, for the place we are approaching is holy. Else we find ourselves treading on another’s dream. More serious still, we may forget that God was present before our arrival." The author of these words, Raymond Hammer, was right. And I was wrong. I initially came here to fix, to help, to offer my expertise. My approach was something less than what Hammer urges, but fortunately I have been blessed along the way with guides who have helped reshape my attitude, my way of being present. These guides are the very people I came to serve. The beggars on the street, struggling to survive, make the best teachers. Zacarías is just one of them.
Because I cannot give them the pesos they’re looking for, I usually spend some time getting to know them. From our first encounter on, I greet them by name and share a moment or two in conversation. One day I encountered Señor Emiliano, at least 80, doubled over from arthritis and begging just to gain enough for his daily bread. I remarked on the warmth of the sun on our otherwise chilly day. His quick response was, “Yes, Sister, the sun is the blanket of the poor." Humbled, I walked away with that day’s lesson.
Another teacher of mine is José Luis, a man with physical and mental disabilities who plays his toy drum for those who might drop a peso in his beat-up coffee can. He told me that while often he simply begs for money, he would rather play his drum and offer a little music to those who pass by, brightening their day.
Maria Carmen, mother of 11 children and grandmother of 4, is 40 years old, though she appears well over 60. She speaks fluent Hñähñu, the dialect of her indigenous tribe, but finds it difficult to sell her beautifully hand-embroidered cloths unless she can communicate well with other Mexicans. This was her motivation to learn to read and write Spanish at our center.
Like Carmen, several other women here are at a preschool level of education, never having set foot in school as young girls. Their fathers thought it a waste of money. It is my delight to teach them, though it isn’t always easy. Sometimes their pride gets in the way; sometimes the attitude of other Mexicans is an obstacle. The indigenous are highly discriminated against in Mexico. There are Mexicans who cannot understand why I would waste my time working with those who, as they see it, are lazy and dirty and only want a handout.
But others reach out in compassion. Daily I walk to one of the finest restaurants in the city where the owner gives me the bread left from the evening before. Sometimes the bread doesn’t make it all the way to the center, especially if I encounter one of my “teachers" or a family begging along my route. At daily Mass I pray with others, “Give us this day our daily bread." I am humbled to be a part of the answer to that prayer for many of my brothers and sisters here.
Yet bread addresses only some of the needs. In this large city of Querétaro, many of the indigenous live in what are known as vecindades, Mexico’s version of city slums, in which families rent a room. By U.S. standards, the rent is a small amount of money, but for them it means choosing between a roof and food. In the vecindades, the residents share a single toilet and water spigot with some 10 to 15 other rooms. Sometimes for lack of resources, several families share a room, meaning that up to 30 people use the same toilet. I am told that this is the way it is, that I should get used to it. But I want to do something about this. I want to scream and argue for their rights. I want to change the whole system that keeps them in wretched conditions.
My resident’s visa restricts me from being involved in politics, however, so I cannot personally challenge this government to make the necessary changes. I find this limiting and frustrating. What is my mission, after all? My own religious congregation’s mission calls me to stand with the poor in their search for justice.
In a small way, though, I’m able to seek a fraction of justice by helping Maria Guadalupe and Rosario, both widows. They are seeking legal help so as not to lose the land designated as inheritance for their children. I wait with them in line after line—standing with the poor, in their search for justice.
Our days can be long, and poverty stinks in every sense of that word. But my sisters and I hang in there. My goal has been to shift my attitude of wanting to fix what is wrong to an attitude of genuine presence and service. This is particularly difficult for someone like me who wants to do, do, do. But I’ve found that a changed attitude can sometimes make me even more effective, as was the case with Micaela.
I recently met this pregnant 17-year-old from the countryside living on her own in the big city with a 2-year-old son. Depressed and undernourished, Micaela didn’t care about herself or her unborn baby. Paying attention to her, seeing in her the face of the suffering Christ, I was able to listen to her heart. Previously I would have judged her for being pregnant a second time without a husband. Now I see a scared, hurt young woman who doesn’t need me to preach to her. I have learned to converse with people, not at them. Because I no longer approach the indigenous with my stance of, “Let me help you whether you want my help or not," I was able to make a genuine connection with Micaela and stand by her side as she faces this next birth. Without my interfering, she asked me to help her find an adoption placement for her unborn child.
Micaela, Carmen, Zacarías, Emiliano, and many others have helped transform me and have been the presence of Christ and my teachers. With intentions of being a do-gooder, I arrived in Mexico; instead I have been enriched and humbled by the goodness I’ve discovered. Indeed, I’ve fallen in love—with my little friend Zacarías and ever more deeply with the Creator of Life.