VI. On Becoming a Writer: San Juan Acozac

That first day, walking along the dirt road through the village, I worried I might catch some dread tropical disease and die. We had already settled in where we would live that summer, the six women in a barn, its floor dirt, the one window a large open square without panes or curtains or a screen (we hung a serape across it). And although the barn had a single electric light bulb, there was no running water or plumbing there or anywhere in the village. Most homes did not even have privies. For our team of twelve Methodist college students from across the U.S., two privies were available, neither of them at our barn and none for the women at night. So our guys quickly dug us a makeshift privy that could be used only after dark because the door kept falling off.

Yet despite my initial fears and our rustic living conditions, that long ago summer was one of the great experiences of my life.

San Juan Acozac is a tiny village located on Mexico’s central plateau some 60 miles from the city of Puebla. Today, according to PueblosAmericas.com, it is a town with 84 inhabitants and 18 dwellings. I doubt that is much different from the 1960’s, an agricultural village but with no automobiles back then and only two trucks. Local transportation was by burro. There was a one-room store where we could buy snacks and unrefrigerated cokes, but our food and supplies came from nearby market towns.

Central to San Juan Acozac was a schoolhouse, presided over by a marvelously matriarchal woman. She greeted us our first day by lining us up in the schoolyard and parading the students past with their right arms stretched toward us in a salute. She quickly became a valued friend as we got to know her and the students. Our guys dug outhouses for the school and we gals did some teaching of English. We also worked with medical personnel sent from Puebla to vaccinate the school children and to treat several others, one a child whose face was marred by terrible eczema.

Several of us walked each day to a nearby village to tutor other children in a small one-room school. Our first day, we apologized to the schoolmaster for being late, at least according to the clock on his wall. He smiled, climbed on a chair and changed his clock to match our watches. Mexico time, we quickly learned, was relative.

A special serendipity of our summer was the discovery that nearly everyone in our group was a musician. One guy had brought his banjo, another his guitar, so that wherever we went, we sang to those we met. One memorable night, when Methodist seminarians drove out from Puebla to show cartoons and educational films, they discovered the projector light was burned out and had to drive back for a new one. With the town’s entire population and many others from nearby villages waiting patiently in the schoolyard, the twelve of us climbed onto the school’s large open window with its wide adobe sill and launched what became a two-hour concert. When we ran out of “Methodist” songs, we resorted to anything we could think of, making up verses to “On Top of Old Smokey” and adding a few rather racy ballads hoping none of the villagers understood English.

After our first days in the village, I don’t think any of us considered San Juan Acozac “impoverished,” although even the rare more affluent resident like its mayor had a standard of living far below what we knew in America. But the villagers took pride in their communal agricultural tasks, offering us tastes of unbelievably sweet cantaloupes, laughing and chatting with us as we watched the men wash freshly-harvested vegetables in an outdoor trough. We also visited peoples’ homes, where women demonstrated how they made the daily tortillas on outdoor stoves and showed us their needlework and basketry skills.

Villagers soon waved and called out “buenos dias” as we we began to learn enough Spanish to communicate more fully. Children swarmed about us and were soon “our” kids. And as for that lack of running water and toilets? Like Peace Corps volunteers in later years, we adapted, bathed and washed our clothes in a nearby creek, learned to trim each other’s hair, brought in large jugs of bottled water for drinking and brushing our teeth and became inured to the privy nestled beside the smelly hog pen.

Toward the end of the summer, to reciprocate the villagers’ hospitality, we invited them to the dirt-floor shed beside the Methodist minister’s house, where we cooked and served American food for all that crowded in. Afterwards, when we had cleaned up the space, our guys got out their instruments and the twelve of us, though dead tired, circled up for an exuberantly spontaneous American hoedown. Looking back on it, I think of that as our own private celebration of this incredible summer experience.

Before our arrival in San Juan Acozac, our supervisor, the American Methodist agricultural missionary based in Puebla, said this to us during an orientation session: “You will only be with these people for a summer, and when you leave you likely won’t have changed their lives in any significant way. But what I hope will be changed is each of you and that the faceless masses of this world will now have faces.”

And so it has been.

Next up: South Carolina