Veracruz, Huatusco, and the Spirit of Service

Veracruz, Huatusco, and the Spirit of Service

Editor Allison Huang reflects on her service work in Mexico last summer.

A toddler dumps a new puzzle onto one already scattered on the floor and proceeds to jam the pieces together; Veracruz rises as the three-dimensional realization. Flat-faced, pastel colonial houses squat among skyscrapers and black highways. People litter the bluffs over the Gulf of Mexico, exercising and socializing. At ten at night, our hosts, father-son pair Luis and Jesus, offer to take us out for tacos. We politely decline.

Instead, we take a walk. Luis, bright-eyed, heavy-set and fluent in English, takes us to the docks where a navy sprawls along the Gulf. We snap a picture before a bronze Spanish conquistador seated on a rearing horse. The flash casts a white film over our eager faces. “The people embrace the Spanish influence,” Luis explains, “as they do the Italian and modern influences. I like to think of Veracruz as the point at the beginning of a timeline. At the end of the timeline is Miami.”

Of course, Miami and Veracruz have their differences. For one, Miami became rich with exploding international Cuban business in tourism and entertainment. The elite and entrepreneurial classes that fled Fidel Castro’s regime were unable to send their earnings back home and flushed Miami’s economy with new money. Miami housed a pocket of untarnished Cuban, the Cuban immigrants uninfluenced by and unobliged to assimilate into white America. Meanwhile, Veracruz retains its colonial past. We stop for cacahuete-flavored nieve, peanut-flavored italian ice, and suck from our spoons as we listen to a mariachi street band on the side of the street. Luis’s voice rises over the vihuela’s driving beat and the tang of the harp. “This city is like a ranch. Everyone knows everyone else.” When the band finishes their song, Luis flips them a few coins and we continue on.

We approach La Parrochia de Veracruz, a cafe that sources its coffee from Jesus’s organization. “It has bad wifi but it is a well-known political locus,” says Luis, translating for his father. He points to the upper story. With rudimentary facilities, “politicians conduct business the ‘traditional’ way.”

For most of the trip, Jesus’s wife walks with us, arm and arm with Jesus. She is plump, dressed in a white silk shirt, her gold hair carefully styled. “In Mexico we’re ruled by moms and strong women,” Luis jokes. He claps his father on the back. Jesus and his wife are members of the Lions Vision Clinic organization in Huatusco where they live. Luis himself is not a Lion, but he will be assisting us on Saturday. He reminisces: “When I was young my mother used to bring me to their meetings where I would fall asleep in her lap.”

From afar I watch a waiter sweep the floor of the cafe, its creamy linoleum floor spacious through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. In a room like this one, a room that is more gathering place than cafe, I can see young Luis cradled in his mother’s arm as he listens to the heated discussion between Jesus and other Lions, the fan above him circling lazily in the summer heat, everything filled with an orange glow.

♧ ♧ ♧

At eight in the morning we head to the neighboring rural town of Huatusco to meet the rest of the team. Already hundreds of patients, ranging from five years of age to seventy-five, are lined up outside the door waiting for us. Our goal is to see as many as 600 patients a day. We give them a prescription and then send them off to the dispensing station, where they can receive a pair of glasses as closely matched to their prescription as possible. With us are twenty-some translators, more than a few of them college students who live in the area, drawn in simply by a call for help from an ad in the newspaper and by word-of-mouth. I am particularly intrigued that Ricardo’s boss excused him from his day job so that he could come translate.

Around noon, a doctor taps me on the shoulder and shuffles a boy into the seat before me. He is no older than thirteen. One of his eyes is pale gray, unseeing. The other, though it appears to be fine, is slanted to the side, so that he doesn’t look you in the eye.

Right away I know that my job will be difficult. The automatic refractor bounces light off of the individual’s eyes in order to give an approximation of the patient’s prescription, which the doctors then fine-tune. It requires that the individual look straight into the refractor without blinking. Having operated the same tool back in 2015 in Tehuantepec, Mexico, I have seen thousands of eyes. The refractor displays a monochromatic image that blurs out all other features so that only two pupils and their reflective surfaces shine back in a bluish white. In younger patients, the flame in the inner pupil dances fiercely.

I can only get a reading from the boy’s right eye, the slanted one. Even as it is slanted, his pupil responds, the flame jumping eagerly. The doctor examines the left eye. The boy is undeniably thin, slouches, and answers the doctor’s questions slowly and noncommittally. As a result of his sight problems, this boy was unable to frolic with other boys, learn properly, or function without an aid. He was left behind. The defeat has wormed its way into his physical appearance, manifested outwardly.

Huatusco is an old pueblo with a young population. Most of the patients write “campo,” field work, as their occupation. When it comes down to it, medical service in honed fields like dermatology and ophthalmology are a luxury. For the people of Huatusco, the Lions Clinic is an unexpected gift. Patients are willing to wait from noon till sundown for a pair of glasses. Once, a middle-aged woman donning her new frames leaned forward to kiss a dispenser on the cheek, and when she leaned back, we could see that her eyes were filled with tears. Though I am a technician that operates at the beginning of the process, patients will weave back through the crowds to hold my hand and thank me. I had never met such grateful, patient people.

Still, we are disheartened. Equipmentless, we can do little for the boy who is blind in one eye except recommend that he seek medical help in the city. We are unsure that he will actually follow through. Will a humble community such as this one address his problem with urgency?

It is not enough to know that better options exist; people must believe that these better options exist for their sake. Commonly, we turn to progress, modernization. If people expect better living standards, they will actively seek out the resources that are available to them. But the translators let me know that the tension between tradition and modernization is ever strong.

In Mexico, after completing their education, most children return to their hometowns and live the rest of their lives in close proximity with their parents. This contributes to a tightly-knit community, the “ranch” that Luis mentioned. I ask Ricardo and the others, Vianney and Andrea, if the sense of community explains why Mexicans are so eager to lend a hand where it is needed. They tell me that while they cannot say for sure that the Mexican community is at large a generous one, they do know that the people generally distrust other forms of charity. “We try to give help, and not money,” says Vianney, “because we don’t trust money.”

However, this trend is changing. The Lions Club of Huatusco was inactive for years before Jesus moved back to the countryside and poured work into bringing it up again. He had help from the mayor, from philanthropists, and other “old money,” but the younger generation was largely missing in action. Luis tells us that for his generation, it is “no longer cool” for young adults to organize and devote their lives to this kind of service work. He himself started a consulting firm and has already strayed from the path his father walked. In their entrepreneurial spirit, the younger generation has gone “where the money is.” If that is the case, then who is continuing this work? Who is bringing medical service to the countryside? Like Miami, Veracruz is starting to attract money because individuals are seeking fortunes. But this weakens the effort to bring up rural towns like Huatusco. The gap between rich and poor, urban and rural, will accelerate faster than individuals like Vianney, Ricardo, and Andrea can scramble to patch it back up.

♧ ♧ ♧

We take the late shift for lunch and walk two blocks down to a small restaurant that sells coffee up front. I eat my share of pickled carrots, soups, rice and chicken. Before the coffee dessert arrives, talking begins to slow down. Everyone blinks, bleary-eyed. “Tengo maldelpuerco,” Andrea moans. “Maldel…que?” I ask. “You know, after you eat you feel really…drowsy?” I nod. “Mal-del-puerco. It means, ‘the bad of the pig.’” “That’s a good one,” I say.

A tiny girl wanders into the restaurant with a bag of melons. We see her and one of our doctors immediately opens her wallet. Everyone follows suit. We coo. We ask for pictures. She is bewitchingly adorable: her hair is sectioned into braids and well made, her mother has dressed her in a small pink dress and fanny pack, she does not shy away as most children do, but watches carefully, neutrally.

“How old are you?” someone asks in Spanish. “Five” she says demurely, with complete eye-contact. She is generous with her attention, clear-voiced, patient. She leaves with all her fruit and 200 pesos. By the time she reaches the entrance of the restaurant she is running, her heels clicking with excitement.

“Those children are exploited by their parents” says Jesus, shaking his head. But he is the father of the entrepreneur, head of a family that understands what it means to be in the top rung. I think of the way that that little girl, at five, has already begun to understand service and maturity in a way that I never had. And I think: maybe it is not such a bad thing after all.

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