By FATHER ‘RICK LABRECQUE
Editor’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series by Father ‘Rick LaBrecque detailing his recent trip to Mexico to meet with the families of his parishioners in Conway and Loris.
Every year, as professional people, we priests are expected to take part in some program which helps us develop, update or deepen our effectiveness as pastoral ministers in the church. It might be through a course in a related field, a special workshop, perhaps a guided reading program. In 1997 I took part in the National Catholic Stewardship Conference for four days in Philadelphia.
For 1998’s “Continuing Education,” I decided on a “field trip” which would be directly related to a challenging part of my present ministry as pastor of St. James in Conway and Resurrection in Loris. I spent 12 days in Mexico, visiting areas of the country from which members of our resident and migrant Hispanic communities have come.
I flew from Charleston to Mexico City early one Monday morning, benefiting from a free Delta ticket earned over a period of years’ participation in a frequent flyer program. Arriving at 3 p.m. Mexico City time (one hour behind South Carolina), I found a welcoming party. Victorico Figueroa, who, with his young wife Soledad had been active parishioners in Loris for their two years in South Carolina, had insisted on meeting me. He was accompanied by his sister Socoffo who works in Mexico City. After warm “abrazos” we shared a quick meal in the airport snack bar. Victorico and I then jumped into one of a hundred identical green taxis lined up outside the airport — all “original model” green Volkswagen Beetles, which are still manufactured in Mexico. A quick ride brought us to the Central de Camiones, where we purchased tickets for an express bus to Oaxaca. Inter-city bus service in Mexico is amazing. You can go just about anywhere with little more than a half-hour’s wait at any time of day on comfortable modern buses.
Oaxaca, Victorico and Soledad’s home is a largely mountainous state with some Pacific Coastline. The capital city, also called Oaxaca, lies about 330 miles southeast of Mexico City. It was a six-and-a-half-hour ride on a relatively new expressway. The mountain scenery was beautiful. Arriving around 11 p.m., we were met by Victorico’s cousin Rafael, since his family owns a vehicle (not too many “average” people do). I sat in front with Rafael and Victorico piled into the back.
A 30-minute ride took us out of the city, onto an unpaved road, and into the small village of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Passing through an open gate in a wall, we were in a large courtyard with buildings on two sides. Fatigue and darkness prevented my getting much of my bearings before morning. It was the family homestead of Victorico’s parents, with whom they lived along with two unmarried brothers. All of them, together with Soledad, warmly welcomed me.
I was shown to a room with a comfortable double bed, which I would come to realize was really Victorico and Soledad’s. I was given a flashlight for night use and shown the way to the separate little building with two doors — one leading to a flush toilet, the other to a shower. Mrs. Figueroa had prepared a late supper and we all got to know each other better while enjoying it. Then it was time to sleep! Somewhere the rest of the family bedded down for the night while I enjoyed the luxury of the best room in the house.
My next conscious experience was of the polyphonic chorus of cock crows which began somewhere around 4 a.m., with different families’ roosters chiming in from all over town during the course of an hour of so. I lay “semidormiens” for a while and somewhere after 5 a.m. arose and dressed. I was not the first afoot. Taking the washbowl I had been given, I filled it with water at the sink on the patio, picked up one of the soap bars lying there, and did some preliminary “wake-up” washing.
Sitting on the patio as daylight dawned, I began to get the picture of my surroundings. The house and its patio porch, with separate kitchen/dining room and toilet/shower building, lined one side of the not-quite-square property. Opposite the house across a large open dirt yard were the wall and gate. On the right were some trees — lemon, bougainvillea, some others. The left was filled with a lean-to housing an old pickup truck belonging to brother Alejando as well as a donkey and cart, a cow shed where the family’s 12 dairy cows are housed, and a pen with about 15 goats. The rooster and assorted hens had the run of the yard (free range chickens!), but spent the night nesting in various nooks, crannies and tree branches.
As I sat on the porch taking in the scene, Victorico emerged from the barn carrying two full buckets of milk he had just squeezed from the cows. Soon a married sister who lives nearby would come for it and take it home to make the local cheese, which in turn would be sold at her stall in the city’s “mercado.” Next to emerge was younger brother Elias, who hitched the donkey to the cart and went out the gate. Victorico told me he was going to the family’s fields just outside town to cut alfalfa, the morning ration he would bring back for the cows. Soon a beeping horn was heard approaching and Señor Figueroa opened the gate to speak with the driver of a huge truck, loaded down with corn stalks. Some money changed hands and a quantity of stalks was unloaded. He then shoveled these into the pen of the excited goats and kids.
I had noticed a large iron kettle of water heating on a coal fire outside the kitchen. Eventually it began to boil and Soledad came to ask me if I would like to take a shower. The shower has running water — ice cold, so the kettle of boiling water was placed on a stand in the shower cubicle. I took my wash basin, a sponge, soap and clean clothes and proceeded to bathe by alternately filling the basin with a mix of hot and cold water, soaping up, rinsing, and repeating.
Ready at last to take on the day at around 9 a.m., I discovered mother and Soledad had been hard at work preparing breakfast. Chores done, everyone else gathered around the big table for a hearty breakfast Oaxaca-style, together with an assortment of children. Soledad was expecting her first child in a few months, I wish I had written down the names of the specialties, but ingredients included tortillas, eggs, tomatoes, bread, chicken, among others. Spiciness was left to the individual, which is rather typical in Mexico. The hot sauce and chiles are on the table for each one to use or not according to his or her own taste.
Guadalupe Hidalgo is a typical village where families live in setups like I have described and work their fields outside of town. What they grow is primarily to feed the animals which are their main livelihood. Other family members commute on the frequently-passing minibuses to jobs in town and some lucky children go to school all the way to the university. The parish church is attended by a seminarian who lives there, does ministry, and commutes daily to the major seminary in town. The parish priest lives in another town as he is responsible for several villages’ churches. Mass seems to be celebrated regularly on a weekday and occasionally on a Sunday. Everyone is devoutly Catholic and crucifixes, images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, rosaries, etc. are everywhere in evidence.
For two full days I was treated to Mexican hospitality. Victorico and Soledad, and to an amazing extent the whole family, dropped everything else to make my visit as interesting and enjoyable as possible.
Traveling sometimes by minibus and sometimes in borrowed pickups, we visited the beautiful colonial city of Oaxaca and saw palaces, markets, gardens, parks, the magnificent Zocolo (central plaza) where one night the town band gave a concert and people danced, the priest’s house where Mexican Revolutionary hero Bentio Juarez lived and was educated as a youth and kept for the rest of his life. Most impressive were the many incredible ancient churches still very much alive as centers of faith and worship. In the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude (Soledad), a sister was leading a Scripture and Communion service for a large group of worshipers. The gold leaf and polychrome interior of Santo Domingo was almost too much to take in. We stayed for a conference on the theme of the Millenium by one of the friars. This part of Mexico had been entrusted to the Dominicans for evangelization in the 16th century and evidence of the grand way they went about it is everywhere. The Cathedral has many fascinating side chapels, one of which has relics of the amazing Cross of Atalco (I’m not sure of the spelling), which the exploring Spaniards in the 1500’s are supposed to have discovered on the Pacific coast of Oaxaca State. The people of the area explained that it had been placed many generations previously by a man who spent some time there before moving on, saying some day others would come to explain to them its meaning. They said the man’s name was Thomas. (Could this have been his route to India?!)
Another day was spent exploring both colonial and indigenous ruins in the countryside.
Oaxaca is a state which still has a large full-blooded Indian population speaking various languages and there are several incredible sites with pyramids and other remnants of pre-Columbian antiquity. Benito Juarez was a Zacotec Indian, the only real native ever to be president of Mexico. Markets were visited where the most wonderful hand-woven clothing, pottery, rugs, wall-hangings, sculpture, etc. could be purchased for embarrassingly low prices.
Although everyone insisted I absolutely had to stay a few more days, it was necessary to stick to my plan of other visits so early one morning warm good-bye abrazos preceded my boarding the minibus with Victorico and Soledad for a ride to the train station. I would spend the day on a slow local to Puebla. Mexico’s rail system is in process of being privatized and schedules were in flux and confusion, but I did get to ride this line with the residents of the isolated ranchos it served along with their market goods, poultry, etc. The day was spent with reliving my fascinating visit to Oaxaca and resolving to return.
Father ‘Rick LaBrecque is pastor of St. James in Conway and Church of the Resurrection in Loris.
PHOTO: Soledad and Victorico Figueroa stand with their mothers and cousin in front of the Basilica of Our Lady of Solitude.