A SIMPLE WATER TANK CHANGES A FAMILY'S LIFE IN MEXICO
Luicio, Andres and Eduardo (from left to right) trek back home on a water run for their family.
1. NO SWEAT
If today is like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, I’m beginning to feel I’ve turned to the wrong page—every step higher up the mountain feels like a boot on my chest. The three boys aren’t slowing their feet for my photographer or me. Their dogs are the only ones keeping pace.
This isn’t a photo op: it’s the boys’ after-school water run. Halfway up the mountain I’m wishing they didn’t live so far. And really they don’t—the climb just feels that way.
Call it the kind of exercise a personal trainer charges too much for. Right about now I’d wave off the last minutes of the workout—and I’m not the one with a 25-litre jug of water strapped to my back. That’s 14-year-old Luicio, and he’s not breaking a sweat.
Ten minutes earlier. It’s an overcast April afternoon in southeast Mexico. The name of the town I’m in roughly translates to “cricket bowl,” and the insects’ steady chirping is its soundtrack.
Michelle, my photographer, and I have trekked down a mountain to a well at the end of a plank bridge extending over a creek. This is where we meet Luicio and two of his brothers, 12-year-old Eduardo and 10-year-old Andres. The boys smile and say hi. They’re wearing clean shirts and dress pants that seem too formal for what they’re up to. They laugh when I start to ask them about their daily chore. “We’re used to getting water,” says Luicio. “It’s no problem.”
But it is. It’s why we’re here. We wanted to find a person who is one of the estimated 780 million in the world using an unsafe source of water. In rural Mexico, 26 per cent of the population risk their health and safety with the water they use. The stats come from a report the World Health Organization and UNICEF published last year. But amid the gloom, there’s hope. The report also said water sources have improved for two billion people since 1990.
Fetching water has been part of Luicio’s daily chores for a long time. “I started coming to the well when I was four years old,” he says. Luicio would sometimes go to keep his parents company; other times, he’d carry water too.
As Luicio pulls up a final bucket from the well, a practised and assured movement, I can tell he has done it thousands of times. He and Andres strap their jugs to their backs and Eduardo puts his on his shoulder. Somehow comfortable, the boys and their two dogs, Oso and Pascacio, go back up the mountain.
Fast-forward 10 minutes, and we’re home. The boys’ mom, 29-year-old Gloria, welcomes us. Michelle tells Gloria that her boys are very strong. They all laugh. I would have laughed too had I been able to catch my breath.
2. FERNANDA'S LAUNDRY DAY
It’s our second day in the Xchanel Amtel community. Michelle is taking photos of a muddy and rock-strewn well, another one families here use.
Michelle is almost finished when 40-year-old Fernanda and four of her daughters arrive with their family’s laundry. Fernanda and her eldest daughter, 17-year-old Argelia, are the stonewashers. Faustina, 6, and Laura, 8, bring buckets of water to where Fernanda and Argelia kneel and wash. One-year-old Manuela clings to her mom’s back in a sling.
Manuela, 1, and Faustina, 6, watch their mother, Fernanda, fetch water from a well.
Fernanda, a mother of nine, talks with us as she and Argelia press the items of clothing against the stones jutting from the ground beside the well. They squeeze out soap from the sopping clothes. At one point, Manuela interrupts the laundry session, crying and needing to be fed.
Doing the laundry here will take Fernanda and her daughters at least an hour. They do it every day. After laundry, the family takes their baths. I ask about finding privacy and Fernanda points to a bridge behind her. They try to find some there.
Fernanda speaks as if doing the laundry at the well isn’t more than a regular chore. There’s no sadness in her voice, but I wouldn’t say there’s acceptance either. This is not the way it needs to be.
3. BACK TO THE WELL
Ultraviolet B rays radiate the afternoon. I take off my sunglasses and squint to see the hand extended to greet me. “Buenas tardes,” says Armando, a 48-year-old father of eight. He smiles, welcoming us to his wood-and-brick abode. The rest of his family comes out of their home and into view—they greet us, too.
Members of Dionisia and Armando’s family pose for a portrait.
The last couple of days, we played a game of spotting World Vision’s logo on water tanks. So far, we had seen maybe a dozen of the 112 tanks that have the orange-and-white paint job. They belong to the families who are benefiting from a project that has given them a safe source of water at their homes. The plan is to get tanks to more families in the community.
Armando introduces his wife, Dionisia, who is 37. They’ve been married for 20 years. Then Armando introduces everyone else. I feel like a teacher taking attendance, noting the names of six sons, two daughters and Armando’s 75-year-old mother. Five of the couple’s eight children are sponsored.
Armando, Dionisia and I chat a bit about their day, and because I bring it up, they talk about their orange-and-except for eight-year-old Luis Miguel, who isn’t much of a beef eater, and one-year-old Jesus, who wasn’t hungry.
Before long, they’re finished the dishes. Dionisia brings them inside to dry by the stove. Next, she grabs a yellow thread and takes a seat.
Dionisia embroiders a blouse.
The tank at home has given her extra hours. Dionisia likes to spend some of them embroidering blouses at the end of the day because it relaxes her. She sells the shirts in the capital of her state, earning about eight pesos per shirt. She started embroidery to help pay for her eldest son’s school fees. But as much as she enjoys threading a traditional blouse, Dionisia’s family is her priority. “If my children need me for something, I stop and help them.”
DIONISIA’S CHILDREN need her to give them a motherly push out the door and into the classroom in the mornings. When Michelle and I come back to visit the next day, the home is mostly quiet—the kids are in school, Armando is working in the field and Dionisia is baking tortillas for lunch and dinner.
In her kitchen, it’s Baking 101. Dionisia works on a counter beside the fire stove. In front of her is a bucket of dough, enough to make 60 tortillas. When she was eight, Dionisia baked her first tortilla. So Michelle and I are learning from a master. “There’s nothing special about a tortilla,” she says, but adds that she likes them to be thin.
The smell of the fire overpowers that of the dish of rice with tomatoes, onions and black beans—today’s filling. Music from a small TV plays in the background. Four-year-old Wilber, who’s too young to go to school, huddles in the corner, watching his mom bake, reminding me of when I was a small boy sitting in on my mom and grandma’s cooking sessions.
After Dionisia presses the dough into shape on a stone, she flips it onto the stove to bake for 10 minutes. She’s careful to not let one burn. When they’re done, she places them in a pan to keep warm. Armando only tells her good things about her tortillas. Dionisia says that he’s told her she has “great hands” for making them. I can’t say I disagree, and I note a tip on how to stay married for 20 years. Dionisia makes the tortillas as quickly as she can, but it will take her 90 minutes to finish. After that, she’ll do the laundry.
Satisfied we’ve learned the secrets of baking an authentic Mexican tortilla, Michelle and I decide to visit the place where the corn came from—Armando’s farm.
IT’S ANOTHER HIKE up a mountain to get to the field. When we reach the top, I see a donkey that looks unimpressed by my athletic achievement. Armando is in full swing, clearing remnants of last year’s crops with a machete. Next month, he’ll plant corn, pumpkins and beans. Harvest is in January. The corn Dionisia was using in the tortillas came from last year’s crop.
Armando has owned this land for 25 years. He relies on rainwater for his crops. Because the rain is not assured, he worries. “My family depends on the corn and beans we harvest here.”
His family also depends on him to be able to farm. Six years ago, Armando fell ill with a stomach ailment that doctors couldn’t diagnose. Dionisia feared for his life. Thankfully, he made a recovery. But since then, Armando feels weak from time to time. He also has problems with his eyesight.
Armando walks past his family’s water tank.
The sun doesn’t seem to bother Armando. He continues to clear the field. His workday starts at seven in the morning and ends at two or three in the afternoon. Afterwards, he goes home, bathes and has dinner with his family. I ask Armando what is the best benefit of having the tank at home. He doesn’t hesitate: “Now I have more time to spend with my kids.”
ON THE FIRST DAY Michelle and I spent with Armando and Dionisia’s family, we popped into Maria Isabel’s bedroom before we left. She was working on English class homework. She admitted that the class wasn’t her strongest, but she was trying to improve.
Maria Isabel told us about the letter from her sponsor, who had told her about her granddaughter. Maria Isabel wrote back, thanking her for helping fund the birthday celebration that was held at her school for all of the community’s sponsored children. And in a few days, it would actually be Maria Isabel’s 13th birthday. She hoped her present would be a pair of jeans. “No specific style,” she said. “I only care that they’re cute and pretty.”
Maria Isabel helps her mother wash dishes.
I asked her about doing chores at the well. “Some days there were a lot of dishes or laundry,” she said. “Those days were tiring.”
What does she do for fun? She said she likes to play basketball at school. I told her that Michelle also played basketball when she was in school. We all laughed when Michelle told us she was a bad player.
Anything else? I asked.
Maria Isabel said that she goes to the well, but not like before. “My friends and I go there for fun,” she said. “When the water at the creek is high enough, we go swimming and splash water at each other.”
The well made into a waterpark—if this were a Choose Your Own Adventure
, that’s the ending I’d pick.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013/14 issue of Childview.