Today we want to share the 1975-84 decade winner from our 50 Years of Stories Contest. We think the experience of this 1980s Amigo rings as true today as it did then!
By Steve Kirk
The pickup came to a stop in flat area of grayish sand amid a handful of adobe dwellings. The houses were roofed with a thatch of corn stalks, harvested from the corn field that ran along the edge of the settlement for as far as the eye could see. I knew from my studies that this was an ejido, communal land farmed by the members of the community. Despite all sorts of new and unexpected experiences during our three day orientation, I felt that I was ready for this moment. The “drop-off” when my partners and I would fend for ourselves. We hopped off the back of the truck with our duffle bags and we greeted the crowd of villagers that had gathered around in the seconds it took for us to come to a stop. “Mande?” “Mande?” That seemed to be all they were saying. And, despite the fact that I had been studying Spanish in one way or another for 10 years, and that at 23 I was the oldest person on the entire AMIGOS project, I had no idea what they were saying. That word was never in a junior high Spanish dialogue and never appeared in a Garcia Lorca poem. Crap. This was not going to be so easy after all.
At that moment I crossed into a new dimension. It was a place where suddenly only about 50% of what was going on was clear. There was an invisible haze of uncertainty surrounding all of us. Our route leader had told us that there was a mother and three children, but there seemed to be a husband here. We made our way to the backyard of our new home and sat among the chickens, piglets and a dog that was either the family pet or a stray that had followed us in the truck. We tried our hand at small talk, but nearly everything that came out of our mouths was again greeted by that now ubiquitous expression, “Mande?” After an hour or so, in a moment of sudden clarity which would be repeated countless times over the next eight weeks, we realized that the loose translation of “Mande?” was, in fact, “Huh?”
After our Coke bottles were empty, and the length of the awkward silences were growing longer, a neighbor came by, looked at us, and made an odd gesture with his hand to his mouth, almost like he was scratching his lips. Margarita and Reinaldo, our host parents, indicated that we should go with him. We followed our new friend in silence across the dusty landscape to another home, where we were invited to sit down at a table set for the three of us. We were offered more cokes which were followed shortly by bowls of tortillas, beans, rice and chicken. Reassured that, if nothing else, the food was what we expected, we ate, although the children looking in on us at the window, and the family standing awkwardly in the doorway, limited the conversation to a few whispered words in English between us. After we finished eating and our hosts cleared the dishes, the children from the windows herded us back to our home as the sun began to set. Our belongings had been moved into the main room of the house where we were left to set up our cots and retire for the evening. Day one was complete.
Over the course of the next three weeks, we would work with our neighbors to build over a dozen ventilated improved pit latrines. Reinaldo, who it turned out had just returned with a suitcase of US dollars from several months working in Dallas, and Margarita generously shared their home and lives with us. Two or three times a day a villager would show up where we were working or come up to us along the road and make that familiar gesture with their hand to their mouth, indicating that we should come and eat with them. After a while we stopped worrying about whether we should follow, finally understanding on the very last day that there was, in fact, a master plan whereby each family in the ejido took turns feeding us. While our skills at making the cement forms for the latrine floors took a little bit of time to develop, our hosts were always gracious and would know just when to step in before we made some fatal error. They enthusiastically performed about 80% of the work required for each latrine, all along thanking us for our efforts and sacrifice. We got to know nearly everyone in the small community, well enough to identify them in the dark at the dances improvised when the man with the car-battery-operated-record-player-in-a-horse-cart arrived each Saturday evening. It turned out that nearly everyone in Villa Nueva was related, the extended families of Reinaldo’s father and two uncles who had settled the ejido some twenty years before.
Before it was time to leave Villa Nueva I had realized that while my graduate school training in village-level economic development was valuable, what really moved me was watching my partners and my young route leader shape their lives through this experience. None of them had yet stepped foot on a college campus. The lessons learned and experiences we shared would influence, if not drive, choices they didn’t even know were ahead of them. One year later I arrived at the AMIGOS International Office to start a thirty year career sending teenagers and young adults overseas for volunteer service and academic exchange. The haze that fell over us that first day has never fully lifted, and it would be repeated later over breakfast in Lithuania, at a community meeting in Guatemala, or negotiating with government officials in Vietnam. But now, I embrace it, and when I find myself in that haze of uncertainty, I don’t even bother with asking, “Mande?” More often than not, I just smile and nod.