Thirteen years have passed since 1956, when I began my study of Jesús Sánchez and his children, Manuel, Roberto, Consuelo, and Marta, in a Mexico City slum. In 1961 I published my book The Children of Sánchez, but this did not mark the end of the study nor did it terminate my relationship with the family. Indeed, we have been in constant touch and not a year has passed without my visiting them. Many important changes have occurred in their lives. Here I shall limit myself to relating a single dramatic incident, the death of Guadalupe, the maternal aunt and the closest blood relative of the Sánchez children.
Although Guadalupe was only a minor character in my book, she played a central role in the Sánchez family. Moreover, ‘she, her husbands, and her neighbors in the vecindad, were better representatives of the “culture of poverty” than were Jesús Sánchez and his children, who were more influenced by Mexican middleclass values and aspirations. In December, 1962, one month after Guadalupe’s death, I returned to Mexico to study the effects of her death upon the family. This articles is drawn from my book, which is based upon taperecorded interviews with Manuel, Roberto, and Consuelo Sánchez. It presents three views of their aunt’s death, wake, and burial.*
Their stories highlight the difficulties encountered by the poor in disposing of their dead. For the poor, death is almost as great a hardship as life itself. The Danish novelist, Martin Andersen Nexö, writing in his autobiography about his early life in a Copenhagen slum, recalls that when he was about three years old he asked his mother whether his brother, who had recently died, was now an angel. His mother replied, “Poor people don’t belong in heaven, they have to be thankful if they can get into the earth.” The struggle to get Aunt Guadalupe decently into the earth is one of the basic themes of their story.
Guadalupe died as she had lived, without medical care, in unrelieved pain, in hunger, worrying about how to pay the rent or raise money for the bus fare for a trip to the hospital, working up to the last day of her life at various pathetic jobs, leaving nothing of value but a few old religious objects and the tiny rented space she had occupied.
Both her life and death reflected the culture of poverty in which Guadalupe lived. Her life was a story of deprivation and trauma. Born into a poor family in Léon, Guanajuato, in 1900, she was ten years old when the Mexican Revolution began and twenty when it ended. Thus she lived through some of the most difficult years in the history of Mexico, when bloodshed, violence, hunger, and much suffering occurred. Her sad experiences, not unusual for those times, help us to understand her situation at the time of her death.
Guadalupe was one of eighteeen children, only seven of whom survived their first year. Her parents were religious and had been properly married in church. Illiterate, they supported themselves by making native sweets which they sold in the plaza. The extended family was small and they had few relatives to help them. Both sets of grandparents were dead by the time Guadalupe was born. She did not know where they originated but they were probably part of the urban proletariat in León. Guadalupe’s parents spoke no Indian tongue and, as far as we know, they followed no tradition other than Mexican folk Catholicism.
The Panaderos vecindad where she lived consisted of a row of fourteen one-room adobe huts about 10 by 15 feet, built along the left side and across the back of a thirty-foot wide bare lot. The rentals for the huts were from $1.60 to $2.40 a month. The average monthly income in the vecindad was $8.40. Guadalupe and her first husband, Ignacio, were among the very poorest, with a combined monthly income of only $5.20. When she died, Guadalupe’s worldly possessions were worth only $121.13.
The empty lot was enclosed on two sides by the walls of adjacent brick buildings and in front by a recently built brick wall with a narrow open entrance that leads to the courtyard. The only pavement in the yard was a walk of rough stone slabs laid by the tenants themselves, in front of the apartments. Five of the dwellings had makeshift sheds, constructed by setting up two poles and extending the kitchen roofs of tarpaper, tin, and corrugated metal over the low front door-way. The sheds were built to provide a dry, shady place for the artisans who lived and worked there. Piles of equipment, tin, bundles of waste steel strips, wire, nails, and tools, kept on old tables and benches cluttered the covered space. Toward the rear of the yard, two large cement water troughs, each with a faucet, were the sole source of water for the eighty-four inhabitants. Here the women washed their dishes and laundry and bathed their children. In the back of the lot two brokendown stinking toilets, half curtained by pieces of torn burlap and flushed by pails of water, served all the tenants.
The rest of the lot, strewn with stones and filled with unexpected holes, was criss-crossed by clotheslines held up by forked poles. In the daytime, the lot was filled with children in ragged clothing and ill-fitting shoes, or barefoot, playing marbles or running between the lines of laundry, heedless of the warning shouts of the women. Children, barely able to walk and still untrained, sat or crawled in the dirt, often half-naked, while their mothers watched them from where they were working. In the rainy season the yard became muddy and full of water so that it sometimes flooded the low dwellings.
It was November 2, the Day of the Dead, and I was still in bed at about eleven-thirty in the morning when we heard someone knock. My wife opened the door to the courtyard and a voice outside said, “Good morning. Is señor Manuel in?”
“Yes, he’s here, but he isn’t up yet.”
“Who is it?” I shouted.
“Pancho, señor Manuel.” Pancho was the husband of my aunt’s niece and right off I had a premonition of what he had come to tell me. “I just came to tell you that your Aunt Guadalupe is stretched out on the floor of her house, bleeding.”
I sat up quickly, pulled on my trousers, and bent down to look under the bed for my shoes. I put them on without bothering to look for socks. Pancho said, “Well, I’m going now. Don’t take long, señor Manuel.”
“All right, thank you,” I called, “I’ll be there right away.” I ran a comb through my hair and looked around for my jacket.
“Get going, Manuel, your aunt may be dead already, hurry up!” Maria said.
“All right, hombre, I’m coming. Go to the market and tell Roberto to fly to my aunt’s house. Tell him to go right away, even if he hasn’t sold anything yet.”
As I started for the door, in walked Gaspar, that character my aunt took up with after her husband died. I didn’t like Gaspar. He was only thirty-five and my aunt was sixty. What could he be after but a home at her expense? He had sly little eyes and I figured him for a bad character from the first time I saw him. He was short and skinny with a yellowish brown skin and the typical strawberry nose of an alcoholic. He never looked good but on this morning he looked ghastly. One could see the anxiety in his face. His lips were dry and his teeth clenched so hard his cheekbones stood out more than usual. He said, “Please, please, come quickly. She’s just stretched out there, she’s killed herself….”
“What do you mean, killed herself?”
He stood with his arms hanging at his sides, nervously opening and closing his fists. “Well, I don’t know, she’s just lying there.”
“Come on, let’s go.” I rushed through the door, down the courtyard, and out of the Casa Grande. The Street of the Bakers, where my aunt lived, was two blocks away. As I hurried along I had the same guilty thoughts I always have when something like this happens. ‘Poor old woman! How is it possible that she could die all alone like this? She who was always surrounded by people? And me so slow about helping her out. A hundred pesos means nothing to me but what pleasure it would have given her, even if it went for alcohol or to help someone poorer than herself. It really made her happy to help others. I should have come to see her more often, if only for appearance sake. But no, why should I if I didn’t feel it? And every time it would have cost me money I didn’t want to give. Why be a hypocrite?’ Me, the eternal hypocrite, used that to excuse myself!
From the corner I could see people gathered at the entrance of my aunt’s vecindad. Most of them had come just to satisfy their morbid curiosity and I felt uneasy as we approached. We pushed open a path through the crowd and entered the muddy yard.
Gaspar went ahead but I stopped a moment to look around. There were a few women at the wash tubs toward the rear of the yard, scrubbing as usual, for most families took in laundry. The rickety buildings, lined up along one side and in the back of the lot, looked as though any strong wind would blow them down. The common toilets, the snarling dogs, the dirty kids…. I never could understand how anyone could come out of such a place with a smile on his face because living there could mean only one thing, that his entire life was a failure. That’s why I’ve tried to keep myself indifferent to the people there…because I had enough problems of my own.
A small crowd of people blocked the doorway of my aunt’s house, which was the first in the row, next to the shoemaker’s shop. Julia, the wife of Guillermo, saw me and said, “We’ve already called the ambulance, Manuel. She’s dead.” The crowd formed a circle around me, watching me closely. I said nothing and went quickly inside to see my aunt.
Yes, there she was, the poor old woman, on the floor, with Gaspar sobbing over her. Her small body was curled awkwardly, her right cheek resting on the cold cement in a puddle of blood. Her right arm was caught beneath her, with only the palm of her hand showing; her left elbow pointed rigidly toward the ceiling. A sewing basket was clutched in her left hand. I could see the silver ring and the four copper ones she always wore on that hand. Her long dress covered her almost to the ankles. Her feet in their worn black shoes lay in another pool of blood. I bent over her to see if she was still breathing and I felt for her pulse, but there was nothing. The only thing that moved was her thin white hair, blowing in the cold draft that came in through the open doorway.
Copyright © 1969, Oscar Lewis
The youngest daughter Marta was not in Mexico City and did not attend the funeral.↩
The youngest daughter Marta was not in Mexico City and did not attend the funeral.↩