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…
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Copyright © 1969, Oscar Lewis