Last Wednesday my wife and I were sitting outside around a smoky pine fire. It was a damp 55 degrees – cold for here, but coveted by our family back in Wisconsin this time of year.
We were attending the annual changing of the local authorities. The indigenous village we live in has two men who are selected by town elders to lead the village each year, and the change from last year’s authorities to the new year’s authorities takes place on the first day of the year. It’s accompanied by huge cauldrons of cooking beef, what the people call birria, and a large tub of atole, a sweet flour-based porridge-like beverage that reminds me of something Goldilocks imbibed while awaiting her bear-filled doom.
My truck was parked to one side, illuminating the party – there’s no power here in the village, though government promises to provide it appear to be moving forward. Shadows were cast on the different groups of people, as they alternated between huddling around the fire and getting more food from the small building where it was being distributed.
Most gathered with their families. Women huddled with their children, sitting on the ground and sharing small bowls of the steaming beef, using corn tortillas as utensils. Men huddled around the fires; some smoked, some held blankets around themselves.
And then another truck pulled in. “Who is it?” said one of the men standing next to me. I guessed, based on the color of the truck – white. When you live in a village where only five people have trucks, it’s pretty easy to tell who is who just based on the truck color. And I was right.
He turned off the lights, and the sounds of ranchero music drifted out the lowered windows.
People continued eating. Some began to complain – the broth in the meat dish was bitter, burned from sitting on the fire too long. Some blamed the cooks, who had worked all day. Others blamed the new judges for not arriving earlier. Still people ate it, accompanied by tortillas, some extra large tortillas called gordas, and more glasses of atole.
Then the man who had driven up in the white truck – stumbling drunk – stepped out of his truck. He joltingly walked up to the small building where they were serving the caldo. He asked why they hadn’t served him yet. He said there was enough food for the dogs but he didn’t have any yet.
And the people, the whole village on cue, went quiet. You could hear the fires crackling. They watched, waited, until the man received some food.
Women, with their children looked around nervously. Some whispered to their husbands, The kids are scared, let’s get out of here. Some people packed up their things and leave.
You see, when you live in a village with no law enforcement, things can occasionally get out of hand, especially when alcohol is involved. Probably everyone here knows someone who has been shot during some sort of drunken confrontation.
Here, drinking emboldens a primarily non-confrontational people; old disputes come out, words you said come back to bite you. One of my closest Nahuatl friends found that out the hard way when he took a bullet in the back a few months ago, the result of some non-inflammatory but critical words he’d said about the wrong person.
So, when there’s drinking and confrontation, fear is a common response. As if there wasn’t enough things to fear out here – most Nahuatl fear the lightning, fear the ancestral spirit that lives on the hill in the middle of town, fear the witches in the area who cast spells – and in instances like this one – they fear each other.
The party was basically over. I told my wife we should probably go to, so we got in our truck, offered a ride to our neighbors and left.
It didn’t occur to me until 1:30 that night, when for some reason I woke up, how sad this all was. A once-a-year party just ended early because of an alcohol-fueled spat. Women and children scared, people leaving.
And in the moment, I didn’t even think about that. I just thought, hey, we should get out of here, too.
That reminded me. In life, often times the things we allow ourselves to get used to are things we shouldn’t have to get used to. We’ve only been here two years, and I’ve already grown numb to these situations. Imagine the people who have lived here their whole lives.
It makes me sad to think about it. But it makes me wonder. It makes me wonder, if one day, when the people hear the Gospel in their own language, things like this will change.