This piece is written about a family we know from a village in West Honduras. This essay describes the reality of an impoverished rural family and a morning that we met with them to take the oldest daughter back to the city where she is temporarily living in a host home and attending school. Names have been altered and some details slightly changed. Although I took some creative liberty in the description of emotions and internal dialogue, the story is based on true observations and firsthand accounts from the girls and their mom.
4:00 am – Iris
Iris awoke on the bare mattress next to her three small daughters. She grabbed in the dark for the tiny flashlight, the only thing that would break the oppressive black that clouded her vision. They had not yet gotten electricity to her one-room adobe brick house, nor had they added a single window because this living arrangement was supposed to be temporary. It was makeshift because soon, better times would come. Of course Iris only halfway believed this because her 36 years of life had taught her otherwise. Most hope is empty and most plans for the future end up being the worst possible disappointment.
This is why it took every ounce of strength in her tired body and weary soul to muster up even the flicker of hope needed to believe that her oldest daughter, Rosy, might have a better chance with these strange people in the city. Could it be that God directed them from so far away to end up visiting this tiny corner of the world? Could they have ulterior motives? The whispers of her neighbors and even family members planted more doubts. But nothing so far had validated those claims and Iris had to do something, anything, to help her daughter. It was worth the risk. And maybe, just maybe, God was real and really good and actually saw her.
These thoughts weighed heavy on her mind and on her frail shoulders as she gently lifted groggy babies to get them ready for the day of travel they had ahead of them. There was no time to grind corn or light the wood-burning stove for a few tortillas. They would have to leave on empty stomachs. This was nothing new, of course. How many mornings had Iris awoken with an empty stomach and lain down again at night with the same hunger pangs?
The bus will be here soon! Iris hurried her two oldest daughters, Rosy, 14 and Maritza, 10, as they packed Rosy’s bag and helped put shoes on the little ones despite their sleepy protests. They were shoes that Rosy had brought back as gifts for her family from the city, luxuries really. When had Iris imagined that one day all five of her daughters would have their own pair of shoes? Of course they didn’t wear them around the dirt-floor house so as to keep them as clean as possible. These shoes were for special occasions, like today. For the first time Iris beamed with a little more pride as she imagined all of them traveling by bus and arriving in the bustling town of Copán Ruinas decently dressed.
It was a good 15 minute walk in the dark on a mountainous road to the entrance of their village where the van they referred to as el busito would arrive for its passengers. Iris didn’t travel much but it was known that every day there was one bus in and one bus out of this little cluster of villages. They waited. And waited. Iris and her oldest daughters took turns carrying Rosy’s suitcase and holding the little ones while they drifted in and out of sleep, occasionally lifting their heads to look around and cry out until they were soothed back to a state of calm. Still they heard no sounds of an old van bouncing up the rocky dirt road; only roosters crowing and a distant mill whirring away grinding someone’s corn for their morning tortillas. The sun was still at least half an hour away from peaking up behind the rolling green hills.
Finally someone down the road called out to Iris and the girls – ¡buenos días! – telling them that if they were waiting on the bus that it wasn’t coming today. They’d have to catch the other bus two villages away that would be arriving any minute. What? Iris jumped up from where she was sitting and nursing the baby, jolting little Anita into wails again. We don’t have enough time! Disoriented from sleep-deprivation, the five girls and their mom took off on foot in the dark again right as a light drizzle descended.
It was a miracle that the six travelers actually made it to the bus stop (a mango tree where the dirt road comes to a split) before the rusty van pulled away. They had had to run, sloshing through the mud and dragging a suitcase, for several miles. Breathless, tired, sweaty, thirsty, hungry, and at this point drenched from rain… Iris and her daughters loaded into the van and she handed the driver some damp and crumpled lempiras, the few dollars it would cost to take them to town, two hours away. It was all the money she had. She wasn’t sure when or if they’d be able to eat this day but she had to get to town.
7:00 am – Rosy
Mom, if they don’t come I’ll just go back to our village with you. Rosy and her family had only been sitting in the town’s central park for seven minutes. She was now torn between two worlds and was secretly hoping to stay with her mom and her sisters. For years Rosy was like a second mother to her younger siblings. When she was away from them she only worried about their well-being. Was she making a mistake by taking this opportunity to study in the city? Would they be okay without her? She couldn’t escape the worries about the future nor the memories from the past that haunted her. She feared the worst. Would her remaining family members face the same fate as the others? Her father and little brother had both spent weeks in bed suffering before malaria took their last breath; her other little brother was mysteriously found in the woods dead. Her mother now struggled to keep food in the house. Was she not abandoning her vulnerable family when they needed her? She questioned whether it was the right thing but one memory rang loudly in her mind: her mother telling her, I don’t want you taken by a man and having babies at 14 like me. If you stay here you will have the same life I had. Go and study.
7:23 am – Maritza
Of all of Iris’s children, Maritza was the most curious and precocious. She had heard a lot of talk from a lot of grown ups in her village, and a lot of it was about her. Problem child, rebellious, nosy, too talkative, and the dreaded diagnosis that was neither scientifically proven nor dared to be questioned… unable to learn at school because she doesn’t pay attention. In Maritza’s village, this was a case-closed prescription for life at home because no overwhelmed and overworked teacher could stand her in their classroom. With fifty boisterous children in one dimly lit cinder-block room, spanning over three grade levels, who could blame them?
All of these “problematic” personality traits were exactly why Maritza would not accept being left at home on this momentous day while the rest of her family traveled to the big town. She could not miss out on the adventure (and the subsequent gossip she could pass on to her friends and neighbors upon her return). At 7:23 in the morning, sitting in the town’s central park, damp and muddy and hungry and nauseated from the jostling bus ride down the mountain, Maritza was not feeling as much excitement as she had the previous day. Her mom and older sister were acting more bossy and irritable than normal and she was starting to wonder if these people were going to show up anyway.
The couple that had made the arrangements to take her older sister to the city were not technically strangers. For the last few years they had been visiting Maritza’s village to help and teach the people there. They recently built an outhouse for her family, the very first toilet they’d ever owned. Because she was a self-appointed village lookout, Maritza was almost always the first to detect the rumble of the Diesel engine and then the sight of the bright red truck coming into view around the curves and through the banana trees that lined her village’s dirt road. She would then enthusiastically take off on foot (often barefoot) to alert neighbors and the school that the Honduran city pastor and his gringa wife were arriving. This would allow plenty of time for anyone who so desired to scramble to the windows of their home or the edge of the road to wave or simply stare in curiosity at the outsiders.
Today, although in a much different space and a greater state of delirium, Maritza was on the lookout again. From the park bench she had patiently watched countless vehicles and motorcycles and the typical red and white mototaxis boasting their rambunctious ranchera music zoom through the town square, all of their drivers and passengers important and focused on their destination. All at once she spotted the red truck coming up the cobblestone street and she jumped up from the bench where she was sitting with her family. Maritza recognized the pastor and the gringa’s familiar goofy grins through the truck windows and she took notice that they were in contrast to Rosy’s expression of consternation. It was all so exciting but deep down, she too, would have been happy if her sister ended up going back home with them to their village.
Pleasantries and greetings were exchanged, including those strange hugs that the gringa always gave. It had taken Maritza a while to get used to an affectionate pat or embrace since no one typically exchanged physical touch in such a way in her village, not even parents with children. Slowly, after several repeated visits from the red truck couple, she began to interpret an extended arm as something other than a threat. Today Maritza willingly wrapped her arms around the gringa’s waist and was relieved to hear her say, busquemos desayuno. Let’s get breakfast!
On just a couple other occasions in her life Maritza had visited the town of Copán Ruinas. To her, this town was another world. It was a world of commerce and trade and government work and where her mom has to go after having a baby so that she can register the child and bring home their birth certificate. Maritza was not too young to recognize that her family didn’t fit in here. The busy people walking up and down the streets, standing in line at the bank, coming and going from the stores all had an air of confidence and belonging that she knew she didn’t quite possess but hoped to imitate. As the group approached the door of one of those establishments, Maritza felt a jolt of exhilaration.
The pastor and the gringa had to prod and encourage Iris to step inside with her girls. Maritza observed the natural way the red truck couple glided into this place, this restaurant, as if it were their own home. Did they have permission to walk in like that? If they did, surely Maritza and her family did not. Who were they to just open a stranger’s door and walk through it? Maritza received no clues from her mother, verbal or nonverbal, as to whether it was really appropriate to enter this strange place but curiosity got the better of her and she stepped through the door.
She froze. All within the same second a blast of cold air hit her skin; she inhaled a strong aroma like she had never experienced before of high quality coffee and pastries and a variety of foods; her ears caught the strange sounds of machines and music that seemed to come out of the walls; and her vision was bombarded by two big screen TVs in opposite corners and the most pristine and orderly floors, tables, counters, and workers all dressed in matching uniforms. It was dizzying. Maritza’s senses were instantly overwhelmed and her fight or flight response kicked in. She whimpered and curled up in a corner. It took the couple another several minutes to calm her and coax her over to the table where they would eat and help get everyone seated. Iris was still uncomfortably standing in the doorway with baby Anita on her hip, possibly experiencing a milder version of what her second daughter had just faced. The odd situation was compounded by the uniformed servers staring on suspiciously at Iris and whispering among themselves. They had been trained to swiftly and inconspicuously usher beggars out the side door in order to maintain the utmost comfort of their customers. And this frail woman with the downcast face certainly fit the profile of a town beggar.
Becoming aware of the increasing tension, the couple stood and motioned with big gestures for Iris and her baby to join them at the table, hoping to reassure the nervous mom as well as the onlooking servers. Now it was time to choose something from the menu.
Knowing how overwhelming the experience was becoming just within the first few minutes, the pastor suggested setting aside the menus and ordering a simple breakfast of traditional baleadas (flour tortilla with beans, cheese, and cream) and a cup of coffee for everyone. Maritza realized how famished she was but was also perplexed by where the food would come from. She certainly smelled food but saw no fire or stove or pots and pans anywhere. The large table where the guests were seated had little boxes in the center with paper napkins and little paper packets of something. Were these free to take?
Her question was answered when one of the uniformed workers arrived with steaming mugs of black coffee for everyone. The gringa showed Maritza which of the little paper packets had sugar in them and she tore them open and emptied their contents into the beverage. Maritza crumpled the empty paper packets and let them fall to the floor beside her chair just like she would normally dispose of any trash in her village. She noticed the gringa watching her and heard her giggle as she leaned down to pick up the paper. Here we leave all the trash on top of the table and these workers will throw it away in a trash can when we leave. Oh.
As they waited on the food Maritza was focused on the TVs. She’d never seen a screen so big with images so lifelike! There was a glass display with cakes that caught her attention as well. How did this place have so much food? The gringa showed her how to sit correctly so she could reach what she needed at the table. When the food arrived Maritza was again intrigued by the heavy silver forks and knives that were wrapped in more paper napkins. For all of these things Maritza wondered, why? The couple closed their eyes and talked to God and thanked Him for the food before eating. Is that where these plates came from?
Maritza watched with intense curiosity as the workers went back and forth bringing whatever the couple requested out to the table. Her mother never dared to speak to the workers directly. She barely looked them in the eye. Maritza observed the servers disappearing around a corner on the other side of the cake display. What was back there? She couldn’t finish her breakfast – it was so much – but to her relief the gringa asked a worker for something to pack the leftover food in and the girl brought a piece of foil to the table. Maritza figured that she wasn’t allowed to carry the ceramic plate out to the street so she had thought about using one of the paper napkins from the box to wrap her food. As everyone began to stand up the precocious child grabbed her plate and utensils and marched herself right past the cake display following the lead of those in uniform. She was cleaning up after herself as she assumed she should! The workers smiled and took the plate from her before she ended up too far into the restricted kitchen area.
She stopped at the cake display to admire in awe. She wasn’t hungry anymore but just what were they going to do with all that cake? Maritza noticed that Rosy had just come out of a door that led to a little room. Do you need to go to the bathroom? The gringa suggested that Rosy join her sister in the restroom to help with anything she might not understand about indoor plumbing. It was all impressive to Maritza, a toilet that flushes, paper and soap in boxes, but the most fun was the giant mirror where she shied away from looking at the weirdly clear image of her own face for too long. The mirror was too exciting to keep to herself so when she finished and opened the door she motioned for the gringa to step inside so they could both see their reflection in the same frame and giggle together.
It was time to leave and with teary eyes and full bellies the sisters softly told each other goodbye. The gringa encouraged hugs although they weren’t entirely natural-feeling among the girls and their mom. Rosy swallowed a pill that the couple had bought her for carsickness, since past experience proved road trips to be rough on her stomach. She climbed in the back seat of the red truck leaving her family standing on the corner and watched their forms get smaller and smaller until they faded from her view. Then with determination she set her sight firmly on the road ahead and slowly yielded to the hum of the engine and drowsiness of the anti-nausea medicine. Thinking of the world she was leaving behind and the world that lay ahead, she drifted into a peaceful sleep.