Note: This piece was originally written in Tzotzil. The village of Chamula, where Tzotzil is spoken far more frequently than Spanish, has maintained much of its Tzotzil Maya language and tradition.
It was on a Sunday when he returned to the village. It was a feast day, the celebration of the patron saint. He came back tired of being among strangers. He remembered that he had a village, a place where he had been born, where he had left parents, brothers, countrymen, when he decided to travel to distant lands and live with other peoples.
He left his village because he despaired of the life that he was living. The more offerings and prayers that he made to the holy earth, to the gods of the heavens, to the waters and the mountains, to the protectors and defenders, so that his corn and beans would grow and be productive, the more he thought they never would pay attention to him or perhaps that the gods were so busy they could not respond to his supplications. He saw his wife and his children badly dressed, suffering from illness and hunger. Full of sadness he asked himself, “Why, if they say that all this land belonged to my earliest ancestors, grandmothers and grandfathers, others have now appropriated it and left me with rocks and mountains as my only refuge? Why, if they say this land was ours, today the best of it belongs to the ranchers? Why, if they say there is freedom, am I a slave in my own land?”
His long periods of agony and desperation caused him to look for other opportunities. He heard from a countryman that in Villahermosa, in the state of Tabasco, there was work in construction and that it paid well in comparison to the miserable two pesos he earned cleaning someone else's field. He went off full of hope, leaving his wife and children with the promise to return with the proceeds from his work.
He set off on the road to Villahermosa early in the morning.
He traveled all day with a heart filled with illusions.
Sure enough, he found work as a laborer at a large construction site. For the first few days, he felt sad and nostalgic for his wife and children, his parents and his village. During his lonely moments, he thought of what he learned from his parents when he was a young boy; in silence, he remembered the flowery words of the fiestas, the speeches of those who were in charge of the fiestas, and the leaders. He wanted to go back, but what kept him in Villahermosa was the thought that he had to earn money to support his family.
In time, he learned some words in Spanish and, along with those, some of the vices of the city.
Election time came around for President of the Republic, Federal Deputies, and other things he sometimes could not understand, because the election of the leaders of his village did not depend on speeches and promises that would never be fulfilled. In his village, the leaders were elected at community meetings. But after the campaign one national politician would be president, impacting the life of the national character.
One day, he bought manufactured clothing and put it on. He felt different with these garments which he had never worn in his village. He was very pleased. But his companions, who were largely mestizos, laughed at seeing him with different clothes, and said to him, “You look like Echeverría, your clothes are a knockout. Hey, you look like the President1.”
From that day on they called him Echeverría, a nickname the he could never, ever get rid of.
A long time afterward, when he returned to his birthplace, he was different. He returned dressed another way and he went to buy used clothes in San Cristóbal2, which was the largest and closest market to his village. He got jackets and ties, shoes, eyeglasses and a hat that he wore with the brim turned down on one side. Since it was a feast day when he got to the village, he was confused about who the people were. He greeted some of his relatives and neighbors who recognized him, and whom he too remembered. His wife and children, who were there, were very happy to know that he had returned and perhaps brought a little money so they could enjoy the fiesta.
It was a lively celebration. There were processions of saints accompanied by lieutenants, majordomos and captains named by the leaders to celebrate the feast day3. In the plaza there were many temporary stands where they sold chicha, trago and beer4. Since it was a feast day, he was disposed to enjoy it in his own way. He went to one of the cantinas and started drinking beer, not trago, because it was run-of-the-mill for him, much less chicha. He did not want to drink that because in the past he had gotten drunk and danced happily at fiestas to the sound of the harp, the guitar and the violin. He did not pay attention to the music from his village, but to songs he had heard in Villahermosa. He asked for “Modern Guy,” “Acapulco Tropical” and others that made him sing and dance.
Later, when he was drunker, he shouted, “I am Echeverría! I have a tie and shoes! I wear glasses and I know how to speak Spanish! I am Echeverría, I am the President!”
The people listened, puzzled by what he shouted. One exclaimed, “What is this man saying! Where does he come from?”
“He's from here. He is one of us, only he just arrived from Villahermosa and he is dressed like a ladino5. That's why he feels like he is the President,” another person answered.
The following day, knowing that this man asked to be called Echeverría, his pals and everyone else in the village began to use that name. He had already forgotten his name. Perhaps his wife and children, his mother and father, remembered his true name. But when the people saw him in the street, they said, “Goodbye, Echeverría.”
In the early days it made him angry when they said Echeverría, but later on it pleased him, and he would only answer to that name. Some who did not know how to pronounce the word properly said Chevería.
Echeverría did not return to his community, he forgot the land where he was born and raised. He no longer wanted to walk on the hills and mountains. He left behind forever the land of his ancestors. Later, his wife and children would also forget him. But he remained tied to what he had learned in the village even while he was in Villahermosa: he dedicated himself to drink, and for many years he could not let go of it. During his bouts of drinking, he would speak words that came from the heart, pretty words for the girls. When he saw them, he would say, “I sigh like a rose! My life shines like the light of the sun, because you look like sunshine, like cool water to quench my thirst. You look like a flower, by God, you do!”
Later, he would apologize, “Pay no attention, girls, I am only playing, just talking, that's the way it is with joy, that is how I like to live.”
In time, Evcheverría became part of the landscape of the town. Drunk or sober, he could always be seen in a jacket, trousers, shoes and hat, with the brim pulled down over his brow. It did not feel strange that everyone called him Echeverría. He took the name as if it were his own. Before he left to work in Villahermosa, he promised that he would return with money to feed his children, that he would pay his debts and he would improve the lives of those who trusted in him. He said many things that he never accomplished. He offered things that he later forgot. Finally, he was Echeverría.
One sunny Sunday, Evcheverría died in the plaza of the village, dressed in a jacket, shoes, and a hat. He collapsed under the rays of the sun and died looking at the sky in the middle of the plaza, surrounded by the remains of trago, chicha and beer. The afternoon was waning, the reddish sun had begun to set. He died without saying anything. He promised nothing. There he remained in the village that had witnessed his birth, his parting, and his return. There was not even a candle, nor a flower. No one wept or sighed at his burial. He no longer breathed like a rose. He died like a rose dried out by the heat of the sun. They said only, “Poor Echeverría, he died.”
“Ah, yes, he died! We will not see him dance at the feast of Saint Peter. He will never again say, “I sighed like a rose!”
May the poor man's soul rest in peace.
1. Mexican President 1970-1976
2. San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city in the mountains of the state of Chiapas.
3. Captains are the highest ranked officials at these feasts of the patron saint. The lieutenants are the authorities responible for organizing the feast. The majordomos are responsible for maintaining for the length of the year the cult of a particular saint.
4. Fermented sugar cane liquor, rum, and beer
Originally published in Chamula, un pueblo indígena tzotzil, 2a ed., Chiapas, Mexico, Gobierno del Estado de Chiapas/Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura 1990 (Serie Nuestros Pueblos, 4).