When Ella was 14, she asked her Lutheran pastor if he believed in God. Ella’s skepticism of organized religion had been growing, and after her confirmation she decided to confront her pastor about it directly. Ella has a direct, penetrating and at times unearthly gaze. She seems to possess the capacity to see into a person, into the squirming insides.
His response was,
“Honestly? I don’t know.”
On Mexican Independence Day in 2006, I woke to the surprising cold of 6 a.m. in the mountain village of San José del Pacifico, threw on a few old sweatshirts, and hiked with four other people to a ridgetop road fringed with gargantuan agaves and blanketed in pine needles. At a certain point we veered left down another dirt road, a slip-slide-y descent through the soaring forest, and our pace slowed. The air was sweet with pine and hard and cold with mountain isolation. When Charlie felt the right onda, we spread a wool blanket on pine needles and oak leaves and, quietly, all of us a little bit isolated from one another and prickly with anticipation, ate our magic mushrooms.
When Ella was 18, she made the transition from religion to Communism: disembodied paradise in heaven to pragmatic, human paradise on earth. But that dogma didn’t stick either.
“We butted heads; we were too bad to live in a utopia,” she said, laughing, of life in the Communist communities. So at age 22, Ella decided to leave Germany forever. These are the kinds of decisions Ella seems to make, and I don’t doubt their definitiveness, don’t suspect that perhaps she has allowed memory to tidy up what was in actuality a messy, doubt-riddled choice. We were sitting on the couches in the living room of her hand-built wooden home approximately ten kilometers outside of San José del Pacifico, and she was leaning forward so that her long brown hair ran in rivulets around her chest, arms, and back. She was wearing cloth pants and a white tunic that fell to her knees, and her intensity was a disarming mix of the ethereal and the concrete. She looked me straight in the eye: her eyes are big and brown and expressive, warm in spite of the solidity of their conviction. She has a pretty face that has aged delicately, the type of firm beauty I associate with the feminists of my mother’s generation.
“It was a golden cage,” she said, and it was the third time in a week I’d heard that term used to describe the developed Western world. She was the first person born and raised in that world to use it; the other two were Mexican migrants to the U.S.
Ella landed in Mexico speaking no Spanish, knowing nothing about the country, and with no plan other than not returning to Germany. And at first, she hated it.
“It was so violent, so bellicose, very warlike. The people were so aggressive, always trying to get at you.” She left and went to Guatemala, which she found much more agreeable, and then to Belize, where she met José. José is from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, and he told her, “You don’t even know Mexico.” He offered to show it to her, and they crossed the Guatemala-Mexico border together at Flores. “We came back through the jungle and the river,” she says, and I catch a whiff of the romance of those times, the two just having met, the jungle and the river and the border and the green and the rain and the future wide open and free. But it is only the faintest whiff. Her talk of the past is matter-of-fact.
They spent time in Chiapas and then in Michoacan and then in the north, and she came to see Mexico completely differently; she was “muy ilusionado,” enlightened, hopeful, taken in by the country. To survive they pantomimed in the street, made handmade leather goods – shoes, wallets, belts – and settled for awhile in Pátzcuaro to work as bakers. People liked their bread and were very kind to them, but they kept traveling, searching for God. They did meditation, yoga, exercises; they went on strict diets, they forbade themselves from listening to music or using electronic devices, and wore only handmade clothes. And the whole time they searched for God, and for a plot of land to raise a family.
And then in 1984, near San José del Pacifico, they found it. Ella was thirty-three years old. They bought seven acres of land in a tract of oak, pine and fir forest on the mountainside above the village, in Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur. Their plan was initially only to create “a paradise for the family;” they would go on to have six children.
But they had just built their home when people from nearby villages (el Refugio, as their land would come to be called, is located in close proximity to four tiny villages) began knocking on their door.
Suddenly, they found themselves face to face with the intense, daily, deleterious effects of poverty. They were overwhelmed by need. People were hungry. They didn’t have clothes for the Sierra’s cold (even in summer, temperatures at this altitude – nearly 8,000 feet – can dip below freezing.) They didn’t have basic technology: Ella and José had built a mill, and inadvertently became millers for the villagers. The closest hospital was in Miahuatlan, a village down in the valley an hour from San José, but it was generally understaffed and there were no doctors on weekends, so villagers had to travel three hours on winding mountain roads to Oaxaca City. There was rape. Witchcraft. People were poisoned and possessed by witches and came begging for help.
And that’s when Ella and José finally had their encounter with God.
“We realized that it wasn’t just us,” Ella said. “We weren’t thinking with our heads anymore but with our hearts.”
They became millers, artisans, practitioners of traditional medicine, midwives, and eventually, in 1994, ten years after they first settled near San José, spiritual leaders of a community centered around an unconventional shelter for drug addicts.
It didn’t take long, maybe forty-five minutes, for the shrooms to kick in. When they did, my friend Jessica and I naturally drifted off from the group. We had come with a casual friend, Anna, a fellow teacher at the small English school where we were working, and two guys we’d just met: Carlos and Jorge. I had been against going with the guys from the start; I’d shroomed before and wanted to do it only with people I knew. But Jessica had already agreed we’d all go together, and so the day before I’d been in a grumpy mood for the whole journey to the village, and throughout an awkward dinner of omelettes and beans at a roadside restaurant. That mood had faded in the morning in the eerie, spectral climb into the mountains, in the ritual of gnawing on those dirty-sock shrooms, and in the taut emotion of waiting for them to kick in. But still, once the edges of the trees started to shimmer, Jessica and I fell back naturally onto our bond. We invited Anna along but, taken aback by the onslaught of sensations, she wanted to stay put.
So Jessica and I made our way along the path to the edge of a hill, which passed alternately into sunshine and shadow: warm, then chilled; blue, than yellow. We compared blue worlds and yellow worlds: what belonged in each? To blue, ships, rainy days, Billie Holiday, trains, sex under down comforters; to yellow, beaches, shower sex, hummingbirds, maps. The world briefly held the form of blue or yellow, dissolved in a wash of one color or another.
Eventually, Jessica wanted to go back. She thought the shrooms were dissipating and wanted to take a shower and a nap in the cabañas. When we made it back to the blanket Anna decided to go with her and I faced a dilemma. I was still very much in the thick of the trip, and didn’t want to leave, but I barely knew Jorge and Carlos and felt uncomfortable staying.
Reluctantly, and despite Jessica’s insistence that if I was still feeling it I should stay, I gathered up my things and traipsed uphill with my friends.
But back on the ridgetop road between the agaves, I stopped.
“I’m going to stay,” I said.
“Stay,” Jessica encouraged, “You should stay.”
And so I ran back, ran back along the road, briefly scared in an exhilarating way of getting lost, veering left back down the path, running weightlessly and with the ground beneath me coruscating in greens and browns, until I pulled up panting before the wool blanket.
“I came back,” I said.
“Que bueno!” Carlos said, in his elected role as group leader and shaman. “Está muy bien. Have a seat.” And I lay down on my back on the blanket beside Jorge.
They called the first shelter they built “The Hilton.” It was a rickety wooden shack and it collapsed in an earthquake. They built another small dorm that was soon cramped with more than twenty people, and then a second dorm, a dining hall, a meeting room, communal bathrooms, and showers, all with wood and clay and stone from the surrounding forests. Before, they’d relied solely on a donkey named Cadillac to transport goods.
At first, they thought Cadillac was asthmatic; he would wheeze with desperation and slow to a crawl when they took him to the village, and they’d take their children off him and pile his load onto their own backs, feeling guilty. And then one day in mid-asthmatic wheeze he saw a female donkey, and he was off at a sprint, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. After that Cadillac knew the game was up. He hefted his load wheeze-free. Cadillac has now been replaced by cars, which go to the market in Mihuatlán each week for supplies.
El Refugio is all solar-powered, and in the rainy season – which was just beginning when I arrived last week, in early June – there is often no light or electricity. Heat comes from fireplaces and layers and layers of wool serapes. The paths between the small buildings are packed red clay, often with wooden steps interspersed to help gain solid footing on the slope’s steep pitch. The paths wind through the pines and the fat-leaved oaks, beside apple trees and garden patches and plots of medicinal plants, with views over layers of forested and fog-snagged mountains. Along with Ella and José’s main house there are a handful of other teepees and small houses for guests – a Frenchman, his Japanese wife, their three boys and the seven-month-old baby she’d given birth to at El Refugio were staying in one – a small soccer field; a prayer yurt; men and women’s dorms and small wooden buildings for their art workshops; a small clinic for healing with medicinal plants; a strawberry patch, and an area dedicated to the temazcal, an indigenous sweat lodge resembling an igloo built of clay.
Carlos, an artist whom my husband had met via a fellowship they’d both won and who’d told us about this place, said to me as we were walking together along a path, “On clear days, you can see all the way to the ocean.” We couldn’t see it that day – just the distant V where the mountains tumbled down to the coast and where we could imagine the vast Pacific putting an abrupt end to the land. The sky was cold layers of crystalline blue and white, and the mountains seemed washed and virgin after all the recent rains, their dark green resplendent.
Word spread about la Casa de Restaurazión, as they call it at El Refugio (switching out the ción at the end of the Spanish word for restoration for “zion”) and it soon became the principal focus of the community. Women in particular sought it out, as there are few places for female addicts to go for treatment, and almost nowhere they can bring their children.
Still, there were more men than women: at the time I arrived, 12 men and 4 women. In recent years, Ella had been shocked at the increase in violence in these people’s stories. Ripples from Mexico’s devastating drug war were being felt here, in this community of several dozen people hidden in the forest on a remote mountaintop. Assassinations, kidnappings, beatings, rapes, torture, marasalvatruchas. The latter are members of a particularly vicious gang that originated in Los Angeles and spread across Mexico as gang members were deported. At first, Ella hadn’t wanted to open her door to them, but God wouldn’t allow that. After a while, they calmed down, but there had been incidents. They’d gone at one another with machetes. Several marasalvatruchas had threatened to hit her, but she stood unwavering and said, “I dare you to hit me. I dare you.” I imagined her: her eyes fierce and honest, her body soft and womanly and steeled at the same time by some disarming unflappability. None of them had ever hit her.
The narco culture wasn’t only creating a surge in violence, but in addiction. For the first time in the refuge’s 18-year history, heroin addicts were showing up. San José, Ella pointed out with a wryness layered over her standard matter-of-factness, had always been known for its drugs. Shrooms, of course, and also weed, hashish and now, opium. There were fields of it all around the village. And despite the fact that Miahuatlan was a known narco hotbed and just over the mountains in Huatulco submarines of cocaine had been found and destroyed by the Mexican marines, miraculously no soldiers ever burnt these fields. Of course, Ella said, they were on the take, and anyone who has lived in Mexico and been paying any attention would recognize this as a baseline truth without blinking. She didn’t even have to say it, really, she just threw it out like a mother might say to another mother, “Of course, the kids can’t drink alcohol.” But then she went even further. “You know the checkpoint in Miahuatlan?” I did. It was just outside the city, and soldiers scuffed their heavy boots in the desert dust and kicked at stray dogs. Sometimes the vans going to the coast were stopped, sometimes not, often seeming to depend on how engrossed the soldiers were in their dice game. Once, I drove a 12-person van with three foreigners and ten cases of alcohol from Oaxaca to Huatulco for a friend’s wedding and wasn’t stopped either way, going out or coming back.
“Well, there’s a heroin factory right across from that checkpoint. Just across the street.” This gave me pause. “The next time you go, look, and you’ll see what looks like an empty house. That’s it. The villagers make it there, and sell it in Oaxaca. It’s black heroin – la chiva negra. Really nasty, really addictive stuff, horrible withdrawal symptoms.” When I came down from the Sierra I did what Ella said: I watched for, and saw, the empty-looking concrete house with the iron-barred windows like a million other village houses, just across the narrow two-lane road from the checkpoint.
“They’ll make a big show of stealing a tourist’s joint, but they’ll never touch the heroin,” Carlos’ wife Mafer told me. And meanwhile the first wave of chiva negra addicts was beginning to arrive in El Refugio, and meth was spreading like wildfire along the coast around Puerto Escondido.
The women and men stay in separate dorms, with bunk beds and murals and the Refugio’s rules on the walls. The rules are, as Mafer put it, “muy light.” There is hot water on Tuesdays and Fridays, from 4 to 5 p.m. The maximum shower time is five minutes. Laundry is washed by hand. Personal space must be kept tidy. It is prohibited for family members or people from the village to bring food without approval from Ella and Jose. Slang and vulgarity are prohibited, as are inappropriate conversations and music whose lyrics “do not bring anything positive to your mind and your life.” Electronic devices are strictly prohibited. Women cannot wear bikinis or underwear into the temazcal, and men and women cannot use the temazcal together.
There is an orderly daily routine. From 6-8 a.m., prayer. From 8-9, small tasks like making the beds and sweeping the dorms. At 9, tea and bread. From 9:30-11, Bible study with José, and then at 11, breakfast. In the afternoon, free time or physical work: the construction of houses, help with the vegetable gardens or the temazcal, various odd jobs around El Refugio. From 4-5, down time. At 5, dinner. From 6-8 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday there were workshops: drawing, painting, music, languages. On the days without workshops there were movies – “movies that feed us,” Mafer specified – and visits to the sweat lodge, and bonfires. Saturdays everyone relaxed and took the day off.
People stayed anywhere from three days to three years. Recently, El Refugio had begun asking for a contribution of 350 pesos, or about $30, a week. But still many people showed up with nothing at all, and were accepted. The medicinal plant clinic was free. Former addicts, especially international travelers, who had passed through El Refugio sometimes donated, as did others committed to its projects: recently, the community had received its first ultrasound machine. A small amount of money came in through the rent of the houses and teepees. The strawberry patch was also expected to generate some income. Vegetables were grown on the property, and nearly all of the construction materials used in the houses came from the surrounding land. But still, I asked how the Refugio stayed afloat, and Ella smiled, enigmatically, quietly, the gulf between us obvious. They’d gone through lean times of only rice and beans, but overall, she said,
“With faith. You reap what you sow.”
It began to rain, but it looked like snow. Snow falling between the pine needles on the soft trees above us, the sky pearly gray and wintry. Jorge and I were side by side on our backs on the blanket, warm. We said nothing, just lay like that for a long time, long into the afternoon, despite the thin rain. Charlie smoked a pipe with his back to a rough-barked pine behind us, the silent guru. An old señora with a whittled wooden cane and layers of ragged skirts and sweaters passed and sold us pears and we ate them as if we’d been journeying for days and nights, the juice dripping down our chins. When we decided to go the three of us gathered blankets and pears, water bottles and sweatshirts, into a dreamy caravan and started uphill. When we reached the ridgetop road we stopped so Charlie could catch his breath, and then slyly, as Jorge and I waited wide-eyed taking in the agaves like dinosaurs and the forest rich in mahogany and chestnut and cocoa browns, in bosky and mossy and olive greens, Charlie moved off some half-dozen feet down the road. We were standing there and we saw each other as if we were two deer meeting in the forest. And when we kissed it was a shy kiss, very mild, very soft, and unhurried. Jorge smelled like a Mexican village – woodsmoke and leather and musk and earth – a smell I would not notice on him again until he arrived a year later to meet me in Beijing, after we’d been apart long enough for me to miss and remember his smell.
Mafer emphasized several times that El Refugio is not a typical halfway house.
“Your family can’t drag you here drunk and leave you,” she said. You had to come of your own volition. “You have to want it,” Mafer said, “Because you know, it is really difficult to get out.” She laughed, self-deprecating, but perhaps still a little raw. Mafer was 8 months pregnant. She was wearing a serape that covered most of her short, light frame, nearly down to her ankles, and giant plastic hipster glasses tinted a light auburn. Her black, shiny hair was gathered into a ponytail, and the ends were beginning to turn into dreads. Mafer’s eyes are big and brown, and she has a delicate piercing just to the left of her lower lip. Her face can go from soft to petulant in an instant. She is warm, but not to be messed with.
“After the prepa –” la preparatoria, the Mexican high school meant to prepare more gifted students for college – she told me, “I had five years of party.” Like many Mexicans of a certain class she threw in key English words that seemed to sum up situations more aptly than their Spanish equivalents.
She dappled with drugs and alcohol in high school, but she fell in the deep end not in Mexico but in, of all places, Laurel, Mississippi.
“Si, Mississippi.” With her Spanish accent it sounded like mee-see-see-pee, a Candyland kind of place. And indeed it was. She went there on a whim after high school for a year of adventure, and found work at a hair salon.
“Te acuerdes de la tea tree experience?” she asked me.
“The what?” I asked. She laughed.
“The tea tree experience.” Her English pronunciation is good, with only a slight accent that sounds more Spanish than Mexican. “It was really popular at the time. It was a whole affair, you had to wrap the hair first in hot towels, then in cold towels, then in hot again…” she starts laughing at herself. “It was supposed to feel incredible. Lots of people asked for it.”
As it turns out, “the tea tree experience” is a line of Paul Mitchell products, everything from shampoo to “shaping cream” and “styling wax.” The promotional video for it features a male and female model with voluptuous blonde manes sauntering, sultry and unsmiling, through shallow lagoons and along beaches at sunset. Hipsters spray their hair with water bottles and photograph them; they hold each other in long stiff embraces without kissing; they flip their hair erotically over their shoulders and stare into the middle distance.
When she wasn’t giving her clients the tea tree experience, Mafer spent her time drinking, smoking weed, or doing crystal meth. Meth was huge.
“Seriously, every single person I knew did it,” she told me. “Every single person.”
Once, she smoked meth with an entirely family. They sat in the family’s living room and they all got high together.
“Seriously!” she says. “You’re sitting on someone’s couches, in their nice little pink family room, and they’re all doing meth.” She is still incredulous.
“People there would smoke with their families. This would never happen in Mexico. Never. Parents smoking weed, meth with their kids. There they would all do it together.”
“I can’t believe you spent a year in Laurel, Mississippi.”
“I had lots of fun,” she says, ironic.
By the time she got back to Mexico she was thick into all of it, and she entered a period she calls “supernatural.”
“Something was suffocating me,” she said. “And finally I made a pact with whatever was suffocating me that I was going to die. I made a pact with death, that I would die in fifteen days.”
But on the day she thought she would die, she went instead to her mother’s house. Her mother had been going to a church that believed demons held humans prisoners, and she took Mafer there.
The pastor took one look at Mafer and began telling her what she’d been up to: he named places she’d been, events, people she knew, things she’d done that no one could have known about. He asked her, “Do you want to be free?” and she said yes. There is a saying in Mexico, “un clavo saca otro clavo” – one nail drives out another. In its typical macho form it’s applied to women: one replaces and relieves the hurt of another. The priest told Mafer something similar: you have to believe in certain things in order to rid yourself of others. Then he prayed for her. And that was when she began to leave the party behind.
She was working at an orphanage in Puebla, planning to finally go to university, when she met Ella. She’d painted a mural for a convention of missionaries, mostly pastors from the U.S. who believed in prophesies, and she went onstage to explain the mural’s symbolism. After her presentation she was standing in a corner at a stand she’d set up for people to come draw and paint when Ella approached her. Ella didn’t say anything. She just came up and squeezed Mafer tight for fifteen minutes.
“No me soltó,” Mafer said. She didn’t let go.
And then Ella told her about El Refugio, and the work they did there, and telling me about this Mafer beat her palm gently on her chest and said, “I heard, boom, boom, boom, here, in my heart, and I knew I would work with them.”
Mafer has always had what she calls “a spiritual necessity.” She grew up in the Christian church, but knew it wasn’t for her, and began searching in her teens for other forms of spirituality. The one she liked best was wicca, but found it was too far from her cultural roots. Then she got into peyote – “but I studied for three years before I ever did it!” she is quick to qualify. She read all the books by shamans, and then began to experiment on her own, trying to talk directly to the Gods. But all of this was really “tonterías,” stupidity, “just looking for power.” She discovered her relationship with God when she discovered Ella and the community; here, she would ultimately blossom spiritually.
But she knew that before she moved to El Refugio she had to resolve other parts of her life. She went, finally, to university in Puebla and studied fine arts, and there she met Carlos.
“He was my teacher; I was his student,” she told me, grinning, hand on her baby belly. Carlos grinned too. He had a gaunt face with high cheekbones; a long, slightly crooked nose and handsome brown eyes. He was thin, in loose woven hippie pants, flip-flops and a windbreaker, and his hair was in dreads and pulled back into a ponytail. He too wore big hipster glasses, and had a shyer, softer air to him than Ella and Mafer. He had a fellowship from the Mexican Foundation for Culture and the Arts for graphic art, and at a meeting of fellowship recipients he’d met my husband and told him about El Refugio. Jorge had in turn told me, and I’d wound up here out of curiosity and my personal memories from San José del Pacifico.
Carlos and Mafer were friends for a year before they got together; during that time, Carlos was working his way out of his own addiction, and Mafer was his guide. Once they’d committed to each other Mafer brought him to El Refugio, and he too felt connected to the community, and wanted to make a life there. Knowing how difficult it was to pull oneself out of an addiction, they both wanted to work with addicts. They spent a year and a half “ending cycles: family, work, school.”
And then, they got married in the community – “I wanted to get married in a place where all you could see, all around, were trees,” Mafer said – and began building their house on a small plot of land Ella gave them. One year later, the small two-story house has a roomy fireplace and a studio space downstairs where they each do their artwork; a kitchen in a narrow oval shape like a sailboat’s hull, walled with windows and giving out onto a garden area and the mountains beyond; a bathroom with a hand-laid tile floor; and a studio space downstairs where they each do their artwork. And there is, of course, a baby on the way: a boy named Eliah.
It is the road that I remember most. The ridgetop road with agaves taller than men, wide as tree trunks. The road under our feet umber with leaves and pines and fresh mud. The wool blanket drawn around Charly’s wide shoulders. Jorge and I stealing glances, surprised at each other, at this discovery. The quiet aegis of the forest, the way it sheltered and sheathed this nascent thing. The descent into the clouds, San José’s fog thick and heavy in the rainy season. A señora walking uphill, selling bread. And then the village coming into view as we descended, strips of raw tasajo drying on a rooftop, an old-school Coca-Cola sign silhuotted against the empty sky, the church in the fog.
Eva was twelve when she started drinking.
“I just started trying things out,” she said, as we were sitting in the frail light of a gas lamp in a one-room wooden shelter, where the women drink tea and paint proverbs. They are friendly and intimate with each other, joking about giving each other foot massages and taking turns looking after Nereida’s three-year-old daughter Lany. Only Nereida, slightly older than Maite and Eva, is more quiet and reserved, and keeps her distance. It had grown cold and dark, the deep absorbing dark of mountains, but with me, Mafer and the three women in this small space it was warm and we took off our sweaters. Maite served me tea. The room smelled faintly of gas and cinnamon, and as Eva and I talked the others dipped brushes into sky blues and vivid oranges to create scenes for their proverbs.
“I liked it, I let myself be taken in by friendships. And I fought a lot with my mom,” Eva went on. She started skipping school, stopped going home, and then joined a gang. “I didn’t even take showers,” she said, “I looked like those drunks in the Central!” The Central de Abastos is Oaxaca’s sprawling, chaotic main market, known for its robberies, prostitution and drunks as well as its heaps of cheap produce. She tried several times to get out; she went home to her mom, and her mom made her soup and cared for her and told her that she could do it.
“You know what they say,” Eva told me. She was wearing a wool cap and had a chubby girlish face, both expressive and cautious. She was tough, solidly built, and feisty; when I’d first met her, as Mafer and I were walking around the Refugio’s land, she’d just built a small fire around which the women were gathered and was proud of herself. “Come join my bonfire!” she’d called, with a mischevious grin that said she knew she was bending the rules.
“Querer es poder.” She smiled. To want is to be able to. “It’s not true,” she said earnestly. “The slightest smell, anything could drive you back…” and she lets her voice trail off. I want to push for details, for moments, but Mafer is watching us and I know everyone is careful here in talking about the past, careful about memories, triggers, dangerous nostalgia. It is written on the wall of the women’s dorm. They all joke with Mafer and treat her fondly like an older sister, and I can tell they want to please her, to show her they are making progress.
Eva told me that her worst moment was seeing her cousin die. She didn’t specify how, just told me, “I could have helped him but I didn’t want to then.”
She went on, “I watch my friends die little by little. I see them dying and I’m here. They were always with me,” and I can tell from her voice as I’m scribbling away that she’s crying, that kind of involuntary crying that is choked and restrained. “Even if they were doing bad things, they were always with me and it hurts to watch them fall.”
Mafer interjects. “Eva’s situation was a little bit complicated. Since she was in a gang, she had to come incognito – there could be repercussions if they find her. She didn’t tell anyone she was going.”
“Someday,” Eva says, “I might have to pay the same price I made other people pay. I did some bad things, I know. I’m going to walk past those same places…but the money my parents have spent on me, the time they’ve spent and Mafer and Carlos have spent helping me find God…well, it won’t be worth anything if I don’t face that.”
She had been painting something in the half-light of the gas lamp and she handed it to me: a rock from the mountainside, which she’s painted purple with pink lettering. “El cielo y la tierra pasaran pero DIOS NO.” They sky and the Earth will pass but NEVER GOD. And on the other side, “From EVA: El Refugio.”
There is potent belief at El Refugio in both God and witches.
“Witches,” as Ella explained, “are very scared of God. If people believe in God…”
“[The witches] lose their clientele,” Mafer chimed in, with a wise smile.
“If everyone in the pueblo believed in God the witches would have to leave,” Ella continued. She and José had been attacked many times. Wax and blood, salt and dirt left on the doorstep, rocks thrown at the roof…and they’d been witness to many attacks as well, which only their prayers had stopped. One of the most memorable of these was many years ago when they’d first arrived in San José. They’d heard about a man in a neighboring village who was screaming day and night, drinking mezcal, generally out of control. The people from that village asked them for help. When they went to the village the guy screamed curses at José, and Ella asked José not to take the guy back to their house; she was frightened. But after the village’s policemen, without recourse to other options, dropped the guy at the edge of the pueblo, Ella and José decided to bring him home. He talked and played with invisible people; “there was a witch behind him,” Ella said. He told them that evening that during the night people came to fight with him, so they bound his hands and feet and left him in a sleeping bag. He woke up untied and had taken all the furniture out of their house. Then they buried him in clay, and he rose from the soil as if nothing had happened. Only when they read the Bible and prayed and prayed did he get better: he eventually migrated to the U.S., where he lives now.
Eight years after this incident the witch responsible called José and begged for help. The witch was dying and wanted to go with God.
The witches weren’t the only ones who’d threatened and attacked Ella and José; the church, too, had it out for them for awhile. “They said really nasty things to us,” Ella said, “But later they came and apologized.” El Refugio was founded on an intense skepticism of organized religion and the belief that “God is a relationship, not a religion.” The goal is to speak personally to God; to discard all of the messy human traditions and power grabbing, which have nothing to do with God, and to develop one’s own relationship with Him. Each person has their own way of doing this, and El Refugio’s goal is for each person to cultivate this relationship. Ella and José are known as los tios – the aunt and uncle – a term that reinforces the belief that the people who stay at El Refugio are part of a family and not some sort of religious hierarchy. The reverence with which the guests, hard young men whittled to gauntness by lost years and skeptical women long accustomed to violence, speak of los tios does not contain fear or adulation, but gratefulness. “They treat us like human beings here,” Eva told me. “Like we’re worth something.”
In spite of the skepticism of organized religion there is a surprising amount of Jewish iconography around El Refugio: Hebrew lettering in the prayer hut, a menorah in the front window of Ella and José’s house, and an Israeli flag hanging from Mafer and Carlos’ bedroom window. El Refugio believes that Rome corrupted the Christian religion, corrupted ideas of Jesus and coopted Christianity for its own good. Mafer hinted to me that Rome, now more than ever, is up to no good; José had recently held a meeting in which he’d outlined some of its more nefarious plans.
El Refugio’s understanding of God is attached to the notion of Jesus as a Jew, of Israel as the promised land, and of the Torah as a sacred text. In prayer, Jesus is called by the Hebrew name of Yeshua. Mafer told me, sipping tea in her kitchen on my last day at El Refugio, that she dreams of someday going to Israel, and that the Bible not only predicts the conflict there but Israel’s – and from this I took the Jewish Israel state – eventual triumph. How else would it be possible for a tiny country such as Israel to defeat, what, five, six gigantic armies during the six-day war of 1967? One of Ella’s sons had spent time in Israel, where he’d met his South African wife, and if El Refugio expressed a spiritual alignment with any country it was not Mexico or Germany but Israel.
Sitting in her living room, as local teachers –short, dark-skinned, shy women from nearby villages – ate a spaghetti lunch she’d prepared for them, Ella said, “It continues to be a challenge. It’s always a challenge.” She smiled.
“But with time, through experience, you get smaller and smaller, and God gets bigger and bigger.”
At 28 Nereida is nearly a decade older and much quieter than the other two women, with a face that is clear-complexioned and hard; narrow brown eyes; a small delicate nose and freckles. She has brought her three-year old daughter, Lany, who has her eyes, a long face, and a shy smile. While we talked Lany was dipping tostadas – the crackly, cratered Mexican kind that are like popcorny wafers, not the paper-thin American discs – into her tea.
“She’s being punished,” Nereida explained in a voice hoarse and soft and without rancor. “She gave all of the cookies yesterday to the dog, and she has to understand how much it costs us to buy those cookies.”
Nereida’s story begins with the surprise of her birth. Nereida’s mother neglected to tell her other children, who were all born to a father who had died years earlier, that she was pregnant once again, so when Nereida came these siblings were taken aback, then filled with hate.
“I have a lot of hate in my heart,” Nereida says in a voice gentle and low and coarse with the Sierra’s cold, belying all of the steady repititions of hate. “I received all the hate in the household.” At 11, she left to find work. A seamstress hired her as a maid, but she was treated badly. The seamstress would feed her and then would save the scraps of whatever she did not eat and feed it to her again, the next day, already rotten, or would give her the leftover food the seamstress’ children had not eaten or rejected. She didn’t dare complain. She left her town near Puerto Escondido, on the Oaxacan coast, for Zihuatanejo when she was a teenager, and by then she had learned to take care of herself.
“No me dejaba,” she says, a Mexican phrase which translates roughly as, “I didn’t let myself be taken advantage of.” There, things went better: she worked in a rich couple’s house and they treated her decently and gave her a small area to herself. On the weekends, she worked from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. at a taqueria, for 500 pesos – around $40 – a night. “It was good money,” she said. But she spent it all in discos, going out, drinking and smoking, until one night when she was 18 she went to the beach in Zihuatanejo with men she didn’t know and one of them raped her. She said this in the same tone of voice in which she explained the hate, the food, the opportunity at the taqueria, all part of a long tired trajectory. After that, she said, she grew aggressive, antisocial, although her voice is so soft I have trouble imagining.
When she was 22, a brother-in-law invited her to go with him to the U.S. “It’s better there,” he assured her.
“Vamonos,” she said. They walked for two days and two nights; they were so thirsty they filled their water bottles from a filthy pool where the cows drank. There were more than thirty of them, and the ones in front of her were robbed by gangsters, who touched the women as they took their money.
“It wasn’t nearly as bad as it is now,” she is quick to qualify. She made it unscathed to Provo, Utah, where she found work as a cashier in a Mexican grocery. There, she met her future husband. He turned out to be a drunk and a drug addict, and soon after their engagement she discovered he had been leading a double life with another woman.
“You left him?” I asked hopefully, and she shook her head.
“I was Christian, I thought I could take him to church, and he would change.” Her voice trailed off as she recognized that self, another self encased inside another layer of hardness she’d formed over the years. When she was six months pregnant, he was detained in a liquor store with a pipe full of marijuana in his bag and was deported. She stayed and had the baby alone, but she worked eight-hour days, everyday, and the baby would not drink her milk. She didn’t know what to do; she grew desperate, and her mother begged her to come home.
So she came back and ended up living in her brother’s house, but his wife hated her, and at a fiesta one day she and her sister-in-law got into a fight that culminated with she and Lany being kicked out. Without anywhere to go, they wound up at El Refugio.
“We’ve been here 15 days, and we’ll be here one month. One month,” she repeats, her voice firming into conclusiveness. No longer than that. She was the only one of all the guests who did not come to the prayer circle the next morning.
“I had a stomachache,” she said, when Mafer sought her out afterwards.
“Ask Ella to give you a belladonna cream,” Mafer said, and Nereida nodded, expressionless. The night before, she had shown Mafer a sketch of the proverb she wanted to paint. Mafer looked at it and hesitated, silent.
“It’s very strong, isn’t it?” she asked finally, doubtful.
“I want to put it in my kitchen,” Nereida said. Mafer nodded slowly, still uncertain.
“Can I see?” I asked, and Nereida showed me the page in her notebook. It was proverb 26:2.
“Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight.”
As night descended on El Refugio, dimming the clay huts and the gardens into silhouettes, shadows, and warm gas-lit windows, Mafer and I made tortas de jamón y queso while Carlos built a fire. We ate on low, hand-carved wooden stools in front of the fireplace, talking about art and success.
Carlos had given up drugs and alcohol not because of a life-or-death confrontation, as in Mafer’s case, but because he saw how vapid his art had become. The art scene was all about parties. It was about drinking, getting high, becoming successful, making connections, getting known. He felt himself searching and searching in his work, and although he was doing well as an artist he remembers looking at his obra and thinking it was all just whims; it was empty, devoid of real depth and meaning. He was grabbing onto this and that, whatever caught his fancy, and it didn’t dovetail with his life. When he gave up the party scene, met Mafer, married her, and began constructing this life, that changed. His work meshed with his life; one flowed right into the other. The art was not some abstract means to an end, the “path to success.” His connection to the concrete physical and psychological work of El Refugio, work with both practical and spiritual dimensions, rid him of the illusion that art in and of itself would save the world, that art divorced from life or created for the purpose of fame was transcendent and meaningful. He thought art was in a crisis, unsure of its meaning and its future, but he, sitting in front of that fire with his cup of juice and his torta, seemed sure now of his life’s direction. He had found a way to live mindfully, purposefully, and that I envied.
I slept soundly that night under a heap of wool blankets on the sofa upstairs. For the first time in a long time I marked the day’s end with a soft rush of breath putting out a candle.
Maite’s story begins with a broken heart. She got engaged at the age of 18. Soon after the engagement, her fiancé left her. “He was my life, everything, my world, I thought I couldn’t live anymore,” she said. Maite is thin, and has a pretty face with high cheekbones and wide eyes – inside jokes and raised eyebrows and sighs on Mafer’s part suggest she was part of some sort of drama with the men at El Refugio. She and Eva are big pals, wise-cracking Mexican-style, saying things like, “I didn’t drink that much, really, I didn’t.”
After the breakup, “my character changed,” Maite said. She began drinking: often a case of beer –twenty-four beers – a day. “When I didn’t drink much, I’d have ten or twelve,” she told me. She stopped eating, and one day when she was working in her mother’s store, she fainted. When they roused her she said she didn’t want to live: if he wasn’t with her it wasn’t worth it. Her family took her to a psychiatric hospital, where she went through “many psychologists, many exercises. They’d tell me to stop calling him, and I’d leave the office and go straight to the pay phone and call him.” She finally hit it off with one psychologist: a girl whose father had forced her to study psychology. She and Maite got trashed together and had a nice gig going before Maite’s parents found out.
“She drank a ton,” Maite said proudly. For two years, Maite was on and off with psychologists, drinking, obsessed with her ex-boyfriend. And then one Friday night she came home and her whole family – brother, parents, uncles and aunts – was waiting for her. She was wasted. Her father began beating her up, and when he was done her mother said they were taking her to a halfway house in Pochutla. She said if they took her there she’d never speak to them again. Her mother cried. Her brother slapped her. There was not a single other woman at the halfway house and it scared her family, so they took her home.
The next morning, “I looked like I’d been hit by a refrigerator,” she said. Her arms and face were black and blue, but her father apologized. Her family hesitated about putting her in a shelter because she was going out with a sketchy guy and they didn’t want him to find her in Pochutla or Puerto Escondido. Her best friend, Ely, happened to stop by and had a friend who’d come to El Refugio, and that was how her family found out about it. They dropped her off on Sunday, after a mass to pray for her recovery.
For the first two weeks she was miserable; every day was an eternity. She wanted so badly to go. But seventeen days in, her family came to visit. She didn’t know they were coming.
“I heard the dogs barking,” she said. “Eva was gone –” on a brief visit with family – “and I was so sad. And then I heard my name being called, they were saying, ‘You have visitors.’ I was so nervous. I never thought it’d be my family because it was Sunday and they were always at church. And I came down to the consultorio –” where the medicinal plants are kept – “and they said, ‘Close your eyes!’ and then my whole family came out from behind the consultorio and said, ‘Surprise!’”
“I thought my mom would be the first to run out and hug me,” she said. “But it was my dad.”
There were brothers and sisters-in-law, cousins, aunts, uncles, a ton of people. They had a picnic in the countryside; her mom and dad went into San José and brought back barbacoa. It was one of the happiest times of her life, and she knew then that she could do it, that she’d make it.
Nereida was silent while Maite talked, and in the middle of her story Nereida stood, left the room, and didn’t return.
Maite is Nereida’s niece. Her family is also Nereida’s.
Morning prayer begins at 6 a.m, but this being Mexico Mafer, Carlos and I woke up at 6:10 or so, had some tea and cookies, and rolled into the prayer yurt around 6:30. Everyone else – all of the men and the women staying at the shelter – was there waiting, minus Nereida. The yurt was about twenty feet in diameter, with a low shelf made of the same orange clay as the yurt itself running around the wall. Everyone sat on cushions on the shelf, some twenty-five of us thigh to thigh but not cramped. A Star of David was carved on the floor. Handmade instruments – maracas, a bongo, a rattle made of Guanacaste seedpods – hung on the walls. Windows gave out onto a rosy, clear morning, as if during the night someone had rubbed away the fog with a fist and left a crisp refreshed view of mountains and sky. Simone, a black dachshund-lab mix with a lab’s girth and a dachshund’s length and height, was curled up in a patch of tenuous morning sun outside, her pinecone beside her. Simone had a bit of an addiction. I indulged her – I kicked the pinecone when she brought it to me and she went chasing it in ecstatic leaps with her awkwardly splayed lab-dachshund paws. From then on out she tagged along beside me, strategically dropping the pinecone one step ahead where I could kick it somewhere, anywhere, for her to fetch.
“She’ll do it for hours,” Mafer told me.
“It’s an obsession,” Carlos told me. She bonded with whoever enabled her in her ceaseless quest to fetch.
Inside the yurt I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect other than my own discomfort, and I braced myself for sermons, incantations, speaking in tongues, castigations. But then Mafer began strumming her guitar, a light, simple melody, and Carlos started to speak quietly in a serene steady stream, head down, Bible in his hands. The men and women looked down, still, silent.
“We’ve experienced darkness, God, we know that in these commandments in this word is our fullness, our soul our eyes incline us towards vanity, towards pride, Lord, and all their consequences which we have lived, in one instant we realized how lonely it was, vanity of vanities, as Solomon says…” Carlos’ voice was a fluid rhythm matched to Mafer’s guitar, a clement and genial murmur that rose and fell as naturally as water over stones, and the men and women closed their eyes, and one began to sob. He was a man with caramel-colored skin in his early twenties and he pulled his hood tight over his head and stepped outside for a moment.
“…the course of human beings is directed towards sin, errors, evil, all of this can be deduced, guide us Lord along the path of justice and love, teach us Lord reveal our lives teach us this word not like an oath Lord but like protection, that which gives us protection, right now we’re saying Lord that the path of justice, of the word remakes lives revives hearts, where the Lord walks in freedom…”
An older man in his late fifties or sixties whom everyone called el abuelo, or the Grandpa, had his head down and his eyes closed, nodding, yes, his hands on his thighs. Beside him was a thin man somewhere in his thirties who if not for his thinness would’ve looked like a Dad one might see buying ice cream in the park; the night before when I had visited the men’s art studio he had quickly pulled out a stool for me to sit on. His hair was wet and combed and his face was raw with belief, the need for belief.
There was a long-haired young guy in a U.S. army jacket and another young guy with an eyebrow piercing, gang tattoos all over his knuckles, and a ballcap that said “WAR VICTIMS” in graffiti-like print. There was a guy with a t-shirt printed with a giant hammer and sickle; he had his hood pulled over his head and was sucking on a sucker. There was a young guy with a wedding ring tattooed on his ring finger. And there was a new guy, who had arrived the day before, with a tattoo on his neck and a crisp Nike jacket and clean Nike shoes.
“I will rejoice in the commandments I will meditate on the statutes we want to meditate each day on the Word each day that has transformed and keeps transforming so that we may leave transformed, victorious in this battle, here we are Lord, write your Word in our hearts and embrace Lord embrace our souls because everyday we need a little bit more of you Lord, guide us Lord, guide us…”
“Eso,” the guy next to me whispered, putting his elbows on his knees and shaking his head, “Eso.” This, this. The guy with the sucker in his mouth squeezed his eyes shut.
“We want to receive you Lord your heart your spirit feel you we are open Lord our minds Lord our spirits our souls what we need today in our hearts we’re going to pray this morning we’re going to open our hearts because the prayer that comes from our hearts speaks directly with God not only a psychological thing if we really believe in Him it really comes from the bottom of our hearts and not from the mind or from memories it comes from the heart.”
The WAR VICTIMS guy had leaned forward, closed his eyes. The thin man with the wet combed hair had his hands folded together in his lap, his head bowed. Carlos and Mafer began to sing, and the group joined in: the long-haired guy with the U.S. army jacket played the bongos, the WAR VICTIMS guy with the gang tattoos took up the seed rattle and shook it in time, the guy with the tattooed wedding ring played the maracas. The grandpa sang, “In the shadow of your wings, I will rejoice,” and the guy with the sucker sang too, quietly, without taking the sucker out, with his eyes squeezed shut. The new guy sat very still. Outside the light was rising. The yurt was taken over by something, by a palpable and earnest urgency as if this air were a cure and we wanted to breath it, breath it, breath it. But it was not desperation, the desperate hope of religion’s stern promises and warnings, but the possibility of transcendence: in the hum of Carlos’ words and the vulnerability and collective spiritual will of so many flawed human beings.
People who wanted to said prayers: they asked for the blessing of their children. Their mothers and fathers and sisters. The families of all those present that morning in that room. Their cousins and aunts and uncles. Los tios. They asked for the blessing of marriages, of Carlos’ and Mafer’s marriage and their unborn baby. They asked God to please not release their hands just yet, to please guide them a little further. They thanked God for his patience. They thanked God for giving them the peace they had been searching for in alcohol and drugs and never found. They thanked him for ridding them of so much aggression and violence. They said they were sick of only believing in God in the difficult moments, they would live in his path. They asked God to please help them get rid of this pain they always had at the back of their stomachs. They spoke so softly that only they themselves and God could hear.
When I started out from the pueblo of San José del Pacifico for El Refugio I had no idea the long walk would take me to the agave-lined ridgetop road where my husband Jorge and I had first kissed six years ago.
There are some stretches of land that are packed beyond carrying capacity with memory, the sweet-smelling decay of the leaves and the silken purple petals of wildflowers and the ancient silence of the agaves and the wet pines charged with the emotion of that person, that time, that moment, that shift. Returning to these places is inevitably a case of holding up the person of then in one hand and the person of now in another, comparing, measuring. How have I changed?
I searched and searched, on my way back from my time at El Refugio, for the changes of the past six years, and I found plenty: new countries, new careers, new schools, new projects, new plans. But I was surprised to find that what struck me most on that ridgetop road was how little Jorge and I have changed: how much we are still the people we were then, on that wool blanket, under that sky. Not because our lives have not advanced, and we have not grown, but because there is something else in us that pulls us back to this territory. There is something that keeps us together, that propels our relationship and our work, that connects the two of us to this land and its meanings and that, I thought with the morning’s prayers still humming in my head, endures even as we move forward with all of the human transformations of our lives.