The Braille Monitor January 2003
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Esperanza's Story: An Oral History
by Debbie Kent Stein
Debbie Kent Stein
From the Editor: Debbie Stein serves as secretary of the NFB of Illinois. She is a professional writer who has spent some time in Mexico. Longtime Monitor readers will agree that she has a gift for writing profiles. The following personal history provides a glimpse into the life of a woman whose life was profoundly difficult and yet who never lost her determination or her capacity for hope. Here it is:
I met Esperanza Almanza in 1978, while I was living and teaching in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I had helped to start a school in San Miguel for children with disabilities--the Centro de Crecimiento, the Center for Growing. Through my involvement with the Centro I came to meet several blind adults who lived in and around San Miguel. Esperanza had lost her sight due to measles when she was a year old. She was fifty when we met, newly widowed, and without any family. She moved into a spare room at the Centro and became an integral part of the school community. She had never had any formal training before, but she quickly mastered Braille and mobility. She was a wonderful role model for the children--cooking, sewing, telling stories, and bandaging skinned knees.
Esperanza died of cancer in 1991 at the age of sixty‑one. Three years before her death she graciously allowed me to interview her, capturing her life story on tape. Despite her poverty and her lack of education, Esperanza had lived a rich and active life. She was loved, valued, and respected by all who knew her. It is an honor to share her story, a small tribute to her generous spirit. Debbie Kent Stein
I don't remember ever having sight. When I lost my sight, I was not even two years old, and I can't remember back that far. The earliest memories I have are of playing alone. My mother was afraid to let me go outside to play with the other children because I didn't know how to walk around by myself. She worried that, if the others got mad at me, they might run off and leave me, and I wouldn't be able to find my way home. So she kept me in the house. My mother said, "If the other girls want to play with you, let them come and play with you here. You don't go out." And sometimes they did come because the rancho [farming village] where we lived, Los Cerritos, was very small, with only eight or ten houses. There weren't many children for the others to play with, so now and then they came to me. But most of the time I played by myself.
Everybody brought me toys. I had little ceramic dishes, bowls, cups, jars, and tin buckets. I always wanted to be in the kitchen with my mother. After a while my father took leftover bricks and roof tiles and built me a little play kitchen next to the real one. It was big enough that I could sit inside it with my toys.
I had three dolls. I loved to sew clothes for them. If someone threaded the needle for me, I could make clothes out of any scraps and rags I got my hands on. At first nobody taught me. I just figured out how to sew on my own. I had a few store‑bought doll's dresses, and I studied them to understand how they were made. Then I tried making doll's dresses myself. They didn't turn out too well, but once my mother saw that I could do it, she started teaching me the proper way. She was very patient. She taught me to make a hem, measuring with my hand or with a fold of cloth so it would come out even.
She taught me to make the stitches just right, not too big, nice and straight. I made a lot of my own clothes. We didn't have many store‑bought clothes in those days, and I sewed a lot of my own clothing. My mother cut out the pieces for me, and I did the sewing. I heard the other girls talking about the clothes they wore, and I wanted the same things, so I got my mother to show me how to make them.
My mother taught me to do everything in the house. I washed the dishes-‑it wasn't hard for me to learn that, but I had to do it enough to really get used to it. She let me get used to all the chores we had out there on the rancho. She taught me to grind corn on the metate [flat stone on which corn is ground by hand] and to shape the tortillas, but she wouldn't let me cook them over the fire because she was afraid I would burn myself. Back then there were no tortilla presses like you have today. We made our tortillas by hand. Now you never hear that slap‑slap sound anymore, people patting tortillas into shape between their hands. You don't even hear it on the ranchos. Everyone gets their tortillas from the presses in town. In those days even the people in town made their tortillas by hand. And they tasted a lot better than the factory‑made ones, I can tell you.
My mother taught me to wash clothes too. We washed with cold water, scrubbing the clothes on a stone slab with ridges. She'd show me if there was a spot, and then I'd scrub that part extra hard. Well, that's still how I do laundry today. If you show me where the spots are, I can get them out. Sometimes I mark the spot with a safety pin to remember where it is. Then after I've washed the clothes, I get someone to check and make sure all the spots are gone.
So I grew up learning to sew, wash, sweep, and grind corn. I did everything except cook on the fire and travel by myself. I didn't learn to travel alone until years later, after I was a married woman.
My parents had eight children, but five died when they were very little. So growing up there were only three of us-‑my brother, my sister, and me. God let the three of us live. I was the youngest. My brother and sister were much older. She was eight years older than I was, and he was the oldest.
My brother died when he was seventeen and I was seven. He was playing in a pond on the rancho. The bottom was slippery, and I guess he lost his balance. He didn't know how to swim, so he drowned. The friends he was with, none of them could swim either, so there was no one to help him.
My parents were in despair when my brother died. He was their only son, my father's only companion when he worked in the fields. My mother was sad, but it hit my father the hardest. So then it was just the two of us, my sister Flaviana and me. My sister got married three years after my brother died, and I was alone with our mother. But after a while Flaviana came back to live with us. She was pregnant, and her husband was so poor he couldn't provide for her. She wasn't getting enough to eat, and she got very sick. We had no money either, but what food we had we shared with her. When we had a little money, we bought vitamins to help her get her strength back.
The biggest change in my sister was that she became terribly lazy. It couldn't have been her fault; she must have been ill. But she would do absolutely nothing in the house. My mother would get up early and make the atole [hot drink made from cornstarch and milk]. I got up after her and ground the corn. By the time my sister got up, my mother would be making tortillas for the noon meal.
In those days it was the custom for the women to make lunch for the men and carry it out to them in the fields. All the women from all the houses would walk out to the fields at noon with their baskets. Well, my mother had to take my father's lunch, and she told Flaviana that she should go too with the lunch for her husband. Flaviana heaved a big sigh, as if she'd been working all morning, but really she hadn't lifted a hand. So my mother ended up carrying the lunch for my father and my sister's husband too. My sister helped pack the basket, but that was all.
In those days we started grinding corn at 6:30 in the morning. We ground six kilos of corn every day to make enough tortillas for everybody in the household--the family and two men my father hired to help with the farm work. We ate tortillas with every meal, so we needed a lot of them. We never used spoons and forks back then; we scooped up our beans with a tortilla and folded it over and ate the food like that.
On the rancho we grew almost everything we needed. We hardly had to buy anything, because we raised our own corn, beans, peas, wheat--everything. Now people from the ranchos even buy their corn in town, but it was different back then. Even the poorest people who had no land, they had corn to eat. After the harvest they went through the fields and gathered up the ears that were left behind, little ears that no one else wanted. Now it doesn't rain enough; the plants dry out, and even the people with land have to buy corn.
Well, I was getting very tired of grinding corn, grinding and grinding, and my sister not helping me. I was twelve or thirteen at the time. I said to myself, "How is it that I don't have a husband, but I'm grinding and grinding early in the morning, and my sister, who has a husband, is sleeping so contented and never helps me?" So the trouble started between us, because she wouldn't do her part.
When I was sixteen, that's when sadness came into my life. My childhood ended when my mother got sick, and I saw her suffering day after day. She had a stroke. Suddenly she couldn't speak, and she couldn't move the arm and leg on one side. My father brought her to a doctor in town, who gave them medicine. But after a few days she wouldn't take it anymore. Then there was a struggle, everyone shouting and crying, trying to make her take the medicine. She couldn't speak; she could only make signs to show that she didn't want to take it anymore.
Many people came to visit us, and they were always suggesting we should take her to one doctor or another. My father took her to this one and that one and bought this medicine and that medicine, whatever they said. He had to sell off most of our animals to pay the doctors. We went on the bus to doctors in San Luis Potosí, Querétaro, and finally Mexico City. How we suffered in Mexico City! Three months we were there, and for nothing. My father would go back and forth to the rancho to get cheeses and eggs; he sold them door to door in Mexico City to pay our expenses while we stayed there. Finally we saw that she would never get better. If she was going to die, better that she die at home, so we went back to the rancho.
When we got home, my sister wanted me to go and help her with her children. But I wanted to stay home and take care of my mother. I couldn't do both things. So my sister got angry with me again. I said, "Can't we get along? It would make our mother happy; it would give her pleasure in her last days!" But no, that wasn't to be.
Two months after we came home from Mexico City, my father died. He was on horseback. A chicken flew in front of his horse and frightened it, so it bolted and threw him. His head hit a stone wall, and the blow killed him. He died the next morning. The night he was injured we took him to a doctor in town. There was no bus running, and no one had a car. So the men of the rancho put him on a big plank. They carried him that way on their shoulders all the way to San Miguel [about seven miles]. But he died at ten in the morning-‑and how I cried! I cried so hard!
With the shock and grief, my mother only lived another month after that. And there I was, left alone, and so sad. I had no one left but my sister. She said to me, "Stay here a little while, stay with my mother‑in‑law. I'm going to Mexico City, and when I get settled, I'll come back and get you." So off she went.
I waited and waited, but she didn't come back. After a few months her mother‑in‑law decided to move into town. She said, "You can't stay here by yourself; you go stay with my daughter." That was my sister's sister‑in‑law, her husband's sister. So I went to live with that woman, and how I suffered under her roof! All she gave me to eat were a few tortillas and a little bean broth.
Well, many things happened; it would take too long to tell them all. But a neighbor woman saw how I was there, and she told my aunt how it was. So finally my aunt came to get me, and I stayed with her for three years. While I lived with her, I ground corn. People brought their corn to us and I ground it on the metate. That's how I lived there. Some people paid me with money. Some paid with baskets of corn, beans, or a bit of meat. They would give me some leftover corn to feed my chickens. I was very happy there until my aunt got sick and died.
I didn't know what I would do when my aunt died. I had nowhere to go. But at her funeral I met a woman who my parents had known years before. She asked me to stay with her at Alcocer, another rancho. It was hard to leave Los Cerritos. I had lived there all my life. I had to leave everything behind, even my chickens. But I went to Alcocer and was very happy with that family. I helped in the house, washing clothes and grinding corn. There were two unmarried daughters, and we got along very well. They treated me like a sister. I went everywhere with them; they were never ashamed to be seen with me. We went shopping together, went to weddings and fiestas. If they had boyfriends, they never told me. They must have seen them in secret. It was just the three of us, all single women.
But then the trouble started. Their brother's wife started spreading rumors about me-‑that I had said this or that against them. I don't know if they believed her, but our friendship was never the same again. So I left and went to live with another aunt in town, in San Miguel. I thought, "She's my aunt, I'll have a better life with her. She's my mother's sister."
But no, it was worse for me there. She was angry at me all the time. One day she said, "What use are you? You can't even cook tortillas!" So when she left me alone, I went to the fire and put the tortillas on the grill, and I learned to cook them. That was the only good thing that happened when I lived there-‑I finally learned to cook on the fire.
But my aunt still wasn't happy with me. She said she had no obligation to feed and clothe me; I should go to my uncle, my father's brother. So I went to live with him and his wife on another rancho, and it was a hard, lonely time for me there. Then a woman called Doña Choli asked me to go to work in her house. I went to work for her, but my aunt in town wouldn't allow it. She said, "What will people say? You're an orphan, and your family should be taking care of you!" So she came and got me and took me back to my uncle.
But I was very unhappy there. He hadn't asked me to come. He and his family didn't want me there. My aunt just brought me and left me with them, and they had to take me in. I was awake all night crying. Then I started to think, what could I do? I wanted to go back to that woman I had been working for, but I didn't know how to get to her house. I knew the address, but I didn't know how to travel alone. I was on the rancho with my uncle, and she was in town, in San Miguel. So one day I asked my uncle, "May I go to San Miguel for Holy Week?"
He said, "How will you get there? Who will you stay with?"
I said, "I'll ask the bus driver to let me off at Pedro Vargas Street. There's a little store there, and the storekeeper will help me find my friends." My uncle said it was all right. He took me to the road where the bus would pass. I had a few clothes in a box, as if I was going for a couple of days. But I meant never to go back there.
It worked just as I planned. My friends met me at the little store, and I told them I wanted to go work for Doña again. They said, "Don't go to her yet. She'll put you to work right away, and you won't be able to enjoy Holy Week."
So I stayed with them, and on Thursday we went to church. There we were in the San Francisco Church, and a woman came up to me and whispered, "Esperanza? Is it really you?" I didn't recognize her voice because she was whispering since we were in church. But she said, "It's María Luisa Cruz." She used to live at Los Cerritos; I remembered her.
Well, on Saturday she sent her little girl looking for me: "My mama wants you to come and work for her." She was a seamstress, and she needed someone to take care of her children while she worked. Oh, I was so happy! I didn't have to look for work, and I didn't have to go back to my uncle on the rancho. They didn't pay me money, but they gave me food and clothes. So that was all I needed; it was all right with me.
I worked with that family for four years. They would take me out when there was a fiesta, and I went shopping with the older girls. But after a while I got tired of it. The boy was getting older; he didn't need me. But the worst part was the stove. It was a kerosene stove that was very hard to light. I had to have breakfast ready for everyone at eight o'clock sharp, or even before eight sometimes, and the stove kept going out, and it was always a struggle. I just couldn't stand it any more, fighting with that stove. So I took a job with another woman who just wanted me to wash and iron clothes. I went to live with her family.
I stayed there two years, but I wasn't happy. No one took me out anywhere. My life was the washtub and my little room. I was the only servant; there was no one to talk to. And because I couldn't travel, I couldn't go out to visit my friends.
One day I was sitting on the doorstep, and one of my friends walked by. It turned out she worked at a house just two doors down. She said, "You walk down the sidewalk, count one door, then the next one is mine."
Oh, how happy I was, to have a friend to visit! And I could go see her by myself. So when our work was done at six, I'd go to that door, and we would sit and talk. She didn't live at that house. She just worked there. She lived in a house with her sisters, and one day she asked me to come and live with them. She would take me to my work in the mornings, and on Sundays they would take me to Mass with them, and at night we would cook and talk and have a good time. I said, "I'll come if I can do the washing and ironing for all of you." I didn't want to be any trouble to them. So I went to live there, and we all shared the work in that house, but I always did the washing and ironing.
Sometimes I got bored in the house all day. One day we heard of a woman who needed someone to do laundry and cleaning. My friends suggested that she hire me. They said, "Señora, there is a girl at our house who is very good at washing. She can't see, but she's a good laundress." So that woman would send a child to take me to her house in the morning and bring me home again at night. I would stay there all day, washing and ironing and mopping. Now and then some dress or blouse was very delicate, and I was afraid to iron it. So one of the other servants would do that bit of ironing while I did her work in the kitchen. Also the laundress was supposed to go to the market and bring fresh milk every day. Since I couldn't walk to the market alone, I traded that task with someone else who straightened the bedrooms. There were four girls working in that rich house, so we could make many different arrangements, and I did everything I could. I was very happy, getting to know so many people and having so much to do.
But after a while things changed. One of the girls I lived with got married. The rest of us moved to another part of town called San Antonio. The woman I worked for moved to Mexico City. Her husband was an engineer, and he got a new job, so they had to move away. They left, and I had no more work. I continued to do laundry for a number of families. Always some child would take me back and forth to my work.
One day I was washing in a house where they were doing some construction. I met a man who was a carpenter working there. His name was Alvín. He was a widower with two grown sons. He would talk to me very politely. One day he asked me if I would like to get married. I said yes, but the person I married would have to have a lot of patience with me. I could do all the housework, but I couldn't walk in the streets by myself to run errands. Besides, what would happen to me if the person I married mistreated me or left me for another woman? But he assured me that he would be patient and that he wanted to marry me.
We talked about it for more than a month. Finally I went to live with him. We lived together for two months before I was sure I wanted to marry him. I had to be sure he would bring me food and other things I needed, that he wouldn't scold me or beat me, and that he would take me to the market and Mass and the plaza. I had to know he wouldn't keep me shut up in the house all the time. But we were very happy those two months. He took me walking in the street, he bought me clothes and enough food to eat, and he never got drunk. He didn't even drink beer or pulque [a drink made from fermented cactus].
I was thirty‑six years old when we got married. My husband's sons were living on their own. One was in Mexico City, and the other worked on a rancho. We never had any children together. God never sent us a child; I don't know why. I wasn't too old, but no child ever came.
For twelve years we lived together very happily. But then my Alvín got sick. After a year he was too weak to get out of bed. From September to May he couldn't get up at all. I was so sad to see him suffering, and I didn't know how to help him. Then finally he died, and I was all alone. That was such a sad time, a time of crying every day.
One day, while Alvín was still alive, I heard a program on the radio about a school called the Centro de Crecimiento, where they were teaching children who were blind or deaf or couldn't walk. On that program a woman said blind people could learn to walk in the street alone using a cane. I told my husband I wanted to learn to walk by myself, but he said, "What do you need that for? You've never walked by yourself; you don't need to start now."
But after he died, the teachers from the Centro came to me and told me I could live there. There was a little room where I could sleep, and I could help in the kitchen, cooking breakfast and lunch for the children. They gave me a cane and taught me to walk by myself. Now I can go by myself to Mass and to the shops. I can walk to the plaza and I can visit my friends. I never imagined that some day I would be able to do those things.
At the Centro I play with the children, and sometimes we talk about the future. I tell them to learn everything they can, so they can have a better life. I am so happy to know these children and to think about the opportunities they have.
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