Category Archives: Mexico

Helen Hine 2

I escape the death house. 

When I went in to leave off some food I would not be able to use before leaving Mexico in two days’ time, Helen was lying on her bed, bloody from breaking through her own skin, wet from urine, clutching Deborah, the young housekeeper recently brought in to help, with a relentless grip on her arm and thick braid. She was saying something in neither English nor Spanish over and over, not responsive to anyone.  An hour earlier I heard a solid five minutes of “no, no, no. . .” 

It seems that Helen was going to die on this night, 30 October.  I had understood that her son Keith was on his way, coming last night, but family friend Pablo said that he had no valid passport, so will arrive with his wife on Friday 1 November instead. I would like to meet him, after our brief phone conversation in which he seemed to share a lot about Helen’s life with Agostino, his readiness for her death. He thanked me for what I have done, which is nothing aside from an email to strangers to ring an alarm that there has been a downturn.  I sent also the two photos I had taken of Helen, and the mention that I had wanted to write up notes about my conversations with her.

While I thought she was in the process of dying, I left for the sacred space of San Pablo (discovered while I was on a solo walk on March) to hear the music of Nybram, a musical group from Colombia.  I heard them in concert two nights earlier in another sacred library space, Biblioteca Henestrosa.


I have almost written some positive things about the Catholic Church here. Its buildings here in Oaxaca are ancient by US standards – 200 years old, some much more — generally open to the public for a sit-down, cool in the summer, warmish in the winter, with artwork ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Churches are state-owned and the flock of padres and sisters are not supposed to be on the streets in clerical garb.  But the spaces that seem “sacred” are libraries.

One big rich guy – the cousin of Carlos Slim — has attached his name and money to a foundation that funds the salvage and beautiful restoration of libraries, open to the public. In the case of the two I mentioned, Henestrosa and San Pablo, glorious open courtyards, chapels, and contain fountains and space for music, dance, lights, and books for reading, for adults and children.  On this night, chairs were arranged around the central fountains for the audience. The program was completely different from Tuesday’s, what I would call music associated now with Christmas, though not of this century:  Adeste fideles, late-16th-century melodies Greensleeves and Coventry Carol, the traditional Dona Nobis Pacem.  

Nybram is a sextet of voices, cello, violin, mandolin/lute, flute and soprano saxophone, which I’m not sure I’ve seen or heard before, but the range of which seems identical to that of the violin and the human tenor voice, so that the toss-off from onto the other is understood by looking more than hearing. The primary vocalist of the group is Julian David Trujillo Moreno, and it is this voice that completely fills the space and pierces through whatever else I might have been thinking. 

A gang of four unison chanters trouped through in medieval monk toggery, singing Latin texts a capella with a chiming bell while ascending the stone stairs to the balcony, then descending, echoing all the way, tapping into a modern sense of the romantic and sacred, pure. The sextet alternates or joins in.

If tonight I were Helen, writhing at the end of life, this voice, this perfect music, would keep me alive another hour or another day, lodged between here and somewhere else, painlessly sensate.


Donde yo estoy (where I am)

Donde yo estoy (where I am)

On the bat-strewn tile floor in the restroom of San Pablo, 1 noviembre 2013.

San Pablo is a sacred space to me.

Helen Hine 1


Helen at our common table, telling about her life, septiembre 2013

This is not a cheery story even when it starts out, so maybe don’t read it. I just saw her about every day so want to note it.  (I moved out of the house described yesterday, as planned.)

Helen Hines was the first person to officially meet us here in Oaxaca.  Her house shares the courtyard with ours, the whole compound owed by her partner Agustino’s daughter, Cathy.  Agostino appeared earlier in these postings, sunning himself outside in a nice hat and a shawl.


Helen at Mercado Sánchez Pascuas, septiembre 2013

She met us when we arrived in early September, gave us keys and a tour of the whole two-room house.

We have gotten small bits out of her, mostly practical information.  She informs where to hide the small plastic-wrapped 5-peso coin for the collector when putting out trash, which restaurants she likes (very similar menus at each of  a consommé, spaghetti, and one kind of meat or another, with a special fondness for fish, conclude with “and for only 40 pesos!”), and where I might find some special thing I have asked about, though maddeningly she can’t recall street names, and “it’s right past that other place” that I have never heard of either.  You know the type.

Helen is apparently quite old, but won’t talk numbers. (She said she once fired a lawyer who disclosed her age to someone.)  Also, every conversation starts with a lot of “What? What?” and a moment or two of firing up the hearing aid before proceeding.

Once in September, I asked her over to the table in the shared patio space, and offered a bit of the wine I had opened.

“Why not?” she said.  And in that quiet one-on-one I heard a bit of her life.  She has been in Mexico, specifically Oaxaca, a long time, more than twenty years, but other versions have put it much longer than that.

She must have been a bit of a seeker — after growing up in New York, there was time in San Francisco, then Guatemala, where she was asked to use her background as a librarian to start a library.  There was a marriage, which ended badly, and Helen has a son in New York City.  “But that was with another guy,” she said, waving her hand loosely at some dismissed relationship.

At some point, she met? fell in love with? hung on to? Agostino, Mexican, once an accomplished archaeologist in Mexico City.  He went to study in the United States, and somehow his career went awry.

So there’s searching, finding, scholarship, romance in the past, now making way for aging, immobility, dementia, deafness and other troubles. Who knows what else.  And you can see from the picture that she was beautiful, with fine features and gestures.

They live in the house behind the gate we share and now owned by Agostino’s daughter in New York.  Helen tries admirably to be the on-site caretaker, but the daily skills don’t come so easily any more.  To use the washing machine, we follow fairly straight-forward instructions, read to us over and over, with the warnings of the bad things that will ensue if we do it wrong.  When the water pump to our house suddenly went out, she yelled increasingly loudly to turn off the pump, ignoring William’s yelling back that it was never on.  And more like that.  Frustration and fear.  Shouting at Agostino and his shouting back.

Her joy remains the Oaxaca Lending Library, a part of her life for all these years.  Through the original and long-time librarian there, Ruth Gonzalez, came her attachment to this house.  Everyone at the OLL has great esteem for Helen, invariably grateful for her volunteer time there and praising her intelligence.  Until recent weeks, she has performed her job there organizing all the periodicals.

Sadly, in the short time we have been here, we cannot help but notice a huge decline.  Daily trips to market, just around the corner, are harder and she needs help with the small package and with clearing the obstructing stairway that’s always been here.

More later.

just wondering

If someone wants a chocolate lab, that’s a dog, not a place to do cooking experiments, right?

It’s my last day in Oaxaca, and I still have so many questions.


Get in line, buddy

Get in line, buddy

At Mayordomo shop in Calle Mina, 31 octubre 2013

Just about everyone is buying chocolate today for Day of the Dead tomorrow. (And mezcal and marigolds and fruit…).  Imagine the fragrance in here with armloads of lilies, bunches of marigolds and vats of freshly ground chocolate.


It’s unanimous

Now it's unanimous

At the Oaxaca cathedral, 31 octubre 2013

Apparently even God wants you to shut up already on the cell phone: “God is calling you, but not on your cellular phone.”



where the money is

where the money is

Almost no one can change a MX$500, especially early in the day. How can I get bus fare of only $6? The attendant at the Pemex station has a roll of bills as big as an apple.


You first, then me

You first, then me

This lovely sign at an urban intersection says let’s go one at a time; you go first, then I’ll go.

sex discrimination: check the calendar

On the same day in CE 2013 that the retro-thinking Saudi Arabia was seeing the alarming action of women driving their own cars, this ad appears in a daily Oaxaca paper.  Top of the list of qualifications for a job is “sexo:” masculino.


This enterprise is a fabric store.  I have been in this shop several times, and can tell you that the bulk of the customers are women, who I might guess constitute the bulk of home and commercial seamers. (Though men can and do sew too. I’ve seen it.)

Native dress takes a road trip

There’s a lot of eye-popping stuff here, lots in the textile category.

A few days ago the zocalo was jammed with activity, including a demonstration by indigenous people at the state capitol, many in traditional dress.  The colors are vibrant and may be from natural sources (the red below may be from cochineal, an insect*); they can be hand-spun fibers, hand-woven cloth, hand-stitched panels, and then hand-embroidered with age-old symbols of rivers, eagles, cactus flowers.** Besides the color and style telegraphing where these women are from (the state, but not the city, of Oaxaca), the colors of the ribbons on these garments indicate whether the wearer is married or single, and I’m sure there is much more meaning to the learned eye.  The menfolk are wearing a uniform as well, of jeans, collared shirts, boots and natural-fiber hats; but with a muted palette, and showing off no handiwork.

ImageZocalo, at a demonstration at the state government building

Later, the same day, I spotted this, and found myself equally fascinated about what this native dress could mean. In this case, the male character is all gussied up while the female is a little plainer, as is the case with so many birds in the wild. (They moved about together, like a mated pair.)

ImageSanto Domingo Plaza

Tribal origin and subtle meaning of this combination are unknown to me. My apologies if you know these people, or if you are these people, since I didn’t ask permission.

Though I have augmented by earlier two-skirt, two-blouse wardrobe with some Mexican shirts that do little to disguise me, I have to realize that I cannot for an instant think that my dress is neutral and doesn’t peg me as the age, sex, nationality, and economic groups of which I am a member.


* A great book on this valuable commodity is The Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield.

** Maybe I could think of these as ‘logos.’