Doña Florencia

10 October 2016

Doña Florencia

The short loop starts at our main gate, and goes uphill along Calle Independencia, which is Santa Cruz Etla’s paved main thoroughfare along the crest of our loma, one of a long parallel line of spurs that come down from the mountains to our east. Qalba is on leash on the paved road which at this hour is heavily traveled by three wheeled mototaxis, colectivo taxis taking people to work in Oaxaca City, and families of three or four on their way to school, the kids crunched together on a motorcycle, the older kids clutching their mother’s or father’s waist, the youngest one pressed to his parent’s chest and helping steer. One local dad, when his kids are moving slowly in the morning, takes them to school on his horse.

Qalba and I leave the pavement and turn left at the corner of Calle Pípila which is definitely unpaved. Now, at the end of the rainy season, it is a mass of ruts and muddy potholes where the late afternoon rain has puddled. At the Pípila intersection I unclip the leash and Qalba begins her morning sniffing binge. On both sides of the road, as we inch down to the ford, are tantalizing remnant perfumes of the passage of sheep, goats, cows, oxen, tlacuaches (our local possums), other dogs, field rats, and … well, only the dog’s nose knows what else. 

Pípila goes steeply downhill to a ford and then climbs to the next loma that runs parallel to ours. At the top, Pípila swings left and begins a slow descent along the ridge, past three towering eucalyptus trees that are a magnet for the early morning kingbirds, woodpeckers, and flycatchers. After the third eucalyptus the terrain is mostly thorn scrub, with patches of dry grass where an old gentleman from San Pablo sometimes stakes out his three burros to graze, or doña Minerva brings her mixed flock of 23 sheep and goats. Three hundred meters further, a side trail to the left slices back down the loma, crosses the arroyo—which with the change of season is now running only a trickle. The carrizo cane that grows thickly in the bottomland is a good habitat for the skulky warblers and wrens. From the ford the track becomes road and climbs slowly back up to Calle Independencia. Leash time again for Qalba’s trot home. The whole short loop is about two and a half kilometers. Depending on what’s chirping and whom we meet along the way, it takes the two of us from an hour to an hour and a half to get home to breakfast.

Just past the carrizo thicket is a large, hilly field that was cared for by a man named Maximiliano, who lived with his aged mother Florencia in a house—more of a shack, really—near the top of the hill. Max’s four mangy dogs would always raise a ruckus when they heard Qalba and me approaching along the track. If they got too close I would bend as if to pick up a rock to throw at them and they would slink off. When Max was around he would come up to the fence to talk. He was a few inches shorter than I am, slim, and very muscular. He always wore sturdy boots with no laces. Most of the time I knew him he was engaged in digging up the carrizo roots on the lower hill and planting bananas. His patrón had dreams of an orchard down there, and to Max fell the backbreaking work of digging out the carrizo camotes.


Max was always eager to talk, plying me with questions about our history, and sharing details of his. I told him Linda and I had been teachers for 43 years and were now retired. In his eyes that made us people of status, and intensified his natural inclination to deference that bordered on obsequiousness. He himself had dropped out of school after three years of primary and had never had land of his own, always working for someone else. He always wanted to offer me some of whatever he had: a couple of avocados, or a chayote squash for soup, fresh off the vine. 

In the corner, just above the arroyo channel, was the property’s well.

“If you ever need water, you know, if you go dry up there in your house, this well always has water, good water, any time.”

“Thank you, many thanks. That’s good to know. For now we are catching rain water in the cisterns, but if we ever need any . . . “

“No, no, don’t go; come in, taste this. The best water in San Pablo.”

I went in through the gate— some sticks lashed together, the hinges other loops of sisal lashing the lattice of sticks to a pole. Qalba declined the invitation to come in, preferring to keep the fence between her and Max’s dogs. The well was hand-dug, like most of the wells in these arroyos, and was topped with a circle of cast concrete. I expressed surprise.

“To keep the rabbits out. And the tlacuaches. One or two a week, they fall in and drown. If I don’t fish them out right way, they decompose and spoil the water.”

He dipped in a bucket that may have started life as a paint can.

“Good, isn’t it?”


When we were massaging the upper part of our property to extend our own carrizo thicket to create a little more shade at the back of the casita, I asked Max what he was doing with the camotes that he dug up.

“I dry them out and burn them.”

“Do you mind if I take a few to plant?”

“No, I’d be honored. Whatever you want. Ten, fifty, a hundred.”

We settled on a dozen and a half, and he picked out what he called the choicest, packed them into a canvas sack that had once held flour, and insisted on carrying them up to the house for us.


Another time, after it had rained hard every afternoon for a week and the road from the arroyo up to Independencia was a quagmire, I asked him if he’d like a couple of wheelbarrows full of cobbles—left over from our construction projects—to lay in the roughest spots, and we and another neighbor wheeled down four loads.


Max was married, and a couple of times —it must have been over a year ago—I saw him with his wife, whose name I don’t recall. They seemed happy, holding hands on the corner where his dirt road met Independencia. She was from someplace else, but had come up to be with him. But a few weeks later she was gone again. I saw him with his mother doña Florencia a couple of times too. He was putting up a pole near the streetlight at the top of the little dirt alley, the privada, that runs along the west side of our property. His plan was to tap into the electric line so he and his mother would have electricity in their house. The neighbors told him that wouldn’t work; they didn’t want to be charged on their accounts for the electricity he used, and he would have to request an official connection. He took it all in and said he would do it, but the project never went any farther than that, and eventually the pole fell down.


In March we had to come up the States for a couple of things, and my first day back home I took Qalba out on the short loop. In the six weeks I had been gone there had been some changes. A couple of small trees chopped down along the loma. A new fence around a woodlot. As we crossed the arroyo I was surprised not to be greeted by Max’s dogs. A few meters up the road, over against a fence, I found a small iron cross: Maximilian Velasco Roque, March 21, 2016. A couple of votive candles. A small plastic image of la Virgen de la Soledad.


I asked a neighbor of ours what had happened.

“Murdered. Throat cut, probably with a machete. Found him in a pool of blood.”

“Do they know who did it? Have they caught anyone?  He seemed like such a nice fellow.”

“When he wasn’t drinking. Cuando estaba tomado, when he’d tied one on, he got aggressive. Didn’t get along with any of the neighbors. Probably someone . . . who knows?”


Over the last few months I’ve asked several people what they know of the matter, and whether it is being pursued. But there doesn’t seem to be much interest, or urgency. None of the neighbors has suddenly left town. There is no sense of fear, of the start of a crime wave, nothing like that. Max’s death doesn’t seem to have changed anything.


Earlier this week, on a day when Qalba and I (meaning me) didn’t feel up to the longer loops that are our norm, we took the short loop. As I came down the track to the arroyo I saw a very short old woman dragging a loose load of sticks behind her. Long stringy gray hair, walking with a bit of a stoop. I caught up with her at the gate to the property that Max had worked, and I stopped to talk. It turned out to be Max’s mother Florencia whom I hadn’t seen in probably a year. I told her how much I missed her son, how he had always treated me with kindness, that I was sorry for her loss.

“He drank, you know. It was a demon that lived in him. My pastor at the church said it was no one’s fault, this thing. It was the Devil, may God protect us all in Jesus’s name, a devil who got into him. Two nights before, I wanted him to go to the meeting with me, to the church. But he wouldn’t do it. He went to sell some firewood to that man up that way,” —she pointed to the north, to the lomas between us and San Agustín,— he buys what we bring him, and whenever we need a little money for something, for beans, or cooking oil, we take him some firewood. But this time he paid Max with … —she raised her hand to her mouth, thumb and baby finger extended, the universal sign for drink —. “When I got home he was fast asleep.”

“That night I heard something, I thought someone coming in through the gate, but the dogs weren’t barking. I got up to investigate, but it was dark. No moon that night, and it was cloudy. We don’t have any light, so I couldn’t see anything, and I didn’t go far, but I am sure it was someone. Or something, God save us. Maybe the demon. The next day I went to church, all day, and the pastor told me to pray for him, to bring him in. But he wouldn’t come, he never would. And he didn’t come home that night.”

“The next morning I went out and there he was, on the road. I said ‘Oh my God,’ and I bent down to see. It was like a llovizna, of blood, a misty rain. Then I put my hands to his neck and they were all wet. Up to my elbows. I went to Longinos’s house” —his is the house on the corner with the paved road—, “as fast as I could, and he called the patrulla, the San Pablo Police. They came, but by then he was dead.”

“What did the patrulla do? And you . . . ?

“Nobody could do anything, praise Jesus. But I know he’s in a better place.  They took his body. They said they had to do the auto-pesia, you know, where they take out all the organs and sell them. But what could I do?”

“And you are doing … OK, you don’t need anything?”

“I’m alright. I go out every day to get wood for cooking the beans, the tortillas, you know. You have to go on living. We do what we have to do. And there’s the asistencia social program for the old people, la tercera edad.

“I just hope I have your energy and your attitude when I’m your age.”

“You will, you will. You’re strong. I was born in 1944, you know? You’re just a youngster.”

For the record, I was born in 1942. I told her I was two years older than she, and she didn’t blink.

“You all eat better up there in El Norte. And they have cures for things. You know, I’m an old lady and I’ve never been to the hospital.”

“More power to you,” I said with a goodbye hug.

“We are all God’s children and he’ll take care of us according to his will, Jesus be praised.”