Blog # 11 Zirahuen & Spain?

Blog #11: Zirahuen & Spain ?                                                             31 December 2010

 In a couple of ways Zirahuén reminds me of rural Castilla of 35 years ago. Yes there are cars, but they are still outnumbered by working quadrupeds: horses, mules, donkeys, oxen. There is electricity, and there are satellite dishes (the equivalent of 1975 TV antennae), but there aren’t many lights after the sun goes down. Electricity is expensive. People do things in subsistence units. Two cows, milked by hand, cheese for the family and one neighbor. A field on the hill with three rows of corn, another in the valley with six rows of beans, a postage stamp weed field kept in check by one goat. A store offering twenty items, two of which sell in a week’s time.

 They’re alike in another way, not so nice: Castilians in the ‘70s and Zirahuenians in 2010 never pick up anything. The same goes for most Michoacaners. Papers fall where the candy is unwrapped. Plastic bottles drop to the ground where they are emptied. Bottles opened drop their tops. Styrofoam coffee cups and plastic bags drift with the wind until they snag. A wide place in the highway is a rubbish dump. Paradoxically, about half of the house compounds in Zirahuen are as neat as Dutch kitchens. Housewives sweep their dirt courtyards twice a day. They water both the shrubs in the corner of their yards and the 50 pots of geraniums that line up along the foundation of their sleeping room, or the railing of their balcony, or the wall next to the shock of corn where their chickens roost. There’s not a scrap of litter to be seen. Inside the compound fence, that is. Outside the fence it’s like Woodstock after a rock concert. The other half of Zirahuen’s house compounds – if you could seal them under a layer of ash for a thousand years you would make the archaeologists who uncover them ecstatic.

 The dirt road behind and below our house is, like most others in town, a drop zone. The road in front, running as it does between Lily’s properties on both sides of the road, is not so bad. The people who ride along it don’t dump, although their mounts do. (Visitors note: it’s always wise to watch your step.)

 Well, one week is enough. At the Aurera in Pátzcuaro I bought a box of large plastic bags, and early this afternoon I take one in hand and go out to tackle the lower road. Lily’s properties, known collectively as Posada de los Santos, line the north side. Because we are on a hill, our houses are built on a terrace, the retaining wall of which rises fifteen feet above the road. Lining the south side of the road are the dozen house compounds of long-time Zirahuenians, most of whom have four or five small kids, a couple of dogs, a clutch of chickens and —east to west— a herdlet of cows, a couple of horses, three sheep, some mules, a few goats, and a single burro. The kids, a dozen and a half in the aggregate, play in family groups in their compound courtyards, or by age groups in the street. One of the nice things about our location is that we can always hear the laughter, shouting, giggling, and singing of our four to eight year old neighbors.

 So there I am with my plastic bag, bending over to pick up candy wrappers, crushed plastic containers, beer bottles, scraps of paper, broken kites, and stray bits of after-Christmas piñata out of the dirt. The four-year old from directly across the way puts down her dolly and stands in her compound gate watching me. She seems to be wearing her Christmas dress. It’s mostly pink. I turn to the retaining wall to snatch a couple of twists of newspaper. When I look back around my neighbor walks over to my bag and solemnly deposits two candy wrappers she has picked up from the fence line next to her gate. I thank her. She says nothing, but turns and hunts for another tatter or two that has stuck to the barbed wire. As she deposits her finds we are joined by her sidekick from down the street. The afternoon sun is warm – I’m starting to sweat in my long-sleeved shirt—but she has on a blue snowsuit jacket with the hood flapping on her back. 


“Do you want to help us?”

 Silence, as Blue scurries around in the dust between their houses.

 “I live in that house over there,” I tell them, which they already know becomes sometimes I come out on our patio to practice my juggling, which sends them into fits of giggles.

 "Don’t you think this looks nicer once we’ve cleaned up all this trash?”

 Giggles from Pink. Blue points down the street to a pile of volcanic stone that someone has mounded against an adobe wall, presumably as part of a construction project. She asks me if she can go down there to pick up two Coke bottles that are glinting in the sun. I assure her that that is perfectly fine, and she scampers down the hill.

 When she comes back I say:  “Look up that way: from here to that gate where the cow is sticking her head out there isn’t a single scrap of paper. Pretty nice, isn’t it? You’ve both done a super job.”

 They beam. My plastic bag has reached its capacity, so I thank them again and tell them I’m going to dispose of it. The only prominent piece of garbage  we haven’t stuffed in it is the large soggy remnant of a cardboard box that has wedged itself into a stretch of thornbush fence.

 “Aren’t you going to take that one?” Blue asks me.

“Not today. There isn’t any room in the sack. I’ll come back tomorrow and we can get it then.”

 “I’ll find you a bag,” says Pink confidently.

 “Tomorrow then.”

 I head up the hill, and as I am about to turn into the upper road I feel a tug on the bag. It’s Blue, with two more candy wrappers that we had missed.”

 It took Spain 35 years to clean up its act. Maybe there’s hope for Zirahuén too.