Late Letter

18 March 2017

Friday, about 7:45, Qalba and I are on our morning walk, heading up Calle Cuauhtémoc on our way to the Amaranto ladies corner, saying hello to all the school kids in their red jackets as they bounce by, full of chatter and giggles, on their way to the primary school across from the Santa Cruz Agencia. I exchange a few words with the man who is about to go for a walk with his shar pei  and its new puppy. A little further along I wave to doña Nicolasa, Maestro Filio’s sister-in-law, who is, as usual, sweeping her tiny immaculate dirt yard free of the night’s accumulation of specks of dust. She calls me over to tell me that she has something for me. She puts down the broom, goes into her small blue house with its big crack in one wall, and comes out with a letter in her hand. Red envelope. Four forever stamps. Looks like a Christmas card. Addressed to us in a handwriting that looks like Deborah’s. Return address Kate, Portland, OR.  Postmarked December 19, 2016. Kate must have had Deborah address the envelope.


When letters from the rest of the world get to Mexico, we suppose that they go through the UPU’s standard sorting routines. From the airport to the hub for sorting. From the hub to the regional centers. From regional centers to state capitals. From capitals to the municipios, of which the State of Oaxaca has 570, give or take a city or two. Villa de Etla is the municipio we belong to.  From the muncipios the mail goes to the village centers; for us that’s San Pablo Etla. I think that each of the village centers has some sort of mail distribution system: maybe a lady with a bag of mail on her shoulder who walks around town, or an actual postal employee on a motorbike with a stack of envelopes in his bike’s basket. That sort of distribution works in San Pablo proper, at least in the center of town and the loma of the Camino al Seminario. For San Pablo’s agencias, the three villages like Santa Cruz that are formally associated with and subordinate to San Pablo, the system works like this:

When a sufficiently high stack of mail has accumulated at the San Pablo Municipio offices, someone takes it to the relevant agencia and dumps it on a table inside the door in the agente’s (mayor’s) office. Anybody who has business with the agente and has to wait a moment or two to see him, is free to shuffle through the stack. No secrets in the village. If they see a name that is both familiar and belongs to someone who lives along their way home, they pick up the letter and either deliver it right away or put it next to their kitchen door so they can rush it out the next time the addressee happens to pass by. As when doña Nicolasa spied Qalba and me out on our accustomed Friday route. Letter for us, nothing for Qalba.

Kate’s was the second letter we have received since we’ve been living in Santa Cruz Etla. The first, that was brought down from the agencia by our friend Lauro who helps us with the gardens, was a test letter that I had mailed from Rhode Island. It took four months to get here.


Deborah, please give Kate our warmest thanks, and tell her that we, too, enjoyed her all-too-brief visit with us way back when. And tell her that we would have written back with a letter, but we think the system may be similarly efficient in the other direction and she wouldn’t have received our note until the fourth of July.

UPS, DHL, and mules, on the other hand, seem to work reliably and with dispatch.

So let the word be broadcast upon the land: to Mexico, savvy people send email, trusting that it will always get through. Tonight, when the internet server seems to be kaput, is the infrequent exception.

(So I set my computer next to the kitchen door and this morning, when the internet is back on again, we’re posting this.)