Construction, 2: Colar zapatas

11 November 2014

Lalo was pretty certain that his crew of twenty-three men would be able to finish colando las zapatas before dark even if they didn’t begin the process until nearly 4:00. That would give us two whole hours before the sun set, and we could count on another fifteen minutes of twilight before it got pitch dark. The sky was clear, but the half moon wouldn’t rise over the mountain until midnight, so it would not help at all.


Zapatas are the footings of the load-bearing walls of the Casa. Colar —literally to glue— actually means to pour cement on them.

Three weeks ago, right after the Casa’s outline had been successfully chalked out, a backhoe came in and dug trenches for the footings down to the appropriate depth, which seems to be about a meter and a half, or about 60 inches.

Then the crew laid a thin layer of cement over the floor of the trenches. From the large load of 3/8” rebar that lay in a pile over against our fence, the half-dozen crew members who have a special aptitude for bending iron, shaped the rebar into a grid, wired the pieces securely together, and laid the grid over the thin cement floor in the trenches.


At the corners and the mid points of what will eventually be walls, they wired vertical castillos into the grid. Despite the name, these are not castles but rebar columns. For the last two weeks,

six crewmembers have been cutting rebar into 18” lengths and bending each length into a 4” x 5” rectangle. Curiously, in this culture long bits are measured in meters and short bits are measured randomly in centimeters or inches. The  crew made

 many hundreds of these rectangles and stacked them along side the work shed. Next they took about thirty rectangles, and threaded through them four strands of rebar, each perhaps 6 meters long. Then they wired the long strands to the rectangles, one in each corner, spacing the rectangles about 10” apart. The result is a long, rigid column that when cemented into place will be the main vertical support of the corners of the house, the corners of the rooms, and the midpoints of the walls. When they finished wiring all the rebar columns to the metal grids on the footings, the house site looked like a forest of skinny trees all of whose leaves have fallen off.


The last of these preliminary steps is to pour cement over the zapatas and the bases of the rebar  -- once it has all been dusted carefully so that the cement will adhere --

columns to a height of ..... well, really to a depth of. Those blue filaments stretched all over the site mark the level of the floors of the Casa. The cement had to be poured to a height that was exactly 39” below the blue filaments.


The small, pot-bellied cement mixer, starts like a lawn mower. At 3:45, one of the 23 crew members winds a cord around the mixer’s fly wheel and yanks it, turning over the crank shaft of the mixer’s motor. Nothing happens. He rewinds and yanks it again. Nothing happens again. He rewinds it a third time and gives it a mighty tug.

Cough cough, screech grind, cough cough, chukata chukata chukata.


Now everything happens at once. Two men with large flat-bladed shovels and trowels stuck into their belts climb down in the trenches and stand ready. Six men shovel material into buckets, heave the buckets onto their shoulders, and in a continuous line feed the cement mixer. A bag of cement, a bucket of gravel, a bucket of sand, a bucket of water, a bag of cement, a bucket of gravel . . . In the mixer the gravel clunks, the sand hisses, the water sloshes, and the cement flares out a billowing white cloud as the bag is shaken into the mixer’s maw. The pace is frenetic. Lalo, in addition to being crew boss and choreographer and alchemist of cement, is the waterman who dips buckets from the black plastic Rotoplast tank and decides when it is time to pour the mixed concrete out onto the ground.


The potbelly rotates, the concrete pours, and four men with shovels load it into large plastic buckets. As each bucket is filled, a porter hefts it onto his shoulder and trots to the site, picking his way across the trenches on narrow plank bridges until he gets to the place where one of the men with the shovels is working. The shovelman points, the bucketman pours, turns around, and trots with the empty bucket back to where the sprawling mound of wet concrete is being shoveled into more buckets. About a dozen men—the apprentices, not the masters—form this bucket brigade. They make a continuous chain: loaded buckets trotted in, poured into the trench, empty buckets trotted out, refilled by the cement mixer, and again. And again. The feed-the-mixer line and the haul-the-concrete line interweave but never seem to slow each other down.


In between poured buckets of concrete, the shovelmen smooth the concrete with the back of the shovel, pack it into the corners and edges tight against the wooden forms that hold the concrete in, and measure after every couple of pours to make sure that the concrete covers to the appropriate depth below the blue filaments.


Cynthia scurries from point to point, checking to make certain the rebar columns cement truly vertical, and precisely in the center of each zapata grid, and that the level of concrete is precisely 39” below the guiding filament. Hermilo does the same, and between them they cover the entire site. Lalo, his trousers doused with water, his shirt and hair caked with cement dust, f

eeds the potbellied mixer. Young men haul bag after bag of powdered cement from the storage shed to the mixer. Mica stands as still as a statue on a mound of dirt, and wide wide-open eyes gazes at the churning human machine.  


It may look like Rube Goldberg, but it functions like a Ford assembly line.


Until we run out of gravel. Two-thirds of the zapatas have been colado, but we still have a third to go. Lalo turns off the cement mixer. The bucket brigade stops. The shovel men climb out of the trenches. Everyone clusters in the shade in front of the storage shed. Linda and I keep lubricate the resting machine with two-liter bottles of cold Coke and Mirinda, and fuel it with bowls of potato chips, popcorn, and fried pork rinds. Mica doesn’t budge. Lalo gets on the phone. I ask Cynthia whether this is it for tonight, and whether we are going to have to finish colando tomorrow. Before she can answer, Lalo comes over.


“More gravel is coming. We can start again as soon as it gets here.”


It is 5:50, and the sun has just touched the rim of mountains on the west side of the Etla Valley.


I go back to the house for another tub of popcorn, and when I come back out I see a gravel truck backing up the access road. The driver throws a lever, the back tilts, the gravel pours, the potbelly starts to rotate, the shovelmen return to the trenches, Mica yawns but does not move, the bucket men start their parade, and Cynthia and Hermilo go back to checking angles and heights and lines.


But now it is getting dark fast. These are the tropics, and twilight lasts about as long as it takes a hungry kid to eat a chocolate bar. The streetlights come on, but they’re a distance from the site, and what they mostly throw are deceptive shadows. The bucket line keeps up its rhythm without missing a beat.


Now it is pitch black. Cynthia maneuvers her car around and turns on the headlights. Some light, more shadows. Someone runs home for an electric lantern (the workmen are almost all Santa Cruz Etla residents, so home isn’t far away). Linda brings out our two wimpy flashlights. Someone unfastens the light socket from the storage shed, drags over the long extension cord that usually runs the power saw, and hot wires the light socket into the cord. One of the shovelmen lashes it to one of the castillos. Linda and Cynthia use the flashlight apps on their smart phones to beam light down into the trenches. And the beat goes on.


None of the heavily laden porters slips or falls from the plank bridges that span the trenches. No one electrocutes themselves. No one trips on a wire or a castillo or a blue filament or Mica. The Coke bottles and tubs of chips and popcorn slowly empty as the trenches slowly fill with concrete.


It is near 8:00 when we finish. The potbelly shuts down. With the remaining water the men wash their arms and faces. They don’t bother trying to clean their clothes; their pants are caked with enough concrete that they will stand by themselves when they take them off, and their shoes will be hard as brass.


Linda gives the men a round of applause, and they chatter together for a few moments before heading off into the night, reluctant for this extraordinary evening to end. At last they trickle away, each one leaving with a “See you in the morning.” Hermilo and the two shovelmen remain, checking the heights and alignments, tamping down the hardening concrete to make sure that no air pockets remain to weaken the walls of our Casa.


On each of the Linda’s and my five pilgrimages to Compostela, there has been one extraordinary day that turns into an adventure. Getting lost in the fog high above Ronesvalles. The double march from Cebreiro through Compludo all the way to Ponferrada. Wandering for hours in the Montes de Oca. Nearly losing a pilgrim as we forded the Río Porma. Each time we struggled, we hurt, we did more than we thought we could or that was possible, and each time the group of pilgrims emerged with a self confidence and a group solidarity that in many ways has lasted over all these decades.


I think we will find that colando las zapatas was ours.