Corazoncita, or little heart, is a Mexican expression of affection, similar to 'sweetheart'. This is a story of my first visit to Mexico, and how a sweet, little Mexican girl became mi corazoncita. The only deviation from reality is the use of a false name for her, necessary because of her current participation in Mexican politics.
In 1983, after eight years of marriage to Margarita, a native of Puebla, I ran out of excuses and finally visited Mexico. Margarita had decreed that her daughter, Clarissa, should have a quincea�era (a traditional ceremony marking a girl's fifteenth birthday, when she is traditionally considered old enough to marry, the quincea�era is relevant to this story only because it prompted my first visit to Mexico) at her sister's apartment in Mexico City, and I must appear for the ceremony. "Yes, dear."
Manzana 2, that is, Apple two, is a large Mexico City apartment complex, located near Metro stop Polit�cnico. There must be dozens or maybe hundreds of condominiums in the complex, but I could never navigate the maze well enough to count them. Each building has four stories, and two entrances. Each entrance provides access to two apartments on the left, and two more on the right, times four stories, is 32 apartments. Each apartment has a locked, wire cage on the roof, with a 'Mexican Maytag' (two concrete sinks and faucets for washing clothes by hand), and clothes lines. The buildings are distributed around the complex at varying angles and distances.
Sidewalks run down the middle of the grassy area between buildings. There are a number of playgrounds, beaten into total submission. A kindergarten and a primary school in the complex keep the younger kids near home. There is a sunken amphitheater, for plays, poetry readings, prayer meetings, and theater. Clarissa also had her ceremonial quincea�era dance there.
Many of the apartments have small balconies, and exotic
flowers bloom profusely in window pots. Some of the ground
floor apartments have patio doors installed, so the grassy
areas can be accessed directly. Car traffic is restricted to the
perimeter of the complex, so there is little traffic noise. It's a
short walk to grocery stores, panaderias, tortillerias, and the metro.
Green grass; trees; lots of flowers; smiling women and
children; men hurrying to work; a gentle rain most May
afternoons, and blue sky the rest of the day; quiet except for
happy people noise.
In the insanity called Mexico City, Manzana 2 in 1983 was
not a bad place to live. My sister-in-law's two bedroom apartment was about 600 square feet, for six people, increasing to ten or twenty at times. In the U.S., we say, "Call first." In Mexico, they say, "Here we are!" From mid-morning until late evening, I sat in a convenient chair, in shock, as uncountable hordes of people
came in the door, hugged and kissed everyone, shook my
hand and made happy sounds in Spanish, laughed, talked,
gossiped, hugged and kissed again, then disappeared.
They live this way every day! Fiesta days are even worse. Mexico can be a very alien place for the first-timer, especially
away from the tourist centers. I had no idea what anyone
was saying, or doing, or what anything meant. One of my
nieces, eleven year old Liliana, was the only one who spent
much time with me. Liliana has typical Aztec features, and,
at age 11, had the calm, mysterious beauty of the Madonna.
She was a very sweet, little girl, and so intelligent that she
answered my questions by the hour, though she spoke no
English, and I spoke no Spanish. I'm still not sure how she did that.
The school year ended while I was there, and Liliana
graduated from primary. Mexican public schools are simple
poured concrete structures, with large glass windows. A rural
school may have a total of 15 books for all students, all
grades, in one or two rooms. City schools have a lot more
students, a few morebooks, and a room for each grade level.
There may be a map on the wall of each room, and the
familiar childish drawings proudly displayed on the walls.
Those children were proud to attend that school. One little
boy sat crying, and his friends were trying to comfort him.
When someone asked him why he was crying, he said
because he couldn't go to school all summer.
Looking back, I realize I began to love Mexico when I saw
Liliana standing there, so brave and proud, during the
graduation ceremony, in front of that little school.
After the quincea�era was over, I returned to Iowa.
Later, Margarita brought Liliana with her, and she spent the
summer with us. We went for long walks, hand in hand. We
visited Hames Mobile Home Sales, so she could see how
people in mobile-home parks lived. We peered in school
windows. She told me Mexican schools were named after
famous teachers. I told her ours were named after Presidents.
She looked at me as if I were a minor god, and I fell, totally
and passionately, in love with her.
That year set the pattern for our relationship during my visits
to Mexico for the next ten years. She took me places but
mostly we talked. I talked about problems of growing up, and
why men do what they do. She taught me all I know about
the people and culture of Mexico. She even explained the
traditional Mexican equivalent of our welfare system, the
casita, or little house. (The big house is where a man's wife
and her children live, and the little house is where the other
woman and her children live. Liliana explained that the casita
serves the practical function of caring for the children of
divorcees, widows, and unwed mothers, in a society that has
no welfare programs.)
I thought Liliana liked me because I was a nice guy. Ah, the
male ego! Years later, she said that she had always been told
she was a "stupid, worthless girl." I was the first adult to pay
respectful attention to her, and the boost to her self esteem
had changed her life.
Liliana's family still views her brother as the smartest of the
children. That's because he studies, and studies, and studies,
sometimes all night. If Liliana listens in class with 25% of her
mind, she doesn't need to study. Since she doesn't study, she
must not be very smart, - right? There is another theory.
In 1989, Liliana's parents, and my wife and I, bought a 4,000
square-foot house near the San Cosme district of Mexico
City. Liliana and her family live there, and my family visits
for one month each year. That's also where I had hoped to
move after we retired, but my wife wimped out, so we have
a home in McAllen, Texas, and I hope to visit Mexico a lot.
After high school, Liliana worked in an office, and performed
volunteer work in an orphanage. Last year, she decided to
dedicate her life to serve the poor, and recently completed a
three month school, learning to provide education and basic
health services for the people living in the poorest part of
Mexico. Then, she got an important job in the government of
Mexico City. What an excellent niece!
It's strange to remember that fourteen years ago, I didn't
even want to go to Mexico. Now, thanks to a sweet, little girl,
who taught me to love Mexico, and especially the Mexican
people, I want to spend the rest of my life there.
Bruce McGovern, 1998
Bruce first went to Mexico in 1983 and says, "I consider myself to be an ordinary person in almost every sense of the term, and am often amazed when I realize how exotic many of my experiences in Mexico really are, compared to the usual tourist experience."