Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Wealth of Knowledge

Some of life’s most important lessons come from the least expected places. When I became a volunteer at the soup kitchen in Patzcuaro I expected to meet some local people and learn a little about the culture here. I did not expect the incredible font of wisdom and life experience that I actually got.

Majestic Architecture

sg arBS
El Sagrario in Patzcuaro

I think that the average age of most of the people who come to El Sagrario, a four hundred and fifty year old church, for their daily food, is somewhere around 70. It’s hard to tell for sure with poor people who have worked in the sun all of their lives. A lot of them don’t read and write and have only enough grasp of numbers to deal with a little money. Some are younger and some are older and some have no idea how old they are, but as a generalization I think that most are likely septuagenarians.

Some of these people are also Purépecha, the indigenous folk who preceded the  Spanish and also hold the distinction of being the only tribe not conquered by the Aztecs. Spanish is their second language as well and if you travel far from the larger cities in Michoacan you will see signs in some of the small pueblos in the Purépechan language. One town I know of even has a Purépechan radio station. Where I am going with this is that it was darned hard to understand these people at first, but it was definitely worth the challenge! Many have few, or no teeth, which also adds to the pronunciation issues.

When I was at the kitchen in El Sagrario we fed anywhere from 25 to 35 people a day and I understand that now it is up to about fifty. Somewhere in the vicinity of 100,000 Mexicans have returned to Michoacan from the US because of lack of work and unfortunately there is little to be had in Michoacan either so we are starting to see more younger women with children as well.

Shannon with woman & children

Eventually we were able to stop talking in sign language as I gradually began to understand what they were saying and then my education really began. These folks who had nothing were so full of fun and life and laughter that I was humbled in their presence. I felt foolish for having whined about silly inconveniences in my life, which in retrospect was truly blessed. They taught me that happiness comes not from things but from people, and from living each day to the fullest.

Lunch Time!

Maria de Jesus, or Chuchita as she is nicknamed, is the gossip of the group. Well maybe just the most accomplished gossip of the group. She is the white haired lady in the middle of the table on the left in the photo above. She is also the randiest old woman I have ever met. As she peeled carrots or potatoes she would comment on their phallic shapes. She often helps with the food prep and loves to tell stories while we cook. She’ll look around surreptitiously to make sure the folks in the story are out of earshot and jump right in. My favorite story is the one about Alicia and the Maesto, a LONG retired professor. She told us that the professor liked it hot so Alicia had rubbed peron pepper (VERY HOT) on his penis. She showed us how he had reacted by jumping all over the kitchen and practically had us all on the floor laughing.

Señorita Angelita was one of the greatest characters to visit the kitchen. She always wore a Canadian snow hat no matter what the weather. It was the red plaid kind with the ear flaps and lined with sheepskin and she always said “ Chao “ in a gravelly voice after receiving her food. Sadly she was hit by a car one day and I went to see her in the hospital. She looked so small and frail and I asked her what I could do for her, if she needed anything. She replied “ I could use a car. Have you got a car? “ She had a wicked sense of humour and kept the whole hospital room (8 beds) laughing, mostly at my expense. Unfortunately she died of her injuries and we all miss her every day.

Our workspace/serving area

I have since discovered that living for the day is a nationwide phenomena and not just with the poor. Priorities are just different here. If someone is on their way to an appointment and runs into a friend, you will never hear “ sorry, busy got to run”. Who knows when, or if, you will see that friend again so the appointment gets shoved to the back burner, so to speak. If your daughter is sick, if your mother had an accident (if your brother is in jail) this certainly takes priority over whatever obligations you may have had for that day. I have come to understand that this is why I spend so much time waiting for the plumber, the phone guy etc. and I am a little less frustrated and a little more forgiving when they may not show up when they said they would, or even on the day that they said they would. I believe this is the crux of living on Mexican time.

The pictures of the folks at El Sagrario were taken by my friend Kathy Butler, a great photographer and a volunteer at the kitchen. The architecture shots at the top are my husband Todd's, also a great photographer.


  1. Interesting... As one drives through life, the most interesting observations are often in the rear view mirror. Slow down, and start walking, and the world is all around you, and NOW! Great story Shannon!
    Dan in NC

  2. Thank you Dan. You are absolutely right,and I wonder how much I have missed while buried in corporate rigamarole all these years.

  3. Shannon,
    I love the stories and the pictures taken by your friend are wonderful. We had no idea you did this while still in Patzcuaro, but I'm not surprised because of your passion for eveything in Mexico...

  4. Thanks Judy, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. Sorry I still haven't sent you San Miguel pictures yet. I will.

  5. Shannon, I discovered the immense value of volunteering in Mexico (anywhere for that matter) years ago, and continue to work in this way. I have learned and gained so much more than I have given. Volunteering is truly a gift, to ourselves. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. You're right Marc, I got so much from that experience and I miss those people very much. You're welcome.