Maya Angelou in Mexico
by Peter Balestrieri

The dirt roads of Mexico fulfilled all my longing for the unusual.

. . . gravel streets that could have competed in crudeness with the worst paths in Arkansas, and the landscape boasted adobe huts . . . .

Dogs, lean and dirty, slunk around the houses, and children played innocently in the nude or near nude with discarded rubber tires.

Half the population looked like Tyrone Power and Dolores Del Rio, and the other half like Akim Tamiroff and Katina Paxinou, maybe only fatter and older.

Their Spanish was choppier than my school version but I understood.

After many adios's and bonitas and espositas Dad started the car, and we were on our grimy way again.

I feared that I would never get back to America, civilization, English, and wide streets again.

. . . the dirt yard of a cantina where half-clothed children chased mean-looking chickens around and around.

. . . the single-minded activity of either the grubby kids or the scrawny fowls.

And suddenly a claque of women crowded to the door and overflowed into the yard.

People . . . spoke a rat-a-tat Spanish that I was unable to follow.

There was no need to pretend in front of those Mexican peasants.

He was an American. He was Black. He spoke Spanish fluently. He had money and he could drink tequila with the best of them. The women liked him too. He was tall and handsome and generous. I overcame my reserve and tore my tonsils loose with a yell that would have been worthy of Zapata.

A woman brought chicharrones (in the South they're called cracklings) in a greasy newspaper.

My formal Spanish must have sounded as pretentious to the ears of the paisano as "Whither goeth my sire?" would have sounded to a semi-literate Ozark mountaineer.

. . . the sounds of music and laughter and Cisco Kid screams . . . .

Why was I afraid of the Mexicans? After all, they had been kind to me and surely my father wouldn't allow his daughter to be ill treated.

How could he leave me in that raunchy bar . . . ?

I was to die, after all, in a Mexican dirt yard. The special person that I was, the intelligent mind that God and I had created together, was to depart this life without recognition or contribution.

I thought fast as the couple laughed and jabbered at me in incomprehensible Spanish.

I would speak to him like the peasant he was. I would order him to start the car and then tip him a quarter or even a dollar from Dad's pocket before driving on.

As I twisted the steering wheel and forced the accelerator to the floor I was controlling Mexico . . . .

The crash of scraping metal was followed immediately by a volley of Spanish hurled at me from all directions.

Being a people of close family ties and weekly fiestas they suddenly understood the situation. I was a poor little girl thing who was caring for her drunken father, who had stayed too long at the fair.

Obviously, this was a common Mexican experience.

Before we reached the border he rolled down the window, and the fresh air, which was welcome, was uncomfortably cold.

Pub. May 1999