Jacinto is gone.
He was here one day and then he was not.
This is my tribute to a man I scarcely knew. I hope I can explain what it means to me that he is gone without sounding patronizing and without romancing him.
I would never equate my sadness to the sorrow of his sister or daughter or the other people who knew and loved him and whose lives were entwined with his. My sadness is of a different sort.
It is the sadness of absence. For the last three years or so, Jacinto was part of our life in Alamos. In leaving, he left a rent in the fabric. He is not at the back gate as he often was in the morning when we were heading out. He is not sitting on the curb on our street as he did on many afternoons waving when we passed by. He is not doing odd jobs for Chemo, who owns the hardware store next door to us. On many evenings, Jacinto sat with Chemo in lawn chairs having cafecitos, chatting, and laughing. They sat in a little open-air shed where Chemo, a devout Catholic, keeps lit candles and a crucifix of Jesus.
Jacinto’s rural Sonoran Spanish largely escaped me. This did not stop us from exchanging the gestures and cordialities that define a day. “¿Cómo amaneció?” Literally, beautifully, “How did your day dawn?” Jacinto was always smiling.
Jacinto died in December as the year and decade were drawing to an end and when the outer world has become evermore discordant, tense, uncertain, and rude. Or so it seems. Perhaps the outer world is forever fraught and at times and places dangerous and now we have created the technologies to be constantly reminded of the menace. In leaving Jacinto whispered, “Anda aquí, no allá.” Go here, not there. That was his gift to me.
I am not trying to beatify Jacinto. I know virtually nothing about him or his life. Unlike his loved ones, I am spared of his imperfections. He died at 65 of congestive heart failure. He was a countryman, a campesino. He and Yobarda, his sister, talked about a place, Rancho Tlachuache, where I gathered they spent considerable time in the past. I doubt he had more than a few years of schooling. He often had his radio dialed to Radio Sonora, a station that plays wonderful Mexican music. We understood he had dos mujeres – two women – to whom he was unlikely married and neither currently present. His daughter, and only child, has a young boy and girl, and her husband, who is bilingual, works as a handyman somewhere on the outer fringes of metropolitan Phoenix. The family seems to be in a classic border limbo straightening out documents so they can all be together in the United States. We spoke with them briefly at the velación – vigil – for Jacinto.
We took an arrangement of flowers back to the compound where Jacinto lived with Yobarda and her husband Chapo. Family and friends were sitting solemn in folding chairs in a ring around an ornate coffin. Jacinto’s white cowboy hat was perched on top. A photo of Jacinto as a young man was propped on a table. There were flowers everywhere. David walked around the ring paying condolences to each person. I hugged Yobarda and sat down next to her. We did not stay long. All the cues of Jacinto’s absence were taxing my capacity to withhold tears and I was determined not to cry. This place was for their sorrow, not ours.
The next day we went to the funeral mass for Jacinto in the grand cathedral in Alamos, La Iglesia de Purísima Concepción. Chemo, who is ordained to perform sacramental functions, made the arrangements for this service. Jacinto’s granddaughter, who we met at the velación, sat next to me. The solemnity of the occasion was beyond her comprehension. She squirmed and giggled with a cousin her age and she and I smiled and made wide-eyed sideways glances at each other. She will know in due time what death is all about. The church was full. Only a few people took communion, evidence that while few Mexicans are baptized these days they turn to the church for rites of passage.
The home where Jacinto lived is little more than a hut. It is part of the barrio directly behind us called Vergeles – el vergel is an orchard – inhabited by country people, ranch workers (current or retired) and ranch owners. When we drive through Vergeles, as we do almost daily, we slip back a century. This time warping is not unusual in Mexico. Most people cook outside on wood fires. They keep horses, chickens, cows, calves, goats, burros, every so often a pig. The sounds that drift up onto our portal from Vergeles are rural—cowbells, neighing, braying, mooing, cackling, and crowing. There are barking dogs, laughter, and music as well but these sounds are universal throughout Mexico. We are frequent beneficiaries of the thick nixtamal corn tortillas Yobarda makes every day on her wood fire. If I don’t see her, I often hear the rhythm of her hands patting out the tortillas. This is a sound that is dying out in Mexico. These days only countrywomen make tortillas like Yobarda’s.
On the day of the funeral mass Jacinto was buried at Rancho Tlacuache, the place of which he often spoke. A novena ensued, an ancient Christian ritual often associated with the death of a loved one involving nine days of devotion and prayer. Through the mist of my poor understanding of religious ritual and Spanish, I am not sure how this period played out for Yobarda and Jacinto’s family. Plus, it was Christmas and I was busy living my own swirling life.
I know there were people hovering at her house in the evenings for the next nine days. I learned it was customary to revisit the grave at the conclusion of a novena. In conversations with Chemo and Yobarda—over the fence, at the back gate—David and I came to understand we were invited to make this journey, we dearly wanted to go, and Don Angel Esquer, our friend and gardener who had become friends with Jacinto, was invited also.
On a clear blue morning, the last Sunday of the year, we headed out in two vehicles to Rancho Tlacuache. It was a perfect way to close the book on 2019. We were nine, four of Jacinto’s family and five of his friends. We took one of the numerous dirt roads that wind out of Alamos toward remote corners of neighboring Sinaloa and Chihuahua. On the way, listening to Yobarda and Angel talk, we came to understand just how important Rancho Tlacuache was to her and her brother, we learned more details about Jacinto, Angel told us he remembers visiting this ranch when he was ten years old (at some point during his 87 years Angel has been everywhere in this part of Sonora), and we learned that Tlacuache means possum. One of the great treasures of living in Mexico is riding around in the country with country people listening to them talk about their lives.
We came to a barbed-wire gate, entered, and arrived at the cemetery. Yobarda pointed to Rancho Tlacuache, a compound of buildings in the distance across a wide arroyo. The cemetery seemed like an incandescent oasis for the dead. The grave markers were tidy and painted bright colors. Clearly relatives had come for the Day of the Dead in November. Jacinto’s grave was a riot of flowers upon which we all placed more flowers while Yobarda and her daughter attended to lighting votive candles. Jacinto is buried next to their father. Their mother’s grave is several paces away as are two graves for sisters who died as youngsters. We stayed about an hour during which David and I noted a Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, Cooper’s Hawk, and Gray Hawk. Four raptors watching over Jacinto we take as a good omen.
Looking back, I realize that whether by design or happenstance the small clutch of people who went out into the vast and quiet Sonoran countryside to Jacinto’s grave were his quotidian family, the people he spent his days with in the last years of his life. Anda aquí, no allá.