This morning while walking the dogs along Arroyo Aduana we came upon this assortment of materials resembling a house. My first thought was that someone had found a perfectly useful but abandoned door and decided it wanted a home of its own. Surrounding the door are all the necessities and amenities of a shelter – a portal, a plastic bench to sit on in the shade, an adobe brick hornilla for cooking, a roof covered in plastic to withstand more or less the rain, and a beautiful view of the mountains. The house itself, constructed of plywood or cardboard, is puzzling, barely big enough for a cot and, yikes, no windows. There are those among us who would nitpick about the lack of running water, electricity, and bathroom. For me, it is the absence of windows. On our summer nights, when the temperature drops only a bit, that box will be an oven.
The piles of red dirt around the house are an indication of the primary utility of Arroyo Aduana for many in the community. Along most of its banks are aggregate pits where individuals and public works employees come to mine sand, gravel, and rock for construction projects. To my knowledge there are no regulations regarding the extraction of these materials or if there are they are not enforced. From the perspective of the arroyo’s hydrology and the lifeforms it supports, the relentless excavation, removal, and redistribution of aggregate is something of a disaster but of little concern to most people in these parts.
It may be this is a worker’s shack for taking lunch breaks or a shelter for a velador – a night watchman. The latter is really a wild guess. It is hard to imagine there are aggregate poachers who abscond with sand or gravel under cover of darkness. We will be in Alamos for many months, and we go to this stretch of Aduana Arroyo often enough that at some point maybe we will encounter a person at the shack and ascertain its purpose and something about its tenant.
I resist assigning a station to this dwelling or to whomever built it. I will never call this the house of a poor person without a great deal of knowledge about who constructed it and why. That information can be very hard to come by much less decode. In my opinion, interlopers from vastly different classes and cultures who come to Mexico, especially to its rural areas and small towns, have a predisposition to assume a dwelling like this bespeaks poverty. That reflex is rude and insulting and reveals more about the interloper than the builder and occupant.
The day before we came upon this house on our arroyo walk, a friend had come to our place with a chainsaw to cut down a large mesquite tree that had fallen over. He cut the trunk and larger limbs into useful lengths, and David made a pile of the branches for another friend to haul to the city dump. Of course we salvaged the trunk and larger limbs for leña – firewood – which we use in our chimineas to inefficiently provide warmth on our portal and in our house in winter or for the frivolous purpose of firepits to sit around with ourselves and friends. But we already have enough leña on hand. David had the obvious and generous idea to give most of the firewood to our neighbors Chapo and Yobarda. Their daily life revolves around leña. Yobarda does all the cooking over a fire, including her handmade nixtamal corn tortillas.
They came with wheelbarrows to cart off the firewood. It was an animated scene of laughter between neighbors who share a bond beyond language. In the midst of this I noticed Yobarda’s attention was on the big pile of branches. That biomass, which for me was detritus to haul off, was a gold mine of twigs she could use for kindling. I see Yobarda from time to time searching along the Aduana Arroyo that runs behind our houses – a few miles downstream on the same arroyo where the mysterious box house stands – looking for limbs and branches to disassemble for kindling. When folks around here aren’t extracting aggregate from the arroyos, they are dumping garbage and other stuff in them, like bald tires, deconstructed building materials known as escombro, and yard and landscaping waste of the sort Yobarda recycles to start her cook fires.
David helped her and Chapo drag the branches back to their compound. A few days later, when I was passing by, I noticed the limbs had been deconstructed and artfully arranged into a sculpture of sticks and twigs.
The mysterious structure on the arroyo and the neighborly transfer of leña are testaments not just to a necessity but to an enduring disposition to recycle and repair, which runs deep in Mexican culture even as as it transitions into a first-world country. I am a poor re-user of materials. In my comfortable life I have never been incentivized to repurpose goods or objects, and, out of sheer laziness and lack of curiosity, I never acquired the skills to build or repair anything. In a way I am helpless, and this is an embarrassment to me. It is a form of poverty, my scarcity of imagination, and one of many reasons I am reluctant to judge the ostensible poverty of others.