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Josefina, a woman of Mexico

Maggie Van Ostrand

Living in New York and Los Angeles, while good for one’s metabolism, is not that great for one’s patience. Who has time to stop and smell the roses? Who stops? Who smells? What roses?

When I moved to Ajijic in 1995, I assumed qualities like honesty, integrity, kindness, patience and, above all, respect, would be restored by osmosis. Instead, they were restored by Josefina.

Josefina was housekeeper at the hacienda I was to rent for several years. At first I was intimidated, never having had a fulltime housekeeper before. She was nothing like the weekly cleaning woman who cared for my Hollywood home while I toiled in the madcap world of television.

Josefina, whose skin was the color of a chocolate malted if you mixed some sunshine into it, wore a spotless, white apron over what my mother called a “housedress.” The apron had little pink and yellow green-leafed flowers in the corners which, I later learned, she had embroidered herself.

She blushed at my “How do you do?” accompanied by my hand extended for a shake which would not, could not, be forthcoming, and lowered her eyes demurely. “ Buenos días, Señora,” she murmured, “What can I do for you this day?”

I incorrectly felt that I had offended her, but that was my ignorance of Mexican ways. In Josefina’s culture, it would have been improper for her to show such easy familiarity with a stranger. That’s the U.S. manner, and I was not in the U.S.

Slowly, both by her example and my observations, I learned to adjust to Mexican culture. I came to understand these generous people. It is we who are difficult to comprehend. It is, after all, Mexico, a country in which we were not born but rather choose to live.

Why choose a colonial village for its obvious charm and beauty, and then complain because our heels catch in the cobblestones? We can learn to walk on cobblestones and to wear sensible shoes. Josefina walks on cobblestones, and so can I.

Why crab about the narrow streets, yet continue to drive giant SUVs into Mexico and end up parking half on the sidewalk? Why overlook the fun of riding in lopsided buses where people gaily chatter and sometimes play guitars. Josefina rides the bus and so can I.

The wondrous sights within and without the bus have unexpected rewards, like the little Mexican boy who knelt on his seat in front, facing me. He grinned and pointed to the words printed on his T-shirt: “I am an American.” I'd be pleased to wear a T-shirt that says, “I am a Mexican.”

On buses, everyone, seemingly without exception, says “Gracias” to the driver upon debarking. How courteous and respectful is that and when did we stop doing it in the U.S?

I will never forget sitting next to Josefina and spying a very large, odd looking bird in the empty lot our bus was passing. I asked Josefina, “What kind of bird is that? I never saw such a wrinkled, ugly little face and that black ruff around it is totally out of proportion.” She giggled behind her hand and could barely get out the words, “Oh Señora, that is the back side of a turkey and he is bending over to reach the corn on the ground.”

Josefina never made fun of me when I inadvertently butchered her language, but patiently and softly corrected me until I got it right. I tutored her youngest son in English and, when he inadvertently butchered my language, I patiently and softly corrected him until he got it right. If Josefina can do it, so can I.

She is also one of the world’s great cooks, though she seems unaware of it. At the Chapala newsstand, I bought two artfully illustrated Frida Kahlo cookbooks, one in English for me and the same one in Spanish for Josefina. When entertaining, I had only to point to a beautiful photograph in my book, than I saw it in living color on the dinner table that very night. She told me how much she enjoyed trying new dishes. She enjoyed it? Invariably, the husbands of my guests trailed Josefina back into the kitchen, drooling, and begging her to leave her husband and come away with them. They all loved her.

Speaking of love, not since Lana Turner’s fallen lipstick rolled across the floor stopping at the feet of newly arrived drifter, John Garfield, in “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” have I witnessed anything as romantic as Josefina’s relationship with her husband, Enrique, the gardener.

On the evening of their 27th wedding anniversary, she invited me to join her and we sat outside on a pair of stiff chairs. Three crisply-dressed mustachioed men in sombreros entered the yard, deftly plucking their guitar strings. As they serenaded Josefina by lustily singing “Cielito Lindo” and “Mi Secreto Amor,” Enriquez, dressed all in black, silver belt buckle glinting in the moonlight, shyly walked out from behind them. In his hand he clutched one magnificent red rose. He handed it to Josefina.

No naked film stars writhing about on a movie screen can equal that scene for romance.

When you figure out why, when we leave our mother countries to live in the paradise known as Mexico, we want to change it into the place we just left, please let me know.

In the meantime, when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do. Josefina does it, and so can I.

Published or Updated on: March 1, 2003 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2003
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