Petra is the grand matriarch in our Mexican community of Nestipac, in suburban Jocotepec. A daughter and two children live to the right of her home. Two sons and their familes live to her left. Those of us unrelated enjoy her presence and respect her experience enough that we try to not miss an opportunity to say "¡Hola!"
Each morning, bright and early, Petra makes a little tour to be sure all is well in her world. It starts with her sweep, sweep, sweeping a fair share of the dirt, sand and cobblestones that serve as our street. Then, depending on her mood, she drifts, drags or darts, one direction and then the other.
Some days she bears gifts, a few flowers, a piece of fruit, or perhaps breakfast leftovers. She rarely spends much time with daughters-in-law, just enough, I think, to be sure the grandchildren have clean clothes and that their share of the street has been swept.
Most mornings, we just trade smiles and waves. Occasionally, she stops to tell a story. Petra knows our grasp of Spanish is somewhere between awful and weak but she talks as if we were born to the language. She spins her yarn at 112 kilometers per minute and when she runs out of story, she says "OK?"
One day, Petra’s story was sprinkled with "fiesta" and "música" and "comida" and "tequila" and "mañana" and "casa." She switched to English for her conclusion: "You come, OK?"
You need to know that, even with my severe limitations, I recognize the mention of free food and music -- in any of several languages. Sarah caught enough of this conversation to provide an overview.
"We’ve just been invited to a party at Petra’s tomorrow. Did she say what time?"
Perhaps you’ve heard that Mexicans are reluctant to allow gringos inside their gates. Me thinks Petra has no such inhibitions. Maybe she’s different. Or maybe she thinks we are.
We decided to tell time the next evening by when the crowd gathered. We saw the chief cook fire up the giant stainless steel pots. We saw bottles and ice go into an old-fashioned washtub. We saw a few cars park in the street. We saw people walking from the bus stop. Time to go.
There was a sizable gathering, in and out of the house. We were ushered inside. Petra had reserved chairs for us. As is our custom when we have no idea what to say or do, we nodded and smiled.
It wasn’t long before Sarah grasped the situation and whispered, "This is a wedding."
My wife (since ‘54) is swift to collect clues and solve mysteries. Now that she mentioned it, across the room was another of Petra’s daughters, the bride, and a groom, dressed in Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, two witnesses and a man of obvious authority, perhaps a judge or a lesser official of Jocotepec county.
Soon they were at the stage of the civil ceremony where bride and groom sign seven copies of the marriage contract and enhance the documents with thumbprints. After that came an embarrassed kiss and a round of hugs and congratulations.
By then, I was smarter. I whispered "I’ll be back" and hurried home for the camera. That made me the official photographer.
Petra, quiet or exhausted up to that point, suddenly gained new vitality. She arranged photo ops, a group of relatives here, a group of friends there, nieces and nephews with newlyweds, oh, and here come the mariachis. The visiting official seemed pleased to pose. Maybe he’s elected.
The reception included a hearty meal of pork and chicken, beans and rice, tortillas, salad, red and green sauces and some smokin’ salsa. There were big slices of wedding cake, a big bowl of chopped fruit, lots of Coronas and Pepsis (for children and us soft-drinkers) and really big jugs of tequila, powerful enough to put mosquitoes to flight.
Having missed all rich Mexican weddings so far, this modest celebration seemed to combine the best elements of a good time. There was dancing (not much) and drinking (quite a bit) and jokes and laughter. There were toasts and applause and loud music. Later in the evening, there was audience participation. Sometimes singers and players were on the same song.
Morning came early. One-hour photo people in Ajijic produced pictures. We rushed them back to Petra. She ooohed and awwwed and attached names to several faces. Finally, after two trips through the deck, she said "Gracias" and handed back the treasures.
Oh no, we said, for you.
At first, Petra didn’t believe it. Then, she wept.