Alicia Ramirez, a friend in Melaque
The diminutive, stocky woman with a long braid of dark hair walks the five- mile long sweeping expanse of beach several times every day. Usually she walks alone, but, sometimes other women or men accompany her. Each woman dresses in a customary fashion including a pastel colored cotton dress, over which stretches a starched apron often lined with lace. The overall appearance is one of tidy neatness and femininity. Their small stature and picturesque appearance underpins the economic reality of their daily life.
These are women at work, plying souvenir jewelry and trinkets to everyone on the beach. They work many hours, walking over hot sand without shade. Although the San Patricio/Melaque beach supports many other peddlers, these people appear to operate as a small kinship group. I know this fact from an incident that happened during my first visit there, five years ago.
I was camping with my family on the north end of the beach when I first met the troupe of little ladies. The tight budget of a long road trip ruled out the purchasing of most souvenirs. When I was initially approached and offered the goods, I repeatedly said, " No, gracias." Beside us, my senior snowbird neighbor had arranged an attractive display of clothing in front of her trailer. A small group of lady vendors gathered and I walked over to inquire as to the nature of the transaction.
"We're trading," my neighbor said. "Every year that I come here, I bring good quality used or new clothing and trade for all of my souvenirs. You could do it too. These people are scrupulously honest and they'll give you exactly what they think is fair." Intrigued by the trading concept, I soon collected my own assortment of "trade goods" and opened for business. To my delight, I was able to obtain some traditional handicrafts and jewelry in exchange for my items. Although previously stripped by thieves of all of our out-side camping gear, my husband Bill, found more items by opening up trailer drawers and cabinets. Clothing, sunglasses, pocket calculators, alarm clocks and ball hats became hot trading items.
The ladies are very selective about their trading practice. Their eyes train for quality and practicability. Frequently they converse with each other in their native tongue during the decision making stage. They trade and deal and help each other. For example, I was attracted to a lovely long necklace of lapis lazuli. The lady with this item did not desire any of my goods. Her friend on the other hand wished to buy many of the smaller children's outfits. So they traded necklaces among themselves and carefully counted each tiny gemstone to make an even deal. The afternoon sped by in this amiable fashion until we all parted with satisfaction. The ladies said that they were from the state of Guerrero and if we were to return to Melaque, they wished that we would bring " más ropas, planchas and ventiladores eléctricos (more clothes, irons and electric fans)
During this visit to Melaque in February, I had some money to purchase souvenirs. However, I thought that trading clothing might still be a way to have some interesting social interaction. I wanted my two young teens to learn from the experience even though I was prepared just to give everything away. Josh and Rose were interested in practicing their bartering skills. On the beach, we opened our shop under the shade of our beach umbrella. It immediately became apparent that economic circumstances had improved as the ladies preferred pesos for their goods to clothes. The interaction began to give hints to the personalities of the women. One woman in particular gave me a positive feeling from the first moment. Armed with her non-existent English and my beginner's Spanish, we managed to communicate through the mutual force of bountiful good-will, intuition and that great asset, body language. The polite conversation augured well for future chats.
The next afternoon when the woman traipsed by in the afternoon heat, I invited her to sit in the umbrella's shade. After her acceptance, I offered her a drink from a large green coconut. She acted surprised and told me that in her three years selling souvenirs on that beach, I was the first tourist to ask her to " platicar" (chat). She was warm, friendly and willing to choose her Spanish words slowly and carefully so that I might understand her better. Although my vocabulary had increased from 100 words to a possible 1000 over 5 years, I labored at mastering the pronunciation. A great conversation began in Spanglish. This is an ad hoc intercultural language combing English and Spanish and cemented together by relaxed good humor and goodwill.
Her name was Alicia Jimenez and she came from a small rural village in the mountainous state of Guerrero to the south. People from that region are forced to leave the area because the land has become hot, dry and barren. It is nearly impossible to make a living as few flower, fruits or vegetables will grow. They migrate to Melaque where water is abundant. Selling souvenirs provides a way to make a living. Alicia thinks that Melaque is a beautiful place and describes with enthusiasm the ocean, birds, flowers and everything else. Here, her two oldest children, ages 7 and 5 can go to school. She can leave her two-year old infant with someone and walk the beautiful beaches to make a little money. The Costalegre is seen as the golden land of opportunity!
Alicia asked me how long I had been married. I replied 17 years and that I had 3 children, 16, 14 and 12. She asked for my age at my marriage. I answered that I was 28 and my husband was 14 years older. She looked surprised so I asked her the same question. She replied that she was 32 and had married at 8. We did each other's statistics in the sand and burst into laughter. " Cultura diferente!" I exclaimed.
We met every afternoon under that umbrella until the day that I left with my children to visit my internet friends in Guadalajara. Upon my return, four days later, we greeted each other as old friends. Later I purchased some jewelry from her. When her bracelets were found to be too large for the girls that I had in mind, she offered to make them to custom fit if I would return mañana. I said, It's a deal!" Earlier in our friendship, she had asked me if I would trade any ball hats. I had only one that I needed. Now that I was leaving, I gave her mine. On my last day, I asked if she would do me the favor of distributing the remains of my clothing, dishes, frisbee and anything else that I could think to give. I had confidence that she would know who in the village could use them. She gave me a friendship bracelet before we hugged like two parting sisters. Alicia said that the next time that I come to Melaque, I must come to her house so that we can " platicar" some more. I wanted to say "with bells on" in Spanish! However such verbal expressions elude me.
As Alicia walked away down the beach, I saw a little piece of my heart fluttering from her checkered apron.