Notes on Learning To Walk in Oaxaca
As her son takes his first steps in his native country, Teresa Ponikvar reflects on the juxtaposition, the day-at-a-time progression, of living and working where you’re an outsider.
ISAIAS BEGINS WALKING as we help our friends Herminio and Berta with an activity I’ve never had occasion to learn the word for in English: desgranando maiz, stripping the hard kernels of dried corn off the cobs.
It’s not a huge harvest—the rains were late, and then too heavy—but it’s enough, Berta hopes, to feed their forty-some-odd chickens and turkeys through the winter. The small patio is half-buried in a drift of corn, studded with jade-green pumpkins. The late afternoon light illuminates the harvest beautifully. It feels like fall.
Our hands are busy with the corn, and we chat inconsequentially about poultry; our small joint venture of selling eggs in the city; our kids, who are still young enough that we can discuss them in their presence. We agree to go in together on some boards to build raised garden beds. As softly as dusk falling over the valley, but more unexpectedly, peace spreads through my body, starting in my hands, my corn-sore thumbs, releasing the knots in my shoulders, and finally the ones in my head.
Isaias has been busily plunging his hand into the buckets of loose corn kernels, methodically tasting them one by one and spitting them out. When he grabs my hand and begins sorting through my fingers as though they’re a bunch of keys, it’s his signal that he’s ready to move, but I’m not ready to leave the twin joys of adult conversation and a concretely useful task, and wiggle the chosen finger out of his grip.
He crouches down, seems to consider protesting but then think betters of it. He straightens up, and takes his first three solo steps towards me. He leans on my leg and grins—he knows what he’s done—then he turns around and, laughing, toddles all the way across the patio as though he’s sucked the ability to walk, wholesale, out of the corn.
Berta and Herminio are our first—and, so far, only—real friends here in our small town; real friends as opposed to warm acquaintances or friendly neighbors. They’re outsiders here too, and though we’re from very different places, we’ve ended up in the same one: trying to build something green and right in this valley. We’re none of us from here, but our children are.
Isaias, tired of walking or perhaps overwhelmed by the implications of his new independence, and two-year-old Nancy, lean on a beat-up pink tricycle. Nancy holds a grasshopper between two careful fingers, examining it without squashing it. Isaias leans close to her. The edge of the sky along the dark rim of mountain is marigold orange, but here on the valley floor we’re already in deep shadow. Berta goes inside to turn on the light.