My Friend María Luisa

A week or so ago as we climbed out of our car in the Costco parking lot in Xalapa, a man wearing the uniform of the people who loaded groceries came up to us. Tall, heavyset, he had a strange fixed smile: did he know us? He started walking next to me. As we approached the store’s entrance, he started to speak. He made me nervous. At first I didn´t understand what he said. Still smiling he leaned towards me. “The thin woman, she´s your friend, right? ” I shook my head. He stopped. “She helps with your groceries, you know?” “Oh, right. I do know her. Do you know her?” I had thought the last few times we´d seen her and talked to her she´d looked sick and way too thin. “She passed,” said the man. “She passed?” I knew what he meant. “She died.” He kept smiling. How do you tell a stranger this sort of thing? “When?” “About three weeks ago.” He said, “Gastritis.” How do you die from gastritis? I was shocked. We had been going to Costco over the eleven years we’ve lived here, me always feeling guilty at how much I enjoyed it: I couldn´t walk past all the temptations on the way to the dog food. Jim is always perturbed at the fact that it wasn’t cheap, at wandering around wasting his time and paying for stuff he didn’t want. Somewhere back towards the beginning, María Luisa and I had found each other in the parking lot and had started talking to each other. And we kept on doing it. I always looked for her, and she kept her eye out for me. We never let anyone else put our groceries in the car. If she wasn’t there, we did it ourselves. In the beginning,María Luisa and I started talking about little things in our lives: how many kids we had, where we lived, stuff like that. Once she told me she imagined I lived in a big, beautiful rich person´s house. I said, “Hardly,” although for her, our house would have been luxurious. She lived with her mother and had two children. She supported all of them on the tips she got. She had real skill. She was friendly, straightforward as she carefully and quickly packed trunks as if she was putting puzzle pieces in place. We hugged each other hello and goodbye. Sometimes we walked arm and arm. I looked forward to seeing her, and she would wave as soon as she saw me. We gave each other bits of advice. I often told her to eat a lot of cake to fatten up although the words were useless: she couldn’t afford a lot of cake. She worried about her kids, and her mother who I think could be hard on her. She worried when I had a cough that had turned chronic, and when I used a cane briefly because I had bursitis in a hip. When I came back from visiting my kids in Boston, she wanted to know how they were, especially my grandkids. She had had various health problems, and I was always urging her to take her medicine. In spite of her problems, she always looked good in her crisp white shirt and khaki pants and the billed cap she perched above her long, wavy ponytail. She was brisk, efficient and strong. Money. She never asked and I never gave her anything more than a tip. By the end it was twenty pesos. Once I tried to give her more but she refused it. She told us most people just gave her a couple of pesos or maybe five if they were feeling generous. She was embarassed when we started giving her twenty. Money was often at the back of my mind. She cared for her family on amounts I hardly thought about.

The man broke away from us at the door. We went into Costco and followed old habits. Jim said could we just buy what we came for, I was enticed by whatever. With a start, I realized how ridiculouos it was, we were. Such is life, or as they say here, ni modo, whatever. Jesus. I put things back.  Jim and I agreed we could ask the guy some more questions if he was still there. He was. We gave him our cart to push. He started talking about María Luisa again. This time he said she died of stomach cancer. That she wouldn’t go to the hospital until four days before she died. That she was 54 years old. I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t look that old. But her son, who was a teenager when I met her was now 24 and he worked part time in Costco – inside. He answered all my questions, talking to another attendant when he wasn’t sure. It became clear that the workers knew each other pretty well: lots of connections. We will look for the son. Make sure we go when he’s working. Just let him know I miss his mom.

More people in Mexico are poor than aren’t, and few of the people who aren’t poor are what you’d call rich or even middle class in the US. And it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that people scraping by are happy campesinos who choose friends and family over money. Education is poor, health care if you live where we do can be adequate but Seguro Popular, the national health insurance program that covers everyone who enrolls, doesn’t cover much in the way of medicine. Food is expensive. Wages for blue collar people are low even when your job is in the formal economy. Sometimes foreigners wonder why so many Mexican houses have only one overhead light in a room: electricity on a worker’s salary is not cheap. But you shouldn’t feel condescending or sorry for her. María Luisa had grit. She endured until she couldn’t.

One Response to “My Friend María Luisa”

  1. Lois Knopf Says:

    I do feel sorry for a world in which minimum needs are not met and plastic crap is bought, trashed, and piled high.

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