Josefina at the Church

Josefina is a beggar dressed in selected rags that are shabby but not too shabby. She sits on the bottom entrance step leading to the largest church in Guanajuato, the Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesuitas, the Church of the Jesuit Society, begun in 1747 and completed in 1765. It is said miners worked day and night until the project was finished. Little is known about the miners—how they were treated and how much they were paid—except that there some lingering questions. The pious José Manuel Sardaneta y Legazpí, the first Marqués (Marquis) de San Juan de Rayas and Visconde (Viscount) de Sardaneta—the Spanish crown conferred aristocratic titles in order to insure loyalty to Spain—largely paid for the construction. Its façade is carved in a pink stone that gives off a warm glow. The style is Baroque Churrigueresque. The OSUG (Orquesta Sinfónica de la Universidad de Guanajuato) plays there sometimes, and its music mixes with the sound of pigeons flapping overhead. Many large colonial paintings, heavy with solemn dignity and suffering, hang in the sacristy—works by famous painters like Miguel Cabrera, Baltasar Echave Orio and José Ibarra.

Josephina arrives at the steps at around nine in the morning. I changed my view of her when, a few days ago, from the comfort of a taxi, I saw her sitting there at nine at night. She sits crossed-legged with various plastic bags holding bits of food in front of her. She wears a shabby brown shawl over her head. Sometimes it is nearly impossible to see her face. Until I saw her sitting there at nine o’clock at night, I had always scorned her a little. It is so much a part of the public drama: the devout or semi-devout filing past the crafty Josefina, or someone like her, feeling guilty, especially on exiting the church, and then grudgingly dropping her a few centavos, because God might be watching.
But sitting there until nine or beyond means that she has no other life and no better place to go at that hour, and that was something that registered with me. So I stopped on the way back from pilates, with my trendy L.L.Bean yoga mat bag (with mat inside), bent over Josefina and said hello.

“What’s your name?” I asked. People were coming down the stairs. Josefina’s face lit up.

“Josefina,” she said.

I didn’t get it, leaned closer and asked her again.

“Josefina,” she said a little louder.

“How old are you, Josefina?” I asked.

I don’t know why I asked her that, but the question was out. Her face took on more color, showed some confusion, only the hint of embarrassment.

“I don’t really know,” she said, after thinking about the question for a moment.

She smiled. I smiled.

“Okay,” I said. “Doesn’t matter,” and placed a ten-pesos piece on her soiled palm.

And then I nodded and told her to take care.

The next time I see her, I will say her name and ask her how she is.

“Hola, Josefina,” I will say. “Cómo estas?”

2 thoughts on “Josefina at the Church

  1. Brian,

    How about calling me Sterling, not Mr. Bennett, please! I made a mistake on what 10 pesos will buy. A taco with meat cost 12 to 14 pesos. But for 10 pesos you can buy a delicious and wholesome gordita—a thick tortilla cut open and filled with beans and eggs or chiles or potatoes or pig skin and other things. So it is a whole meal. You can write me at sterlingbenn@gmail.com. Hope you’re fire safe up there. California is burning. I think a great many factors go into making a person poor—not just bad parenting. Sterling

  2. Hi, Brian,
    10 pesos is $.77 today. Giving that to her or to any very poor person that is begging or not begging will, together with other donations, help sustain her. 10 pesos buys two tacos with meat. Josefina is not going to stop begging; that is her way of life. There are maybe six people like her in Guanajuato, probably more. Mental illness seems to go along with it. My piece is largely about me: at last seeking Josefina’s humanity (and my own) by talking to her, finding out her name, humanizing her away from “beggar” and me away from “scorner.” Best Wishes, Sterling

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