Tag: mental illness

Greeting Josefina and Remembering Mateo

I stopped by the church steps today and greeted Josefina, who sat in her usual place on the bottom step. She replied, “Mande?”—”Yes?” with like a school child afraid she has is being called to account for some mistake. “How are you?” I asked. “Fine,” she said.

I can see a kind of generalized confusion in her face when she addresses me. I hate the term mental illness. But I don’t think she’s all there. Then, of course, who of us is “all there”? She does what she does. I have no idea where she goes when she’s not at the steps.

There was another “beggar” that wandered up and down the side of the canyon that is Guanajuato. His name was Mateo. Most of his front teeth were missing, but his smile was always very much in tact. I usually could not understand what he was saying when I dropped 10 pesos onto his very dirty palm. I am embarrassed to say that. It’s like talking about an animal, but I also think twice before petting a dog that clearly has all kinds of problems.

Mateo suffered from some kind of mental problem, too. And I would think, from loneliness, as well. I know people were maintaining him. Once in a while he would appear washed and in warm new clothes. I think that is very typical of Mexico, and probably of most places in the world. People feed and clothe people like Josefina and Mateo.

There seems otherwise to be no solution for “saving” them. In Mexico, to the best of my knowledge, there are no agencies that sweep them up, wash them, feed them psychiatric drugs, dress them and give them a new life. I have no idea whether their families still exist or whether their families, still there, have given up on them. Recently, I have concluded that Mateo may be dead. He no longer shows up. On walks around the ring road on the side of the canyon, I look down into various vacant, overgrown pieces of land that have not been build on—looking for Mateo, or for what may be left of him. An old coat, a pair of worn shoes—still connected to Mateo.

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?”