I once lived in Peru’s southern Andes, in the majestic corn belt of the royal Inca. The dimensions of the surrounding sierra were enough to quiet my ambitious, over-sized and over-active American ego. Moreover, those rural and ancient environs were truly the agemates of eternity. The indigenous populace that stippled the earth there—my neighbors—kept it all alive. Andahuaylillas, my temporary hometown in the mountains, was a maize-growing hamlet of maybe three thousand people. Neighbors there were kind, and they constantly sought me out to share life with me.
I did not always reciprocate. I think about one friend and neighbor in particular who always showed the warmest affection. Facundo was a farmer by culture, passion and obligation. He was very proud of his plot where his family and he grew maize. He cultivated ears of all different rich American colors: red, yellow, white, and even variegated kinds. The kernels there were big like the tip of a protruding thumb. They were starchy against the gums, but sweet to the tongue after boiling awhile in anise water.
Facundo was always kind enough to share some of the reconstituted kernels whenever I made use of his oven for baking. He attempted any excuse in order to refuse my payment. “Oh, it was in there too long, and it burned a little,” he would fib. We palavered, usually, and he never failed to ask me about the United States and my family on the border. In turn, I would ask about the town, and about his interests. He held fast to his proud ancestry, but with a humility and authenticity I surely lacked when discussing my own. Facundo often told me that he liked us—the volunteers that sojourned in Andahuaylillas—because we were “good people.”
How incredible it would be, I continually thought, to ably intuit somebody’s goodness despite all cultural, economic, political, and other differences. What a perspicacious soul! What a decent man. What a human being.
Facundo forever welcomed me to his field. He always talked-up the labor of harvest, and the lunch we would eat, and the coca we would chew while working. To be sure, he did not want me to simply work with him, or alongside him; what Facundo invited me to do was take part in an essential element of his very own subjectivity. He invited me into his life like any friend would earnestly do.
Partly because I have the bad habit of telling myself “there is always tomorrow,” I never took-up Facundo’s unflagging offer. I frequented his family’s enormous wood-fire oven as little more than a patron; much of the town’s food would bake there. I brought countless pizzas, sometimes sharing a slice, although not often. One time, Facundo even came down to my house to ask for the recipe for pizza dough. I will never forget the image of his sweater-vested torso pushing along his three-speed bike as it disappeared into the cold darkness of the cobblestone street. I will never forget his young son tugging on his arm the way a boy does when he authenticates his love for his father. And I will never forget both of them wearing the typical black ojotas (sandals) fashioned from old tires, as they chattered about the endless combination of toppings for their pizza.
One reason I cannot forget these few images is because they encompass the last imagery I have of Facundo alive. It was the last time I ever saw him with his son. Facundo left Andahuaylillas to pursue some mining project close to the jungle. Only later would his body return to Andahuaylillas for his funeral.
My neighbors explained to me elegantly the overarching situation responsible for Facundo’s death. In Peru, workers from the mountains might toil for a time and then return home with some extra capital. Workers would leave and return to their small towns, risking virtually everything. By the end of a work period—roughly a month’s time—there occur many “accidents.” The miners who die “accidentally” simply do not live long enough to collect their pay. They do live long enough to work, though. So rather than combat immitigable amounts of nationwide mining strikes or slowdowns, it makes some deal of greedy sense for private mining companies to risk a few deaths, and to leave the rest of the labor pool crossing its fingers, praying not to be the next victim.
When Facundo was crushed below a truckload of rock and debris, the world lost not only a farmer, baker, friendly neighbor and a kind father, but it lost a human being. It rained during Facundo’s funeral. The hanaq pacha (sky) cried once the iron church bells sounded. To see the look of loss on the face of Facundo’s son, who so lovingly once tugged on his father’s vest, informed me why the Earth was crying. He had been robbed well beyond his father’s wage theft; he had been robbed of his father, and of his dignity.
There are those, I am aware, who will scoff aloud, asking, “So?” I understand that millions of people die every day from very preventable causes, and especially from capitalism’s manifold evils. But, then again, who is so aloof as not to know that it is a hard world for the poor, and that, as in life, death also oppresses?
Facundo’s smile was truly infectious and genuine. His humanity was just as magnificent. That I ignored his call to harvest, and friendship, is a microcosm of what happens between not only the rich-world and the poor; it is a small reflection of what can happen between friends who may chance to “cross” the divide for any reason. When I think of Facundo, I am left asking, what keeps us from answering the call? Is there a border we cannot cross in our colonized minds? Is there a fence there, too? If so, we must tear it down, because it keeps us apart; it deafens us somehow. Perhaps this is not simply a matter of social justice either, but a step toward realizing ourselves as complete human beings capable of friendship and virtue.
I know for a fact that I was too busy making myself a “volunteer with the poor” to earnestly become Facundo’s friend. I was too busy making myself “something more” than what I already was. And to make ourselves more than human leaves no room for satisfaction; it leaves no room for us to receive and accept the invitations that our friends so magnanimously never stop extending.
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border.
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