Despite the fact that Doña Jacinta has never learned to read or write in a culture where basic survival has long been all that mostly anyone does, she is well accomplished at things that are just more important to her family’s well being. For one, she’s a master at preparing complicated regional dishes from scratch. This may often mean killing and gutting chickens and turkeys right there in her own backyard, or grinding special ingredients together in a pestle to make spices for her delectable creations. She’s also extremely skilled at cooking over an open fire and flawlessly patting out stacks of soft, hot corn tortillas. Everyone in the family uses the tortillas daily to eat with, instead of forks and spoons, and they also tend to come in handy as napkins, frisbees, table coasters, and fly swatters.
Raising four boys has meant a lot of dirty laundry through the years for Doña Jacinta, but as all the other women in the village do, Doña Jacinta always washes all of her family’s clothes by hand. She’s also never used disposable diapers, nor had a bathroom with a toilet seat where her kids could be potty trained. Simply squatting in a designated corner in the yard like everyone else does was all they needed to learn. And before the days of toilet paper, it was necessary to bring along a couple of corn cobs, and a palm leaf umbrella if it was raining.
Doña Jacinta also has a special talent for making top quality colorful hammocks, which everyone across the Yucatan Peninsula sleeps in each evening and gringo tourists in Cancun love to buy. Hammocks come in handy for the locals for keeping cool on hot tropical nights, and are also good for hanging out of reach of resident crawling critters like tarantulas and scorpions. But if by chance a rare drop in temperature should invade the jungle night in winter (50 degrees), it’s not unheard of to place hot coals from a smoldering fire under your hammock, but with extreme caution of course.
The traditional female Mayan dress called an huipil is either hand sewn or embroidered with vintage pedal power Singer sewing machines. The dresses are made of thin sheet-type material and are very comfortable and cool to wear. Doña Jacinta has a beautiful collection of dresses she’s made and had made for her, and always changes into another one every 24 hours after her daily late afternoon bucket bath with water that she heats up over the fire.
Doña Jacinta is a delightfully charming and generous soul with a very gentle aura and heart of gold. She is 4’ 9” inches tall, speaks predominately Maya and a little Spanish, is 47 years old, and has a strong faith in God. She owns practically nothing and doesn’t seem at all to have any desire to acquire anything more than that. She’s never seen a mountain, or snow, or a movie in a theater, and she’s never driven a car, flown on a plane, nor taken a shower – hot or cold. She’s only spoken on a telephone once in her entire life, and says she has no interest to ever do so again. She has no bank account, no credit cards, no savings of any kind, and no plans to ever leave where she’s always lived. She’s as happy as contentedness can be, … and it’s a wonderful thing to imagine.
It is a starlit moonless night tonight, and Rob and I are again sitting in Doña Jacinta's kitchen, watching her pat masa (dough made from ground corn) into tortillas and then cooking them over a fire. Insects buzz around the bare bulb that gives the room its light as family members run in and out, and the guano (palm leaves) roof is black from the smoke of countless fires. A cooling wind puffs through stick walls and swirls the smoke on a warm humid tropical evening. We are handed the torillas in a tall round pile, still piping hot, to tear into pieces to use as spoons to scoop up scrambled eggs with tomatoes just cooked in manteca (pig's fat) also over the fire. It all tastes so wonderful, that we gladly burn our fingers on the tortillas just to keep eating. Of course, the conversations going on around us aren’t happening in English. Neither is anyone chatting in Spanish. It’s in Maya. And once in a while, I look interested enough at what they might be saying, that someone begins to teach me Maya. Or attempt to, anyway. They start jabbering away in Maya so fast, that they couldn’t even know what they’re saying, and it all sounds like Chinese to me. Then they’ll see a blank look on my face, and slow down to one word at a time. I take the words, and attempt to repeat them, and they laugh at the strange sounds I’ve suddenly invented.
We only know her as Abuelita, “little grandmother”. She lives next door to the house of Don Aurelio and Doña Jacinta, and comes over once in a while. She can’t be over 4 ft. tall, full of smiles, and wearing as always a huipil that I am sure she embroidered herself. Tonight she came over with two jicaras, which we had asked for earlier. Jicaras are gourds that grow on trees, and after they reach a certain size, they are cut in half, the insides removed, and the shell dried in the sun. In the village they are widely used for holding and carrying water, to pour warmed water over yourself during bathing, and also as bowls for drinking. I’m sure every house in Tinum has many jicaras being used for something. “How much do you want for both of them?” we ask in Spanish. Abuelita only speaks Maya, and Doña Jacinta translated our question. “5 pesos”, comes the reply. It is the equivalent of 50 cents. It probably took her several hours to clean them out and dry them, all for 50 cents. We gave her 50 pesos, which is close to 5 dollars, just because we wanted to. She took the bill and stared at it, and then said that she didn’t know where to get change. We told her to keep the change, and with a wondering look and a wide smile, left into the darkness. Ten minutes later, she comes back with another, smaller jicara, which had a deeper color that comes with age and lots of use. She handed it to me, with more benedictions in Maya, and then left again.