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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkVallarta Living | Archives

Why Dora Wants to Read
Katy Ochoa

Dora, whose full name is Adoracion, was 18 years old and from Sayulita, Jalisco an old, Indian town on a lake in the mountains. Dora worked in our house for a year when we lived in Melaque. Her family - 3 sisters, 1 brother, 1 nephew and both parents - lived in a one-room structure that housed the main valve for the local sewer system. Dora's father controlled the flow of sewage into the bay.

Dora arrived every day at 10:15 or 10:20 depending on how long the family breakfast chores took. Dora knew what time it was because of the rhythm of her daily chores: 8:00 wake up when the sun hits the window and the chickens fuss, 8:30 attend chickens, 9:00 start breakfast prep with mother and so on. Her whole day, just like that of her neighbors, was ordered around an essential, unbreakable, rhythmic cycle of chores that marked time and was altered, but not broken, only on Sundays.

Dora couldn't read and she couldn't tell time (using a watch). I found this out one day when I handed her a list of chores to do in the house. Dora accepted the list with a nod and proceeded to scan it upside down. I casually asked her thru which grade had she gone in school. The answer was second. I asked her if she could read, and when she hesitated I reminded her that her job was not dependant on her ability to read. She told me that she knew the numbers up to five and sometimes could recognize her name.

From this point on we began daily discussions about reading and what the world is like if you can't read or tell time. Imagine not being able to count your change, read a calendar (the number of celebrations here are time markers as much as religious observations), a prescription, instructions on an ATM machine, or a box of rat poison. Take a wider view and imagine how to explain things like television, photographs, human physiology or modern medical techniques. Written information not only helps us with basic tasks, and operations but also gives us reference points from which to define and explain our environment. Lack of information can leave the explanation of complex issues or functions to imagination and fantasy and over time these become gospel.

Dora told me about the fairies that burn out light bulbs (called duendes, they also make laundry fall off the line and doors slam for no reason. They live in trees and can be seen as little lights at night), she told me how to rid the body of bad spirits (make crosses in the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet with pin pricks then rub with ashes), Dora explained why you never put your hands when they are hot from ironing or cooking into cold water (causes instant arthritis). We talked about death and being risen from it (this is accomplished by filling the coffin with ground coffee before the wake. This method is also useful for warding off bad spirits in the afterlife) and why you never give an animal a human name (considered pagan and somehow sacrilegious).

Throughout Dora's stories I heard a basic mistrust of authority and strangers. Dora's family didn't trust doctors so would not go. The didn't take medicines because they thought they were being sold something they may not need, simply to part them from their money. Pharmacies and government agencies were highly suspect, schools were burial grounds for money and Banks were a mystery that had no answer. Vets were out of the question and the neighbor who looked at you funny last week has no doubt paid the local witch to curse you, because she thinks her husband has been courting you or someone in your extended family, past or present.

Dora's family did not link cause and effect to injuries or events; everything came down to the acceptance of gods will. One day Dora brought her 2-year-old nephew to the house and wanted me to check him. The boy had a fever and his hands and feet were badly swollen. The local witch had (for a fee) performed the 'Crosses on the Feet and Hands' ritual on the child to ward off evil spirits the family thought (and the witch, for a fee, confirmed) had been sent by the mother of a jealous ex girlfriend of the boy's father. Dora was frightened for the boy and although the family was convinced that bad magic was at work, she thought I might have another answer.

The reality (or my reality) was that the boy, always being barefoot and around sewage, had infected the little cuts badly. I convinced Dora to go with me to the doctor. This was her first visit to a doctor. The nephew was fixed up with antibiotics, a pair of shoes and 4 days later was much better. From that day forward we began to discuss how the body works and why. Every day she came with a new set of questions that I answered as best I could (If hiccoughs were not caused by someone somewhere talking bad about you, then what were they?)

Throughout all the time that Dora worked with me, I had had a teacher come in twice a week to tutor my kids. I invited Dora to come and take classes with the kids and she accepted. She came twice each week in the afternoons. After two months she could hold a pencil (something she had to learn) write a few words and tell basic time. She did all of her homework and made great progress. In her family she was known as the scholar, she was the first one to be able to write or read.

In the third month Dora's written vocabulary had widened a bit and she was up to small sentences. We bought her a watch and a book to read to her nephew. Dora was very proud of her accomplishment. She talked about being able to get a better job and teaching her sisters to read too. At the end of the third month Dora came and told me that she had reached her goal and didn't need the classes anymore. I hadn't known that Dora had a specific goal and asked her what it was, especially now that she had reached it.

Dora's goal was simple: she wanted to read just enough to be able to catch her boyfriend in an infidelity involving secret love notes. The local witch, who was in some loose way, also Dora's aunt, had given her (for a fee) a potion that would curse the writer of the notes as long as Dora was the one to discover them. Now that Dora could read she would be able to find the notes and crack the case on her boyfriend's (possible) infidelity. Dora finished her classes content, she was proud that she had gotten an edge on her cheating boyfriend and at the same time had solved a little piece of a bigger mystery.

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