I went to visit Ben Weiss a couple of weekends ago. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten the feeling I like another volunteer’s digs more than my own.
Ben lives in San José de Gracia outside of Aguascalientes, home of the (very, it turns out) locally famous Cristo Roto, a Statue of the Crucifixion they dropped during construction. Apparently it came alive to tell the townsfolk not to fix it. It’s now a strobe-lit tourist-trap.
The ride from the city skirts past the benighted Pabellón (sorry Kyle) and then climbs up into the foothills of the Sierra Fría until it arrives at a small plateau on which is a pueblo very much like the one in which I live. It’s not as old and it has wide avenues instead of Jalpan’s cramped colonial streets and alleys, but it’s close enough the same.
Ben pays less than me for a house that’s three times as large on the first floor and comes with a second and a yard. Housing prices have skyrocketed since Jalpan got provisional approval as a Pueblo Mágico.. Ni modo, but there’s thing one. Thing two is that Ben has a family. Not the host family—I’ve seen his now, and as nice as his abuelos are, I’d take my own. No, Ben has made a family.
After a kind of trial period, he’s settled down into a comfortable domesticity with his Mexican girlfriend Mara, a biologist who does freelance work from her own small consultoría. A family up the road from him has eight kids and money for not quite that many, so the youngest two sell donuts around town every morning. I found this out when they rang the bell at seven and peeked in to see me pretending to sleep on the couch. He sent them whispering off, and when I was up to see them on their return at nine, I wished he hadn’t.
Karla, who’s nine, and Jonathan, who looks like he’s around there, are the two cutest kids I’ve ever seen. Here, there, anywhere, these are them.
My first impression when they strolled in and parked themselves on and around Ben was a deep, almost physical yearning to know that I was the one who’d made them, that they were my kids. The kind of thing new dads feel, in disbelief, after nine months of wondering if they’ll love their child. Karla seems the sharper, painfully smart, with dimples the size of golf balls in dusky, indigenous cheeks. Their skin belies their blood, though, because Jonathan’s got tawny brown eyes flecked with green and gold, the last vestige of foreign ancestry. Ben’s English banter has been osmosing into him, and he spent the day showing off for us, shouting all sorts of inappropriate shit.
It was just me and MJ for visitors, so we forwent the usual disaster of partying and got on with Ben’s Sunday routine, the community soccer tournament, stocked with more teams than you’d think one town could hold. We crowded into Mara’s sedan, Jonathan thigh to thigh with me, playing the games Ben’s loaded on his cell for them. Karla in Ben’s lap, for all the world his kid, his arms around her and she pointing out to me everything in town, craning her neck around to make sure I’m appreciating.
As we drove on, Mara asking after their morning, seeing if they’d had enough to eat, talking about school and pushing mandarin oranges on them, I got that same ache, that same longing for all of it to be mine and not pretend, that I’d woken up and made pancakes, checked to see they’d brushed their teeth, entrusted them to their hispanohablante mother’s care.
We drove up to the auxiliary field, the new grass one having been ruined by a confluence of ignorances, threading our way to the sparser outskirts of San José to find a turnoff. We climbed to it on a dirt track, rutted and studded as are all these paths in Mexico with potholes and wayward paving stones and the gnarled, horny husks of hundred-year nopal. The field perched on a plateau above the plateau, and as we crept up, the countryside fell away around us, scrubby matorral and semidesert on every side but one, where the dammed waters of the presa gave way in the distance to the Sierra proper, their lowest slopes visible through the stormclouds that had been threatening since dawn.
The field was bare dirt, and the winds bringing in the storm from the mountains were kicking up a billowing dustbowl around the players, at times obscuring everything from midfield to the far goal. I sat on a sideline boulder and answered Karla’s pointed and incessant questions about my lack of female companionship. Ben chatted with his teammates while he kicked around with Jonathan and the gaggle of Mexican kids that appears whenever you bring a football out. One of those colorful community members came over, yelling in jailhouse English—”a coupla fucking Germans!“—while he hit us up for beer and turned at regular intervals to curse every player in our mother tongue.
When it came time for Ben to play, they cancelled for want of a referee who’d forgotten to show, and Jonathan delighted in teaching me that no ability from my four years of soccer in China remains. When it finally started to chispear, we gave it up and headed to a team member’s house for ceviche, something of which I’m dubious so far from the ocean but which turned out alright and untroubling to the insides.
The rest of the evening was quiet and fun, but it’s not what I’ll remember. That will have to be the kids and the facsimile of family, the bubble of home that Ben’s put together and that had us both trying to articulate what it is about Mexico, what it is that makes us think we could stay.
It’s what I’ve been trying to get at in some of my blog posts, the realization that while there are parts of home we extrañar, it’s not with urgency. The notion that we could so easily let go of everything and not miss anything. Maybe it’s the pace of life or maybe the ways families knit immediately and grow precipitously, friendships and acquaintances branching into grand webs of commadrazo. Maybe it’s Jonathan chiding his blushing sister for being too forward with her new white uncles or Karla affirming that I’m just as guapo as Ben and that a girl will be along. Maybe it’s Ben advising Mara on breakfast at the stove, a quiet arm around her waist.
There’s something here, though, shown true by the outsized number of volunteers who stay for a third year and having stayed, who stay for keeps, a kind of pull that returning percentages from Africa, Asia, and the rest of Latin America tell us doesn’t exist for our counterparts elsewhere in the world.
I’m racking two posts a week from now to November, and I’ll keep trying, both for you and for me, to find and to put into type just what we’re feeling and why it matters, this thing that’s pulling us against the current, bearing us ceaselessly back to the Sierra.
 When you’ve got three downs to go, a time out, twenty seconds, and Marshawn Lynch ready to beast any defense in the game, run the ball.
 “Un Pueblo Mágico es una localidad que tiene atributos simbólicos, leyendas, historia, hechos trascendentes, cotidianidad, en fin magia que te emanan en cada una de sus manifestaciones socio-culturales, y que significan hoy día una gran oportunidad para el aprovechamiento turístico. El Programa Pueblos Mágicos contribuye a revalorar a un conjunto de poblaciones del país que siempre han estado en el imaginario colectivo de la nación en su conjunto y que representan alternativas frescas y diferentes para los visitantes nacionales y extranjeros.”