To be a butterfly

It is a sunny October afternoon in Cambourne and I am looking through the window at my garden where a model of a large light blue butterfly is attached to the garage wall facing me, and where in the summer, butterflies and even once in a while at this time of year if the weather remains warm, small butterflies with white wings fly up to the window to greet me. I wish I could be a butterfly like them and travel across years and oceans to be with my brothers and sisters and my mother, to the place where I was born one October almost fifty years ago, the village where I spent the first twelve years of my childhood and the time when I began to grow up, where I remember a sense of above all, calm and simplicity. 
Gateway to Angao village in Micholan state

This village or ‘ranch’ as the small villages in this area are known, is called Angao, and is about two hundred and fifty miles to the west of Mexico City in the Mexican state of Michoacán; the climate is tropical and it is warm all year round. The village is surrounded by the sierra or mountains which create a sense of being at the end of the earth, cut off from all of the bustle and haste and comings and goings of the wider world, to this very day. The village is still small, so small that few Mexicans recognise the name of Angao . The name is Purepecha or Tarascan; the language of the native people who have lived in this part of the world since before the Spanish and French invasions and occupations of Mexico. It is a place populated by some seven or eight families and everyone largely knows each other; they certainly did when I was a child. What I remember about this time is that there were no problems in the street, that there was no crime on the ranch, that there was no running water in the houses and we would bathe in the brook which ran through the village, and that there was no electricity either. Everyone would wake up before dawn when the cock crowed, and go to bed shortly after night had fallen. 

There were no telephones in any house; there was one in the ‘Puerto’ the village shop, which had a wooden telephone booth for privacy and one line. People from outside the village would have to call first to tell the operator, who would ask them to hang up, wait fifteen minutes and then call again, during which time she would send an emissary out from the shop to track down the person receiving the call at home, walk with them back to the shop where they could take the call at the agreed time. Now many houses have their own phone but this system is still used for those households which do not have one. Others may have cell phones but coverage in the area can be sporadic even now. Before that time the only link to the wider world was the telegraph, and the only link to the next larger village or very small town was a mud track. It took an hour to reach the town of San Lucas and the asphalt road. Journeys were made by taxi, people would wait until four or five could travel together in a group to keep the cost down, or there was one ‘bus’ a day, the back of an open top truck with slats and spaces for ten or so people to sit which used to leave at seven in the morning and return at two or three in the afternoon. 
A typical day time scene from my village

A typical day for me at this time would involve getting up, and milking the cows, before going to school, a small building at the edge of the village, which had only a few government-issued textbooks for the whole class. At that time there was no secondary school in the village, rather like Cambourne in its early days. After school, I would go home and help my mother with the chores, making tortillas, killing a chicken and plucking its feathers beforehand, in order to prepare it for the evening meal, and grinding red chillies into a paste to make sauce using a stone pestle and mortar. The farmyard was right behind my house, where the noise of cows, pigs, goats, cockerels and chickens was constant, and I quickly learnt how to make cheese. The clothes would be washed in the river, and left to dry, not a problem under the tropical sun. After the chores were done, I would play with my brothers and sisters who were still at home – I have two brothers and six sisters – and play with classmates and friends in the street in front of my mother’s house. Later on as night fell, I would exchange stories with my friends, the myths and legends which were local to the place, of ‘Nana Colasa’ the bogeywoman who was the devil’s own mother, she was rumoured to snatch naughty and disobedient children and make them disappear, and the ‘Chaneques’ who are little water spirits or goblins. If a child became ill, it was because they were said to have offended them in or near the water of the stream and these spirits would have to be humoured by leaving a small offering of cigarettes and glasses of tequila or beer at the water’s edge in order to pacify them. Then usually the child would get well. 

So there was no electricity and no heating was needed in the home. There was no need for boilers or any type of apparatus like that. We had a well in our garden and the water would be cool in the early morning but would always be warm by nine thirty or ten and would remain so for the rest of the day, so you could bathe at any time. Water was abundant and free. If the well ran dry then I would jump on a donkey with a couple of large tin drums and ride to the water’s edge to collect it from the stream and bring it back home so that the vegetables could be cooked and the chicken boiled. There was no television of course, and what I remember about that time was that people whiled away their free time by talking to each other, about the comings and goings in the far off wider world, or the business of the village, and they were happy to shoot the breeze and always had time for one another. Nobody was busy and everyone had time for everyone else. The work would always be there and the chores could be attended to later, the world could wait. Priority was always given to people, over things. Although you might consider this type of childhood to have been one of some deprivation, I was rich in many other ways. We always had enough to eat, beef, chicken, maize, milk and cheese, there was so much that I was to grow bored of this food.
Despite the lack of technology we were reasonably well off materially. My mother sold milk and cheese at home, and operated a billiard hall which opened onto the street. For much of the year, my father worked in the United States, in Miami and in Houston, painting the aeroplanes for Continental Airlines and sending dollars back to help the family in Mexico. He became legalised and naturalised in the US and like many other men from the village, came back to visit us at Easter and Christmas.
My dad died when I was eight years old. He had been travelling back from the United States on one of these trips when he was involved in a car crash just south of Laredo, Texas on the Mexican side. One of my sisters who was eighteen at the time, had to go to the north to arrange everything, and the funeral cortège had to travel the seven hundred or so miles back to the village over the next two days. But according to my mother his spirit lived on and would come to visit her in the night when he would pull her feet to awaken her and to tell her off for something which she had said to the children.
At the age of twelve I went to Huetamo, the nearest town, to go to secondary school. Life there followed a similar routine, of school in the morning, chores for my host family in the afternoons and visits back to the ranch at the weekends and in the school holidays. Life was still simple, and relatively peaceful, although there were cases of things being not as idyllic as I had previously believed. There was a story about a rich American who had a large series of melon orchards which covered hundreds of hectares. He was said to be a millionaire and the story was that one of his sons was kidnapped and that the situation was ongoing, with years of anguish and extortion for money. I never learnt if he ever got his son back. There was another case of a businesswoman who owned a department store in the town who was asked by a friend why she looked so sad and upset. ‘They’re extorting me,’ she said: ‘If I don’t pay them they’ll plant a bomb in my shop.’ I can’t now remember all of the details. 
After this I went to high school in the city of Toluca, a city of approximately two million people which is forty miles from Mexico City, where I learnt to ride a bus and take a taxi and generally to solve my own problems and become more independent. I lived first with one sister and then another, both having emigrated from the ranch before me, had jobs and houses there. At this time, I wanted to be a vet but didn’t become one for two reasons, the first was economic. The family did not have enough money to pay for that training, and secondly although I loved and continue to love animals I was put off it as I spoke to a vet, a woman who told me that it was a dangerous profession, that one of her friends had lost her life after being kicked in the head by a horse which was experiencing a seizure. So I enrolled in the teacher training school instead in order to become a Natural Sciences teacher, a course which I would finish at the age of twenty two.
While I was at that school I met a British man who was studying Spanish and was on a year abroad from his course at university in the UK. When he finished his studies he came back to see me in Atizapán, one of the satellite cities which borders Mexico City where I had started my first teaching job, and then we got married and I went back to live in Toluca where he worked as an English teacher and later a Supervisor at a British Cultural Institute. Our daughter was born in Toluca and I had every intention of continuing to live there and lived a happy life with family in town and still not so very far from the ranch where I grew up.
But over years things changed in Mexico and the violence in the country grew exponentially, to the point where Mexico finds itself today, in first place in the world for kidnappings, a high incidence of feminicide (especially in places like Ciudad Juarez and Ecatepec1), and general robbery, violence and murder, some of which has had a direct effect on my family in Mexico, and with a young daughter soon to be of school age, and a new job opportunity for my husband we took the painful decision to move out of Mexico and to live in the UK, a decision which since I have lived here has unfortunately proved time and again to be the right one as the violence there has just got worse.
I consider my life to have been one of migration or flight like a butterfly from ranch (Angao) to small town, (Huetamo) to large town (Toluca) from large town to city (Mexico), then back to Toluca and finally village (Cambourne) again, although this is a very different type of village. I was able to sleep for the first time in many months after being in Mexico and to feel that I could walk along the street for the first time without the risk of being robbed or attacked and that my daughter would be able to grow up in peace without being disappeared as so many young women are, rather like the childhood and the country which I miss, which has been and is still being taken from me and many Mexicans. I have learnt many things in Cambourne and appreciate many aspects of my life in Britain, but still wish that I could fly away like a butterfly across space and time back to reconnect with my country and the simplicity and innocence which once upon a time I knew. There is a saying in Spanish which goes: ‘No hay mal que dure cien años ni cuerpo que lo resista,’ in other words nothing (good or bad) lasts forever. One day perhaps, I can.




Rosario Davies lives in Cambourne.


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Footnotes

  1. Author’s note: Ciudad Juarez is a city in north of Mexico, close to its border with the USA. There had been deliberate killing of women since the 1970s, their numbers increased in the 1990s. Ecatepec which borders Mexico City is where there are highest incidents of femicide today

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