By Gloria Marthai
Current memory of the formidable wall and gate is becoming mistier, receding as a shadow touched by darkness, falling away into the unrecorded past. Built in turbulent, repressive times following the Mexican Revolution and the Cristero Rebellion, it remained a veritable wedge until 1935, separating the two barrios of the village on the southwest shore of Lake Chapala.
On the east side of the wall lived the “prietos,” dark-skinned, indigenous people. On the west side lived the “gueros,” lighter-skinned mestizos. Great hand-forged iron hinges protested the nightly closing of the imposing gate, the authoritative clank of the chain and large key in the padlock. The huge rock wall, built with such rancor, must have seemed a sheer mountain to village children, the hand-added planks of the gate, a ladder to the sky.
The staunch silvered mesquite gateposts bore many scars, some from horns of cattle funneling through the gate but also from a resentful machete-wielding man, crazy drunk. God, too, had his say when lightning split and burned one post. Ignoring the omen, the guero men fashioned another, equally hefty.
Horse-drawn carts with great iron-clad wheels, animals of burden, herds of cattle and working men passed back and forth through the gate daily. “The wall was necessary for commerce,” intoned Doña Chuy, a prosperous land owner, her peers nodding in agreement. Indeed, commerce was active in this fertile alluvial valley where people toiled from sunup to sundown producing abundant crops.
Brigades of men shouldering yokes with buckets of water from hand-dug wells irrigated the fields. Men, carrying arms, drove burro trains loaded with produce to Guadalajara. They traveled varied trails to avoid “Cristero” bandits, for those were days when men robbed and killed wantonly and peril stalked the land.
Friendship, playing and courting were discouraged between the two barrios. Only the cabecitas, small heads, a genetically impaired family, moved with impunity on either side, sombreros riding low on their heads, their open smiling faces exuding innocence.
Life was harsh and demanding, many times brutal by necessity. A girl who scorched a garment with the heavy charcoal burning iron, was burned with the iron. A child who allowed cattle to stray earned a welt-raising whipping. When a cow kicked over a bucket of milk, the milker did not eat that day.
It was during this time of friction and distrust that a hateful, relentless feud was born. Only after nine appalling murders that spanned several generations did it wear itself out in recent history with the shooting of a gentle, dignified 60-year-old man who was attending a cock fight. His bloody body lay in the blistering sun all day. No one would touch him, not even the police. The man’s brothers packed pistols for months afterwards. Fear of family retribution gripped like a vice.
One day in 1935, in a dash to avoid the crushing hooves of a stampeding herd of cattle, a fair-complexioned child scaled the slippery planks of the gate on a rainy day, lost his balance, and toppled head first from the highest plank, staining the wet cobbles red. Being only five years old, the child was considered an angel and he seemed so as he lay in the simple white-washed pine box.
The wake, surprisingly enough, was attended by people from both barrios, their natural love of children overcoming restriction and resentment, sorrow being their fragile link. Illuminated by candlelight, they sang throughout the night, women’s voices alternating with men’s, “Adios, mi amor.” Goodbye, my Love.
However, tears could not erase the tragedy of the child’s death nor the social injustice and insult of the gate and wall.
The following day, by common assent, the gate was dismantled.
Was the gate really necessary for commerce, Doña Chuy?