For two decades, I listened with only one ear when a church member would talk about mission trips to Reynosa, Mexico. A crowd would go down there by way of McAllen, Texas, and be gone for a week. Honestly, I did not miss them. To my perception, they were gone for a Sunday or two in October. I was sure that their endeavor was noble, but it did not impact my life.
This year First Presbyterian Church added a second excursion during summer vacation. Teenagers were encouraged to go. I happen to own three of those, and the two younger ones signed up immediately. Credit me—if you will—for possessing the protective instinct of not wanting my most precious cargo to travel without me to the barrios of Mexico. Truth be told, I was ashamed they went at their first opportunity when I had so often said no. So, I said yes too. When I did, I discovered that my wife had already signed up with the boys.
I stood on the unfinished roof of a freshly erected cinder block rectangle, looking down on about 20 Mexicans and 20 Presbyterians. A gas-powered cement mixer drowned out most verbal communication. Of what was audible, the questions came in English. The responses were in Spanish. For the most part, neither side understood the other. Answers were generally conveyed by a crude form of sign language.
At the edge of the roof stood a broad, smiling, 30-something Mexican woman named Santa. I discovered quickly that she was tougher and stronger than I was. Below her was a scaffolding with two levels of platforms. The strategy was that six or eight people shoveled rock, sand, water, and cement mix into five-gallon buckets. Ten to 12 people hauled and dumped them into the deafening mixer. A foreman gauged the consistency, eventually dumping it onto a framed reservoir on the edge of the street. Then four to six people rotated scooping three gallons of wet concrete into buckets and passed them up to first level of the scaffold. Level one passed to level two and level two passed to Santa. She dumped every bucket, most of them into wheelbarrows.
When a wheelbarrow was full, say 80 to 100 pounds or so, one of us wheelbarrow boys dumped it at the farthest point. Once dumped, we circled back to Santa for a repeat. If she received full buckets before the return of the wheelbarrows, she dumped it in the empty corners around her feet to keep things flowing. Santa passed the buckets down the other side of the scaffold and the process started all over again.
Before leaving home, we had been told to plan on leaving our work boots there. By American standards, they would be ruined. Mine died quickly. On the second day, while pushing a loaded wheelbarrow across wire mesh and wood decking, the sole of my boot separated. Santa called the flapper la boca de su zapatos. The mouth of your shoes.
Reynosa apparently missed its summer shipment of duct tape, so I used cloth tape from the emergency medical kit. That repair lasted an hour. During a break, Santa took a roll of string and tied the mouth shut. Somehow, I got through the morning.
By far, my favorite local was José. He was about half my size and about five years my senior. A mile or two from that roof, we were building him a new 400-square-foot cinder block rectangle in which he and his son and his three granddaughters would live. That way, those five could move out of the other 400-square-foot rectangle in which they were currently living with José’s daughter, her husband, and their two children.
I spoke broken Spanglish (heavy on the “glish”) and José spoke no English. The only manner for the development of our intimacy was a language of the heart. At the end of that second day, I discerned him telling me something about new shoes tomorrow while pointing first at himself and then at me. His eyes were loving and his smile was warm. I shed those battered boots at the trash heap in front of his land parcel and headed for my well-deserved cold shower.
The next morning, our assignment was to lay block for José’s walls. When I got there, he waved me over to an avocado tree. Over his shoulder, tied together at the laces, was a pair of size 11, steel-toed brogan boots. Again, his eyes sparkled and his smile was prevalent. Where does a little-footed man who lives in a crowded cinder block hut with eight other people store a pair of boots like that? And why?
The rest of the week, I worked like I never have in my prior five and half decades. I watched my wife, my two boys, other teenagers, and adults of my church work to exhaustion too. I watched José’s three granddaughters weep when our teenagers left them for the last time. I watched an American mom rock her 19-year-old daughter in her arms, comforting her after departing from those three Mexican girls. Of all the uninterpreted words spoken in a week, everyone understood “goodbye.”
What of my tears? I did pretty well, getting through a farewell speech to the Mexican congregation without crying. I made every Mexican with whom I worked sign my painter pants and T-shirt with a Sharpie. My wife printed “Adios” across the seat of the pants, eliciting much laughter and thereby masking many tears.
But on that last mid-day, when our work was done, I sat down in José’s side yard. On his gate, rescued from the trash heap and tied together by the fraying laces hung my zapatos con la boca. I untied the borrowed boots and the flood gates opened in my soul. José found me, stood me up, and hugged me with his head on my chest, gesturing for me to keep the boots. “No,” I whispered. “Porque cuando yo vengo aquí también, yo quiero esos zapatos estar en su casa.” Because when I come back here again, I want these shoes to be in your house.
At the Raleigh airport, sitting on our luggage at 1:30 a.m. waiting for the church vans to arrive to take us home, my elder son told his mother and me that he hoped we could do this all again next year. If so, then I will not pack boots.