Sara Bowley has been languishing at Maison d’Arbutus, a mental health facility for the upper middle-class, for four years. Her spouse Alexander secured her stay. He has taken control of her finances and he and their eleven-year-old daughter, Casey, are currently living in Santa Rosa de Lima, in the small fictional country of Ixcheltlán. Amid her institutionalization and pharma-fueled haze, Sara believes this is likely best for her daughter and consoles herself by looking forward to Casey’s regular correspondence, which keeps the two connected no matter how far, and how much time goes by.
But, when Sara receives a troubling postcard from her daughter, everything changes and Sara promptly leaves the world she knows to travel to Central America to rescue her daughter from a vague, but imminent danger. Without money or transport, Sara hops a Greyhound bus to San Diego from Vancouver riding on chicken buses and hitchhiking through Mexico and Guatemala, in search of her child. She makes it to her spouse’s home in a rich conclave of Santa Rosa de Lima, but the Sara Bowley who walks through the door there is not the Sara who left West Vancouver a month before. And the house that she enters is not just a home, but a hostile maze through which Sara must find her way to her now uncommunicative child before it is too late.
Magnificat: Song of Justice, is a story of two women on separate paths, one a North American woman’s journey to social consciousness, and on the other, a tale of a campesina named Maria Luz who seeks to lead her people to an alternative to the war that is devastating her country. When these two paths converge, Sara comes to believe in the wisdom of the campesina, and embraces a radical change in her life, but the shadow of death soon descends on them both, threatening to destroy all that they have set out to accomplish.
from CHAPTER SEVEN
Sara – In Mazatlán, Mexico
My chest feels floppy, without power like gelatin. My heart fainteth within me. On one side of the aisle, I notice cobblers at work with leather. Rows of crude-but-sturdy sandals line one “wall” of their booths. Beyond, I see dishes and housewares in piles on the floor.
An idea begins to flicker in the back of my mind. My eyes scan the shelves. Earthen plates, bowls, and containers; bags, dish towels and dish cloths, tubs of cold-water soap… Then I see it.
“How much for the bleach, the small bottle?” I ask. The woman attending the booth is large, almost square, her skin folding down beneath the thin cotton of her dress in soft rolls. She looks me up and down, assessing what I might pay.
“I don’t have much money.”
The woman laughs, big creases breaking in her fat, round face. “No money? For sure, you are just another poor Norteamericana!” She adds, “Twenty-four pesos.”
I look at the bottle. Two American dollars for a half-litre of bleach. “Four pesos,” I say, calculating the offer to be maybe thirty cents.
She stares at me. “Eighteen pesos,” she says.
“Five pesos. No more.”
The woman shrugs and turns to another customer. I move toward the next booth, where I see more bleach.
“Wait,” the woman calls out, but I look at the young guy with black eyes and dark sideburns who appears so bored I wonder if he has been roped in to care for his Granny’s store.
“Nine pesos,” he says in a languid voice. In the end, I pay the man the equivalent of fifty-eight cents plus twenty-four more for a plastic water bottle. I cram the bottles into my pack and head out of the market.
Now different people crowd around the faucet. Whenever someone moves away, everyone pushes to be next. I stand back, pour a drop of bleach into my empty water bottle and contemplate the tap. A woman watching with a sour expression says, “To get water, you have to push.”
I nod, and grasping the plastic bottle, I take a breath and push into the crowd. Just then an elderly woman arrives, and the people drop back to let her in front of them. Everyone waits while the woman fumbles with her jar to fill it. The instant she moves away, we are at it again. I ignore the looks of disbelief from my competitors that a gringa has joined them.
I give a great heave, and, whoops! Two people sprawl on the ground on either side of me.
But I’ve reached the coveted faucet, grab the handle and fill my bottle. “Sorry,” I try to tell one of my victims, an angular woman in her fifties. She’ doesn’t even look at me. She’s shoving back into the crowd. As I move away, the sour-faced woman is cackling. “Too much force, Señora!” She slaps her knee, still laughing. “It is not fair to knock people down!”
I look at her and sigh. Whatever became of queues?
MAGDALENA ARIANA AGUILAR DE CASTILLO – The sister of the victim’s ex-fiance speaks.
When María Luz arrived back at our house, she broke off her relationship with Arnoldo. Since I was studying my biology lesson in the next room, I heard everything. Arnoldo tried to persuade her she should marry him as she could do more good as a rich person, but she told him she could not do it. She feared how privilege has the power to corrupt.
When she left, Arnoldo was very sad, and he spent a lot of time walking in the gardens around our house. Our mother was elated. In truth, she did not want Arnoldo to marry an indígena.
Later, María told me that, as penance for missing the direction of the Spirit, she threw herself into the pain and discomfort of living once more as a peasant. This part of María’s story is important. It makes clear why she did not seek change through becoming rich. Had she been able to do that, she might have been safer, might even be alive today, although we know how during the war, many middle-class students and professionals died just like the poor people.
María turned from the temptation of wealth because she feared she might end up betraying the very people whose heart and blood she shared.
Sara Toward Morelia
Back at the bus station I look around. The interior teems with people of all types and classes. I see maybe twenty-five bus companies, each with its own booth and a long line of people. After going back and forth several times, I find the Estrella de Oro counter and push close enough to read their noticeboard. The company has its own private waiting room with nice chairs, and first-class, rapid buses. And it’s pricey.
I sigh and wander until I find a group with a sign: GUADALAJARA, and a long list of pueblos en route: Mármol, El Quemado, Cantacho, El Recreo and so on. Stops in every town and outpost along the way. I find the bus and get on.
After midnight, eight hours out of Mazatlán, the bus lumbers through the wide streets of Guadalajara. In the station jumbled with vehicles as far as the eye can see, I by-pass the luxury express coaches and decide to wait for morning when the third-class buses trundle out onto the curving roads. With the temperature dropping, I pull on my jacket and head into a large waiting hall. For safety, I locate myself near a family of eight persons who have wrapped in blankets and stretched out on the concrete floor. Curling up around my pack on an empty bench, I fall, exhausted, into sleep and don’t wake until six in the morning to the smell of tortillas sizzling. I turn my head to see that the family has made a small fire on the concrete to cook breakfast. Swinging my feet to the floor, I teeter off toward a nearby kiosk for a cup of weak coffee and a few tortillas before making my way to a bus bound for Mexico City, el Distrito Federal, via another long string of pueblitos through mountainous countryside. A ticket, I remind myself as I get in line, only guarantees standing room. Still, it’s hard to beat the price: $2.64.
Once aboard, I discover only a single place is available, while five or six people stand. I see why: the back of the seat has collapsed. In the connecting seat an enormous man oozes beyond the bounds of his space. I take a deep breath. Weakened by hunger, I doubt I can stand even for a short time. What the heck. I slump into the chair, wriggling to adjust my obese body against the flabby flesh of the large stranger. “Buenos dias, Señor.”
The man nods at me. With the roar of an engine, the bus takes off. I’ve grown used to the mingled odours of smoke and sweat as I try to make myself comfortable against the broken seat back. I half-lie, half-sit at an uncomfortable angle, pain stabbing the centre of my back. I think of los y las ricas whizzing past me on the main highway in a first-class, air-conditioned bus with comfortable, cushioned seats. Maybe they’re in la capital already, while I’m beginning to feel the temperature rise to the full thirty-one degrees Celsius predicted for the day. The man beside me stirs. I swing my head in his direction.
“Did someone send you to the wrong bus station?” the man asks. “Most turistas get on this bus by accident.”
“No. I was robbed. This is the only bus I can afford.”
The man nods. “Not an uncommon theme in Mexico, I’m afraid. Turistas are perceived as rich.”
“Of course,” I say, “but in this case the thief was an extranjero, a foreigner, my former American friend, so I don’t harbour anger toward the local citizens.”
The man laughs. “Not the response I expected. I am afraid I hold much anger toward the United States of America as well as against my own government which has lately negotiated something called the GATT to open Mexican markets to the U.S.A.”
“I’m sorry, I’m rather ignorant about economic things. What does that mean?”
“GATT means General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. As a result, the U.S.A. has flooded the Mexican agricultural market with forty-four million tons of subsidized U.S.A. corn, for example. Can you guess what that has done to the small and medium farmers in Mexico?”
“Driven them out of business, I presume.”
“Correct. And sent hundreds of thousands of our labourers across the border into the U.S.A. to survive. No one helped them to prepare for that change, and although our industry is developing, most farming folk are not trained for a new kind of work even where jobs exist. The ones who are left survive by gleaning corn from the large commercial farms after the harvests. I predict that one day the U.S.A. will regret causing a landslide of immigrants across its borders – a lot of those people were employed and self-sufficient until recently.”