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One Man’s New Life Starts at the End of the Road in Mexico

Times Staff Writer

Vidal, his chocolate-colored skin shining in the scorching noon sun, was leading his burro down the narrow, rocky, dusty and winding road when he spotted the strangers in the Jeep.

With a friendly, chipmunk smile framed by protruding ears, the youngster eyed the two strangers on the desolate road deep in Mexico’s fertile Michoacan state, 250 miles southwest of Guadalajara. The strangers wanted to know when the steep road would finally reach the tiny hamlet of San Miguel del Rio.

“You go a little farther, not far, and you’ll come to El Organo. That’s where I live,” Vidal said. “From there, San Miguel del Rio is up and down two curving hills . . . at the end of the road.”

Atop the burro with his younger brother, Jose, Vidal seemed to belong to another century. The road was barren, far from any city . He was just a simple peasant boy riding his burro from one village to another, leading a life that, even measured against the poverty of Mexico, is rigidly austere.

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Across two steep hills lay San Miguel del Rio. Overshadowed by a mountain, the hamlet is about 300 yards from the Coahuayana River, the natural boundary between the states of Michoacan and Colima.

Here at the end of the dusty road is where John Pierce has begun to realize his dream of converting the tiny ejido --a community plot dedicated to farming--into a small town complete with a school, a few houses and even street lights. It is a project that could take five years.

Pierce left San Juan Capistrano two weeks ago with trucks carrying 350,000 pounds of dismantled World War II Quonset huts, the wherewithal for his uncommon dream. He arrived in San Miguel del Rio last Monday after a six-day trip from California.

His dream began eight months ago, with the task of dismantling the buildings, which had been donated by the Capistrano Unified School District. It took Pierce three months to tear them down, and there was another five months of bureaucratic maneuvering on both sides of the border before he could transport the material to San Miguel del Rio, the hometown of his wife, Elda.

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“I will try and spend the rest of my life there,” said the 51-year-old Pierce the day he loaded the last of the seven tractor-trailer rigs and left for the tiny village 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean and 1,700 miles from the United States border.

The anticipated arrival of “Juan,” as Pierce is called by his wife’s family, was discussed over and over during the days the village waited for the roar of the trailer rigs that finally delivered the materials last week.

Many of the villagers congregated every day in the store of Pierce’s father-in-law, Dolores Gonzalez. Each tried to recall funny anecdotes about John and Elda Pierce. Mostly, the family talked about the happy prospect of having them nearby.

‘Was Gone So Long’

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“I’m very happy to have them here. It’s hard to believe that Elda is coming home,” said Sofia Gonzalez of the middle girl of her five daughters. “She was gone so long that you think, ‘It’s been too long a time to be gone for her to think about coming back.’ But she is back, and I’m very glad to have all my family together near me for the first time in a long time.”

Elda Pierce left San Miguel del Rio more than a decade ago, when she was 13. Before last week, she had not seen her family in about four years. She first moved to Tecate, in Baja near the U.S. border, where she lived with an aunt.

When the aunt died, she was left alone, but she managed to go on by studying and working. In Tecate, she met and married Pierce, who is 25 years her senior. They moved to San Juan Capistrano, where they ran a small ceramics business out of their garage.

Dolores Gonzalez is the patriarch of San Miguel del Rio. Handsome, with wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, Gonzalez dispenses advice in the village. Although poor, he is considered a prosperous man by local standards. He owns the only motor vehicle in the village--a 10-year-old, Mexican-made Chevrolet half-ton truck. He also owns the only store in town, where he sells beer and soft drinks and stocks a small supply of canned goods.

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Ventured to California

Gonzalez, 58, has lived most of his life in this remote area of Michoacan. He fathered a son and three daughters, including Elda, before he ventured to California alone. He spent six years without his family, making a living as an undocumented orange picker and tree pruner.

He returned to San Miguel del Rio 20 years ago, and fathered another two sons and two daughters.

“I worked hard in California for those six years, and I learned much,” Gonzalez said. “But I missed my family, although I had some friends from this area who were also working up there. I never expected to be gone so long. I was always lonely, so finally, I returned.”

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Gonzalez said he felt comfortable here with his family and never had any idea of leaving again once he returned to the village.

“It is simple to run things here,” he said as he shelled peanuts in his front yard, which lies halfway between his store and the Coahuayana River. “I mean, everybody is related in some way. We’re the same people . . . just one big family.”

Life in San Miguel del Rio

Beneath a straw canopy in a front yard that provides a small amount of shade from the hot sun, Gonzalez talked about life in San Miguel del Rio. Around him were several month-old piglets and a precocious puppy named “Chumay.” Two skinny dogs slept behind the puppy. A gentle breeze delivered the sounds of the river.

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“It’s a good life here. We provide for ourselves. I raise corn and peanuts, and I don’t make much money. But it’s enough to maintain my family. That’s the important thing, to have my family fed and healthy,” he said.

Gonzalez said he was proud of John Pierce’s efforts to improve the village and happy the Pierces had decided to join the rest of the family in their simple life.

“I always told Elda to visit more often. We couldn’t go see them since we have no papers to cross the border. But they could come see us,” Gonzalez said. “They came, but not very often. But now that they will live here, it makes me very happy.”

Poor Area

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Indeed, there is a friendliness here that is open and carefree, and that contrasts with physical conditions of an area among the poorest in Mexico.

“We share here. We live very simply, but within ourselves and we feel proud. And we care for each other,” he said.

In San Miguel del Rio, about 110 villagers live in a dozen or so open-air straw huts. They are courteous, readily smiling and extending a welcoming handshake. And they have learned to live on what little nature has provided them.

Because the Michoacan state government has been able to provide a few dams along the powerful Coahuayana, San Miguel del Rio has electrical power. But there is no running water.

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The villagers grow peanuts and corn and tend to the livestock. There is little recreation. Mostly, they swim in the river or gather for conversation in Gonzalez’s small store.

Dance Discussion

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Gonzalez’s youngest son, Joel, 16, was discussing a dance he attended the night before at a nearby village with his cousin, Cipriano Verduzco, also 16.

“How come you always dance with the old ladies?” asked Joel Gonzalez.

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“Because you have to respect married women or those who are about to get married,” Verduzco said. “You have to respect them. You don’t ask them to dance. Besides, the old ladies and widows like to dance, too.”

“Well, I’ll dance with them, but they have to ask me. I won’t ask them,” said Gonzalez.

“Look, they are lonely ,” Verduzco said. “It’s nice to ask them to dance. They can then go home content . . . happy that they could dance.”

Both boys laughed.

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Wife’s Role

As easily as Dolores Gonzalez fits the role of village patriarch, his wife, Sofia, plays the opposite role of mother superior of the hamlet. A friendly woman who speaks with a quick sing-song accent, she never seems to stop working around her home, a three-room structure with uneven but smooth rock floors. It is by far the biggest and best dwelling in the village.

Sofia Gonzalez has the mestizo look--high Indian cheekbones with piercing dark eyes. Her long pigtails crown her head in a bun. She makes enough handmade corn tortillas to feed her large family and anyone who cares to share the wealth of her kitchen, which is luxurious by village standards. She has a butane-fueled stove. She stacks her dishes and clay jugs and pots in a wooden rack.

Her tortillas are hot and tasty. She also prepares a soup of chacal , a crawfish-type delicacy trapped by nets in the Coahuayana River.

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Because the river has been rising and gaining speed during the rainy season, the villagers have been able to net much chacal . What they don’t eat, they pack in Gonzalez’s truck for a 25-mile trip to the market in El Ranchito.

On a recent afternoon, against the background roar of the river, several villagers ran to check their nets, which are suspended by sticks embedded in large rocks.

Fish Unloaded

A group of boys unloaded their stash on the banks of the river, all pleased with the harvest. At noon the next day, with the river still yielding a good supply of chacal , a villager dumped half his five-pound load of the shelled fish into a cardboard box at the Gonzalez store. He was able to pay off a 500-peso (about $2) debt at the store and buy two beers and a pack of cigarettes. The rest, he said, was for the family’s evening meal.

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“I’m going to set my nets again tonight and I’ll guarantee you there will be more tomorrow,” the villager said.

When Pierce completes his school in about three months, the old one that now sits atop a small hill will probably be torn down. The current school, which 15 children attend four or five hours a day, has three-foot-high walls, a straw roof and little else. The desks are old; the only teaching tool is a small and dirty portable chalkboard.

A few months ago the villagers, not knowing that Pierce planned to move to San Miguel del Rio and add to their hamlet, began construction of a new school. But the carpenter sent to the village by the Michoacan state government to oversee the project left after the foundation was set and never returned.

Lino Gonzalez, a nephew of Dolores Gonzalez and the father of seven children, was happy to hear the news of Pierce building a new school and other structures in San Miguel del Rio. Gonzalez, 29, is a busy corn and peanut farmer, but he said he would find time to help Pierce as long as he needed him.

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‘An Honor to Help’

“I don’t mind working and it would be an honor to help Juan. I think this is a good thing Juan is doing, and I’m going to help him all I can,” Gonzalez said. “This will be good for San Miguel del Rio, good for my children, so I must help him.”

Dolores Gonzalez’s daughter, Eva, 14, would like to complete her final school year in Pierce’s new building. Quiet but friendly, she hovers by her father’s side. She acknowledges his commands with a nod and a flick of her dark eyes, returning to his side as soon as his orders have been completed.

She, too, is happy with the prospect that Pierce will improve life in the ejido . But she has no plans to leave San Miguel del Rio.

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“I’ve lived here all my life. My whole family is here. Why would I want to leave?” she asked.

“Besides,” Eva said, “it will even be better here once Juan builds up San Juan del Rio.”


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