Bash in poor town is rich in meaning

Times Staff Writer

On a recent Sunday, they raised an orange circus tent in the yard of the Castaneda family home on the edge of this town where wind-blown dust paints the landscape brown and gray.

The Castanedas are not rich people. Vicente Castaneda, the sixtysomething patriarch, owns a few acres of land where he grows beans and corn. Benita, the seventh of his nine children, travels two hours to Mexico City every Monday to work in the home of an expatriate American family: mine.

Benita lives in our home four nights a week. After two years of eating her meals, and too many kitchen conversations to count, my wife and I know her pretty well.

We know she makes a mole sauce that reminds you that the Aztecs considered that chocolaty dish a food of the gods. We know she is an intelligent and upbeat woman of 30. And we know she’s a single mom.

The Castanedas raised the big tent in Temoaya to celebrate the baptism of Benita’s 2-year-old daughter, Aranza. It would be a party as elaborate as a wedding, and nearly as expensive. Benita had spent several months preparing for that day, and when she invited us to drive out to her village to join her, we of course said yes.


We arrived in Temoaya, a village with a quaint white church and squat neighborhoods of cinder-block homes set amid fallow fields. The circus tent rose, a splash of color unnoticed by the few cattle grazing in a field nearby.

Underneath the orange tarp, Aranza was the quiet star of the show in her flowing white baptismal dress.

Benita had hired three clowns, a troupe of mariachis a dozen strong and two other musical bands. There was a videographer and photographer to record it all for posterity. The family bought and slaughtered a pig and served hot meals for 200 invited guests and any neighbor who wanted to drop by.

All this cost Benita and her relatives $3,000, a huge amount considering the daily minimum wage in this country is $5 and the average Mexico City domestic makes $150 a week.

It seemed a tad excessive to our frugal American eyes. How could an impoverished single mother spend the equivalent of several months’ salary on one party? Why not take that money, we wondered, and save it for Aranza’s education or some other practical use?

But there is another logic, a village logic, to Benita’s decision.

When you’re poor in Mexico, when you live in a rural town where running water is a luxury, you have one source of “wealth” you can always depend on: your extended family and your community.

Aranza’s big baptismal party was an announcement of her belonging in the community. So, for one day, her mother fed and entertained all her relatives, friends and neighbors and made great sacrifices to do so, because in Temoaya and villages like it, generosity is the cement that binds people together.

Like many young women, Benita was forced to drop out of school after the sixth grade, to work in the kitchen and fields. She’s not likely to get rich any time soon.

The baptism for her daughter was an act of motherly love, as if all by herself, with a single day of celebration, she could fill the vacuum left by the father who remains absent and unnamed.

“Will the parents of this beautiful little girl come forward,” one of the first clowns announced as he entertained the crowd. He hadn’t been informed of the socially complicated circumstances behind Aranza’s birth.

“What’s the girl’s name? What’s the mother’s name? And what’s the father’s name?”

An awkward, collective silence from the assembled village audience followed that last question. But Benita only laughed and didn’t seem to care.

It’s a sense of humor that has carried Benita through a lot of tough moments in her life.

She’s been working as a domestic for more than a decade. And in recent years, even before she had Aranza, a chunk of her earnings has been going to support her younger brother Victorino as he completed high school and went to college, the first member of the Castaneda family to do so.

This is the kind of sacrifice young women of working families are asked to make again and again in Mexico: Go to work so your younger brother can get an education. It isn’t fair, but Benita doesn’t complain.

“Thank God for Benita,” Victorino told me at the baptism. “She never forgot me.”

We left long before the party ended, before the last band arrived and the tent filled with people dancing and kicking up dust on the patio -- but Benita showed us all the pictures.

A couple of weeks later, the Castaneda family held another party -- for Victorino’s graduation with a bachelor’s degree in law.

If and when Victorino begins practicing law, he may one day fulfill the promise he made to Benita back when he started college: to help pay for his niece Aranza’s education.