The Children of Sanchez (87 page)

BOOK: The Children of Sanchez
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They listen to the follow who’s on top, sitting behind the desk, even though he’s not doing them any good, see? Then they applaud him. So how are you going to straighten things out. What can you do?

Now besides all of that, the Mexican people have no unity. They’re not united, one pulls in one direction, the other in another and so on. If people would unite, in union there’s strength, they say, then things
would change. I know in other countries, if they don’t like a president, they toss a nice little bomb and you have a different president. Not here. That’s what they should do here, but they don’t. A bit of cyanide, a heart attack, yes, there’s what many of our presidents and governors and police chiefs need. Well, it’s not nice to say so and admit it because they are my compatriots, eh? they’re Mexicans, but like I told you a little while ago, the truth will always out.

I struggled and worked day and night to establish my home, a poor home, as you can see, but I have my happy moments with my grandchildren. It is first for God and then for my grandchildren that I’m on my feet, plugging away. When I’m downtown, I’m careful about traffic. At my age, it isn’t myself I have to watch out for, but the kids. I won’t be able to give them very much but at least they go on living and growing and I hope God will allow me to be with them until they can earn their own living.

I want to leave them a room, that’s my ambition; to build that little house, one or two rooms or three so that each child will have a home and so they can live there together. But they don’t want to help me. I asked God to give me the strength to keep struggling so I won’t go under soon and maybe finish that little house. Just a modest place that they can’t be thrown out of. I’ll put a fence around it and no one will bother them. It will be a protection for them when I fall down and don’t get up again.


At 6:00 a.m., on January 5, 1987, Jesús Sánchez left his home in a Mexico City suburb and set out for the job he had held for sixty-one years. The barren, salty patch of land he bought in an undeveloped area more than thirty years earlier was now surrounded by factories and high-rises and sat just off a broad avenue with dense traffic. To reach the bus stop, Jesús had to cross where there were no traffic lights, crosswalk, or median. Manuel, who had been pressuring his father to retire and had succeeded in getting him to work only two days a week, said he constantly warned him to watch the traffic on the avenue. That morning, as Jesús stepped off the curb, he was struck by a hit-and-run driver. A neighbor who saw him lying on the pavement called his family and an ambulance. Jesús died at the hospital several hours later without regaining consciousness. He was eighty-two, the father of fifteen, grandfather of thirty-six and the great-grandfather of at least forty-three.

Among his surviving children were all four who contributed to this book. Manuel had been living with his wife, María, and their children in the room at the Casa Grande until the previous year. After sustaining structural damage in the 1985 earthquake that killed twenty thousand and left a million homeless, the Casa Grande was added to the list of
to be destroyed in the government’s post-earthquake urban renewal plan. Casa Grande residents, including Manuel’s family, were offered makeshift temporary housing until replacement housing could be built.

Roberto had left the Casa Grande after his marriage more than
two decades earlier and moved to a house—several rooms off a central patio—owned by his wife, Andrea, and her sister. Over the years they improved it with electricity, concrete floors, and a modern bathroom. And, with money received from the government for taking part of their property to widen the street, they had built a room to rent out.

The sisters, Consuelo and Marta, had also long since moved from the Casa Grande. Marta went to Acapulco; after her separation from Baltasar she never took another partner; she raised her eleven children alone, mostly with her earnings as a street vendor and a good deal of help from her father. As the older children began working they helped Marta build a house of her own. She became deeply religious, an evangelical, and although never personally ambitious, had worked hard for her children’s advancement. She had just returned from spending the Christmas holidays in Mexico City with her father and brothers when word of his death reached her. She immediately got back on the bus and returned to the city.

Consuelo was the least settled of the four. After completion of the book, she worked part time as a field assistant to Lewis in Tepoztlán (where she converted to Seventh Day Adventism) and in Puerto Rico. She married in 1966 and had two sons but separated from her husband in the 1980s. For much of her married life she lived in Nuevo Laredo and worked part time in a library. She was the only one of Jesús’s children absent from his funeral but, because it was held the day after his death, she probably could not have reached Mexico City in time had she wanted to attend.

The four children had always maintained contact with Antonia and Marielena, the two daughters Jesús had with Lupita while married to Lenore. Marielena, who had become a nun, led the graveside services with prayers and hymns. In contrast, Jesús’s four eldest did not have a close relationship with the eight children their father had with Delila, the youngest of whom was only eleven when Jesús died. Reportedly there was jealousy on both sides: Delila’s children envious of the attention the eldest received from their association with the book, and the four eldest resentful of Delila for trying to ensure that all of Jesús’s property and other assets would be left to her and their children. Jesús had realized his dream of building rooms onto his house for their eldest children but he wanted to provide for the security of their youngest too. To this end, and despite their differenees,
he and Delila had formally married after years of living in free union.

His four eldest were left with no inheritance but said by then they expected none. Harder for them was having no say over their father’s funeral and burial. Delila had Jesús buried in her mother’s plot rather than with the relatives of his eldest children, as they would have preferred. Jesús himself, however, never abandoned any of his older children for the younger ones; he kept track of all of them and worried about their futures. Despite all the anger and recriminations the children directed at their father in the pages of this book, their sense of loss when this seemingly indestructible man “fell down and did not get up again” was profound. He had been, as Marta said, both mother and father to her.

Sixteen years earlier the Sánchez family had received, with similar disbelief, the news of Oscar Lewis’s death from a heart attack. He was not yet fifty-six. From the time he met them until his death Lewis had always been in touch with the family and working on projects with one or more of them. Their letters of condolence described the depth of those ties: Marta said she had lost a “great and beloved friend who had been more than a father” and Roberto, who called Lewis “
mi compadrito del alma
,” vowed he would find a way to visit Oscar’s New York gravesite. Even Jesús, who always kept a certain distance, wrote Ruth that he would send a few lines now and then so that she would never forget him. At that point in the relationship there was no chance Ruth Lewis or her children, who had done some of their growing up in Mexico and had become friends with Jesús’s children and grandchildren, would ever forget them.

Ruth Lewis continued to visit and correspond with the family. In December 1986, after preparing a lengthy questionnaire, she went to Mexico with the intent of updating information on the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Jesús appeared to be in robust health, his hair still jet black, and in better humor than she had seen him for years. But as she talked with the family, celebrated the holidays, and reminisced about all their years together, Ruth realized a line had been crossed: “our relationship had become so emotional and so complicated
and we knew so much about them and they knew so much about themselves, and about us, that I just didn’t have the heart anymore to ask a lot of impertinent questions or treat them as subjects of study. I was tired of all that social science objectivity.”
So she put down the pencil for good. Little more than a week later she was at Jesús’s funeral, standing back from the family group clustered near the casket—not family, but not just an observer either. Manuel came to stand with her.

Ruth never went back to Mexico but the letters and phone calls continued until her death in 2008. She had outlived all but Marta and Consuelo. Manuel and his wife of more than forty years lived in the new housing built near the site of the Casa Grande until his death in 2002 at age seventy-four. Roberto and his wife were still living in the house where they had spent all their married life when he died in 2001 at age seventy-one. Their only child—Lewis’s godson—died while still in his twenties. Consuelo, now seventy-eight, broke contact with Ruth Lewis in the 1980s and also keeps a distance from her own family. Marta, now in her late seventies, lives at least part time with her married children who went to work in the
near Acuña.

Much was written about the relationship between the Lewises and the Sánchezes during the controversy surrounding the book’s publication in Mexico. In that decade of ideological warfare, it was not surprising that this discussion was often cast in the language of imperialism and exploitation, with the Lewis-Sánchez relationship characterized as one of dominant and subordinate partners. It is hard to believe that anyone making such a claim had read the book and understood who the Sánchezes were. The father participated in the project just as much as he wanted and no more; he talked only when he had something to say. He was proud, vain, hardworking, and ambitious within his own world, which is to say he did not set his sights on an unreachable horizon. But he was angry at a political and economic system that held him back and was not afraid to say it forcefully. And Consuelo and Manuel had veritable arsenals of words. Lewis wanted those observations on life, poverty, and the barriers to their ambition to come directly from the Sánchezes, to “let the poor speak for themselves”
as he frequently said. The Lewises had the final say on which words appeared in print but had no control over any other aspect of the family’s participation in the project, before or after publication.

No one involved foresaw the impact the book would have in Mexico, and when reporters began looking for the family Lewis very much wanted them to retain their anonymity. Yet Marta was the only one of the five not to reveal her identity or try to use her connection to the book for some personal advantage (as, obviously, they were completely entitled to do no matter how it bothered Lewis). Jesús and Manuel actually sought out the press on occasion. In 1970, for example, months before Lewis’s death, Jesús gave an interview to
in his successful attempt to stop his employer of forty-five years from forcing him into retirement without the severance pay he had expected.

Both Jesús and Manuel boasted about the utility of their participation in the Lewises’ work; Manuel in fact called it his Seguro Social, and said he felt they had made a contribution to the world and that he wasn’t just “a worm crawling across the face of the earth.” Another Casa Grande resident—born just about the time Lewis began his work there—told a
Boston Globe
reporter covering the
’s 1986 demolition, “We were known world-wide, but it’s all over now,” echoing Manuel’s claim that
The Children of Sánchez
had put them on the map.
Mexican President Miguel de la Madrid confirmed the Casa Grande’s place in Mexico’s modern urban history by attending ceremonies for the opening of the new housing complex built at the site.

The Lewises also were aware of what
had gained from working with the Sánchezes, and it was more than the satisfaction of “arousing social conscience.” Ruth Lewis said the work left them with “a sense of awe about people, what they experience, how they handle the things they go through, the terrible problems they have, and the spirit they have—the tremendous spirit.”


Not long before his death, Jesús agreed to Delila’s demand for a divorce. He told Ruth Lewis he was planning to sell his property—then worth far more than he had paid for it—and would give half of the proceeds to his wife. But he died before any of these arrangements could be made.

All quotations from Ruth Lewis are from interviews taped by Susan Rigdon in January and February 1987.

Phillip Bennett, “Storied Symbol of Poverty Is Gone,”
Boston Globe
, August 20, 1986.

BOOK: The Children of Sanchez
8.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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