David E. Stuart
University of New Mexico Press, 2003
Following an anthropologist through a study can be a surprising treat or a boring exercise with many skipped sentences in search of what you’re trying to glean. I brought this book home only because it was about the Mexican state of Sonora and available at my local library.
It begins with the back story of Stuart leaving an unhappy time in 1970s Ecuador. He returns to Empalme, Mexico to reunite with his betrothed and the story slowly dances along with a bit of background here and there, an introduction to her family, and a tidy description of his days. Unfortunately, his betrothed is pregnant and after emotional misgivings and much pleading, it is decided he will wait for her in Guaymas for four months while she leaves on obscure family business. This anthropologist is not going to be too tidy about things.
Half-way down page 38 the story began. A Mexican friend asked if he still planned on marrying a woman visibly pregnant by another. When he shrugged undecided and said he felt like a fool the friend replied, “We are all fools. We are born fools, we live fools, we die fools,” and then added the difference is how gracefully we behave as fools. At last. Mexican character and heart shining through anthropologist notes and personal story.
On that same page Lupita is first mentioned. She is introduced by name as Stuart’s shoe shine boy’s patron. The person who looks after him.
Stuart begins immersing himself as an anthropologist into the daily life of middle class Guaymas, but his reputation as the man whose woman was pregnant by another preceded him in all his contacts. Perhaps at first blush not the best way for a theoretically neutral anthropologist to record, but it certainly cut through some layers of formality that otherwise may never have been touched.
Lupita turns out to be a wily, intelligent street orphan assumed to be ten with no one to fend for her. She convinces Stuart to hire her as his agent, La Mandadera, to run errands, take his laundry, and soon she is arranging his trip into Tucson to buy small appliances and new tires. She becomes his middleman when he reluctantly agrees to help a widowed American find a Mexican wife.
Her understanding of percentages, her cut of the deal, and her constant monitoring of his life’s activities are both amazing and a little frightful as she makes herself indispensable and awkwardly visible in his life.
Through the summer Stuart describes many local people and gains lifetime men friends. An anthropologist’s notes record the activities in working-class nightclubs well past midnight, the menus in restaurants, the idioms of language. As El Güero (Whitey) he also travels through several social layers, occasionally taking the time to explain his view of how manners and customs are different in the U.S. and Mexico. But the story that grows to prominence is around Lupita who submerges him into the life of a street child.
Guaymas Chronicles had a surprising emotional appeal with the spirit of Lupita who after years still watched nightly for her mother to appear where she was last seen while daily she watched after the younger shoe shine boy. Recordings of human life naturally weave a story and the story of Lupita, La Mandadera, is a wrenching experience through street life of a child reflected against the local middle and upper class.