The Rain People 

With the coming of a saint, Richmond's Mixteco community steps into the light.

click to enlarge Before the procession begins, the Rev. Shay Auerbach asks God to bless the statue of San Miguel. - ASH DANIEL
  • Ash Daniel
  • Before the procession begins, the Rev. Shay Auerbach asks God to bless the statue of San Miguel.

San Miguel sparkles.

His golden wings gleam. His ruby robe glitters. He looks more like a doll than a dragon slayer.

But the saint is tougher than he seems.

He defeats evil. He grants prayers. With the raised sword fastened to his hand by a rubber band, San Miguel will protect a small remnant of an ancient tribe: a people who have lived here, unseen, for 12 years.

The long-lashed, fiberglass saint is a perfect copy of the one standing in a small church 2,400 miles away. San Miguel is the patron saint of Metlatónoc, a remote mountain town in southwestern Mexico where Richmond's Mixteco people were born. They may never go home again, so they have brought their saint here, to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Manchester.

In preparation for the saint's arrival on this Saturday morning in late July, musicians strike up a song. Women arrive bearing bouquets of roses. A father makes the sign of the cross on his young daughter's face with a white devotional candle, a veladora. He carries it to the front of the church, sets it in a metal stand and lights it. Other men join him, carrying candles, until the corner glows bright as a bonfire.

Around 10:30, nearly 200 people stand in the shade of a lop-limbed oak. The temperature's already climbing toward 90 degrees. The Mixtecos sweat in their jeans and their suits and their skirts. The smell of incense mingles with perfume.

And then, it is time.

click to enlarge Damien Ariles and Jose Adair Arila, who live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis Highway, hang out on a Sunday. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Damien Ariles and Jose Adair Arila, who live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis Highway, hang out on a Sunday.

"Vamos aqui," the Rev. Shay Auerbach says. Come here. Everyone crosses the street to stand outside the Sacred Heart Center, a former school that's a nonprofit community center. Four men hoist a green canopy on poles to shade the saint. San Miguel appears in the doorway, wobbling on a white litter. Cell phone cameras are held aloft.

Auerbach asks God's blessing on the saint. "The scripture teaches us that angels always accompany us," he says first in Spanish, then in English. The statue will remind us, he says, that "the invisible angels guard us and protect us in our daily lives."

THE MIXTECO KNOW what it feels like to be invisible.

There are more than 1,000 of them living in Richmond, clustered in houses off Jefferson Davis Highway. You've probably never noticed them. And that's exactly the way they want it.

"They're a world unto themselves," Auerbach says.

The Mixteco are an ancient people. Their true name is the nuu maalsavi: the people of the rain. They bowed, but did not break, under Aztec and then Spanish rule, finding sanctuary in the mountainous regions of what is now south-central Mexico.

Approximately 500,000 Mixtecos live in Mexico and the United States, mostly in California. They speak more than 25 variants of their language, which is many thousands of years old. (Almost impossible to describe, the Mixtec language sounds nothing like Spanish. Subtle changes in tone, or the addition of an accented letter, can alter entirely the meaning of a word.) They make up the third largest native population in Mexico, where there are more than 10 million indigenous people.

The Mixtecos are one of several indigenous Hispanic groups in Richmond, says R. McKenna Brown, executive director of the Global Education Office at Virginia Commonwealth University. There are the Purepecha from the Michoacán region of Mexico, and multiple groups of Mayans. Just the other day, Brown found himself speaking Kaqchikel with a surprised Guatemalan Mayan in a CVS on Midlothian Turnpike. "We are more global and cosmopolitan here than some might imagine," he says.

click to enlarge With the help of loans from family, Rufino Leon raised $3,000 to bring a replica of his community’s patron saint to Richmond. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • With the help of loans from family, Rufino Leon raised $3,000 to bring a replica of his community’s patron saint to Richmond.

Mixteco immigrants have spread across California, Utah, the South and the Pacific Northwest, dispersed as widely as blown dandelions. But their family and town connections remain unbroken, says Arcenio J. Lopez, who is Mixteco and the associate director of the Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project in Ventura County, Calif.

When they leave home, they go "hand by hand," Lopez says. They tell their friends: "I know this place, let's go over there. I know how to move, I know how to live over there." And that's how 1,000 Mixtecos from one tiny town in Guerrero end up in Richmond.

Rufino Leon was one of the very first to arrive. He came here with a handful of others in 1999, seeking the landscaping work he heard was available in Richmond. After that, "he talked with other people and they all began coming," Auerbach says, translating for Leon.

Metlatonóc, the remote mountain home of Richmond's Mixtecos, is one of the poorest places in Mexico. With his hand, Leon traces in the air a winding road, showing how difficult it is to get there. Everyone is devoutly Catholic. Many people speak only Mixteco, not Spanish, and can't read or write. The houses are adobe and thatch, although in recent years, money sent home has allowed some to build with cinder blocks and concrete. Influenced by their American sisters, women have begun to wear pants.

Leon talks with his relatives by phone, but "no Facebook," he says. There are no computers in Metlatonóc. "Es tranquilo, porque toda la gente son conocidos," he says. It's peaceful, because everyone knows each other.

Mixtecos are perceived by Americans and other Latinos as being secretive, even standoffish. But it's not because the Mixtecos dislike outsiders.

click to enlarge Saint processions, as shown above in Richmond and below in stills from a video shot in Metlatónoc, mirror old European traditions. They represent a maintaining of community ties, professor Debra Rodman says.
  • Saint processions, as shown above in Richmond and below in stills from a video shot in Metlatónoc, mirror old European traditions. They represent a maintaining of community ties, professor Debra Rodman says.

"We're coming from very specific rural communities," Lopez explains. "The only thing we saw is our own people there, and our own life, closed there. So when we're coming to big cities, and we're coming to these new worlds for us, it makes us feel afraid. It's a different culture.

"It makes us feel like, 'How I'm going to say hello? How I'm going to say cómo estás in Spanish? If I don't know how to say it, they're going to start laughing at me.'"

These fears extend to their children. Translating for Leon, Auerbach says "they tell their kids really to stay among themselves, so that there won't be problems. ... You might play a little bit with [other kids], but that's enough."

The Mixtecos keep to their own small corner of Richmond. But on this Saturday, they're stepping out.

BORNE ON STRONG men's shoulders, San Miguel glides down Perry Street. The Mexican flag flutters in the breeze.

"Vamos empezar nuestro procesión," Auerbach says. Let us begin our procession. The 200 people here don't heed his admonition to form "una fila delgadita," a thin line. They fill the street, curb to curb.

click to enlarge Stills from a saint procession video shot in Metlatónoc.
  • Stills from a saint procession video shot in Metlatónoc.

Boys wear suits with pants that pool around their feet. Girls wear elaborate braids in their long, dark hair. Their white party shoes tread on broken bottles and weeds. The people sing while they march around the block.

Two guys are washing a Jeep at the car lot on the corner. They don't look up from their sponges to watch San Miguel sailing majestically down the street.

Everyone's sweating by the time the saint finally returns to the church. Auerbach says a few more words and flings holy water onto the saint's robes. This ritual is new to him, he confides: "They're telling me how to do it." Everyone troops into Sacred Heart for Mass, with prayers in Spanish, English and Mixteco.

Leon borrowed about $3,000 from family to pay for the saint. Artisans in the Mexican town of Tlapa de Comonfort required one month to make him.

When the saint arrived in Richmond, Leon and the other Mixtecos felt "really happy and very proud, because it looked just like the one from where they're from," Auerbach translates. It was the first time Leon had seen San Miguel in 12 years.

click to enlarge Early Sunday evening, friends play outside in the trailer park where they live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis: Jackeline Leon, Marisol Mejia, Lorena Ariles and Jazmine Leon. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Early Sunday evening, friends play outside in the trailer park where they live with other Mixtecos off Jefferson Davis: Jackeline Leon, Marisol Mejia, Lorena Ariles and Jazmine Leon.

INDIGENOUS IMMIGRANTS FACE a dual challenge, says Debra Rodman, an assistant professor of anthropology and women's studies at Randolph-Macon College. They have two foreign worlds to face: the local Latino culture as well as the larger American society.

From an anthropologist's perspective, cultural integration doesn't happen magically from watching TLC and eating at Applebee's. It happens with the help of already-established immigrants — the "integration intermediaries," Rodman says.

And that can be a problem, if you're Mixteco.

"We're not familiar with the racism that's embedded in Latin-American society," Rodman says. (She hasn't studied Richmond's Mixtecos, but she works with Mayans and other local immigrant groups.) Indigenous people from Latin American countries often are mocked as bumpkins, hillbillies or mountain people — "montañeros."

Lopez experienced this firsthand. When he worked on farms and in restaurants, people made fun of his physical appearance. "I'm not like white-colored skin," he says. "I'm like dark-colored skin. I'm not tall like any other mestizo from other states. I'm short."

But Lopez, unlike many Mixtecos, was fluent in Spanish and ready to fire back. "I would say: 'I don't like how you look at me. ... I don't like that word you used against me.' At least I was able to say that."

Because of discrimination, many of the immigrants Rodman works with are reluctant to reveal their indigenous identity. They'll say they're Mexican, she says, until she coaxes out the truth by asking: "Do you speak another lenguaje? Another language?" They sometimes say no, but their parents do; or no, but they can understand it. In fact, Spanish is a second language for almost all of Richmond's Mixtecos.

click to enlarge Accompanied by guitar and tambourine, the Mixtecos sing hymns while they walk around the quiet neighborhood in Manchester. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Accompanied by guitar and tambourine, the Mixtecos sing hymns while they walk around the quiet neighborhood in Manchester.

Migration to the United States presents a rare opportunity for indigenous people to lose pejorative labels, Rodman says.

"I found that the U.S. had an equalizing effect," she says. Non-Hispanic Americans don't make distinctions between indigenous people and those of Spanish descent, she says. "Their gringo bosses are saying, 'Hey, all you Latinos.'"

For indigenous people, Latino or Hispanic is a new sense of identity, Rodman says. "They're in the U.S. now. They're going to reinvent themselves."

She says she believes the lines will be erased in the next generation. Children won't know the scorn their parents felt. Neither will they know all their traditions.

Leon's children understand Mixteco, but speak only English and Spanish. Mixteco is a difficult language to learn, he says.

"I scold them all the time," Auerbach says. "I tell them they have to teach their kids Mixteco." (Auerbach is of Hawaiian descent; his grandmother spoke Hawaiian.)

click to enlarge The Rev. Shay Auerbach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, has spent the last four years getting to know the Mixtecos. “They’re a world unto themselves,” he says. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The Rev. Shay Auerbach, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church, has spent the last four years getting to know the Mixtecos. “They’re a world unto themselves,” he says.

Leon himself is shyly pleased when asked to say a few words in Mixteco. He borrows a pen and writes: "taá nikuú." Pronounced ta ni-co, it means "hello" — buenos dias, buenas tardes, or buenas noches, depending on the time of day.

On Oct. 1, the church is holding an even bigger ceremony in honor of San Miguel. "He'd love to invite all the Americans to come," Auerbach translates, "so they could say hello to them and they could say a few words in Mixteco."

IT'S 9:30 SATURDAY night, and the Sacred Heart Center is bumping.

Every time the front doors open, music explodes into the summer night, brassy and thumping and loud. In the front hall, where Mixtecos are mingling, the music's even louder. Linger too long in front of the speakers set up in the gymnasium and you stand to become sordo. Deaf.

This is part two of the celebration of San Miguel: a fiesta that began with a feast at 1 p.m. and continues with dancing until 1 a.m. The Mixtecos have hired seven separate bands to play chilenas mixtecas, songs popular in coastal Mexico.

Despite the frenetic tempo and the flashing lights, there's a feeling of fatigue. Worn-out women and sleeping infants line the perimeter of the sweltering gym. A few couples jog briskly around the dance floor. Men crowd the doorways, watching. Garbage cans overflow with empty Modelo Especials.

Outside, the young still revel. Children flit across the playground, swinging and sliding and shrieking. Safe from parents in the dark, teenagers laugh and curse. All of them are speaking English. S

The big saint's day celebration of San Miguel will be held Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, with Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo presiding. The public is welcome. shcrichmond.org

Correction: This article has been updated to include the correct title of R. McKenna Brown, executive director of the Global Education Office at Virginia Commonwealth University.

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