this well-crafted memoir, Catherine Finerty recounts--through a series
of stories--her time in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico among the
Cora Indians. Having spent the better part of her adult life as an advertising
executive in New York and the wife of a prominent attorney, Finerty decided
after her husband's death to pack up and head to Guadalajara. "My husband
was much older than I, and I had always sadly known that the day would
come when I would be alone, an aging lady of rugged health and restless
disposition." These were qualities that would serve her well in the adventures
that would follow from her departure, alone, at the age of 62.
In her journey, Finerty trades the fast-paced, urban
world of New York for travel by mule and horse, in a world that challenged
her ideas of comfort, moral authority and cultural conditioning. She explores
her own assumptions about life, and she learns--sometimes slowly--to listen
to the rhythms and lessons of another culture. She also challenges the
conventional ideas about aging that American culture holds, and finds
a place where her age is not an obstacle to her sense of adventure and
her desire to be useful.
She does not begin her journey with lofty intentions,
but--through her willingness to learn and to appreciate--she accomplishes
more than she perhaps set out to do. And, she does so with an increasing
awareness of the gifts this journey has laid at her feet. She trades entitlement
for appreciation and learns to live beyond the concerns for physical comfort
and moral rectitude so often associated with adults in general, and certainly
for those who are aging.
Her stories give us a glimpse of her life in Jesus Maria.
They include her tutelage and adventures in medical work, her rich observations
and experiences there, reflections on her place among the people there
and all the ways she learned from them.
During her first days in Guadalajara, Finerty reveals
a myopic view of her new world: "Instead of having dinner at two o'clock
in the afternoon so my maid could go home and do her washing, I insisted
on dining at night. ...I criticized Mexico and Mexicans and was always
saying, ‘Why don't they...?' I was convinced that I couldn't go to sleep
at night without reading in bed, and I needed a cup of coffee before getting
up in the morning. I slept under an electric blanket and was afraid of
using a public bathroom."
Although she arrived with little more in mind than to
satisfy her "restless disposition" and return to something more closely
akin to the California of her childhood, things began to change when she
started to volunteer at the Huichol Exposition in the Basilica of Zapopan,
which had recently been taken over by a young Franciscan priest. The Huichol
Indians represented at the Exposition and suppliers of the arts and crafts
on sale there "came to the basilica because the Franciscans took care
of them there. ... When a Huichol child got sick, it would be a brown-robed
Franciscan who talked the suspicious father into letting me take the child
to the government hospital."
Because of her work there, she began a journey to visit
the Franciscan missions: "Leaving my work in the exposition in better
hands than my own, I set off with my camera and visited all four of the
missions the Franciscans had with the Huichols." This journey led her
to Jesus Maria, where she was to spend the next eight years among the
Cora Indians. What she discovered when she arrived was that her "...camera
proved to be useless. The Coras permitted nobody to take pictures inside
the Church and did not choose to be photographed themselves. ... Then
Padre Domingo bounced in from a tour of the ranchos on his ugly dun-colored
mule, and life in Jesus Maria was never dull again."
In the story Well and Truly Roped In, Finerty recounts
how Padre Domingo put her to work in his clinic: "Padre Domingo had a
speaking acquaintance with medicine and a burning desire to heal. ...
Much of the medicine was perfectly good, but the padre didn't know what
it was for. He put me to work to find out." As a result, Finerty "forgot
all about taking pictures for the exposition in the pleasure of doing
something that seemed immediately useful."
Thus began her journey into the life of the village.
In her words, she became "the only person in Jesus Maria with medicine
and some inkling of what to do with it." During her first August in Jesus
Maria--a typically lethal month--she noted that she "had been conditioned
to believe that antibiotics should be given only when prescribed by a
doctor. When the choice, however, is between probable recovery and almost
certain death, there is no choice. I consulted the chart on the wall,
guessed at the victim's weight and gave the antibiotic. Not a single baby
died, nor any child or grown-up. I was hooked."
At the same time, she worried about being run out of
town for her work, given her lack of qualifications. Early on, in fact,
she heard that the doctor-to-be in town (the only person with any medical
training at all) was out to get her. She writes: "I was scared. In the
United States it would be illegal. I wouldn't be able to give anyone medicine
there even if the person would die if I didn't. How was it here in Mexico?
Was I breaking a law? What would they do with me if I was? ... I didn't
have to wait long to find out. Here they came, two purposeful young men,
both in what looked like uniforms." Imagine her surprise when they said,
"we have come to ask you to work with us, as a member of the National
Commission on the Eradication of Malaria," to which she replied, "Of course.
... What do I do?"
In "Learning Magic Takes a Little Time," Finerty explains
that medicine, however, was only part of her education. The other half
was learning how to navigate in a Cora Indian culture very different from
her own, in which "sickness was a punishment meted out to those who neglected
their religious obligations" and where curanderos, the Cora shamans, were
called upon with greater confidence than the medicine she and the padre
had to offer. Padre Domingo's gift, however, was that he "recognized this
and never tried to undermine it."
Through her work with the Padre, Finerty learned that
"in spite of the heat and bugs, I wanted to stay. It isn't every day that
a person past retirement age gets a chance to take care of the sick and
hurt and see them get well." She saw that "I could live without luxuries,
without comforts, almost without necessities. In Padre Domingo's crude
little clinic, I had found a place where an old party like me could be
of some use. And in this indigenous society, I, an exotic, had been officially
In "The Hospital Harbors an Indian Village" and the
subsequent chapter, "Requiem for Piedad," Finerty recounts a time when
a young, badly burned Cora girl
was brought to her for treatment. Quickly realizing
that the child needed more care than anyone in Jesus Maria could provide,
she accompanied the girl by plane to Tepic, a nearby town. On the plane
ride there, she realized that "I was alone with a child so badly burned
I was not sure she could live through the night." When she arrived at
the hospital, "it took about five minutes to discover that, in a Mexican
hospital, one does not deposit a patient and walk away." Having learned
that, she simply stayed. "Treatment began that morning and continued for
the five months Piedad and I were together there in the hospital." Finerty
took on the role of family, and presents this as if it were simply what
one did; I thought long and hard about how many people I could name who
would do the same.
Finerty is also adept at telling stories on herself.
In "It's Safer on the Roof," for example, she reports on a Cora fiesta
that "was memorable for me because it was the first full-dress fiesta
I had ever seen and because at the end of it, on New Year's Day, an Indian
knocked me down." Despite having paid for permission to photograph the
dancers dressed as bulls, she says, "I took my place in front of the low
stone wall and kept on shooting pictures. Suddenly, something struck me
on the chest, and I went backward onto the rocks on the far side of the
wall. A bull in a chile-colored shirt had charged me, they told me later.
He didn't know I had cooperated."
In "Almost as Glorious as a Wedding," the author recounts
the 15th birthday celebration of two of her landlady's nieces, during
which Finerty unknowingly sits down on the wrong bench. "Don Gustavo came
and snatched me to my feet to dance a wild, whirling caper. Everybody
laughed. Having seen the same setup at the wedding, I should have known
that the bench was meant only for senoritas. My sitting on it had embarrassed
everybody until Don Gustavo came to my rescue."
In "And We Thought She Rode So Well," Finerty begins:
"The day the horse threw me, I had my choice: I could ride an ugly, lazy,
neurotic brute down to Jesus Maria or I could walk," a clear indication
of what was to follow. The surprise here was that she wasn't treated for
three weeks, living with a leg that "...from hip to knee, was an abstract
painting in livid tones of yellow, red, navy blue, green and deep, rich
purple," and that when diagnosed, revealed a femur that "had been broken
straight through, but the ends of the bone had stayed in place." The doctor
could only conclude by saying, "Senora, God loves you."
In addition to her adventures and misadventures, Finerty
also infuses her stories with simple appreciation for what is around her.
In "A Bride Wears Blue," she writes: "As we waited for Don Basilio and
the bishop, there was a pitapat of tiny feet and a whisper, just a whisper.
Passing by the atrium were three little burros, each with a feathery load
of dried corn foliage on its back, fodder for mules in the corral half
a kilometer up The Street in Front of Church. As I watched them and listened
to the rustle of the delicate dry leaves, I had a moment of compassion
for my successors on Madison Avenue. They were probably at that moment
straining at their desks for the bright new selling idea required every
In "The Dark of the Night," Finerty is called upon in
the middle of the night by three men who ask her to go with them to help
a sick friend. She observes: "It occurred to me, irrelevantly, that I
would probably not go out into the night with three strange men if I were
still living on Long Island." And later, "It struck me, as I climbed up
again on the bishop's outsize mule, that I had another reason to be grateful.
It wasn't everybody who had the luck to live in a place where men would
go out in the dark of the night over a trail like this, looking for help
for a friend."
In a story that recounts one of the Holy Week rituals
of Jesus Maria, Finerty talks about an American visitor who was staying
in the house where she lived: "‘There's only one toilet for all of us,'
she told me, consternation in her light blue eyes. ‘There are only six
toilets in Jesus Maria,' I told her. ‘And we have to flush it with a bucket
of water from one of those tubs in the patio.' ‘Isn't it lucky we have
so much water,' I said heartlessly before I left." Finerty had indeed
come a long way since her arrival in Guadalajara.
Finally, in "Blessed All the Way," Finerty reflects
on how she had come to love Jesus Maria and on how, at the end of the
Day of the Dead celebration toward the end of her stay there, she had
returned home: "I ducked into my little house. I almost never bumped my
head anymore. Maybe, at last, I was beginning to learn to fit in." When
she could no longer "climb into the back of a truck half as nimbly as
I used to climb onto the back of a mule," and when "the heat worsted me
in the end," she left Jesus Maria, but Jesus Maria clearly never left
With humor and mature perspective, Finerty tells her
stories, recounting events that humbled, challenged and touched her as
she made her way, the only gringa in residence in a small village in the
Sierra Madre. While her stories are themselves quite wonderful, the real
beauty of her work lies in the values and attitudes that infuse them.
Humor, humility, open-mindedness, compassion, gratitude and generosity
of spirit are all notably present and, in fact, transcend her tales of
daily life. Surely there's something to learn here.--Anita Moore