Summer 2007 - The Canadian Friend

Ixmiquilpan Revisited

It started with an article in Seventeen magazine. An American high school student had spent a summer in an American Friends Service Committee work camp in Mexico, delivering babies and raising living standards in an impoverished village.

It sounded like something I wanted to do and I applied. AFSC gave me a scholarship. In 1955, I rode several buses from Eastern Ontario to Ixmiquilpan, 100 kilometres north of Mexico City.

I didn't know anything about Friends then, but the experience opened up a new world for me. Many of the other 20 or so campers were conscientious objectors and they spoke about alternatives to war. I learned about decisions based on consensus. While we spent our weekdays working in different villages, we got together on weekends in Ixmiquilpan for showers, meetings, and meditation.

The meditation was wonderful because no one told me what to pray. I also appreciated the local Catholic priest telling his flock, "Look at Los Amigos. You should treat the Indians like they do." He wasn't threatened by us.

In Xuchitlan, my village, we tried to give the people much-needed confidence in themselves. The elders said they wanted the church repaired so we repaired it. I ground corn for the government's school lunch program. The Otomis lived in huts made of cactus and cooked on the ground. Their toddlers sometimes fell into the fires so we encouraged the making of stone stoves.

We also introduced fruit trees, mainly fig, because  fig trees don't need a lot of water. Before the government helped these people, their only water was from the twice-a-year rains, caught in an earthen depression, and used by humans and animals alike.

Almost every morning in winter, we saw processions carrying the dead. The cemetery was behind the cottage where three of us lived with the government workers. Most of the deaths were from pneumonia and with only 2000 people living in our village, the death rate was very high.

Children 52 years ago, with work camper Kater Nelson lining them up for play.  Their clothes are rags, Few wore shoes. And few were girls.

I left after four months because of a throat infection from the dust but the experience led me to join Toronto Monthly Meeting later. I never forgot Ixmiquilpan which had given me so much and over the years, I often wondered what was happening in our valley. Had we helped the Otomis? It wasn't until recently that I was able to return.

When I did, we drove along four-lane highways and Xuchitlan had a paved road. It now has a regular source of deep well water and each house has electricity. The cactus houses are all gone and no one cooks on the ground. The huay that caught the rain water is now a soccer field. Although they didn't know us, people came to greet us, unafraid.

Ruth Malloy with Lousia whom she met in Xuchitlan

We found three schools, not one, with children wearing uniforms comparable in quality to those in Toronto. I asked about the people I knew. I had taken pictures of them but no one recognized them. The oldest person we found was fifty-five. She would have been three when we lived there. We visited one house - 500 meters away. The owner drove there from the village square in a fancy truck. The family used a stone stove even though they had a gas stove, "because gas is too expensive". They had a refrigerator. No one carried heavy jugs of water. I found hundreds of fig trees and lots of fields of vegetables. There was now pride in being Otomi.

Several decades before, the government started sending waste water from Mexico City to our valley. When this first started, they tested the water and found it bacteria free." said Dick Ramsey, one of my fellow campers who now lives in Mexico. "But it's not tested for heavy metals." The canal did have a foul odour but it wasn't as bad as expected!

Before the waste water arrived, the people could only grow cactus from which tequila is made. The children used to arrive at school drunk because only cactus produced a liquid. Today, Ixmiquilpan has so much water, it has opened at least three water parks near Xuchitlan. These were the largest swimming pools I've ever seen, and cater to tourists from Mexico City.

But the population of Xuchitlan is still only about 2000 people. It has not grown because of the migrations to the U.S. which has made much of the development possible.

The perpetuation of the fig trees meant for sure we had achieved something. I don't think we can take credit for the improved stoves. The government did a lot of work here. I was very pleased to see most of the changes. But there are still problems, especially with an economy dependant largely on emigration and waste water.

Ruth Malloy is a member of Toronto Monthly Meeting.


Photos By Ruth Lor Malloy


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