In my first few weeks in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico, I’ve been thinking a lot about the book The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. This has been one of my favorite books since I first read it when I was thirteen.
The novel follows protagonist Taylor, who longs to escape her hometown in rural Kentucky, buys a VW Bug, and vows to drive until it breaks down. She ends up in Tucson, Arizona, and through a strange series of events finds herself caring for a three-year-old girl who she calls Turtle. There are a lot of reasons this book could be on my mind lately – it touches on perennial themes like immigration rights, environmental responsibility, and coming of age. But most of all, it is a book about building a new home in a foreign place.
Taylor draws together eccentric characters: anxiety-prone fellow single mom Lou Ann and her son Dwayne Ray, undocumented Guatemalan immigrants Estevan and Esperanza, used tire store/refugee sanctuary owner and activist Mattie, and grumbling neighbors Virgie and Edna, to name a few. Little by little, Taylor builds herself a home and a family in the “foreign” land that is the southwest, and eventually feels that she belongs there more than she ever did in Pittman County, Kentucky.
I don’t really identify with Taylor’s need to escape her hometown. The opposite, actually: I am a homebody at heart. There is nowhere in the world I like more than the old red armchair in my living room at home, curled up with a book and a cup of coffee, listening to my family rustling through the house around me. And yet, here I am. Three plane rides away, with no plans to return anytime soon. Rather than pushed by a desire to leave, I find myself pulled towards the unknown. Still, I face the same question as Taylor when she arrives in Tucson: how do I build myself a home so far away from the people and places I love?
Little by little, even during these first few weeks, I have already seen this city begin to resemble a place I can call home. My apartment at first felt cold and empty, all blank white walls and cold tile floors. Though there are still some blank walls, it’s starting to feel like mine, as I’ve begun to fill it with possessions and memories. The cobblestone streets that first seemed like an endless maze of uneven sidewalks and brightly colored buildings are becoming familiar, marked by my mental landmarks: “the café that sells the good coffee,” or “the organic market that’s only open on Wednesdays.” And tasks that seemed herculean during the first week – calling the gas company to get gas delivered, or turning on the water heater on the first try – have converted themselves into routine chores.
And just as Taylor’s story includes a cast of eccentric and unexpected characters, the cast of my story is beginning to fill as well. Elena, the other mission coworker here, patiently answers each of my many questions, covering everything from mail delivery to safety to how to tell the legitimate taxis from the “pirates.” My coworkers thoroughly address all my concerns and go out of their way to make sure that I have fresh coffee and that I understand what I’m doing. The children we work with in markets around the city have begun to recognize me, and eagerly tell me about their lives. They listen carefully as I explain the games we’re playing, while still giggling and correcting my Spanish.
I have been met with unwavering patience and kindness in every aspect of my life here. Though there are many challenges, and it’s often difficult, I can already see this city and these people becoming home. And I can’t wait to see how my story will continue to unfold.
Abi Fate serves with Melel Xojobal, Mexico. Her appointment is made possible by your gifts to Disciples Mission Fund, Our Church’s Wider Mission, WOC, OGHS, and your special gifts.