The Perfect Beach Town That Everyone Wants To Flee

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“My daughter sent me this from New York,” Graciela explained. The perfume bottle shone in her rough, weathered hands—hands that have spent decades scrubbing laundry, scouring the scales off fish and jabbing knives into tough green coconuts. Surrounded by her round-bellied great-grandchildren, Graciela proudly displayed her prize. “Mi hija, she sends me such beautiful things.”

Graciela was probably no older than 55, but her raisin-like skin made her appear nearly 70. Once I had oohed and aahed over the perfume bottle and assured her that, yes, I could still faintly smell the sweet remnants of fragrance, she returned to the house to retrieve more treasures.

While I waited for her to return, I stared at my toes poking out of the sand. I had traveled to Mexico for the semester with a small group of NGO volunteers and students. Although our program was based in Oaxaca, we traveled quite frequently, and presently we were in the small community of Corralero, known for its African-Mexican population. In Corralero, most children cannot name their neighboring states or their own president, but they can locate California on a map. They dream of a day when they will cross the desert and join their aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers in the strawberry fields of the United States.

All around me, ripe coconuts dragged down tree branches; the sun was brilliant overhead. I wanted to tell Graciela that she lived in paradise herself. I wanted to tell her that no material object sent by DSL could replace the beauty in her backyard. But instead, I fingered the gaudy necklace she brought to show me, and faked a smile.

Graciela led me to the kitchen area, where she had already begun preparing dinner for my colleague, Nana, and me. “I hope you like fish,” she grunted, as she scooped out fish guts with her bare fingers.

She called to her grandson, Chico, who was no older than six, to run to the community store and pick up some Coca-Cola for their American guests. Placing five pesos in his hand, she shooed him off and began making tortillas. We sat down to eat, and Graciela laid the food out on the table. The food was exquisitely simple: homemade tortillas, freshly caught fish, and rock salt. But I soon realized that Nana and I were the only ones eating. Suddenly aware of this uncomfortable fact, we showered our hostess with compliments and tried to offer bites to any family members who walked by. “We’ve already eaten,” they told us, but Nana and I were beginning to catch on.

“You will sleep in these two beds for the days you are here,” Graciela told us, after we had finished dinner. I didn’t need to look around to know that they were the only two beds in the house. “No, no,” I insisted, “Don’t give up your beds for us—we brought sleeping bags.”

We ended up sleeping on the floor that first night, but not because our host family members accepted their beds back. The night was so hot that we were all forced to congregate in the only room with an overhead fan. Nana and I made use of our sleeping bags as pillows. When I had to get up in the middle of the night, I found out why everyone wore flip-flops in the latrine at night. The ripe stench was nothing compared to the crunching and scurrying around my feet.

Nobody slept past six. Waking to the cawing of the roosters and my own sticky hair matted to my face, I was in good spirits because I knew that Nana and I were going to the beach that day. We were surprised when no one wanted to join us on our excursion, but we soon learned why. We had to tip-off a fisherman with a small motorboat to bring us, and when we got there, we couldn’t swim because of the forcefulness of the waves. The water wouldn’t have cooled us off anyway: It was nearly as warm as the air, which was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Unsatisfied, we arrived back to our accommodations as hot and sticky as the iguana tamales we would try that evening for dinner.

When I left Corralero three days later, I couldn’t tell anyone in the community that they were wrong to want to leave this town for a more comfortable life. Graciela had watched her children grow up and leave, struggling with daily hardships, and she had watched her grandchildren do the same. Now her great-grandchildren, just entering school, were already talking about when they would leave.

It wasn’t only the unbearable heat or abundance of critters—it was the fact that the teachers were on the strike, the options for jobs were limited, and the only social outlets were the bars or the church. So it did not come as a surprise when I learned that the population of the community was shrinking and, like many other high-emigrant areas, those left behind were mainly the elderly and children.

Who was I to say that those who left were taking the easy way out? After all, Nana and I weren’t sticking around either.

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