Maria had just finished washing her hair in a basin in the courtyard of her house when I arrived to visit. She came down toward me slowly, using her cane.
“Do you need help?” I asked her.
“No, I know this floor,” she said. She is blind, gazing sightlessly out from her rebozo shawl. Her daughter brought us chairs and we sat down to talk about her life.
Maria Salud is one of the oldest inhabitants of Charahuen. For many years, she served as the midwife and herbalist for more than 20 communities in Mexico.
Her face is etched with lines, and only a few teeth remain, three or four spaced awkwardly in her mouth. And yet she holds herself with a poise and dignity that make her beautiful. Though she cannot see, she still expresses emotion with her eyes, from the cold determination of a woman who has seen violence and squalor to the soft compassion of a true humanitarian.
“I was always walking to Ajuno to deliver babies, to San Miguel, to Nocuzepo … I didn’t have a horse,” Maria told me, recounting the stories of years as a midwife. “Here in the pueblos, they didn’t have food, clothes or school. In those times it was different. There was no work for men then, just the fields.”
Maria was young when she first left home — she went to Mexico City at age 12 to study medicine and births at a convent. After five years working and learning there, she came back to Charahuen, married, and then dedicated herself to curing and caring for the people of these small pueblos.
“Here in Charahuen, I kept studying. I taught myself by books and by experience, and in that way, I learned a great deal about medicinal herbs,” she said. Maria quickly became known as “the doctor of traditional medicine,” and people came from all over Mexico to ask about her herbal remedies. Medicinal plants and the women she attended in childbirth became her life.
In those days, Maria was the only midwife, serving all of the villages for miles around. “The work was very hard, but … I liked the work,” she told me. “It has its sadness, and its bitterness as well, but I liked it. I knew very well that you didn’t know if the baby would arrive well, or not arrive. And what would arrive: feet first, head first. But it’s beautiful work.”
There were no materials. Maria had to work with what little there was: her own hands, the plants she knew so well, hot water and soap. She had no modern medications, no anesthetic; things many of us take for granted. “Sometimes I had to do cesareans. And I said to the women, ‘You will feel this, and it will be very painful, but endure it, you can endure it.’”
Maria knew all of the women in more than a dozen villages, often visiting them after the births, coming to know their children as well. When she could, she visited pregnant women every month.
Maria looked slightly past me, remembering. “I worked in the fields, then, too, because that was just what you did. I was a hard worker in those days,” she said with a mixture of pride and wistfulness.
Maria Salud has been a leader in her community, a beacon in a rural, indigenous area that is often forgotten about by state infrastructure. It was Maria who first had the dream of a real medical clinic in Charahuen, her vision for the people she had come to love and devote herself to. Today, that clinic exists.
“The clinic is for all of the people, here in the rancho, and the other communities too, that they could have something. People do not come just from Charahuen. They came from San Miguel, Ajuno, Nocuzepo and even San Bartolo to go to consultations.
“Working for this, for the clinic, was not the work of one person alone, but with the support of everyone,” said Maria.
This, more than anything else, is what keeps these small pueblos alive: solidarity and community. Out here, the people really have only each other — and leaders such as Maria Salud, and those of the next generation who will follow her.
“I hope that others go forward with the clinic who can,” said Maria. “More work still needs to be done. It is now for others to continue that work.”
“Thank you for telling me your stories,” I said to her.
“Me, I am content,” she said, smiling.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site bangordailynews.com.