Dozing on my night flight back to London, my mind flits to Victor, a 6-year-old with a bright face who loves school and journeys 4 miles to get there, arriving each morning before his teachers. I see a lone boy leaving his house before sunrise, his donkey waddling from side to side, the white specks around his eyes and the band across his muzzle glowing in the eerie darkness. Only the cicadas seem be awake at that hour. But it’s strange because the village doesn’t look like the tiny roadside settlement of El Diamante, population 55, where I know Victor lives with his grandfather. The small adobe lime house I watch Victor leave, with its tin corrugated roof, resembles more Romana’s house in Ursulo Galvan, Romana the middle-aged woman who rides each day Pelusa, or Shaggy, to collect firewood. Romana doesn’t have a car so she rides Shaggy alongside Zoila, her daughter-in-law, who helps Romana stack the wood on Shaggy.
Romana burns the wood in a shack behind her house, her kitchen. Romana has all sorts of pots and pans dangling from the beams of the shack and her carpenter son, Margarito, constructed a table with a wooden base and brick worktop. On the bricks she burns the wood and above, on a metal grill, Romana heats up her pots, like it’s a stove. The walls behind are blackened with charcoal. Swirls of dense white smoke escape through a gap in the roof. Romana knows she’s poor but is very proud of her cooking den, and her many pots, and like a lot of Mexicans she’s always smiling. The family grows fruit and vegetables in the garden, out back, all year round, and even has their own tiny coffee plantation, as well as pigs and hens; and for other foodstuff, Margarito hunts and fishes. A few years back, Romana’s husband passed away with cancer; he loved Shaggy, rode her each day to get
milk, up into the mountains 6 miles away, where his cows grazed. On his deathbed, Romana’s husband had one last request: never, ever sell Shaggy, the pale brown donkey with the fluffy tuft around her poll.
It’s daybreak and Victor hasn’t yet reached school. If the inclination takes hold, he’ll stop en route to eat his cold egg breakfast. He keeps it with his lunch and exercise books in a large canvas bag that dangles down from the saddle. Victor looks after his donkey, his best friend. The two understand each other very well. When he reaches school, Victor attaches his friend to a tree and leaves him under it, in the shade, until school ends. But this morning, curiously, the school I’m remembering somehow isn’t Victor’s regular one, isn’t the school he usually attends. Instead, prim two-storey pink and purple houses surround this school, and in the schoolyard already there are gangs of kids hovering around excitedly. And there’s a white mini-bus parked nearby. When Avril enters the schoolyard, the kids assemble near this 35-year-old educationalist, a trained psychologist. The kids are dressed in clean white uniforms and soon they’re sat facing a tall blue portable cabin, with an opening near the top, covered by closed yellow curtains.
Youngest kids at Laguna Farfán’s school sit up front, waiting attentively, just as Avril requested; the eldest, the sixth-graders, at the rear, are likewise sitting patiently. Present are hundreds of pupils, the whole school, with teachers in the wings. All of a sudden, the curtains open and a puppet donkey is there on stage; everybody starts to bawl with joy. The donkey evidently has sore hoofs and he tells the kids that, just like them, donkeys get tired sometimes and although it never looks like it, they also feel pain. But then the owner arrives and complains at his donkey: Why isn’t he working? He can’t stand about talking to children when there’s so much to do. The donkey, looking forlorn, limps out of the scene. Then a lady vet enters and asks the man if he has been mistreating his donkey. When the man replies “No!” all the kids interject, screaming, “Yes!” The vet tells the man that his donkey is hurt and needs to rest so it’s time for the man to carry the wood himself. The man protests for a bit but then reluctantly agrees. He and the lady vet depart the stage and the curtains close.
When they reopen the man is wilting under a mountain of wood, puffing and blowing; he’s half-dead and barely able to move along. The kids laugh and then boo the man. Next, the vet returns and says that now, at last, the man knows how it feels to be a donkey in Mexico, and from now on he should be more appreciative and nicer towards his donkeys, and towards other donkeys. The refreshed and repaired donkey reappears, and everybody cheers loudly, and the man promises henceforth to be nicer. The vet says that that’s a good thing and addresses the audience, wondering what the children would do if ever they saw the man or anybody else being nasty to a donkey? “We’ll tell him off,” some cry, enthusiastically; “we’ll tell the authorities,” bawl others. When the curtains close, the kids erupt with clapping and beaming smiles.
And then I see Victor again, mingling with the other kids, and I quiz them about the Donkey Sanctuary’s puppet show. The children tell me they loved it because it was funny and they learned a lot, a lot about donkeys. I ask a group of older kids, 12-year-old boys, sixth-graders, in short pants, what they want to be when they grow up; they all fire back, speaking over one another: “Pilot! Carpenter! Teacher! Doctor!” Ah, I say, responding to the boy who wants to be a doctor, maybe a donkey doctor? “Yes, I think so,” the boy utters back, timidly, “yes…a donkey doctor.” And then the image in my mind’s eye shifts again, this time to an urban public square, to the Plaza Hidalgro with its palm trees and fountain, adjacent to a grand municipal building, and little boutiques and cafés nearby. And there’s a sculpture, of a coyote, and the plaza is abuzz with people strolling in sweet, late afternoon warmth, and I recognise Coyoacán—“the place of Coyotes,” the Aztecs called it—Frida Kahlo’s old neighbourhood. And Avril Moreno and I are in a bookstore, and she’s showing me colourful, evocative designs done by Chiapas-based artist Beatriz Aurora, cosmic images, almost naïvely composed, of the stars and the moon and the sun, overlaid with little figurine characters. And Avril says she views donkeys on the same lowly plain as woman and children, like those abandoned by their parents, like little Victor going to school on his donkey, and her work as a Sanctuary educationist is inspired by the Zapatistas struggle in the Chiapas because donkeys are also voiceless beings with rights, propelled on, seemingly against all odds, by some inner indigenous will.
And then, somehow, I realise that like so much occurring in Mexico, the dividing line between dream and reality, between surreal and wide-awake life, is so thin that often there is no divide and what I’ve just witnessed over the past week or so with Mexico’s Donkey Sanctuary is what the Caribbean writer Alejo Carpentier would have called “the marvellous real”—a strange, raw, latent state which on the Latin American continent is really only the commonplace, an ordinary everydayness, the fabled “labyrinth of solitude.” And it’s true that donkeys, too, are terribly solitary beasts, invisible in their private labyrinths of high-altitude meat markets, devastated rubbish dumps, lonely villages, hideaway hilltops, and quiet sun-baked towns without shady arbour. Everywhere their solitary, sorrowful eyes keep tabs; everywhere their little hoofs advance with uncomplaining dignity. Everywhere they try to rise above a brutal servitude that’s forever human, and forever thankless.