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Favorite Mexico Books  

Under The
Tabachín Tree

Review by Carl Franz
Under The Tabachín Tree by Celia Wakefield, 1997, Creative Arts Book Company, 833 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, CA 94710-2287.
ISBN 0-88739-121-4

Unlike many people who never move beyond daydreams of retiring to some unspoiled corner of Mexico, Celia and Bill Wakefield pack their dog and most precious possessions into a VW van and actually pull it off. As Celia recounts in this witty, insightful memoir, their nervousness about abandoning the predictable security of California is soon forgotten in the daily adventures they encounter in Mexico.

Avoiding the most popular retirement havens, their search for a place away from "all the other Americans" takes them to the little-known colonial city of Colima. With limited Spanish but very good humor, this plucky couple fully immerse themselves in "Old Mexico". In describing the personal warmth and rich texture of daily life they enjoy in Mexico, Celia gives reassuring confirmation that life under the tabachín tree does indeed include both adventure and deep satisfaction.


Prologue from Under the Tabachín Tree, by Celia Wakefield

It was my first evening at the boardinghouse in Mexico City some years ago. The menu included frijolitos (little beans) accompanied by tortillitas (small tortillas). The meal was served by a maid named Esperancita (Little Hope). However, everything was of normal size. When I heard Manuelito, one of the other boarders, ask for a drink of water, "por favorcito" (little please), I became aware that there is a philosophy inherent in Mexican-style Spanish: a view of life through the small end of opera glasses. The opposite of Alice in Wonderland, Mexicans have eaten of a plant which reduces, not themselves, but everything around them.

This, to one fresh out of a country where perspectives are large ? the fastest freeways, tallest redwood trees, biggest hamburgers ? was a surprise. I decided to look into the difference in more detail.

Reduction, I found, is applied equally to immeasurable ideas and measurable objects. In my daily wanderings around Mexico City I encountered the diminutive. On the main street loomed an enormous equestrian statue, a monument that was a landmark for blocks around. This was invariably referred to as the Caballito (Little Horse).

One day as I was waiting in the doctor's office a Mexican woman came in, her hulking son in tow writhing in pain. His mother gave the familiar wave of the hand, the slight shrug.

"Is the doctor busy?" she asked the nurse. "My small son has a slight pain in his little stomach."

But the most useful minimizing word in the language is an intangible one: ahorita (little now). Ahora means "now." Shall we go home now? Ahorita. Is dinner ready? Ahorita.

It's the biggest mental obstacle a North American must jump in order to live happily in Mexico.

At first there seems something treacherous and dishonest about "little now." Is it now or isn't it? It isn't now, of course, but it could be sometime soon. After a few weeks in Mexico (unless you have already retreated to the tallest skyscrapers, the widest cornfields or the state with the greatest number of mountains over 14,000 feet high) you find yourself saying ahorita frequently. You feel a sense of relaxation and peace with this word; you have taken the present and future into your confidence. Also, whoever was bothering you about getting things done has stopped. Ahorita is an unanswerable word.

I was surprised to find that variations on this theme are possible. "Little now" can become smaller - ahoritita. This word was used by a dressmaker to whom I had gone to pick up a positively promised skirt. On advice from an experienced native I waited two weeks before haunting her again.

Ahorititita (little little little now) I encountered at a hotel in Acapulco, a city where such a word is as suitable as languorous palm trees and rum laced with coconut milk.

It was one of those small tragedies which occur in a hastily modernized country. The water faucet disintegrated in my hand, leaving the plumbing system, as the Mexicans put it "entirely discomposed." Fleeing from a mounting torrent I yelled for the desk clerk. He turned the water off with a wrench. The faucet, he told me, would be fixed ahorititita.

That is to say, today is a holiday and no one works, tomorrow is Saturday, plumbers are off call...Sunday, well that's Sunday. On Wednesday, although the repair would be done in the instant future, I moved to a hotel where there was normal running water.

Why was the clerk so optimistic? Ahorititita sounds like the nearest now there is. But it turns out to be never. I started to suspect that the more diminutive endings there are on this simple word, the more remote it becomes.

The implications of my discovery bowled me over. "When will now be now and how can it be never?" I would find myself muttering, or "Is never ever now and when will it be then?"

At this point my visa ran out, not ahorita but now, and I returned to the U.S. The jolt of the landing plane was matched by a mental jolt as I returned to my native country, where now is strictly now and never isn't lurking around every corner. I found I was no longer acclimated to the efficiency of timetables and cafeteria hostesses. I quailed at the speedy service in stores where I was waited on immediately without delay or badinage.

After I had been home a while I settled down. I got used again to the point of view where nothing is worthy of much pride unless, like a ripe olive, it is mammoth or colossal. The importance of time again loomed properly large, especially when applied to schedules or deadlines. But I think my subconscious was permanently affected because every once in a while, even years later, I would find myself mumuring, "Why must now be now and when can it be never?"

Under the Tabachín Tree
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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