Pentecost in Mexico
Just because I didn’t like the look of a long, bare blade didn’t mean anything was the matter. Machetes were everywhere, wielded by elderly men and teenaged girls, the Swiss army knife of Mexico. The man holding a machete in the jungle clearing appeared to be staring placidly at a palm tree. I greeted him and he said nothing, though I had the impression he nodded briefly. I wanted to believe he had. There was something unbearable in the thought that he had seen but not acknowledged me, here in the jungle among the flies and worms.
My mother would soon join me. She was behind me on the path, making the last uphill steps before the clearing. From there, our hike would be entirely downhill, all the way to the jungle beach, where we sought refuge from the beach in town. The town beach was busy with families, the children alternately gregarious and dismayed, as unfazed adults talked and snacked, littering the sand with carcasses of coconuts, pineapples, shreds of Styrofoam, an occasional dirty diaper.
My mother had spent the past three winters in this small town, which was popular not only with Mexican families but also with resort-averse Canadians and Americans. Most of the roads were unpaved, frequented by pickup trucks and chickens and neglected-looking dogs that roamed with an air of breezy goodwill. Some evenings a station wagon drove slowly through town and issued a woman’s dolorous call for tamales rico.
Aside from the villas along the beach and on the mountain, much of the town was characterized by a discreet poverty. Its numerous coconut vendors seemed to spend all day waiting to sell maybe ten coconuts, making a dollar when they took a machete to the top of the fruit. A shopkeeper we knew slept at night in her tiny store, along with the ten-year-old girl she cared for. Nearby, a local shaman lived in a shack of twigs, where he painted canvases crowded with imps and vaginas.
The Mexico I had come to know was beautiful and appalling, casually riotous with hibiscus and garbage. In Mexico I had walked into a dim bakery where bees covered every inch of baked goods, their abdomens throbbing with delight. On the morning of our hike to the jungle beach, I encountered a young girl and her pet iguana, its skin as dry and bedizened as a pharaoh’s, held tight in the girl’s humid fingers.
Among the Canadians and Americans this year, there had been some vague talk about Mexico’s growing problems with the drug cartels. It was definitely a problem, everybody agreed, but not here in a forgettable town on the Pacific, far from the border. This town was safe.
When I first saw the man with the machete, I was reassured by his almost Buddhist calm. I was also reassured by a vestigial feeling that everything would be ok, that God would keep me safe. I am now a flaming secular liberal, an academic in the humanities with a predictable set of values to match my credentials. But I grew up Pentecostal and retain some old habits of feeling. When something good happens, I am still liable to murmur “thank you Lord,” even though I do not particularly believe in God. The old Pentecostal habits of feeling overwhelm my intellectual wiring, and my liberal brain short circuits. First the access of emotion, then the spark and the small disappointing puff of smoke.
Unlike me, my mother remains Pentecostal. She cultivates a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and speaks in tongues, regularly reliving the apostles’ first experience of Pentecost, when inspired by the Holy Spirit they spoke in foreign languages about the wonderful works of God to an amazed crowd of Parthians and Medes. Today tongues are mostly a private language, a way to feel closer to God, and still inspired by the Holy Spirit. My mother believes in spirits, both angelic and demonic, according to Paul’s dictum in Ephesians that we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.
Despite our different worldviews, my mother and I are close. I am proud of this fact, which I believe overturns expectations about how relations between evangelicals and secular liberals are bound to play out. It helps that my mother is fantastically nonjudgmental. When I moved in with my partner, she never expressed disapproval. When abortion comes up in conversation, she expresses sorrow but affirms the woman’s right to choose.
When my mother alludes to her belief in evil spirits, I usually ignore her remark. Sometimes I say, “You know I don’t believe in that,” unable to say the words evil spirits or demons or simply a more grammatical them, as if that would somehow legitimate the whole idea. As I speak, my spine curls into a full-body sneer, and I assume a posture of slouching skepticism and embarrassment, which I imagine my mother should feel for believing in demons in the twenty-first century. I wish the demons were a lively metaphor but they’re not.
Aside from my tendency to slouch, I regard our differences of belief as no real source of conflict. I like to think that I am a different kind of secular liberal, one whose value for tolerance and pluralism includes evangelicals. The knowledge that that my mother prays for me regularly does not faze me. To my mind, prayer is basically a nice thought that she has about me.
If this scenario of two people with different beliefs having nice thoughts about each other seems mawkishly liberal, the fact remains that my mother’s faith has helped her in many ways, both as a single parent and a store owner (which she became only four years after the former, opening a health food store at God’s behest). Faith has allowed my mother to see possibility where others would have seen a cramped predicament. Faith has been a salutary adaptation, supplanting fear with courage, an initiation into a braver life.
My mother was taking a long time to reach the jungle clearing. At seventy-one she was slower but still fit. Most of her hair remained naturally black, and she retained the musculature of her hiker’s legs, which she had developed during her youth in Central Europe, where she went on adventurous-sounding expeditions, once getting lost in the Tatra mountains of Slovakia.
Around me, the leaves of the thick, low palm trees made an impersonal clacking sound when the breeze stirred them; and there were other rustlings—of birds as far as I could tell, but I never knew for sure. Supposedly there were boar in the jungle, though I had never seen one. I had glimpsed something on the path earlier, a small black creature with four nimble, skittish legs, and wondered if it was a boar.
Now in the clearing, I saw that it was a small dog, a terrier like Toto. It belonged to the man with the machete. There had been no boar after all. When I greeted the man, I was reassured by this fact, and likewise by the residual feeling of God’s protection.
It was then I realized there was another man in the clearing. This man was taller and leaner, and he wore a blue bandanna on his head. I hoped that my mother would soon join me. In the past she had fearlessly confronted danger, angrily chasing away a flasher we encountered in a ravine two decades ago, gutsy thanks to her faith. For she was on the side of Light and Light must prevail over the rulers of the darkness of this world.
When I began to turn slowly onto the path to the jungle beach, the tall man approached me and said, “Give me your money.” He pointed a gun at me.
“Ok,” I said, “ok.” My response was so instantaneous that it did not feel like a decision. My hands jumped into my pockets and found a couple of coins, which they threw onto the ground, unable to manage anything more dexterous. They seemed conducted by an amateur puppeteer, making great jerking, palsied movements. My fingers dipped into the small back pockets to retrieve the few bills there, and the folded bills leapt onto the ground. Unthinking, my hands returned to my front pockets, seeking more change.
Standing there, feeling around in my empty pockets, I saw only the barrel of the gun, which was as striking as a new and attractive face. It was a vivid narrow gray, an elegant snout. It was also old, a pistol. Afterwards I would wonder whether it even worked, but here in the jungle it was entirely persuasive.
By now my mother was beside me. She appeared unclear about what was happening, watching me and seeming not to notice the gun.
“Mom,” I said, “give him your money.” Unlike my hands, my voice was calm, low and matter of fact. It helped me to envision the possibility that we would get out of this alright, that my mother would give the men her money, just as I had given them mine, and then the men would leave us, having gotten what they wanted.
But my hands were still mad. They wanted to show the men that I had indeed given up everything in my pockets. My hands pulled out my front pockets. My hands tried to pull out my back pockets, but these were sewed in. Meanwhile, my mother seemed to be proceeding very slowly, fiddling with one of the pockets in her cargo pants.
“Just give him your money, Mom,” I said. I couldn’t tell whether she was hesitating or simply being elderly. Moments ago her arrival had been reassuring, but now it began to feel like a complication. Around us was the unblinking day, the everlasting Edenic weather.
I would really rather not die, I thought. It was a strong preference, reasonable, a refusal of pure terror. I could not allow pure terror to enter my heart. Better the strong reasonable preference, which is itself terrified of terror.
My mother was taking a long time, round-shouldered as she dug quietly into one of innumerable pockets. She looked old. I grew worried that the man with the gun would become impatient, that his mood would change from determination to something else. He did not appear angry or sadistic, he just wanted our money. We could satisfy that request. We could give the man what he wanted, a tiny fraction of our worldly goods, and he and his partner would leave. This outcome seemed highly probable, in fact. I didn’t know anything for sure, but plotting out this probability was reassuring. I didn’t have the certitudes of a seer, but I had something better, rationality.
I saw that a new bill was on the ground. The safe, happy ending was now in sight, my mother was supplying the men with what they wanted. Soon they would have everything and go away. The tall man said nothing.
It was my mother who began to speak, her voice confident and aggrieved, the cadence steady, the volume louder than anything the man had used on us. Her words were foreign to me, as they were to the man, in a language only Jesus and the Holy Spirit could understand.
“Shut up!” said the man.
My mother continued speaking in tongues, voice undiminished. She sounded like she was indignantly reading a Greek menu, uttering syllables like taramosalataspanakopitamoussaka!
“Fuck you!” said the man.
The barrel of his pistol was now agitated. In my mind, I heard the pistol go off. The pistol was about to go off, it was about to make a cracking sound louder than anything coming out of my mother’s mouth, it would silence that mouth in this thriving jungle. Here was the end of rationality. Here was terror.
“Give him the money, Mom,” I said. The man began to feel my mother’s hips for money, telling her to shut up, the whole a clamor of expletives and holy phonemes and nervous advice.
My mother appeared to have given up all her money. The man’s attention returned to me, noticing my canvas bag. I emptied its contents hurriedly onto the ground. A straw hat. A camera. Keys. A pineapple empanada. The man took the camera, as my mother groaned a protest. He looked back at her and began to pry the sunglasses from her hand.
“No!” said my mother, holding tight her Walmart sunglasses. The man let her keep them, perhaps seeing that they were cheap or maybe weary of her resistance. He collected the money on the ground, his crouched back weirdly vulnerable looking. He took the pineapple empanada too.
The man was now leaving, accompanied by his friend with the machete, who had not spoken a word or brandished his weapon, fast upstaged by the gun. They walked deeper into the jungle at a leisurely pace, followed by Toto. The tall man shouted at my mother his familiar words, as my mother called out: God is not finished with you yet, and He will not let you get away with this! I pronounce God’s judgment on you!
Afterwards, after we had walked back to town and filed a police report, I was having a hard time thinking nice thoughts about my mother. She had endangered us in the jungle. She had agitated a man with a gun.
I concluded that the gun was broken or at least not loaded. The man with the gun had looked so angry that surely he would have shot it, even if only in the air, had it been more than a prop. The men, I decided, were amateurs, ill-equipped and desperate. After all, the man with the gun had taken the pineapple empanada, not exactly an intimidating gesture. The mugging was basically an aggressive pitch for charity, like begging with a gun.
The real object of my anger, I discovered, was my mother. The faith I had once thought useful or at worst quaint now seemed dangerous, something that could go off at any moment. It was rash and blinkered, clumsy too, lethally inept.
My mother might have single-handedly raised me and run a store, she might have chased away the flasher in the ravine, but the foundation of her bravery turned out to be the lucky illusion that her God would save us. I had lost faith in God more than a decade ago, but I had yet to lose faith in what faith could do for my mother. Now I saw that it could turn on you at any moment. After saving you from the lions it would feed you to the wolves.
The dark kernel inside this recognition was a child’s resentment against a parent for making her feel unsafe. Even if it had been years since my mother had any responsibility to make me feel safe, adults weren’t supposed to endanger other adults. The resentful child joined with disapproving reason to conclude that my mother had exhibited the worst kind of bravery, as if she were on a special evangelical episode of Jackass.
From now on, reason would be my mommy. I decided to talk to my mother about what she had done, but only when I could do so calmly.
We were sitting on our beds after lunch the next day. Our familiar efficiency apartment was in order, dishes washed, beds made, suitcases tucked away. On the wall across from us was one of those mass-produced folk paintings of a sunset in bright pink and ochre and turquoise, banally paradisiacal. Outside the window the local pygmy rooster crowed, asserting its dominance over scrambling hens twice its size. I said to my mother, “I feel that you put us in danger yesterday when you spoke in tongues.” My voice was very calm, a measured expression of disappointment, ideally parental.
My mother’s open face grew puzzled. She seemed surprised that I expressed displeasure not with the muggers but with her, when it was after all the muggers who had violated our rights. She explained that her powerlessness before them had been intolerable. “I refused to submit to the evil that is in them,” she said, her voice as emphatic as the day before in the jungle. “That evil would have power over me, to harass me. Who could I call? The police? Or could I reason with the men? Really the only help I could expect was supernatural, heavenly help. What other means of protection did I have?”
She reminded me that there was a precedent for speaking in tongues saving the day. Twenty-five years ago, in her small store at the isolated far end of a strip mall, four young men entered looking for trouble. They scoped out the store restlessly, rifling through bulk bins and peering into the back room. Feeling vulnerable and at a loss, my mother began to speak in tongues. This wasn’t a decision but a spiritual impulse, direct inspiration from God. The men stopped what they were doing, and one of them finally asked my mother what the words meant. My mother had no idea but out of her mouth came the statement, “Jesus loves you.” The men fled.
I had long interpreted this story as a classic instance of secular perturbation at evangelical belief. The Jesus freak has a certain power to clear a room. I knew stories about women who called on Jesus during a rape and were saved from the rape’s last, direst phase. Definitely it would be a chore to rape a woman in the thrall of divine power. In that case faith was indeed a salutary adaptation, like suddenly doubling in size or turning into an angry, poisonous shade of red.
But speaking in tongues to muggers in a jungle? The man with the gun hardly spoke English and probably didn’t realize that my mother was speaking no known human language, even if he recognized from her voice that she was supplicating her God. The problem with faith was that it was sincere rather than tactical. This time the adaptation had proved dangerous, like turning red when the predator is a bull.
My mother conceded that for whatever reason speaking in tongues hadn’t worked this time. “I don’t know why,” she said. The obvious reason it hadn’t worked sprang to mind. Maybe it didn’t work because the problem isn’t evil spirits but poverty. Maybe speaking in tongues didn’t work because these men were desperate in a way that the four young men in Toronto were not. But that conversation would go nowhere. For my mother, the material was always dwarfed by the spiritual, flesh and blood were nothing compared with principalities and powers of darkness.
Perhaps speaking in tongues hadn’t worked because she had spoken in anger, my mother speculated.
I suppressed a snort and said, “I want you to know that I’m upset about what you did.” My voice betrayed no agitation, because to do so would be a kind of victory for her. If there’s anything some evangelical Christians like—especially charismatic ones—it’s getting a reaction out of you. That means the Spirit is moving, or the spirits (good and evil) are moving. Better to play dead.
I am still having a hard time thinking nice thoughts about my mother. I console myself with the thought that in five days I will leave town, while my mother remains in Mexico until winter’s end. Soon yesterday will be a distant memory, merely weird, a story to make friends crow with disbelief as I enjoy the detachment that comes with hilarity. The holy-roller mother confronting petty criminals as the brainy daughter looks on aghast. It’s too much.
But for now I am in Mexico. Outside the window is the edge of the jungle, unflappably green on yet another bright slow day. The pygmy rooster crows again, as a gas truck crawls down the street blaring the automated ditty that sounds like it is sung by a beachful of small children.
The evil that is in them. In my mother’s mind, there were more than four presences in the jungle clearing that day. There were the men and us, but also God and a bunch of evil spirits too. It’s a teeming world, not just full of chickens and bees and worms and all the trillions of creatures that outnumber us daily but still more crammed with angels and demons. As my mother and I sit quietly on our beds, rehearsing the normal relations we will one day resume, our orderly room feels very crowded. For half a moment I can believe in spirits. Incomprehension and resentment and contempt are in this room, invisible but thick as the bees in that dim, palpitating Mexican bakery. Never mind all the other rooms large and small, the shacks and villas teeming with their own human dramas. It’s amazing that the world hasn’t exploded from the stress of them all, I think, it’s amazing that in the twinkling of an eye the world hasn’t already ended.
Michelle Syba received her Ph.D. in English from Harvard, where she taught courses on religion and literature in the college’s writing program. She now teaches at Dawson College in Montréal.