On the Saturday right before Thanksgiving, I thought up the idea of holding a Thanksgiving dinner down in Palomas. I drove down about 3 p.m. and ran the idea by Manuel and Martha, with whom I have an inspired relationship. They picked up on it right away. They're running a church in Palomas, and said we could hold a dinner there.
I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find anyone to donate money, not having much talent for these things, but it all happened spontaneously at the checkout counter at Pepper's supermarket in Deming.
I was standing in line behind Barbara from Columbus, who right away wrote out a check for $20 when I explained the idea to her. One of the managers was bagging that day, and when he brought my stuff out to my car, I talked to him and he said they could help us. It turned out they could double our money.
So the whole process was kicked into motion right then, although all along I was doubting whether it could happen. I moaned my worries to Alima in Columbus, an activist type who has a lot of experience putting on dinners, and she wisely thought I should put it off.
But right then I crossed the border and talked to Martha again. She and Manuel have been living in their church to protect it from robbers, and they had only a hotplate with two burners there. Not even a sink or a refrigerator. But to her, putting on a dinner was no problem. You just do it. (Typical Mexican, I thought.) Because you're motivated by love, it gets done. The project was riding on love and not much else.
I went to Pepper's and bought a cartload of food, and our combined $40 was magically turned into $80. I volunteered to cook two turkeys, even though I'd never cooked a turkey in my life. Alima roasted the third turkey and Martha cooked the other, and we also made yams, peas and rice. I made a cake and bought a lot of pies.
It all fell into place somehow and supper was ready for the group of about 18 people who arrived at the little unheated church that night. The next day Manuel and Martha went out and fed maybe 70 people in the park. Then they bought some bolillos and brought the food left over to a little settlement called Las Palmas and fed people there.
I couldn't avoid thinking of loaves and fishes. It wasn't just a matter of adding and subtracting a certain portion of food. It was multiplication going on. When I shared this thought with Martha, she said, "I know," and held her hand toward the big bags of beans and rice they have in their church. They'd fed loads of people with a couple hundred dollars worth of food, she said.
Dividing up food among people causes it to multiply. This goes beyond linear thinking, or even irony, to a kind of mathematical mysticism.
And then when Christmas rolled around—in what seemed like a chain reaction—I had a similar experience. Because of articles I've written for this paper, a woman named Janet from Gallup called me. When we got talking, we decided we'd have a similar dinner on Christmas with $100 she and her husband could donate.
When Janet and Clint arrived, we went to Palomas to visit the sister of a young woman she knew well. The sister, Socorro, responded instantly to the idea of a dinner by saying we could hold it at a hall she had to rent out for special events. We should do it the next day, on Christmas Eve, she said. This amazingly good-humored woman said she'd rent a car with a loudspeaker to advertise the dinner.
We spent the day cooking in the kitchen that belonged to Socorro's hall, where the tap water didn't work for a few hours and there was a large puddle on the floor until a friend of Socorro's fixed it. The day was achingly warm and summery, in the high 60s and windless.
About 4, when people started arriving, we didn't really know how to go about it. A couple of women came in with eight or nine kids, and I told them to go sit at a couple small tables. They sat all bunched up and shy until I told them to come in the kitchen, where I gave them plates and forks. They then lined up where food was dished out.
As a social event, it was fantastic. I met a man from the charming town of Sombrerete, Zacatecas, where I'd spent a couple days once. I saw the daughter of the Tarahumara Indian woman who sells necklaces in front of the Pink Store, and got a bright smile from her when she saw I was wearing a necklace she'd made.
There were tales of woe typical of border towns. Janet introduced me to an elderly man who was trying to cross the border because all of his family lived on the other side. There was a family who'd been deported, justly or unjustly. The wife, who was sophisticated and had grown up in Arizona, complained there was nothing for kids to do in Palomas.
Several Tarahumara women with a few children came, with the bright colors and clashing patterns they always wear. Most of them came back for two extra helpings, although we were filling their plates. "It's either feast or famine for them," someone commented.
Even though we knew some of these people would be returning home to bare cupboards, it was still a spectacularly happy event. At least they wouldn't be waking up on Christmas morning with empty stomachs. You could hear a hundred jangling jingle bells of joy.
After the meal, little kids played musical chairs to recorded American 1950s music sung in Spanish. Ana and Juana, the young women who peeled the potatoes, danced unselfconsciously to the music—holding right hands and throwing the left in the air, and then vice-versa. Strobe lights made them disappear and reappear in little flickers.
As we left, Janet spent a couple of minutes on the sidewalk with Socorro's brother Rigoberto, soulfully singing together a song by the famous pre-war writer Agustin Lara, "Alla en el rancho grande."
Filling the stomachs of children fills the interstices of our collective souls. You can almost hear the multiplication going on, sort of a crackling sound.
When you find a way to help, the border is a fountain of joy.
Marjorie Lilly writes about Deming's galleries