(I wrote this for USA Today and it appeared on March 3, 1997)
Not long ago, I was at the 88th birthday celebration of my Tía Chavela – Isabel Espinoza Palomo. Ever since, I have been haunted by the scene of her wiping away tears from that wonderfully wrinkled face as she sat in her wheel-chair in front of a multi-candled cake while her children and grandchildren sang “Las Mañanitas.“
I marveled at her beauty, and I was struck by the realization of just how much this widow of a long-dead uncle had affected my life, and how she and others in my community helped make me who I am. I have many memories of Tía Chavela, but two will forever stand out. The first is of a day 31 years ago when my mother and I were finishing cleaning up our old family house, the one my grandfather had built, because we were moving across town after Urban Renewal decided to run a street through our property.
As we loaded the last few things in the car, Tía Chavela walked from her house across the street and said to my mother, in Spanish, “Woman, why hadn’t you told me that you are leaving me alone already?)?”
With that, the two sisters-in-law threw their arms around each other and just stood there, crying.
They were to continue visiting for another quarter century until my mother died, but it would never be the same, for never were they able to see each other simply by strolling across the street. The bond had been broken; our little village – which had included other various aunts and uncles and their families – had been dissolved.
The second memory is from when I was 5 years old when I went her house and she talked me into giving her a preview of my upcoming dance performance at my kindergarten’s play. She laughed with much delight and applauded when I finished, but she never reached out to touch me. And that, as those who are familiar with the Mexican culture know, is a huge mistake, for failing to touch those things and people we admire is a sure way to give them what we call, “el mal de ojo.”
“Mal de ojo” has often been translated as “‘The Evil Eye,” but it is nothing of the sort. It is, literally, the disease caused by the eye. It is the illness that results when we fail to follow through on our initial approving impulse. It is the result of our stinginess, of our holding back of praise and of our unwillingness or inability to communicate our admiration.
In essence, mal de ojo is a disease caused by selfishness, by pride. It is a reminder that, as members of society, we have an obligation to become involved, to reach out and touch someone – to offer not only our approval, but also our warmth and our nurturing.
Sure enough, the very next day, I became ill, and it wasn’t until she performed her mysterious and beautiful sorcery with a raw egg and supplications to God that I started to feel better.
I relate this story to point out the importance of family, neighbors and friends – our village, if you will – in determining who we are, how we react to what life has given us and what we do to make this world a better place.
One of the tragic things about modem life is that too many of us buy into the myth that we are self-made. And that, being self-made, we owe nothing to those who have come before us and those still with us, influencing our thoughts and our actions. An even grander tragedy is our impulse to erect walls around us – walls to keep people away from us, walls to keep us from seeing what is around us that makes us or might make us, uncomfortable. No longer content to build fences around our homes, we now need the extra barrier of a wall, complete with a guarded gate, around our communities.
Many of us don’t even know our neighbors. Worse, we don’t even want to know them because we don’t want to become involved in their lives and their problems.
In insulating ourselves from the ugliness around us, we deprive ourselves of the benefits of the kind and caring caresses of the Tía Chavelas that offer us at least some protection from the self-centered impulses around us.
Last month Tía Chavela’s children and grandchildren once again gathered around her. This time, they gathered not to sing “Las Mañanitas,” but to bury her, and to celebrate her life. A few weeks earlier she had said no to treatment that would have prolonged her life.
“I’ve lived long enough,” she said in defense of her decision. And so she died, with her daughters at her bedside.
It’s her decision, of course, but for me, people like Tía Chavela never live long enough.