One recent morning when I arrived at Sister Maggie Yee’s home in Tijuana, she had just put her foot through the floor. She was laughing about this. The house, set in Colonia Altamira about a mile up Ninth Street west of the Jai Alai palace, is probably fifty years old and lacks a foundation. Yee says every once in a while she can feel places underfoot where the house has rotted beneath the linoleum.
Usually she treads cautiously around such spots, but this morning she had made a misstep. By the time I arrived, she had already taped heavy plastic over the hole and had covered it with one of the bare mattresses donated to her by the nuns at Mercy Hospital in San Diego. She had moved on to the tedious chore of sprinkling white ant powder around the edges of the room. From the nearby bathroom came the sound of water dripping rapidly from the broken shower, but Yee said at any moment the neighborhood water supply would likely shut down, which at least would end the noise. “It’s times like this that I think, ‘Oh Lord, do you really want me down here?’ ” she said.
She was joking. She really doesn’t have any doubts about the way her life has been transformed in the last ten years. Yee was a nun ten years ago, as now, but then she had a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing and she worked as the Mother Superior at the convent next to Mercy Hospital in Hillcrest.
Life there was not opulent, but it was comfortable. Gone were the days when Mercy nuns did all the housecleaning at both their convents and hospitals, in addition to all the nursing. Over the years, according to Yee, it had grown easy to say, ‘I need this to help me in my work, and I need that to help me in my work.’ And pretty soon you’ve got all kinds of stuff. In the midst of this plenty, Yee heard about the work of Mother Teresa, the nun who has devoted her life to the most miserable poor in India. And Yee began to yearn not just to help the poor, but to be poor herself.
How do you pine for poverty? And if you’re a highly educated, middle-class American who somehow has begun to dream about becoming poor, how do you get there?
The Sisters of Mercy maintain a mission in rural Peru, and Yee, who was attracted to the idea, in 1975 took a four-week crash course in Spanish offered by the Catholic diocese in San Diego. She says she did so badly that she virtually abandoned the idea of any calling in Latin America. At another point, having passed her fiftieth birthday, she confided to her spiritual advisor her growing desires for a drastic life change, but was told she was too old to consider such a change. For a while Yee acceded to the logic of this.
She says one day in 1977, just a few months after she had left the San Diego convent to take another nursing assignment in San Francisco, she heard that an even older nun, a woman who had once been the leader of the entire Sisters of Mercy religious order, had submitted to the order’s governing body a proposal to live very simply and directly with the poor. The proposal was rejected, but Yee subsequently told the other nun she would be interested in any such future proposals. A month later, the other nun informed Yee that the bishop of Spokane, Washington had welcomed both of them to come up and work with needy people under his jurisdiction. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, not another major move,’ ” Yee says. She was also troubled by the realization that taking up a life of poverty might require her to leave the Sisters of Mercy.
“So I just pushed it out of my mind. But in the back of my mind I knew that the Lord wanted me.... There was never any doubt about it.’’ She says she thought about all the years she had spent counseling young nuns not to leave the order but instead to work for change within the establishment. “And who was thinking about leaving?! thought, i can’t believe this!’ ’’
There’s something so practical and gritty about Yee that her story, as she tells it, doesn't sound capricious. She is now fifty-eight years old, and though her face and laugh are girlish, nothing about her seems naive. In contrast with those nuns who seem a bit more innocent, more sheltered than other adults, Yee has seen more evil than should exist. She has known anguished psychotics, men trying to kill themselves with alcohol, suffering children and lonely pensioners, people beaten and diseased and abandoned on the street — enough to disgust a cop. And yet somehow Yee gives the impression that she has taken it all in empathetically, without passing judgment.
Maybe, too, part of her worldliness springs from her childhood and youth. She was born in Phoenix of Chinese parents who were “watered-down Buddhists"’ and she and her siblings were, as she says, “plain old pagans.’’ Yee chose nursing as her profession, and enrolled in a school of nursing located just a few blocks from her home. The school happened to be run by Catholic Sisters of Mercy, and many elements of the Catholicism there attracted Yee; she loved the chapel, and after being taught in a nursing arts class how to baptize babies (an act which can be performed by Catholics and non-Catholics alike), she would routinely administer the sacrament to any dangerously ill child, even the offspring of Mormons. “The Catholic students in school used to say to me, ‘Hey, Yee, when you gonna become a Catholic?’ ’’ She would answer that if she decided to marry a Catholic man, she might consider it. But before marrying anyone she wanted to see the world.
So right after World War II, Yee and her roommate, both of them now registered nurses, took their savings and sailed the first leg of that adventure to Hawaii, where they both got jobs as nurses. Yee says during the two years they were there, her Catholic roommate, who had been told all her life she had a vocation as a nun, struggled with the question of whether she really should take her vows. Yee, on the other hand, looked forward to family life, until one afternoon when she was sitting home alone on her patio, enjoying the beautiful weather. She says a realization suddenly struck her. “I thought, ‘God has been so good to you, to return your life in service to him is nothing.’ ’’
When her roommate got home that day, Yee announced that she was going to become a nun. “She said, ‘But how do you know? You’re not even a Catholic!’ and I told her I just knew.’’Three years later, at the age of twenty-seven, Yee entered the convent and became Sister Mary Trinita Yee.
From that point forward, she says she never dreamed she would ever be anything other than a Sister of Mercy. Only after she and the elderly nun had moved up to Spokane in July of 1977 did she face a crisis. She says the Sisters of Mercy had made it mandatory for all nuns of working age within the order to have a salaried job, the only exception being the missionaries in Peru. Caught between this rule and the conviction that it was necessary to devote all her time to working with the poor, Yee, along with the other nun and two religious brothers they had met, got permission from the local bishop to establish a new religious order, a relatively simple procedure. At the same time, Yee took a new religious name, Magdalene, instead of Mary Trinita. The four called their order the Servants of Christ, and dedicated themselves to the concept of relating to the poor not as professionals, but as if the poor were literally their brothers and sisters. “It’s not a rejection of professionalism as professionalism per se,” Yee explains. “It’s just that when you get into professional work, you get into a different relationship with your patients. They’re your ‘clients,’ not your brothers and sisters. There’s a whole different relationship that happens then. It really is a matter of attitude more than anything else.”
She says the day she received word of her formal release from the Sisters of Mercy, she had just paid her rent and had only $8.21 left over. She was alone; her fellow nun, sixty-nine years old at the time, had hurt her back and been forced to return to hospital care in San Francisco. The two religious brothers lived in a separate house. “I said, ‘Okay, Lord, if you really want me to do this, you’re gonna have to help out.’” Yee says the very next day a casual acquaintance who was unaware of Yee’s financial straits gave her enough money to enable her to pay her phone and electric bills. The day after that, a person in her neighborhood church surprised Yee with a donation that helped her buy gasoline for a month. The next day, she received a ton of coal at her house which had been paid for by a well-wisher. “I remember on Thanksgiving Day I took three bags of food out to distribute; before the day ended, I had received three cases. It’s been like that ever since.”
In all, she spent some four years in Spokane, working primarily with alcoholics and street people. She says she loved the friends she made in Spokane, “but because it was such an upper-middle-class town I always knew that was where we would be formed as a group, but that sometime we would be called to mission somewhere in the Third World.” She says the divine message came when she and the two brothers were on an annual retreat in 1981. The trio began investigating which countries they might serve as missionaries, and eventually Mother Teresa’s religious auxiliary in Los Angeles, the Missionaries of Charity, suggested Tijuana. “That was the last place I would ever have thought of,” Yee says. “It just never occurred to me.”
Upon reflection, Tijuana offered an opportunity that Yee found irresistible. With more than a million residents, the city doesn’t have a single facility devoted to the mentally ill, she discovered. She says the old general hospital contains a few beds in two rooms which are barred and guarded, and violent or antisocial individuals also get tossed into the downtown jail, sometimes for years. It was truly new territory — too much of a challenge, in fact, for the two religious brothers, who instead decided to minister to alcoholics in Anchorage, Alaska. Undiscouraged by their decision, Yee and three young women, who were not nuns but who had heard about her plans, arrived in Tijuana in September of 1981, living first at the Casa de los Pobres (the House of the Poor), a private charity organization run by Mexican nuns which is the most active social service agency in the city. Before long Yee found a house on Avenida Paris, just a block away from the Casa de los Pobres. Although all three of her young companions eventually decided the missionary life wasn’t for them, Yee was joined in February of 1982 by another middle-age nun named Sister Rose Davis, who continues to live with her today.
In the more than two years they've occupied the house, the two women have scrubbed the interior, and Davis has planted shrubs and flowers throughout the front yard, so that overall, the place looks well-tended, if Spartan. Yee moved in with only some pots, sheets, towels, and a few books. All the other furnishings have been donated or are makeshift. Old hospital sheets serve as curtains; a cardboard Quaker Oats container holds the nuns’ cooking utensils. Yee says when she first saw the place, while walking from the Casa de los Pobres to the neighborhood church, the house was abandoned and unkempt. One day she spotted a man working beneath the pepper trees that shade the front yard. She inquired about renting the house, and sometime later was informed that out of a long list of offers, the owner wanted the nun as a tenant, settling for $180 a month in rent, but insisting upon having the first plus the last two months’ payment in advance. “And wouldn’t you know, the money came in [as an unsolicited donation from the bishop in Spokane]. Just about the right amount,” recalls Yee. “So I thought, ‘Well, the Lord wants us to have it."
She says gas, electricity, and water charges bring the total monthly bill up to about $200, and she and Davis spend about fifty dollars on groceries per month (they receive regular donations of some food and household supplies from a few American friends). Yee spends money on things like medicines and bandages and shoes for children. All this money comes from a variety of sources. Yee says one San Diego physician friend contributes forty dollars a month instead of tithing at his church, another woman sends the nuns twenty-five dollars a month, and Yee has an old widowed relative in San Francisco who mails ten dollars monthly. Other income is less predictable, but somehow it seems to materialize. Yee says only once since moving to Tijuana has she ever had to borrow funds, money she since has returned. “I never worry about it anymore,” she says. “The Lord just provides.”
In a similar fashion, Yee has found herself with a seven-day-a-week workload though not, ironically, the type of work she initially imagined she would be doing here. She always knew that to help mentally ill people she would need a fairly sophisticated command of Spanish, but from the beginning the language has eluded her, frustrating her daily. Today she doggedly uses a kind of pidgin Spanish which, combined with pantomime and obvious good will, enables her to communicate simple concepts and seems to be met by her Mexican listeners with great tolerance. Yee is unable to offer psychotherapy, but she has found other needs which require attendance.
The morning she put her foot through the floor, I set off with her on her rounds. First we trudged over to the Casa de los Pobres, where dozens upon dozens of people crowded into the front courtyard; this was a Thursday, the day for distributing groceries that come from a variety of sources in San Diego County. Over the last dozen or so years, the Mexican nuns who founded the Casa have watched it grow from a very small outpatient clinic for children to an extensive complex of buildings, including a spotless infirmary where on weekdays two Mexican doctors see patients on a part-time basis, and where on weekends teams of American doctors donate their services. This morning Yee picked up a sack of groceries and the keys to one of the Casa’s donated automobiles, a dark green Ambassador as battered and dusty as a combat vehicle.
Our first stop was the house of a woman named Lupe in Colonia Manuel Paredes, an impoverished neighborhood deep within the big valley that cuts across the main highway leading to Tijuana’s beaches. Yee first met Lupe at one of the grocery distributions at the Casa. She learned that Lupe’s husband had abandoned her more than seventeen years ago, after Lupe gave birth to a son who, like his sister four years earlier, was born without eyeballs. “It’s a very unusual condition,” Yee says. “Under the eyelids all there is is skin.” The son and daughter are retarded, and Lupe has attended to them, alone, with great resourcefulness. In addition, she has also raised a younger. healthy daughter. “She takes them out on the buses with her and everything,” Yee says. “She has to hold up Jose in front of her and guide him, but she’s taught Marti, the girl, to put her arms around her [Lupe’s] neck and follow.” I asked the nun what happens to mentally retarded people in Tijuana whose parents can’t cope with them, since no institutions exist for such people. “They roam the steets,” Yee replied grimly. “Often the women are sexually abused.”
We parked on a dirt road where the smell of sewage was strong. Before we could finish closing the car doors, Lupe had descended the steep stairs leading from her hillside home and wrapped the slender nun in a bear hug. The Mexican woman’s face, split by a grin, was as round and coppery as a penny, and she immediately began talking at top speed, in a good-humored way, at the same time leading the way up the stairs through a jungle of damp laundry. Yee says Lupe is always washing clothes, what with her incontinent children and her astonishing penchant for coming to the rescue of other stray souls, such as the old lady named Jovita.
“Jovita used to be the toilet-paper lady at the Casa,” Yee said. “She would sit outside the washroom and dispense toilet paper and keep an eye on things. Then one day a year ago in December she went on a trip to Sinaloa to visit her family. On the way back to Tijuana, she stroked out in Hermosillo.” The elderly stroke victim apparently managed to whisper something about the Casa de los Pobres in Tijuana, for the doctors in Hermosillo phoned the Casa, where the nuns emphatically explained they don’t provide long-term hospital care. “So what happens but one day in January this ambulance which has come all the way from Hermosillo shows up at the Casa, and the drivers say they have orders to leave Jovita out in the street if the sisters won’t accept her.” Yee says the Mexican nuns found temporary lodging for the old woman in a private hospital, but made a public plea for people at the Casa to pray for a permanent home for Jovita. “It was a Thursday and Lupe happened to be in line to get groceries for her kids. She said ‘If you can provide a bed, I ’ll take care of her.’ ’’Yee said.“She said that her own mother had had a stroke and before she could get to her the mother had died, and that she didn’t want that to happen to this woman.’’ The nuns not only procured a bed, but also a washing machine to help Lupe with her laundering chores. (Yee points out, however, that Lupe must fill the washer by hauling buckets of water from the square concrete water storage tank in her front yard; this is one of the numerous neighborhoods where there is no running water.)
We entered a cool concrete room built directly downhill from the wooden shack where Lupe lives with her children. For years, Lupe hoarded every spare peso in order to have the concrete structure built. She had wanted a more secure dwelling place for her disabled children — and then Jovita entered her life, so Lupe turned the room over to the old lady. I was amazed by the thought of Lupe saving any money at all. As a squatter on this land, she pays no rent, but her sources of money to pay for other necessities are meager. Attached to her house is a tiny storeroom from which she sells a few dust-covered plastic jugs of water and some sad, sugary candies. Lupe also apparently has acquired considerable medical skills in caring for her two disabled children, so neighbors regularly show up with medicines which require injections, though few can afford to pay her. Yee says, “I’ve checked out her technique [in administering a hypodermic injection], and she does quite well.” But Lupe also makes use of Yee’s medical knowledge. “She grabs me and has me take a look at everyone who’s sick around here,” says Yee. “She’s the best ferreter-out I’ve ever seen!”
This is the main purpose of Yee's visit this morning. Besides dropping off the bag of groceries, the nun has come to check up on Abel, a son in the family that lives next door to Lupe. Lupe first drew him to the nun’s attention because of the ghastly infection in the young man’s leg which developed after Abel’s shin bone broke two years ago in an automobile accident and subsequently healed only imperfectly. Every day pus from the festering infection of the bone rises to the surface of the skin. Yee can’t foresee any ultimate alternative to amputation, but Abel first will have to be psychologically prepared, no easy task. In fact, when Yee first met Abel last December he was extremely antisocial, given to beating up his mother and fleeing from strangers. Though full-grown and capable of understanding some instructions, Abel had never in his life spoken a single word and was assumed to be mute. Somehow Lupe and Yee managed to transport him to the Casa’s clinic, where the doctors, hoping to make him more tractable, had started Abel on a program of monthly injections with an antipsychotic drug. In the months since then, Abel’s personality had steadily improved, Yee told me. This day she planned to give another dose of the medicine.
While one of the neighborhood children went off to fetch Abel, Yee greeted Jovita, the former toilet-paper lady. Now Jovita spends her waking hours sitting on a wooden chair which is actually a kind of adult-size potty seat, the chamber pot being concealed under the framing. The effects of the old woman’s stroke linger. She drools uncontrollably and her eyes don’t quite focus, though she recognizes visitors and greets them with interest. She was singing a tuneless rendition of “Cielito Lindo” when Abel entered.
Short and stocky, crop-haired and low-browed, Abel looks like a much-abused football player. He strode in snuffling and making puffing sounds, as if he were trying to blow out some invisible candle just an inch or so in front of his lips. He obediently disappeared behind a sheet Lupe has strung up with twine at one end of the room, and he appeared a moment later proffering a urine sample. He was equally compliant about loosening his pants and lying down on the couch and enduring the painfully slow injection given by Yee. At its conclusion, he fixed his gaze upon Yee as she rummaged through the white plastic bags which serve as her traveling medicine chest. Out of a large plastic bottle, she extracted a Snickers bar, Abel’s payoff for good behavior.
Yee looked mildly surprised when Abel, halfway through the candy, broke off a small piece and handed it to Jovita. Yee was pleased, and she began praising Abel and chatting with him, asking him a question now and then as if she expected an answer. Suddenly Abel did answer, a low but distinct “Si.” It took Yee several long seconds to react to what she had just heard, then Lupe and Abel’s mother, who had joined the group, confirmed that, yes, Abel, a lifelong mute, had just started talking within the past few days.
“Abel! Abel! Say ‘bananas,’ ’’ Lupe cried out in Spanish.
‘‘Platanos,’’ Abel mumbled.
“Say ‘Abel!’ Say ‘please,’ ” the Mexican women cheered him.
“Say pan y coca" his mother urged.
“Pan y coca, pan y coca'' Abel recited, running the words together in a singsong. He broke into a sudden, toothy grin.
"Oooh, I just can’t believe it!" Yee exclaimed outside, after we had bid good-bye to Lupe and her entourage. Yee said she felt sure Abel’s newfound speech was yet another sign that the antipsychotic drugs were gradually, powerfully benefiting him. “Before, you had to repeat something umpteen times just to get him to understand it. This is so exciting!’’
Next to receive Yee’s ministrations would be two burn victims in Colonia Michoacan. We drove past automobile corpses turned upside-down and stripped of everything but rust, past one canyonside home where the resident has created a fence made of dozens of car body panels and old refrigerator doors, one item pounded into the ground next to another. We passed two milk cows tethered to a Mercury Cougar. Down a rutted dirt road, Yee pointed out the carcass of a duck strung up from a tree next to the property where Gabriel the leper lives. Yee had asked Gabriel about the duck and he explained there had been robbers in the neighborhood. The duck was a message to the robbers about what would happen to them if they were caught.
Yee met Gabriel not long after she came to Tijuana. The son of one of the men who works at the Casa, Gabriel has had leprosy for fourteen years, and the disease has disfigured his hands and fingers into misshapen knobs and lumps; it has masked his face with layers of scar tissue. Although the disease is supposed to be curable, Yee says leprous ulcers continue to break out on Gabriel’s legs despite the fact that she drives him to the Casa several times weekly for treatments. Because of her contact with Gabriel and his father, it was natural for Yee to be consulted when Gabriel’s cousin. Socorro, suffered terrible burns early this past March.
The injury had occurred when Socorro boiled a tub of water one day in preparation for bathing her children.
She tripped while carrying the tub and splashed the scalding water all over her torso, in some places burning the flesh down to the muscle. Right after the accident a Mexican doctor dressed the wounds but gave Socorro nothing for her intense pain, other than the impractical suggestion that she buy a certain type of anesthetic spray in San Diego. When Yee heard this she immediately sent a painkiller to the family, and began making daily visits to change Socorro’s bandages.
We parked and picked our way up a hillside covered with rocks and a dusty soil which supports little except for the edible nopal cactuses. Toward the bottom of the hill is a tiny, tar-paper-roofed shack where Gabriel lives alone. A larger structure higher up the slope houses the many members of Gabriel’s sister’s family, where the widowed Socorro and a few of her five children also live. If this dwelling were situated in some concrete urban ghetto its poverty would be unbearable, but a mature bougainvillea hides some of the destitution under a blanket of rich scarlet color. The hillside property, though arid, is sunny and spacious.
As Yee greeted Socorro, the sound of lowing cattle floated up from a cattle yard directly across the road, where animals from ranches throughout northern Baja pass on their way to Tijuana’s slaughterhouses. At other times a goatherd leads his bleating flock to whatever patches of greenery can be found throughout this neighborhood just ten minutes from downtown Tijuana. Inside the hillside home, plump, darkly handsome Socorro removed her dress and joked about her variegated scar tissue, calling it la mapa de mi panza (“the map of my tummy’’). Yee deftly removed the patch of remaining bandages on Socorro’s left breast, applied a sticky medicinal paste to the stubborn wound, re-bandaged it, then called for her next patient.
In walked a shy young man with both his hands transformed by gauze into fat white mitts. He had burned his hands with gasoline in some kind of automobile accident, and since he was a neighbor, Socorro suggested Yee might help. With seemingly limitless patience, the nun peeled away the dressing, moistening with saline solution those places where fluid from the boy’s body had glued the cloth to his injuries. Freed at last, the hands revealed several large patches where the fire had burned away the covering of brown skin to expose raw pink tissue. Socorro, ever jolly, joked that one gigantic blister looked like un hongo del campo (a field mushroom). A half-hour later, Yee had cleaned and re-bandaged the wounds, and had promised to return again the next day.
Since it was after two in the afternoon, we drove back to Yee’s house for a lunch of rice and black-eyed peas, which Yee had begun stewing that morning, and steamed prickly pear donated by Gabriel’s sister. We hurried because on Thursday afternoon Yee helps with the Casa’s food distribution program at the jail on Eighth Street in downtown Tijuana.
The jail program is one part of the Casa nuns’ effort to feed the poor; in addition the nuns have organized daily breakfasts and hot afternoon suppers served at the Casa. Turkey and macaroni were on the menu when Yee and I arrived at the Casa on this particular afternoon, and we found a team of Mexican women workers ladling into white Styrofoam containers the last servings destined for the jail. I asked Yee why a private charitable group should be sending food to a public facility, and she explained that the official rations in the jail were meager: cold. sour, boiled potatoes, a few tortillas, perhaps some greasy refried beans.
Six or seven of the Casa workers helped load about 200 of the containers into the back of the Casa’s van. and within minutes we had reached the jail. This place has one of the most sinister reputations in Tijuana, so it’s a bit surprising to discover that the interior is filled with light that streams in through many windows and skylights. Three levels of cells are arranged against the walls of a square, leaving a central open space. But the space is filled with an infernal cacophony: metal pounding on metal, and traffic from the street, and a guard’s television set, and a relentless, high-pitched wailing.
The wailing sounded like the cry of some very small baby. Once inside. Yee grabbed a container of lunches and hastened with peculiar urgency up the flights of stairs toward the source of the cries, ignoring the ground floor cells where fifteen or twenty brown faces clustered behind the bars of each compartment designed to hold six. These were the drunks, the thieves, the gamut of ordinary criminals and innocents, all of whom soon would pass on to longer-term penal facilities or to release. The other workers from the Casa would attend to them, while Yee, draw n to the third tier, would attend to the mentally ill. marooned there in solitude.
Up on the third tier. I saw that the wild cries issued from a young madwoman alone in one comer cell. Never before have I heard such sounds from an adult human. In its volume, in its pitch, in its wild formlessness, the noise was utterly abandoned, infantile. When Yee and I approached, she stared at us angrily, then snatched the food like a wild animal.
A thick stench enveloped us, the smells of urine and old vomit and feces and sweat. The toilets visible in some of the cells were clogged w ith garbage and sodden paper. Some of the mentally ill, curled up on the cell floors and looking like dark bundles of rags, wouldn’t respond even to Yee’s gentle greetings. Others, like Jorge, scrambled forward at her approach. Long ago deranged by drugs. Jorge asked politely for additional servings of food, which Yee said she would try to bring. Another young man. with lips swollen and sore, uttered tortured cries by which he seemed to be telling us that he couldn’t eat anything. His eyes were filled with suffering, and he looked at Yee as if pleading with her to do something, as if a bit reproachful of her inability to do so. The nun gently pressed the food into his cell, her face twisted by a pity so acute it w as as if he were really her brother and she had suddenly discovered him in this predicament.
Three years ago, when Yee was deciding where to work as a missionary , she came to Tijuana for nine days. One of the places she visited then was this jail. She says it all but made her despair of ever being able to lessen the misery in this city. Then she was supposed to visit the federal penitentiary located in the eastern Tijuana neighborhood of La Mesa, and Yee braced herself to see even worse horrors — only to be surprised by the humane, unregimented nature of the long-term facility (where prisoners live in an open stockade and can "own" their own apartments and even small businesses). “I thought, ‘This is like a nice little village,’ ” Yee recalls. In the penitentiary she met Sister Antonia, the renowned nun who lives with the prisoners, and as she saw the extent of Sister Antonia’s influence, Yee says she thought, “Uh-oh, you're telling me something. Lord. You're saying to go with an open mind and don’t think about what I'm going to accomplish or not going to accomplish. Just go and be the instrument in your hands.” Yee says that’s when she made up her mind she would settle here.
The jail food distribution completed. we drove back to the Casa, where Yee greeted Antonio, a twenty-three-year-old paraplegic from the little town of Guamuchil in the state of Sinaloa. Not long after Antonio was paralyzed, about five years ago. someone gave him a wheelchair which was too small for him. a chair which slowly cut into Antonio's insensible flesh. Yee says by the time Antonio reached the Casa this past February, he had five of the worst bedsores the nun had ever seen in her long nursing career, open wounds which penetrated to the bone. Since Antonio’s arrival, the Mexican nuns at the Casa have been paying for a little room in a nearby private home where Antonio and his seventeen-year-old brother Luciano sleep and take meals, and Yee has assumed the daily chore of trying to heal the bedsores.
“But it’s a losing battle.” Yee said under her breath as Luciano hoisted his brother onto one of the examining tables within the Casa clinic. Stripped of their covering of trousers and bandages, Antonio’s hips and buttocks are hardly recognizable as human body parts. Fist-size craters have been worn into the muscle, and blazing red fissures run through several of the craters. Elsewhere, healed to shades of pink and salmon, the skin is so thin that minor pressure could break it. Yee says doctors who have examined Antonio agree that eventually Antonio should part with his right leg — his left leg has already been amputated — so that the muscle from it can be used to rebuild his ravaged rear end. In order for this to take place, not only will Antonio have to be persuaded of its necessity, but some American medical charity will have to be persuaded to take on Antonio's case.
This afternoon Antonio seemed hungry for conversation, and he was able somehow to distance himself from the mutiliated body laid bare under the eyes of two American women. From the waist up he is a solidly built young man. He smiles often and.speaks with great courtesy. He told stories about the dangers of Mexico City, where muggers in the train station snatched a few hundred pesos and a tape recorder from him last winter; he discussed with Yee the diabetic condition of his landlady’s nephew. If the memory of the incident that caused his paralysis holds any torment for him, he betrayed none when the subject arose. Antonio explained he was the eldest of five children, offspring of a brutal, alcoholic father and a mother who had deserted the family. To help bring in some income, Antonio had made his way to a fertile section of the Sierra Madre near the Sinaloa border, where he somehow had acquired thirty hectares of land (about seventy-five acres) and the seeds of corn. peanuts, beans. He had already planted his first year's crops when a gang of bandits entered the area and began killing off the local farmers. Antonio says he ignored the thugs’ suggestion he abandon his fields. He was working the land on the morning of July 11, five years ago, when he suddenly heard a gunshot. When he woke up, in a hospital, he was crippled for life.
Later, back at Yee’s house, the nun told me that although Luciano has been caring for his crippled brother, both young men are worried about their brothers and sisters remaining in Sinaloa, so Luciano has been talking about joining the Mexican army. Who would care for Antonio then? It is a question without an answer.
Surprisingly, by a little after 5:00 p.m. Yee had completed all her visits for the day. More typically, she works until seven or eight. Up in Spokane, because she and the brothers realized the dangers of psychological overload, they made their religious order partly contemplative, and reserved Mondays and Tuesdays for rest, meditation, and prayer. Yee would like to do the same in Tijuana, but she says somehow life in that city seems to defy any such neat attempt at making schedules. She rises early, and after 8:30 a.m. mass at the church across the street, she usually prays in the simple chapel she has created in one large room of the house, and she prays again for an hour or two at night — depending upon such contingencies as whether the water is turned on. “Whenever the water comes on. you drop everything and do the laundry,” Yee explained.
She says last year the water supply to Colonia Altamira was shut off from February through June, the only exceptions occurring once a month between midnight and six in the morning. To survive such quirky droughts, many residents of the city, including Yee and her roommate Davis, supplement their city water supply with a pila, a personal reservoir filled by private water trucks. However, Yee points out that the cost of enough pila water to last one week is about equal to the monthly charge for city water. She says recently the city water has been flowing to her house about one day out of four. Even when it flows, the city water is a dubious benefit.
At no time did she and Davis ever drink the tap water (relying instead upon bottled water brought from San Diego by friends), but for quite a while the nuns used tap water to wash vegetables and boil things. Then in the spring of 1983 both women became seriously ill. Tests showed that Yee had typhoid, and Davis may have gotten it (though Davis concurrently discovered she was suffering from three different types of parasites). From that point on, Yee and Davis have been much more circumspect about their contact with the tap water. They use it to wash dishes, for example, but in this manner: first they fill a big pot and heat the water to a rolling boil. Then they let the water cool enough to immerse their hands. While they scrub the dishes in this water and stack them in the dish rack, they start heating another pot of water on the stove. After all the dishes have been washed and moved from the rack to be balanced around the tiny sink, the nuns then dip each dish in the boiled rinse water, once again loading them into the rack to dry.
For all their precautions, Yee and Davis still continue to be plagued with illness. Early last fall Yee had a relapse of typhoid, which incapacitated her for several weeks. This spring she’s fallen victim to one influenza after another. She was sick on Easter. Two weeks later, on her birthday, Yee felt better, so she and Davis splurged by using discount coupons to dine at the Sizzler Steak House in National City. Yee hadn’t even finished the meal when she felt some other stomach disorder coming on. “I thought, “What a waste of such good food!’ ” she said wryly. She added, “I was walking around cussing and swearing. I get in a terrible mood when I'm sick. But then I thought, ‘Hey, wait a minute. That's what the poor have to put up with, getting sick a lot. So you might as well just get used to it.’ ”
Most frustrating, she says, is the way her illnesses sometimes prevent her from visiting the people who come to depend on her — people like Dona Petra. Yee first heard about Dona Petra about a year ago in April, when a woman in church approached and asked if the nun might visit a sick neighbor in Colonia Independencia. The neighbor was an octogenarian named Dona Petra who, despite her age, had been working in a laundry through February, when she began inexplicably to lose the first of thirty or forty pounds and to develop a large mass in her stomach. Yee finally got the old lady to the Casa clinic, where the mass puzzled doctors but where tests showed that Doha Petra not only had typhoid and amoebas but a blood sugar level of over 500 (normal is 70 to 120). About this same time, Yee discovered that she, too, had typhoid. She continued to see her patients, however, until she had a relapse in August, which caused her to lose touch with Dona Petra for several months.
When Yee visited the old lady in October of last year, Dona Petra described to her how she had recently been in terrible pain, barely able to walk. She was sitting up in bed one day when suddenly a tiny apparition, barely a foot tall, appeared a few inches above her mattress. Dona Petra immediately recognized the figure as Our Lady of St. John of the Lakes. Very soon afterward, the old lady had begun to improve. By the spring of this year, her stomach mass had shrunk considerably, she had stopped taking insulin, and her blood sugar had returned almost to normal. Yee says, “She asked me if I thought she was crazy, but I told her I’m sure it was really a miracle.”
Dona Petra broke her ankle at the beginning of March, so one recent afternoon Yee wanted to check on her. Colonia Independencia, just southwest of the center of town, is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tijuana, and that maturity has been good for the area, bringing paved streets and an abundance of tiny grocery stores and tortillerias and all the painstaking improvements people make to their homes whenever possible. Dona Petra lives with one son who brings in a bit of money from time to time, and with a young granddaughter who witnessed the murder of her parents by robbers about two years ago. But this afternoon Yee found the old lady alone, working on her knees at the side of a three-foot-wide metal washtub in the middle of a secluded patio filled with potted plants.
Dona Petra is several inches shorter than five feet. Her hair, though streaked with white, still retains much of its black coloring. This day she wore it in a ponytail gathered in the middle of the back of her head, and she wore little earrings of sparkling pink glass set in brass. Yee’s unexpected appearance delighted her.
The old woman welcomed her into a room where the walls were painted deep turquoise. A calendar decorated with a large picture of the Pope hung on the wall above two neatly made beds, and in another corner the old lady had created a shrine, decorating it with tiny Christmas tree lights and candles and religious pictures. Rapturously, Dona Petra recounted how one of the local priests had come to visit her, bringing Communion and blessing the entire house. She talked about her faith and the apparition, and at one point she stopped and tears came to her eyes.
Yee hugged and patted the old lady, and within minutes Dona Petra was beaming again, crinkling up her nose and cocking her head and gesturing with her hands in a manner almost coquettish. Her face has aged cleanly, with crisp, straight lines running through skin as smooth as old leather.
Yee later told me that she thinks of Dona Petra, who radiates such dignity and warmth despite her many hardships, as an archetype of mature Mexican womanhood. “These people come from a culture which is much older and much richer than ours, and it’s reflected in the way they deal with you,” Yee said. “In the United States, we’re task-oriented; you do this, this, and this in order to feel good. But these people are willing at any moment to drop what they’re doing and concentrate on the person they’re with.” The nun thinks most Americans have lost this talent for and sensitivity to human relations, and many Mexicans start to lose it too as they begin to achieve success, to become preoccupied with work and material acquisitions. “But the poor still put the emphasis in their lives where it ought to be — on people.”
This is one of the major reasons Yee found poverty alluring. She doesn’t proselytize, though she wishes most Americans would change their life-style “a little bit, if nothing more than to be a little thoughtful about what they’re going to be throwing out next, at least donating it where it can be used.” She seems discomfited by a common American reaction to her lifestyle — namely, guilt. ‘‘How we [she and Davis] live is our thing, and we don't make any judgments about how other Americans live.” she asserted. People have to be comfortable with their choices, she added.
“I know this is where I belong,” Yee told me. “I'm happy here, and I know there’s a lot of work here, and I'll only scratch the surface. . . . There are times when Rose and I are invited over to the States, and to homes of really good friends that have helped us, and it’s not that we’re uncomfortable — it’s just that it’s not home."
I got another glimpse of what Yee now considers to be home one morning when she and I accompanied a young American student into one of the impoverished canyonside neighborhoods. Last year a professor at San Diego State University decided that student nurses might learn a lot about public-health nursing from visits to Tijuana, so Yee introduced a student nurse named Trisha to a small group of women in this particular neighborhood; Trisha had been coming every week since January to teach the group subjects ranging from cardiopulmonary resuscitation to breast self-examination to nutritional principles.
To get to the house where we gathered that morning, one has to climb past a large pigpen down a dirt cliff so steep that the neighbors have embedded rubber tires filled with cement into the cliff face to serve as footholds. Inside the simple shelter, Trisha talked in Spanish of hepatitis and varicose veins and lower back pain, while the matronly Mexican ladies listened intently. When Trisha ran out of lecture materials, silent little girls appeared from the kitchen and presented each of us with a plastic plate containing pieces of orange and cucumber and jicama, which we speared with toothpicks. The previous weekend had been Easter, and the senora of this house, a talkative mother of ten, suddenly produced a basket full of eggs colored with bright blue stripes. The senora said something about how much the group appreciated Trisha, who was sitting next to her. Then, quite without warning, she smashed one of the eggs on Trisha’s head, revealing that the egg was full of confetti. The senora took great relish in rubbing the confetti into Trisha's golden hair.
The senora then ordered that the egg-smashing should proceed from one head to the next. Trisha ground eggshell and paper fragments into my hair, and I tried to litter my neighbor's head but the egg flew across the room, which made us all whoop with laughter. On the next try I succeeded, and then my neighbor rubbed the confetti into her neighbor's head as vigorously as if it were shampoo. Each new egg-breaking increased our laughter until we were wiping away tears and squirming with pleasure. By the time we finally sobered up a bit and got ready to depart, eggshell and confetti wreckage covered the senora’s once-clean floor, all the furniture, and each of our heads. One by one, Yee embraced the women, and then we were off. For the rest of the afternoon, from time to time, bits of shell and paper remaining in Yee’s hair would tremble and flutter to the ground, as if the nun were raining color.