Everyone living in the Calle Chopo neighborhood of Morelia, Mexico, knows everyone else who lives here. Right across the street from us lives the grandmother of Betty and Juan Valencia, the brother and sister, now students at the University of Maine, in whose house we are staying. Several of their aunts also live nearby.
We have moved right into a neighborhood of the extended family of our friends in Maine.
When I leave the house in the morning, they are already making tortillas across the street from us. Every day, the women spend hours making tortillas in front of their house, selling them to the neighbors and passers-by. “Hola, abuela [grandmother]. Hola, Marissa.”
“Hello, hello.” We walk over to chat and trade gossip. When we leave, we are carrying half a kilo of fresh tortillas, wrapped up in a warm bundle.
Two doors down from Betty and Juan’ s grandmother is Andrea. Andrea and her husband, Pedro, live in a small, two-room house. It has no windows, but it is painted a bright pink and filled with enough laughter that I always forget how tiny and dark it is when I’ m there.
Andrea worked in Maine for a while she knows the blueberry harvest and the foggy ocean breeze. She has been back living on Calle Chopo for several years now, after returning to be with elderly family members.
Even so, not all of her family is together. Her daughter is still in Maine. Andrea now has several grandchildren, far north, whom she has never met. We have met them, though.
We walk over to visit Andrea and Pedro, look at pictures of their grandchildren, and talk to her about what they are like. She gets out a manila envelope of photographs. It’ s clear from their well-worn edges that this is not the first time she has gone through them. “That’ s exactly what he looks like,” my companions Kacie and Candace say, pointing to one or two of the photos of the youngest grandchild.
Pedro runs a newsstand not far from here, in front of a factory on the edge of our neighborhood. Often, Andrea will go and sit with him while he works. In the evenings, Andrea sometimes cooks food from their house and sells it in the street.
Several people on Calle Chopo run taxis or buses during the day. They come home late at night and are up for several hours more, out on the street with lamps and wrenches, repairing their vehicles. When the whistle of the sweet potato vendors comes down the street at 10 p.m., the tired taxi drivers usually buy a plate or two, then continue working on the cars. The women, many of whom have been out in the street making tortillas all day, come out to keep them company. Kids stay up to hold the lamps for them, helping to eat the sweet potatoes as well.
During the day, these taxis and buses head up the main street toward the city’ s historic center in a near-constant stream of traffic. The buses are really vans, labeled by color depending on what route they drive. The seats in these vans have been rearranged in the back to accommodate as many people as possible even after the seats are full, the sliding doors are opened at every stop, letting in people who stand and hang onto the ceiling.
Even with more than two dozen people packed into the back of a van, coming home at rush hour, there is a polite kindness between passengers. Strangers offer to hold other people’ s bags or children for them, and fares are passed hand-to-hand toward the front of the bus, the change returned in full the same way.
Even here on Calle Chopo, a street made up of family and friends, the neighborhood has a city bustle to it. It is lined with shops: from bakeries to Internet cafes, fruit stands and barbershops, everything is within a few blocks.
One morning, Andrea came by early bringing us a bag of milk — yes, a bag — and something called chicharron, which is like a cross between bacon and potato chips. “And the Chava Flores CD I lent you guys,” she says. “Did you like it?”
“We couldn’ t get the CD player to work,” we tell her. Unperturbed, Andrea sings one of the songs for us, slowly, so that we can hear all of the lyrics. She taps out the rhythm on the table, her voice clear.
“We will take your picture,” I say, “and bring it back to your grandkids in Maine.”
Andrea just smiles, eyes bright, and nods.
Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. For more about her adventures and to e-mail questions to her, go to the BDN Web site: www.bangordailynews.com