It seemed endless.
We had been traveling for about 30 minutes passing the same thing — row upon row of makeshift shanties many of them not much more than cardboard — housing families. We were headed southeast out of Mexico City to the mountain town of Chignahuapan some 189 kilometers away in the State of Puebla.
It was mind numbing.
We were aboard a bus provided by a federal senator who was ferrying a sister city contingent of 60 people from Roseville in Placer County 28 years ago. It was part of a weeklong visit with the hometown of Alberto Heredia — an immigrant to Roseville. Heredia worked as a laborer with Southern Pacific Railroad raising his family while ultimately chasing his dream to open a restaurant named for his bride Carmelita.
Heredia was an incredible man. Short and stout, he never missed an opportunity to help fellow immigrants, his birthplace, or his adopted hometown.
But even the shanties didn’t prepare me for Chignahuapan. It was a beautiful town with stark contrasts between old and modern, abject poverty and a struggling middle class.
Raw sewer ran in ditches. There was a modern hospital under construction yet a witch doctor still had a thriving practice.
Electrical service was so unreliable that twice during evening festivals on the town square for the sister city delegation the gentleman I was staying with — who owned a factory that supplied paint air compressors to Sears — shimmed up a pole to throw a breaker.
Mr. Ayala was the epitome of a responsible businessman. He was not wealthy but was part of what was the threatened Mexican Middle Class in the mid-1980s as inflation devastated the peso and economic woes silenced factories.
He had a dozen workers that he had furloughed when we were there. But on Friday as he did every other week of the year he paid them. It wasn’t the full wage they would have made had orders been flowing in, but he nevertheless paid them.
His rationale was simple. As part of the Middle Class, he had an obligation to do the right thing to help struggling families. These were craftsmen, after all, who helped provide a good living for his family. It was his duty to make sure they had a chance to make it through tough times with food on their tables. Besides, he noted, it was hard to find good, loyal workers.
Every place we visited — whether as a group or with our host families — people regardless of their wealth opened their doors, opened their hearts and shared their food.
We had been asked before leaving Roseville to help fill extra suitcases packed with basic school supplies — pencils, writing paper, crayons and such.
I thought they were kind of weak gifts to be taking to a sister city but I was to find out just how wrong I was.
Heredia arranged for myself along with Roseville Mayor Harry Crabb and his wife to visit a school.
I’ll never forget what I saw as we walked into that classroom.
The building was old and fairly decrepit. We were warned to walk gingerly as there were literally boards missing giving you a clear view of the dirt below.
When the suitcases loaded with school supplies were placed on the teacher’s desk, she was overcome with joy.
She told us that it wasn’t uncommon for many students by the fifth grade to drop out of school because their families couldn’t afford the money to purchase basic school supplies that they had to have, as the government did not provide them. Families considered themselves well off if a child stayed in school much past the fifth grade — a benchmark they had become a town cut-off point for what was considered basic education.
I was stunned. While we fought battles over whether to cut extra-curricular bus transportation in the aftermath of Proposition 13’s passage, children just to the south of California weren’t able to go to school because they could not afford simple supplies like pencils and writing paper.
Chignahuapan and Mexico have changed a lot since then.
Unfortunately, so have we.
As we become more and more blessed — if that is how you want to look at it — with the latest high-tech gadgets or more things that make life easier we become less and less thankful.
Yes, these are trying times. But it isn’t World War II. It is not the Great Depression. It isn’t the 1920s with influenza and polio running rampant. And we are not part of a Third World country.
Count all of your blessings — your family, your health, and the fact we live in the country that we do.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.