Note: The accent mark on the second “i” separates the two short sounding vowels and is pronounced Mari-ita.
Mariíta was a small, frail, and very poor woman who lived in Medellin, Colombia. Even her name, the diminutive form for the Spanish name Maria, described her smallness. My paternal grandmother had taken Mariíta, her neighbor, under her wing. She would bring her food and keep her company. When my grandmother moved my father and mother took on the responsibility of checking in on Mariíta and helping her out. Mariíta also received help from the local parish priest and neighbors. Government assistance was non-existent.
My parents and I moved to the states in 1964 so in our absence my maternal grandmother took over the job of helping Mariíta together with one my uncles. Whenever we went back to Medellin a visit to see Mariíta was a mandatory stop. Even when I traveled to Colombia by myself, I was required to visit Mariíta with my grandmother. Mariíta had always looked very old to me, about a hundred years old. The reality was that her frailness and suffering made her look much older than she actually was. With each visit I would detect her decline in health and mobility.
My earliest memory of Mariíta and of her very poor existence is from age six when we visited Colombia in 1968. She lived in a modest one-story house typical of colonial houses built in Colombia in the late 1800’s/early 1900’s. These houses were made of brick and covered in stucco, painted on the outside with two colors, a bright color in the lower part and a white wash on the upper section. The front of the house had one wooden double door and one wooden window with bars and interior shutters, no glass. As soon as you entered the house you would be impacted by the smell of damp earth because the floor was uneven compacted dirt, no poured cement or tiles. The house had one room, with a double bed in a corner and a couple of chairs and small tables. The room always felt dark and the only source of light came from a small lamp, since the window’s shutters were generally kept closed. Yes, the house had electricity. There was a door that brought you to the backyard and to the outdoor kitchen. There was a tin roof covering the kitchen area that had a stone sink and a small cupboard space holding a single portable gas-burning stove. Mariíta would light up with joy whenever company arrived. In the earlier years when she was more mobile she would offer us something to drink, generally aguapanela (a hot beverage made with water and brown sugar). She would shuffle to her kitchen, to her gas-burning stove, light it up and heat up the aguapanela. As a child I remember feeling uncomfortable in her home and bit squeamish at the conditions. My parents sensing my hesitation to accept the offer of aguapanela would nudge me and quietly tell me that the polite thing to do was to accept whatever it was she was offering. I remember taking the cream-colored tin cup from her skinny old hands, saying “gracias”, staring at the brownish liquid in the cup and finally building up the courage to take a gulp. Over the years, whether I went with my grandmother or parents I would politely accept the offerings and in time I would get over my discomfort and enjoy her aguapanela and her home.
I never learned much about her. As a child I would just hang out while the adults talked. I would hear conversations about her ailments and suffering but that is all I learned. The last time I saw Mariíta she was bed-bound. She had become even more dependent on the kind souls that would check up on her periodically to help. Eventually Mariíta died.
Yes, Mariíta was a small, frail, and very poor woman. Perhaps we can say that Mariíta was one of the lucky ones with a roof over her head, a bed to sleep in, and the kindness and charity of friends and neighbors. I always wondered who Mariíta was before she became the Mariíta I met. What adjectives would I have used to describe her if her life had been different? What was she like when she was young, as a child, did she run and play? Did she have parents who loved her? How was she as young woman? What did she look like? Did she ever fall in love? Did she know happiness? Did she have a job? How did she end up in this house? What did she eat for meals? Did she have medical care? How did she end up so poor?
Yes, I learned many life lessons during those visits to Mariíta’s that have stayed with me over the years. I also learned about the frailty of the human existence and the need to nurture it through compassion.
Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
– Dalai Lama
May you always have compassion and love in your hearts.