Ave Maria

Can’t tell you a heck of a lot about Luis the velador, or watchman, at the construction site. He’s a man of very few words indeed at least when he’s talking to his gringo patrones. Questions make him only more fidgety and tongue-tied.

One early morning Stew and I showed up unannounced as Luis and his wife were coming out of the tar-paper shack that doubles as a storage shed and guardhouse, everyone groggy, hair a mess. His wife was carrying a tiny baby. The baby was all gurgles and smiles and had a head of thick, curly, jet-black hair so resplendent it almost looked artificial.

I asked the baby’s name, and after an awkward pause–what is he afraid of? I wondered–Luis said “María.” How old? About two months old. She was a gorgeous baby and we congratulated the couple.

Stew and I were taken aback and fascinated by the tiny girl, certainly an unexpected overnight guest at the property. We knew that Luis’ wife spent the night at the shack occasionally, but couldn’t have imagined a newborn staying there too.

A shack is all it is, about 20-by-20 feet, most of it taken up with cement bags, wheelbarrows and construction tools. The tar-paper walls and roof were supplemented with corrugated metal panels above when the rainy season began, though light still filters through numerous holes and so must the rain.

What passes for a bed is an 8-by-10-foot sheet of plywood laid on top of two workhorses improvised from various pieces of scrap lumber. A pile of wool blankets offers some minimal cushion and protection from the cold. Luis’ backpack seems to double as a pillow.

By the door of the shack Luis has one of those plastic chairs ubiquitous throughout the known world and in front of that there’s a small hole in the ground where he apparently does some cooking using scrap wood for fuel. When we visit, our dogs promptly vacuum up any singed tortilla pieces still lying around.

The security strategy in our property always seemed a little porous. You have Luis, a 20-something that must weigh all of 120 pounds. With a peach-fuzz moustache that’ll never amount to much, and a shy smile, Luis is no Pancho Villa either in appearance or attitude.

The second line of defense are his four dogs, all of them mutts. The two adults bark perfunctorily when they see someone they don’t recognize. The other two are scrawny puppies that yip only occasionally and from a safe distance. The first pair of puppies Luis had when he started his stint at our property in February were poisoned, he said, so these are new recruits.

Luis doesn’t have a gun (that I know of), and it’s unclear what he and his motley K-9 squad would do if someone broke through the fence and tried to steal the electric generator at 2 a.m.

I guess it’s the presence of a body there that makes all the difference.

Luis’ shift is sundown to sunup daily, which seems like an awful lot of time to kill doing basically nothing. There is no electricity and thus no TV or radio. We find him playing games on his cell phone or sitting on the highest point in the property–now the ridge of the roof over the living/dining room–and looking at the landscape through an old pair of binoculars.

About four months ago, Luis didn’t show up and a scraggly, older guy I wouldn’t normally trust to guard a sandwich took over as velador. Luis’ wife was having a baby, the new guy explained, daily, for almost two weeks. Toward the end I kept asking if there were some problems but he assured me there weren’t.

Finally, an unusually lively and grinning Luis returned and announced the good news. It was a girl and everyone was OK.

No experts in baby-showering, Stew and I went to the store and bought what we thought were sensible gifts for a new family with probably very close to nothing aside from the new baby. We bought disposable diapers, a tiny bib, a pacifier, and some sort of a flowery outfit that was probably way too big for Maria. She’s beautiful and healthy but small.

So I thought of photographs, since the family most likely had no money left for a series of baby pictures. Luis seemed taken aback by my offer. Maria already had had her picture taken at her baptism, he said. I countered there can never be too many pictures of a baby.

So he finally agreed and on a Saturday morning we gathered at Rancho Santa Clara. He wanted the now verdant landscape, the same he gazes at endlessly through his binoculars, as the background of the photo.

He showed up in his usual hip-hop outfit of long shorts sliding halfway down his ass, a striped nylon tee and a baseball cap cocked sideways. I counseled that the cap might create shadows, not wanting to tell him that it really made him look like less than a fully engaged new dad.

Luis never loosened up or cracked a full smile, choosing instead to grin and clumsily hold Maria like you’d hold a bag of groceries. Luis’ wife, on the other hand, seemed full of life and joyful with her new role.

I left an envelope with a series of prints at the site with the maestro.

Never heard anything from Luis and finally a week later I asked if he had received the envelope. He had. How did he like them? “They were OK.”

I hope María grows into more a yakker than her dad.

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