A would-be Mexican superman

Ever since we hired Félix seven and a half years ago, when he showed up at our gate practically begging for any kind of a job, he’s proven to be a source of both awe and sadness, one of the smartest, hardest working and most decent family guys I’ve ever encountered but one too who’ll never amount to much for reasons entirely beyond his control.

Yesterday he brought a branch from a sycamore
 tree with the beginning of an infestation of muérdago, or mistletoe in English, an aggressive parasite that despite its cheery Christmasy name and attractive yellow flowers can take over and kill even a large tree in just a couple of seasons.

We walked over to the sycamore and he pointed to a few muérdago buds poised to begin their lethal careers. He explained how birds eat the seeds and then drop them on other trees. Wrapped in the bird’s droppings, which the ever-polite Félix calls po-pó,  the seeds are also incredibly sticky, as if covered with mucilage, ready to adhere to the nearest host.

Félix with sycamore branch infected with muérdago

So Félix is now patrolling for muérdago, in addition to trees that are budding, or not, bird nests, snakes and any other signs of life or potential trouble in our ranch.  That along with remembering both the vernacular and botanical names of a myriad plants—how about nassela tenuissima (Mexican feather grass) which for some reason is spreading everywhere, or an ungainly pachipodium? He knows them all.

Gomphrenas are coming up,” he announced yesterday, pointing to half-inch plants popping out of the ground in one of our otherwise dormant flower beds. I could barely see the sprouts let alone recognize their identity.

Some of this horticultural information Félix picked up from a course on organic farming that I sent him to at the San Miguel Botanic Garden, and some of it has come from me as I show him internet articles (in Spanish whenever possible) or pass on whatever gardening information I have.

This morning I explained the difference between epiphytic plants that grab onto the host but otherwise live off the air and rain, such as orchids and air plants, and true parasites, like the muérdagos that invade the innards of whatever tree they land on.

Muerdago seed, small and brown and right in the middle of the
 photo, stuck on a branch of the sycamore and ready to go to work. 

How’s Félix going to remember this arcana? Don’t worry, he will. Even accounting for the fact that he’s nearly forty years younger than me, that son-of-a-bitch has a curiosity, along with powers of observation and memory, and a brain to process the incoming data, that never ceases to amaze.

When he was still a teenager he entered the U.S. without papers and worked at various construction sites for a year before coming home complaining that he missed his family. That may have been the U.S.’ loss and Mexico’s gain.

Félix awesomeness is all the more so given the maelstrom of his upbringing. His father, he has told me when we’ve discussed alcoholism, was a down-and-out drunk who’d go missing for days only to show up without shoes or in soiled pants. The old man quit only when a doctor warned him he’d die soon otherwise. Even now, he suffers from severe diabetes, probably caused or aggravated by his alcoholism.

Epiphytic air plants attached to a huizache tree. 

Of Félix’ eleven siblings, five were stillborn or died very young, he’s told me. Four of the seven survivors are illiterate, and of those, three show signs of mental disability. Félix limped along to complete the sixth grade before being enlisted to go find a job and help support the family.

Despite his obvious intelligence, Félix’s writing and reading are labored (his grammar and spelling are marginal), and his arithmetic, which he says was his favorite subject, doesn’t take him much farther than adding, subtracting and multiplication. Fractions, percentages and divisions are beyond his grasp.

With a wife and three children to support, there’s virtually no chance of Félix going back to school, so hopes for the future rests on three kids. I’ve talked with Alondra and Edgar, and played with them on the computer, and they seem very sharp and quick to learn. But it’ll be a miracle if Mexico’s anemic and corrupt public education system carries them very far. To attend the prepa, a type of pre-college high school, they would have to travel to San Miguel by public bus, assuming they meet the entrance requirements. Let us pray for a miracle.

Small bud attached to the sycamore, which I thought was filled
with seeds of some sort. Félix says they are insect eggs, 

maybe butterflies.

This morning I offered Félix a small notebook computer Stew no longer uses and to teach him how to use the internet. To my surprise, he turned me down. “I’m just not interested,” he said, but added he’d like his older kids to learn. So now we have to find an internet cafe or some other wifi connection in his village and someone to sit down with at least his nine-year-old daughter to teach her the basics of online searches and using email, or just becoming familiar with a keyboard.

We often hear or read about singular human beings who rise above tougher-than-tough circumstances to become movie actors, scientists or teachers. But beyond being momentarily inspired or moved, we then forget about the other ninety-nine percent of the potential sharpies who never make it and what a shame that is—for them and for the rest of the world.

9 thoughts on “A would-be Mexican superman

  1. Anonymous

    Two thoughts: First, anyone who's been reading this blog already has a sense that there's a lot more to Félix than meets the eye. And you've written a very nice profile of him to complement it. Second, the oak trees around here all have a lot of mistletoe and seem to be fine in spite of it. Maybe oaks are more resistant than eucalyptus, though I've never seen mistletoe in eucalyptus. Anyway, great post. Saludos,Kim GRedding, CAWhere we occasionally think of harvesting the mistletoe for Xmas, but generally are overcome with laziness before acting.


  2. Thank you Kim. I'm glad you liked the post. As far as your point about the mistletoe, I don't know. Around here they grow mostly on huizaches and mesquites and they kill the tree eventually, though it takes longer than the couple of years I mentioned in the post. The air plants also grow everywhere and even though they are not parasites as such, they can overwhelm a tree and kill it I guess by choking the branches. Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post.


  3. This is lovely in its vivid poignancy. What an interesting man Felix is. And how blessed you are to know him and employ him. The blessings of course go both ways, as do the teachings. This post brings front and center the fact we all have a story and personal struggles, and one never knows the depths of another's. Your writing is exquisite.


  4. Ahh, but you're looking at Felix through eyes that judge people from what is successful by US standards, don't you think? There are so many things about Felix that make me think he is a giant among men and is more successful then many that I have known with MBA's or PHD's who certainly never amounted to much.


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