Fanfare for an uncommon man

Expats sometimes shower their help with almost condescending praise for being reliable, honest, polite and some such. Our indispensable man Félix, the central character in many of my blog posts, is much more than that. He’s a wiz; a singular person in Mexico or anywhere else.

During the ten years he’s worked for us, we’ve encountered a few bumps, but nevertheless, we’re fortunate that we found him—or that he found us. By now, he takes care of just about everything in the ranch, from the dogs and cats, lettuces and radishes, patching and painting, checking the roof for leaks.

We’re reminded daily of his resourcefulness, curiosity and plain smarts. Plus a kind heart: Unlike many Mexican machos, he’s not afraid to get teary-eyed when he talks about the death of his grandmother, or his beloved dog Chupitos, which was attacked and gored by a pack of wild dogs. He buried Chupitos in our pet cemetery, along with a dozen other dearly departed pets.

Where this unusual bundle of personal traits comes from, I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s just the grace of God.

The gang’s all here: (clockwise from lower left) Jessica, Alondra, Félix,
Isela, and Edgar, at his kindergarten graduation. 

It didn’t spring from his family or upbringing. He grew up in a home where tragedy seems to have been a constant presence. Four of his five siblings are mentally handicapped, illiterate or both. Three or four more siblings died at childbirth or before reaching adulthood. An alcoholic father presided over the home. Félix only reached the sixth-grade and his reading, writing and arithmetic are iffy.

And yet, when we return from traveling, after he stays here alone taking care of the house, he’ll often comment on some book he’d found on the bookshelf  or the coffee table. Apparently he leafs through our books—animals, gardening and foreign places seem to be his favorites—even though he can’t read English, or had access to many books while growing up. I admire his native curiosity.

I used to feel sorry for him, but no more. Now, I feel admiration, sometimes awe, for his survival instincts.

We met Félix when we were building the house, and he worked as a gofer, mixing cement, moving rocks or whatever. One day, after we’d moved in, he ambushed me by the gate when we were coming home.

“Alfredo, I need a job and want to work for you,” he said, using my first name, and the familiar “tú” instead of the formal “usted.”

Boy, this guy has balls, I said to myself. That impression was confirmed later as I gradually found out that by age 21, he had already worked at odd construction and farm jobs after leaving grammar school, and made two illegal trips across the border also, to work in odd jobs near Dallas and send money home to his family.

It turned out too that he was living with Isela, a young woman who was already pregnant with their first child and whom he would marry a couple of years later.

As our gardener, Félix has gotten sucked into my fascination with succulents and cacti. I keep buying more specimens, though my ability to identify the different types, much less remember their arcane botanical names, remains uncertain.

No problem for Félix, who’s developed a mental archive of the Aloes arborescens, Echinocactus grusonii, Agave Queen Victoria, and their multitude of cousins, sufficient to correct me when I get them confused, which is often. Anymore I write plant id tags in pencil, so I can erase them if they’re wrong.

On the Day of the Dead, Stew and I visited the municipal cemetery and I noticed a patch of a particular succulent growing almost rampantly by a gravesite, that was similar to a far more timid specimen we have in the front patio. But what the hell is the name of it?

On Monday, without prompting, Félix mentioned he’d visited the cemetery too and noticed the same batch of Pedilanthus Microcarpus, and suggested ours probably would do better if they had more sun.  

What the hell? Granted, his brain is 40 years younger than mine, but still, his precocious memory is something I’d normally associate, perhaps unfairly, with an extraterrestrial, not a gardener with a sixth-grade education.

His soft heart for animals—except rattlesnakes, which he promptly decapitates with a shovel—has led to many heartaches and unexpected adoptions.

He once found a tiny newborn rabbit, that we unsuccessfully tried to bottle-feed. And a grocery bag with seven days-old puppies someone had tossed by the side of the road, three of them already dead. We took the survivors to the vet, who said they were too young to survive apart from the mother, so they were euthanized.

Another discovery was a small, whimpering puppy, with a gash over her eye, also abandoned by the road. We kept her and named her Felisa, in honor of her rescuer, a gesture I don’t think he appreciated. Mexicans are not used to naming animals after people.

Felix’ curiosity and nosiness also leads him to follow Stew and other repairmen around, puppy-like, constantly asking questions about how this or that works. In this endeavor he’s helped by his talking: He’s a schmoozer extraordinaire, who probably can converse with a potted geranium, even if it doesn’t speak Spanish.

Jessica, now 4, and Edgar, 8. 

So he’s learned some electrical repairs from me and Tim, a Canadian electrician who’s come by a few times. And from Solar Brian, some elementary points about how our solar electricity array works. From Stew, how a dishwasher works. Some gardening from me, and some from Manuel, another very bright young Mexican who works at Luis Franke’s nursery.

And so on, so now we have a DaVinci of sorts, who can dip in all aspects of ranch maintenance.

Booze, however, has been a recurring problem with Félix. During a weekend fiesta at his village, Félix got so drunk he was still incoherent the following Tuesday. I feared alcohol poisoning.

In fact, in his village, flat-on-your-ass drunken bouts, sometimes punctuated by fistfights and even gunfire, seem to be a thing, particularly during fiestas.

On another occasion, he crashed up an old pickup of ours and had to pay for a large chunk of the repairs. We didn’t make him pay for the whole thing because that would have put him in a financial hole for a year or more.

So Félix declared a truce on drinking nine months ago, which held until last week, when he showed up to work smelling of beer. I explained, once more, that there’s no such thing as “just one beer” for someone addicted to alcohol.

There’s an A.A. meeting house in his village that he will not attend because, he says, he can control the problem on his own. I’m afraid that won’t work, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

For all his qualities, and the few defects, I can’t help feeling bad about Félix sometimes, his future  stymied by a lack of formal education that keeps him from even pumping gas at a Pemex station.

I also wonder what would have become of Félix, and thousands of similarly talented young men and women in the campo, if only he’d had a less chaotic upbringing, a chance at more education, access to books and other learning opportunities. I could see him as veterinarian, a teacher, a horticulturist. . .

A dozen could’ve and might’ve beens readily come to into my mind and probably the minds of most people. But that’s an ultimately self-defeating game people play, most often leading nowhere, since life’s video cannot be rewound to edit out the scenes we don’t like.

In Félix case, though, he seems happy and even fortunate with his life, despite its limited horizons.

Yearly, when we give him his year-end aguinaldo, he’ll give me a warm handshake or even an abrazo, and thank us profusely for providing a steady, well-paying job and for our respect with which we treat him and his family.

And, for my part, I’m grateful for all that he’s taught me too, principally living in the day, and being content with what life has offered you. 

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