At l0 o'clock on a morning filled with sunlight and moist, warm breezes, I find eighteen-year old Gregoria Rafeala López Rodríguez from the town of Ixhuatán sitting on the Hospital's sun deck. Though she's in a wheelchair, she looks healthy in every respect, except that her hands and feet are slightly swollen and the skin covering these parts is peeling off. She tells me that she's one of eight children, that her mother works as a maid in a landowner's house, and that she's sorry, but she'll never be able to read the book I'm writing, for she has never attended school, and cannot read
Now Doña Metahabel arrives to give the morning's massage therapy. She lifts Gregoria's left arm and with her thumbs very gently presses the hand's upper surface. Then she moves the stiff fingers, ever so slightly, back and forth.
"Ah, it feels much better today," says Doña Metahabel. "We only began massage therapy yesterday and then she couldn't even puck up a glass of water. But today I think she might be able to do that."
As Doña Metahabel works, Gregoria whimpers from the pain. She tries to be brave, but sometimes she just has to throw back her head, bite her lower lip, and hiss out her feelings. Tears run down her cheeks.
"We'll give massages for three more weeks, each day followed by a steam bath," explains Doña Metahabel. "Also we've put her on a low protein diet -- no meat, beans, cheese or eggs, and no salt. She can eat fruits, grains, vegetables..."
Arthritis is common in my own family; at age forty-one already my own hands and back
joints sometimes ache. Now I wince as each of Gregoria's fingers must be moved, one at a
"Before Gregoria came to us, she visited a curandero, a witch doctor," continues Doña Metahabel. "The witch doctor told her that she was possessed by evil spirits, and that for a certain price he would drive the spirits away. His method was to put a little alcohol into a small cup, set the alcohol ablaze, and then quickly turned the cup upside down over the swollen areas so that the burning alcohol would create a vacuum inside the cup and suck out the evil spirits. But all that did was to burn Gregoria's skin. That's why the skin is peeling off her hands and feet."
Gregoria seems a little embarrassed to have this story told, so Doña Metahabel changes the subject.
"This reminds me of an incident we had here a while back," she says. "Among the Chol Indians, girls usually marry between ten and twelve years of age, and boys marry when they're fourteen or sixteen. By the time a girl is thirteen she should have produced her first baby; if she doesn't, people will say that something must be wrong with her. Well, one day we received an unmarried eighteen-year-old boy who had been very concerned about not being able to find a spouse. Someone had told him that if he mixed a large quantity of chicken manure with cow's blood and ate it, he'd find a wife. So he did, and the mixture poisoned his system. He was here for three weeks, very, very ill... "
At the same time Gregoria both laughs and cries. Offering a brief recess now, Doña Metahabel steps behind her patient and unselfconsciously and systematically begins parting the strands of Gregoria's hair, looking for lice. In the villages this vital social grooming is done by a person's loved ones. Gregoria responds to the generous gesture by sticking her thumb in her mouth and holding her head to one side as if she were a child.
But, now the right hand must be massaged, and then each foot...