I visited my new friends, the Garcia family, who live in the center of Ciudad Juárez. There are five beautiful children: Flori, Julia, Isabel, Pablito and Raquel. Their talented mother, Flor, has taught them to sing in harmony.
One daughter has dreams of representing Mexico as a diver in the Olympics. Another already sings like a professional. They taught me a card game called Cucharitas, which I got bruised playing. Cucharitas is a contact sport which includes grabbing for spoons in the middle of the table when you get the right combination of cards.
None of the gorgeous Garcias speak English, and so I had to make my limited Spanish work as they tried to teach me the card game. I’m afraid I didn’t make a very good impression on them, but they were kind and patiently repeated themselves because they felt sorry for me being so slow.
Alberto García is proud of his children. We had a conversation. Kind of. I’m sure that in Spanish I sounded like his two-year old daughter, Raquel. I asked him if he was afraid for his children with the violence of the drug traffickers on every corner.
He, too, was kind and spoke slowly for me. He had a peacefulness about him as he talked of the brutal murders. He said quite calmly, “Thirty people will die today, but that will not stop us from living.”
He told me, without alarm or fear, that death of both the innocent and the guilty comes everyday and that the city was in eternal mourning. He told me that many of his neighbors lock themselves inside their homes and will not let their children play outside in the fresh air and enjoy the blue sky.
He decided something different. He walks his children to school smiling and his teenaged daughters laugh and hold each others’ hands in a way that is foreign to Americans but common in Latin America. He drives his little girl to her diving class and his son to Scouts. He takes orders from customers at his graphic design business which he runs in his home so that he can watch over his baby daughter.
And he delivers his books to other people’s children.
Alberto has a modest grant from the government to put books into the hands of the poorest children of Juárez. But he knows that handing out books will not be enough. He knows he must get them to open the books. And read them. His proposal is to invite children and their parents and even their grandparents to a fiesta. A party.
To get one of Alberto’s books, you have to go to a party and eat cake and chat and play games. The books are the prizes you win.
Alberto piled us into his van and we headed for the public library in one of the poorest neighborhoods surrounding Juárez. On the way, we picked up Miguel Ángel Chavez, a reporter and columnist for the daily newspaper. Miguel had a stroke a few years ago, but he likes to talk and joke and writes under several pseudonyms including women’s names. Miguel is part of the party.
When we get the library, the children are already waiting. Alberto introduces all of us. He talks to the children. They listen politely. He introduces Miguel who tells them about his work. That he has a good job, an interesting job because he can read and write well. He shows them the newspaper where his articles appear and tells them thousands of people read his stories every day.
The children listen respectfully. Reading. Writing. A good job. Thousands of people. They are impressed.
We are put to work. We pass out large cards with antique pictures on them, a Mexican bingo game called Lotería. Dried beans are the markers. No one has to explain how to play. Every child in Mexico knows how to play. It’s fast. They concentrate. They win! They want to play again.
We pass out refreshments. The children are laughing and talking and asking questions and eating. And they are showing off their new books.
Alberto tells us that for many of these children it will be the first book they have ever had in their homes. Other parties are held at the public schools and the parents and even grandparents are invited to come and to play and to win books.
It is good for families to come out of their homes for a little party and a little game they played as children. Businesses, restaurants, stores, movies have all closed in this part of time. There is so little to entertain them or distract them from their worries.
So they come to the little party. They chat with Alberto about school and soccer and they talk about the books. Some open the books and begin to read them even before we leave.
A little party will not cure the violence in Juárez. A little book will not cure the fear in a child. But what about 10,000 families coming out of their homes for a little party? What about 10,000 books in the hands of 10,000 children? 100,000 children? Doing nothing is not an option for those who love Mexico. Alberto, and many like him, are compelled to try something – no matter how small a good thing – against so large a bad thing.
Ciudad Juárez is a puzzle of many problems and no one solution will solve it all. It will take many hands to find this piece of a solution to fit here, and that piece of a solution to fit there. Alberto Garcia’s project is one tiny piece of that puzzle. Pero manos a la obra.
He will put his hands to this work. He is a patient, proud father to his own children, and he believes that opening a book is a piece of the solution that can develop new ideas in the mind of someone else’s child; a child who may, in turn, someday find more pieces of more solutions. Poco a poco. Little by little, he believes, this will change Mexico.
In his imagination, Alberto García can see what the puzzle of poverty and violence in his city will look like when enough pieces come together.
It will form the face of a child smiling and unafraid. In the hands of Alberto García is his contribution: A little piece of blue sky.