FROM THE MIDWEST TO MEXICO:
The Unlikely Journey of an Undaunted Mom
By Daria Hilton
Sipping cold Dos Equis cervezas in the shade of the threadbare umbrella that rests a tad cockeyed in the center hole of the glass patio table, no one would suspect that my neighbor Marianne began her almost thirty-year relationship with Mexico because of a tragedy. Marianne’s pragmatic optimism radiates from her being as surely as her easy smile and infectious laugh brighten our casual get-togethers. It was a surprise then to see the shadow that crossed her eyes when I asked what I thought was an innocent question.
“So what brought you to Chapala?”
“My son was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1979. He died in 2007.”
The doctors said Michael was lucky to have survived the accident. Left wheelchair-bound and incapable of caring for himself, in fact often incapable of coherent thought, Michael did not agree. He attempted suicide more than once. He flew into fits of rage that ended only when Marianne flipped him from his wheelchair to the floor in desperate acts of self-protection. He ended up committed to now shuttered Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford, Illinois.
This arrangement would not last. Michael’s violent temper, brought on by his traumatic brain injury, made him ineligible for care in countless institutions. Marianne’s search for the right care for her son led to facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Michigan and Tennessee. He was ultimately rejected from all of them. Michael’s final placement in the United States came with a $13,000 a month price tag. The math wasn’t hard. At that rate, Michael’s modest settlement from his accident would be gone in less than four years.
A depression era baby who had also been stricken with polio as a child, Marianne was no stranger to adversity. Her life as a working-class, Catholic, mother of six had taught her to be resourceful, but resources were scarce and the whole situation with her son Michael seemed unfixable.
Then one day, while watching something forgettable on television, a charity ad came on showing a Mexican woman collecting cardboard from a dump. “Lupe can live on just the pennies a day she earns selling this cardboard, won’t you help?” Not unmoved by the plight of her Mexican sister, the takeaway for Marianne was that help was cheap in Mexico.
Maybe she could find affordable care for her son south of the border. She was not deterred by the fact that she had never been to Mexico and didn’t speak Spanish. There were very few Mexican residents in her small town of Belvidere, Illinois, and she didn’t know any. Marianne did, however, know Leia, the owner of the local bar, Draugh One Tavern.
“Hey Leia, do you know any Mexicans?” Marianne inquired as she sat down at the bar.
If Leia though the question odd, her face didn’t show it. “Manuel is Mexican. He works at the Chrysler Plant. Let me introduce you.” Marianne explained her predicament to Manuel who immediately agreed to connect her with his brother, Sergio, who lived in Guadalajara. Plane tickets were purchased and Marianne and her grown daughter, Julia, headed for Guadalajara to do a reconnaissance mission. They were to meet Sergio at a hotel but immediately slammed into the language barrier.
The Charros, back in the early 1990s a barely legitimate AAA baseball team, were at the hotel and one of the players noticed Marianne’s struggle to communicate. He spoke perfect English and offered to help. True to his word, he accompanied Marianne and Julia all throughout the hotel until they at last found Sergio.
“Thank you so much,” Marianne said, “What is your name?”
“Fernando Valenzuela,” he answered. The name sounded familiar, but Marianne wasn’t a huge baseball fan. Sergio suggested they drive to Chapala (“where the gringos are”) to scout for a care provider. After a somewhat terrifying drive, in which Sergio did not differentiate between sidewalks, shoulders and roadway, the trio arrived in Chapala. Beautiful, close to an international airport and much more village-like 30 years ago than it is now, Chapala seemed like the right fit for her son.
Michael’s life, and his care in Mexico did not always go as planned. Care providers, mostly expats who needed the extra income, couldn’t commit for the long term. Unscrupulous landlords would evict Michael after Marianne had upgraded their third-world rental properties to properly accommodate her son. One particularly heinous care provider transferred Michael to little more than a shack, unbeknownst to his family. Michael escaped from this untenable situation and was found pulling his wheelchair slowly forward down the side of the carretera with an awkward shuffling of his compromised legs.
An ex-pat horsewoman named Kathy offered to take over Michael’s care and the two eventually settled in a small house Marianne purchased in Ixtlahuacan. They lived there together for almost ten years surrounded by horses, dogs and kind neighbors. Michael passed away in 2007 with just under $2000 of his settlement left. Marianne donated it to Villa Infantil, a Catholic orphanage on the south shore of Lake Chapala, in Michael’s name.
Michael’s life in Mexico had ended but Marianne continues to live here every winter. Her son’s tragedy may have been the impetus to come here, but, drawn in by the good people, the fine climate and the wonderful experiences, Marianne, like many of us, has made Mexico her second home.