In the years before I turned ten, Mexico was an important part of my backdrop growing up. My mother spent her childhood and most of her teenage years living in Mexico. In fact, when I was born she had only been in Canada for 7 years. She was in many ways a recent immigrant to Canada, culturally more Mexican than Canadian.
Both my parents shared stories of their family life growing up, as parents do, but mum’s stories were exotic and fascinating. She lived in a small Mixtec Indian village in the southern state of Oaxaca; their house was white-washed mud and brick. Her family built the house with help from neighbours. She had many stories of growing up in the village, but what I remembered best were her tales of eating iguanas and roasting flying ants. Other, more meaningful details of life in an Indian village were totally lost on an eight year-old brain. But Lizards and ants? For dinner!? That makes for memories that are indelible.
Some of my earliest snippets of childhood memory are actually from visits to Mexico in the 1970s: Holding my grandfather Howard’s hand as he took me through the neighbourhood streets of Tlalpan in Mexico City early in the morning to buy fresh tortillas; drinking hot cinnamon choclate, or chewing on fresh sugar cane in a street market; the smell of a tropical city and the angle of the sun – so different from our home in Ottawa. I remember being proud of my mother’s perfect Spanish fluency. The people we’d meet always assumed she was Mexican. I remember feeling safe and confident in her presence in Mexico. She was good at negotiating and had her opponents at a disadvantage when they didn’t know what to make of her. Was she a local or a tourist? My father, me, and my sister would be standing behind her, the three of us obviously not from Mexico and wearing the blank stares of people who can hear but not follow the conversation. She seemed more at home there than in Canada. To this day, she will correct my pronunciation of Spanish names. Mexico is baked into her, hard-coded in the way that only happens in childhood.
I’ve loved many places on earth, countries where I readily felt at home or a special kinship or had frequent experiences of déjà vu – places like Burma, Palestine, or England. But I think you experience a country differently when you know you have family roots. I’ve been to Mexico four times and this is the first time I haven’t had family living here. It’s been 27 years since I last visited Mexico. I had forgotten too much about what makes it such a wonderful country.
Karen and I were staying at Mexico’s Vipassana Meditation Centre – Dhamma Makaranda – when I started writing this. We had come here to conduct a couple of meditation retreats. We were just two days away from the end of the ten-day course and would soon return to Canada before heading to the Philippines. We had been in Mexico for five weeks. I was thinking about my grandparents Howard and Bea and the fascinating life they lived. I did not know them well, having only met them a few times because they lived very far away. But as I sat there looking out across the forested mountains around Amanalco de Becerro, I could see in my grandparents’ choice to live a life of service a reflection of my own life choices. Some things must really be in the blood.
Howard Klassen and Beatrice Gardiner were both born in small towns in Manitoba. Each was raised in a Mennonite family, Howard in Steinbach, Bea in Portage-la-Prairie. They met during the Second World War while stationed at an air force base in Toronto. Howard was an airplane mechanic. Bea was a radio operator. They married while still in uniform and returned to Manitoba right after the war. They had their first child, my mother Fern, in early 1946. Howard and Bea were both devout Christians and decided to create a life lived in service to their faith. Bea travelled to America to train as a linguist with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. She was followed by Howard and in 1949 they moved to Mexico with my mother and her younger brother Don. They had one more child, a daughter named Beverly, born in Mexico City.
The Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) was founded in 1934 by an American missionary, William Cameron Townsend. He had founded the organization and established an institute in Mexico at the invitation of the Mexican Ministry of Education to provide literacy education among Mexico’s indigenous communities. SIL was developing expertise in the study of world languages and creating alphabets and written forms of those languages. The ultimate goal was to translate the Bible into the world’s various languages. But the work was based in a scientific and academic context. Some Christian groups viewed the work with suspicion due to Townsend’s willing collaboration with secular institutions like universities and governments, and an emphasis on academic rigour. For many Christians, entanglement with the secular world compromised the purer spiritual project of preaching and conversion.
SIL has a controversial history due to the work of some of the people involved in the organization. Some were primarily Christian missionaries working to convert people. Among the many such missionaries were a couple based at the Institute’s Mexico City headquarters. They were sent to establish contact with an isolated indigenous community in a remote mountain area of Equador. The mission ended badly when they were killed upon making contact. The people there were unimpressed with the Christian message and they were viewed as a cultural, if not a biological threat. I can’t say I blame them.
Thankfully, my grandparents were focused less on the work of religious conversion and more on the academic enterprise of linguistic study and preservation. At least that’s what I know about their work. Though they both viewed their life and work through an evangelical lens, it was less culturally invasive than it otherwise might have been. As far as I know, they were not ‘converting’ people. They were engaged in literacy work in indigenous languages. Even if by modern standards, such work was culturally tone-deaf, in the context of the mid-twentieth century, it would have been considered progressive.
Howard and Bea worked among people who were already Catholic Christians, the Spanish having done the work of cultural assimilation and destruction centuries before. They were sent to a small Mixtec village in southern Mexico’s state of Oaxaca. Their job was to teach people literacy skills, not in Spanish but in Mixtec. The village might be present-day Santiago Jamiltepec. Howard and Bea each published linguistic studies in Western Mixtec based in Jicaltepec and Jamiltepec.
The Mixtecos of southern Oaxaca were among the major civilizations of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica. They were recognized as among the most skilled artisans working in gold and metal alloys.
Howard and Bea were not paid a salary for the work they did. They were Christian volunteers supported by donors from the U.S. and Canada. Grandpa Howard also taught linguistics in America and Germany, so he often travelled.
To reach their home in the village, my mother remembers the family had to fly from Mexico City aboard a cargo plane to an airstrip near the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. She remembers the name of the place as Pinotepa Nacional. From there they would walk about seven hours. My grandmother was stricken early on with a debilitating illness that rendered her very weak. She would ride a mule with one of the children on her lap. My grandfather and the other kids would walk alongside.
In the village, my mother’s family lived exactly as others in the village did. They built a small mud brick house, dug a well in the front yard, raised chickens and grew banana and papaya trees. Their work there included learning to speak the Mixtec language, an endeavour that involved intensive immersion and study for many years. Then they would create a written form of the language and teach others to read and write in Mixtec. They lived in the village for seven or eight years before relocating to Mexico City. There my grandfather published a book and a Mixtec translation of the Bible. My mother and her siblings were enrolled in a local Mexican school.
In 1962, the family moved to Canada, settling in Calgary. Grandpa Howard became executive director of Wycliff Canada and founded the headquarters in his basement. Wycliff was a bible translation offshoot of SIL focused on evangelical work. He worked for Wycliff in Canada until he and Bea returned to Mexico in 1970. Grandpa Howard took up the role of assistant director of the Institute in Tlalpan, Mexico City where they lived until 1979.
From my earliest memories, I remember my grandmother being very aged and quite weak though we never knew exactly what it was she suffered from. It was obviously a vexing and painful condition. By the time of our second visit to Mexico in 1977, grandma Bea was mostly bedridden. I don’t ever remember her displaying the discomfort she must have felt from the pain she was in. All of my memories of grandma Bea are of quiet kindness. I remember her smiling a lot. Grandpa Howard was funny in the way that appeals especially to children. On one particularly hot day, I remember him telling my sister and I that dogs sweat through their pants.
“Grandpa! That’s silly! Dogs don’t wear pants!”
He just laughed and skillfully moved us along until we understood the corny double-entendre he had meant. Linguist humour. All of his jokes were like that. And we loved it.
I came across a biography of the life of a missionary in Mexico. She had come to Mexico from Scotland in the early ‘70s to work as a translator and then in a Christian parish. She never worked for SIL, but she recounts meeting my grandparents, and describes my grandfather as the “campus director” at the Wycliff Institute in Mexico City. She describes Howard and Bea exactly as I remember them. Very soft and kind and always ready to help anyone who needed it.
In 1979, SIL was asked to leave Mexico and other Latin American countries. So my grandparents moved to Santa Ana, California. Grandma Bea was very sick by then and permanently bedridden. My mother, sister and I visited them there and it was the last time I saw her. She died in 1980 after my family had moved to Vancouver. A few years later, Grandpa Howard re-married a wonderful American woman named Linda. At the age of 65, Howard attended Pepperdine University and obtained a Master’s Degree in psychology. He then worked as a counselor for a local parish in suburban Los Angeles. Though it was a new career for him, he continued to serve community in a mostly volunteer capacity. He was given a small stipend for his counselling role, but was not salaried employee. The stipend was provided through donations.
I saw my grandfather a few more times over the remaining years of his life, and was able to meet Linda and her own daughters. But after he left Mexico and I got older, we would never really form much of a relationship. Oddly, this has never bothered me. I have always understood the life he and Grandma Bea lived. And I never felt deprived of attention. I was fortunate to live in a wealthy country, well cared for by loving parents. In a world that prizes self-seeking and sensual, material gratification, organizing your life around ethical principles and the needs of others is incredibly difficult to do.
Of course, looking at old photos of mum’s life in Mexico and the work her parents did conjures up some uncomfortable feelings. The idea of white people from Canada moving to a Mexican indigenous community to help them learn to read and write their own language feels very, very wrong. But it’s easy to judge the actions of people from half a century in the future. It takes a great deal of courage to go against the grain of what is considered socially normal. Especially when that means working for free to help other people.
I came across a recollection of a woman in Alberta who knew my grandfather. She described his advice to her about working with indigenous people. He warned her not to believe that your own culture is superior in any way to cultures that are different. He told her that in his experience, having lived for decades among other cultures, there was more for us to learn from them than they could learn from us. I was relieved to read that. It meant my grandparents were in part sensitive to the danger of cultural arrogance. Both of them were motivated by a desire to do good for others. In many ways their lives exposed me to the possibilities that are open when one considers what to do in life. And I believe that is the best gift my grandparents could have given me.
Karen and I are heading to the Philippines in a few days. There we will conduct a 10-day retreat at a small Vipassana centre on a former fruit plantation a few hours away from Manila.