A Test of Faith
Narrative by Karen Dávila
Erasmo Aguilar used to work in the building on the steps on the way to the great statue of Cristo Rey which overlooks the town of Tenancingo, Mexico. He had been a construction worker for many years. He liked his job.
One evening, while working, the gunpowder he used for breaking rocks suddenly blew up. Then he saw Jesus Christ. He was immediately taken to the hospital. His ring and little finger were ripped apart from the rest. Little fragmented stones got stuck in his chest and eyes. He would pray and ask Christ to heal his wounds everyday. In the end, it was not necessary to amputate his hand, and he still had his sight. Erasmo was damaged, but he was born again.
And then at a moment when things were already bad for Erasmo, they got worse. His family lost their home in a fire. “Everything burned,” he says. “We had no clothes, no furniture, no house left.” In desperation Erasmo asked the security guard for permission to move his family into the ramshackle structure at the foot of the great statue of Cristo Rey. They’ve now lived there for eight years.
Erasmo sells soda, water and candies at the foot of Cristo Rey. He is 55, with wrinkles on his face, gray hair and a beard that makes him look older. He wears a hat that blocks his sight, worn out pants and a sweaty shirt, proof that he’s been working under the sun. His sandals expose his overgrown, muddy toenails.
“Good morning! Do you have some water bottles?”
“Yes, ma’am. Which do you want? This?”
“A bottle please.”
“It’s twelve pesos.”
Erasmo says he’s changed concrete for a broom. “I’m not as strong as I used to be.” He’s now in charge of keeping the Cristo Rey monument clean. The monument is beginning to show some age. Construction began in the early 1980s and finished in 1992.
People who visit Cristo Rey (which means Christ the King in Spanish) have to climb up more than a thousand steps to get there. Some of them run all the way up, some others can barely move their legs. The goal is to get to the top, where they do exercise routines and bow and cross themselves in front of Cristo Rey. Some students wear distinctive checked uniforms. Some couples kiss and peek over the handrail. You can see all of Tenancingo from here.
Erasmo earns 1500 pesos ($125) a month for keeping the monument and surroundings clean. Although he hasn’t been paid for the last two months of 2012, he still does his job. “I like what I do, but not the pay,” says Erasmo as he tips his hat to cover his eyes from sunlight.
“People don’t respect this place anymore. The ones who come here do not behave appropriately,” Erasmo says. “This place is not safe. There’s a guard house, but the police officer is hardly ever in there, or they don’t even show up at all.” Thieves break car windows and steal visitors’ valuables. ”Sometimes couples climb up, even drunkards.”
“Cristo Rey has lost its touristy vibe,” Erasmo laments. Feces and people’s underwear, probably from the couples that climb to the top, can be found in alongside the drunkards.
“I was sweeping one day when I saw some drunk people. I asked them kindly to leave the place, but they refused. One of them started yelling and cursing, but I ignored him. I just walked away, and then I saw a shadow. I was beaten and knocked unconscious.”
Erasmo was taken to the hospital by his wife, Humberta. The doctor said his nose and nasal bridge were broken and healing would be slow due to his diabetes. He once again prayed to Cristo Rey to recover from his injuries.
Erasmo and his wife then went to the town hall in Tenancingo and asked that Erasmo be paid his missing two months salary, along with a compensation for the attack he had suffered. They were given no answer.
Behind the Cristo Rey monument lies a brick house topped with asbestos roofing sheets. Inside, flies swarm dirty dishes on a table that separates the main entrance from a bedroom. Outside, Erasmo’s stare drifts when looking at his six dogs all desperately scratching, and eight chickens looking for something to eat. He doesn’t seem to notice the animals are all around him. It is as if they weren’t. He just stares and keeps silent.
Erasmo complains about the symptoms caused by diabetes. “Whenever I walk, I hear the crack of bones. My skin burns sometimes, and when I wake up I feel like doing nothing, but I know that I have to work. I don’t tell my wife anything so she doesn’t get worried, but she can tell how I feel.”
Erasmo and his wife have never lost faith, in spite of so many calamities. Humberta has been Erasmo’s rock though all adversities. She’s the one who sweeps when the pain in his legs, caused by his diabetic condition, makes it difficult to complete this simple task. “We know Christ will not leave us alone,” she says.
At the start of the every day, Erasmo and his wife thank God for being alive. They believe that living next to Cristo Rey means being protected by him, though he doesn’t always protect them as they wish he could.
“We sometimes wake up and start the day, but we don’t have anything to eat,” Erasmo says. “We just have a meal or two when possible. Once we had nothing to eat at all, so we prayed to Cristo Rey, and then we had a good sale that day. We had something to eat that very day.”
Having his own house and a piece of land has been Erasmo’s dream for years. Until now they have always bartered for their housing. “We’ve gotten used to the idea that we can be kicked out from anywhere in any moment,” he says. “In life nothing’s for sure, so we must face reality no matter how tough this is.”
Every once in a while Erasmo is overcome with depression. He even cries, says his son, Gerardo. He suffers at the recognition that his family won’t inherit anything from him. He doesn’t have anything to offer his children and grandchildren. Erasmo feels he’s failed. “When I die, I would like to have already paid for the coffin I’ll be buried in, so my family won’t have to spend any money. You never know when will this day will come, but I think it would be unfair for them to have to pay.
Two weeks ago, he and his family asked Banco Azteca, an institution that grants people credit for paying debts, for a loan. With the money they loaned him, his family bought water, soda and candy to sell at Cristo Rey. Last week, they successfully fulfilled the first payment. “Thank God we could gather the money for the first payment. Now we hope we get enough for the rest,” says Humberta with a smile.
Erasmo looks worried. He barely smiles, not even a grin, when he sees his grandchildren. The kids walk towards their grandfather, talk to him and sit on his lap. He stares at them deeply. “My children will provide them with a future. With this wage I can barely do so. I can’t give a future to anyone.”
June 20. It’s 9:40 a.m. and Erasmo starts sweeping the Cristo Rey platform. It looks like an easy job, but it takes him two hours to finish. It’s almost midday and at the back gate there’s a taxi speeding to reach the top of the hill. Humberta and the youngest granddaughter hurry to the gate. The taxi driver is in a hurry too. Humberta leans into the passenger window. Erasmo’s face suddenly changes when he sees tears stream down her face.
The passenger, a city employee, has told Humberta they won’t be paid the two months wages they are owed and they will probably get kicked out of the house.
Erasmo purses his lips and holds back tears, then turns and tells his wife not to cry, not to get sad, to be strong or otherwise she’ll get ill.
Twilight has fallen. Erasmo Aguilar looks at Cristo Rey with steady eyes. He’s sitting on a broken wooden chair. There’s some norteño music playing, and a nearby rooster crows. Erasmo’s dogs bark while he thinks about his life, both the good and the bad. He does not blame God for his misfortunes, he’s still got faith. He believes Cristo Rey won’t leave him alone.