The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
The Circle of Life
This is how God made me.
~Sergio Arturo Castro Martinez, 1941 –
“He’s a big man with a cowboy hat and vest. Be at the museo at 6 o’clock and tell him you would like to work with him,” said Nadia, the ‘maestra y la duena’ of La Casa en El Arbol language school.
It was a chilly November day in the enchanting city of San Cristóbal de Las Casas and when the “big man” opened the museo door, I entered a world that extended into the back doors of Maya descendants who continue to thrive in this part of the Americas. After brief introductions he told me to meet him at 9 a.m. the following day to work with him on a project with no end in sight.
For locals, Sergio Castro is known as “heroe de Chiapas,” often called a saint, a maverick humanitarian and a healer. Unaware of his history and reputation, I would soon experience how one individual completes the circle of life as nature intended. Physically he is not “big man” but when measured by his deeds, his stature is enormous.
By nature, Don Sergio is a humanitarian, an ethnologist, a collector of Maya costumes, textile and artifacts, museum curator and a polyglot. By academic training he is a teacher, veterinarian and an agronomist. He came to Chiapas from Chihuahua 47 years ago to fulfill his social service work in order to complete his degree in agronomy and veterinary medicine and just never left.
The Highland region of Chiapas and San Cristóbal has that pull for people. It is a colonial town in the mountains of southern Mexico settled by the Spanish almost 500 years ago. The streets are old, many cobblestone and narrow and mostly one-way. There are no obvious stop signs, there are corners that are hard to see around, numerous pot holes, people crossing the street in all directions, high curbs, people parking and blocking traffic. With all this, the traffic flows smoothly and people get to their destination. It is Zen like.
My boyfriend and I had said good-bye to our jobs, and sold our home and possessions in Washington State. We traveled by van through North American and eventually headed to Central America. Our plans were to go with the flow and happen upon places with no intent of destination. Throughout our travels we’d heard several times that San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas was magical, making it a ‘must see’ as we moved south.
After seeing much of Mexico, I was ready to do medical volunteering. As a physician assistant, I have volunteered on behalf of the under-served in the U.S. communities in which I lived. Now, I sought the opportunity to volunteer in Latin America. At 9 a.m., I met Don Sergio as instructed with no idea of where we were going, how long I’d be gone, or really what we’d be doing. With the first few patients, I quickly learned what he does: he provides wound care for those with burn and skin injuries which include mostly the indigenous and marginalized nationals, gratis.
Burns are common in el campo (the country) for several reasons: wood is used to cook, for warmth, and discarding debris. Ceramic and clay pots are used to boil food and water often break or explode spewing their contents on the closest by-stander: usually a woman or child. Other burns are caused by consumption of too much pox (the local Indian brandy), the drunkard falling into the fire and not having the coordination to get out or, by a parasite induced seizure causing one to fall into the fire. Electrocutions and gasoline accidents just as in the US can occur as well. The wounded ended up as Don Sergio’s patients as he has learned on-the-job-training to care for mild to the most severe burns with the most rudimentary supplies. Sadly, it includes aggressive dead tissue removal and sometimes amputation: all care is done without pain medication as there is none available to him.
Through the time I spent with Don Sergio, I slowly learned about his background and came to understand why he is so respected throughout Chiapas.