Don José is one hundred years old, or thereabouts. Nobody knows; not even Don José. His birth certificate, along with countless other documents, was destroyed by fire during the Cristero War in 1920s Mexico.
All of his adult life he’s lived in the small town of Tolimán, in the state of Querétaro. It used to be so green here that every year they held a festival to celebrate the advocado. This has since been re-named the “semi-desert festival” as the land has become arid and the top-soil has turned to dust the colour of ochre. On a small plot of land half way up the hill they call “Calvary”, Don José built a tiny house of adobe and surrounded it with a prickly-pear cacti fence.
From that spot Don José has seen it all. Like the day the first motor car pulled into town causing one poor old soul to drop dead with the shock of it all. He is fond of telling how around the time of the Mexican Revolution (which cost a million lives) people used to hack the silver coins clean in half for want of small change.
When he was a young man he built spectacular castillos – firework-towers. He lost half of one of the fingers on his left hand, a hazard of the job if you were a cohetero. He then worked for my wife’s grandfather, and long afterwards continued to look after the house, tend the garden, and harvest the nuts when my in-laws were away for long periods.
Don José is honest to the bone and fiercely loyal. He has very few material possessions, but is hugely generous of spirit. In his own words he is a “a good servant”.
He attributes his longevity to the occasional sip of rough tequila and a smoke – one cigarette in the morning; another just before bed para el alma – “for the soul”.
During a call ‘home’ over the weekend, my wife learned that Don José had passed away on Wednesday. According to tradition, he was buried the following day. So we lit a candle for him, and remembered.
I hope this doesn’t sound trite or patronising. I wanted to write something about him, so you can understand why I feel so lucky to have known Don José.
Que en paz descanse, Don Josécito.