Francisco met us at the gate that night, as if he had been waiting all day for the sound of our tires up the dirt road. His face lit up like it was Christmas, fist-bumping our guide Edgardo to welcome him home— to this ranch on the side of the San Dionisio canyon. He was tentative with us at first, waiting for an invitation from us to interact. His smile emerged immediately has I tried my Spanish on him with a simple introduction. I share a name with his mother, it turns out. Wherever she was at 6 o’clock on a Sunday night was not here, and I was grateful to have a 10 year old to keep me company as I missed my own.
I was into a friendship before I knew it had started. As I squeezed the grapefruit for our margaritas, he quizzed me about life in America. Is everyone’s skin so white? He asked, a reflection of my winter tone. Do they understand Spanish? I’ve let much of my Spanish go on a daily basis, and it takes me quite a bit of time to regain any traction with it. I thought I had misunderstood him when he told me he had moved here from Veracruz, more than 3000 miles away by car. His dad is not here, he told me. I had heard that before, but his explanation, I assumed was another misunderstanding— I assumed he would tell me he had gone to the states, but he said he really didn’t know where his dad had gone. The weight of that settled into my heart.
There were Francisco’s sparkly eyes, yearning for connection. Glancing at my triathlon shirt with a bike logo on it, he asked me if I liked to ride. Of course, I told him. Once I rode all the way across the United States. Francisco just HAPPENED to have 2 bikes there. The bright yellow shiny one he won in a regional dance contest. Before we rode, I told him, I wanted to see his dance moves— it was more an effort to steal 5 more minutes in a chair after a long day on the trail than one to have him prove anything at all to me. As I selected the most popular dance tune from the states I was aware of on my phone (thanks Sam!), it turned out there was more than one common language between us. Hip hop transcends so many boundaries, doesn’t it? I encourage you to put a few tunes on your phone if you are traveling internationally, it gives you immediate cache with the local under-15 crowd. We passed the evening racing bikes around the ranch (I lost EVERY time), telling stories around the fire, and teaching him to the joys of sucking on fresh grapefruit adorned with rock salt.
Francisco slept outside that night, as he does every night. He walked the trail to his bathroom, and woke at 4 am to shower before a pickup truck filled with other school children pulled up to the gate at 5 to carry Francisco and his sisters off to school for the week. The week. He travels these rutted dirt roads so far to get to his school, that they just keep him the week, returning home on Friday evening to reconnect with his loved ones.
I find myself wondering once again, how did my children get so lucky? To be born on the right side of a seemingly arbitrary border to a family with the means and connections to ensure that no matter their challenges in life, they would not be hunger nor lack of housing.
I am grateful for the chance to continue to meet my teachers in 10 year olds like Francisco the world over— who are joyful for the life they have— riding bikes and playing with goats, and pigs, and dogs in the evenings. Roaming free in the canyons and swimming in the creeks. When I have been able to introduce my own children to people like Francisco they get it immediately: there are many ways of being rich in this world. Francisco can teach us a way we might have forgotten in our land of iPads and abundance.
These experiences have been game changers for my family— allowing me in a single word to remind my children there is a good reason we reuse our binders from last year every back to school season, and save our money for college and charity rather than consumption.
In the coming year, I will be leading a trip for families who want to experience these lessons with their children. If you would like to be included in this tour, just drop me a line, I’ll keep you in the know. If you need a guide to help you find your way back to the center of family life, or just back to your own center, children like Francisco can be very helpful, and I would be delighted to help you get there.