This holiday season, the Wyoming Public Radio news team is sharing stories about memories and traditions that stand out to them. For education reporter Tennessee Watson, Christmas is a story about the birth of a baby into tenuous and uncertain circumstances. But it’s also about how another kind of world is possible. At least that’s what she figured out one memorable Christmas, over a decade ago, in Mexico.
For Christmas, little Omar got a bright red bicycle, and his two-year-old sister Itandehui got a pink plastic tricycle; big gifts for a family that didn’t have much money. Their mom Bety Cariño -- a good friend of mine -- devoted her life to fighting for the rights of indigenous farmers in southern Mexico. That’s not a cause that brings in a big paycheck. But these two kids deserved a good Christmas after a rough year.
Knowing I love bikes, Bety asks me to teach them how to ride.
But it’s not easy terrain. This pueblo -- nestled in the mountains of a region called La Mixteca -- has no paved streets. Tiny houses dot desert hillsides, and the streets are scared by ruts from the water truck that struggles to make the climb.
Itandehui bounces down the bumpy block in front of her grandmother’s house on her own, while I run alongside Omarcito, doing my best to keep him upright.
Tuckered out, the two melt into their grandmother’s arms for a nap. And Bety and I sneak off before Christmas dinner. We climb up to highest point in town -- a small pink chapel that over looks the valleys below. Smoke from coals stoked to warm tortillas, rolls around with the smell sage lifted from sun-baked land by the cool evening air.
Bety gazes out across her beautiful homeland. A tear streams down her cheek. The corrupt politics and greed disrupting life here make this sunset bittersweet.
I’d known Bety for several years because she was building a network of small community-run radio stations. I’d periodically come visit to teach basic audio skills. Bety saw the radio stations as a way for farmers and indigenous communities to share stories of struggle and survival, and to talk about ways to resist the pull of northward migration.
The folks who had worked this land for generations could no longer compete with the price of beans and corn in a globalized marketplace. They were heading north to work in the fields of corporate agriculture -- to work on someone else’s farm. But Bety didn’t believe that the death of rural communities was inevitable.
Turns out something so simple and essential -- a desire to hold onto to one’s homeland -- can get you in a lot of trouble.
Her kids went to grandma’s house after Bety noticed an unmarked car kept following her home at night. Then someone broke into her office. Nothing was missing, but the floor was blanketed with Bety’s notes about the communities where she worked.
Then Bety got a phone call. The distorted voice of a man said: “You talk real pretty, but if you don’t shut up we’ll cut out your tongue.”
And then I got the invitation from Bety to come for Christmas. It sounded warm, but Bety’s Mexico is no Cancun. We both hoped that my presence would send a message that people were paying attention.
When Bety arrived at her mom’s house on Christmas Day with the red bike and the pink trike and me in tow, it was the first time she’d seen her kids in over a month. And she let me teach them how to ride their brand new bikes.
On New Year’s Eve with her kiddos snuggled in her arms, I ask Bety about her hopes for the future.
She tells me: “It’s hard to say exactly how we will proceed, but we are from these lands and we’ve been struggling to survive for many years. We have a long way to go and we might die trying, but our kids will keep moving forward.”
And over the next couple years, the violence in southern Mexico got worse and worse. Journalists and activists were killed and disappeared. And I watched from afar because, unlike Bety, I hadn’t fully embraced the idea of dying to speak the truth.
My ability to keep Bety in the back of my mind ended with a phone call from another friend in Mexico.
“Hey Tennessee. This is Simón. Please give me a call when you get this message. Ok. Bye.”
I called, and Simón told me Bety was traveling to a remote indigenous community -- home to one of the radio stations I’d help build. En route she was murdered. The case remains unsolved until this day.
It’s been 11 years since that Christmas with Bety, and Omarcito and Itandehui have long outgrown their bikes. And yet I still think about them.
I think about them because Christmas is about crazy notions of a world without hardship and suffering, and we’re a long way from that. We’re much closer to a world where a mom, displaced from her home, has to go in search of a manger for her newborn babe.
I hope we can all find safety and warmth this year. But I know just because it’s Christmas, that’s not guaranteed. But I find solace in Bety’s spirit. Her hope for a just and peaceful future, amidst great uncertainty, is what this time of year is all about for me.