Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Making a Better Mexico

Mal de Pinto is a disease that leaves white splotches on dark skin.  It used to be endemic in the Mixe region of Oaxaca.  In the late 1950s the Mixes brought it under control to the point that a bounty was offered to anyone detecting a new case in the region.  The heroine behind that story is Lini de Vries, who came to make Mexico her home.

Lini was born in 1905 in New Jersey to Dutch immigrant parents. In 1935 Lini joined the Communist Party and in 1937 she volunteered to serve as a nurse in the Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.  After World War II wound down she was trailed and hounded by the FBI.  Fearing a subpoena by the House Un-American Activities Committee, she packed her duffle bags and with $100 in her pocket, her 4-year-old daughter Toby holding her hand, she boarded the midnight flight from Tijuana to Mexico City in the early hours of December 12, 1947, day of the Virgin of Guadalupe.  

She was offered a place to live in Cuernavaca by Constancia de la Mora, daughter of a prime minister to the former King of Spain. Lini covered her expenses by teaching English.  Her passion was nursing and public health.  She taught English for five pesos an hour and taught nursing for free.  

She moved to Oaxaca in 1952, taught English and nursing and soon was working for the Papaloapan River Commission, a federal government development program patterned on the Tennessee Valley Authority in the U.S. The plan was to build roads, bridges, schools, clinics, powerplants and flood-control dams. 

Three diseases threatened to bring the project to a standstill.  Malaria was prevalent in the lower regions, Mal de Pinto in the area around the largest dam, and onchoserciasis caused by the bite of a black fly in the mountains. Engineers and even public health workers were leery of entering the region for fear of contracting river blindness or the disfiguring blotches on their skin.

It was Lini's idea to train the rural school teachers -- federal employees with a good rapport with the communities -- to provide the necessary treatment for each one of the diseases.  Mal de Pinto required three vaccinations.  After the first, the symptoms disappeared and the patient felt cured.  However the disease progressed without the other two follow-up vaccinations. Teachers kept track of the dates for the second and third vaccinations and went out in search of the patients if they didn't come in for them.  

As the Papaloapan project reached completion, Lini accepted a position at the University of Veracruz in Jalapa where she taught anthropology and public health and set up a program for foreign students.  

It was in Jalapa that the FBI caught up with Lini.  Her friends and colleagues knew her fear and soon President Adolfo López Mateos learned of it too.  He reportedly told his Secretary of Foreign Relations that he would deal with the extradition request himself. As I recall the story, the president drew two parallel lines diagonally across the request and wrote between them "Lini de Vries is a Mexican citizen and cannot be extradited for political reasons."  On May 10, 1962, Lini received a telegram from the president requesting she report to his office to receive her citizenship papers from him personally.  Lini's autobiography ends with "all fears of the FBI seemed to lift off my shoulders.  Suddenly I felt free.  I was home."

I met Lini seven years after that.  Her Cuernavaca home was a bed and breakfast. She sold Oaxacan arts and crafts in a shop in her garden.  She hosted events in her living room.

Lini told of hiring a man to paint her living room walls.   She returned from shopping that morning to find a red splotch on her wall.  Raising her voice she said "I wanted it white, not red!"  "Don't worry Señora, it is just the rear end of a horse.”  Lini had the whole wall scraped revealing a mural underneath. Turns out that Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo lived in that house at the corner of Motolinia and Humbolt streets while Rivera painted the mural in the Cortez Palace. Lini suspected that her mural was an experiment with technique by Rivera and a Russian friend.

It was around the dining room table in Lini's home that my Spanish language school, the Cemanahuac Educational Community, was planned and took shape.  Lini insisted "You can't teach the language in a cultural vacuum.  You must also teach about the people who speak the language."  She helped us do that. As dean of students Lini contributed with her intelligence and wit and taught classes in public health and anthropology.  

The Days of the Dead make me think of Lini and the book frequently called the Book of the Dead -- the phone book.  Lini worked her way through nursing school as a telephone operator and had a keen ability to remember phone numbers.  When I couldn't find a number I knew I could call Lini and she would know it by heart. 

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