The Elderly of Tonala

The Santo Domingo Tonala project deals with elderly living in extreme poverty, whose families are either dead or have left Mexico and are unable or unwilling to return or help in any way. These people have worked all their lives in the fields or at farms, have raised children and have done odd jobs but have never received any sort of official “salary” and thus are not included in the social security system. They receive the equivalent of 50$/month if they manage to get to the post office and take it (sometimes the money has mysteriously disappeared). To put things into perspective: the only drinking water available comes in big jugs that cost empty 3.6$ and then 1.5$ each time you fill them.  Most live in cement “cubes” with a door only; the lucky ones have windows and a few belongings. Kitchens are outside, bathrooms are usually nonexistent. To cook with gas one needs to invest 60$ in a tank and have it filled with propane for 29$ every 2 months or so.

Wood burning stove, indoors
Wood burning stove, indoors

Otherwise one has to collect wood and carry it home from the hills or pay 10$ for a stack (2 months’ worth) Electricity is a luxury and having a source of water nearby is everyone’s dream. Abrazos has supported a monthly food package for the poorest members of the community and thanks to the additional efforts of our agent in Oaxaca (Karen) and her friends, occasional small sums of money arrive and help improve the quality of a few lives. During this visit, we have reconnected with a few of the elderly; most are battling severe arthritis, high blood pressure and diabetes. Tremendous efforts on Karen’s part resulted in money, permit for the work, and a team of workers able to connect a house to the municipal water supply (running water for several hours during 2-3 days/week).

To be climbed several times per day with a pail of water at the age of 83.
To be climbed several times per day with a pail of water at the age of 83.
Our happy recipient at the top of her horrible stairs and the team of workers connecting her to the water supply
Our happy recipient at the top of her horrible stairs and the team of workers connecting her to the water supply

Before, this woman would normally walk a fair distance to a village supply, fetch some water in a pail and bring it up the stairs, inside.

Now she is able to actually turn a tap inside the house on, collect water for cooking (drinking water still needs to be bought) and – her biggest dream: wash herself in a small tub!

water, finally!
water, finally!
Small mattress in a dark and damp space

Additionally, she received a small mattress, so that she won’t be sleeping on the cement floor anymore, particularly during the rainy season when the moisture and cold seep through the cement and turn the house into a damp cavern.

Karen managed to secure a small house where 3 times per week, those who can walk (through dusty, up and downhill streets in extreme heat) get together for socializing and a few activities

All smiles and a big heart!
All smiles and a big heart!

(storytelling, exercises, drawing) that are the highlight of the week  in a very isolated life. Sometimes there are enough funds to pay for transportation for those who would otherwise never have the opportunity to leave their homes.

Coloring - no small feat for people who never held a pencil in their hand!
Coloring – no small feat for people who never held a pencil in their hand!

The change is incredible: people who have been marginalized and completely ignored by the local authorities as well as their neighbours and families, are happier, healthier and are reconnecting with humanity and the beautiful parts of life.

No money for bulbs?…actually one can’t afford electricity anyway!

The project is struggling for funds, the living conditions for many are still incredibly insalubrious and dangerous (from collapsing ceilings to mildewy walls, scorpions and cockroaches, lack of light and water, no stimulation, no assistance during illness, no means of transportation to a market or a doctor).

look at the wall behind us - the moisture damage, still present after months of drought and heat.
look at the wall behind us – the moisture damage, still present after months of drought and heat.

There is no public transportation in Tonala or in the areas nearby. Taxis are 3-4$ one way if one goes to the neighbouring village so most elders walk if they can, or end up isolated. If they need a doctor in one of the nearby towns it is another 4-8$ to get there and usually they need somebody to accompany them. Specialized medical services and tests are to be found in the city of Oaxaca, 4 hours away. Numerous problems appear just because the difficulties of transportation. Don Jose loves playing accordion despite his blindness and Karen was able to obtain an instrument for him.

Don Jose playing for us!
Don Jose playing for us!

Unfortunately it breaks down and needs replacing, which requires a trip to Oaxaca (4 hours and 12$ one way). Karen’s tremendous patience and persistence resulted in 4 trips so far – this time, we asked Don Jose to play for us, only to find out that one of the keys is faulty…and so the accordion went on its fifth trip to town!

The accursed accordion on its trip to town!
The accursed accordion on its trip to town!

On our last day we had the pleasure of being invited by one of the elders to her place – a new room just for her! After living for years in a space shared with 4-5 other people, she was able (through donations and help from her family) to move into a space where she has privacy and quiet. It is impossible to describe her joy at having us there, the pride with which a package of cookies, a small bottle of coke and 2 slices of pizza (all bought from her savings) were displayed!

A feast of cookies!!
A feast of cookies!!

We all shared (with 3 grandchildren and 1 daughter in law) and chatted and made plans…like any group of women visiting anywhere in the world. Such small joys and yet so impossible to reach for so many!   A small amount of help makes a huge difference in the lives of many and today it was not money or objects that brought us all happiness – we shared feelings and memories, we brought back a drop of humanity in an otherwise hopeless and stressful life so it did not matter how tired we were! We just sat together, laughing and talking, enjoying the present moment and life at its best!

Karen and myself, tired and happy...and eating cookies  forever!
Karen and myself, tired and happy…and eating cookies forever!

4 thoughts on “The Elderly of Tonala”

  1. I only wish that I could help in some meaningful way — although I am on disability the money goes so quickly and before the end of the month. And I can’t just get down there to help. Reading your posts are the only way I can help. My prayers are with all of you. Keep up the good work because it is needed and you are thanked every day of your life.

  2. It really breaks my heart reading about these poor people and see the horrible situation in which they live. It’s a tragedy that many in the more affluent parts of North America either ignore or choose to ignore. You are doing a tremendous work of outreach and awareness rising. Thank you.

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