(A Separate Reality)
April 2, 1968
Don Juan looked at me for a moment and did not seem at all surprised to see me, even though it had been more than two years since I last visited him. He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled gently and said that I looked different, that I was getting fat and soft.
I had brought him a copy of my book. Without any preliminaries I took it out of my brief case and handed it to him.
“It’s a book about you, don Juan,” I said.
He took it and flipped through the pages as if they were a deck of cards. He liked the green color on the dust jacket and the height of the book. He felt the cover with his palms, turned it around a couple of times, and then handed it back to me. I felt a great surge of pride.
“I want you to keep it,” I said.
He shook his head with a silent laugh.
“I better not,” he said, and then added with a broad smile “You know what we do with paper in Mexico.”
I laughed. I thought his touch of irony was beautiful.
We were sitting on a bench in the park of a small town in the mountainous area of central Mexico. I had absolutely no way of letting him know about my intention of paying him a visit, but I was certain I was going to find him, and I did. I waited only a short while in that town before don Juan came down from the mountains and I found him at the market, at the stand of one of his friends.
Don Juan told me, matter-of-factly, that I was there just in time to take him back to Sonora, and we sat in the park to wait for a friend of his, a Mazatec Indian with whom he lived.
We waited about three hours. We talked about different unimportant things, and toward the end of the day, right before his friend came, I related to him some events I had witnessed a few days before.
During my trip to see him my car broke down in the outskirts of a city and I had to stay in town for three days while it was being repaired. There was a motel across the street from the auto shop, but the outskirts of towns are always depressing for me, so I took lodgings in a modern eight-story hotel in the center of town.
The bellboy told me that the hotel had a restaurant, and when I came down to eat I found that there were tables out on the sidewalk. It was a rather handsome arrangement set on the street corner under some low brick arches of modern lines. It was cool outside and there were empty tables, yet I preferred to sit in the stuffy indoors. I had noticed upon entering that a group of shoeshine boys were sitting on the curb in front of the restaurant, and I was certain they would have hounded me had I taken one of the outside tables.
From where I was seated I could see the group of boys through the glass window. A couple of young men took a table and the boys flocked around them, asking to shine their shoes. The young men refused and I was amazed to see that the boys did not insist and went back to sit on the curb. After a while three men in business suits got up and left and the boys ran to their table and began eating the leftovers; in a matter of seconds the plates were clean. The same thing happened with leftovers on all the other tables.
I noticed that the children were quite orderly; if they spilled water they sponged it up with their own shoeshine cloths. I also noticed the thoroughness of their scavenging procedures. They even ate the ice cubes left in the glasses of water and the lemon slices from the tea, peel and all. There was absolutely nothing that they wasted.
In the course of the time I stayed in the hotel I found out that there was an agreement between the children and the manager of the restaurant; the boys were allowed to hang around the premises to make some money from the customers and were also allowed to eat the leftovers, provided that they did not harass anybody and did not break anything. There were eleven in all, ranging in age from five to twelve; the oldest, however, was kept a distance from the rest of the group. They deliberately ostracized him, taunting him with a singsong that he already had pubic hair and was too old to be among them.
After three days of watching them go like vultures after the most meager of leftovers I became despondent, and I left that city feeling that there was no hope for those children whose world was already molded by their day-after-day struggle for crumbs.
“Do you feel sorry for them?” don Juan exclaimed in a questioning tone.
“I certainly do,” I said.
“Because I’m concerned with the well-being of my fellow men. Those are children and their world is ugly and cheap.”
“Wait! Wait! How can you say that their world is ugly and cheap?” don Juan said, mocking my statement.
“You think that you’re better off, don’t you?”
I said I did; and he asked me why; and I told him that in comparison to those children’s world mine was infinitely more varied and rich in experiences and in opportunities for personal satisfaction and development.
Don Juan’s laughter was friendly and genuine. He said that I was not careful with what I was saying, that I had no way of knowing about the richness and the opportunities in the world of those children.
I thought don Juan was being stubborn. I really thought he was taking the opposite view just to annoy me. I sincerely believed that those children did not have the slightest chance for any intellectual growth.
I argued my point for a while longer and then don Juan asked me bluntly, “Didn’t you once tell me that in your opinion man’s greatest accomplishment was to become a man of knowledge?”
I had said that, and I repeated again that in my opinion to become a man of knowledge was one of the greatest intellectual accomplishments.
“Do you think that your very rich world would ever help you to become a man of knowledge?” don Juan asked with slight sarcasm.
I did not answer and he then worded the same question in a different manner, a thing I always do to him when I think he does not understand.
“In other words,” he said, smiling broadly, obviously aware that I was cognizant of his ploy, “can your freedom and opportunities help you to become a man of knowledge?”
“No!” I said emphatically.
“Then how could you feel sorry for those children?” he said seriously. “Any of them could become a man of knowledge. All the men of knowledge I know were kids like those you saw eating leftovers and licking the tables.”
Don Juan’s argument gave me an uncomfortable sensation. I had not felt sorry for those underprivileged children because they did not have enough to eat, but because in my terms their world had already condemned them to be intellectually inadequate. And yet in don Juan’s terms any of them could achieve what I believed to be the epitome of man’s intellectual accomplishment, the goal of becoming a man of knowledge. My reason for pitying them was incongruous. Don Juan had nailed me neatly.
“Perhaps you’re right,” I said. “But how can one avoid the desire, the genuine desire, to help our fellow men?”
“How do you think one can help them?”
“By alleviating their burden. The least one can do for our fellow men is to try to change them. You yourself are involved in doing that. Aren’t you?”
“No. I’m not. I don’t know what to change or why to change anything in my fellow men.”
“What about me, don Juan? Weren’t you teaching me so I could change?”
“No. I’m not trying to change you. It may happen that one day you may become a man of knowledge—there’s no way to know that—but that will not change you. Some day perhaps you’ll be able to see men in another mode and then you’ll realize that there’s no way to change anything about them.”
“What’s this other mode of seeing men, don Juan?”
“Men look different when you see. The little smoke will help you to see men as fibers of light”.
“Fibers of light?”
“Yes. Fibers, like white cobwebs. Very fine threads that circulate from the head to the navel. Thus a man looks like an egg of circulating fibers. And his arms and legs are like luminous bristles, bursting out in all directions.”
“Is that the way everyone looks?”
“Everyone. Besides, every man is in touch with everything else, not through his hands, though, but through a bunch of long fibers that shoot out from the center of his abdomen. Those fibers join a man to his surroundings; they keep his balance; they give him stability. So, as you may see some day, a man is a luminous egg whether he’s a beggar or a king and there’s no way to change anything; or rather, what could be changed in that luminous egg? What?”