In the late 1920s, Doña Bacila Tzek Uc was born in Dzam, Yucatán in a hammock underneath a thatch roof. When she was eight, a locust plague devastated the Puuc region, eating everything along the way. The destruction of crops forced the family out of their home and into a life of constant search in the “monte.” Her family eventually adapted to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and lived for more than a decade as nomads. Bacila witnessed the arbitrary rhythm of death, losing three of her siblings in a month, when she was still a child.
Bacila regrets that she did not learn to read, write, or speak Spanish. “There are no schools in the monte,” she says. Instead, nature was her teacher. She lists Maya names of trees that served as shoes; and natural fibers and fruits which she repurposed as everything from medicine to jewelry.
By the time she was a young adult, her family had settled in the last pueblo on a one-lane road from Oxkutzcab called Yaxhachen, where she still lives today. Bacila serves as the community’s midwife. She lives in a one room concrete house, recently re-painted Mexican pink and turquoise. She rolls a thick gymnastics mat out onto the floor, where her patient lies on her back and Bacila performs magic with her hands. She methodically pulls and pushes on the mother’s belly, examining and situating the baby throughout every phase of pregnancy. “My patients trust me—and only me—with the future of their families.” A strong sense of humble confidence infuses her words.
Her long, soft graying hair rests in a low, loose bun, and a traditional white dress (huipil) drapes over her miniature frame. Her hands batter in natural labors. She weaves hats out of guano leaves in the late hours of moonlight, when the fresh air limbers the fibers. Each morning she ducks underneath the arm of her baby blue hammock to reach her birdcage. She maneuvers the wire cage off of its hook and carries the birds outside. She crouches on a short wooden stool underneath a ripened guanábana tree. Her hands overcome the ruffled birds as she feeds them water and “masa,” barely taking a break until afternoon. She knows how to care for most things, but the birds don’t always make it.
Bacila doesn’t know how many babies she has delivered, but sometimes there are two or three in one day. She’s delivered twins, first babies, and twelfth babies. Babies screaming and babies born still. Remembering life and death next to one another makes her feel bittersweet, and she asks, “Why? Why am I still alive?” Her niece re-plies, “You will never die, because if you do, who will tell the stories?”
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