Why are these elderly, isolated Mexicans so happy?

Why are these elderly, isolated Mexicans so happy?
Prima Ruiz and Santos Munoz (Sergio Olmos)


I’m walking on land that’s slowly returning to nature. Ripe mesquite pods hang uneaten. Foliage grows over the only dirt road. Livestock fences stand awkwardly in place, protecting empty plots. I’ve been thinking over the reasons I came out here. This once-populated area has just two residents left. I’ve walked 14 kilometers to reach them, hoping they might know something about the good life.

In the United States, like many of my friends, I worked two jobs. One at a nonprofit organization and another at a bar. I’d come home and pass one of my roommates on their way to work. I’d cook for myself, with one eye on Netflix, and save the uneaten portions in Tupperware. On my dresser, unread copies of The Economist and The New Yorker piled up. I couldn’t casually flip through them anymore. I canceled my subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. I didn’t know what to do with all that information every morning.

It was obvious, of course, hearing the sound of myself chew in a quiet room, that this was not the way to live. In his new book Tribe, Sebastian Junger writes, “A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day — or an entire life — mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

“Back again?” she says. “It’s good to see you.” She eyes me up and down. I’m drenched in sweat. Prima Ruiz is tiny. She’s hunched over, her walking stick keeping her from tipping over.

“Look at you, you’re getting taller. Come help me, you big giant.” She grabs my hand and we walk together. I’ve been coming for the last couple weeks.

Prima was born “Primitiva,” which means primitive. But a clerk in the municipality couldn’t be bothered to write out her full name, so he shortened it for her.

Santos Munoz, her best friend, lives just a few steps away. A small dog runs toward us. She showed up one day and never left. They’ve named her Unwanted.

“Get out of here,” Prima says, not really meaning it.

Santos is wearing a ten-gallon hat and squinting to see who I am. He recognizes me and breaks into a smile.

“Welcome, welcome, come sit,” he says, pulling up a chair.

Prima greets Santos and goes into his kitchen without asking.

“Would you like a water or a Coca-Cola?” Santos asks me, clasping his hands. Prima offers me a pudding. I decline both.

“Are you sure? They’re really good.” Prima says, unwrapping her snack. “You haven’t had the strawberry one. You wouldn’t say no if you had the strawberry one.”

They refuse to leave their ranches. Many have offered to accommodate them, but they insist on living out here. There is no running water or electricity. They are out of cell phone range and three hours from help should one of them get hurt. Still, they insist.

They survive because of others. A doctor from Aguascalientes, the nearest big city, drives down once a month to give them checkups for free. A woman from Villa Hidalgo fills their prescriptions. Someone else refills their propane tank for cooking. While I’ve sat with them others have come, never empty handed. Prima and Santos have a storeroom filled with food and drinks. Kids play with Unwanted and parents sit and talk. They’re offered Coca-Cola and shade, and conversations go on for hours. A little mountain of bottle caps rises as a testament to their popularity.

They are in their mid-80s. Neither of them is sure of their exact age. They stopped caring a while ago. Every day is a Saturday. Their lifestyle has expanded parts of their character that, in the grind of a city, might otherwise atrophy. As an example, Santos listens like no one I’ve ever known. Perhaps it’s the setting, the general feeling of timelessness out here, but after some banter Santos seems to direct his questions to the other parts of you. The parts that don’t volunteer easily.

I’ve noticed myself repeating things in bars. Never a wholesale conversation, but enough parts from different ones to form a kind of greatest hits. My stories are crowd pleasers, but I feel a little like a used car salesman. It’s rare for me to say something I haven’t tried out before. I fear people will pull out their phones. Santos, rather, seems interested in all the things I haven’t said.

He listens, undeterred by my stumbling around. I have to fight back the impulse to bring up some anecdote or observation I’ve used before. My character is on display. I notice how little of it there is. In the city I spend most of my time at work or on some small task. Cooking, cleaning, working to pay bills. These things aren’t me; I’m more, I tell myself. But I realize how most of myself actually is these small tasks. Without the excuse of being busy I have so little to show for myself.

I feel the shot clock of my turn in the conversation run out, telling him about my life in Portland, Oregon. I try to politely turn it back to him. But he urges me forward. I notice I’m not exerting myself the way I might need to if I worked through some of this stuff alone. He uses questions like an enzyme to maneuver huge forces within me.

I’m leaning forward in my hot plastic chair, squinting against the sun. I want to change the world. I’d stutter telling you why. But I can’t even read the newspapers anymore. Already Santos and Prima have reminded me that I’m more than I present myself to be. I want to extract whatever it is they possess. It seems clear to me they know something about how to live well, and judging by all the empty bottle caps I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Prima and Santos were born in the malaise of the 1930s. Across the border to the north, Americans worried democracy wouldn’t survive the anger and discontent of the times. Overseas, Europe was coming apart. The United Kingdom, saddled with debt, became less interested in events outside its borders. Elsewhere a disheartened people were being seduced by the rantings of a man who promised he could make their country great again.

Newspapers then, as now, did not reach La Plateada. Bombings in foreign cities passed without mourning. The great worry in Prima’s mind, while the drama of her century unfolded, was the start of her first day of school.

Don Martin considered himself a man of learning. He was a farmer who never went to school. But he surrounded himself with books. At supper he waited until all his kids had something on their plate before adding to his own. In the austerity of the ‘30s, this was more than a polite gesture. On some nights he would retire quietly to his room and play violin on an empty stomach.

There were no schools in La Plateada. The government of Mexico did not come out to build them, especially for kids this poor. So Don Martin opened his home, a humble three bedroom built with his bare hands, as a makeshift school. The other ranchers sent their children to Don Martin’s house to learn mathematics, how to read and write, and basic sciences pertinent to life on a farm.

Prima showed up on her first day excited and awkward. Her father had held her back. When she finally was allowed to attend school she worried she would make a mistake or give a wrong answer and get kicked out. She kept to her work and avoided socializing with the other kids. By contrast, one boy would use every opportunity when Don Martin was out of the room to chat with a girl. He’d kneel next to her desk and try to make her laugh. Somehow he always returned to his seat just before Don Martin walked back in. The two couldn’t have been more different. His name was Santos Munoz. She didn’t know it yet, but their friendship would become the closest relationship they would ever have.

After school, the kids walked each other home. They goofed and flirted and took their time getting back. Isolated on their respective farms, this was the only time they talked to someone outside their family.

Fifteen days later Prima contracted an eye infection and had to stay home. When she healed her father sat her down and told her she was of better use around the house. “I never went back after that,” Prima says.

The other kids moved on. The girl from the reclusive ranch was only there for two weeks. But Santos noticed her absence. Prima had been busy at home learning “women’s work.” She cooked, cleaned and washed her brother’s clothes. To the surprise of everyone in the house, one night there came a knock on the door. A boy had come asking about Prima.

Prima’s father, notorious for turning away suitors, was taken by this young man. The boy was polite and had a character that was hard to find fault with. Santos was invited inside for coffee.

“Santos was the only boy, ever, to be allowed into our house,” Prima says.

Santos charmed the family and one by one they all peeled off to their rooms. Leaving him alone with Prima. He told her what lessons Don Martin was preparing at school. He filled her in on the gossip. The two sat there for the first time, much the way they sit across from me now, starting a routine that would continue for a lifetime.

Prima never really left the house. “I went to a wedding once, but I had to come right back after the mass.” Her father increased her workload when she asked to go to one of the fiestas in town, so that she learned to keep her mind off such things. “I wasn’t jealous of everyone that did get to go. I became accustomed. I stopped even asking.” But Santos kept coming. His visits became the thing she looked forward to most.

As they got older he told her about his crushes and, eventually, his girlfriends. She listened and counseled her friend even though she never had a boyfriend herself. It was a platonic relationship that many began to question, as Santos gained a reputation as a ladies man. Even today, people have their suspicions.

“Who was the prettiest?” Santos asks, repeating my question. He touches his finger to his lips and seems to forget we’re here. He returns from somewhere. “Abellina,” he says.

“I think, actually, Abellina was the prettiest girl ever to come to La Plateada,” he says.

“Hey,” Prima says.

Santos chuckles. “Well, it’s true,” he says.

I ask about her. “I need a cigarette.” He gets up and walks toward the house. “The things we’re talking about,” he says to himself, laughing.

Prima looks at me with pursed lips

“I don’t know about the prettiest,” she says.

Santos comes back and sits across from me. He lights up and takes a drag. The smoke is curling around him. He stares into the dirt before finally straightening up again.

“She came on one season to help out on Don Martin’s ranch,” he says.

Santos never got involved seriously again after Abellina. Men I spoke to recall her beauty. Women remembered her personality. When she came to La Plateada boys competed for her attention. But she was unimpressed by machismo. To the frustration of some of the young men, she used humor to deflate egos and strip away false personas. “She could make everyone laugh,” Prima says.

Santos had to have her. He wooed her for a long time, finishing his work to race over to Don Martin’s house. Abellina didn’t like that Santos had a reputation for being promiscuous. She could have any boy in La Plateada, and she had no shortage of suitors reminding her of it. But Santos was unlike the others. They sat together in the late afternoons under a mesquite tree, until finally she let him hold her hand. The freewheeling Santos was gone.

They spent years together. But their relationship ended when he left the country. La Plateada stopped being competitive in agriculture and many went to work in the United States. Santos was among them.

When he returned to Mexico, he came back to a different place. La Plateada was empty. He was afraid to look her up. Afraid that she would feel different. When he finally found the courage, she was married. Abellina had waited for him, it all came out later, but when she heard Santos was back in Mexico she assumed he had moved on.

“She deserved a better husband than the one she got,” Prima says. Santos stays quiet.

“When she was dying in the hospital,” Santos finally says, “she snuck out to have a cigarette. This young doctor caught her and said, ‘What exactly do you think you’re doing?’” A smile comes over Santos face. “And Abellina said to the doctor, ‘Well, I’m having one for the road.’” We all laugh. A moment passes. “She died a few days after that.” Santos takes a drag and puts his cigarette out.

(Sergio Olmos)

After Prima’s father died she finally went on her first date in her 30s. It was on her wedding night.

A man had come to Prima’s mother and uncle and asked for her hand in marriage. He was a rough man who, rumor had it, had broken his last girlfriend’s shoulder. “It wasn’t much of a choice. If I would have gone with someone else he probably would have killed us both,” Prima says.

She was curious, to say the least, of what it would be like to be with someone.

They signed papers in the pueblo, and she said goodbye to her mother. On her wedding night she learned her husband hadn’t built a house. He just made a hole in the dirt deep enough to sleep in every night. He had Prima’s spot carved out by the time she arrived.

“I visited it once. You should’ve seen it,” Santos says, shuddering.

Life with her husband was not so different from life under her father. “I made him his coffee and breakfast while he snored,” she says, summing up their morning routine.

One night after dusk he came in from the fields and sat against the bark of a tree. He took off his shoes and watched Prima cook him dinner. Then he started drinking.

“He used to do this thing for fun,” Prima recalls. He’d ask her if she wanted a cigarette. Then he pelted her with them when she said no. Prima continued to make dinner. Then he held up a beer and asked if she wanted some. When she declined he said, “You think you’re such a saint,” and poured it over her head.

Prima prayed for strength to endure. As a Catholic she refused to consider divorce—until the day she lost his horse.

“He got drunk and lost his horse, and when he came home I was somehow to blame,” she says.

He gave her the second-worst beating of her life. A few days later she waited until he was passed out drunk and escaped. “I walked barefoot to avoid making tracks in the dirt,” she says. Her husband found her and brought her back, giving her the worst beating of her life.

“He brought me to my mother, all bloodied, and tossed me at her feet and said, ‘You can have her back,’ He laughed and said he was going to find somebody better. ‘Somebody I can be proud of and take to the dances because this one,’ pointing to me, ‘is embarrassing.’”

Her mother cleaned her up and told her, “This is as much your house as it is mine.” Prima made a choice, at odds with her Catholic faith, to divorce. “He came back crying at night and said he was sorry,” Prima says. “I said, ‘Never again.’”

She left La Plateada for the first time in her life. She hid out in Guadalajara for a year. Her ex-husband had been going around La Plateada, drunk, saying he would kill Prima if he ever saw her again.

When Prima returned to La Plateada, Santos took up the house nearby. When her mother died, Santos was the first person she saw. For the next 30 years, every morning, he would be the first person she saw.

(Sergio Olmos)

In Tribe, Junger writes, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good. Protected by police and fire departments and relieved of most of the challenges of survival, an urban man might go through his entire life without having to come to the aid of someone in danger — or even give up his dinner. Likewise a woman in a society that has codified moral behavior into a set of laws and penalties might never have to make a choice that puts her very life at risk.”

Santos and Prima live alone, but not isolated. Their lifestyle is austere, and somewhat risky, but healthy. In fact at their age most people would try to get them into a nursing home, where paid employees try to create a simulacrum of the one here: People will bring them food, a doctor will visit once a month, and they’ll have a scenic landscape in which to sit and have conversations with others. Prima and Santos have all that. But the people who come here aren’t doing it for a paycheck. They do it out of love. It nourishes not just two people, but an entire community.

My standard of living is higher. Still I lie awake in my apartment, half concentrating on Netflix. As removed from civilization as they are, I think they are closer to people. The neighborhood isn’t coming together on the weekend to check up on each other. I don’t necessarily have to give up my dinner for anyone. I save my uneaten portions in Tupperware instead of inviting someone inside. It chips away not just at my character, but at the bonds, and security, of the people around me.

For all the material wealth of the United States, there’s something primitively lacking. I try to lead a good life. And maybe I partly am. I read the headlines. I mourn the cities that get bombed. But I seldom have to protect another nearby person. Acts of community amount to sharing articles on Facebook. Developing positions on social issues is, we all suppose, making us better citizens. But we treat the flesh-and-blood people walking around us with polite indifference. Like they’re all non-playing characters in a Sims game.

Without having to protect friends or give up food, the urge to charity is transplanted into a vague notion people seem to have: an unspoken belief that it’s their hope, if not duty, to change the world. It’s a frustrating idea because in practice it means spending most of your time not being yourself, but doing some workplace task.

The sun is coming down and I’ll have to go soon. I ask Prima and Santos about changing the world. Did they ever feel a need to?

“Ambition is like a sickness,” Santos says. “Everything shuts down so your body can focus on this one thing.”

I close my notebook. Wobbly, Prima leans on me to get up. I ask Prima what would happen if she were to get hurt, if she fell and couldn’t get up. Who would come and save her? She looks at me as if I asked the simplest question in the world. “If I were to fall,” she says, “Santos would just pick me up.”