LETTER TO A STRANGER
TO THE FARMHAND IN MITLA WHO ROBBED ME
BY AMANDA SPILLER
I have not been here in four months, but the Oaxacan countryside feels the same as it did before. Sitting on the porch, I am relieved to find that the warm breeze and the rays of the setting sun are still peaceful. The smell of tortillas fresh off the comal and the steady clacking of the telar are sensations so familiar they feel like home. Part of this peace is earned: a year settling into this town, adjusting to cultural differences, forging connections. It also helps that no one has seen you since the town ex-communicated you for breaking into my house and robbing me. That’s a good thing. I am fairly certain I never want to see you again.
The morning it happened still haunts me. I surged awake to you crouched over me, hands roaming over places I had no intention of sharing. Who are you? I shouted, even though I knew. I was looking right at your face, chocolate skin pulled taut over two pronounced cheekbones. Your eyes looked right past me. I was used to you entering my room unannounced, but this time was different. It was the middle of the night. You weren’t here to show me your latest discovery (like your pet rabbit, later found dead outside my window) or tell me about your day over an afternoon Corona.
You rose and ran for the door. I chased you. You were faster. You escaped into the break of day with my money, passport, and peace of mind bobbing in your pockets.
You were a friend to me. We shared many months together living on this family-run farm in Mitla, a place recognized worldwide for Day of the Dead celebrations and Oaxacan food—tlayudas, tamales, mole, barbacoa—flavors so bold I would later introduce a rainbow of hot sauces into my stodgy New England diet. Your life story trickled out during our free time: nearly two decades spent in homeless shelters in another state of Mexico. My appearance and my accent reminded you of the gringos put in charge at the shelters, you said, the ones you hated because they treated you so poorly.
Like many perpetrators, you had two sides. On the good days we were buds, singing our way through dinner prep, winding through town for a haircut or an ice cream, covering ourselves in acrylic paint after we got bored with our canvas. On the bad days, I fought an uphill battle against your temper. Your fits came out of nowhere and took hours to resolve, sometimes days. Something insignificant would set you off into the same narrative: that everyone was against you; that you were miserable and it was my fault. Anything I said sent you deeper into your tirade. At its pinnacle, I couldn’t even recognize you. The veins around your temple pulsed visibly. Your eyebrows etched a crevice over your eyes, glossy and distant, and your body trembled with emotion. The friend I knew and loved was gone.
As your rages became more frequent and vitriolic, my tolerance for them increased. When you threw things and screamed insults in my face, I de-escalated your anger. It was a dance my childhood taught me. Rage, rinse, repeat. As you came down, I watched you transform from a man blinded by fury into a boy crippled by twenty years of unimaginable pain. It was like looking my stepdad in the eye and seeing all the reasons why Mom didn’t leave. The good outweighs the bad, we thought. We saw the anger as somehow extricable from an otherwise good heart; the damage mendable through time and effort. We thought it was only a matter of tipping the scales in your favor. I thought you were different than my stepdad because you were young and impressionable, only twenty years old.
In the aftermath of your outbursts, we drank coffee and lounged in the sun as a million apologies ran down your cheeks. For an indefinite period of time—sometimes weeks, sometimes days—a state of normalcy ensued. You shined bright in those moments. You were happy and helpful, exuding a contagious optimism about the future. These grace periods gave me hope and fueled my denial. I constructed my own narrative, finding signs of progress and thinking of your fits as relapses instead of evidence of an unchangeable pattern. Your honeymoon period intensified alongside your rages and deepened my commitment to you. The cycle continued.
If it were just petty theft, it might have been easier to process: you needed money and I was an easy target. The mess you left behind, though—the burned ID cards, the word pendeja scribbled on the table in black sharpie, the pile of feces you left outside my door—told a different story. A story of pain so severe that when it contorted into rage, it left violence in its wake. When we found you hours later with the face pages of my passport and my underwear in your pockets, the spell, for me, was broken. Suddenly, I couldn’t find the difference between you and my stepdad. No number of tears or apologies convinced me you could change.
Luckily, I was in a haven of support. When normal life stopped for me after the robbery, it did for my friends in Mitla, too. My farm family lent me over $300. They accompanied me through a web of legal proceedings and moved my bed into their house so I didn’t have to sleep alone. Their sense of compassion and loyalty astounded me—an unsurprising response, I suppose, from a U.S. citizen experiencing the backbone of collectivism.
My cell phone blew up with calls and texts from everyone and their cousin. Cualquier cosa, Amanda, y tu me marcas / Whatever you need, Amanda, call me, my fruit vendor said. A friend skipped work to fix my door handle and the local police did rounds past my house on an hourly rotation; the sound of tires rolling over gravel and the quick bleep of the police siren became an ironic nighttime comfort. I couldn’t believe that these people I’d known for less than a year changed their daily routines for me. At the same time, my friends from the states told me they could call me after work, or after Zumba, or at the end of the week.
A week and a half was all that was left of my program. It was enough time to get an emergency passport and give a hasty goodbye. I thought being home would heal me from the robbery in the way that familiar faces and the Northeastern sea breeze usually do. I didn’t realize that a year in Mexico had gifted me a new home, support system, and set of experiences all incongruous with my precious New England bubble. I couldn’t move on without the closure of healing alongside the people also affected by you and the robbery. My feet landed on old turf but my heart never got on the plane home.
Thus, my initial conversations with friends and family were fraught. The story of your crime confirmed people’s deepest biases about Mexico. I could see it in their scrunched up faces. I could hear it their resolute tone. Thank God you’re home, now. There was no room for my truth; I couldn’t be devastated about the robbery and adore Oaxaca at the same time. After four months of dissonance, I repacked my bag and went back to the very same farm where it all happened. My friends and family were perplexed. They didn’t understand my connection to Mitla. They couldn’t see why I had to rewrite the ending of the story.
Because even its landscape—how concrete houses with gravel driveways blend into pastoral fields and rolling mountains—and the rich flavor of mole negro, aren’t the root of my appreciation for Mitla. My love for this town comes from the people in it. Their way of showing support is like the sun that shines over 300 days out of the year: strong and reliable. It warms you from the outside-in. That love, my old friend, is something you can never steal from me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
After a year teaching English in Mexico and a season farming on the island of Corsica, Amanda Spiller is back stateside leading camping trips in the California Redwoods. She co-wrote and directed Rise: Untold Stories of Bowdoin Women and her poem, "Woman in the Moonlight," is published in Siren Magazine. In between travels, Amanda retreats home to New Hampshire. You can find her on Instagram.
Header image by Greg Willis.