A Letter from Agapito: A Guest Post by Tanyo Ravicz

Our 49 Writers online book club selction, Tanyo Ravicz’s A Man of His Village, “remains the most original and gripping work of fiction set in Alaska that I have ever read,” says Mike Dunham of the Anchorage Daily News. Ravicz will stop by our Sept. 20-21 online discussion to answer reader questions, and he also sent us this guest post to follow Jennifer Walker’s interview posted earlier this month.

In May 1993 when my father was dying of cancer, a letter arrived from a remote region of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. Agapito, a Mixtec Indian, had been my father’s good friend during his decades of working with the Mixtecs, but it had been years since the two had communicated and it seemed uncanny that now at the end of his life my father should get a letter from him.

“What a strange, special thing.” He was struck with wistful amazement. “My God, a letter from Agapito. Their life expectancy’s nothing like ours. I’m surprised he’s still going.”

He wasn’t superstitious, my father, but the timing of the letter seemed prophetic and he divined that Agapito was ailing too. He didn’t open the letter but left it sitting on the dining room table invested with a kind of mana. For weeks the blue aerogram leaned unopened against the pepper mill. We urged him to open it, he insisted each day that he would, but he didn’t.

The letter revived, to a mystical degree, the bond he had once had with Agapito. He described Agapito as bright and curious, androgynous and “extrasensory,” a respected man in the village and a weaver with feminine qualities. It was on Agapito’s dirt floor that my father had been allowed to sleep in those youthful days when he did his field work among the Mixtecs. His years in Mexico had been among the most fruitful and exciting of his life and the letter drew out his memories.

The day came in July when my father finally opened the letter, knowing it couldn’t be put off. To get a letter from Agapito was a joy because it added to his sense of the completeness of his life’s journey. The letter was badly typewritten in corrupt Spanish, not literally written by Agapito, but by a hired letter writer. In the letter Agapito inquires about my father and hints at the desperation that has prompted him to write. “I send you a warm greeting,” he says, “and let you know that my son and my grandson are going to work there [in California] but I don’t know in what place they are going to work.” He asks my father to keep an eye out for his son and grandson and he also wonders if my father is interested in buying any weavings.

Agapito’s letter is a piece of living history showing a family being directly impacted by contemporary events. For Agapito’s family, poverty and the migrations have become personal, separating loved ones from one another and from their homeland. Imagine the old Indian gazing northward: somewhere out there in the vast legendary farmlands of distant California his son and grandson are scrambling to help the family make ends meet.

As a youth Florentino Cruz, the “man of his village” of my novel A MAN OF HIS VILLAGE, has much in common with Agapito’s grandson. Florentino leaves home and heads north in 1986 at the age of 15. For a supplemental view of Florentino’s childhood world, the world he leaves behind on the journey that eventually lands him in Alaska, look into the Mixtec foto album at www.mixtecindian.com.

At the end of his letter Agapito asks my father if he isn’t coming back to the village again. Chemotherapy or not, my father enjoyed the idea of a return, and we discussed the logistics of a trip which we knew he would never make. At the end, his rambling colored by the morphine, he made a lot of references to caves, snakes, and rain, all powerful Mixtec symbols. Opposite my father’s deathbed, wedged behind the electric sconces, hung one of his prized possessions, a green, red-mouthed snake carved of cactus wood which Agapito had given him many years before.

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