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Pepe Arciga

August 19, 2007 |  9:14 pm

1957_arciga Aug. 19, 1957

Here's a short-short that I think you'll like. It's a story, though no tale. The principal character is a woman. A woman of middle age, slightly plump, gray-haired, bespectacled and, up to now, of no traceable city of origin.

She is American by birth, Anglo-Saxon of race. We shall call her, for purposes of near identification, Mrs. Ethel M. Wallace.

This story--also her true story--begins at the office of the registrar, the University of Mexico Summer School, year of 1949.

It is the month of June, the month when the whole Valley of Mexico enjoys bright, lucid sunshine in the mornings, torrential but brief rains in mid-afternoon.

Mrs. Wallace enters the offices of the registrar along with 101 stateside American youngsters. She is just as eager as the rest to sign up. However, she does not seek school credits and the like. What she wants to learn is "Otomi."

1957_0819_coates The kids take a liking to her because she seems so maternal. In no time she is "Mom" to them. Also a symbol of something good and solid they left back home with the old boy.

Within short weeks Mrs. Wallace reads, writes and talks beautiful Spanish. The "other" Spanish--a patois sprinkled with double meanings, often salted with off-color sayings--also becomes the property of Mrs. Wallace.

Needless to say, Mom Wallace couldn't be better fitted for the role of ambassadress to Mexico of middle-aged American womanhood. In short, she is loved by bootblacks, students, professors and wild cabdrivers.

Then one day, as the Spanish class sits down to begin their linguistic pyrotechnics, they notice that the chair belonging to Mrs. Wallace is empty.

Inquires are made. The family with whom Mrs. Wallace has been rooming are at a loss to explain her disappearance. The Mexican Secret Police is alerted. A consular official goes to work on the case and he discovers that Mrs. Wallace's home address in the Midwest is as phony as wooden pesos.

Right about early September when the summer school courses begin to disband and kids can't wait to get their licks on home versions of double burgers and malts, the registrar gets a postcard from somebody buried deep in a village up the mountains of Hidalgo state.

It's written in English and signed by--I guess you know who--Mrs. Wallace. The message is very curt and says this:

"Dear Mr. Registrar: I am here in the mountains of Hidalgo. I will learn 'Otomi,' language of these silent, brave Otomi people. Then I will translate it into Spanish. I am well and safe. Please do not worry."

Well, that was back in 1949. Eight years later, today, in 1957, Mrs. Wallace has mission accomplished. For, recently, according to a story in a Mexico City newspaper, the Sumer School Institute has published the very first Spanish-Otomi, Otomi-Spanish dictionary.

And it is the work of one Mrs. Wallace, perhaps from the Midwest, U.S.A., whose real past probably nobody knows about.