Thursday, March 21, 2013


That's Lupita in the red shirt, crouched on the sidewalk next to the electrical transformer. She shows up there late in the day once or twice a week, especially on religious holidays or other times when there's a lot of pedestrian traffic in the area.

It's a block or so from the iconic bell tower of the Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe that overlooks the town square. We'd be able to see her easily from our terrace if there weren't a couple of houses in the way.

But we can certainly hear her.

Her voice is an anguished wail that pierces through every other sound in our busy neighborhood. Crowd noise, unmuffled bus motors, band music from the gazebo on the square, the bass beat from the dance clubs, parades that pass by on the street nearby, and even the largest of Our Lady's bells -- it all fades to background noise when Lupita lifts her voice.

It's a song of suffering rising to a howl that sounds like pain, grief or a body and soul in some even greater unnamed torment. It goes on for long minutes, sometimes hours.

In other neighborhoods where I've lived, Lupita's screams would immediately bring a crowd of Samaritans and paramedics. The first time I heard her a couple of years ago, I hastened down to find out what the trouble was. She was around the corner from the location above on a darkened block, seated on the dirty sidewalk much as she is in the photo, with her legs sprawled to one side and her head and hand against her wailing wall.

I stepped toward her, but when she noticed me she became very agitated, averting her face, shaking her head and waving me off. She didn't seem hurt, and she had food. So I backed away, and after a little while I went home not knowing what else to do.

The next day I asked neighbors what they knew about her, which turned out to be not much. They said she'd been around for a long time, apparently slept somewhere else, and got regular food handouts from one or another of the nearby restaurants, including the big plastic jugs of orange soda she likes. Merchants kept an eye on her, I was told. She wasn't really in any trouble, and everybody left her alone.

Whenever I thought about her in the months afterward I considered whether, in the absence of social services that could really care for her, it might be evidence of at least some compassion that Lupita was allowed to do her disruptive thing with no official interference, right in the center of a town that prides itself on its touristic curb appeal.

Yesterday I wondered whether the guy who runs a gift shop just outside the left edge of the photo might be able to tell me more of her story. As so often happens, more facts undermined first impressions and produced a lot more questions.

My informant was able to tell me Lupita's name, and also her age, 47, actually a good bit older than I thought. He didn't know what ails her, but like me he's guessing it might be Tourette syndrome. He told me she lives with her brother and elderly mother in Ixtapa, a Puerto Vallarta suburb.

The big surprise was that Lupita lived for years in a state home for the disabled. But several years ago her mother took her out so she could help with the family business, which is begging. The mother, in her 80s, has stationed herself for many years a couple of blocks away where she accosts tourists approaching the church.

Lupita can't be contributing much to whatever her mother brings in. She runs off do-gooders who approach her as I did, and from time to time she launches feeble but still troubling physical assaults on passers-by, including my shopkeeper source. He believes at least some of her cries are expressions of anger directed at her mother, who is certainly within earshot as we all are.

He knows as much as he does about Lupita because in addition to having observed her at close quarters for quite a while, he has tried more than once to interest city agencies in resuming custody of her. They know the whole family pretty well.

In the U.S. the benchmark for an involuntary committal is "danger to herself or others," and it might seem Lupita could meet that standard. But my guy says that when he suggests that a social worker come by to speak with Lupita when she arrives outside his store about 4:30 p.m., the apologetic reply is that the agency closes at 3p.

So, there's some compassion for you.

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