Frances Zelenka

A Writer and Musician Expat

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I have lived in Mexico for almost twenty years. For sixteen of those years, I made my living as an instrumental guitarist performing as part of a duo throughout Mexico. After COVID closed the venues, I gracefully pivoted to my second career as an online ESL instructor and Writing Coach. I enjoy life, and especially life in Mexico with my partner, my six dogs, two cats, two rabbits, and seven birds!


On the way home from school one day, Mom took us to a pet store just for fun. In a box beneath a heat lamp were the cutest little yellow ducklings, quacking away in their little duckling voices. We fell in love with them immediately. “Oh please can we get one?” we begged Mom. “Please please please?” “Okay,” she said, “BUT JUST ONE.” So we brought it home and put it in the bathtub. It was very happy there, swimming around and making its little baby quackles. But then I started to worry, “What will Dad say when he gets home from work?” (Sometimes Dad wasn't always happy with the decisions Mom made.) As it got closer to 5 pm when Dad's bus was going to arrive, I got nervouser and nervouser. No, that isn't really a word! I should write “more and more nervous.” Anyway, you get my point. By the time Dad got home, you can imagine how my stomach was feeling: like it was full of butterflies! Okay, so Dad got home, put down his lunch pail, took off his coat, and said to us, “What is going on -- you all look funny.” As in funny-strange. The four of us kids were happy and scared at the same time, and I guess it showed on our faces. “Ummm...Dad….ummmm...we have something to show you.” “Okay, what is it?” “Go look in the bathtub.” So he did, and he started laughing! “That little guy looks lonely,” he said, “he needs a friend!” We all jumped into the van and went back to Rodney's Pets & Feed and Dad bought us another little duckling! I named one Martha and the other one Petunia, after two of my favorite books at the time (George & Martha, by James Marshall, and Petunia by Roger Duvoisin). We four loved Martha and Petunia, and they loved us. They followed us everywhere around the backyard. In the late afternoons, we crawled around on the ground, hunting for stalks of their favorite grass -- appropriately named “duck grass weed” -- to bring them. They always quacked “happy, thank you” as they ate it. That's the thing about ducks: their emotions and their words are the same. Their word for “happy” is the same as the happy sound they make and so they pretty much tell you how they feel and what's going on with them. One day, Dad brought home a large fiberglass airline shipping container and he used it to build a little rectangular pond in the backyard. Now they had a real place to swim, and we had our bathtub back. Martha and Petunia would slide into the water, wiggle their tails and quack “happy, swimming” that told us that they liked the water. Sometimes we filled up the Radio Flyer with water and gave them rides around the backyard. I honestly don't know if they liked that so much, because I can't remember the sound that they made while we were tugging them slowly around the yard. But being good sports, they tolerated it. Those days back then felt endless, but in reality they were all too brief. It's a good thing to grow up with animals, which I was lucky to do. Martha and Petunia still live in my heart, and to this day in my mind's ear, I can still hear the sounds they made and what they were saying to me. About the photo: my twin sisters with Martha and Petunia and the Radio Flyer, in our backyard circa 1970.

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The Old Man and the Gringa (Me)

Jul 24, 2022 1 year ago

The gringa had lived in the Colonia San Rafael neighborhood of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for over thirteen years, gringa being the local word for an American woman living in Mexico. The old Mexican man with a limp reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" had lived in the neighborhood too, probably his entire life. The two passed each other many times walking down the hill, and every time the old man saw the woman, he said to her in English that one word that he apparently knew: "mo-nay." Time after time, the same word, "mo-nay." She grew annoyed with him, thinking, "Is that how he sees me? As only a source of money?" It isn't that she never gave to people in need -- she did, often generously, whatever she could. It's just that his one word was so constant and such a habit that it really got on her nerves. Not wanting to encourage him, she either ignored him or said, "No no tengo nada ahorita." “I don't have anything right now.” And walked on quickly. This went on literally for years. At times it almost seemed like a joke between them, him saying "Mo-nay" and she saying, "Nope, nada." And then one blinding hot day, the sunlight bouncing off of everything so much that your eyes hurt, he said something different. "Mo-nay. Hun-gray." She stopped and looked at him, as if for the first time. It had never occurred to her that perhaps he actually was hungry. She felt ashamed, and she took him over to the nearest tienda and asked him what he wanted to buy. His needs were simple: a bolillo--a small loaf of white bread--and a Coke. She bought them and gave him twenty pesos for a refresco later. And she asked his name. "Rubén," he said. "Mucho gusto, señor Rubén. Nice to meet you. Soy Frances," said she. After that, their relationship was different. He no longer was some needy old man, he was Rubén. Sometimes when he saw her, he still said, "Mo-nay" but it was different now that she knew his name and so if she had a few pesos with her, she gave them to him with a smile. And often, before leaving the house, she remembered to think of him and would grab a couple of coins in case she saw him. Sometimes, when he saw her, he didn't ask for money, but asked, in a neighborly way, "A dónde vas? Where are you going?" Or, "¿Acabas de volver del Centro? Did you just get back from town?" And she would talk to him for a few minutes. One day he was walking down the hill with his customary limp that spoke of hip problems, and she said, "¿Adónde va, señor Rubén?" "Where are you going?" And he said, "Estoy caminando para hacer ejercicio y conocer a mis amigos.” “I'm walking for exercise and to meet my friends." And she thought, "Wow, he knows he needs to move his body and he needs to socialize." She thought about this unexpected friendship that they had, and what a gift it was that his presence in her life had helped her shift her perspective from seeing him as someone who was needy to someone who was her neighbor, living life in his way, making the best of his circumstances, just as she was. She realized that he had caused her to confront her own unconscious bias. This was a big step, and she wanted to memorialize it by having a selfie with him. One day he was walking up the hill at the same time she was. "Would it be okay to take a photo with you, señor Rubén?" she asked him in Spanish. He said yes right away. Halfway up the hill, they stopped and looked at the camera. She was wearing her pandemic mask; he was maskless and wearing his battered hat. She stood a little back from him to try to keep "safe social distance." The birds were singing in the tree behind them and she felt happy for this moment. It felt to her like an achievement. There's still a long way to go; no doubt there are many more unconscious biases in my mind and heart. But I, the gringa in question, will always remember Rubén and the gift he brought me. The cost of a few bolillos and some Cokes is a very small price to pay.



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