The Priest's Tale by Frederick Waterman


Charlie West laughed.
            “You know, this conversation sounds like the start of a joke: ‘So, a salesman and a priest are on a plane …’”
            Father Barranca smiled. “And who would have guessed they were talking about gambling?” The priest’s accented words held the rhythm of another language.
            Flight 137, the dawn flight out of Las Vegas, was chasing its shadow across the Nevada desert. The priest, sitting in 22-A, wore a black clergy shirt; his hair was as white as his collar. The unshaven salesman, wearing a wrinkled red sportsjacket, squinted as he looked at his fellow passenger.
            “Father, would you mind sliding that shade down a bit? It’s a little brighter up here than in a casino.”
            “Ah, but you were a winner,” the priest said, lowering the shade.
            “In a manner of speaking,” Charlie replied. “Now, you told me that you stopped in Las Vegas on your way from Mexico City to LA because you wanted to see the casinos and the gambling. But you didn’t tell me why.”
            “No, no, I didn’t,” said Father Barranca. “Last night, I took off my collar—we are allowed to—and walked through the casinos to watch people play the card games, the wheel, and the machines. I must tell you that I felt right at home: so much prayer and so many bargains with God.”
            Charlie laughed. “Well, when a player needs a little luck, where else can he go?”
            “That is a good question,” the priest said. “Where else?” He thought for a moment, then said, “Do you know what a ‘Spanish deck’ is?”
            “It has only 40 cards—two through seven, the face cards, and aces.” The priest’s eyes, though calm, were unflinchingly direct. “What do you know of Mexico?”
            “Not much—Cortés arrived in the 1500s, we took Texas from you, and Pancho Villa and Zapata tried to start a revolution a hundred years ago.”
            “When the Spanish settled Mexico,” the priest said, “they brought their culture with them. In Spain, there were two classes: the rich and the poor. In Mexico, for three centuries, three million acres were owned by a few hundred families. The péons and the peasants were given a choice: work on the great estates—the haciendas—or starve.
            “The history of Mexico is the history of the land. If you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. That’s why our history is so violent, why so many of our leaders—Hidalgo, Morelos, Madero, and Carranza—have been killed.
            “And then there is the greed and corruption. It’s been part of Mexico for so long that now we expect it. But, there are a few places, far from the cities and the biggest haciendas, where things have been different, where villages made their own laws, and farmers worked their own land.
“In the south of Mexico are the Osoro Mountains and, halfway up, cradled by the hills, there is a valley called Annarita. The mountains block the desert wind that would dry out the soil and blow it away, and the mountains protect the people, too, because there is only one narrow trail; a bandit, attacking or escaping, would be exposed to a shot from a rifle. Or twenty rifles.
          “In Annarita, beans, corn, and rice all grow well, and for many years, life changed very little. Then, in the early 1900s, the valley added a new crop, and it, too, flourished. Men came across the desert to pay a high price for Annarita’s coffee beans. And, at the end of each growing season, on Dia del Paseo—The Day of the Walk—every man, woman, and child would carry as heavy a bag as they could manage down the trail to where the coffee buyers waited. That night, there was always a fiesta.
            “The coffee paid for doctors to visit Annarita and gave every family some money. In most ways, the modern world came slowly to Mexico’s farthest corners. It wasn’t until the 1950s that cars started to replace burros, and a road was built across the desert to the bottom of the Osoro Mountains. And that’s when the trouble began.

(End of excerpt)