SAN MIGUEL DEL RIO, Mexico — 'We got a lot of work to do before the rains . . . too much work.' --John Pierce
Walking listlessly up a winding road that is surrounded by thick brush, kicking up dirt and small rocks in his path, John Pierce could almost see the fertile spot at the heel of a mountain that someday he will farm.
But the uneven, rocky path ended almost two miles shy of the rich spot of farmland. Over the past three weeks, Pierce and a man from a tiny hamlet nestled at the bottom of the path had cleared almost a mile of the road.
The work is back-breaking. Tons of heavy rocks and small boulders were unearthed and trucked away. But the additional two miles must be cleared by late May, when the heavy rains arrive in the 12,500-acre valley.
"We got a lot of work to do before the rains . . . too much work," Pierce said one recent afternoon as the sun beat down on his sunburned face.
The clearing of the path is one clue to the enormity of Pierce's dream to convert San Miguel del Rio, a village of 78 residents, into a productive community.
Pierce, 52, a ceramics merchant from San Juan Capistrano, gave up his business and his home nine months ago to return with his wife to the village where she grew up, and where poverty and illiteracy are still a way of life. His goal was to change that.
He admits that had he known the huge struggle his five-year project would mean, he might never have left Orange County last summer.
Part of that struggle has been the villagers' lackadaisical attitude about the project.
"Most people here don't want to work; it's very disappointing. But I have to continue because I said I would do it. It's a promise I plan to keep," Pierce said.
Despite Pierce's work the past nine months, the village is almost the same. The 78 residents still subsist on the basics and live in mud-and-stick huts. They bathe on the banks of the wide Coahuayana River, the hamlet's lifeline that meanders to the Pacific Ocean.
At noon recently, the village looked deserted and dusty, almost lifeless.
But subtle changes are taking place in the hamlet, located at the end of a winding road in the state of Michoacan, 250 miles southwest of Guadalajara.
Pierce has brought seven tractor rigs of Quonset hut material that the Capistrano Unified School District gave him last year. Besides building a Quonset-hut home for himself and his wife, Elda, Pierce has finished a concrete block, one-room school, which was the real impetus for the project.
Pipe that runs two miles up one of the mountains delivers a little water to the village from a spring. A few homes have tin roofs now. One resident even built a wire fence around his small hut and painted the fence posts white.
Pierce also built a new brick store for his father-in-law, Dolores Gonzalez. The old store, which had a dirt floor, was torn down. The two small streets were cleaned of the trash that brought disease and scorpions.
Money a Major Problem
And Pierce's father-in-law, who has not actively helped in the work, at least has been coaxed into clearing two small hills of shrubs and trees, where he will plant 60 acres of corn and hay.
In empty lots and on a small, weedy patch by the old, open-air school hut, Pierce has tons of used materials to continue the project. Money, however, is a major problem.
"We've stayed broke pretty much since we've been here. It's been a real struggle," he said.
While clearing the path leading to the mountain where he will farm, a wheel broke on Pierce's truck. A recent surprise visitor to the village brought him $200 from friends in Orange County, and he was able to fix the wheel.
"That's what I need the most, money. I can work hard, but without money I can't do everything I want. I need money for cement, especially," he said.
School Is Built
Pierce needs cement for house construction, especially for floors. Dirt floors attract insects and scorpions. Since he arrived in San Miguel del Rio nine months ago, Mexico's inflation has tripled the cost of cement.
Yet the school, the centerpiece of the project, has been built. It still needs a concrete floor, but desks and a large blackboard provide the village's schoolteacher with the basic tools to instruct the 22 students.
Natalio Gonzalez, Elda Pierce's uncle, is proud that he helped Pierce with the school. Three of his grandchildren attend, and a son, who has seven children, is planning to return to San Miguel del Rio in May.
Gonzalez, 58, is illiterate. He has lived in the village for 28 years, since he arrived with family to begin an \o7 ejido\f7 , a farming-oriented community. He has been Pierce's most loyal ally since the beginning, and will be his partner when the road leading to the patch of farmland is completed.
'It's Worth It'
"This project will work. We've been working very hard to clear this road, but it's worth it. We will have very fertile land to cultivate and that will help the \o7 ejido\f7 ," Gonzalez said.