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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Mexican Runner Honors Village

July 21, 1996|MOLLY MOORE | WASHINGTON POST

TECOMATE, Mexico — It took the New York City Marathon to bring electricity to this poor orange pickers' village in eastern Mexico, where tin-roofed houses hunch against a steep hillside.

Mexican marathon runner German Silva returned home from his first victory in the Big Apple's biggest race a year and a half ago to be greeted by a gushing state governor who offered to grant the new celebrity any wish in his power.

"I would like you to bring electricity to my village," replied Silva, who went on to win the New York City Marathon for a second time last fall and is favored to be a medal contender in the Olympic marathon in Atlanta next month.

Nothing has changed the lives of the 500 people who live in this isolated community in the coastal state of Veracruz more than the stardom of a hometown boy who defied his father's efforts to keep him in the orange groves, ran (seldom walked) to school each morning in a neighboring village and won his first race without a day of formal coaching.

For the village women, it has provided refrigerators and electric irons that ease their workloads and corn grinders that allow them to make fresh tortillas instead of having to trudge to other villages to buy stale, packaged ones.

For Emilio Perez Romero, 55, who ran the only store in town for 18 years, it meant he could sell cold drinks and put a video game machine out front. It also meant competition: Since electricity was installed last year, three new shops have opened in Tecomate (pronounced Te-co-MAH-tay).

For families, it has extended evenings with electric lights, cooled sweltering tropical afternoons with electric fans and entertained and educated them with television. Before last year, four or five families owned battery-powered television sets; now almost half of Tecomate's homes have television. In a town with only one telephone -- which has not worked for two months -- television has become the most important link to the outside world.

But more than anything, the electricity that Silva brought to Tecomate has transformed the attitudes and outlook of people long accustomed to government indifference, backbreaking work as day laborers and grim futures.

"People have more confidence now," said Edilberto Silva, 26, one of the marathoner's 12 siblings. "Before, when a villager talked to you, he would always look down at his feet. Now talking with other people is easier. They look you in the eye. They have more pride. It's a good change."

German Silva, 28, who is mobbed by village children whenever he returns home and is honored with a shrine of photographs, trophies and medals in his mother's open-air dining room, said he hopes to use running as a way to help some children escape poverty.

"They are the future," said Silva. "I want to try to help a new generation with talent but without the money to buy a pair of shoes."

Last March, Silva sponsored a children's race in the village. About 500 youngsters from villages for miles around turned out, most of them running barefoot. Recalled Silva, who stands a wiry 5 feet 1 inch tall: "You could see it in their faces -- they wanted to win."

In Tecomate, which has only a primary school, half the children do not attend class, working instead in the orange groves and fields to help support their families. Most have parents like Silva's father, a man who believed his children could support themselves better by learning to work the land and negotiate orange prices than by sitting in class or -- in German's case -- frittering away hours by running.

"Running is not a profession," Silva's father, one of the few men in the village to own an orange grove, would admonish his son. "You are going to die of hunger."

German's mother, Aurora Martinez Cruz, now 75 and the grandmother of 38, would slip him money and encouragement.

"I was afraid," said Silva. "I didn't know what I was going to do in the future. I was not good in school. I didn't like working in the village. I liked to run. I dreamed of being an athlete."

But in rural Tecomate, 150 miles northeast of Mexico City, there was no coach. Because he received no formal training until late in his career, Silva remains an unorthodox runner. He does no stretching exercises before or after running.

Silva and his Mexican marathon colleagues practice on one of the toughest training grounds in the world: Xinantecatl Volcano, which rises 13,800 feet above sea level. The runners frequently start their 14-mile run in balmy weather, climb through fog and hit icy winds and snow by the time they reach the crater. The ground is dangerously rocky and the air punishingly thin. After Xinantecatl, said Silva, running on flat terrain near sea level is a cakewalk.

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