When my 19-year-old son and I arrived in Mazatlán in May of 2006 it was the tail end of the dry season, but the only thing dry was the landscape — we were both drenched.
The heat and humidly at this time of year required any and all outdoor activities to be conducted only in areas where you were wafted by the constant ocean breezes or actually submersed in the water itself.
We spent our time between the water, beachfront palapas and air-conditioned comfort; it was in the beachfront palapas we replenished the liquids that continuously flowed from every inch of our skin.
The one thing that would bolster my fortitude was the knowledge that I was experiencing the worst the climate had to offer. Summer in the tropics was far more preferable than a brutal subzero winter in the mountains of Idaho.
I am much more receptive to meeting my demise by heat stroke than being found stiff and blue, frozen to the seat of an outhouse.
Somewhere around the end of our first week in Mazatlán, we were cruising the streets of the tourist zone when we saw this much disheveled man, with a large black beard, staggering down the street. I immediately thought he was drunk (my generation), and my son’s almost simultaneously impression was that he was a crackhead (his generation).
Whatever the origin of this man’s disability, he sure looked blitzed on something! We saw him several other times over the next couple of months in exactly the same state of being; purposeful in his stilted strides, but rather disoriented.
Later that summer, after my son returned to Idaho, I saw this man again. One day, while having lunch at a beachfront palapa, I watched this bearded character awkwardly making his way down the beach with a small box of something he was attempting to peddle.
Knowing that the extremely poor will sell “Chiclets” I assumed he was attempting to sell gum to anyone to whom he could get close enough, while making his garbled plea. After watching him come about 300 meters down the beach, I realized he was somehow mentally disabled; he definitely had a couple of his plug wires crossed.
It was hard to tell if his staggering gait was from anything physical, or was a by-product of his missfiring synapses. Most people he veered toward looked to be repulsed by his presence, and would wave him away.
At this point I knew that both my son and I had passed a premature judgment on this man and that he was certainly neither a drunk nor a crackhead.
As he approached within 50 feet, I called out to him “Hola, Barba Negra, vagabundo de la playa!” (“Hello, Black Beard, vagabond of the beach.”) As he staggered over I noticed that his right foot was unnaturally turned in almost 20 degrees from normal, and the angle of his left foot was also a bit askew. When he got close enough he offered his box of gum with a smile that had more teeth than I expected.
I dug around in my wallet and when I handed him a 50-peso note his smile instantly vanished. He knew he did not have even close to enough money to make change and would most certainly lose the sale.
I immediately told him I did not want any change nor did I need any gum, the 50 pesos was for him because he worked so hard at walking the beach and deserved something for his effort.
He stared at me for several moments as comprehension slowly set in, then one large tear rolled from his eye, traveling the distance from cheek to chin.
Suddenly, through the eye contact and being drawn into this man’s world, along with his open heart and total gratitude, all I could do was grin back and try to keep my eyes from leaking as well. He took the bill, folded it and carefully placed it in the only serviceable pocket he had. Then with a wide smile, he raised his hand for a high five.
It was a stark reminder. Not all things or situations in life are as we first perceive them to be. Judgment is like a large-caliber hand gun: it can either save your life or do incredible damage; use it wisely because life’s story can be far more complex than anyone of us may imagine.
I still see and greet Barba Negra every few months, and will slip him 100 pesos for which I am rewarded with a high five, a knuckle bump and a huge smile. I talked with several locals but no one knows his story, only that his street name is Bin Laden, but I always knew he wasn’t the real one.
After several months of watching this challenged street person stagger around in ragged shorts and torn shirts, I realized I had extra clothes my son had left behind, and that I also had a few things I would never miss.
When I next met Barba Negra wandering the beaches of the tourist zone, I passed on the care package in hopes he would use the contents and not sell the lot. When I saw him a month later he was wearing a pair of baggy cargo shorts which I recognized, along with a t-shirt from an Idaho pub and an Old Navy hat which had treated me well at an earlier time.
I believe that Barba Negra has other benefactors along his daily trek, but if you see him on the streets or beaches, show him a little kindness, he won’t bite.
Author’s note: I wrote this piece in 2009, and have since discovered the man’s name is Jesús and that he suffers from cerebral palsy. He lives in a very modest care facility run by a husband and wife team who allow him to meander the streets and beaches during the day to sell his packets of gum.
He no longer has a beard, his hair is neatly trimmed and his clothes are always clean. I have often reflected on how lucky Jesús is to be roaming the streets of Mazatlán and not the mean streets north of the border. He is such a friendly and happy character and I believe this city is fortunate to have him.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at email@example.com.