The end of April already and I’ve been delinquent in posting news. Apologies if you’ve come back more than once to nothing new.

I was in Seattle and San Francisco the first week of March with a really bad attitude. Mexico was ugly. Dirty. Dangerous. Did I mention Ugly? I was quite distressed. Most of my friends were also distressed after hearing my travails – all true enough, but perhaps taking on an importance in the telling that they did not merit.

Either that or, as my sister will confirm, I am fully capable of now convincing myself that all is well in fantasyland.

In any event, I stayed away long enough (three weeks) to miss Miguel and when I returned, Mexico had also changed. The new municipal president of Villa Nicolas Romero had implemented a clean up program and the streets had been swept clean of garbage. The clogged riverbanks had been scoured by cleanup crews. Cavernous potholes on main avenues were filled and traffic lanes were defined with bright white lines.

Spring thunderstorms now freshen the afternoon air and in the mornings the tall eucalyptus along the river are filled with white cranes spreading their feathers in amazing postures. From the hill above the neighborhood, the trees look to be in full bloom. My patio is edged with bright ceramic pots of blooming gardenias and fuschia. In the evening the streets are brushed with aromas of honeysuckle and the distinctive sharp mint of the eucalyptus. All the smells of my childhood in Northern California.

Unfortunately, the riverbanks have returned to their former disgusting state. We were walking home one afternoon through our shortcut that crosses the river. The people on the street were all busy sweeping and prettying up the neighborhood for Semana Santa – the traditional spring cleaning during the weeks preceding Passover/Easter. At the end of the street, the family that lives next to the river had swept its garbage into a neat pile and the young son was dutifully picking it up, walking to the edge of the property, tossing it over and watching it float away. Adios garbage. His dad was doing the same.

This time last year we went to visit the Virgin of Juquila in the state of Oaxaca. Another one of my mother-in-law’s annual pilgrimages. The Virgin of Juquila is very powerful and has granted many prayerful requests. People come from all across Mexico to ask for miracles. Health. Wealth. Happiness. The usual.

When the miracles have been granted, the petitioners have to come back to leave an offering of thanks. The grounds are covered with crosses and banners and clay figurines and flowers thanking the Virgin from The Family SoAndSo for the new business, for the father’s recovery, for the healthy new baby.

They leave their garbage, too. For miles surrounding the sanctuary, El Pedimento, and within the chapel grounds, too, there are mountains of garbage. In fact, by the time we got to Juquila last year, I had seen so much garbage along the roadway that I was ready to explode. When we walked into the chapel I had no idea what I wanted to ask for, I was just so angry at the getting there, and when I saw an empty candy wrapper left on a windowsill I was immediately brought to tears of rage. All I could do was sit in the back of the chapel and cry with frustration.

At this point I have to say, for those who don’t know me, that I am not a religious person and I have never been a Catholic. Nor am I the type of person that angers easily. But I was so struck by the hypocrisy of the people coming here to ask for their miracles and then trashing the place that my anger just came of its own and I could feel the heat rising from my feet to my hips to my chest, up my throat and into my face, burning my cheeks and my eyes and the tips of my ears. The hairs were stiff on my head and my arms, and my tears wet the entire front of my shirt.

Fortunately, Miguel was the only one who noticed. He tried to console me, but I couldn’t talk. I just sat there, gratefully unnoticed, raining quietly into my lap.

Miguel went up to the altar with his mother and then came back for me. People were crowded four and five deep in the small apse. Everybody was taking pictures of the Virgin; a black stone, maybe the size of an open hand, maybe larger, so completely adorned that the only part of the stone exposed is what appears to be a fist-sized face, topped by a crown and dressed in a shimmering robe covered in small gold and brass amulets representing the asked-for miracles. They’re called Milagros – hands, feet, babies, dollar signs, hearts, houses, symbols of the desired.

“I don’t know why everyone takes pictures,” his mother said, “the face never comes out.” She and I stood at the back of the crowd, watching the flashbulbs. Miguel worked his way to the front and took some pictures, too. “They say that only the pure at heart will have the face show up in their photos. I’ve never known anyone whose pictures turned out.” I squeezed the abandoned candy wrapper in my pocket and knew why.

My mother-in-law looked at me; I must have been a sight. Her forehead wrinkled, “Don’t be sad,” she said, “Ask the Virgin for what you want. She’ll give it to you.”

I had been thinking about this all the way there. I would be living in Mexico and my own people say that the gods and the power belong to the land no matter what religion adopts them. Would I be a hypocrite to ask a Catholic saint to help with my transition to her land?

On my first visit to meet Miguel’s family on the first day of Y2K, we’d gone to La Villa – where the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe first appeared to the Mexican Indian Juan Diego. We’d all thrown a coin into the fountain on the stairs to the old chapel. Mine had landed right in the center of one of the small volcanic stone bowls in the fountain. Miguel’s sister had exclaimed that I must have great luck because the coins rarely land in the bowls – “Quick, ask for what you want!”

Everything I asked for that day has come true and I have felt a certain affection for La Virgincita since that time.

So, during the trip to Juquila, I was wondering – with La Guadalupana, it was an accident, like luck, a response to a thrown coin, maybe by throwing the coin I had taken the action and the Universe had responded. In any event, I wondered, would it be wrong for me to specifically ask for something . . . okay, for a safe move from Seattle to Mexico, for the financial ability to live in Mexico . . . would it be hypocritical for me to intentionally ask, even if I was not a “believer” like the rest of these people?

But, by the time I was standing in front of the Virgin of Juquila, those questions were moot. My mind’s eye was full of garbage and anger. “Just make the garbage go away. Just make the people clean up their f***ing act!”

When Miguel’s mother found out later why I was so angry, her response was not comforting. “It’s like that at the places of all the saints. It’s like that all over Mexico where the foreign tourists don’t go.” And I knew it was true. I had traveled like a Mexican and seen the Mexico tourists don’t see.

A campaign formed in my mind in that moment. Santos en Huelga . . . Saints on Strike. I’d send a petition to the national newspaper, signed by all the Saints in Mexico, saying they’d be granting no more miracles until the Mexican people stopped with the garbage.

“What hypocrites you are, asking us for miracles,” it would say, “and trashing our sacred lands.” It would promise complete and sacred silence until the mountains of garbage were no more.

It would be followed up with a television ad campaign. Images of cherished Mexican icons – the pyramids, the memorials, the works of great art with a caption and voiceover “El orgullo de Mexico,” the pride of Mexico – followed by images of the mountains of garbage and the spoiled sacred places with a caption and voiceover “La verguenza de Mexico,” the shame of Mexico – closed with a cartoon of a little pig running across the bottom of the screen trailing garbage in its wake and the words “Que Cochinito,” what a pig!

Miguel thought my idea might be a little extreme for a foreigner. It could work, but it could also piss people off. He was right, of course, but I’ve thought of Santos en Huelga every day since then. I collected articles on people who’ve made a difference in modern Mexico, like Juan Carlos Cantu who has been the moving force behind multiple successful national campaigns to protect Mexico’s whales, dolphins, sea turtles and mangrove forests (Defenders of Wildlife, Feb. 2007 newsletter). In March I met a writer in Seattle who promised to introduce me to Leslie Iwerks, who had just received an Academy Award nomination for her film “Recycled Life,” a documentary on the inhabitants of the Guatemala City garbage dump (Recycled Life – a Documentary). I wanted to know how they’ve done it. How does one person tackle a problem bigger than a mountain? Bigger than a country? As big as humankind?

This week, Miguel’s mother got back from the annual pilgrimage to Juquila. The garbage is gone. The Mexican government has apparently, finally, taken an interest in public health and natural resources and the people are responding.

They’ve also cleaned up Acapulco – the Mexican tourist side of Acapulco. Last year it was repulsive – streets and beaches covered in plastic cups, Styrofoam plates, disposable forks, beer cans, soda bottles, food waste. The state government has invested $35 million pesos in the cleanup of Acapulco and ordered all of the street vendors to clean up after themselves – and wear black pants and white shirts for a clean appearance.

So, it looks like Miguel and I will go back Juquila to give thanks. Next time I’ll ask for clean rivers. And that the cleanups last. And that the people take personal responsibility for where they drop their trash and don’t depend on government campaigns.

Did I tell you that the pictures Miguel took of the Virgin show her face? Yes, my pure-of-heart husband.