There are thousands of Maria Batistas in the world, and I’ve looked at hundreds of their online profile photos. A lot of them wear bikinis, and most of them pose with sunglasses—you can see their smiles, but not their eyes. Some of the Maria Batistas hold infants, a few straddle motorcycles, and some pose with their dads, or their cats, or grandchildren they’re kissing when the shutter clicks. Many of them wear school uniforms, a few wear sci-fi monster costumes, and one wears a jujitsu outfit.
I met my Maria Batista in a small town in the Dominican Republic. I was there from Baltimore with my family of five, helping to chaperone a dozen American high school girls. We were all there as voluntourists, taking cold showers and sleeping with mosquito nets so we could work with elementary-school age children eager to learn English.
In Monte Cristi, we walked miles every day to the cinder block schoolhouse. Next to the schoolhouse was an outhouse, and behind the outhouse a cow, and behind her some roosters being trained to fight. The nearby graffiti assured us, “Cristo viene ya” and “Cristo vive para siempre.” Every morning, the schoolhouse’s caretaker, Angela, 18 years old, came with the key and a broom and watched over us. Tagging along was her younger sister Maria, 16, who also watched over. In morning and afternoon sessions, with songs and lessons, and most importantly, games, we helped students learn to speak in English about their dreams, goals, friendships, and the people they love.
In the U.S., we’re accustomed to seeing teenage girls try so hard to be wry, or clever, or sardonic—irony is the badge they wear. They use finger quotes. They roll their eyes. But Maria was on open book. Always sweet, always helpful, she wore her heart on her sleeve.
Right away, she took a shine to my youngest son, seven years old at the time, who was perpetually hot and unhappy. Pounding so much pavement made him cranky, and he was hungry, too. A finicky little guy, he got all his calories from huevos duros, crackers, the occasional slice of familiar fruit, and Coca-Cola. Maria looked past the bad moods and doted on him, practicing her English.
“Luca, do you want me to hold you?” she asked. “Luca, can you smile?”
The youngest of three children, he was not used to this kind of focused, maternal attention, and he was skeptical.
“Luca, why are you frowning?” she asked. “Do you want to hold my hand?”
He clung to me, looking for refuge from her devotion. But every day she courted him.
Monte Cristi struck me as a hot, sleepy town. Of course, there were loud and busy things—mosquitoes and motorcycles—that toiled all day and night. Other than that, though, the town was tranquil. We stayed in a building right off the town square, which included a park where Dominican kids played games with balls from sun-up to sun-down. In this park, I met a pair of young girls who shared a pair of rollerskates; instead of taking turns, each girl wore one skate. Nearby, goats congregated in vacant lots, and limoncillos fell from the trees, scooped up by the kids who knew how to eat them. We woke up every morning to the sounds of livestock.
And yet, our building was guarded by a pretty nice guy with a rifle. All day and all night. Clearly, there was more going on in Monte Cristi than meets the voluntourist’s eye. As I stood on the surface of the town, whatever rippled beneath it was not visible to me.
On one of our first mornings, we stepped onto our third-floor balcony and witnessed a bovine drama unfolding below us. From our vantage point, we saw a cow pacing the town square, calling longingly to the cow on the other side of the square. Round and round they walked, trying to reunite, mooing for each other. From up high, it seemed so easy to connect them, but down on the ground, they were lost.
When we weren’t at the schoolhouse, Luca and I spent a lot of time in the park. Luckily for us both, he was too innocent to be embarrassed about being the only child supervised by a parent. He was a harmless, open-hearted, slightly grumpy seven-year-old who loves to play games with balls—the perfect passport in a foreign land. They brought balls, and we brought balls. On the basketball court the older boys showed off for him when we walked by, making their best shots and calling out, “Kobe Bryant, LeBron Yames.” Through Luca, I met Fernando and Yasmin, who taught us to how to play their volleyball game. I talked with Kevin, who listed the cities he wanted to travel to (he’d never heard of Baltimore), and I got to know Gabriella, who told everyone what to do. Our greatest ally was Joaquin, a kind teen with nearly unlimited patience for the little ones. They practiced their English, and I practiced my Spanish.
Luca was a celebrity. In the evenings, when we ambled past the ice cream store, past the coffin store, past porch after porch, boys and girls pointed him out to their parents or grandparents and called out, “Lucás!”
Back at the schoolhouse, he got similar treatment from Maria.
“Luca, do you want me to hold the umbrella for you?” she asked. “Do you need help with something, Luca?” “Oh Luca, you are so handsome.”
One day, her mother visited the schoolhouse, and Maria took me by the hand to meet her. Her pleasure at having us meet was palpable.
“This is Luca’s mama,” she said in Spanish, beaming. “Luca is her baby.”
I can only imagine what her mother thought of me and Luca. Maybe she thought it was sweet that her daughter had a crush. Maybe she was uncomfortable with how her daughter so admired the white people. Maybe she saw the burgeoning maternal urge in her sixteen-year-old hija and worried. That would have been me—worried by my teenager’s impulse to mother.
Maria liked me, but her heart belonged to my son. A dozen times a day she told me how much she loved Luca. We formed a funny little love triangle. Maria adored Luca. I adored Maria. And Luca buried his head in my leg.
There come moments when a middle-class, middle-aged, twenty-first century American white woman wonders what her life has boiled down to, or blossomed into. After years of wondering what she’ll be when she grows up, she thinks, I guess this is what I’ll be when I grow up. Thirty years ago, my adolescent friends and I played with folded flaps of paper we called fortune-tellers, or cootie-catchers. In these games of fortune-teller, we asked burning questions: How many children will I have? Whom will I marry? What kind of house will I live in?
Well, those exciting questions have all been answered. Now, in middle age, there are still questions, but most of them are boring: Will I be able to retire? Which of my friends will be next to consciously uncouple? What will be my most pressing health issues as I age? There’s no thrill in the answers, and I’m in no hurry to get them. A game of fortune-teller now? No thank you.
But Maria admired my life, maybe even coveted it a bit for herself. As she doted on—and marveled at—my family, I got a new glimpse into my box of loot. I was the lucky lady with a kind husband and three sweet children, all of us healthy and together.
There’s more than one truth about why we were in Monte Cristi. Yes, I had wanted us to do something bigger than ourselves, something positive for people who don’t have so much to spare. I wanted us to take a vacation that didn’t involve buying things or seeing how lazy we could be. Also, we’d signed on for this stint, in part, because I wanted my children to be immersed in Spanish and to get a sense of life without so many things. I didn’t know it at the time, but one of the best reasons for a trip like this is seeing your own children practice kindness. At the schoolhouse, whether it was holding hands, going over a lesson, or singing a song, my kids were generous with the students in ways I hadn’t been able to anticipate.
In the end, I felt that my kindest act in Monte Cristi was to model what my midwife calls “advanced maternal age.” Our time drawing to a close, Maria coyly asked me questions about my children’s ages. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that she wanted to know about my age, too. She sat between me and her sister Angela, asking questions in Spanish.
First I told her about my eldest, who was almost 13. “When he was born,” I said, “I was 30.”
Trying not to look surprised, she turned to Angela and repeated our conversation in better Spanish. Angela raised her eyebrows.
“With my daughter, I was 33.” Her eyes were wide as she repeated for Angela. “And with Luca, I was almost 36. He’s seven now.”
I could see her calculating. Yes, I told her. I’m 43. Maria gasped. She and Angela conferred busily in whispered Spanish.
In Baltimore, there’s no shortage of 43-year-old women with seven-year-old grandchildren, and I suspect it’s the same in Monte Cristi. Most of my Baltimore friends have some version of this story: we bring our new baby out in public, say grocery shopping at the Giant, and the cashier says, “Aren’t grandchildren the best?” (The wound is deep, but it heals.) I’d love to know what Maria and Angela whispered to each other.
As our time in town ended, the service organization held a closing ceremony for us to talk about our experiences as volunteers. What had we learned? I didn’t share my advanced maternal age story, but a church group from California talked about how they’d learned that you don’t need things to be happy. “The people here are so poor,” they said, “but they’re so happy.”
Oh, California. I’m in no position to criticize—but seriously? People smile, but that doesn’t mean they’re “happy,” whatever that word means. Our students in the schoolhouse seemed to be having fun, but their problems are invisible to us. Maria smiled without irony and introduced me to her mother and loved on Luca. In some ways she’s the embodiment of loveliness and grace—but surely there are deeper things lurking beneath, a teenage underworld. My guess is that she’s clever and complex, and sometimes sad, like every 16-year-old girl.
When our time together ended, Maria and I wanted to stay in touch. If for no other reason, we had photos we wanted to exchange. I have shots of her holding the umbrella for Luca; of her and Angela sandwiching Luca in a hug; of her at the schoolhouse with her arms around the students. We exchanged names, assuming we’d find each other in the cloud. It’s the classic error of our times: we rely on technology to solve human problems.
“Facebook?” she asked.
It’s been almost a year, and we haven’t found each other. I’m savvy enough to find her—if she wanted to be found. There’s a world of possibilities to explain. Maybe she quit Facebook. Maybe she has impermeable “privacy” settings. Maybe her mother won’t allow it. It seems incredible, but even now, someone can just disappear.
I imagine us like those cows walking in circles around the park in the Monte Cristi, calling out for each other. Actually, I can’t speak for Maria. I don’t really know her, and young people move on. Maybe I’m the only cow on the plaza. If I were on a third-floor balcony, I’d see more and know more, but here I am, on the ground.