The Sierra Madres Mountains weave a tapestry of astonishing beauty. Irregular patches of corn, sugar cane, coffee and black beans sprawl across the pastoral landscape. Legions of crickets orchestrate the evening while the retiring sun mantels the high ranges with gold. At night, the flashing of fireflies complement the twinkling heavens. A gentle breeze blankets the rich fragrance of wild orchids over the valley floor.
This is Puebla State in east-central Mexico, home to Aztec and Totonac Indians. It inspires visions of heaven above and the grizzly reality of evil lurking below.
José gripped a glass of golden liquid between his burly hands and slumped back in his chair. It was a humid summer afternoon, and his drinking cronies relaxed with him, downing quantities of José's favourite corn whiskey brew.
Behind them, a scream echoed from inside their cement-block home. José straightened in agony, and his bronze Aztec face hardened. Bloodshot eyes flashing with anger, he attempted to pull himself to his feet. Slumping again, he shouted, “Woman, stop your screaming, or I'll give you more cause to complain.” He continued to curse in the name of his clay gods, which stood mute on the shelf on the wall inside.
Silence followed as his wife, Julia, stifled further cries in her tide of hot tears. Her young body shone with sweat as she writhed in the pain of childbirth. The midwife wiped her fevered brow with a damp cloth. The fear of crying out became more chilling than her physical pain. The heat inside the single-room house became almost unbearable, and the smoke of the smouldering cooking-fire stung her eyes.
Outside, José's whiskey had done its work in his bloodstream. His friends had stumbled down the path, leaving him alone and powerless. He lay in a stupor on the black earth where he fell in his attempt to enter the house and silence his wife. The relentless sun beat down on his half-naked body, and the whiskey from the glass that had slipped from his hand vanished in the midday sun.
José never heard the first cries from his new-born son.
Julia drew her squirming new-born close to her breast. Her husband's curses and the agony of her labour were only distant echoes now—at least for the moment. Exhausted, mother and son rested together in that bond of love and joy. Damián Hilario entered his mountain world on the afternoon of April 12. He was the fourth son of José and Julia Hilario.
A short time before Damián was born, José had decided to abandon raising cattle to grow coffee. The stresses involved in the transition made family life more unpredictable. José's drinking continued, sometimes decreasing for a few weeks, but then becoming more chaotic.
Julia scoured the nearby slopes for ears of corn or beans overlooked by farmworkers. Foraging for food became essential to sustain her growing family. Young coffee plants produced no crops for three years, and the money from the sale of the cattle was slipping away.
Julia looked across the green slopes at the white egrets perched on their neighbour's cattle. “What a wonderful relationship,” she reflected as she watched their long necks arching as they feasted on flies and insects from the backs of the cows. Her eyes became misty as she remembered the days when there was enough milk and food to adequately provide for her family. Although they had an electric light in their small home, so few other comforts of life were within their reach.
Day after day, torrential rains washed the green mountains that towered a thousand metres above the rushing river below. Julia carried the family's laundry down to the river. Kneading clothes on the rocks, worn smooth over the years, took long hours. However, the time spent with the other women regularly became the best hours of her week. She could share her fears and her tears with them as she realized that she was pregnant again. The riverbanks wore the simple colours of the Aztec community as clothes were sanitized in the afternoon sun. Evening shadows crept into the valley when the women hurried for their homes.
Julia navigated the rocky trail with ease, carrying her load of sun-bleached laundry. She had been happy for a few hours, but now fear gripped her pounding heart—the fear of the unknown man that her husband had become.
When she neared their house, José caught sight of her. He raised himself to his feet and stood glaring. Julia had learned long ago that it was pointless to try to protect herself—that only brought harder blows. He approached her with amazing steadiness, despite his drunken state. As José cursed her, he hit her squarely across the face with the back of his hand. Then he struck her hard on the shoulder. Julia lost her balance and fell backwards. She could feel warm blood flowing from her nose but remained still, waiting for another blow. “What kind of fool do you think I am? I know you are carrying another useless child! It's your fault—let it die if you want.” He kicked the fallen laundry across the damp soil, deliberately trampling it underfoot as he wheeled away.
Six-year-old Damián wove his way among the rich green coffee bushes that hugged the steep slopes. He paused and surveyed the backbreaking work of the mountain farmers. His young mind could not fathom anything ever growing taller than the corn in the neighbour's fields. The stalks towered more than three times his height—endless rows with their feathery tassels tickling the clouds. Women ground the golden kernels to make tacos and wrapped the flat leaves around steaming tamales.
“Hey, Damián, let's get some oranges.” Pedro, his four-year-old brother, had followed him. Although Damián remembered his father's angry warning about not stealing oranges, he did not want to disappoint his younger brother.
Damián tossed another juicy fruit to Pedro and started down the tree. He lowered himself, extending with his broad toes for the branch below. Drops of sweat glistened across his forehead. His toe felt something substantial and he let go—too soon! His foot slipped, and he crashed down, striking many branches in his fall, but not one stopped him, and he thudded onto the rich earth. He lay in a badly twisted heap, with all the air knocked out of his lungs. Pedro raced to his side, terrified. There were no signs of life. “Damián,” he whispered to the motionless body. Minutes dragged by before Pedro saw Damián's chest heave. “Live, my brother! I'll get help.”
“No, please. Just be quiet!” Damián pleaded, fearing his father's anger more than the pain in his back, and he blacked out. Gradually, consciousness returned, and with it, unbearable pain.
Pedro struggled to pull Damián to his feet. Sharing the burden of his brother's helplessness, they stumbled down the slope towards home. Through glazed eyes, Damián recognized the outline of their house and his father and mother, then his consciousness blurred again.
The family had no money for a doctor, and José refused to trust the clinic at the Totonac Bible Centre down the road. He felt that the Americans were using religion and medicine as a guise to take over their land and force them to become evangelicals. As minutes merged into hours and hours into days, the family became hopeful that Damián would recover. Over the following weeks, he became the focus of his mother's love and attention. Julia cared for him constantly. Even José's harshness became less severe. He provided extra food for his son and kept anyone from bothering him. For almost four months, Damián was forced to walk sideways, on hands and knees, like a crab, to bear the pain in his back. Week after week, the pain lessened, but the memory of his mother's compassion and his father's concern remained.
A year passed before Damián was well enough to walk to classes in Ahuaxintitla, the neighbouring village. All studies were in Spanish, but Damián spoke only Aztec. He felt totally alone, and the days felt too long. Although his first year seemed wasted, he became fluent in Spanish. When he started third grade, he had to walk farther—an hour and a half up over the steep mountain trail to the government school in Zihuateutla. Damián's older brother, Lorenzo, also attended the government school and helped Damián with his studies and work projects. They became close friends.
Over the years, the family increased to nine children: five boys and four girls. Demanding farm responsibilities continued, and the coffee plants brought a measure of financial security, yet José was losing his battle with alcohol.
Damián returned home during the summer months, but during the school year, he rarely had bus fare to make the six-hour trip.
One weekend, Bonifacio, his older brother, came to visit him in Toluca.
“How are things at home? How is Mom—and what about Dad?”
“Mom's doing okay, considering... She sends you her heart. I think Dad misses you too, although he would never admit it. Some students from the Totonac Bible Centre visit him and discuss Christianity. He sure gives them a rough time, but he lets them keep coming.”
“Well, if he just got a bit of religion, that might help make things better for us all,” Damián joked. The brothers laughed together at that impossible idea.
When the rainy season sweeps into Puebla State, it transforms the area into a sauna with no exit door. The dazzling sun generates suffocating humidity, yet on cloudy days the dampness burrows deep into the bones. Crude mountain homes with wide gaps in the plank walls offer little protection, and many die of pneumonia.
Unable to work in his muddy fields, José sat in front of his house in the gentle drizzle pursuing his passion of exceeding his tolerance level for corn whiskey. Neighbouring farmers joked that José did not eat his corn tortillas—he drank them, and soon the cornfields would be empty!
Julia's heart was in shambles. Her future loomed darker than the looming rain clouds hovering over the valley. Sitting at the table, lost in her thoughts, her head cradled in her hardworking hands, she did not hear José call. Again, he shouted, “Get out here! I need you!” Julia stood up, slowed by the lead weight of despair in the pit of her stomach. She felt unable to bear another confrontation. How she longed for the escape of death that visited in these mountains so often, but she knew she had to go on living to care for her family.
Julia heard the thud as José's chair hit the ground when he stood up. She headed toward the half-open steel and glass door.
Unrestrained hatred flared in José's eyes as he strode directly towards Julia. “If you don't listen to me one way—then maybe you will hear this!” he cursed.
On only a few occasions had Julia seen him so totally out of control. She feared not only for herself but also for their sixteen-year-old daughter, Cirila, who had come to her mother's aid.
As José lurched towards the doorway, Julia reached the door. Maybe she could buy time by keeping him outside. Maybe, just maybe, he would forget his vile intent. She slammed the door, and the latch clicked. Outside José cursed, “You female burro!” In his blinding rage, he struck out, smashing his fist through the thick glass with a hideous crash. The glass fragmented into shards of razor-sharp shrapnel. His arm was buried up to the elbow. In a frenzy of horror, he yanked his arm back through the jagged mess, dislodging large pieces of his flesh as he did so.
Julia screamed in terror when she saw what her husband had done. Stunned, she opened the door. José stood, clutching the remains of his arm. Julia felt nauseated. She could see bone, muscle and glass, all in her husband's tattered arm—and blood spurting out as his heart raced. “Quick, bring some cloths, Cirila,” she instructed her daughter, “and you sit in this chair, José.” With all the alcohol in his system, José's blood flowed freely, and twenty minutes passed before Julia could adequately slow the bleeding.
“We need to get help,” she said to her weakened husband, but José refused. He was drunk enough to feel little pain.
Julia endured a long sleepless night beside her husband on their plank bed—padded only by a single cotton sheet. She worshipped each laboured breath that told her he was still alive.
Early the next morning, she prepared tortillas and sweet coffee. José, weak and delirious, still insisted that he needed no help. He refused to sit up and cursed every effort Julia made to comfort or feed him.
Throughout the second night, he was more restless, uttering pitiful sounds of agony. “Please don't let him die,” she prayed, looking towards the collection of powerless clay gods in the shadowy corner. She stayed awake for hours—until the sun sliced through the night's darkness.
José lay silent, his glazed eyes staring blankly at the smoke-darkened ceiling. Julia sat by his side, and his daughter, Bonita, and son, Pedro, kept their vigil on the floor with their backs against the wall. The shelf of mute gods glared down at them and added a greater weight of helplessness.
In desperation, Julia disobeyed her husband and sent her oldest son, Bonifacio, to her brother's wife, Maria Lorenzo, for help. Maria was a Christian and had prayed for José and his family for many years. Julia trusted her.
Maria arrived by mid-morning while it was still early and greeted the silent foursome. She spoke firmly to the wounded man: “José, as your family, let us help, if not for yourself, then for us. Allow us to take you to the doctors at the Totonac Bible Centre. They can help.” He attempted to argue, but his energy was gone and his parched lips slurred a grudging consent.
Unable to get a bus or taxi to the Centre, Bonifacio offered his aunt a ride on his bicycle. Maria, in her traditional long black skirt, was probably the first Aztec woman to ride side-saddle on the back of a bike. The speeding duo swerved down the road.
When the volunteer doctors heard about José, the three women crammed into the doctors' Volkswagen beetle and sped back to José. Bonifacio followed closely on his bicycle. At the mountain home, they lifted José from his bed and carried his fifty-kilo deadweight back to the car.
The mass of waiting patients at the clinic spread in a wave to allow José's stretcher through.
When the doctors examined his arm, they were horrified at what they discovered. The main artery was partially severed, and his hand was blue and clammy. An infection had already begun to spread throughout his body. They set up an intravenous drip to counteract the extreme dehydration from the loss of blood and fluids and to arrest the further spread of infection.
José responded to the intravenous, and the staff prepared him for the operation. Only a miracle could save José and his arm. They spent two hours stitching the torn, raw flesh. José refused anything to relieve the pain and began to trust the doctors' skilled hands. His mind faded in and out of reality. He agonized over Hebrews 12:4-6, a passage the Bible school students discussed with him, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood... do not make light of the Lord's discipline... because the Lord disciplines those he loves and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” He wondered if possibly the students' God was disciplining him for his disobedience and abuse of his family.
The Physician from Galilee guided the dedicated doctors, and the miracle of healing began.
The students at the Centre spent many hours with God's captive during the following days. José repeatedly asked increasingly profound questions.
Eventually, the Holy Spirit broke José's stubborn, iron will, and he reached out his bandged hand to receive the source of life. Cleansing tears flowed freely from his eyes to furrow his face, but José did not care who saw his brokenness. Then he closed his eyes and slept—resting in a peace that he had rarely experienced before.
During the following two weeks, José's arm healed, and his strength returned. He continued to question the doctors and students at every opportunity.
When released, José walked trudged the road alone—a new man. His heart was singing, and the wind whispering through the trees echoed his song to the God who had healed him. Between frequent rests, José became more and more eager to reach home and Julia.
When he arrived, he told the family about his encounter with Jesus Christ and his desire to share his news with others. Maria, his sister-in-law, encouraged José to get rid of his collection of idols. She and José carried the dusty collection outside. Julia stood nearby, laughing to herself, and wondered at the significance of their actions as they smashed the idols against a big rock. Neither those old gods nor José's new God meant anything to her at this point.
The pile of smashed clay fragments did not visit evil on their home, and the family began to function. Julia's distrust of her husband turned to questioning. “If the God of the Totonacs possesses such power,” she thought, “there might be truth in his story.” She struggled with the thought that José needed God's forgiveness, but she did not. After all, he was a violent man, and she was a good provider. God knew all too well that she had already suffered a great deal. Was it essential for her to accept Christ? Did she need to change?
The Spirit that had moved like an avalanche through José's life now began to melt into refreshing streams that would bring rebirth to the barren meadows of his life. His addiction to alcohol had transformed into a new eagerness to study his Bible. Unable to work for a year, he bought a dictionary, a table and reading glasses. The students held a Bible study in his home each Saturday.
On weekends, the family was together, and José continued to witness with the enthusiasm of a young teen. Although Damián marvelled at the change in his father's life—the uncharacteristic love he showed—he was far from accepting his faith. Damián had learned to trust and admire his brother, Lorenzo, during his school years, and he watched Lorenzo closely to see his reaction.
Julia watched José's efforts to right the wrongs of the past and saw that his commitment was not just another mood swing. Gradually his spirit of new life became hers. It was a magical night when they joined in prayer. Kneeling in the glare of the naked hundred-watt bulb, they asked God for the salvation of all their children. Their family trail had begun to twist in quite a different direction, now that the head of their home was leading the way to God's Son. The years consumed by whiskey would someday be more than replenished.
With his studies at Toluca Primary School completed, Damián packed his gym bag and walked towards Toluca's sprawling bus station. A green and white bus was waiting to carry him home. As the vehicle swayed around the sharp curves, they passed through cities with musical Aztec names like Tulancingo and Huauchinango. He longed to keep travelling—never arriving. Resting his head against the window, Damián reflected over the events of his life. School had gone exceptionally well, and he felt that life was beginning to have meaning. His dark brown eyes followed a powdery white jet-vapour across the cloudless sky, and he began to dream about being a pilot someday.
Damián was quickly jolted back to reality when the bus stopped in Xicotopec. He wrestled his bag from the overhead rack and struggled through the crowd of passengers squeezing on. The bus continued another eighty kilometres to Poza Rica, an oil refining city near the Gulf of Mexico.
In Damián's eyes, Xicotopec never changed. He walked up the sloping street to the central square, where he always caught the tired La Union Transport bus that would carry him the final fifteen kilometres home. The interior of the bus was crammed, with more people riding precariously on the roof. Damián wedged himself inside, savouring the familiar sights and smells of the hardworking people he loved so well. His trip took fifty minutes to descend, through a long series of hairpin turns, from twelve hundred to six hundred metres above sea level. Squeals of protest from the overheated brakes became the music of the journey.
At Atequexquitla, his home village, he wormed his way off the bus. For a moment, he stood in silence by the side of the road, watching the bus belch a dark cloud of exhaust as it laboured around the curve towards Loma Bonita. Damián felt stranded and helplessly alone—like a gladiator on the arena floor awaiting the arrival of his combatant.
As he walked the final few steps home, he tried to visualize his homecoming: his teary-eyed mother would throw her arms around him; his father would show his disinterest and his brother Pedro would be in the village with friends. He approached the house and noticed the door standing open with the glass finally replaced. He called his greeting and entered. In the cool interior, his father, mother and brother sat together at the table. Pedro sprang to his feet when he saw Damián and hugged him. José rose slowly to hold Damián's hand in his scred hand. They stood silently, looking into each other's eyes. Finally, his mother held him close to her breast and wept with joy.
Damián had arrived, expecting that the change he had seen in his father would have passed by now. He felt strange as if the bus had deposited him in the wrong mountain village or someone had stolen his family and replaced it with phony actors. Damián struggled with so many changes and the feeling that his parents were no longer the ones he had known. José and Julia were lost to him. He was unable to understand the reason behind the joy that had replaced their despair. Free for the first time in his life to question his father, he challenged José's new beliefs. The annoying confidence of his father's answers did not inspire Damián. It just unsettled him.
One Sunday in April, Damián was no longer able to ignore the existence of a God who had changed his father so radically. The simple Easter message made sense at last, and Damián invited Christ into his life. Like his father, tears flooded down his face, and his heart pounded like a drum on festival days. God was beginning to answer the prayers of Julia and José. Eventually, all of Damián's sisters and brothers would become believers.
After he accepted Jesus Christ, Damián became involved in the church in La Union. The young people in the church often went to the Totonac Bible Centre to challenge the students in volleyball. There Damián met Manuel Arenas, the founder of the Totonac Bible Centre. He admired his hard work and skill as a leader. Manuel recognized that Damián had great potential because of his eagerness to learn.
Manuel, a Totonac Indian, was born in a primitive hut in Zapotitlán. He was twelve years old when a Wycliffe translator arrived in his remote mountain village to translate the Bible into the Totonac language. As the translator's helper, Manuel was challenged by Jesus' life and teachings. Soon he understood that Jesus loved him—that He had come to die to forgive his sins. Despite the intense anger and rejection of his father, he chose to follow Christ. During his student years, Manuel travelled throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. He mastered seven languages and taught Theology at Erlangen University in Germany. After ten years, Professor Manuel Arenas returned home to the mountains of his youth. He set up a small clinic, an experimental farm and a Bible school. Manuel was continuously ministering, teaching, counselling, travelling and securing justice for the innocent farmers. He did everything possible to bring the Gospel message to his people and help restore their lost dignity.
As Damián got to know Manuel, he became impressed. He had never met anyone quite like Manuel before. Although small in stature, Manuel was a spiritual giant. The two men became close friends, and that friendship changed Damián's life forever.
At the end of the summer, with his gym bag crammed full of his life's possessions, Damián left for yet another new school. After only three months, he returned home to assist his father in the coffee harvest.
During the following summer, he became involved in a Christian ministry to Indian children. His reluctance to quit his work until the last minute caused him to be late registering for school. He missed his examinations and was forced to repeat his year. (Students take exams on the previous year's material at the beginning of the fall term to allow them to proceed to the next grade.)
Frustrated and with no way to pay his tuition, he gave up and became a casual labourer in an electronics company in El Paso, Texas. There he hoped to earn enough money to complete high school and university so he could become a pilot with Aeromexico.
One evening, when Damián returned to his rundown El Paso rooming house, a letter awaited him. He tore the envelope open with excitement. The note was from Manuel, and its message was simple, “Damián, please come and talk with me.” Damián's love and deep respect for Manuel could not be restrained. Later that night before he rose from his knees, Damián decided to leave El Paso and head across the Mexican border—back to the home where he belonged.
Manuel's eyes squinted as the afternoon sun silhouetted Damián in the open doorway at the Totonac Bible Centre. The two friends held each other in silence.
“I know that you want to complete high school and learn English,” Manuel said. “If you let me, I will provide for you to complete school, and I will teach you English.”
Damián felt the burden of anxiety being lifted from him as he accepted Manuel's offer. He pursued his high school studies in Xicotopec with persistence, and whenever possible, Manuel taught him English, often from the Scriptures.
Manuel encouraged Damián to consider his future. Although Damián still longed to be a pilot, he became increasingly excited about studying God's Word. Manuel suggested that he consider the Central America Mission Seminary in the city of Puebla. The seminary offered an excellent education and was close enough that he could return on weekends to serve in the La Union church. An American couple, who was visiting Manuel at the time, offered to support Damián financially. He became a student in the fall term. Whenever possible, Manuel spent time with Damián and encouraged him, giving him dreams for his future. However, near the end of his second year, Damián became aware of Manuel's deteriorating health. A back injury that had given him constant pain over the years became considerably worse. (As a young man, Manuel had toppled backwards off a ladder and broken his back. His injury required several major operations). Although he rarely complained, Manuel's eyes betrayed his secret pain.
After a restless night, Damián rose early and climbed the muddy road behind the Totonac Bible Centre. He stopped for breath at a bend in the road, gazed over the river and the small village of Patla below. A grey moon was fading as the morning light penetrated the night mist that shrouded the valley. That faint amber glow seemed to lessen the chill that bit through his sweatshirt. Minute by minute, the panorama changed. The cricket orchestra left its night stage. Roosters began waking the villagers to the new day by establishing a relay that echoed down the length of the valley. Gentle breezes caressed his face and carried the chattering voices of the river, which stumbled over the rocks below. Patla, with its swaying footbridge, began to awaken from the night. One by one, the dull glowing embers from yesterday's cooking fires were fanned to life again. Puffs of grey smoke rose straight into the amber sky. Soon black cooking pots would be bubbling over the hot flames, providing food for their families. These distant flames made Damián question—was he called to carry on his friend's vision? Oh, how he needed the rekindling strength of God's Spirit! He began to understand the spiritual starvation of the people living in the valleys and mountains around—and he knew the source of God's food.
He felt that he was no longer standing alone. Words from the physician Luke spanned the mountain ranges of time, “So you also when you have done everything you were told to do, should say: ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.'” (Luke 17:10)
No whirlwind fanned the embers inside him, just the gentle breath of the Spirit of God encouraging the weak flames to ignite in his heart. Quietly Damián turned away from the simple invitation God had spread out at his feet and headed back towards the Centre.
As he moved down the trail, the golden sun began to spill into the valley, bathing the meagre homes below. A heavenly light was shining on his path, directing Damián toward his future service.
Once again, God raised another servant to continue his work among his people—someone to stand as a watchman on the mountain tops. Someone to serve these people in the valleys of Puebla State—someone to proclaim the Good News of God's eternal love--the son of an alcoholic and the protégé of one of God’s giants.