Mexico: The Mayan Relief Fund (6/98)

Used car salesmen are known for their stories. But there’s a guy in Pensacola, Florida, with a line that will tear at your heart. You wouldn’t expect to be hearing about the plight of the Mayan people of the Yucatan from Ricky Long, yet in his friendly Southern drawl he’ll recount years fraught with frustration and gratification in his efforts to make life a little better for impoverished Mexican Indians.

Long’s dedication to the Mayan people began several years ago when he was vacationing in Cancun. Like most visitors to Mexico, he was fascinated by the charm of the country, but oblivious to the poverty carefully hidden from tourists. A friendly exchange with a local man ended up with an invitation to his home for a dinner of homemade tamales. Although the carefree Floridian was moved by the poverty of his hosts, he didn’t yet realize this was the beginning of a life-long commitment to help the Mayan people.

On his next visit, Long brought some clothes for his new friends. While he was visiting, he was introduced to a man who needed to visit a native healer in a village six hours away. Long offered to drive, and ended up in a remote hamlet where White people are seldom seen. He was enchanted by the gracious people he met there, but disturbed by their living conditions – pitiful huts and a well with a homemade pump that took 50 cranks before water emerged. He clearly remembers the shaman’s machete. "It had been filed so many times that it looked like a butter knife attached to a big handle."

The shaman told Long that many people in the village were suffering from a rash that could easily be treated with a store-bought ointment. But it was too expensive – about $4. Long volunteered to go buy the medicine. His generosity was almost foiled, however, when he got lost. Knowing little Spanish and no Mayan, Long eventually made it back to Kurama, where, in addition to the medicine, he brought the shaman a new machete. The 70-year old man was so astonished by his kindness that he cried. As for Long, he promised to remember his way back – he’d found a purpose to his life.

For a people with no word for "charity," this new benefactor was a puzzlement at first. Now they fondly call Long the "Crazy Gringo." He makes seven or eight trips to Mexico every year, armed with medicine, clothes, tools, and even toys. The Crazy Gringo not only brings gifts, he lives and works alongside the people. While he shares what he knows about building and farming (he’s assisting a group of priests who are educating Mayan farmers in a mulching system of agriculture, which is far more productive than their age-old slash and burn techniques), they share with him the unique aspects of their ancient culture. Long fears that these last vestiges of a once incredible civilization may soon be lost forever.

Despite the absence of modern luxuries, Long would rather be in the Yucatan working with the Maya than back in the States selling used cars. He’s not too fond of "car people," he confesses, and it’s hard for an honest man to be successful in his business. But now his used cars are vehicles to fund his philanthropic efforts: every car sale means a $25 contribution. That, combined with the donations of time and money from family, friends, and anyone else he can inspire, has created the Mayan Relief Fund.

Long is also experiencing the frustrations involved in trying to help people in a country where their own government sees them as, at best, an annoyance. During each visit, Long and his friends go through a village earmarking homes to be repaired or rebuilt. In one village, an old woman in a seriously rundown hut proudly told them there was no need for them to fix her house. Men from the government, she informed them, had brought her a chicken and some beans, promising to return and build her a new house. They came by just prior to the local elections.

On Long’s next trip to the woman’s village, he wasn’t surprised to see that no one had come back to help the old grandmother with her hut. "They think nothing of lying to these people to get their votes and then they do nothing for them," he explains. He built a new home for the woman. A new Mayan hut costs only about $75 in materials.

False promises and blatant racism are a constant frustration to Long’s efforts. A heart-breaking example is the story of little Guadeloupe. Long’s newsletters recount his ongoing efforts to save the life of this 7-year-old girl from Yalcoba, who suffers with a spinal tumor. Long raised the money to bring her to Miami for the surgery necessary to save her life. He arranged with a surgeon, Dr. Rolando Garcia of Jackson Memorial Hospital, to donate his services. When the Mexican Consulate offered to pay for the hospital costs, Long thought little GuadeloupŽ was saved.

The Mexican Consulate brought the girl and her father to Miami without notifying Long. Faced with an unexpected $50,000 bill for the hospital stay and operating room, they abandoned the child at the Ronald McDonald House. Long was called in to help Dr. Garcia break the news to GuadeloupŽs father, Marcel, that they must return to Mexico without the surgery. While waiting seven hours to see the Mexican Consulate, Long was told by his staff that they didn’t care "if the Yucatan fell off the face of the earth, these people mean nothing."

On his last visit to Mexico, Long says, you could feel the tension, especially in Chiapas, the impoverished, southernmost state of Mexico. "These people are afraid," he explains. In a response to an international outcry against the persecution of the Mayan people in Chiapas, the president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, is now blaming foreigners for instigating the conflict in Chiapas. At the least, he is condoning the abuses against the indigenous people, and most likely is orchestrating the military build-up that threatens to exterminate the Maya of Chiapas.

Long experienced the escalating problem first-hand last December when he tried to enter Mexico with a van packed with Christmas toys. Despite the fact that he had carefully prepared a list of not only the toys, but a meticulous breakdown of the materials used in them (i.e., polyester fiberfill stuffing), the well-dressed inspector refused to let him bring the toys into the country. Long drove four hours to another point of entry, only to be rebuffed there as well. He ended up leaving the toys in storage in the States and going into Mexico empty-handed where he used his own money to buy candy, soccer balls, and other Christmas gifts.

Today, Long has 10,000 pounds of clothing sorted, bundled, and labeled, ready to be delivered to the needy Maya. But he’s running out of ideas on how to get the donations to those who so desperately need them. He’s faced with two unappealing opportunities. He can give the clothes to a PRI (the oppressive ruling party) government official who will distribute them as part of their election campaign (remember the old woman with the chicken and beans). Or he can give the clothes to the PRI-backed Fundamentalist missionaries who will use them to sell their brand of religion with the goal of destroying the traditional Mayan culture. Neither option serves the interest of the Maya people in Long’s opinion.

While Long is disheartened by the roadblocks and frustrations, he’s more determined than ever to continue with his cause. "It bothers me, but I ain’t quitting. When I see injustice against guys who don’t have anything, it just makes me want to help them more," he says. That determination is taking on a fresh approach. Long hopes to eventually replace his car business with an import business, where he will help Mayan communities set up cooperatives to make hammocks, amber jewelry, weavings, and other handicrafts which he will import into the US to sell. Similar co-operatives were working successfully in Chiapas before recent paramilitary assaults destroyed them.

Sadly, before anything can be done to help the Maya Indians help themselves, the international community is going to have to put pressure on the Mexican government to give the indigenous people of Mexico their basic human rights. Right now, the financial rewards of exterminating the Maya seem to be more compelling than the moral reasons for helping them. Until the scales are tipped, the efforts of people like Ricky Long will remain frustrating. v

Jeeni Criscenzo is the author of Place of Mirrors a novel about the Maya, and webmaster of Jaguar Sun, where you can learn more about the Maya and the situation in Chiapas: For more information on the Mayan Relief Fund, contact Ricky Long at 5725 North W. Street, Pensacola, FL 32505; (904) 626-8406.