The above picture is the layout of the church and adjacent buildings. The
building to the far left is the convent. The building in the foreground, with the
trees in front of it, is the albergo. The building to the right of the allegro, the one
with the little porch in front of it, is the parish hall. And of course, the church in the
background. The parish hall was built around 1970; the albergo in 1975; the
convent in 1990, and the church in 1889. The low wall enclosing the complex
was built about 1992. Later trees were planted inside the enclosure and a
sidewalk from the parish hall to the gate of the albergo was added.
All the pictures included in the Vignettes were taken by either my sister
Marcella or her husband John, or by my sister Geraldine. They were taken over
the course of a number of years, and so the pictures also show some time
This is a Spanish word meaning ‘a shelter’ or ‘a refuge’, and it was the
name that the people of La Esmeralda gave to something I built in i975. I know
that I have written a bit about this before, but it does not appear among the
Vignettes of Mexico where logically it should be found. So it will be formally
The story behind the albergo is the following. During the first years when I
was in La Esmeralda there were several cases where a very old person who had
no relatives living in the town spent their final day in miserly conditions.
The first man was don Abundio. I do not remember his family name, nor
do I remember how old he was or any of his pre history. He did not have any
relatives in La Esmeralda, and did not even have a house of his own. There are
around town any number of abandoned houses in bad repair where a nook of
refuge can be found. One of the best places is the La Parreña. This is located on
the very outskirts of town, and is the abandoned headquarters of a mining
company by the same name. It is a quadrangle of adobe about one hundred feet
square with living quarters, offices and shops occupying one entire side of the
construction. The inside of the quadrangle was for the horses and mules used in
the mines and for hauling ore to Escalón, the railhead about sixty miles distant.
This was before 1889 when a railroad was built into La Esmeralda.
La Parreña at Sunrise
A single mother and her children still live in some of the better rooms.
Don Abundio lived in a room just around the corner on the left. The doorway
(without a door) is just out of sight behind the mesquite. He did not have the use
of even an outdoor privy.
Don Abundio lived by begging meals from house to house among the
town folks; the people of the town are very generous in this respect.
But the time came when don Abundio was no longer able to get around
and was confined to his doorless room and slept on the dirt floor.
In the parish there is a group of women who belong to a national society
called Acción Católica. When there is in town someone like don Abundio they get
together to take care of the person. They agree among themselves, and take
turns bringing them meals, taking care of the washing, providing for medicine,
and the general care of an invalid. So it was with don Abundio. I loaned him a
cot to sleep on. And in the end arranged for the funeral.
Then there was also the case of don Silverio. He too lived and spent his
last days in an abandoned miserable room without even an outdoor privy.
It was then that I decided to build a refuge tor these kinds of situations. By
this time I had learned that building with adobe bricks was not a very good way to
go. So I went to Cuatro Ciénegas, the nearest large town a hundred and ten
miles away, and bought cement blocks. The Station Master in La Esmeralda
worked a special deal to reduce the freight charges.
So we constructed a building with two identical separate rooms each
about twelve feet square, and each with a full bath. In front of the building is a
patio for the enjoyment of the occupants.
The fact is that after the albergo was built it was not until about 1998 that a
case such as with don Abundio and don Silverio again ever arose again. There
were a number of invalids who lived alone, but all of them lived in a fairly decent
house of their own. The albergo was offered to them, but most old people prefer
to stay in their familiar surroundings. Besides, the albergo is at the very edge of
In the meantime the place served very well for visitors, including the
professors of geology from the University of Oshkosh, WI who spent a number of
seasons studying the unique geology of the immediate area. Also for the
geologists of Kennecott which made extensive exploratory core drillings for five
or six miles up and down the valley. Nothing was found to warrant further
It was around 1998 when the first occupant for which the albergo had
been built arrived. For the life of me, I cannot remember his name; let us call him
Juan was an old bachelor who lived alone in a 12 X 12’ room wall to wall
with another house. On one side of this room was a separate sort of a lean-to
about six feet wide that served as kitchen and dining room. The walls were
adobe and the roof of rough mesquite branches overlaid with ocotillo stalks; on
top of that the customary layer of mud covered with lime plaster. The stove was a
twenty inch square wood-burning cast iron stove sitting on a pillar of adobes. It
was big enough for the pot of beans and the coffee pot.
Juan did little jobs that came along, but lived mostly on the charity of
The doors were secured with padlocks. Juan slept on a low cot which was
missing a good many of the tension springs, and what were left were strung
together with a maze of baling wire. The mattress was layers of old blankets. His
clothes closet was nails in the wall.
Juan had developed kidney problems, and was under the care of the staff
of the free government clinic. But Juan was at the age where he was forgetting to
take his medicine, and his health was deteriorating to the point where he could
not take care of himself. He readily agreed to come to the albergo. It was
summer time, and Juan so much liked the swamp cooler in one of the widows of
the room. But he made it clear that if he got back on his feet again, he wanted to
go back home.
In the meantime I re-did his cot replacing the missing springs and using
heavy wire. A two inch thick pad of plastic foam for a mattress. An agreement, at
a price, was made with the neighbor to run an extension line from his house to
put a bare bulb in the room, in the kitchen, and an outside light. I also had a hole
dug and made an outdoor privy. The kitchen, black from smoke, was
whitewashed, and equipped with a single burner butane stove along with the
Juan did get back on his feet again, and returned with glee to his
renovated house. He was especially pleased with the butane stove, and would
show it off to anyone who passed by. No more going out and scrounging for
sticks and twigs.
But it was not long before his health deteriorated again, and now to the
point where he became disorientated and needed someone to be with him at all
times. This time the people who cooperated in taking care of him found another
suitable room closer in town where it would be more convenient for them. The
albergo is on the very edge of town. Juan, now completely disorientated, lasted
only a few months longer.
Times have changed very much since back then when La Esmeralda was
so isolated and neglected. There are now in place government programs to aid
the very needy. It is very unlikely that the albergo will again shelter another
This is a picture of what the albergo looked like when it was first built. Only the
front of the building was plastered. This picture was taken after 1990; a corner of
the convent can be seen behind it. It was only when other projects had been
completed that there were funds available for upgrading appearances, such
amenities as enclosing the complex with a low wall, and plastering and painting.
A corner of one of the rooms showing the wall cabinet with a single burner
butane grill. The cabinet was made in the parish shop. The floor is vinyl tile.
A view from the laundry / utility room looking toward the gate. Notice the screen
on the bottom of the gate; a protection against the neighbors’ piglets.
From inside the patio showing the entrance to the rooms. The door and one
window of the left hand room are seen. To the right of the door is the open
entrance to the utility room.