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Love in the Time of Cholera: Waiting for Free Trade BY DEBBIE NATHAN Editor’s Note: This story was written a year ago, after Perla showed up ad Debbie Nathan’s front door. A year after the fact, Perla is still selling fruit, door-to-door in El Paso by day, then crossing back into Juarez each night. Chuyito’s health is better and Perlita and Adan are still together, selling paletas popsicles from a pushcart in Juarez. In the last year every acequia irrigation or drainage ditch in Juarez has tested positive for the cholera bacterium, Vibrio cholerae which should not be surprising since the number of confirmed cases in Mexico increased from 2,690 in 1991 to 7,814 in 1992, according to the Pan American Health Organization’s office in El Paso. And Debbie Nathan is still waiting to document the affects of cholera and free trade along the border where she lives. El Paso 5 OMETIMES, before three in the afternoon, when my husband has wakened from his day of sleep after the graveyard shift, and the kids are still in school, and the two of us are in bed, we switch the telephone ringer to off, the answering machine to on, and we turn down the blinds. The doorbell rings. He pulls out and I curse. We lie there, silent. Come on, I say between clenched teeth. Just ignore her. I can’t, he says, I’m soft. I kiss him. The doorbell rings again. It rings again. We lie very still. But Perla knows what’s up. She’s got on her grimy Ghostbusters T-shirt. She’s got her Fiesta cigarettes that have stained all her teeth dark brown. She knows the score. She’s not going anywhere. I throw on the Oaxaca wedding dress that I picked up cheap on Juarez Avenue. I answer the door. It’s Perla all right. Today she’s got mangos. I buy some, quick. She won’t let me off so fast. Oiga, she says in her reticent, confidential at the same time belligerent tone. Me prestas diez? The “lend” part is a joke, of course. Don’t even think she’ll be able to repay it. To me it’s a miracle she and her family are even alive; that in itself is sufficient debt service. Still, the whole thing makes me queasy. What’s going on now, I say. Chuyito’s sick, Debbie Nathan is a freelance writer based in El Paso. she says. He’s had diarrhea for days. It’s greenish. She needs to go get him medicine. Of course, I say. Give him plenty of water. Take this sugar and this salt, here’s some lime, and this Arm & Hammer. Mix it up just so. Make sure he drinks. Later I mention this to a friend of mine, a midwife up from Mexico City, with an almost mystical gift for coaxing and bullying tired, angry women in labor into expelling their babies without screaming. This friend listens to the facts about Chuyito’s diarrhea. She looks sad and knowing. Can it be the famous cholera? she asks. No, I answer. It cannot be the famous cholera. The famous cholera is not here yet. *** Sooner or later it will be. That’s what the health department people are saying, and they’re not fooling around. Cholera apparently landed in Latin America on an Asian ship loaded with infected merchant marines then rapidly hop-skipped north from Peru to Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala. Mexico reported some one thousand cases; at least a dozen of them fatal. During the first year most of the victims were deep in the interior. But rumors soon spread about cases near the U.S. border. El Paso is getting ready. Task forces are being formed to handle an outbreak. The talk is that city-county disaster preparedness personnel will be involved. Maybe even the military. A Defense Department-style intervention is perhaps not inappropriate. In classical history, cholera has the reputation of being Clausewitzian in its destructiveness. The biggest epidemic killer in the annals of humanity, it once was confined to Bengal. It used to spread through India during Hindu pilgrimages, and infect the lower Ganges. Its very name means wrath: The wrath of God. Under a microscope, the bacterium that causes cholera looks like a grain of cooked rice attached to a tiny, whipping and darting flagellum. It is an aquatic creature that comes in contact with people usually via feces-laden water water that, in modern times, we call sewage. Sewage can be drunk or bathed in, frozen into ice, used to irrigate crops of fruits and vegetables. Historically, cholera has spread when, in the absence of hermetic water systems, human daily waste remingles with human daily life. Swallowed, the bacteria lodge themselves in the gut. If the gut belongs to a person who is malnourished and weak, the germs multiply and throw off a toxin. The toxin causes the intestine to swell and disgorge the body’s fluid in stools the color and consistency of rice water. The stools go on and on. Daily, there may be gallons of them. Losing this much water, one dies very quickly. To spread, cholera has always needed the commerce of business or war. By the mid-19th century, English imperialism and its steamships and railroads had exported the disease to Asia, the Persian Gulf, Southern Russia and the Baltic. In the 1830s cholera invaded Ireland, Canada, Mexico, the United States. Its toll was astounding: 30,000 dead Egyptians in one day; in one summer, 10 percent of St. Louis. It liked newly industrialized areas, particularly their proletarian zones. Not all victims were indigent, though. Indeed, the random way cholera chose a body added to its shock value. The speed with which it killed was especially frightening, its symptoms terrifying. In mere hours, a victim would shrink into a dried-fruit, black-and-blue version of his former self. Cholera’s quick, cartoonish representation of mortality reminded all who witnessed it of death’s complete dominion. Health authorities used to argue endlessly about whether the disease arose from germs or whether it wafted silently from polluted “miasmas.” Finally, everyone hedged their bets. By the end of the century, London, New York and all the other big North American and European cities had cleaned and sealed the water and sewerage systems thought responsible for both bacteria and noxious ethers. But Latin America never followed suit, and 90 years later, Mexico City, Lima and a thousand other places have swelled with people. Most come from the countryside: peasants whom governments and world banks no longer bother supporting with loans, fertilizers, seeds or commodities prices that might make it worth their while to stay and farm the land. *** Perla drives me crazy. Well, says my husband says, it’s my own fault. She knocked on our door for the first time four years ago. I don’t know why I talked with her as much as I did illegal aliens come by all the time, selling avocados, asking for yard work, trying to make the busfare back south after the migra caught them hopping the freights to L.A.; or merely begging. She told me her story in bits and pieces. They were field workers near their ranchito in Durango, she said. The family was there as far back as anyone could remember. But the cotton failed several years in a row and finally they couldn’t take it eating wild rodents for food or nothing at all. They were practically the last of the extended family to leave. She 12 JANUARY 15, 1993 .14,416160Pw.