I could not read Don Quijote, nor you,
Yet three months pass there across a table.
“The recipe, please!” I ask, eyes widen.
Behind the kitchen stove, a soft response
In foreign tones, “Lo siento, querida.”
“But do not pity me,” says the smile. 
It was another beautiful day in Toledo, Spain, with the final petals on the chrysanthemums falling from the clinic balcony. I was in the community kitchen with Himo, the cleaning lady. We chatted while she brewed a fresh cup of sugared, Moroccan mint tea for our patients.  

Sixty years old and originally from Morocco, Himo served as an essential–but unequal–member of the healthcare team. Despite her involvement in day-to-day activities, Himo was still expected to eat at a different time and in a different location.  
For me, this was culture shock, to say the least.
As I smelled the aromas coming from the kitchen stove, I asked Himo for a Moroccan recipe that she had made on several occasions during my three-month global health rotation. 
“I have it all in my head.”
“That’s fine” I replied, “but if you could write the ingredients for me, it would be very helpful for when I return home.” I ignorantly smiled.
“Lo siento, quierida.” She closed her eyes and sealed her lips. “I cannot read or write.”
For three months I had interacted with Himo, and not once had it occurred to me that she was illiterate. She continued to stir the mint leaves that boiled on the stove, unbothered by her statement. I, on the other hand, was speechless.

Cynthia Avila

Durham, North Carolina


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