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Down at the Pila : Washing Clothes Mexican Style

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Last month, we were in Bolivia.

This month we're back in Mexico and unlocking the secrets of the Mexican pila.

For many ex-pats who move into a house here lock, stock and washing machine, this curious bit of masonry which still protrudes from many a patio wall, even in newer homes, may well be a total mystery. What you have been looking at is the time-honored method for washing clothes once you've upgraded from stream, river or lakeside.

Washing clothes in a creek bed in Bolivia in 1968.

At that time in isolated areas, it was common to gather water for consumption from the same stream where clothes were washed, livestock drank and waded and people bathed.

 

For the uninitiated, a pila is a concrete box divided in two sections. The right side acts as a reservoir for the cold water that comes out of a spigot to the side. The part to the left consists of a cement slab constructed on an incline so that water thrown on top of the clothes will travel down the slab and disappear out the little hole at the end of the incline.

 

The slab may have sand embedded in its surface or a series of ridges running parallel to the incline.

In older homes, the pila was a much larger structure, occupying a prime focal spot in the patio. Today it can be a pretty puny imitation; a mere shell of its former self.

The national emblem for pilas in the 70's consisted of an empty NIDO can (popular brand of powdered milk) that perched precariously on the center divider. Today the NIDO can is more than likely replaced by a plastic container.

When we first came to Mexico, the workings of the pila were as incomprehensible to me as the rationale for the existence of the NIDO can. So the first five weeks were spent washing incredibly big things like sheets in an incredibly tiny kitchen sink.

Realizing that such action could not go on indefinitely, it became mandatory to explore the possibilities of this cement box that was also part of the next place we rented.

 
Much to the delight of the group who had gathered on the other side of the hedge to watch my personal dilemma, I began to wet down the dirty clothes by dipping them in the reservoir of water to the right. This action generated no end of quiet snickering and gave me the idea that this was not accepted clothes washing procedure.

What now follows, ladies and gentlemen, is a description of the wash cycle of the typical Mexican pila.

·CYCLE ONE: The pre-soak. This is accomplished by stuffing ones laundry into all manner and form of plastic buckets overnight, or in the morning, with the appropriate amount of powdered soap and water.

·CYCLE TWO: The wash. Clothes are slapped on the cement incline, rubbed vigorously with bar soap and then scrubbed against themselves. If you scrub the clothes on the protruding ridges or the embedded sand, they will get clean very quickly. They will also disintegrate rapidly. So the idea is to grab the material at the end of the incline and rub it against the material at the top of the incline.

If you can't quite visualize this procedure, think of kneading bread dough. You can see how it all gets particularly interesting when it comes to large items like sheets and bedspreads. The slab part of the pila in our present house measures more or less 15" x 24".

This is the family-sized pila of our neighbors in the rancho above us.

If sheets seem to present a challenge here, think what it would be like to try washing them in a space half as small.

 

This technique requires strong arms, a stronger back and a mind-set that permits one to engage for hours in a boring and repetitive task.

·CYCLE THREE: The rinse. Aha! At last, the mysterious NIDO can or plastic container finally enters the scenario. Water is removed from the side reservoir in said can and thrown on the washed garment. Agitation of garment is manual.

·CYCLE FOUR: The second rinse. This is indistinguishable from cycle three but with less suds.

·CYCLE FIVE: The spin-dry. Ones hands do the drying in a good imitation of the old squeezing blood out of a turnip routine. Ones head does the spinning.

At this point, progress enters the picture in the form of a jug of clothes softener or whatever the dang liquid is called. Being a purist of the old school, I'm of the opinion that drowning ones clothes in a bucket of the stuff serves no earthly purpose.

The young lady who helps us out in the house, however, does not share this notion. No end of philosophical discussions can be generated by these two divergent views.

However the matter is resolved, you eventually get to the final cycle.

·CYCLE SIX(or SEVEN): The dry. A clothes line (remember the old clothes line?) is used here. None of Doonesbury's clothes line police in these parts.

 
 
However, cactus plants, barbed wire fences, rocks and the ground serve just as well.

Actually in some gated communities, I have heard of a clothes line ban, which poses an interesting corundum. How does one wash and dry a good portion of ones clothes without a clothes line when most of the clothes purchased here will bear the label instructions, 'Wash by hand. Line dry.'

Reading about the six (or seven) cycles of the Mexican pila takes far less time than actually going through them manually.

Seven pairs of socks take 20 minutes to wash - more if they're white. Two T-shirts and three pair of underwear take 15 minutes. This is before one even gets to the nitty-gritty like jeans to say nothing of the big-ticket items like towels, sheets and tablecloths. And I'm nowhere near as fussy as the young lady who helps out twice a week.

If you were hired to do this job at minimum wage, a small jar of hand cream could cost you almost a day's wages. If it was a brand from the U.S., you might need three days wages.

Since Mexico is a country especially suited for the task of dirtying clothes in short order and since people are generally garbed in impeccably clean attire, this wash cycle is repeated innumerable times consuming an inordinate amount of woman hours, particularly since the country shows a national preference for white.

The uniform for many schools still consists of white pants/skirt, a white shirt or blouse and long white socks for the girls. The colored sweater is worn in the rain or, as is the case here, for a parade, like the September 15, 2000 Independence Day parade. Then again, there can be just white.
 
 
 

We once asked the young ladies hired to help me learn Spanish how the men in town managed to wear such clean clothes. The answer was quick. The wives washed the clothes.

'What,' I countered, 'If the men were not married?'

'Well, then of course, the mothers washed the clothes.'

'What if the men did not live with the mothers?'

'Then the mothers picked up the clothes and brought them back to their sons all washed, ironed and neatly folded.'

'What if the sons lived so far away that this was impossible?' A whole string of female family members such as grandmothers, aunts, sisters were trotted out to attend to this task.

'What would happen if no grandmother, no aunt, no sister, etc. was available for clothes washing?

This required a short conference, but smiles soon heralded a new solution.

'The men would hire a servant.'

'What would happen,' I queried, 'If the men did not have enough money to hire a servant?'

This necessitated a longer conference, but finally a decision that would satisfy the best politician was reached.

'They would just have to get married so the wife could wash the clothes.'

 

 

Actually, the pila is a truly versatile instrument. We have seen dogs, babies, dishes and hair all washed therein. It has to be an engineering impossibility, but the Mexican stove can be completely dismantled so it can be taken out to, you guessed it, the pila, and scrubbed assiduously.

One day I went out with a bucket of wash at our rented guesthouse and encountered a pig's head staring up at me. It's one thing to wash clothes by hand and another entirely when a pair of porcine eyes supervises your every movement. Later, one of the women from the main house was seen bent over the head scrubbing away like mad. She then took a saw, cut the head in two, dropped it in a pot, added other various ingredients and later brought us over steaming bowls of pozole or pork and hominy stew.

Where are the washing machines, you ask? What about Laundromats? Certainly a country like Mexico has washing machines and Laundromats. Of course they do. Very few, however, look like their U.S. counterparts. The washing machine's capacity is greatly reduced. A couple towels and one sheet would be a full load for many of them. They use a lot of water and the dryer a lot of electricity. Water is usually in short supply and electricity costs more the more you use. The machines themselves aren't cheap.

Water is a real and troubling issue in many parts of Mexico. Or, rather, the lack of it.
 
 
The classic Plaza de Vasco de Quiroga in Pátzcuaro with its wonderful fountains seems leagues away from the world of the pila but one day a few years back, it was filled with local women who, disgruntled with the continuing shortage of water in the outlaying colonias, brought in their laundry in mass and proceeded to do their wash under the benevolent gaze of the beloved bishop. They then draped the wet garments to dry over benches, shrubs, fences and cords strung between lampposts. The municipality was remarkably speedy in their resolution of the water shortage in the colonia.

Most Laundromats are not self-service. You drop off the clothes and pay by the kilo to have them washed for you. One mattress cover and a couple sheets for a double bed cost us $6.00 and a spread for the same bed cost $10.00. So it's not cheap.

Many houses have, besides the trusty, traditional pila, a washing machine tucked away to the side. Sort of a Laudromat and pila under the same roof.
 

It seems that as long as women are willing to go out to the pila, that is still where most clothes will get washed.

Back during the days when we were living at the casita behind the family home, I was caught bent over the pila scrubbing away and muttering curses to myself. The man of the family in the main house advised me not to be so negative. He informed me that the exercise was good for ones back. It cured all sorts of ailments in that area of the body.

Housework never has brought out the best in me, so in a moment of madness I said, 'But of all the people living here, you're the only one with a back problem. Why don't we ever see you out here at the pila?' That made me persona non grata with the gentleman in question for quite some time and enhanced my status with the women of the household remarkably.

One day the realization that two people were dirtying the clothes but only one was washing them caused a revision in the wash cycle. This resulted in the spectacle of Pablo literally pulling at one end of his T-shirt as the woman in the main house where we were renting tugged at the other. It seems the idea of a 'Man Down At The Pila' was just too much for her. Pretty soon every available female member of the family ganged up to vie for the dubious honor of washing that smelly undergarment.

 
Relinquishing his end, we compromised, I did my share in full view of the family and he did his part when no one could witness such a travesty to world order.

When we came here to live, I figured that over our multiple prior extended stays I had washed clothes in this fashion for over two years. Enough was enough. Enter the young lady to help out in the house.

The only negative aspect to this arrangement is that the term 'delicate wash' does not exist in her vocabulary. Everything must be scrubbed to an inch of its life. If I constantly lose the softener battle, I don't stand a chance with this one so my days at the pila are not totally over.

Once the laundry is finally done, there's the ironing. Whereas the iron is viewed by many as an archaic relic of an easily forgotten past, in Mexico, its use has taken on the proportion of a national fetish.

As one girl told me who had worked as a full-time employee for numerous families, 'Everything, but EVERYTHING, has to be ironed.' Not only the usual array of shirts, pants, blouses, etc. go under the steam, but pillowcases, sheets, towels, underwear all are subjected to the same searing fate, up to and including, as she said, 'The least little scrap of a rag.'

Clothing purchased today in Mexico will more often than not tell you not only to, 'Wash by hand. Line dry,' but also, 'Use warm iron.' What is this? A conspiracy by the manufacturers to bolster sales of irons? A plot to keep women down at the pila?

In the states, the iron had been a device I used only to dry a damp garment when we wanted to wear it immediately. The idea of actually putting it to use on every piece of fabric inside the house was beyond comprehension.

In the 70's when family members in the main house looked askance at my rumpled attire, I actually tried to convince them the 'wrinkled look' was all the rage in the world of High Fashion. This was even less successful than my current running battle against fabric softener.

Times change but many Mexican traditions do not. Since this is the country we now call home, I can sometimes be shamed into keeping up appearances. But acculturation has its limits. No sheets, underwear, towels, etc. I draw the line at ironing anything that can't be seen in public.

And I absolutely, positively, definitively, unequivocally and resolutely refuse to buy an ironing board.

There are limits.

 

Public communal pilas are now often relocated to the pages of the not-so-distant past. But the one in San Miguel de Allende is still in use and has to be one of the most picturesque in the country, situated as it is right off the Parque Benito Juárez in a huge courtyard with a magnificent tree surrounded with shrubs offering a convenient 'clothes line'.

     

Next month, it's off to Italy for me where the view from many a clothes line can be pretty spectacular.

Not that I plan on washing many clothes. And I'm definitely NOT packing an iron!

 

 

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