Archive: 2007 3rd Quarter

Antigüedades

Stop! Antiques!

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We pass many places selling country antiques, strung out along the Delores Highway. Roadside establishments selling farmhouse pine furniture are hard to find in the U. S. But they're alive and well here.

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The presence of these places is, for me, another throwback to the '50s; part of what makes living in Mexico so appealing to me.

Just try and buy an old farm wagon to adorn the entrance to your country property. In California's Sierra Nevada Foothills, they're almost unavailable and unaffordable if you do manage to find one. Around here, you can choose from dozens.

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Casa Reyna (Queen House) sits on the Celaya Highway, just south of the glorieta (traffic circle) at the edge of San Miguel. A large motorcycle sculpture catches the eyes of passers-by.

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The motorcycle illustrates the practice of converting antiques into decorator items, rather than conserving them. Although in this case you probably wouldn't want it in your living room. Two tractor wheels, some heavy-duty coil springs and an RCA public address speaker horn form a massive iron hulk maybe 12 feet long. Where would you put it?

The proliferation of these outlets is driven by the large gringo population in these parts. Few expats bring entire households with them when they move here. Like Jean and me, they sell most of their furniture up north, and shop here to replace it.

One of the larger establishments along the Delores Highway is Mexico Lindo. Virtually no piece in the place goes unmodified, usually by application of painted designs.

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Puertas (doors) are in demand, either for use in remodeling old houses, or to convert into tables. Many are handmade from iron-hard mesquite strengthened with forged-iron studs. They're heavy, strong and beautiful.

Carved wooden statues of religious figures, especially St. Michaels, are in ample supply at Mexico Lindo. This one is life-size.

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No telling if the painting on the figure is original, but the paintings on the door panels behind him are almost certainly new.

This 1930s-era panel truck has been converted into a... what? A hearse? A carriage? Whatever it is, we see here the first example of the whimsical, humorous painting that characterizes Mexico Lindo.

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Other vehicles have been subjected to the paintbrush. They're not for sale, they're for advertising.

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The bottom images are of the same panel truck: one side is painted as a coke truck, the other, Corona beer.

The pickup truck full of clay pots is resplendent with Mexico's coat of arms.

Decoration of the green pickup is problematical. Mexicans find my name, John, difficult to spell. What to do with that superfluous H? How do you get the J-sound? Chon? But with a J. Jhon. That doesn't look right. What the hell. Just leave it.

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Words with double Es are tricky as well. I often see Chesse Pay (Cheese Pie, AKA Cheesecake) on menus. Deere appears to be equally difficult.

A cigarette-wielding hooker beckons alongside the entrance gate. Against the other gatepost, a man in lingerie waves a rose.

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The presence of a public restroom at the rear of a courtyard is indicated by the figure of a man relieving himself.

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As he sits, he's happily reading...

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... a girlie magazine. Mexico Lindo's painter certainly is a free spirit.

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Mr. Sushito

I love Japanese food. Especially sushi. Good nutrition, low in calories. When I travel in the States, Japanese food is my favorite restaurant meal choice.

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Too bad I can't find any in Mexico.

I know it's here. Probably in Mexico City somewhere. I found a couple of places in Querétaro, but they were disappointing. All were operated by Mexican chefs who have a taste for more vinegar in the rice than I like. Smothers the taste of the fish.

There's a restaurant in San Miguel that offers pizza, paella and sushi. No thanks. A local Korean restaurant offers maki with cream cheese. Nasty. A new place called California Sushi opened up at La Luciérnaga shopping center, along with our first McDonalds. McDonalds is way better.

The other day, I stopped in at a supermarket in Delores Hidalgo for an ice cream cone. (Don't tell Jean.) Alongside the ice cream franchise was this:

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"Japanese Fast Food." A horrifying thought. I can't imagine trying it.

What caught my eye was the mascot: Mr. Sushito in a conical hat wielding chopsticks, one in each hand. His face is yellow, his eyes are slanted. This image would last for about a nanosecond in the U. S. before the protests and lawsuits would start flying.

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A Working Church

Conquistadors had two objectives: Find riches and save souls. Arguably, they succeeded wildly at both. As to the first, like obsessive overeaters they consumed so much gold and silver that they destroyed themselves, their bloated economy inflating until it collapsed, relegating Spain to second-rate status among nations.

For the second, you need only to look at the presence of the Church in Mexico to get the picture. The city of San Miguel de Allende, last time I counted, had 28 Catholic churches. That's for 80,000 people. Talk about your saturated market.

San Antonio Church is one of them; the heart of the eponymous colonia.

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Not the most ornate or historical church in town, it is one of the more active. Besides serving as a focal point for numerous festivals, it attends to the more mundane needs of its parishioners. One source of community services is the Notaria Parroquial, the keeper of church records.

This place is more important than some of us Norteamericanos might think. For example, not long ago, the most important identity document a person could have was a baptismal certificate, issued of course by the Notaria Parroquial.

Sometimes you'll see several people lined up at the office doorway, waiting to transact some sort of Church business.

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In fact, so many people visit the Notaria's office, it became prudent to post informational signs answering basic questions about office hours and the like.

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The sign reflects Mexican cultural norms. Office hours begin at 10 AM. Of course. Nothing starts in Mexico until 10.

Then the office closes from 2-4 PM for comida (lunch), which can be a lengthy affair. It opens again until 8 PM, so there's your full eight-hour day—just later than gringos are used to.

The office sets your appointments for baptisms or readings of banns. These are performed in the church at specific hours on specific days only, perhaps for the sake of efficiency, or maybe so everyone knows when to show up to denounce a proposed marriage.

The office is closed on Mondays. Note that the Notaria didn't think it necessary to mention that it's also closed on Sundays. Of course it is.

Now, you can't get baptized or confirmed or married without meeting a bunch of fussy requirements. The Notaria issues tickets when you've met them all, after which the church will perform the appropriate ceremony. No ticket, no wedding.

For example, to baptize your baby, you need a birth certificate, the godparents' marriage certificate, and religious training for the godparents. Says so there right on the sign:

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Almost as difficult as getting a Mexican driver's license. No wonder the Seventh Day Adventists are doing so well in San Miguel.

To have your banns read, you need a recent (?) baptismal certificate, a civil marriage certificate (?), and two witnesses, preferably your parents.

To a lapsed Protestant from California, the rules are draconian. That the Church can set such rigid requirements suggests that people accept them. And that the Church needs to maintain office hours to handle the traffic suggests that lots of people accept them.

The other day, I read that a Mexican Bishop spoke out against State restrictions on the Church and lack of religious training in public schools. Just making that speech is against the law. The fact that he would and could do it indicates the still-formidable power of the Church.

(By the way, the signs, like so many here, are hand lettered by skilled signpainters. Theirs is pretty much a lost art up north. I'm always fascinated when I watch them work, the letters flowing effortlessly from their brushes.)

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Portraits

Having your portrait made was serious business in the 19th Century. Photographers didn't ask you to smile. If you did, it would ruin the photo. This wedding photo, taken somewhere in Mexico of someone's great-great grandparents, is typical.

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They don't look like a happy couple, do they? My great-great grandparents look just as serious as these people, in our old family photos.

By the time I was born, fashion had changed. I remember a photographer who actually held a mechanical bird over the lens of his view camera to make me smile.

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"Watch the birdie!" Twitter, twitter.

(That's a genuine WWII cotton shirt, held together at the neck with a safety pin. Thanks, Mom.)

Modern Mexican people relax for informal snapshots just like gringos. But many still treat portrait-taking as solemn occasions. Getting a smile out of Teresa, here rigidly posing in her new school uniform, required ingenuity and the intervention of a Boston Terrier.

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I was reminded of the lingering Mexican propensity for grave expressions in portraits when I saw this display of the Management Team in our new Office Depot:

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Look like mug shots, don't they. The grim expressions are bad enough; the institutional blue shirts and name tags just make things worse. Had their shirts been khaki, these photos could just as well have been taken at the county jail, just down the road from Office Max.

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Misusing Public Funds?

Paul (El Guapo) tells me he read a story in the newspaper about an expenditure by the State of Guanajuato (San Miguel's state) for 800 89 billboards. Pictured here is one such.

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Paul is standing in front to it to give it scale. The sign actually is bigger than it seems, but I didn't have a normal-sized person to pose with it.

You see billboards like this all over Mexico. Government officials use them to inform the public about new hospitals or highway construction projects or such. In my opinion, they're no more than blatant political advertising with a veneer of legitimate communications function.

What are 800 signs communicating? Their entire contents read:

Guanajuato
We go with you
Governor
Juan Manuel Oliva Ramírez

One could not fault an unsophisticated public for mistaking these signs as part of an election campaign.

Governor Oliva might want to clear this up. Assuming of course that his administration actually did put up 800 of these things. Otherwise he risks giving the impression of a rapacious politician co-opting public funds for personal gain.

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Great Expectations

On my morning walk, I passed by this store on Canal Street. I must have seen it a hundred times. Today, the name of the place leapt out at me.

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It's street Spanish for BH03

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The Water Works

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My friend Sergio called me las week to cancel a lunch date.

"What's the matter, Sergio?"

"Well, I haven't had any water for a week, so I have to wait for a water truck delivery."

(Interruptions in the municipal water supply are frequent, so most houses have tinacos (tanks) on the roof or cisterns underground to hold a local supply for use during outages. When they run dry, you call for a water truck.)

"Sergio, did you forget to pay your water bill?"

"No. There's a leak in the main somewhere. SAPASMA hasn't found it yet."

Below we see SAPASMA workers diagnosing Sergio's water main. Confidence-inspiring ¿No?

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All of the above is a set-up for me to bitch about the water department. But before I do that, I want to discuss some differences between the English and Spanish languages; in particular, where a horrible acronym like SAPASMA comes from.

(Sounds like a sneeze, doesn't it.

"SAPASMA!"

"Salud."

"Gracias.")

—§—

Spanish has twice the syllables and one-third the words of English. So you can't say something like San Miguel Water Department in four words and eight syllables.

First of all, you have to specify which San Miguel you're talking about. There's at least 30 San Miguels in Mexico.

Second, compound nouns are rarely used. So you can't just say San Miguel Water Department. You gotta say the Water Department of San Miguel... oops... of San Miguel de Allende, not some other San Miguel.

So now we're building up to a whole lot of words, and we haven't taken into account that SAPASMA is a bureaucracy, so its name needs just a little more spin.

The name of the water department, then, is the System of Potable Water and Sewers of San Miguel de Allende: Systema de Agua potable y Alcantarillado de San Miguel de Allende. Eleven words, 24 syllables.

Now, nobody can remember all that; at least not without effort. So here's where the Mexican pastime of creating acronyms comes in. SAPASMA is a whole lot easier to remember and say than Systema de Agua potable y Alcantarillado de San Miguel de Allende.

Acronyms are everywhere in Mexico. One of my favorites is ISSSTE: Instituto de Seguridad y Servicios Sociales de los Trabajadores del Estado. The Institute of Security and Social Services of the Workers of the State.

—§—

In the photo above, we see a sign informing us that SAPASMA workers are on the job. Let's look at it a little more closely. Here's what it says:

SAPASMA Working
To give you better service
Thanks for your support


We'll overlook the shabby appearance of the sign. Probably just an artifact of the government ensuring funds are spent on stuff that matters, not on cosmetics.

But the slogan is a little hard to take. Better service? In Sergio's case, better service apparently means any service at all. Thanks for your support? Sergio's support is to provide his own water, saving SAPASMA the expense.

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No one takes SAPASMA's fatuous slogans seriously.

Gangs have found a perhaps more effective use for the sign. The graffiti reads "Jotos los de la Cuesta. Por parte de los San Rafa."

"The Cuesta guys are cowards. From the San Rafael guys."

Apparently the boys who live in the neighborhood where the sign is located failed to show up for a fight, and they're being challenged anew by those San Rafa bullies.

—§—

So how is it that SAPASMA can't locate a water main leak, even after a week of looking? Consider this photo of a portion of the crew at the job site:

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Yep. Everybody's standing around, telling jokes. Not working. In case you missed it, there are six guys in the photo. Look below the feet of the man with the orange safety vest.

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That cowboy hat belongs to the only guy who is doing anything. He must have the lowest seniority.

Featherbedding crops up anywhere there's work to be done. And there's usually more of it when a department of a government is involved.

It's just that in Mexico, it's so blatant. You'll remember this post the next time you see a traffic cop with a can of coke in one hand and a lit cigarette in the other, standing next to a double-parked car.

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