Archive: 2007 4th Quarter

Somos Católocos

We live in a Catholic country, a fact that won't escape the notice of the most obtuse visitor. In San Miguel de Allende, just in the city itself, we have at least 28 Catholic churches. Even those who don't practice the faith are heavily influenced by the Church. A fifteen-year-old girl's quinceañera, her coming-out party, may look like a big fiesta to you and me, but the centerpiece of her celebration is a mass.

Looking closely while walking through residential neighborhoods yields another sign of the pervasiveness of the Church: cards like this one posted in windows.

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It says, "This home is Catholic. We don't accept protestant propaganda nor [that of] other sects."

Calls from door-to-door salesmen are annoying. No, I don't want your $500 vacuum cleaner. I don't want aluminum siding. My roof looks fine to me; I really think you're exaggerating the need for replacement. Gee, I was just thinking about the state of my soul when you rang my bell; come on in and talk to me about salvation.

Some Mexican families have found a solution. Put up a sign. Somos Católocos. We're Catholics. Don't bother calling here. Go away.

Such signs may offer some relief from unwanted visitors, but all kinds of people you haven't been introduced to ring your bell anyway: the Gas truck driver, the Santorini water guy, the lady selling figs or nopales, the woman carrying a sick child and a prescription for medicine she says she can't pay for.

I can't complain. Rosario answers our door, running interference. She buys flores de calabazas (squash blossoms) from the young mother toting a five-gallon paint bucket full of produce, trailed by two preschool kids. She sends missionaries away, instead increasing her chances of salvation by giving a few pesos to the man with the bandaged arm.

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Parripollo

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We have lots of nice, respectable restaurants in San Miguel de Allende; places that don't offend norteamericano sensibilities. Places with table linen, with Japanese-Spanish fusion cuisine, with fine wines in balloon stemware. Vacationers and unadventurous expats can eat comfortably and confidently in our better restaurants, unaware that the sous chef perhaps works weekends at the mystery-meat taco stand near the Central de Autobuses.

We shouldn't be too hard on such people. After all, up north, restaurants are either expensive or they're some kind of fast food franchise. In either case, the facilities are slick and the product predictable.

Not so in Mexico. Here it's a rare restaurant that has anything like a reassuring appearance. An inexpensive place might be housed in a converted auto lube bay, poorly lit by a few hanging light bulbs and furnished with a half-dozen dented sheet metal tables. Places like that scream to us ex-suburbanites: "Stay away! Stay away!"

Yesterday, my friend Patty took me to one of her favorite restaurants, out on the Dolores highway. The name is Parripollo, a play on
parrilla (grill) and pollo (chicken). So you don't have to ask what's on the menu.

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Doesn't look like much, does it? I must have driven by it dozens of times and not given it a second look.

It appears to be a converted private home, it has simply awful graphics in its sign, nor does the standard-issue Corona sign help. And they really need to lose the orange and green fence.

Patty parks her red pickup truck out in front. We seat ourselves at the lone table under the front porch roof and order starters.

What we have on the left here is queso fundido. In places like New York where they're trying to regulate fats in restaurant food, queso fundido simply won't do. It's melted cheese. You scoop up a glob of it with the wooden paddle and smear it on a tortilla. Add some incandescent salsa and scarf it on down. Then listen to your heart laboring. But Oh! Is it good.

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On the right, we have repollo con oregano (we'd call it cole slaw) and cebollas flamadas (onion dyed with mild red vinegar). Added to our cheesy tortillas, they make the queso fuindido experience a little less unhealthy-feeling.

Next up comes an order of cecina: thin sliced salted beef grilled until crunchy.

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You crumble it with a fork (with good friends you use your fingers) and put it in a tortilla along with beans, guacamole, repollo con oregano, cebollas flamadas, and salsa in any combination that suits you.

Our main course was chicken grilled over mesquite. I should have photographed it as well, but by the time it came, I was so into eating all that wonderful food that I just plain forgot. It's a small loss: grilled chicken pretty much looks like grilled chicken. But it was possibly the best tasting grilled chicken I've ever eaten: juicy, smoky, flavored with a perfect marinade.

I forbore including a photo of Patty with her tortilla in her mouth, to avoid embarrassing her and most importantly, so she'll invite me to lunch again.

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Note that she has no fork or plate in front of her. Real Mexicans don' need no plates. They've got tortillas, which is all you'll ever need to get food from the serving plate to your mouth.

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The Cultural Center

To the west and south of Parque Juárez, precipitous, rocky hills rise on which mansions have been built. A guide on the Biblioteca Sunday House Tour called this area "the Beverly Hills of San Miguel." Please.

This oldest part of our city, El Chorro, does indeed contain many fine homes and huge old trees. Stately, shady and quiet.

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It also contains the Cultural Center, at the top of the switchbacks of a steep street.

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This late 19th-Century building houses an organization that promotes and teaches traditional arts to San Miguel residents. Here people practice dance, piano, and guitar. Or they paint or sculpt or attend lectures.

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Throughout the day, I hear the sound of the center's unusual clock bell announcing the quarter-hour. Clank-clunk; the sound is inelegant but comfortably familiar.

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Many terraces cascade down the hillside. The traditional image of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe is rendered in cantera in this pocket garden. A statue of Juan Diego, his tilma filled with Castilian roses, kneels nearby.

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No important public place is without its image of Guadalupe.

I visited the Cultural Center because my friend Anamaria's paintings were to be included in a juried show here. Part of the gallery is accessible only by passing beneath a very low arch. I had to bend double to get through.

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Rocks protruding through the floor and walls are part of the stony cliff on which the center was built. Much Mexican architecture has a charming ad-hoc quality.

Anamaria's paintings, shown here, won no awards. But this was her first-ever showing. For the most part, her competitors in the judging were professional painters.

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I've written before about the Disneyfication of Mexico. This entry shows that the phenomenon is creeping into what is supposed to be serious art.

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What the center is really about is providing a place for people to work, to do projects relating to local culture. Here some boys are rolling a Day of the Dead image for transportation. It will probably be hung on the iron fence in front of the Parroquoia next week.

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Meanwhile, a girl puts finishing touches on a Katrina, taking advantage of one of the center's many terraces to spread out. The center provides the materials for these activities.

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Mostly middle- and upper- class young people use this place. The enrichment they receive here would benefit the poorer kids in the barrios at least as much, but the latter probably would feel unwelcome here, if they even knew about the center. Instead, they satisfy their artistic urges with spray paint on walls.


The west-facing arcade provides a warm, sunny place to work on a cool afternoon. Guitar music drifts outside through the auditorium doors on the right.

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When I walked by the Cultural Center for the first time some years ago, I heard a scratchy recording playing 1940s-era Mexican big band music. Couples in period costume were dancing on one of the patios. It was magic.

It is one of San Miguel's jewels, part of the rich experience of living here.

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Quesadillas de Sesos

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Que·sa·dil·la (kā'sə-dē'yə): n.f. A flour tortilla folded in half around a savory filling, as of cheese or beans, then fried or toasted.



When Rosario joined our household, she asked us what kind of food we wanted her to cook for us. We told her that we would like her to prepare the same things she would cook for her family.

We asked for Mexican home cooking because wherever we travel, we find that the regional cuisine of ordinary people is the best. Trying to obtain good ol' American food in other countries usually is disappointing. I'm thinking of the pizza I ordered many years ago in Tokyo, that came topped with canned button mushrooms and squid.

We also knew we would all be happiest—Jean, myself and Rosario—if she could make the dishes she had learned since girlhood. She would know what produce was in season, and how to make the most of the particular ingredients available in San Miguel de Allende.

Rosario has introduced us to many new dishes, and we've enjoyed almost all of them. Yesterday she served us a new one. She proudly announced we were eating
quesadillas de sesos.

I said,
"¿Como?" I wasn't sure I had heard right.

She repeated,
"Quesadillas de sesos. Muy sabrosas."

I said,
"Claro."

Jean asked, "What are these? What did she say?"

Like any good husband, I know when it's prudent to lie. I said, "Some kind of
quesadilla. I didn't get what kind." That way, I was able to get Jean to enjoy her meal and complement Rosario as she always does.

I was able to eat my portion as well, but a little queasily. Because
sesos are brains. In this case, pork brains.

Mexican people are much more prone to eating what in the U. S. are euphemistically called "variety meats."

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In the photo, you can just make out a tray of pork brains, to the right of the attractively braided intestines, beneath the hanging pigs' heads.

What is it about "variety meats" that give so many of us gringos feelings of revulsion? My Mexican friends think they're delicious. Tacos de cabeza (head)? Menudo (tripe stew)? These are treats!

I hear that asian people find cheese revolting. I see these same people shopping in an American-Chinese supermarket where you can buy a plastic-wrapped styrofoam tray of fleshy pink rings with a label that reads "Pig Bung." I'm not making that up.

Clearly there's come cultural thing going on here. But what?

This morning at breakfast I asked Jean if she felt OK. "No stomach upset?"

"No. I'm feeling good. Why?"

I asked her, "Well, you know those quesadillas we ate yesterday?"

"Yeah. They were pretty good."

"Well, the filling was pig brains."

"Eeewww! If i had known that, I wouldn't have eaten them!"

Exactly.

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The Rehabilitation of Miguel Hidalgo

When I was little, my elementary school teachers, as part of their mandate to mold me into a patriotic citizen, taught me the national legends. One was that George Washington, confronted by his father, admitted that he chopped down a cherry tree "with my little hatchet." This patriotic postcard depicts Papa Augustine pointing an accusing finger at little George, who is bravely taking the hit for ruining the landscaping.

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I bought the story, hook, line and sinker. But it left me intimidated. I could never be that honest. So I just gave up. Learned to lie like a politician.

At the unpatriotic University of California, as an assignment in History 17A—American History, I read Charles A. Beard's An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. That right smartly put paid to any belief in the altruism of our Founding Fathers. Gee, they're ordinary, flawed people, just like me.

Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla is regarded as the Father of Mexican Independence, having called for insurrection against Spain on September 16, 1810 from his parish in the town of Delores. Another founding legend.

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The Catholic Church at the time didn't see his utterances as patriotic; not as we do today. Father Hidalgo was excommunicated a few days after issuing El Grito, the cry for independence.

He didn't live to see Mexican Independence. Captured by Spanish forces, he was executed by firing squad on July 30, 1811.

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And herein lies a problem. Because everyone assumed for all this time that he died unshriven and not a part of the Church. You'd think that Church leaders in Mexico would be disturbed by this—their national hero not being a Catholic in good standing.

We're only a few years away from the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the independence movement, and some Mexican legislators thought that Hidalgo's status was a little awkward. So they spoke to Church officials: Might something be done about it?

What they're looking for is another cherry tree.

Well, in politics, anything is possible. In this week's news, we hear that careful investigation has turned up evidence that Miguel Hidalgo made confession just prior to his execution, thus voiding the order of excommunication. Great news indeed! Now we can all go into the bicentennial celebrations with this ugly stain removed from a Founding Father's reputation.

I never cease to be amazed at the power of modern historical investigations. Presumably the Church and the Mexican Government have spent the last 200 years trying to lift this blot on Hidalgo's character, frustrated in all their attempts to uncover evidence everyone knew must be there—that he died a holy man. And now, just in time for the bicentennial, no doubt as a result of an ingenious application of some technology breakthrough, that essential evidence has been uncovered!

Just what the evidence is has not been disclosed. Neither the Church or the Mexican Government can be called a paragon of transparency. But in a matter of this importance, I think we can all place our faith in the integrity of the investigators, their sponsors, and the evidence itself (whatever it may be).

Another defrocked priest, José María Morelos, led the independence struggle after Hidalgo's execution and is another Father of our country.

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Also excommunicated, he presents similar difficulties. But an investigation is underway here as well, and my money says they're going to find that he died within the Church, too.

Once the officials and the academics get history revised, it gets packaged and fed it to our kids.

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Hidalgo Disneyfied.

So, is Father Hidalgo's rehabilitation factual? Or is it no more than mutual back-scratching between the Church and the Government? "Hey. Forgive our guy and we'll rename some Mexican City after a saint."

(Not as far-fetched as you might think: A Church-sponsored attempt to rename Celaya after a saint was recently beaten back by secularists.)

Finally, does any of this matter? Are legends good for society? Do they do any harm?

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Modern Shopping

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When we first landed in San Miguel de Allende some five years ago, we had to adapt to a world without shopping malls and big box stores. Food shopping involved going to the polloria (chicken store), the carniceria (butcher), the panaderia (baker), and other small tiendas. We did have one supermarket on the edge of town, but the smell of old, tired fish and liquifying vegetables deterred us from visiting there often.

When we needed a Home Depot or Wal-Mart fix, we made the 45-minute drive to Querétaro. There, the shopping experience was much the way it is in the States, except the prices were in pesos and Costco's wine aisle was stocked with tequila.

In the past year or so, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, our town has seen the arrival of First-World shopping. The initial arrival was the Comercial Mexicana Mega store, a unit of a chain owned by Wal-Mart.

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There's no denying that shopping is easier and often cheaper at Mega. Hundreds of campesinos (peasants) can't be wrong. They arrive in droves in their smoking, beat-up cars to stock up on Coca-Cola and white bread, at half the prices they pay at their local tienditas.

Coming in second in the supermarket race was the new Gigante Supermercado, the anchor store at San Miguel's first true shopping mall, La Luciernaga. It was built to replace the old, smelly Gigante referred to above. Consistent with Gigante's management practices, on opening day, they moved the whole reeking pile of composting fish over from the old store to the new one. Waste not, want not. The new store is remarkable for its lack of customers, all of whom are down at the Mega, buying fresh fish.

The Gigante chain has performed poorly financially, apparently due to their insistence on cleaving to the old Mexico business model where customers come last. They're getting whipped by Wal-Mart. But over the long run, the Gigante Supermercado may win the competitive race in San Miguel, located as it is in a mall where there are a number of small specialty stores, cafes, a multiplex theater, and a second anchor tenant, Liverpool, a high-end department store, here shown under construction.

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(Unlike the painters in yesterday's post, these workers are applying paint with rollers, not brushes. The rollers have handles long enough so the scary 30' extension ladders are unnecessary. Painters still haven't graduated to scaffolds and sprayers, but at Liverpool, they're using latex, not cal. We won't have the wonderful streaky look of the old limestone paint, but latex will have a chance of lasting more than a couple of years.)

The Office Depot chain is operated by Gigante in Mexico, so it's a natural for them to include one in La Luciernaga complex. They don't have many customers, but it's early days yet.

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Here, Paul (El Guapo) emerges from Office Depot, having entered just to use the bathroom. He approached me, sputtering about seeing the store's eight employees gathered in a knot, chatting, while three customers wanting help stood there fuming. Fortunately, Paul didn't need any assistance.

The concept of customer service is just beginning to arrive in this country.

Business is slow in this new center. Here, four sales clerks, each from a different specialty shop, relax in the sun while waiting for some customers to appear.

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Paul is standing in front of a no-name shop. The sign in the window is advertising 50% off on everything, so I guess they're going out of business. Probably a good thing too, because I don't think the owner really had any idea of what his business was. The offerings in the store were unclassifiable.

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At this shop, Paul did buy some dangly strings of plastic disk thingies. I don't know what for. Paul sees possibilities not apparent to the rest of us.

(Incidentally, Paul appears more often than usual in this post. This is because a security guard told me I couldn't photograph the mall, although it would be OK if I was just photographing my friend. All right then.)

The restaurants and cafés seem to be doing reasonably well. This woman is eating a carrot dipped in chile sauce. It's from a franchise outlet called Pica Limón. El sano antojo (The healthy snack). Think this would catch on in Cleveland?

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Note that she is not your typical campesino. A vigorous middle class is emerging in Mexico, of which she, with her stylish clothes and sunglasses, is a member.

Traffic is not being helped by thoughtless practices. The man in the baseball hat is brushing something containing harsh solvents onto a post right where people are eating. Check out the expression on the customer's face.

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This shot was taken with a telephoto lens. Even 100' away, the paint was making my eyes water.

Then there's what seem to me to be missteps in advertising. Look closely at this image from the Holandia ice cream place.

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The model has a tongue stud.

Is it just me? Have I become an old fuddy-duddy? One thing for sure: This image isn't reaching me.

We have our first-ever McDonald's. A nice place. Same crappy food, but you can take it to an airy upstairs terrace and sit under canvas umbrellas.

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But what are all the green stickers?

They are announcing a closure. What? They're closing McDonald's?

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But it's not closed. An employee is schlepping the usual stale hamburgers. Typical law enforcement: You're closed... but you're not. It reminds me of how we handle building permits.

Here is where Paul earns his keep. I'm reluctant to ask the clerk what the story is, not wanting to put her in an awkward position. Not Paul. Mr. "No boundaries." He marches right up to her and asks her what's with the stickers.

Well, it seems that McDonald's signs are illuminated. A no-no. The law in San Miguel says that, being as we are trying to retain the city's colonial look, illuminated signs are illegal.

Please! Even in a modern shopping mall on the outskirts of town, well away from any colonial structures, they're illegal? People complain about corruption in Mexican government. Mindless bureaucratic rule enforcement is almost as bad.

Tonight Jean and I drove up to the La Luciernaga mall to see a movie. First we stopped in at California Sushi for some truly wretched California rolls. We sat outside and listened to Kenny G playing over the mall sound system. The music didn't improve the food. Then we bought tickets for the movie we wanted to see, only to discover that it would be screened two hours later than advertised. So we got our money back (unusual for Mexico) and went home.

We just love the convenience of having our own shopping center at last.

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Where Is OSHA?

Four painters are applying nice mustard-colored cal (limestone paint) to this façade fronting on our principal square, the Jardín. To me, their perches on 30' extension ladders seem precarious.

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Up north, aren't scaffolds required for this kind of work? Safety belts? Hard hats?

How about barriers to prevent passers-by from bumping into the ladders? Or from having buckets of paint dropped on them?

Actually, I think this approach to work is refreshing. The idea seems to be, "Hey. You're responsible for your own safety. Don't depend on the government to look out for your butt."

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Company Town

A couple of days ago, I introduced you to the Negociación Fabril de Soria S. A. de C. V., a small 130-year-old factory in the little town of Empalme. Seen from a distance, an oddity stands out: nestled up against the factory smokestack is a church.

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The factory is more than just a workplace. It's an entire community. About a hundred years ago, the owners built housing for their workers.

Laurels planted when the town was built have grown large, making shady tunnels.

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Scores of houses run down the streets. All share an identical design: Window to the left of the door, power meter to the right, a single lamp over each door.

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These are houses, not barracks, but they're as uniform and neat as an army base.

This hamlet is called Soria, after the factory. Like any good Mexican community, it has a shrine to Guadalupe.

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Colored light bulbs and fresh-ish flowers lend an upbeat look to this usually solemn image.

The 243 houses were built to exacting specifications, but over the years, make-do ingenuity has left its mark.

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A milk can shields a lamp; another hangs from zip cord looped over a shelf rack, black electrician's tape slowly loosening over the splices.

The factory owners saw to the workers' spiritual needs. As churches go, it's pretty modest, but it's well-maintained and clearly receives a lot of use.

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In front of the church, a young mother looks after four children. Surely they're not all hers.

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Someone thought of everything: even a soccer field.

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You old Mexico hands, at least those of you in central and northern Mexico, will notice something unusual about this soccer field.

It's green.

Except for those played on by professional teams, I've never seen a grassy soccer field in Mexico. They're always dirt. Always dusty. Or muddy.

During our factory tour, I asked the general manager, Sr. Cordova, about the field. He told me that the factory treated all the water used in dying yarns and then used it to irrigate the town's gardens and trees, as well as the soccer field.

The factory owns all of the houses. Residents pay weekly rent. According to this notice, they are to pay on Mondays between 9 AM and 12 PM.

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Herein lies the mystery I alluded to in my previous post. If, due to automation, the factory now employs fewer than 50 workers, then who lives in the workers' housing?

The answer is: Former workers. Or descendants of former workers. And the factory is trying to get them out.

Negociación Fabril de Soria S. A. de C. V. has filed suit against most of the town's residents, demanding their eviction. The residents counter that their families have lived in these houses for a hundred years, and they should be allowed to stay. They've marched with banners and signs down the highway to Celaya. They've occupied the Presidencia, blocking public access. As of today, the dispute remains unresolved.

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There's more than meets the eye in this little utopia. The shady streets are peaceful and serene, but hearts are not.

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Fabrica de Pantalones

Driving south on the Celaya highway, just past the outskirts of the pueblo of Empalme, Paul (El Guapo) and I see a sign marking a narrow road forking off to the left. It reads:

PANTS SALE
FACTORY DIRECT

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Rusting and long-neglected, its invitation doesn't look any too promising. But I'm learning that things aren't often what they seem in Mexico. Just because a sign is a little amateurish, a little run-down doesn't mean it isn't announcing something of interest.

Paul and I decided to investigate. At the end of the side road we came to a small plaza on which fronted an impressive 19th-century gate.

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The gates are made of heavy sheet iron. The plastered brick archway is topped by cantera statues of two unidentified heroic figures and a flagpole carrying the Mexican flag. Intimidating.

In for a dime, in for a dollar. We knock. Ten minutes later, a face appears at a security window. What do we want?

We explain we're there to by some pants, factory direct.

This of course is a blatant lie. We're there to explore, and if we find something interesting, we're gonna take photographs. Moreover I fully intend to publish my findings on the internet, probably something I wouldn't get permission to do were I to ask.

A security guard admits us and asks us to wait. We are not to wander about the factory; we will need an escort. Here we see Paul waiting ever so patiently, while a pickup truck carrying an enormous bobbin of white wool yarn exits.

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Many of you ask why I bring Paul with me on these excursions. "Doesn't he embarrass you?" you ask. A fair question and one that deserves an answer.

The truth is that nobody is better at striking up a conversation with strangers than Paul. His fluent Spanish coupled with his utter lack of self-consciousness enables him to extract a great deal of information from people—more, perhaps, than they might have been prepared to give out had they been able to gather their thoughts before Paul braced them. It probably helps that Paul's mien, while not exactly threatening, nonetheless is somewhat intimidating, looming as he does over his interviewees.

And while Paul is extracting trade secrets from the security guard, I'm taking advantage of the distraction to take photographs inside the factory unsupervised, something no factory manager in his right mind would allow.

Photographs like this one, looking inward from the front gate. The scene is like no factory I've ever visited. More like a tropical park than a manufacturing facility.

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Paul finds out that we are visiting Negociación Fabril de Soria S. A. de C. V., a small privately-held company that makes fine wool and wool-blend fabrics and clothing. It was founded early in the 1870s and is still held by the founding family who are citizens of France.

The Solunet-Infomex website gives the number of Soria's employees as 250-500 which looks about right, and their annual sales as $50,000 USD. That should set off your bullshit alarm. Let's see: sales of $200 per year per employee, which, if the company achieves breakeven, means that today's employees receive considerably less than 10¢ per hour.

Gee. Do you think there's any possibility they're underreporting income? Maybe for tax purposes?

Eventually, a man picks us up. I figure he's the salesman; not much of a job if you ask me, given that hardly anybody comes this way. He can't be very busy.

He leads us back to a storeroom where a surprisingly large selection of pants, sport coats and suits hangs on industrial pipe racks. There are no changing rooms but hey—we're all just a bunch of guys here, so we make a great show of trying on clothes. They turn out to be quite attractive, high quality and style. After an hour of this, the salesman offers to take us on a plant tour. Wow! Way more than I expected.

Paul loves factories, and this one does not disappoint. Large tin buildings with mysterious dark interiors house hulking machines arranged for batch processing.

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Our salesman-guide chatters away about Australian wool, Thai silk and German polyester. When he starts explaining the workings of a computer-controlled spinning machine, Paul comments that he seems very knowledgeable. At this point our host introduces himself: Ing. Enrique Cordova Plata, General Manager.

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I was impressed and touched. A couple of badly-dressed and disreputable-looking gringos show up at his gate, and the Boss sets aside two hours of his day to escort us around. He is patient, courteous and informative. He never gave us the impression he had better things to do. That's him in the image below, showing Paul spools of dyed yarn.

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Many of the machines in this factory are modern high-tech spinning and weaving gear. Investment is in the millions. Clearly it generates many millions of dollars a year in sales; not $50,000. Not at all what I expected to find at the end of a dusty road in the middle of nowhere.

Oh, and I didn't see any 250 employees. The place is too automated for that many. I didn't even see 50. Maybe 100 years ago this place provided a lot of jobs, but not today.

About the pants ploy: I broke down and bought two pairs of slacks. Given the way Sr. Cordova treated us, how could I not? Moreover, they were great clothes. I bought two wool-polyester blend tropical-weight dress slacks for our projected trip to Buenos Aires this December. Blue jeans won't cut it in that dressy city.

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The prices were terrific. These slacks would probably go for the equivalent of $120 in that Mexican high-fashion store, Sears. At the factory, they cost $38 each.

Checkout was more involved than at Sears, though. A hand-lettered bill of sale had to be drawn up and then given three signatures and a stamp. I walked the 20 feet from the accounting office to the front gate where I gave a yellow copy of my bill of sale to the security guard, whereupon he handed me my pants.

On the way out, we spotted a mansion in the middle of the park on the factory grounds: the owners' house. They stay there during occasional visits from France. Way better than the business travel I used to endure. Your own mansion beats the Radisson every time.

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I don't know about you, but visiting a place like this is more interesting to me than going to see one more Churrigueresque cathedral. The adventure is in not knowing what's behind the wall, whether I'll be welcomed or not, the surprise of meeting someone like the gracious Sr. Cordova.

There's more. There's a mystery here. Something about this low-key, hidden factory isn't what it seems to be, and I'll discuss that in my next post.

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Flores Silvestres

Our high central plain, the Bahio, has a climate that reminds me a little of California's coastal valleys, where I spent most of my life before moving south of the border. Temperatures are mild year-round. Rainfall is scant: about 20" per year. Much of the year, the campo (countryside) is covered with dry, brown grasses. (In California, we say "golden," not "brown.")

The rainy season in the Bahio starts in June and ends in late September or early October. Toward the end of the rains, wildflowers bloom.

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Girasol (Turns-to-the-sun: sunflower)

In a rainy year like this one, great swathes of flowers carpet the land, rivaling anything depicted in Arizona Highways Magazine.

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Girasol con polilla (moth)

On narrow roads where the verges have not been cut, sunflowers tower over the car.

Riparian plants bloom at Parque Landeta.

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Foreground: Cinco llagas (Five wounds: marigold)
Background:
Matapulga? (Flea killer: pinkweed)

Looking closely reveals charming, isolated blooms.

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White: Estrella (Mexican star)
Red:
Mal de ojo (Illness of eye: Peruvian zinnia)
Yellow:
Ojo de pollo (Chicken's Eye: Mexican creeping zinnia)

I love the contrast of marigolds with ripe tunas de nopal (prickly pear fruit).

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Vacant lots in the city center yield intense color.

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Manto (Cloak: Morning glory)

Rosita poses in front of a wild field of cosmos, knowing it makes her look good.

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Mirasol (Looks-at-the-sun: Cosmos)

September is perhaps our finest month. Violent afternoon thundershowers, puffy clouds in an impossible blue sky, pleasant temperatures, and millions of wildflowers to walk through and enjoy.

Summer vacations are over. Tourists are back to work or school, and we lucky few have all this beauty to ourselves.

[The wildflowers were identified with the aid of Richard Cretcher's excellent illustrated guide, Flores Sylvestres de San Miguel de Allende, which unfortunately is available only in San Miguel. Any errors in identification are mine.]

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Parque Juárez

My first trip ever to Mexico was for business, to attend a conference. I arrived at my hotel and once settled, promptly walked out onto the Reforma. The center divide of this broad avenue is basically one long public park, and it being a Sunday, thousands of families were strolling along, buying snacks from street vendors, watching jugglers and fire-breathers, and just enjoying themselves in the warm afternoon.

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Sueño de una tarde dominical en la Alameda Central (detail)—Diego Rivera

So passed my first glimpse of how Mexicans use parks: they use them a lot, and they use them well. They use them for entertainment, for socialization, for family time. Multi-generation groups spread out on the grass, picnicking. Children are carried; hence, no fussing and crying. Lovers test the limits of public display of affection. Pairs of girls walk along, arms linked. Groups of boys lean against walls, mumbling ineffective come-ons to the girls.

Mexico City, that I had been so sternly warned about, seemed to me to be the friendliest, safest place I had ever been that afternoon.

Jean and I are fortunate to live one door up Aldama Street from Parque Juárez, a green space in San Miguel de Allende that gets heavy use by residents and visitors alike.

As part of a recent renovation project, a gazebo was built near the entrance closest to our house. It probably should receive more use than it does, but we get enough loud music and other celebratory noises at our house. I'm certainly not complaining about infrequent use of the bandstand.

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Mature trees provide welcome shade, under which swathes of flowers bloom.

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One important function of Parque Juárez is to provide space for exercise. Our narrow, cobblestone, traffic-choked streets are unpleasant and unsafe for joggers, so every morning, scores show up to chuff around the walking paths.

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Others engage in apparently less strenuous exercises. This group seems to be doing the Hokey Pokey. "You put your left arm in/You put your left arm out/You put your left arm in and you shake it all about..." (Sorry.)

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This young woman, is she practicing Tai Chi? She looks very determined.

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The park's basketball courts receive heavy use. Scores of intracity teams practice and compete here.

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An aerobics class meets every Saturday morning. I know it's every week because ear-splitting music knifes into my patio. There was a time when I would have ranted and raved about the inability of the city to control noise pollution. Nowadays, it's sort of comforting to know that 200 women are toning up, combating Mexico's obesity epidemic, second only to America's. And anyway, sound doesn't bother me near as much as it used to.

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Any park worth its salt posts rules and regulations. Parque Juárez has at least XVIII of them.

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I've observed that Mexico is a country of laws and regulations; it has perhaps more of them than anywhere else. And everyone knows that they're enforced, shall we say, unevenly. Among the park's 18 regulations: You're not allowed to make noise that bothers other people, consume alcohol or drugs or be under the influence of alcohol or "stupefactants," or to play futbal in the walking paths.

Yeah. Right. It's faintly amusing to watch policemen walk by while all of these regulations are being openly flaunted.

At one point, a cop did tell me I had to put our Boston Terrier, Rosie, on a leash. But when I explained to him that she considered the park to be her yard, and would simply not submit to being leashed, he relented. Who says Mexican police are tough?

An old saying is that nobody goes hungry in Mexico, and the park provides snack stand concessions so that nobody in fact does.

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A baggie of deep-fried styrofoam with hot sauce and a sugary soft drink will quiet any stomach.

On Sundays, there's an Art Walk at the eastern end of the park.

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Here my friend Anamaria is "selling" some of her work. Or re-reading Proust. Or greeting a passing neighbor.

She lives the good life.

On weekends the children's playground fills up. A gringo couple donated the money to renovate the facility, and it receives constant use. It's perhaps one of the best public works in the city, in terms of the amount of benefit it provides.

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No one is too young to find diversion in the park. A girl helps her baby sister see what's going on in the gazebo.

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On holidays, the permanent snack stands can't handle the demand, so vendor carts show up. The soft drink man on the left reminds me of Tim Conway's shuffling old man on the Carol Burnett Show. It took him about an hour and the help of several bystanders to get his cart from the park entrance to his stakeout.

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The ice cream vendor on the right sold out after an hour. The hot flavor of the day was "blue".

You know it's a holiday when schoolgirls wear their uniforms to the park. They probably marched in a parade somewhere.

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The girl in the middle might want to hook up with the aerobics class.

Just about every day at any time, something is going on in Parque Juárez. The whole community uses it: gringos walking their poodles, lovers clinched on hidden benches, toddlers trying to climb ladders, poor families from outlying colonias who took the bus in for their day off. As parks go, I've seen better facilities. But I've never seen any park better used.

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The New Jicama Crop

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All San Miguel is a-boil with excitement. In the fields surrounding our community, the jicama tubers have reached maturity. Farmers work through long days and nights to bring in the crop at its succulent peak. Jean and I and all of our neighbors are gorging ourselves on the crisp, juicy flesh.

Even Chiapas the parrot can hardly get his fill. (Let me tell you: Jicama-based parrot poop, you never want to have to deal with.)

A dozen or more stands have sprung up on the Celaya highway, giving out samples, selling baggies of ready-to-eat jicama, offering 50-pound net bags of tubers.

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The stands are operated by growers. Yes, here you can buy your farm-fresh jicama; from the field to your table on the same day.

Some of the growers who operate these stands seem to live marginal lives. Not a lot of money in jicama, I guess. These children have the puzzled, almost outraged expressions I sometimes see on the faces of the poor.

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When they grow up, these kids probably will vote PRD, and if they lose another close election, they may well revolt.

Paul (El Guapo) and I stopped to sample some of the new crop, along the way meeting this pleasant farmer's daughter. Her stand was marked by a hand-lettered sign that read "Jicama de Agwa (sic)."

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Many of you are familiar with this vegetable. Especially if you live (or once lived) on the West Coast where it was introduced to Norteamericano diets. And many of you share my indifference toward jicama. It doesn't taste like much, and it doesn't seem to blend well with other vegetables.

For some reason, it's often found in the prepared salads you buy at places like Whole Foods. It has been accorded a healthy, organic reputation, favored by people who put flax seed on their cereal.

(Boy, I know I'm gonna hear about that crack.)

For my money, jicama doesn't taste any better than flax seed: insipid, dry, mealy. Of course, that usually means it really is good for you.

The friendly farmer's daughter explained to us that our dissatisfaction probably stemmed from our having eaten only Jicama de Leche. This term refers to Jicama that has been stored over the course of the year, when it becomes tough and fibrous and loses much of its moisture. She offered us each a slice of Jicama de Agua, harvested just yesterday.

What a difference! Juicy, complexly flavored—barely recognizable as the forgettable substance I'd been fed in California.

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Paul is holding a ten-peso baggie of prepared jicama, seasoned with lime juice, salt, and chiles that the farmer's daughter had hand ground on her metate that morning. From his expression, you can see he can hardly contain himself, waiting for me to finish taking the photo before he digs in.

OK, Jicama is never gonna replace avocado or watermelon in my top ten. But it's no longer on my "avoid if possible" list—at least in Mexico and at this time of year.

Rosario makes a delicious salad of jicama, cucumber and mango, with the universal Mexican seasoning of lime, salt and chile powder. We'll be enjoying it for only a couple of weeks more, when mango season ends and the jicama de agua ages, transmuting itself into less-satisfying jicama de leche.

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Spare Change?

Panhandlers abound in San Francisco and New York City. I feel uncomfortable when they ask me for "spare change". Gee. I don't think of my change as spare. "Will work for food?" I don't think I'd want to invite the guy into my home or place of business, and I have serious doubts he's capable of actual work anyway.

Besides, am I really helping someone out when I give her money? Some are alcoholics or addicts whose habits I'm supporting. Others are disturbed or deranged people who have fallen through society's cracks. All deserve some kind of assistance. But is handing out money on the street helping? Or enabling?

We have a score or more people in San Miguel scattered around El Centro asking for money. Some, like this blind man, project a sense of legitimate need. Not many opportunities for the blind in Mexico.

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He's a fixture. I see him tapping along, working his way from one spot to another. He seems to know the streets well, moving with a sureness born of years of experience.

You could say he's a professional panhandler, in that he's out there every day. Donations may be the only income he has. His profession seems to be a lonely one. I never see people stopping to talk with him.

The woman below is another familiar face. At first glance, her situation seems more pathetic, because her child (or grandchild) sits on the street with her: a terrible circumstance to grow up in.

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But things here may not be what they seem. Some street beggars are known to rent preschool children for the day, the better to play on the sympathy of potential donors. This is not to say that women like her are necessarily undeserving, that somehow they are scamming the public. But it's appalling to me that children are exploited, that parents are driven to feel they must use their children like this.

One of my Mexicana friends told me that some street beggars are part of a family enterprise. The Señor drives a cab, a sister sells her embroidery, and grandma panhandles. Tragically, another told me some women are beaten if they fail to collect enough money. Maybe my donation is saving someone from terror and pain.

In cities, I often encounter one or two older women staked out at entrances to major churches.

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They have a proprietary air. Their faces don't reflect the desolation I see on others.

These are the true pros. They have the best locations. God only knows how they won the rights to their places, but they're there every day and no one else seems to challenge them.

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One day I was watching them at their posts when lunchtime came around. They moved over to a more comfy spot, opened their bags and brought out the tupperware. They sat, eating their meals like a couple of secretaries on lunch break, chatting companionably. A half hour later, they were back in position, hands extended.

Once, walking the streets late at night in Bangkok, two six-year-old girls came up to me with Walter and Margaret Keane eyes. They held up some flowers and asked, "Baht? Baht?" I declined. Immediately they trotted off down the street, chattering happily to each other, ready to pull the pathetic waif act on the next farang who came along.

How much panhandling is an act? And when panhandlers are acting, does it really matter? After all, every panhandler is a salesperson. They're selling their need. They're offering you an opportunity to feel like a Good Samaritan.

I don't often give money to panhandlers. Other people are more generous. Who's right?

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Too Much of a Good Thing

Last year I posted about this exotic fruit. I'm not sure how they got into my house that time, but I tasted some and told Rosario, the boss of our kitchen, that enjoyed them.

I have to be careful when I indicate a preference for some food. Whenever I say I like something, Rosario inundates me with it.

I enjoy Ciruelas Amarillas, their intense, unusual flavor. A couple of them now and then make a welcome accent in a selection of more ordinary fruits. But this bowl full of them is a little daunting. How am I gonna eat them all?

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They will never be in the mainstream; not in the way Kiwi fruit evolved from a novelty to something found on every caterer's platter. The flesh is minimal, the skin is tough and the fruit is almost all pit.

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Rosario wants nothing more than to please El Señor. That would be me. She proudly showed me her bowl of Ciruellas Amarillas, her shoulders back, an expectant smile on her face.

There's nothing for it but to gobble them up and smack my lips, gratifying Rosario and ensuring I'll get even more of them next week.

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Number Seventeen

What a sweet little house. It can't be more than five meters (16') wide—about the same as my house.

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It's hard to say why it appeals so. Maybe the wonderful orange and yellow paint. Or the deeply carved doors with the eyebrow above, or the carriage lamp.

The house number flanked by two bas-relief doves conveys a tranquil domesticity. I imagine someone there lives a quiet life.

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Look What They're Doing to My Town

I moved to the Santa Clara Valley after college, joining the fledgling chip industry. The Valley back then was mostly apricot and prune orchards, dotted with a few small farming communities: Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Cupertino.

A few thousand techies and I pitched in and built the industry that made the PC you're reading this on possible. In the process, we scraped off all the orchards and replaced them with housing developments and industrial parks. Signs like the one below sprouted up at the edges of fields of flowering fruit trees.

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All this is to say that I have no right to complain about housing developments.

The sign was put up at the southeast edge of San Miguel de Allende, the town Jean and I picked to retire in partly because of its 18th-Century ambience: the cobblestone streets, the colonial houses and churches.

We all knew development was coming. Last year permits for 600 new housing units were issued. Still, I was startled to see the tall crane towering over the Caracol. Of course, they're commonplace in the 21st Century, but I somehow didn't expect to ever see one in San Miguel.

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It's not that I come up this hill for the view. This site is on a busy, winding highway with narrow shoulders, so you can't pull over and gaze. But if you peer through the girders, you can see the San Antonio Church.

You better go look at it now, and kiss it goodbye, 'cause when the skin goes on this condominium tower, all you're gonna see is stucco.

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The north end of town hasn't been spared the development pressure. This sign announces a gated community that makes the condo tower look puny. Note that the sign is in English! This undoubtedly is to convey a classy cachet to bilingual middle-class Mexicans looking for vacation homes.

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I mean, the developer couldn't be pandering to retiring Norteamericano baby boomers, could he?

No expense is being spared in this architect-designed community: golf course, clubhouse, community center, huge hand-laid stone wall.

So what the hell is this thing? Looks like part of a nuclear power plant.

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Clint, the distinguished owner of Chiapas the Parrot, says he heard it's gonna be a huge golf ball sitting on a tee. Classy.

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Four Cornfields

Up north, if you want to start a small business, you might contract with a franchise company, sign a lease with a mall that takes a portion of your sales for themselves, and conduct your business exactly the way the franchisers tell you to. Your pelletized ice cream stand looks exactly like everyone else's, but at least you're working for yourself. And the franchise company. And the mall. And the bank...

In Mexico, you put another quart of oil into your old pickup truck, drive on over to Costco, and buy a few cases of soft drinks and cello-wrapped munchies. You put shelves in your living room and, if you're going first class, you paint a sign on the outside of your building. Instant retail business!

Your startup costs are about one tenth of one percent of what you'd pay in the U. S. Of course, your profits will be pretty thin, but at least you have the freedom to do things your way.

The owner of Las Cuatro Milpas does things his way.

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Just for laughs, he painted the name of his tiendita in mirror writing on one corner of the building. I don't know why he calls it "The Four Cornfields." I didn't think to ask him until now.

Two figures in a cornfield make up his logo.

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They wear huaraches and those white, pajama-like pantalones and camisas common in Diego Rivera's day. (Does anyone know what this type of clothing is called?) The mustachioed Señor stands idly by while his wife works, trimming ears of corn, the way God intended her to. In Mexico anyway. I think the Señor is supervising...

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I'm moved to remark on the street sign. First that it is there at all. Mexican cities treat street signs as highly optional, making navigation more a matter of luck than anything.

The sign tells us we're on Barranca (gully) Street. It also tells us the street previously was known as either Reboceros (street of the shawl makers) or maybe as Chorrillo. Chorrillo means either "little spring" or "diarrhea". Something about gushing forth, anyway.

As if that's not already way too much information, we're told we're at the corner of Block 65 of section 6 and that our Zip Code is 37700.

What the street sign doesn't tell us is that over the course of six blocks, this street bears five names. That's right, from north to south they are: Calzada de la Presa, Nuñez, Murillo, Barranca, and El Chorro.

You'd think that by eliminating all that writing about what the street was called in 1760 and 1632, they could use the space to tell us that Barranca is Murillo on the other side of the cross street.

No wonder people get lost in Mexican cities. I usually have at least one meltdown while driving through a new town. Nothing gives me more satisfaction, though, than when a new Lexus with Mexico City plates stops in front of me, and a harried driver asks how to find his way out of town.

Hey. It's your country, buddy. You built it this way. We foreigners are supposed to get lost. You're not.

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