Lavanderia Pública | Mexico | Living in Mexico

Lavanderia Pública

Most tourists are drawn to the Jardín, San Miguel's principal plaza, on which fronts an ornate church, the ornate, graceful, and photogenic Parroquoia. It appears to me that fewer than half of all tourists venture more than two blocks from the Jardín. The more adventurous stroll down Aldama Street, past my house, to Parque Juárez, and even fewer turn left on Calle Nueva and climb the hill to our oldest neighborhood, El Chorro.

The climb is rewarding, though. One point of interest in this shady neighborhood of ancient trees and stately homes is the public laundry.

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At first, the laundry seems to be no more than a restored colonial-era facility, prettied up for tourists and UNESCO inspectors. Those who find the place are enchanted. It, too, is photogenic and redolent of an earlier time.

But the interest for me is that it is not a tourist attraction: it is a real working laundry.

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Much washing is still done by hand. Years ago we rented a colonial home on Úmaran Street where Lupe, the maid, washed the bed linens in a galvanized washtub with a washboard. The owner of the house was an heiress living in Mexico City, dripping with old money, but it would never have occurred to her to get Lupe a washer and dryer. Not a question of expense: washing machines simply were not part of her worldview.

Some people still live in homes without running water. Others at least have that, but don't have space enough to wash clothing. Tough to handle wet laundry when you're living on a dirt floor. These people use the Lavanderia Pública.

The other day, two women were washing clothing as I walked by. They gated water running down an open channel as needed into the tubs they were using. The younger woman had the labor-saving device: a washboard. The older simply beat her clothes on the rim of the tub, the way God intended for her and her ancestors to do. In a role reversal, however, the older woman used modern liquid detergents, while the younger was scrubbing blue jeans with a brown bar of lye soap, still readily available in any market in town.

Another detail, a little hard to make out in the photo, but the young woman was wearing an apron made from a black plastic garbage bag to keep her street clothes dry.

No dryer? No problem. Shrubbery around a palm tree serves as a clothes line.

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In the countryside, I have seen women washing clothes in muddy streams and drying them on mesquite branches. For these two women at the Lavanderia Pública, the process isn't all that different here in the city.

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