Archive 2008 1st Quarter

Early Morning in the Jardín

In Silicon Valley, the freeway HOV lanes kick in at 6AM, and the roads are jammed with commuters. At 7 AM in San Miguel de Allende, I walk into the Jardín, our main plaza and arguably one of the busiest places in town, and nobody's there. Our town really doesn't get going until 10 AM: In my view, a much better idea than that of the workaholic north.


Still, a few things are going on. The Traficantes are warming up the municipal tow truck, getting ready to troll for the day's catch of parking miscreants.


An old man, a fixture at the Jardín, walks his endless patrol on the perimeter sidewalk, chanting a tuneless song about how he has no money and how nobody likes him. He's been doing this for the four years I've lived here and undoubtedly much longer.


A couple of tourists make an sortie onto the plaza. As I did years ago, they are wondering where the action is, if any.

"Any restaurants open?"

"No. Too early. Go back to bed."


A Mexican woman makes her way toward her job, her face swathed in a muffler against the cold. Why, it's down to 45º this morning! Mexicans in my experience are less inured to cold. As might be expected, of course.


City workers are cleaning up last night's mess, from when hundreds of people ate snacks, spilled drinks, and tossed containers while listening to mariachis and socializing. This woman dips water out of a fountain for use in washing benches and railings.


Railings on the facing Banamex building need washing, too. All over town, people are dumping pails of water on sidewalks and scrubbing them with brooms. Parts of Mexico are kept spotless as a matter of city policy and of civic pride.


Well, spotless for a few minutes, anyway. Here, two abañiles (laborers) are shoveling escombro (brick and concrete construction debris) off the roof of the municipal public bathroom into a truck, raising large clouds of concrete dust. The dust is settling onto all the surfaces within a block, except when it is coating the lungs of passers-by.


By 7:30, the sun reaches under the arches in front of the Parroquoia Restaurant. Noted author and part-time resident Wayne Greenhaw strikes his trademark hands-behind-the-back pose while talking to a customer.


In a few minutes, he will join me, and we'll go over to Posada Carmina where más o menos eight of us get together for breakfast and discuss the vagaries of living in Mexico and the surrealism of US politics: a nice way to begin the day.


Alex's Beauty Shop

Esteticas—beauty shops—are low turnover businesses. Many storefront operations house no more than one cosmetologist. None of them are getting rich. There's not a lot of money to put into into facilities. Store signs usually have a low-budget look.

So I was surprised to see this well-executed one, with its Maxfield Parrish look.


Not quite professionally done, but more than your typical attempt by the proprietor's cousin. Alex's sign is pleasing to the eye, worth lingering over for a moment.

But something is wrong, despite the obvious care that went into making it. Esthetica Unixes Alex. I want to accept what the sign says. Seems right. Hmmm.

Unixes. A beauty shop for operating systems? That can't be right.

Ah. The x and the s are reversed. The sign painter wanted to write Unisex. Alex's is for women and men.

So the question in my mind is: Did anyone—Alex, the sign painter, customers—notice this? If so, how come it got put up anyway? In a country where nothing gets thrown away, where people make do, it wouldn't surprise me if the beautician said, "Use it anyway. People will figure it out."


Father John


San Miguel de Allende got its start when, in 1542, a Franciscan monk named Fray Juan de San Miguel, built a church near where the present-day town is situated. I'm always struck that our community was founded only 40 years after Columbus came to the New World. The pace of events was fast even back then.

It's fitting that we have a commemorative stature of our founder at the southeast corner of our principal plaza. It makes a good focal point for tourists' group photos.


These people probably have no idea of who Fray Juan de San Miguel was. Nor I suppose is it important they do. They're having a modestly good time on the C-ride known as San Miguel de Allende, and probably their opinion of the place is "It's OK, but it's no Cancún."

Fray Juan's statue oversees the many civic activities that take place in front of the Parroquoia. Here, he witnesses police showing off their new body armor at a ceremony for newly graduated police officers.


Looks like a medical appliance depot to me.

Most sources agree that Father John was one of the good guys. Any holy man who walks around barefoot must by definition be a good guy. He may have been humble, but he founded entire communities. He is credited with the founding of the city of Uruapan, where he distributed land to the indigenous Purépecha. (Wasn't it theirs in the first place?) He built hospitals and schools, and trained the natives in craft-working, a tradition that has carried down to present times. Today, tourists converge on Michoacan to buy fine traditional crafts.


History is written by the conquerors, and Fray Juan's is no different. This plaque commemorates his "great love" for the Otomi and Chichimeca Indians. One might forgive a descendant of these people for holding a contrary view, given that he organized the conquest of these tribes by force of arms. Talk about your activist priests!

A closer look at his statue reveals a representation of the Good Father demonstrating his "great love" for an Indian.


Or perhaps the Indian's great love for the father: I can't tell which for certain.

Today's publicity about misbehavior of clergy make it unlikely a modern sculptor would choose such a juxtaposition of figures.


Unlike what I was taught in public school, conquest hardly seems to benefit the conquered. I don't know... If I were a Purépecha, this statue would piss me off.



Spring arrives in San Miguel during the night, in heavy tarpaulin-covered trucks. They roll by my door in early February—a welcome sight. They carry plants for the annual Candelaria Plant Sale at Parque Juárez.


Scores of itinerant plant vendors roam all over Mexico, converging on whatever city is sponsoring a plant sale at any particular time. Entire families come. They work harder than you or I ever have, unloading tons of potted plants and building booths. They cook meals outdoors and they sleep in their trucks. True nomads, these people are constantly on the road.

They work through the night, lining the walks of our park with tens of thousands of plants.


A midnight ceremony is part of the setting-up ritual, a mixture of Catholic and indigenous mysticism. This woman lays out a cross of burning candles. She's burning resin-scented copal while behind her, men play lutas and the people sing.


A mother and daughter blow conch horns. Mom is wearing a traditional huipil and lace-edged underskirt over her pink J. C. Penny turtleneck.


The woman below is not grimacing in pain from the prickly plant she's holding; she's singing along with the luta players. She's pulling leaves off a Green Desert Spoon. The leaves are used to build a súchil, a sort of traditional altar dating back to prehispanic times.


The ceremony lasted past my bedtime. Next day, I revisited the site of the shrine. You can see the súchil—the yellow feathery things attached to the cross, yet another example of the blending of indigenous tradition with Catholic.


The plant sale opening is announced by floral arches at the park gates. Those are all fresh flowers, plentiful and inexpensive in Mexico.


I walk through an abundance of flowering plants. No commercial nursery could hope to compete with the variety and occasional rarity of the plants here.


Many vendors buy plants from wholesalers. Others grow their own in improvised containers like this rusty can that once packaged Herdez sliced mushrooms.


Filling the basketball courts, a thousand macetas await buyers. The sharp smell of sealer, painted on the pots to order, fills the air.


A doll beckons from among bougainvilleas, eerie, somehow fascinating.


The Candelaria Plant Sale brings our community together. It's a chance to talk with people you haven't seen for awhile.

This year's sale sale brought out 96-year-old resident artist Leonard Brooks.


Early one morning he painted this view of the Candelaria Plant Sale.


Leonard captures its essence better than any photographer could hope to.

The Candelaria Plant Sale opens at the beginning of February every year. And when it does, the chill of winter is replaced by sunny, warm days. Millions of Chinese New Year celebrants are trapped in snow in China. The high today in Minneapolis will be 18º. Here in San Miguel de Allende on February 13, we experience springtime. Those who have managed to find their way to this city of sunshine and flowers can be thankful.



One of the benefits of becoming a Mexican is that your family unexpectedly and rapidly grows. You become tios y abuelos (uncles and grandfathers) without the bother of having to account for actual bloodlines.

Winter 2003 we were visiting San Miguel de Allende, living in a rented house on Úmaran Street. It came with a cook and a housekeeper. After five weeks, we were all one happy family; inevitable when people live together 60 hours a week. We were all excited because Juanita, the cook, was expecting, and we were already fretting because our visit would end before she gave birth. Then I had a heart attack.

Adapting to life at 6300' causes manufacture of extra red blood cells. Thickened blood sometimes can't get through narrowed coronary arteries.

I spent some days in the hospital until I was well enough to travel. Then I went north for more treatment. Nobody told Juanita or Lupe what had happened to me. They thought I went home to die. People in Juanita's caste don't often survive coronaries.

Seven months later we were back in San Miguel, in what turned out to be the beginning of our lives as permanent residents. We had leased a house on Garita for one year: different house, different staff. One day we went down to the Úmaran house to say hello to Lupe and Juanita. When they opened the door, they stared at me like they were seeing a ghost, and burst into tears.

They thought I had died. And for that, Juanita had named her son after me. Juanito.


Juanito is my first honorary grandchild, and he shows all the superior traits one would expect from my descendants.

We bought our current house some months later, and became friends with our next-door neighbors: four sisters my age, living together without husbands and happy as can be. A year later, two grandchildren were born: sweet little Victoria and her cousin, Victor Hugo. To properly assume my sole as an honorary grandfather, I had to get around my American-accented Spanish to pronounce their names right. The boy's is pronounced "BICK-toad Oo-go." Really.

One day I heard an inane melody playing over and over again, blasting into my house. Irritated, I went up onto my roof garden where I could look down into the sisters' courtyard. There I saw two grandmothers, each with a two-year-old in her arms, dancing. Now I love that tune.


Lisa comes to our house every couple of weeks to give Jean a manicure and pedicure. Now, a year later, the two women know all the intimate details of each other's marriages. I don't want to think about what they say to each other. A month ago, Lisa gave birth to her second child, Hannah. She brought her to visit the other day.


When there's an infant in the room, I want to hold it. I've been accused of monopolizing babies while envious mother-types stand around waiting for a turn at cuddling. Tough. Some things, you just have to play hard ball.

Jean made me pose for this shot with Hannah and my dearest Mexican granddaughter, Teresa, who is featured from time to time in these posts.


It was ten years ago that grandchildren began cropping up in my family when my son John D. married Heather. At the sound of an "I do", precocious, serene Shayla became my first-ever granddaughter.


Subsequently, John and Heather produced my first conventional grandkid, Kiely, shown here on the right at Samantha's wedding. Owing to the ephemeral nature of modern marriages, Kiely has eleven grandparents. On the left we have another instant grandchid, Cassie, who joined our family when my daughter Samantha married Kip. Cassie has at least eight grandparents.


I'm writing about about grandchildren today because two new ones are coming into my life. At the moment, they're at the stage shown below, fifteen weeks.


Not an actual portrait of my grandchild

Samantha and Kip have told me to expect a little boy, provisionally named Henry Harper. Either that or an as-yet unnamed eleven-toed girl. It takes a lot to get me to endure TSA screening, but Henry Harper has got me making reservations for Santa Barbara in early July.

By uncanny coincidence, my Spanish Teacher, Erika, is also expecting. Like Samantha, she has been listening to the ticking of her biological clock running out. She is one month older than my daughter, and her baby is due on the exact same day—June 30. I'm gonna get to hold them both.

For an irresponsible, lazy grandfather, grandkids give me the greatest of pleasure. Like someone said, with grandchildren, you can love 'em and give 'em back. They're so sweet, and when one of them has a meltdown, well I'm sorry, but I can't help thinking: Payback Time.

A while ago, I was talking to John D. on the phone. At one point he said to me—he actually said to me—"I'm worried about the kind of kids Shayla is hanging around with."

I just love it. And of course, I love them.



Our housekeeper, Ana Maria, came to me the other day with her 19-year-old son, Edgar, asking for help with a problem.

Ana Maria is separated from her husband, who is in jail for crimes related to his drug addiction. On his path to self-destruction, Papá took Edgar's computer and other valuables and sold them, making continued attendance at art school impossible. A potential reprieve cropped up when an aunt left Edgar some money, but another member of Papá's family stole it.

Edgar will need to get a job, abandoning his dream of becoming an artist. Jobs that pay enough to live on are hard come by in Mexico, but Edgar has yet one more legacy. One of his great uncles is retiring from the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the government-owned electric company, and the position he now holds can be Edgar's.

Jobs with CFE or the postal service or the social security agency are highly coveted because they pay living wages and include health coverage, paid vacations and retirement benefits. Packages like this are scarce in the private sector.

Obtaining such a job by applying right off the street is pretty much impossible, because somehow, one jobholder is allowed to pass his position on to another person, usually a family member. These are even called herencias—inheritances.

Amazing, no?

So Edgar will get a highly desireable job, even if it's not something he wants to do—except for one hurdle. He has not graduated from secondario—junior high school. He needs to attend for one more year to earn the diploma that will qualify him to receive his inheritance.

Would I give him the money for uniforms, supplies and fees?

Claro que sí. Of course.



Almost a cliche for residents of San MIguel de Allende, encountering patient burros on our streets is a weekly occurrence. This image was shot from my front door, looking south toward the entrance to Parque Juárez.


This campesino is selling leña (firewood) and abono (compost) door-to-door.

The leña is fallen, salvaged mesquite. Far better to use this stuff than firewood from cutting live plants. Like the hotels and restaurants do. New wood looks better in the fireplace, but the cost is very high: deforestation and erosion of Central Mexico.

Better still would be not to burn firewood at all. But for many of us, fireplaces provide our only source of heat during the cold nights of December and January. Stone houses become uncomfortably chilly without at least a little supplemental heat.

Our house uses unvented gas logs; nice ones supplied by Chiapas's dad, Clint. This fireplace is in Jean's quilting studio.


Run it for just a few minutes, and the place gets toasty warm.

The abono isn't really compost. It's vegetable matter from the forest floor, raked up and bagged. It works pretty well for improving the garden. When the campesino sells you a bag or two, he asks for his bags back, so you have to have something to put it in. He operates a low-margin business.

In US national and state parks, we have policies that prohibit the collecting of humus and fallen firewood. Dead matter left to decompose returns nutrients to the trees. Removing it diminishes the heath of the forest.

I often wonder: Are campesinos delivering wood and compost by burro simply doing their business in a traditional and cost-effective way? Or are they pandering to gringos charmed by the romance of Old Mexico?

I don't really want to know.