Archive 2008 1st Quarter

Concierto Equinoccio de Primavera

Our wonderful botanical garden, El Charco del Ingenio, is for more than just growing plants. Many community events use the gardens as a venue for ceremonies, workshops and concerts. Recently it was the site of an annual concert that celebrates the Vernal Equinox. Concertgoers arrived early to get good seats.

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The spring equinox concert is held in a natural amphitheater near the site of the old mill for which El Charco del Ingenio was named. A temporary stage was erected over one of the many green pools scattered along the stream bed. Spectators perched on rocks overlooking or alongside of the musicians.

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This year's music consisted of 19th-Century religious works, Música de Pasión de Semana Santa, because of the proximity of Easter. All pieces had been written by San MIguel composers. Below, Director Francisco Mota introduces the musicians to kick off the concert. Behind him sits the Orquesta de Alientos (Orchestra of Encouragement?), a wind ensemble, and behind them, the Children's Choir of the Oratorio de San Filipe Neri.

(Note at stage right, the sawhorse balanced on a beam that is supporting one end of the stage.)

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The rocky bowl in which the concert was held has near perfect acoustics for musical performances. The words sung by the children were amazingly clear.

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The orchestra had the quintessential Mexican band sound: assertive brass topped by a pair of plaintive, slightly atonal clarinets, a sound I dearly love. The tuba player may have joined the group recently, often wandering in search of the appropriate note, adding a reassuring solidity to the music when he found it.

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In hte past few concerts, the largely gringo audience had become accustomed to performances of chamber works by great classical composers. This year's offering of somber passion music didn't sit so well with the assembled concertgoers. By the fourth number, A la Muerte Camina (He Walks to [His] Death), a steady stream of people was climbing the path to the parking lot.

To Norteamericano ears, this type of music is dirgelike and morbid, but it is familiar and reassuring to Mexican believers. Northerners likewise are disturbed by the bleeding, agonized Christ figures found in all Mexican churches. Our differing response to the Passion of Christ is one more powerful example of the cultural gulf that exists across the Rio Grande.

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Policewomen

Not so long ago, police work was the exclusive domain of men. In many communities, it still is. But in San Miguel de Allende and other progressive places, we are seeing the appearance of policewomen. Nor are they restricted to low level positions as traficantes. This woman, armed as she is with an automatic pistol, is a member of the preventative police, a position of considerable responsibility and one that required her to graduate from the police academy.

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In this macho society, where women in general still expect to be subservient to their husbands, how is it that women join the police forces? In fact, resistance to this idea still is fierce. A police officer may not be paid much, but it's a position that pays regularly, on time, and comes with substantial benefits. And members of the police force often can influence who vacant positions go to, so they aren't happy about women taking some of the available slots. It means that cousin Ramiro isn't going to get that sinecure his uncle promised him.

Of course, there's the usual chauvinism about the capacity of women to use force. Well, take another look at the picture. This substantial woman with body armor and sidearm surely has more capacity for imposing order than any overweight, cigarette-smoking 20-year veteran whose main source of exercise is holding out his hand for mordida.

So there has to be a compelling reason to push enrollment of women through all that resistance. That reason is the battle against corruption.

Policemen enter the force expecting to augment their (admittedly low) salaries by extorting hapless citizens. I believe that a majority of cops in Mexico still do this. I have personally been subjected to high-pressure attempts by traficantes to extract money from me, although I have never been stopped for an actual traffic violation.

For some reason, policewomen universally refuse to engage in this odious practice. So city officials trying to clean up corruption in the police forces have no more powerful tool than to hire female officers. The higher the percentage of women, the lower the number of cops on the take.

Much bribery is initiated by citizens who want to avoid the hassles of Mexico's arcane justice system. Many police accept bribes but do not otherwise solicit them. Female officers never do. In San Miguel, I notice that many male officers no longer accept bribes freely offered by traffic violators.

The maxim that women are a civilizing force was never more true than on Mexican police forces.

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A Small Mexican Town

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You're not going to understand mexico by visiting Ixtapa or by staying in a five star hotel on the Reforma or even by visiting my town, San Miguel de Allende, known to some as "Mexico Lite". Ordinary Mexicans live in gritty cities like Saltillo or in countless small pueblas scattered throughout the country. In these places, it is possible to observe ordinary life where nobody is trying to impress or entertain you, where no monuments or beaches distract. On the Dolores Highway, a sign points to a couple of such small towns. (The appearance of good directional signs is a new phenomenon in Mexico.) Having a half hour free, I swung off the libramiento to check them out.

Rancho Don Quijote's location is given away by the silhouette of a substantial church.

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These small places may not have much money, but the Church has, so you see substantial ecclesiastical buildings in places where they are pretty much the only structure of note. This church even has an attached school. But I doubt it serves as much as a thousand people.

Neon crosses surmount the bell tower and dome, something I see on churches from time to time. I'm not sure why they do this. Arthur C. Clark (who died the day before yesterday) said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Early in the last century, neon might have produced awe and wonder in ignorant campesinos. Could the Fathers have deliberately electrified these crosses to impress parishioners with the otherworldly power of the Church?

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Flanking the gate leading to the church are two súchiles—traditional altars. They are raised in rituals dating back to prehispanic times and today incorporated into Catholicism. These may have been erected in anticipation of Semana Santa—Holy Week.

Súchiles are constructed of frames woven with leaves of the cucharilla plant—a yucca relative, I think.

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Here, a woman removes cucharilla leaves from the bole of the plant. They pull off the stem readily. She's using scissors to shorten the leaves to the correct length for weaving onto the súchil frame.

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The church is pretty much all Rancho Don Quijote has going for it. The town square in front of the church is dirt. Boys play in the town's bandstand that otherwise doesn't seem to get much use.

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To the side of the bandstand sits a trampoline. A network of hand-knotted ropes are intended to keep kids from falling off onto the ground, but uncovered springs look to me like they could trap, even break small legs. In Mexico, safety is the concern of the individual, not the state.

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Housing is rudimentary: This place, one of the better homes, has a corrugated iron roof on cinderblock walls.

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For some reason, many dooryards have clumps of buckets hanging from trees. Anyone know what that's all about?

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Residents of Rancho Don Quijote live close to the land. This woman is helping kids find their mother's teat.

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A handsome turkey forages outside what must be the Mayor's home (what with the brick arches and all). Rest assured: This one is not being raised as a pet.

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Rock walls are common throughout Mexico. I think Mexicans are born knowing how to do masonry—just look at Chichén Itzá. But even rock walls require too much investment in Rancho Don Quijote, where many are constructed out of cut brush.

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This is farming country, which means cornfields. As everywhere in the world, cornstalks are used for fodder. But people here can't afford silos to ferment the stalks, so they shock them by hand and feed them dry to livestock. This field looks like a scene from a Pieter Bruegel painting.

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Rancho Don Quijote does't offer much to draw the out-of-town visitor. Seen one goat, you've seen 'em all. But it has one attraction of note.

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A surprisingly large, well-built bull ring sits on the edge of town. Frequent corridas featuring perhaps not star-quality toreros, but good ones nonetheless, bring in crowds, providing employment and informal vending opportunities for the locals.

I'm always surprised how little business is required to support a small Mexican town.

A slim majority of Mexican people still live in small towns like this one. The country is not all beach boys, body shops, and hijacking taxi drivers. And towns like this seem to be good places to live, if measured by the relative lack of graffiti. Gangs haven't seemed to have reached places like this one. You won't get surf or cathedrals or monumental ruins here. But you will see how many Mexicans really live.

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Menudo

Went over to Patty's house for dinner Monday night. It was one of those pick-up meals. "Let's see what I've got in the house. If I can't find anything, we'll go get tacos."

Patty looks in her fridge. She says, "Oh boy! Have I got a treat for you. Menudo!"

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Patty can hardly contain herself at the prospect of eating her bowl of menudo.

Menudo is one of those Mexican specialties I knew I was going to have to try sooner or later. Frankly, you haven't really experienced Mexico unless you've eaten this iconic dish. Mexican people I have known enjoy tacos, arrachera, carnitas, moles, but when you tell them there's menudo in store, they become ecstatic.

Simply put, menudo is tripe soup. Spicy tripe soup. Said to be a hangover cure. Now there's a recommendation! So in order to eat it, I had to get past my revulsion at eating boiled cow stomach.

In California, menudo is commonly served in real Mexican restaurants. By real I mean restaurants that Mexican people, not gringos, patronize, the kind where you can get tacos de cabeza (head tacos). These places frequently serve menudo on weekends as a special treat. Not many restaurants offer it because it's difficult to prepare, what with having to boil the stomach pieces for hours on end.

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Menudo being heated. The flat pan, a comal, is used for heating tortillas.

Reluctant for years to plunge into a meal of menudo, lately I've eaten enough unusual foods that it no longer seemed a challenge. I was simply waiting for a fortuitous occasion, and dinner at Patty's provided one.

I now know what all the fuss was about. Now I see why Mexican mouths water at the thought of a bowl of the stuff. God, it was good. I'm darned if I can see what makes it so unique and yummy. Tripe doesn't taste like much; it's the spicy soup that makes the dish. It would seem that you could eliminate the tripe, or replace it with more conventional meat, and get the same general taste.

I asked Patty about it. "Oh no," she said. "I like the texture of the tripe. Chewy!"

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Pocket Plaza

San Miguel has its great plazas: The Jardín, the Plaza Cívica. Then there's a wealth of smaller ones, good for a rest during a day's shopping, or for providing a bench for courting lovers. Plaza Insurgentes is one such pocket plaza. A sign on a storefront just up the street announces its presence.

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Three famous insurgents are depicted. From left to right, they are Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, General Ignacio Allende, and Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, all heros of Mexico's struggle for independence from Spain.

Tiny Plaza Insurgentes, tucked alongside a busy thoroughfare, provides space for six kiosks, where you can buy agua de sabor (think diluted fruit juice) or a snack. Nobody goes hungry in Mexico: every public place has food sellers.

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A fountain at the center of the plaza gives a cool feel on a hot day, as well as a place for kids to get their hands wet.

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What I like most about Plaza Insurgentes is this cross, made of heavy mesquite timbers. The pair of similar inscriptions say "It is what it is" using both Spanish words for "to be." Some subtlety is at play here, but it escapes me. Perhaps a reader can help.

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The vertical inscription won't transliterate. My interpretation is "The only question is acceptance." That may not be entirely right, but it's probably close.

Why do I care what it says? In my life, accepting reality, accepting life on life's terms, brings me peace and tolerance. Whenever I see this message, I am comforted and reminded of a central principle for living quietly. To sit and look at these words is, for me, another reason for visiting Plaza Insurgentes.

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An Event at the Beach

My friend Paul, also known in these posts as El Guapo, found himself at Audencia Beach in Manzanillo, a Mexican Pacific Coast town largely overlooked by gringos. Put Paul in a new location, and creativity comes boiling out of him. As part of a project to compile and publish a book of photographs of the beach at Manzanillo, he spent some days prowling the coast with a digital camers. One day, came across a pavilion newly erected on the sand.

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Red warning tape marked with the word peligro suggests something dangerous is going to happen here.

Dangerous indeed. There's going to be a wedding. So orderly and attractive are the facilities, one concludes that the Tesoro Hotel has done this sort of thing before.

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The hotel is favored by Canadian visitors, and Canadians in fact comprise the wedding party.

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I'm intrigued by the image of wedding guests wearing bathing suits.

This bubble blower seems to me to be a figure you'd more likely find on Venice Beach near Los Angeles. I hardly can get my mind around the idea that she's from Canada.

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The best man, a sober figure, is unable to go without a shirt, and so stands out among the rest of the wedding party.

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The bride and groom sign the necessary papers.

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She's gorgeous, a match for Ursula Andress, who starred in the movie 10, filmed on this very spot.

New love, a new marriage, I'm certain the bride and groom have eyes only for each other. But over time, love mellows.

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Reading a good book displaces the passion that brought you together. And maybe that's enough.

(Photography by Paul Latoures.)

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Parrot Update

Chiapas, Clint's parrot, has been staying with me, his uncle John, for quite some time now on account of Clint's travel schedule. This is a good thing, because I love that bird. Go figure.

Clint and I are the only humans Chiapas is presently bonded to. He becomes territorial, possessive when other people enter his space, not wanting them to usurp his prerogatives with one us. When another person comes near me, Chiapas becomes hostile, and if he can't reach the intruder to bite her, he bites me.

Other than that, Chiapas and I have a great time. He wrestles with the Boston Terrier, Rosie. He takes naps with me, perching on my knee, one leg pulled up, his head under his wing. He sits on my shoulder when I shower. (Water is good for birds; I just have to keep soap off him.)

He rides on my shoulder when I walk around town. I never realized what chick magnets parrots could be—knowledge I could have used 45 years ago.

Chiapas and I are spending a few days at a friend's house. The situation has presented him with a new challenge:

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The cat's name is Gipsy, and he really wants to meet the Chop-man. For his part, Chiapas would just as soon not have anything to do with Gipsy. Rosie is no match for a parrot beak, but cats? Chiapas and I both are relieved that bars separate the two.

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Learning Spanish

Wayne Weisser over at Learning Spanish Blog invited me to upload a guest post on the experiences I had studying Spanish. Check it out. And spend a little time poking around in Wayne's excellent site. For any student of the Spanish language, it provides lots of helpful information and resources.
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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

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Father John

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Candelaria

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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Grandkids

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Legacies

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.



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Leña

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.

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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.

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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.

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Allende's Birthday Parade

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Just back from Argentina, fuzzy from the 18-hour voyage, I wander around in San Miguel de Allende, savoring the joy of being home. I walk onto the Ancha de San Antonio. It's filled with people. Some major event is unfolding. Scenes galore!

Egad! My cameras are back in my luggage. All I have is my micro point-and-shoot. The battery is nearly depleted. It'll have to do.

Today is the birthday of Ignacio Allende, born here in San Miguel on January 21, 1769. He is a hero of Mexico's independence struggle. Our town was named after him, so his birthday is a big deal.

I arrive while the parade is setting up, to find these four traficantes standing at attention, spiffy in their rarely seen dress uniforms. I ask the guy on the right what's the occasion. He tells me to beat it. I guess some Mexican people don't like gringos.

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Lose the hats and epaulets, and their uniforms leave them looking like Re/Max salesmen.

(Sorry about the snide remark. I don't take rejection well.)

The cops form up and come to attention. Awaiting the go signal. But of course, this show isn't going to get on the road at the official starting time. They stand like that for over an hour, probably because the Capitán told them to. Surely he knew better.

Mexico has marines, and to go with them, a marine band. A couple of marine band corpsmen warm up with scales as they wait for the parade to start. Is one of them a corpswoman? Are they all corpspersons?

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Actually, one is a clarinetist and the other, a flautist. Musicians long ago abandoned gender-specific designations. It's that useful "ist" suffix that gets it.

I have to say I found this scene disturbing. I'm not accustomed to seeing armored personnel carriers and recoilless rifle vehicles at patriotic events.

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I guess we need them. Drug lords have enough money to fund their own armies; Federal forces have to be able to counter them.

Check out this APC. The .30 caliber machine gun on top is not much good for heavy combat, but it'll do quite nicely on a civilian populace. Rubber tires mean urban use. So this weaponry won't be used to repel an incursion across the Texas border, nor to invade Belize.

But it is ideal for turning on your own people.

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I don't know. Seems like too much power in the hands of the military. Would we tolerate these things in the streets north of the border?

In a parade, you want everything to be sharp. Soldiers touch up their vehicles with squirt bottles of cleanser and rags. While they're at it they clean their boots.

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Could you turn these boys on their own people? They seem so innocuous.

Finally things get underway. Color guards from every school in town lead, wearing dress school uniforms, jaunty hats, and white gloves.

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Every school fields its drum and bugle corps.

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So does the army. Tell me, why do they parade in camouflage fatigues, helmets, and goggles? Carrying bugles?

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Finally, we have one of those "only in Mexico" scenes: an elaborately costumed young man and four young ladies. He is carrying a banner that says, near as I can tell, Dragones de la Reina—the Queen's Dragons (Dragoons?). (The photo resolution is pretty bad.) I have no idea who they are or what they do.

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But check out the man's uniform. A beret. A black tunic with a bunch of white yarn balls dangling from his upper arms. White gloves. White canvas belt with large brass buckle. Black fatigue pants with patch pockets, bloused over black boots, and white gaiters. He's stylin'.

His female has escort abandoned the military look just south of their berets. The Queen's Dragons' uniform of the day is very short skirts and four-inch spike heels. These young women are going to march for two miles over cobblestone streets in those things. And yes, they're very good at it. Not a single misstep.

The symbolism of their getups escapes me, but they somehow seem to fit right in. Tanks and heels, why not?

It's good to be home, with things back to normal.

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