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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