21 July 2008

A Sense of Place

I decided to write the last entry for this blog on my month in San Miguel de Allende from Austin, my home. For much of the time I was in San Miguel, especially as I was engaged in a directed independent study of Mexican literature, art and culture, I struggled with my relationship to the place—sometimes feeling myself forced into the role of tourist, which is quite different from being a visiting writer and scholar, someone who comes to be some place, to learn, thoughtfully and respectfully about the culture, history, arts, and people. I am always self-conscious in my role as traveler, but in San Miguel, I was particularly so.

Part of the difficulty I encountered in San Miguel is that it is, as many of my friends remarked, “Gringolandia”—the population of U.S. ex-patriots is large, so large one of the local guides referred to it as the “third wave of colonization.” There are many ex-patriots who have lived there for years, who have learned Spanish, Mexican customs, arts, and ways of being, who have Mexican friends, even Mexican spouses and children. Many people in the immigrant population sponsor scholarships and other services to support Mexican children and the poor. Many U.S. immigrants assimilate into the Mexican culture, forming a new culture, a new mezcla.

But there are also large numbers of immigrants from the U.S. who “coexist,” living in primarily English-speaking colonies, U.S. immigrants maintaining American lifestyles— perhaps more luxurious lifestyles than what they could afford north of the border. Here they can have a maid, a gardener, a tummy tuck or a big house with a view for a fraction of what these would cost in the U.S.

And there are, of course, American tourists, especially tourists a bit nervous about Mexico. (What have they heard? You can’t drink the water, but tequila is great. And apparently everyone knows the Mexican word for beer.) Of course, there are tourists and there are tourists. And then there are the powerhouses of economic colonization: passing by the Starbucks on the corner of the Jardin made me queasy, and Wal-Mart’s evil empire is apparently coming. But surely some of the money that U.S. immigrants, tourists and even greedy corporations bring to San Miguel finds its way into the local community.

How the significant numbers of American tourists, colonists and immigrants impact the local economy and people remains unclear and uncomfortably so for me, though. Has gentrification made it even more difficult for Mexicans to own land, to build homes in San Miguel? Has the price of food been affected?

The U.S. presence is an integral part of what it is to experience that sense of place that is San Miguel de Allende today, but it is still the Mexican San Miguel de Allende, that sense of place that I sought, sometimes found and most appreciated. Yet sometimes that sense of place was elusive because of the way much of my time was structured, the places I had to be, aspects of major activities organized for me.

I’ve spent equally long and longer periods of time in other parts of Mexico, in Guatemala and Puerto Rico with groups of scholars and artists, with other travelers interested in culture, so I have points of comparison. Not only what activities and where but the way that activities and trips are organized affects the sense the traveler has of the place.

I was fortunate to have lived in San Miguel de Allende with my dear friend Brenda, a bilingual Mexican American woman from the Texas borderland, whose mother was from nearby San Luis Potosi. And there are others with whom I experienced and learned about this region of Mexico, including Horacio, the guide who took a small group to visit the private Frida Kahlo collection and who drove us to the airport in Leon as we departed for home. Someone like Horacio, someone like the artisans in the market who would take the time to talk about how to make a tin heart, a nicho, or to dye and weave a rug, the taxi drivers who told of local festivals, the cook who showed a friend how to pat out a tortilla and smiled at her clumsiness and desire to experience—they are at the heart of that sense of place in San Miguel. Their intimate knowledge, experience and love for the place enriches the experience of those who experience it with them.

What I felt missing in the organized program were such opportunities to work with Mexican artists and artisans, scholars and writers and to work in spaces, to be in places that Mexicans would choose and share with cultural pride. There is a deep sense of place that only someone who lives and loves the culture from within can share with those of us who come eager to experience what we can, as sojourners.

If I were to have the opportunity to lead such an independent seminar (or a writing workshop or literature seminar), these are among what I would want—to bring in experts on Mexican culture and Mexican writers, talk to the guides so that they understand the educational purpose or goals of and audience for the excursions, include a language component in the culture study, have the culture study group meet once a week for lunch to discuss the readings, activities, individual interests, etc., hold readings and seminars in places that inspire connections with Mexican culture, and work with the writing workshops so that there is some connection between all of these activities and why we are there as writers.

That self-reflection I believe is crucial: Why are we here? Why hold writing workshops in another country? Do we hope to experience displacement, to get away to write-- or does a sense of place matter to us and our work, our writing where we are?

17 July 2008

Frida Kahlo in San Miguel de Allende

A tourist and pop culture commodity as much as a world-renown figure of high art, images of and by Frida Kahlo are everywhere in San Miguel de Allende, on t-shirts, bottle cap earrings and keychains, in nichos, shopping bags, decoupaged boxes. . . . I had the opportunity to visit two Frida Kahlo exhibitions, both of art work, personal papers and objects mostly discovered after the artist's death in 1954. One of these exhibits, "The Heart of Frida," is currently open to the public in a gallery on Calle Jesus. The other, a collection in private rooms of a gallery in another part of San Miguel, is viewed by-appointment-only.
According to the accompanying brochure, "'The Heart of Frida Exhibition' is a collection of 37 intimate notes and letters and six drawings that have been hidden for over half a century in Mexico City. " These private papers were found in a laquered Michoacan box, on the inner lid of which is painted "Coyoacan Frida Kahlo 1950." These objects include illustrated letters, notes and poems to herself and to Diego Rivera.

The private collection has many, many more objects--including Pancho Villa's
revolver, gifted to Diego, and a box of preserved hummingbirds--as well as letters, boxes, paintings, and drawings on a variety of subjects, including Frida's relationship with Diego, her surgeries, intense pain, and premonitions of her death. One of the curators explained that Diego had captured the hummingbirds and speculated that he had used them to seduce women. He pointed to Frida's letter beside the box, in which she wondered how someone so sensitive in so many ways could be so insensitive. One of many powerful works is a wooden box in which Frida painted her body in the bottom and dressmaking forms on the inner lid. Another painting shows a shrouded body on a hospital gurney with her head floating over it. "What will I do without you? what will you do without me?" in Spanish scrawls beneath.

The curators of this exhibit, clearly scholars with special knowledge of Frida Kahlo's life and art--are preparing a book on the collection, due to be released in 2009. (I was not permitted to take photos of any of the objects except the revolver and so I am describing from memory. How wonderful it will be to have the book!)

16 July 2008

Ritual and Dance

On Sunday, July 13, we went to El Charco Ingenio, the expansive botanical garden on the edge of San Miguel de Allende. We'd heard that there would be traditional dancing and music and a religious ritual, the Santa Cruz festival.

When we arrived about 3 p.m., we could hear the music down the hills. After a glass of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice and a slice of mushroom pizza from the juice bar at the gift shop, I headed down the path through the gardens of magnificent cacti, to find the dancers in one of several circle clearings.

People of all ages were gathered under umbrellas, mesquite and cactus--anywhere a bit of shade could be found--to watch the dancers and participate the events of the day. Food vendors sold roasted corn, fresh-cut fruits, juices, tortas and other foods from booths under bright awnings.
In the midst of the afternoon a beautiful religious ceremony, the installation of the cross, took place. A procession, led by a man playing a flute and drum, brought the cross to an altar near the plaza where the dancers paused. Prayers, incense and flowers blessed the cross, Santa Cruza, and then a dialogue ensued between two older women, apparent leaders in the community, and an older man, who was, we thought, a local politician. This dialogue seemed to be about bringing to the surface problems facing the community and establishing the intent to work together, with the help of God, to address them.

Molcajetes & Nichos

Mole! Nopales! Salsa de Tomatillos! Jamaica Tea & Margaritas. . .

In San Miguel de Allende, I'm quick to sign up for a cooking lesson, offered by owner of La Cocina, who turns out to be from Houston. . . another member of San Miguel's very large ex-patriot population (estimated at as many as 20, 000 permanent residents) and assisted by a Mexican woman, who did most of the cooking while our host demonstrated the various dishes and tools and talked us through the preparation, including how to clean chilis and nopales and roast tomatilloes on the comal. She also gave an interesting talk on the history of chocolate, a subject on which she had done recent research.

We were greeted with cold jamaica (hibiscus) tea and platters of colorful ingredients to make mole, nopales salad, and tomatillo salsa.

The chefs had prepared most of the ingredients ahead of time, although we did chop onions and nopales (cactus pads) and ground roasted tomatillos and chilis in the molcajete to make a delicious fresh, uncooked salsa verde.

We returned a week later to the same neighborhood, Barrio San Antonio, to take a workshop on creating "nichos," collages built into tin boxes. This workshop is offered by artist Rebecca Peterson, originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico. Rebecca truly encouraged our creativity and exploration, offering a wealth of materials from which to choose, as well as clear information on what glues and paints work best for different surfaces and objects. Each of us created a very individual nicho; mine featured the Loteria card "la Garza" and a tiny cat, shells and an abundance of other objects.

Patria, Penitence, Peace

On Friday, July 4, we attended a lecture, given by Peter Thompson, on the Mexican Revolution. Dr. Thompson presented important dates and persons of the Revolution, framing it as “Bonapartan” uprising and identifying its key features as land reform, the bourgeoisie and unions, U.S. intervention, oil, the Church, the army and massive corruption and fraud.

Mexican literature and art have often taken the Revolution as subject, sub-text or setting. Key works of literature include Mariano Azuela’s classic novel of the Revolution told by a doctor who rode with Pancho Villa’s army, Los de Abajo (The Underdogs); Juan Rulfo’s El Llano en Llamos (Burning Plains and Other Stories), which presents intense vignettes and characters fighting the revolution; and Angeles Mastretta’s Arrancamé la Vida (Tear My Heart Out) the story of a young woman married to a ruthless general twenty years her senior. Of these three, I especially enjoyed Arrancame la Vida, as it offers not only a glimpse into the corruption and violence that sustains power, but also a woman’s struggle for her own independence at a key time in Mexican (and western world) history. It was also the only one of the three that I read in Spanish, which meant it required more work for me, but I found the story most engaging.

Both the Revolution and the War for Independence have deep history in north central Mexico, the region of Hidalgo, Guanajuato, Querétaro and San Miguel de Allende. We made a trip to Dolores Hidalgo, the city where the Mexican War for Independence began on September 16, 1810, then to Atotonilco to visit the church (Santuario) there, followed by a stop at one of the area’s hot springs.

We began the excursion in Dolores Hidalgo outside the church across from the Plaza Principal, la Parroquia de Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, where Father Hidalgo gave the Grito de Dolores that initiated the war. We didn’t have an opportunity to enter the church, unfortunately, although I understand it has beautiful altars, although its most attractive feature is its exterior.

From there walked to one of several of the pottery fabrícas where the selection of talavera—a different style from the talavera of Puebla--was overwhelming. Here we watched the artisans, young women and men, paint the fired pottery: everything from sinks and large jardinières to mosaics of the Virgin of Guadalupe, dinner sets, wall ornaments in the shape of parrots, frogs and lizards and tiny dishes.

Father Hidalgo’s home, now a museum—Museo Casa de Hidalgo, was our last stop. The museum, built around a lovely courtyard, preserves Father Hidalgo’s furnishings, while other rooms display important documents and artifacts memorializing the War for Independence, including a replica of the flag of the revolution bearing the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe (the original is in Mexico City.) One large room is filled with funeral wreaths, memorials—even an urn with the bones of a hero.

Stopping for a wonderful ice cream – Besa del angel—we hurried to the bus for the short trip to Atotonilco. The Santuario de Atotonilco is important in the history of the War for Independence—here Fr. Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende (who was married there) came to take the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to San Miguel de Allende. The church also remains an important site for pilgrims and penitents. It is especially associated with images of the suffering Christ, el Señor de la Columna—Jesus at the pillar, bloodied by whipping and the crown of thorns (whips and replicas of the crown of thorns are sold across from the church.) However, the Santuario also features a beautiful Chapel of the Rosary with a shell of silver sheltering the Virgin of the Rosary. The historical and political significance of the church and its deep religious traditions—both folk and official—make this a particularly fascinating site.

The church has undergone recent renovations, but ruins remain behind the church, which are , unfortunately littered with rubbish. When we were there, two painters with easels faced the church through the ruins, an interesting perspective on the religious and political landmark.

The trip ended with a visit to la Gruta, one of the balnearios—hot springs turned to resorts. I was expecting something like a Yucatán cenote, only with the heat turned up. The hot spring cave was quite different. Instead of a natural pool in a limestone cavern, la Gruta is a series of blue concrete, relatively shallow swimming pools, which grow warmer as you near the interior of the cave that presumably gives the site its name. A small but powerful man-made waterfall pours into the cave, which gives an invigorating massage. When the waterfall is off, the inner pool is tranquil and steamy. To be alone in that pool is a spiritual experience.

The combination on this trip and the schedule—facilitated because all the sites we visited are close to San Miguel de Allende—made an interesting, educational and multi-dimensional day experience. The last out-of-town excursion organized by UNO for this month’s residency, this trip was perhaps not the most important (culturally, artistically or educationally), but certainly the best planned.

08 July 2008

Climbing the Sun, Glimpsing the Moon

If our trip to Guanajuato was a glimpse, our visit to Mexico’s largest Aztec archaeological site was a glance. Four hours by bus from San Miguel de Allende, a day trip to Teotihuacan requires a very early start and late return. We did neither, although Brenda, Megan and I were at the bus shortly after 6 a.m., as we had been instructed. (We left about 7:45.) It was a pleasant enough drive, though, good for sleeping, reading or writing or just watching the often stunning landscape pass, with a mid-point break at San Pedro, at a tourist rest stop. And, I was glad for this opportunity—although if I had known ahead of time how little time we would have at the pyramids, I would have planned differently.

Our visit to Teotihuacan began with a walk through the "Citadel," a quadrangle formed by four low platforms, and then to the Temple of Quetzacoatl, the feathered serpent, as well as Tlaloc, the rain god, and the mythical crocodile. The crocodile reminded me of Copan in Honduras, the first moment of recollection of the many Mesoamerican ruins I’ve visited before. Here, too, we would see the remnants of color, painted frescoes. And, we would hear about the bloody sacrifices of the Aztecs, the usual tourist spiel which tends to overshadow every other facet of Mesoamerican history.

We did visit the “Avenue of the Dead,” as it ran from the Citadel to the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun, we had the opportunity to climb. Although I have had to overcome a terrific fear of heights to ascend the Maya pyramids of the Yucatan and Guatemala, the Pyramid of the Sun proved not so daunting because of its stepped platform construction. The challenge, to be sure, was sufficient stamina, but the series of stairs did not have the same sense of sheer drop that the Maya ones present. This time I was even able to enjoy being on top, on a wide platform, and on the wide ledges at different stages. The view is indeed magnificent.

After I descended, I walked along the base and admired the carved stones, somewhat reminiscent of Copan's and Monte Alban’s sculpted figures.
I was ready to make my way to the Pyramid of the Moon, when the guides began walking us in the opposite direction. Confused, I asked if we were going to visit the Pyramid of the Moon, and was told we didn’t have enough time, so we were going to the museum. As we walked rain began to pour (Tlaloc was apparently unimpressed with our visit.) Even the vendors who had swarmed us as we walked along were gone. We huddled under the narrow awning of a building waiting to find out if we would be allowed in the museum, until someone finagled twenty minutes for us to spend in the six-room gallery.
The museum houses many fine artifacts and an excellent diorama reconstructing the site. The gift shop remained closed due to the rain.

The rest of our time was spent in a restaurant, La Gruta, good food, interesting atmosphere, though cold enough some members of our party were wearing the tablecloths by the end of our stay there.

For years I’ve wanted to see Teotihuacan, but not had the opportunity because I’ve only passed through sprawling Mexico City to other parts of the country. I am glad to have at least glimpsed it, though sorely disappointed in the time allotted for the visit—and surprised that this tour, like the one to Guanajuato, is a component, and the only pre-Columbian component, of what is purportedly a study of Mexican literature and culture. However! Next time I will make my own arrangements and arrange to spend a reasonable amount of time, without a guide, having done my own research and with a good guidebook.