16 July 2008

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.

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