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?

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