Nearing the end of my stay, I decided to get a much-needed pedicure. An acquaintance directed me to a salon she liked located in town but well off the tourist trail. I arrived, was warmly greeted and directed to a simple straight back chair. A dish-washing-sized plastic tub was placed on the floor in front of me full of warm water and a sudsy cleaner of some sort. I observed my very white feet soaking in the plastic container thinking what a far cry this was from the motorized chairs at home that can massage our backs if we wish. What was even more striking to me was the contrast of my white feet and the manicurist’s brown hands and arms. The contrast was so marked it set me to thinking of color. Color is something worthy of serious thought. Anglo Americans don’t think long or hard enough about it.
I rarely describe myself as white unless asked that question on some form. I have light brown hair mixed with gray, small almond shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones. I’m 5’5″ tall and fairly fit. I don’t usually think “I’m white.” However, that’s how Mexicans describe me. “You’re white,” they say, “not Anglo, white.” There are loads of whites living in this small town–they are almost entirely North American.
Mexicans’ skin tones vary from quite dark to very fair. I know that besides Cortes and his men, Spaniards have been coming to Mexico for hundreds of years. Some families left Spain in pretty large numbers during the Franco period. Like Pol Pot, the Falangists rounded up and executed professionals, artists, and gays. Federico Garcia Lorca (Bodas de Sangre) was executed by Franco’s men because he was gay, a poet and writer. Others left Spain fleeing the Guardia Civil, prison and execution. Some walked into France through the Pyrenees. Then they took a boat from Marseilles and began their lives over in Mexico City. For a long time these European immigrants held prominent positions in universities, medicine and the law. Over time native Mexicans have moved into the professional class too.
Sunday I went to one of my favorite cafes–Cafe Rama–a popular stop for brunch. Within a 180 degree radius of my table there were three tables of mid-thirties and younger well dressed and attractive men and women. I’d say the woman shop at the equivalent of Nordstrom or even Barney’s. The men were equally well turned out and groomed. Take a look.
The next day I visited Atotonilco considered the best example of Mexican Boroque architecture in the country. It is a World Heritage Site located a short drive outside of San Miguel de Allende on a site that for centuries was sacred to the native people. It was an alluring site due to the natural hot springs with their curative powers. The indigenous people named this place Atotonilco, “in hot water.” They made annual pilgrimages to Atotonilco to repent of their sins and to sit in the hot waters and to enjoy some free wheeling sex after repenting. Sounds like Big Sur in the 60’s to me.
Today five thousand penitents come weekly to Atotonilco for the same reasons–probably the sex is not a big part of the process–as they are now guided by Catholic theology which is just what happened to the indigenous people hundreds of years ago. In the 18th C. Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro supervised the building of the complex using the local artisans to do the work. No more sex after repenting. Father Alfaro lived at the site until his death in 1776. Additional buildings were added over the next 100 years.
The most remarkable aspect of this complex and why it is often called the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico” are the painted walls and ceilings which cover the sanctuary and adjacent chapels. This work was done by Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre and another painter Jose Maria Barajas over thirty years. The friars showed him plates of interiors of Belgian cathedrals as examples of what they wanted him to paint. There is scarcely any blank space. It is breathtaking. Pocasangre was an indigenous man. He was a very talented artist.
So here my convoluted essay on color concludes with the observation that brown people built Mexico–not white Europeans. Brown men and woman raised the food, made the bricks, painted the walls, decorated the churches, built the palaces, adopted a new religion, fought a revolution, elected an Indian to head their government and are devoted to a brown saint–the Virgen de Guadalupe.
I’ve given lots of gifts and toys over the years to children, grand children and the children of friends. I don’t think I ever thought too much about what toys tell us about our culture, our aspirations, and our history.
There’s Barbie, G. I. Joe, a coon skin hat like Davy Crockett’s, and Roy Roger’s chaps and holster stuffed with a cap gun. What did we learn from the toys we received–the ones we whined for and pleaded for–what did our children understand about life in the United States, its past and present and future. As Buzz Lightyear said “To infinity and beyond.”
I went to the Toy Museum in the Centro of San Miguel last week. It’s housed in a gorgeous 3-story Colonial period home–still occupied by the owner. Various municipal and private foundations help to fund the operation of the Museum. The modest admission is 50 pesos. There is a small gift shop as well.
As I climbed the stairs to the final floor with its roof top patio I was amazed at what I learned peering into all the myriad cases crowded with all manner of games, dolls, and toys.
The items I loved the most were the exquisitely made miniatures–a ceramic dinner service painted in traditional patterns no piece taller than my thumb. A tiny basket shop its walls covered in realistic baskets of all shapes woven from straw and perfectly made.
I thought about the men and women who made these things probably after having worked all day. Probably receiving very little in wages and very little for the toys they made using materials readily at hand. I thought about the children who received these toys and how carefully they must have taken care of them. The fact that so many of these toys survived is amazing. Children are hard on their toys. They often are completely destroyed. But we’ve all know a child who guards and cares for their toys leaving them in perfect condition long after the child grows up. So here are some of the highlights.
Two items caught my eye; one in a painting, the other in a case of dolls. I asked Luis when I got home who was the Ninja like character with the rifle?
“That’s Comandante Marcos. The leader of the indigenous people of Chiapas. You often see a woman wearing a red bandana and carrying a rifle. The women participated in the revolution–Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional– too.” Subcomandante Marcos led the fight to get fair wages and equitable treatment from the government for the indigenous people. Now the people have secured a municipality of their own.
The images of anglo women and girls.
There is a wealth of meaning within each of these figures. I wish I knew more, but for now, I’ll just enjoy what I saw and felt.
Yes, writing and reading. So many of the superb instructors at the 14th Annual Writers Conference stressed that reading goes hand in hand with writing. You’d think that would be obvious but I who have always been a voracious reader have slacked off and it’s not a good thing. The allure of Netflix is one of the culprits but there’s the ingrained notion, learned as a girl, that I should always be doing something productive with my time. Reading is something I can do at night before falling asleep! Of course, often I simply fall asleep!
Reading the work of talented writers is how I can get better at my own writing. I know that and I need to change my behavior when I return home to read more when I’m awake!
The first workshop I took offered by Signe Hammer was all about reading the work of excellent writers and paying attention to how they use precise observation to enrich their narrative. Using lots of verbs to bring the narrative alive. Writing sparsely with few adjectives inducing tension in the reader.
She set some interesting prompts for us and five minute quick writing exercises which were fun and very useful. Since we all had the same prompt it was interesting to hear how we all had out own take on the exercise. I was sitting next to a woman writing a memoir and one of the prompts elicited an important change in her manuscript. She went on to pitch her memoir to two agents and each of them want her to send her manuscript to them. She was over the moon!
The next workshop was by Brooke Warner who is the publisher of She Writes Press. She was excellent. Her subject was The Take Away and the take away. The capital T take away is the blurb on the book jacket. If you can’t succinctly tell or write your book’s Take Away, you’re in big trouble. I think I’m still in the big trouble camp. Small t take away is what you leave the reader with throughout the narrative. What you were feeling, thinking, what you learned. Allowing your reader to have the experience you’re telling and say “Wow! I know just how that feels.”
I took two workshops from Melissa Cistaro on mapping your memoir and on finding your way through all the maze of memory we have to identify the key memories that advance your narrative. You may love the memory of your first kitten, but does that memory really advance your story about raising sons alone. Maybe you can tie that cute little kitten to those boys but it’s a stretch. Drop the kitten!
The mapping exercise involved actually drawing a map of an important part of your story. Literally the house you were living in, the tree in the backyard, the car you took on vacation on and on. I did discover while drawing the time I lived with my grandparents during the war that I had no memory of my mother during that time. None at all. My father was in the South Pacific and my mother was working in Kansas City but I don’t remember a thing she did, said, wore. Nothing. That’s significant!
So being open to trying on these exercises and entering into each one fully and openly was highly beneficial. I’m very glad I had this opportunity. I know these pictures are not very easy to see, but they’re important to me. The top right picture is of mom’s lonely desk with no one in the chair.
The highlights of the conference were the keynote speakers. A really stellar group: Adam Gopnik, Susan Orleans, Paul Theroux (who I missed because I was sick) and three other writers I have not read. Gopnik is one of my favorite writers: a journalist with The New Yorker magazine he has also written several memoirs. One of my favorites is From Paris to the Moon. If you’re off to Paris read it!
His talk which he delivered on foot pacing the stage for one hour without notes was extraordinary. He walked us through his new book coming soon to a book store near you: Living Liberalism: The Rhinoceros Manifesto. This man is a tyro he walked us through Western thinkers from Hume and Mills to George Lewes and George Eliot and others explaining what Liberalism is and how we need it.
“This talk will be an attempt to renew and remake liberal humanism for a new century.” Gasp and pant! He is a genius, charming, and happily in love with his wife, Martha. Something wonderful to see indeed. Not jaded, not cynical, just brilliant and alive. A joy!
Susan Orleans’, new book The Library Book arose out of five years of research which was prompted by her families’ move to Los Angeles. A tour of the old Los Angeles Public Library led by a knowledgeable board member sparked her interest when she learned that most of the titles went up in smoke in 1986 unfortunately on the same day as the Chernobyl disaster. Hence the fire–started by an arsonist–went to page six in the New York Times and Chernobyl filled all the front pages in the country–probably in Los Angeles as well.
Weekly childhood trips with her mother, now dead, to the Shaker Heights library sparked her interest in and love of the library. These precious memories which populate her mind and thought still recalling selecting and checking out books and then deciding which to read first on the car ride home. I look forward to reading her book. It’s bound and gold embossed like an old book. The pages have deckle edges. She wanted to make the book look just like one you might find today in the stacks of a library. It has heft and presence. Those of us who love to do research have held many such books. I hope the books and the libraries will always be here.
Despite my poor health, I enjoyed myself a lot. The hotel where the conference was held is just a short walk from River and Luis’ home where I’m staying. It made it easy for me to get back and forth. I go home renewed and ready to finish the next nine chapters of my own memoir. I know there is an unimaginable amount of work to be done, but I feel armed with new insight and a better grasp of my craft.
I spent most of last week in bed. No, not that, sadly, in bed with a bug. I did something very foolish. I had the touted quesadillas of one of our neighbors. She sets up a table on Friday afternoons and makes delicious quesadillas which she sells for 15P. Normally, I would never do something so foolish, but my host raved about them and has had them numerous times and is of course inoculated against local bugs. He lives here. So I took my plate home and ate them. They were very good.
As I paid him, I asked, “What’s her name?”
“Luz,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“She found another.” he said sadly.
“Es impossibly! Ella es tonta!” I said.
I got out and walked home.
I wasn’t especially hungry at that point, but I made myself a bowl of rice and called it day.
Hours later, I awakened to a ferocious head ache, chills, sweats, and gasping discomfort. I made a mad dash to the bath room, not quite making it. I lost everything I’d eaten for the past hundred years. Right there! Boom!
The next morning I awakened groggy and unable to move. I was being prodded. I did get up and looked into my little purse and, as my subconscious suspected, no wallet. I had the change from the taxi driver when I paid him, but no wallet. I realized it had fallen out in the taxi probably as I was getting out of the car.
Darling Luis, came in to check on me and I told him. Both of us were ashen. Again, stupidity prevails, that wallet contained my credit cards and about 3,000 P. Thank God, my passport was safely at home.
I called my bank. There is very little they can do but cancel the cards and, I was about to authorize them to do so, when Luis came to the door, face beaming, he had called The Rosewood, the taxi driver had turned the wallet in to their Concierge. There was no cash or change in the wallet, but all the cards were there. Later that day Luis and River ran to The Rosewood, picked up my wallet and left a big tip for the driver.
Have I vowed to mend my foolish ways? Will I wear the little pouch Rick Steves sells under my shirts? (Yes, I have one.) Probably.
I said a prayer of thanks, and went to sleep. I pretty much slept for the next three days missing days one and two of the Writers Conference (more on that to come). I dragged myself to the Conference the third day and all the other days feeling better each day but no appetite or energy in sight. I’m sure both will come back!
“Mejorando,” as they say.
I’ve had a couple of low energy days–maybe a little bug–so have slept a lot–that and tea are my principle responses to a bug. Yesterday, feeling a little more energetic, I walked down Cinco de Mayo and headed to the organic farmers market. Didn’t see anything I had to take home so I decided to head back up hill and walk around the neighboring Colonia Guadiana. It and San Antonio where I’m living are trending upscale (says the real estate ads) but I would classify them as solidly middle and working class neighborhoods. There are tours of the homes of the “rich and famous” which I might sign up for later in my stay..
What interests me is the delight in color here. I think color is an inherent quality of Mexican life–perhaps even DNA. I remember the Aztec high class had capes made from the colorful feathers of tropical birds. So delight in color goes back a long way. You just marvel at the streets lined in sherbet colors and more vibrant paint. Most homes extend to the sidewalk–if there is one–sometimes there is an entry courtyard. Of course what we can’t see are the lovely interior patios and roof top gardens that usually exist. River and Luis’ home is a perfect example of that architecture.
Afternoon light in my bedroom
Ignacio Allende was born here of Spanish parents. He’s of interest because he switched his allegiance from the Spanish army where he was a captain, to serve in the revolutionary independence movement. He fought in numerous battles on the Mexican side. Captured by the Spanish, he was sentenced to death by firing squad and beheaded. His head was displayed on a pole as a message to the insurgents. His wife and three children survived. He died in 1811 at the age of 42.
I stopped into the Instituto Allende this morning and saw this mural. Mexico should adopt a slogan “Murals Are Us!”
I found the two women at the base of the mural seated across from one another with maps of Mexico in front of them very intriguing. There was no one about to ask. Then I saw an interesting mural on a house adjacent to the Institute.
There’s a cafe, a jewelry store with Spratling originals, and offices and classrooms. They offer Spanish lessons, life long learning classes, and visual arts instruction to earn a B.A. and M.F.A. under the aegis of the University of Guanajuato.
I was headed back to Cafe Rama where I had breakfast yesterday. A jewel of a place. Owned by artists–jeweler and painter. I had the most delicious breakfast dish I’ve ever eaten. I don’t know what the sauce was, light and pale green, but it was fantastic. Not highly flavored with spices or chillis at all.
I spied a wonderful jacket there which I thought Peter would like. I sent him a picture of it and he did love it. He was born in 1962 the Year of the Tiger! “I’m not rude, I’m honest.” is so Peter! So I went back today to find out the price. It’s hand painted and one of a kind. Sadly the price is 9,000 pesos about $450–way too much for me. Luis says I should offer the owner $200. We’ll see.
I’ve been enjoying just wandering around. When I get too tired, I get a taxi home. Taxi’s cost 50 pesos anywhere in the city. ($2.62) So live it up. I’m going to take a taxi to Aurora tomorrow which is an artists’ district. I hear the really top artists are showing there.
The town is a photographer’s dream. (I first wrote wet dream and then thought that was too vulgar.)
Me and the iPhone do our best. Sometimes I regret having left my digital by the wayside. And as for my good old Nikon–I stupidly sold it a long time ago. Along with all the lenses. Dumb!