Published in the Vail Daily 4/12/09
Mexico 10-Final Impressions
I sometimes feel that, compared to Mexico, we live in a sterile, homogenized culture. In San Miguel de Allende, any minor saint’s day provides reason for a festival. At any time, you can be surprised by a parade or procession disrupting traffic.
One afternoon a raucous parade of fifteen foot tall dancing puppets and crowds of masked, costumed characters followed a solemn procession of young girls dressed in white. Another day, thousands of fantastically costumed children paraded past the Jardin. Another, a circus parade clogged the streets. Almost daily, fusillades of rockets celebrating lord knows what, are heard from some corner of town.
There is a peculiar joy to being rocketed out of a sound sleep early on a Sunday morning by a fusillade of bombs bursting overhead immediately followed by a band and a chorus of bells. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!
Close to noise it is and clearly joyful. From the squealing clarinets, the out of tune trumpets, the blaring trombones projecting their hearts through their instruments, to the punctuating blasts of a sousaphone, enthusiasm reins.
How can I not smile, a former orchestral musician, at the joyful cacophony of a band playing in multiple keys. Charming though, is not an adjective I would use before sunrise. Add roosters startled into an early crowing, roof dogs barking their counterpoint, the joyful songs of hundreds of birds and how could it not bring a smile? Nobody I ask has any idea what occasion it is. It goes on for hours.
I love Mariachi music. There is no more joyful sound as when a Mariachi band strikes up the moment a newly married couple exits the church. So, don’t get me wrong… If you have a Pride of Lions, or a Gaggle of Geese, or a Shrewdness of Apes or an Exaltation of Larks…what do you have when, on a typical Saturday night, 4-5 Mariachis bands are playing different tunes in different keys simultaneously at one end of the small central plaza? Why a Cacophony of Mariachis of course!
The Procession of the Lord of the Column:
We were told to get up at five am and follow the crowds. The streets are dark, practically empty but for groups of people closing the bars. Couples, arms wrapped around waists, waver unsteadily down the cobbled sidewalks.
Rounding a corner suddenly presents an amazing spectacle. Under bright lights, carpets of fragrant herbs and elaborate, colored designs, stretch for blocks. The street is a mosaic of paintings and designs. Columns crowned with arrangements of fresh flowers line the route. Overhead, thousands of intricate paper ornaments shroud the street. People worked all night, putting great effort and skill into the artwork composed of dyed sawdust and wood chips. Finishing touches are still being applied.
With the dawn, bursts of rockets approach along with the procession. Fireworks explode overhead. A band and voices of hundreds, singing hymns, gets louder. Girls, dressed in frilly, white dresses lead the procession followed by Jesus in a purple robe and a squad of Roman soldiers. Next comes the statue of the Lord of the Column and two other large, heavy figures, each born on the shoulders of eight men. The procession left the shrine of Atotonilco at midnight, walking the eight miles to arrive at dawn.
Thousands line the route, crossing themselves as the figures pass. The procession stops beneath my rooftop perch as mass is said, then moves toward the Church of San Juan del Dios, home to the figures through the Easter holidays. The pungent aroma of crushed herbs fills the air.
And this is only the first procession of Easter.
At no time did we feel even the least bit unsafe, nor did we get even a little sick. All the more, in the large cities we visited, Guadalajara and Guanajuato, also in smaller Puerto Vallarta, there was no time when we felt threatened. I was always very aware and watchful, of course. Yet, I walked the streets freely, even at night, expensive camera in hand, often with $10,000 worth of cameras and computers in my backpack, and felt perfectly safe.
We crossed the border twice in our car, drove 600 miles each way; no problems. We met people traveling in small RVs all over Mexico for months on end. No one reported anything but wonderful experiences. Clearly there are problems along sections of the border. Those places are easily avoided. You also do not drive at night. That is a basic precaution.
The U.S. State Department is performing a grave injustice in issuing warnings against travel to Mexico. The incessant reporting on border violence by the news media, as usual, fans irrational fears. This violence, I might add, is a direct result of the complete and utter failure of the so-called “War on Drugs”, forty years of un-enlightened prohibition wasting tens of billions of dollars every year.
We are the ones fueling the violence.
The expatriate population has influenced and benefited San Miguel deeply. Tourism provides good, relatively stable jobs, supporting many families. Restaurants, hospitality, shops and markets benefit while the resident gringo population employes services of all types and contributes charitable works.
Yet there is clearly a divide. Expats have driven up housing prices to unimaginable heights. Large houses go for over a million dollars. Segments of expatriates lead the insular lives led by colonial occupiers throughout history. Though most gringos are gracious and respectful, arrogance is not unseen.
The Art Scene
San Miguel de Allende has been an art colony for decades. Artists from around the world have drawn inspiration from its colorful ambience. The arts scene continues to be lively with frequent gallery openings, regular art classes, concerts and plays. An old factory has been turned into an arts center. It features scores of galleries and work spaces for artists in all mediums. Their semi-annual Champaign and Chocolates evening brought out thousands of people.
A few private collections are open to the public by simply calling ahead. One, in Casa de la Cuesta, a B&B, features possibly the largest and best collection of indigenous masks in Mexico. Another in Atotonilco, Galleria Atotonilco, is an exceptional folk art gallery. It has one of the largest serape collections in the world.
From painting to stained glass, photography, sculpture, weaving and music, San Miguel de Allende remains a center of vital arts activity. Literally every day sees several arts activities on the calendar.
We have never been to a place where we’ve made such fast friends. You could say there must be something in the water, except it’s all purified. The gringos coming to San Miguel are unlike others we’ve met in places around the world. Frequently, when one meets an English speaker while traveling abroad, there is a bond and often quick, friendship. But we’ve never experienced it on this scale. Where ever w were, after a lecture, in a restaurant or sitting in the Jardin, we met people who were sincerely warm and open. Frequently, deep conversations developed leading to shared meals and more time together. Of all the memories, the people we met will be the most lasting.
San Miguel de Allende is a very special place. A place of warmth, hospitality and culture. A place where cultures co-mingle, creating a synergy benefiting each. A place of deep history and rich sacred traditions. San Miguel is not just a place to vacation, but a place to learn, to grow and to experience life on a level outside our sometimes pale homogeneity.