San Miguel de Allende, Proof, Perhaps, That “Art Begins With Resistance”

IMG_5907All too soon, it seemed, we were loading our bags into the van and leaving Guadalajara.  Thanks to Rodrigo, I was at least leaving with my backpack, Kindle, and passport.  While there was still so much I had not seen, I was incredibly excited to be heading to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato.  This stop was the main reason I wanted to take this particular trip.  My anticipation made it almost impossible for me to relax on the five hour ride across the central highlands.  I could not wait to tramp up and down those hilly, cobblestone streets, stand in the middle of El Camino Real, and count and compare doors (to determine if there really were over 2,000 different ones).


San Miguel de Allende left me as breathless as I had anticipated, and it wasn’t because of IMG_E5779the climbs up and down steep streets.  The homes and business were painted warm shades of mustard yellow, terra cotta, and barn red. (Residents have seven colors they can choose from for their outside walls.)  Rooftop gardens bloomed.  Doors were made of heavy wood, some of them even original.  The cobblestone streets were in meticulous order, and I never saw so much as one cigarette butt or scrap of paper littering them.  Bus traffic was barred from some streets in the central district, as they were just too narrow.  Originally, of course, roadways were designed for carriages and donkeys.  The sidewalks were equally tiny, requiring pedestrians to step into the street on occasion to avoid bumping into one another.

The parish church, San Miguel Arcángel, is probably the most recognizable landmark in the city.  It dominates the central plaza and is as stunning at night as it is during the day.  Side note:  the central plaza is not referred to as a plaza.  It is called a jardín, or garden.  This caused some confusion, as San Miguel de Allende has created a beautiful green space just a few blocks away.  I thought this park was the jardín everyone was talking about!  I almost led our group astray during our pursuit of churros y chocolate by heading toward the wrong jardín.  And believe me, after two days of climbing hills to get from Point A to Point B, no one is even trying to get additional steps any more!

My abilities in differentiating between  churches, cathedrals, and chapels is seriously lacking.  Due to its size and grandeur, I incorrectly assumed the San Miguel Arcángel was a cathedral. (Fancy and huge = cathedral, right?)  But in the late 1600’s when the church was built, San Miguel de Allende was not a large enough city to be home to a cathedral.  It is only a regular, old parish church.


The man who built the church had absolutely no training as an engineer or architect.  He worked as a mason.  His idea for the church came from a postcard of a cathedral in Cologne, Germany that he carried around with him.  I cannot even put together a child’s Lego set without studying the instructions for a couple of hours and then spending another couple just psyching myself up.

Its exterior is pink, thanks to a local sandstone used in its construction. (There are actually five unique colors of sandstone in this region:  purple, pink, green, chocolate, and gray.)  I loved waking up to the church bells ringing each morning (followed immediately by the rooster), and I never quite figured out their timing.  The inside of the church honors both indigenous, pagan beliefs and Catholicism.  Interestingly enough, however, Indians were excluded from celebrating mass in the central church.  They were required to attend smaller churches scattered throughout town that were literally small, dark, concrete walled rooms.


Perhaps this is one of the reasons why San Miguel de Allende was so instrumental in the Mexican fight for independence.  It was the birthplace of General Ignacio Allende, whose home still sits just across the plaza from the building where secret resistance meetings were held.  General Allende fought alongside Miguel Hidalgo in the very early battles.  His name is shouted out every September 15 in the reenactment of the “Cry of Dolores” in celebration of Mexico’s independence.

The influence of the Canel family is still alive in San Miguel today as well.  They were a family of traders:  leather, grain, and animal fat.  In 1733, the patriarch began construction on the family’s second home.  It was not entirely finished until his grandson was of age, and the grandson and his family were the first to live there full time.  More servants lived in the home than family members!  The first floor of the home (mansion? palace?) was reserved for business meetings and guests.  The front doors were high and wide enough that a carriage could drive right through them into the central courtyard.  The stable was located just off the courtyard, near the servants’ quarters.  The family occupied the second floor.

One of the daughters of the family chose a life dedicated to God.  She used her inheritance, or at least 70,000 gold coins of it, to build the Convent of the Immaculate Conception.  The nunnery is active today, housing 14 cloistered nuns, women who have chosen to remain separate with the outside world in order to devote their lives to prayer and meditation.  They are even kept out of the sight of other parishioners during mass.  Today, Belles Artes, an art school, shares space with the remaining nuns.

And it may have been art that saved San Miguel, a city that suffered mightily during the IMG_5823Mexican War of Independence and a flu epidemic in the early 1900’s.  It was rediscovered by international artists.  Jackson Pollack got his start in San Miguel, where he attended a workshop led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s “Big Three” muralists.  Students came in droves, especially American veterans after World War II.  Artists and passionate amateurs continue to flock to the city today taking photography, drawing, painting, and cooking classes and workshops.  San Miguel de Allende was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, further cementing its appeal to retirees from the United States and Canada and increasing numbers of tourists.

How does the saying go?  Every cloud has a silver lining.  Perhaps the reverse is a bit true here.  The cloud is that many Mexicans born in San Miguel de Allende are now being priced out of homes in the central district, forcing them to live further from the city center and its main marketplace.  Beautiful mountain views are now obscured by condominiums, apartments, and large homes.  It is quite possible that water could be in short supply in the next 15 years due to the increasing population.  In addition, traditional work opportunities in agriculture and commerce are being lost as more services are needed to accommodate the influx of visitors and foreign residents.

Whoa.  I am kind of depressing myself.

I loved San Miguel de Allende and the people I met there.  I am inspired by history of the city and the effect it had on all of Mexico.  I admire the efforts the government and all citizens have made to preserve its colonial integrity.  Most of all I am grateful for the important lesson, intended or otherwise, in being a mindful, gracious visitor to another’s home.




Ajijic, Talaquepaque- -Say Em’ Three Times Fast

Public restrooms, I have learned, are few and far between in Mexico.  So as excited as I was to finally arrive in Ajijic, an area known for attracting artists, writers, and a lot of retirees, I spent a good chunk of our allotted time searching for a restroom.  Fortunately, the search led me through narrow cobblestone streets, past two churches, and finally to a brightly painted bar/cafe with a view of the action happening in the main square.  Lo and behold, there was a gazebo in the plaza. The bar offered a free restroom, which believe it or not, is a big deal.  And because I am a fan of the search, or just a glutton for punishment, I drank a Diet Coke, certainly setting myself up for a repeat hunt later in the day.

Rather than duck in and out of the boutiques and art galleries, Steve and I spent our (remaining) time, walking through the streets surrounding the plaza.  Ajijic was alive with color.  We didn’t need to step inside to see the beautiful artwork decorating the walls, homes, and storefronts in town.  We did not make it to the lakefront on this visit.  I like the idea of leaving something in each place to come back for another time.  Or I just tell myself that so I do not get too disappointed about what I may have missed!

But if we had made it to the lake, we would have missed the man selling the candy!  A lot of the candy in Mexico is made from fruit.  Coconut, tamarind, and guava are ground and rolled into logs.  The tamarind and guava have a sugar coating, while pistachio, chocolate, and other flavors may be added to the coconut.  Hey, I am all for four to six servings of fruit a day.  I went a little crazy when we discovered a hard candy made from jamaica.  In fact, we bought the man out!  The rest of our group was pretty excited about our find too, until another member returned with a cream made with peyote and marijuana.  I was intrigued as well, but I smartly used the distraction to put my candy in my backpack.  I am all for sharing up to  point.

Our next stop was Tlaquepaque.  It is a large city in its own right, but it is now part of the sprawl that Guadalajara has become.  This area is best known for its glass, clay pottery, furniture, and mariachi music.  High end stores line the busy streets.  Near the main plaza (with two gazebos), men and women set up stalls full of leather goods, textiles, and other handcrafted souvenirs.  Food carts sell elote, sweet potatoes, sugar cane juice, gorditas and ice cream.  I may have purchased more candy.

We bypassed the carts and dined in a restaurant situated in Mariachi Plaza.  The Guadalajara area is specifically known for a few culinary treats.  Among them are:  birria, a stew made from goat meat, and torta ahogada, a “drowned sandwich”, masterfully created one day from available leftovers, or so the legend goes.  I decided I was going to try the birria.  Steve immediately sent a text to Caleb, a true goat lover from the beginning of time, ratting me out.  Unfortunately, once I began eating, visions of goats in pajamas and goats in yoga class flashed before my eyes.  I think it was probably very good, but I just started thinking too much.  Others at the table did not have my problem, and they helped me eat it.

While I was distracted by a store featuring handmade works centered on La Virgin de Guadalupe and La Lotería (possibly a new obsession), Steve wandered into a tequila store and basically, had his very own tequila tour!  After a few samples, he happily (in more ways than one) walked out with his purchase.

It was time to return to our hotel, kind of.  I just was still too hyped up to call it a day just yet.  So once we were dropped off, unloaded the tequila in the hotel room, and used the restroom again, Steve and I set out for the four plazas and the Guadalajara marketplace, one of the largest markets in all of Latin America.  Even though the Super Bowl was on, and even though we had already walked miles that day.

The football Gods must have been smiling down on Steve, as we were not in the market long when closing time came around.  We lingered in the plazas for a bit, enjoying the musicians and artists and ice cream  before finally heading back.  We even made it in plenty of time to see the Eagles defeat the Patriots, which for Indianapolis Colts fans, was the perfect ending to a very full and wonderful day.

When Your Emotions Are “Flying” All Over the Place

So a friend of ours had a great idea for Steve.  She suggested we skip the trips to Chapala, Ajijic, and Tlaquepaque and schedule a Tequila Tour instead.  Our guides were very flexible, and most likely this would not have been a problem except… I really wanted to visit these three places.  And I suppose, Steve feared I would join the shopping frenzy if he did not come along. With the promise of a visit to a tequila store later in the day, Steve boarded the van with the rest of us early in the morning.


Chapala is about 30 minutes south of Guadalajara.  Playwright, Tennessee Williams, lived there while writing A Streetcar Named Desire.  Apparently, he found Chapala to be a quiet place with good swimming.  That is still true today, as Chapala is home to the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala.  It is an ideal weekend getaway spot for the city dwellers.

We meandered up and down the malecón enjoying incredible views.  On our way back to the van, we noticed a Palo Volador along the lakeshore.  It was not long before the Voladores themselves appeared and prepared to perform their ancient prayer ritual, La Danza de los Voladores.  As I mentioned earlier, we were blessed with incredibly easy going guides.  They were more than happy to turn our group around and spend a little bit of extra time in Chapala so we would not miss the ceremony.


I had come across La Danza de los Voladores while researching Mexico for my classes several years ago.  I was intrigued, mesmerized, filled with a longing to just go.  (I think this is what made my job so difficult for me at times.  I found the four walls confining, particularly when I was discovering so much that was new to me.)  I never incorporated La Danza into my lessons, most likely because parents would have frowned upon their children dangling from ropes attached to a 30 foot pole.  But I did not forget what I had seen on the YouTube video, and what I had read.  I was overcome with emotion that I would be in the front row to witness this special dance.


Five Voladores participate in the ritual at a time.  One man plays the flute and drum simultaneously while the group dances in a circle around the pole.  One by one, the Voladores climb 30 feet in the air and attach themselves to ropes that have been tied and wound around the pole.  The flutist/drummer sits at the top of the pole continuing to play music and leads the group of men in prayer.  In a demonstration of strength and faith at the prayer’s end, four of the Voladares lean back, drop from their seats, and soar, upside down, around the pole- -tethered by the rope.  Words cannot describe what it was like to be a part of this that morning.  I still get goosebumps when I think about it.


Okay, so afterwards, there was, of course, a little display of items for sale.  And one of the items was a two foot replica of the pole and the Voladores.  Without even thinking about how I would get it home without snapping it in two or what in the heck I would do with it once there, I bought one!  Steve was not at all surprised to see me get in line, pesos in hand.  He was surprised that I chose a green one.  Particularly because it was the same color of green I told him to please never wear again.

Sometimes I buy things I see like I still have a classroom to put them in.  Right now my Palo Volador is just sitting in my living room (making me smile whenever I look at it).  But I have been doing a lot of thinking on this purchase and have a fabulous idea for a dining room table centerpiece!  Which is going to require the purchase of a few more items that would look great in a classroom!

La Vida Es Un Carnaval

We returned home from a trip south just in time to enjoy Carnaval 2018!  We avoided the weekend crowds by busying ourselves with after vacation chores like unpacking, laundry, and grocery shopping.  This worked out well for Steve- -as it meant Carnaval shenanigans would happen during the week, when he would be working.  So truthfully, I returned home in time for Carnaval!

Guaymas’ Carnaval celebration is one of the oldest in Mexico, dating back to 1888.  As athumbnail-4 port city, Guaymas was home to many immigrants and visitors from Europe.  A Carnaval, similar to those held in Europe, was their idea.  Participation was for the most part limited to the upper classes.  After the Mexican Revolution, Guaymas embraced Carnaval as its own, and participation opened up to include everyone.  The event always begins on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday and runs until midnight the following Tuesday, or the start of Lent.

A parade is held each afternoon/evening.  (Based on my Guaymas parade experience, it is definitely an evening event.  But it is best to get there in the afternoon just in case it starts at the scheduled afternoon time.)  There are rides on the malecón, concerts, poetry readings, plays, games, lots of good food, and souvenirs to buy.

During the day one celebration a Reina del Carnaval and Rey Feo are crowned.  There is also the “Quema de Mal Humor” (Burning of the Bad Humor).  This year’s honor went to PASA, the city garbage collection agency.  PASA was on strike during the month of December, leaving trash to pile up in the city and its surrounding areas.  In spite of the inconvenience (and smell and eyesore) this caused, many were hoping that Enrique Peña Nieto, Guaymas mayor, Lorenzo DeCima, or Donald Trump had been selected instead.

Photo credit Sharon Mooney

Some friends and I decided that Carnaval would be the perfect time to try public transportation for the first time.  We knew the main avenue into el Centro would be closed off to traffic for the parade, and parking would be a challenge.  We had been a bit intimidated by the bus previously, certain we would make mistakes or get lost.  We found fellow passengers and the bus drivers to be incredibly helpful.  We were dropped two blocks from where we planned on watching the parade and discovered a new bakery/café on our walk!  And given that I am writing this now, the trip home was equally as successful!


The parade was a little delayed, but we filled our time shopping for masks and peoplethumbnail-1
watching.  Several women made cascarones and sold them in packages of five for five pesos.  Children loved breaking them over the heads of their parents.  Actually, they enjoyed breaking them over the heads of anyone nearby!  We were confetti bombed multiple times by the small children (and abuelitas) sitting near us.  We had stocked up ourselves, so we made sure to return the favor.  Nothing brings strangers closer together quite like confetti!

The parade was a marvel of sights and sounds.  Marching and mariachi bands entertained the onlookers.  Loud music blasted from speakers, providing the rhythms for the colorfully costumed dancers.  And the crowd.  The abuelitas loved to dance with the handsome, young parade participants!  The floats were big and bold, a true testament to the time and energy it took to prepare for this event.  Candy, stuffed animals, and confetti were launched from the floats into the crowd.  The crowd gave it right back spraying Silly String and throwing cascarones!  One brave youngster even sprayed a police officer with Silly String as he helped clear the parade route before the show began!


After the parade, we walked along the malecón.  Crowds stood in line for roller coasters, spidery spinners, and inflatables.  Children enjoyed crafts and magicians.  The smells of delicious food hung in the air:  pancakes con Nutella o fresas, churros, Cheetos con chamoy, elote, tacos, and hotdogs.  As we sat down to rest a moment on the seawall, one of our group discovered an unopened, ice cold cerveza, seemingly left there just for her.  (This, of course, necessitated a stop in the five peso port a potty before the bus ride home.)


It is experiences like this one that make up my very favorite Mexico memories.  (Yes, that even includes paying to use the bathroom and waiting an hour and a half for a parade to start.)  Living here has taught me so much about finding joy in the moment and letting myself be amazed by the little things.  The little things are the big things.  Go ahead!  Break a cascarón over a friend’s head.  You will know exactly what I mean.

This Ain’t Your Grandma’s Bingo!

This past weekend the San Carlos Rotary held their annual Cow Plop Bingo event to raisethumbnail-3 money for facility and equipment needs at the primary and secondary Ranchitos schools in San Carlos.  True, I am a midwest girl, and Indiana does have a lot of farms.  But the state rates in the top five nationally for production of corn and soybeans.  And animals raised include swine, poultry, and, recently, fish.  So, Bingo with cows was not something I had experienced before.  While the name is somewhat self explanatory, I was very eager to see how exactly this would work.

thumbnail-2The very first thing I observed when we arrived was the Bingo board.  It was painted on a large, open tract of land in the desert.  There were so many squares!  I thought I had purchased plenty of tickets, but after seeing the board, I knew this was going to be a crapshoot.  (Pardon my pun.) The board was marked off with yellow police tape.   Hmmm.  I hoped the cows understood what the tape meant.  Just in case they did not, there were vaqueros mounted on horseback; their lassos at the ready.

About every hour or so, a cow was led onto the playing field to wander around.  He was thumbnail-1surrounded by cowboys, who apparently knew the police tape was just for show.  The idea was that the cow would poo, and the person whose ticket matched the square the poo landed in would win part of the day’s jackpot.  Well, going to the bathroom in front of a large crowd, whether you are a human or a cow, can be a tad intimidating.  So, sometimes it took a while.

While the crowd waited for the action, they danced and sang to the festive music blasting from speakers.  Horses even got into the celebration, showing off their fancy footwork.  There were ribs, hot dogs, and elote, slathered with mayonnaise, parmesan cheese, and tajín to snack on.  Beer, water, and soft drinks were sold.  Pickup trucks were parked along the sides of the Bingo board.  Families sat in the beds enjoying the picnics they had packed and thumbnailsharing coolers of Tecate.

One women became so impatient with the cow, she charged up on stage, grabbed the mike from the emcee, and began demanding that the cow “go”.  The crowd joined in, chanting with her.   Other observers waved their arms over their heads to get the cow’s attention and then pointed at their squares.  Yes, watching Cow Plop Bingo was a bit like watching golf.  After about forty-five minutes, we had a winner!  Well, several winners.  Nervous cows do not plop, they spray!

Needless to say, I did not win one of the three jackpots.  I will  bring my Troll dolls next time or find a lucky cowboy hat!  It was a wonderful day of community and strong show of support for our youngest members.  And truly, that is the best prize.

Holy Obsession!

thumbnail-2I am a non-practicing Catholic.  My first sign of rebellion reared its ugly head when I was in the second grade.  I chose not to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessing my sins to a priest, prior to receiving my First Communion.  I have no idea why I felt so uncomfortable about this.  My sins at the time could have been no worse than sneaking an extra cookie for dessert or hitting my brother.

I do, however, remember informing my parents of my decision while my face was planted firmly in the kitchen table (Catholic guilt already at work) and spending Reconciliation morning running around the school gym in a one piece, royal blue P.E. uniform with a lot of other students.  I realize today that those kids were probably all the non-Catholics who attended the school for a “more traditional”, “more structured” education.  Or to avoid the public schools.  That day though, they offered a little comfort to me in that I was not alone in my decision.

I loved the church my family attended.  We met in the band room of one of the city’s Catholic High Schools.  We sat on folding chairs.  One parishioner actually made the bread the priest blessed, turning it into the Body of Christ.  Another made the wine.  Someone played the flute, and there were guitars in our little church band.  Sharing the sign of peace took 20 minutes or more because we got out of our chairs to greet people sitting on the other side of the room.  We didn’t just shake hands.  People asked after one another and hugged.  We wore blue jeans and sweatshirts.  Every spring, we had mass outside in one of the most beautiful flower gardens in the city.

thumbnailMaybe I just never found a church I felt at home in after that.  Maybe I was more worried that this time there would be no way out of confession.  And surely it would last three days and kill the priest.  So I am at a complete loss as to how I have come home with an 8”x 10” picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Pope John Paul II (what?!) and a tank top emblazoned with the image of Guadalupe on both sides in the past week.  Never mind the collection of Guadalupe candles, folk art, and jewelry I am slowly amassing.  I even have a Virgin de Guadalupe Pinterest page!  I recently pinned a freaking tattoo!!

I fell inexplicably in love with Our Lady from the very moment we crossed the border, and I saw her likeness for the first time, painted on a mountainside.  When my son applied to law school, I visited her shrine in San Carlos regularly to light candles.  I want desperately to buy a stone work carving for my front yard just to save myself some time.  My husband does not think I notice that he speeds up every time we drive through Magdalena where these beauties are on display.  I have a plan to design a “shrine wall” or “icon corner” in my home, sneaking in one new piece a month or so (and no, the tank top does not count).

Shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico

According to Catholic accounts, the Virgin Mary presented herself on four different occasions to a native Mexican peasant named Juan Diego.  She first appeared to him on December 9, 1531 at the Hill of Tepeyac, today, a suburb of Mexico City.  She asked him (in his native Aztec language) to have a church built in her honor there.  Juan Diego’s request was refused by the archbishop.  La Virgin appeared again to encourage Juan Diego to persist.

The second time Juan Diego approached the archbishop, he indicated that he needed some kind of miraculous sign.  Juan Diego passed the message along, and the young woman promised one the next day.  Juan Diego missed the next meeting because he was caring for his sick uncle.  La Virgin tracked him down, promised his uncle was well, and instructed him to return to the Hill of Tepeyac to pick the flowers that were blooming there.  Juan Diego brought non-native, Castilian roses to La Virgin.  She arranged them in his cloak and told him to deliver them to the archbishop.

Iglesia San Fernando, Guaymas, Sonora, Mexico

When Juan Diego opened his cloak for the archbishop, the flowers fell to the floor and the image of La Virgin was imbedded in the material.  She then appeared as a vision to Juan Diego’s uncle and asked him to tell the archbishop of his miraculous recovery.  At this time, she shared that she wanted to be known as Guadalupe.  A small chapel was quickly built on the Hill of Tepeyac.

Today, the original cloak of Juan Diego is housed in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, north of Mexico City.  Her shrine is the most visited Catholic shrine in the world and the third most visited religious site.

Perhaps I feel a special love for La Virgin de Guadalupe because my grandmother had such a strong devotion and deep relationship with the Virgin Mary.  I am able to honor my grandmother’s memory and show my respect for her religion, to which she was deeply faithful, while  plodding along my lapsed course.  Then again, La Virgin de Guadalupe is credited with converting nearly seven million native people to Catholicism.  There may be hope for me yet.