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.




The Early Bird Gets… Well… A Really Long Day

Day One of our trip began at 3:30 am!  What kind of “vacation” was this going to be?!  We had an early flight out of Hermosillo and a ninety minute drive from Guaymas to the airport, so we were up before the roosters!   Steve and I waited for our pick up at the Pemex gas station.  I am sure we looked like runaways, standing behind the pumps with our two suitcases.  Fortunately, the Policía Municipal did not find our presence suspicious at all, and they did not even glance our way on their 4:45 cruise through town.  We were picked up right on schedule and enjoyed the most quiet van ride of our lives, aside from the snoring, of course.

We had no delays and traffic in Guadalajara was light.  We arrived at our hotel before they were ready for us, so we stowed our luggage and briefly explored the historic district before lunch.  I am extra lucky Steve was along.  He walked behind me and announced curbs, holes in the sidewalk, uneven pavement, and light changes.  I was too busy trying to take in as much as I could around me, and that did not include where I was walking.

I had my first “aha” moment thirty minutes into our walk.  I thought the gazebo in the center of Plaza del 13 de Julio in Guaymas was unique to that plaza only- -yes, as in the only plaza in Mexico with a gazebo.  So, I was a bit bewildered when I noticed Plaza de Armas had a gazebo too.  Mark, one of our very patient guides, explained that there is at least one gazebo in at least one plaza in every city.  Otherwise, where would the orchestra sit when they played for the crowds gathered on weekends?  And sure enough, later that evening, the orchestra played!


After lunch and some hotel room organization time, we headed out for a double decker bus tour of the city.  I am not going to lie.  I was determined to have a seat on top for the best viewing possible.  Luckily, I did not have to push any children out of my way to achieve this!  Guadalajara is the second most populated metropolitan city after Mexico City.  It is huge!  The bus tour provided a great overview of a place I would need to spend a month or more to fully grasp.  Works of art, statues, and fountains decorated the many roundabouts that kept traffic moving smoothly.  There was an incredible mix of historic and contemporary architechure, a lot of green space, wide roads, and blooming flowers along our route.

The city was well prepared for the double decker buses too.  We noticed that trees were pruned so that we would not smack our heads on branches as we drove under them.  We delighted at the birds feasting on the seeds of the flowers right above our heads as we waited at red lights.  I realized, while looking up and laughing with my mouth wide open, that it might be in my best interest to shut it!  I did not want accidentally swallowing bird poop to be “my vacation story”.


After our tour we spent the evening walking throughout the four plazas surrounding the Catedral de Guadalajara or Catedral de la Asunción de María Santísima.  La Rotunda de los Jaliscienes Ilustres, features statues of important scientists, teachers, artists, and authors from Jalisco.  Preparations were underway for Carnaval in Plaza Guadalajara.  Buskers performed magic, acrobatics, and puppetry.  Children chased after rocket shaped balloons that when bounced on the ground, soared high in the air.

A mariachi band performed in front of Teatro Degollado, and a band playing instruments made of everyday household items performed behind.  We strolled the length of Plaza de la Liberation, the last plaza in the link.  There was a lighted fountain, almost as long as the plaza itself, and the Regional Museum provided the perfect backdrop.


Government buildings surrounded the plazas, as Guadalajara is the state capital.  We had the opportunity to view Jose Clemente Orozco’s mural, depicting Padre Don Miguel Hidalgo igniting Mexico’s passion and fight for independence, in el Palacio de Gobierno.  Believe me, this made visiting a government office absolutely worth it!


I should have been exhausted but could not help feeling exhilarated.  The energy of the people, the music, the sounds, and the lights kept me going.  Guadalajara was buzzing when we arrived late morning.  It seemed the frenzy would continue late into the night.  Reluctantly, we headed back to our hotel, knowing tomorrow was another jam packed day!

And just in case you are wondering, my major purchase for the day was an ice cream cone.

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.

El Mes de la Patria

IMG_4139September is Patriots’ Month in Mexico.  Banderas de Mexico are flying.  Venders are set up on nearly every street corner selling trumpets, drums, dolls, hair bows, sombreros, and necklaces.  Red, white, and green flowers, streamers, and balloons decorate storefronts and homes.  El Día de la Independencia is approaching, and the masses are gearing up for a grand fiesta.

September 16, Independence Day, is a national holiday in Mexico.  Banks, schools, and government offices are closed.  Many businesses shut their doors so that families may spend time together watching fireworks, listening to bands, attending parades, and dancing.  Food is an important part of the celebration.  Chiles en Nogada is a popular dish because all of the colors of the Mexican flag are represented.  (Find the traditional recipe here.)

Miguel Hidalgo, a Catholic priest, was responsible for rallying the Mexican people to fight for their independence from Spain.  After the ringing of the church bells in the wee hours of the morning on September 16, 1810, he called on the citizens to take up arms against the Spanish and rebel against the injustices of their rule.  His fiery speech is known as the Cry of Dolores; Dolores being the name of the small pueblo in the state of Guanajuato where Hidalgo lived.  And so began a ten-year struggle to achieve sovereignty.

Today, the Cry of Dolores, or El Grito, is reenacted throughout Mexico on the eve of the Independence Day celebrations.  From the balcony of the National Palace, the President of Mexico performs El Grito in front of a massive crowd of spectators.  Hidalgo’s exact words have been lost, but the energy of the Mexican people remains the same.  Today, El Grito honors the Fathers of the Revolution, the Fathers of Mexico. The same bell that rang in Dolores in 1810, rings every September 15 in Mexico City.  Mayors and governors lead El Grito in their own states and communities.  The passion and emotion Mexicans feel for their beloved country echoes across the land.  It is a powerful coming together that symbolizes strength, spirit, and love for the homeland.

On a recent trip to Centro Comercial in Guaymas, I purchased a new flag for my home.  Trying to maneuver a 5’x3’ flag on a 6 1/2’ wooden stick through a sidewalk jammed with shoppers was a challenge.  I may have accidentally poked one or two as I turned in all directions to marvel at the delightful chaos of the shopping district.  All was forgiven, however, as passers-by shouted “¡Viva México!”, “Listos por El Grito”, and shared smiles of pride for this beautiful, independent country in which we live.

The Cry of Delores/El Grito
¡Vivan los héroes que nos dieron patria!
¡Víva Hidalgo!
¡Viva Morelos!
¡Viva Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez!
¡Viva Allende!
¡Viva Aldama y Matamoros!
¡Viva la independencia nacional!
¡Viva México! ¡Viva México! ¡Viva México!

Buen Provecho

Admittedly, I am not much of a cook.  It is not that I cannot; I just do not enjoy it.  I consider myself to be a creative person- -everywhere but the kitchen.  Following a recipe stresses me out.  Slicing and dicing is not mindless or therapeutic.  I need exact measurements and do not understand the concept of a pinch of this or a dash of that.  Do I really need to put onions, peppers, garlic, and tomatoes in cute little prep bowls?  And the dishes!  Ugh!

But a cooking class combined with the history of Mexico?  I could not sign up fast enough.  Ruth and her husband, Rudy, have a passion for food and Mexico.  They made a mid-life career change and opened a bakery in San Carlos.   They added a classroom and offer cooking classes several times throughout year.  In addition,  Ruth and Rudy organize and lead tours throughout Sonora and other states in Mexico.  They also make the best chocolate eclairs I have ever eaten.

IMG_1899While they rest of my classmates oohed and aahed over the fresh ingredients and delicious smells, I was busy writing every single thing Ruth said about the origins of Mexican food and its changes over time, the influence of the Spanish in popular dishes, Aztec celebrations and how they evolved with the introduction of Catholicism, and incredibly interesting facts about the food itself in my “Taco ‘Bout Awesome” journal.  After just one class, cooking was something I believed I could get excited about after all.  Knowing the story behind the recipes even made eating more enjoyable.

When I returned home after each class, my husband wanted to know about the food.  While he sampled the leftovers I always brought with me, I bombarded him with all the incredible things I was learning.  Yes, I shamelessly took advantage of my hungry audience.  For example:

  • It was the Aztecs who introduced the turkey as we know it today to the Spanish.
  • The main meal of Montezuma, the ninth Aztec Emperor, included more than 300 dishes every day.
  • The dishes for each of these meals were only used once.
  • One of Montezuma’s favorite meals was shrimp.  A recipe we prepared (Shrimp in Guava sauce with Morita chile) was rescued from precolonial times.
  • Aztecs steamed or baked their food until the Spanish introduced them to oil.
  • Mole sauce originated in the town of Puebla during the 15th century.  It was served during a welcoming ceremony for the second viceroy from Spain.
  • Rice was introduced by the Spanish.
  • Chocolate was eaten exclusively by priests and the upper class prior to the Spanish arrival.
  • A true punch is made from at least five ingredients.
  • If chiles are pointing down on the plant, they are domesticated.

Going to the grocery store used to rank up there with cooking as one of my least favorite things to do.   Oh how I loved going after classes and searching for the items Ruth had used in her recipes.  It seemed exotic to be able to find corn husks, tomatillos, tamarind, jamaica petals (that is huh-my-ka, as in the orchid, not the island), guavas, piloncillos, and tejocotes.  I discovered the best place to buy tortillas and masa for tamales.  On weekends I drug Steve from one tianguis (open air market) to another searching for cazuelas (clay pots).IMG_4138

Finally, it was time for me to test my own skills in the kitchen.  I had avoided it long enough.  Ruth and Rudy had prepared me well.  I could do this.  I started with one of the easier recipes.  (I may have known where to buy masa, but I was no way near ready to attempt tamales on my own yet.)  I handled the chopping.  I didn’t need the little prep bowls.  I had exact measurements for each of the ingredients.  The Coastal Style rice was just as delicious as it had been when we made it in class.  While we ate, I told Steve again about the Spanish bringing rice and oil to the Aztecs.  I added that the Spanish liked to cook in copper pots.  I mentioned a little town three hours up the road that sold them.  He listened closely and nodded at all the appropriate moments.  And he even did the dishes!

Arroz al estilo Costeño

2 cups long grain white rice

1/4 onion

3 cloves garlic

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup oil

1 1/2 cups chopped carrots

4 cups hot water

2 tsp. salt

1 1/2 cups fresh or frozen corn

2 cups coarsely chopped cabbage

Soak the rice in warm water for 5 minutes to remove the starch, rinse well, and drain.  In a blender, puree the onion, garlic, and 1/2 cup water.  Set aside.  Heat 1/2 cup of oil in a large skillet, add the rice, and sauté, stirring lightly.  Once the grains separate and become translucent (about 5 minutes), pour off the excess oil.

Add the carrots and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the pureed onion and stir for 2 minutes.  Add the hot water and salt.  When the water comes to a boil, add the corn and cabbage.  Stir.  Cover the skillet and cook over a medium to low hear for 20-30 minutes (water is absorbed and rice is tender).

Serves 6