Friday, September 30, 2011

Living the American dream in Mexico

As deep as you may get into the heart of Mexico, hundreds of miles from the U.S. border, reminders of America follow you everywhere.

Tee shirts trumpet American products and in some cases totally inappropriate American slang.

You might see a very proper-acting middle-aged woman with "HOT MAMA!" emblazoned across her tee shirt. You wonder: Does she know what that means? I've been tempted to stop such unwitting victims and translate except the embarrassment will outweigh any benefit.

Car plates and bumper stickers also remind you of the U.S. Probably 20 percent of the cars circulating in the state of Guanajuato have expired plates from practically every state in the American union. Many of the plates are not just a little bit over the hill but ancient. Two weeks ago at the auto mechanic I spotted a VW beetle perched atop a hoist with 40-year-old California plates. Both the car and the plates were cherry-shape. If you are interested in plates commemorating the American Bicentennial, there are quite of few of them still around.

While driving through the neighboring states of Queretaro and San Luis Potosi earlier this week we noted far larger and more expensive reminders of the U.S., apparently brought back by Mexican workers who toiled Up North for who knows how many years, saved their money and came back home to spend it on something tangible--like a house or a small business.

In two cases, the immigrants--who may have worked in construction in the U.S.--brought not only the money but also plans or photographs of their dream houses, which bear no resemblance to a normal Mexican house.

In one instance, the owner must have either worked in some southern American state or gone to see "Gone With the Wind" too many times. The result is a scarily Tara-like creation, except built on a far more modest piece of land, perhaps half an acre.
What will the neighbors think? Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn. 

The other looks like standard-issue suburban America. It could be suburban Chicago or suburban Houston, but it's definitely out of place on the road to a speck of town called "El Carnicero" ("The Butcher")

A piece of American suburbia in rural Mexico. 
A more enterprising sort invested his savings into what he (or she) may hope will eventually turn into a retailing giant, sweeping across Mexico and other countries. Its name is "Gualmart".

We've got the concept, all we need are the customers.


Las Pozas in the time of the butterflies

One of several spring-fed pools ("pozas") at Edward James's phantasmagorical jungle retreat. 
Hush and listen carefully. You may hear Edward James' snickering, giggling and even belly laughs coming from the myriad moldy crevices, rotting vegetation and crumbling concrete creations at his surrealist jungle retreat of Las Pozas. He started building it in 1945 and kept adding to it, one strange building, column or structure at a time, until he died in 1984.

Las Pozas, located about six hours from San Miguel by car, is described as a sculpture park and it's open to the public. Visitors invariably walk around with their mouths open, noodling the same question over and over: What the hell is all this? 

A passageway to one Las Pozas' many 
tabernacles. Watch your head.
There's no definitive answer to that question, so the guessing game begins. This must be the trunk of an elephant. Or a Moorish arch. Maybe a swallow, a duck, an airplane or a poppy flower. After a couple of hours of clambering through the sticky heat, past catwalks to nowhere and columns propping up nothing, you are not one millimeter closer to solving the riddle of Las Pozas.

That confusion must endlessly amuse Edward James' ghost, which surely hovers around the place, watching as the vegetation, humidity and creeping rot inexorably destroy his creation which is exactly what he said he wanted to happen.

When we visited Las Pozas earlier this week, James' jolly spirit was accompanied by tens of thousands of butterflies deliriously fluttering about the place. Very few were common Monarchs, and we couldn't figure out whether they lived at Las Pozas year-round or were just pausing to take advantage of the pre-winter bumper crop of tiny zinnias, orchids and other blooms.

Aside from us, our guide, the butterflies, assorted other insects--and James' ghost--there were only two visitors at Las Pozas that day.

As you tame the impulse to constantly put labels on the artifacts lurking everywhere in the foliage, and perhaps make some sense of Las Pozas, your mind drifts to another imponderable: Was James creative, imaginative or crazy?

To my mind, creativity means transcending established, same-ol' ways of doing things by arranging words, designs, musical notes or whatever in unprecedented and presumably pleasing ways.

Before Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple was built in suburban Chicago, most all houses of worship had soaring ceilings presumably to propel everyone's attention heavenward. But Wright instead prescribed a flat, relatively low ceiling that leads the congregants to look at each other or the preacher. That's a creative concept in church-building and in this case a useful one too, since most Unitarians don't believe that a Mr. G. or anyone else is living Upstairs.

Imagination on the other hand suggests unreality, fairy tales, Harry Potter and little gnomes. A vivid imagination can be fun and wonder-full, but ultimately frivolous.

Walking around Las Pozas you sense and see imagination at the edge of craziness, but not useful creativity. In the case of James, his immense inherited fortune gave his imagination a freer rein that most mortals are likely to enjoy.

James undoubtedly had a 12-cylinder imagination, one hears supplemented by drugs, booze and side trips into religious cults. He also kept company with odd fellows like Igor Stravinsky, Salvador Dalí and René Magritte, not exactly boy-next-door types.

Except his friends created enduring things: new ways of writing music or depicting reality on canvas. Las Pozas is fabulously imaginative and fascinating, but ultimately pointless except for affording James a very enjoyable way to pass the time and spend his money.

Las Pozas' hallucinogenic collection of elements didn't start any artistic or architectural trends. Indeed it was James' wish that it all be allowed to crumble and eventually get swallowed up by the jungle.

Maybe we should blame surrealism for Las Pozas' seeming pointlessness. The point of it, if there was any,  resided only in James' mind, beyond our duller, reality-oriented heads.

But that sort of analysis once again tries to rationalize or impose some logic on James' greatest creation.  I can see his bearded face, lurking behind some half-finished concrete flower, grinning at our enduring confusion.

A six-inch-long butterfly-to-be.

A spider and the leftovers from its comida. 

A flower displaying its petals and pistils.
Supposedly a bathtub carved out of stone. During the rainy season the rushing spring waters
would wash over the top and onto the bather. 

Faux, poured-concrete bamboo vs. the real stuff. 
Las Pozas' ruins host thousands of orchids and other air plants. James hoped
 his creation would eventually succumb to the surrounding jungle.
Moorish-inspired arches. Or so we heard. 

A concrete trellis duking it out with creeping moss, orchids and banana trees. 
The last step is a doozie. 
Few of the sculptural pieces at Las Pozas were actually carved out of stone. Most are poured concrete. To achieve the different shapes, James' workers had to make molds out of pieces of wood--many of them tiny, like the ones above--into which the concrete was poured. 

Stairs to the clouds and back again. 

Help! Get us out of here! This place is nuts!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Design changes

The Google blogger machine presents you with infinite design and layout possibilities. Or if not quite that many, enough to leave you cross-eyed. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours picking a new set of elements that I think make this blog cleaner-looking and easier to read. I hope it works.

Aside from changing the appearance I also wanted to add links to a few other blogs I follow.

Billie Mercer's blog is one of my favorites even if she doesn't write much; in fact she hasn't posted anything for a couple of months. But her prose is not why I follow her blog. It's her photographs, which are awesome on the screen and even more so when you see them on paper.

If you fancy yourself a photographer, viewing her work could trigger two reactions. One is frustration, as in, "Hell, I'll never come close to that!" The other is inspiration, which Billie provides through her images and in person by her generous advice.

I discovered Roger Ebert's blog only a couple of days ago, when it was mentioned in a rave review of his memoirs in the New York Times. His movie reviews and commentary are both insightful and stylish. I intend to read him regularly.

Pioneer Woman, aka Ree Drummond, was profiled in the New Yorker magazine a few months ago. Her site is not a blog, but a medium-sized enterprise, a case of multi-tasking run amok. She is an accomplished photographer, book writer, mother who home-schools her children, cowgirl, wife of a guy she calls the Marlboro Man (he looks like it too), owner of a photogenic basset hound named Charlie and the host of a new program on the Food Network. That's all before noon. Her pretense of self-sufficiency is patently not credible; she must have a full-time staff of six or eight people just to answer e-mails from the hundreds of thousands of followers of her blog. Nonetheless she is a very good photographer and a fun writer too.

Steve Cotton's blog is interesting because he is interesting and also a good writer. Interesting as in a gringo who bypassed the usual expat hangouts in Mexico like Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende and instead set up shop in the Pacific beach resort of Malaque, where it's so hot and humid half of the year that even the mosquitoes pack their bags and flee. I like his eye for detail and he's not even a journalist but a damn lawyer.

I also enjoy Babsblog. I know Barbara but forgot how to spell her last name. Her off-the-cuff comments and observations about San Miguel are fun to read, probably because she doesn't take herself too seriously.

Maybe in the future I would also like to post some of my photographs, which are piling up in the hard drive of the computer. But before that I need to learn how to raise sheep, train Italian greyhounds and get my own talk show on Oprah's network. Get ready for Pioneer Man.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gobble-gobble on the range

On the way to town this morning Stew spotted a group of turkeys working their way diagonally through a field next to our ranch, pecking, pecking, pecking the ground for any trace of seed, worms, weeds or whatever turkey crave. At first we thought it might be a flock of wild turkeys, but then we spotted a tiny old man sitting on a rock and keeping an eye on the birds.

I stopped to ask the man if they were his. He laughed a toothless smile and said indeed they were, all 33 of them. Remembering turkeys' reputation for dimwittedness, I asked how he kept them from wandering off in all directions.

More smiling: The turkeys generally stay in some sort of formation, he said, like cattle or sheep. He shoos them out the back door of his ranch, about half a mile from here, and the turkeys just amble along until they get to the corner of the field next to our house and then he shoos them back home.

Even more interesting, he said he had a bunch of chicks at the ranch. Interesting because in the United States, thanks to industrial farming technology, turkeys don't reproduce on their own. Frankensteinian breeding methods have created grotesque birds with such large breasts that they can no longer, you know, connect--hell, they can hardly walk--so the females have to be artificially inseminated with a turkey baster-like device.

But enough of that.

Thanksgiving dinners in San Miguel's expat community tend to be tumultuous affairs, with some delicious dishes but mostly mounds of lukewarm sweet potatoes, canned cranberries and coleslaw, and much chit-chat.

So Stew and I were thinking of hosting an intimate, quiet dinner for eight or so good friends, who can share the blessings, or perhaps travails, of the previous year.

One of those 33 guys we saw this morning could make a nice Thanksgiving dinner. It would be organic, definitely range-fed, and locally produced.

Something to think about, though the turkeys in question probably rather not.

A river of flowers

Rain has been scarce this year but that hasn't completely stopped the annual wildflower display around the ranch. Clever survivalists they are, wildflowers instead have concentrated their blooming and reproductive efforts along drainage ditches, the edges of ponds and puddles with some water still in them, and anywhere else the reduced amount of moisture has collected. 

When we built the house we worried about flooding, even though the house is perched on a pretty steep incline. On the back side we put in a small serpentine ditch, about two feet wide and eight or nine inches deep, and lined it with stones and gravel, to divert heavy rains away from the foundations. 

This year the ditch worked in a miraculous way: The little water that collected there created an ideal habitat for tiny yellow blooms that in effect have become a river of wildflowers. As an added visual bonus, the river meanders past one of our bedroom windows.  

I took this picture early in the morning when everything was shimmery, dewy and aromatic. A couple of cobwebs, about two feet across joined in the display (upper left hand corner) before they vanished under the heat of the rising sun.  

The river remains but I haven't seen cobwebs again.  

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Changó in San Miguel

As I coursed through the menu, somewhere between the baba ganoush and the falafel, she caught my eye.

Her gaze was tranquil but the huge sword on her left hand also reflected strength and determination. The crown on her head, the flowing white robes and a small crenelated tower to her right in turn suggested royalty and authority.

Yet she was also surrounded by a small array of the commonest objects: an apple, a small jar of honey, a bottle of wine, a couple of flickering votive candles.

Most startling of all was the location of this vision: Why was a small statue of Santa Bárbara, one of highest-ranking figures in the Caribbean religion of santería, presiding over the Lebanese restaurant Fenicia in San Miguel?

Though Mexico is home to thousands of Catholic churches each populated by dozens of statues and religious icons, Santa Bárbara is not a biggie, and neither are the frenzied santería rituals in her honor that are traceable to Western Africa.

There are towns in Spain, Peru, California and other places named after her, but Santa Bárbara is not a supernova in the crowded firmament of Catholic saints. Mind you, that's not taking anything away from her saintly and tragic life story, or miracle-granting prowess.

But you need to figure there are over 2,500 entries in the perpetual Catholic best-seller "Lives of the Saints." Pope John Paul II alone added nearly 500 more saints to the list, including Crispin of Viterbo, Clelia Barbieri and 103 Korean martyrs, the latter inducted in one massive canonization ceremony. The late pope himself is on a fast-track trajectory to become a saint. Competition for altar space is fierce.

But in the Caribbean, particularly Cuba but also Venezuela, where santería is a major religious force, Santa Bárbara is a prominent religious figure. Her feast day, December 4, is a time for building elaborate altars--comparable to Day of the Dead creations in Mexico--and much celebration to the beat of African drums.

Nancy, who owns Fenicia with her friend Leticia, told me that in her native Venezuela, Santa Bárbara Day is indeed a major religious to-do when some devout businessmen put altars even in their establishments.

A striking feature of most Santa Bárbara altars, such as the one at Fenicia, are the offerings of bananas, honey, apples, wine, honey, okra and other paraphernalia not found in the Catholic church-decorating manual.

Indeed Santa Barbara's popularity is based on her being an avatar or stand-in for various African deities, a clever subterfuge created by slaves brought by Spain to America. The Spaniards insisted on imposing Catholicism on the blacks slaves who in turn refused to give up their traditional beliefs.

So they created a parallel world of deities, in which Santa Bárbara represents the major African god Changó--the god of thunder and lightning, fire and drums. St. Peter stands in for the god Ogún and St. Lazarus for Babaluaye, and so on.

It's a hysterical farce. Slaves would be reverently bowing to Santa Bárbara while secretely channeling  Changó. Santería may have been the biggest boost to Santa Bárbara's career as a saint.

The Catholic hierarchy occasionally puts out statements reminding the faithful that Santería and Catholicism are two different religious venues, but the former survives and prospers. It could be something as simple as santería's throbbing rituals simply being more fun than incense and Gregorian chants.    

Nancy, Fenicia's co-owner, told me in some quarters of Venezuela Santa Bárbara is also known as Changó.

But I doubt Nancy would admit to any santería sympathies, any more than my own mother who also kept a prominent Santa Bárbara altar in our home, fully decorated with apples, bananas and the rest of it.

Santería is for black folk, white Cubans would tell you, while admitting that hay que tenerle respeto--something you don't mess with. Thing is that Santa Bárbara's split religious personality also offers a cover for nominal Catholics who might wish to dabble in santería now and again.

Nancy and Leticia at the Lebanese restaurant are ardent followers of Santa Bárbara and were thrilled that I recognized the statue.

Yet they clearly hedge their religious bets. On the shelf, to the left of Santa Bárbara, is a smaller statuette of  St. Charbel of Lebanon (Nancy is of Lebanese descent) and to the right a figure of Michael the Archangel, San Miguel's religious hero (Leticia is Mexican). That in addition to the apple, bottle of wine and honey.

When it comes to saints there's no point in dissin' any of them. 

Meanwhile, Santa Bárbara is keeping up with the latest technology, with her own Facebook page:



Thursday, September 15, 2011

The lure of memories

Though neither one of us is an antique-y, living-in-the-past type, Stew and I somehow have become archivists for both sides of our family. At this stage our collection of family artifacts, documents and photos, which has survived several moves and the death of all of our parents, is both impressive and a bit strange.

Stew has a Lutheran Bible written in an indecipherable Old Norwegian Gothic script that he must have inherited from his father, who was born in Norway. As far as Stew can recall, no one in his family was particularly religious, certainly not enough to try conversing with God in Old Norwegian. So who kept the old Bible and why?

Of all things, I have a gym tee shirt from my grammar school in Cuba, as well as the Cuban passport, Pan American Airways plane ticket from Havana to Miami and the baggage claim stub from when I migrated to the U.S. in 1962. The latter three items could claim some sentimental value, but a gym tee shirt?

None of this stuff is Smithsonian-worthy, yet Stew has started the job of scanning into the computer all the family photographs--including a jumble of pictures from our 39 years together--so we can place them in one of those printed albums ordered through the Internet.

We wouldn't think of discarding this stuff yet keeping it in boxes in the basement, helter-skelter and unexamined, seemed about as good as throwing it in the trash.

But for us archiving of family mementos is really a selfish pastime: I'm an only child, and Stew's brother and his wife don't have any children. So it's not as if in 2082 one of our descendants is going to be leafing through our computer-generated album, find a picture of me standing by an incredibly ugly car and wonder what model and year it was. (A 1974 baby-blue, four-door Volvo, with a manual transmission. If someone tries to sell you one, run.)

Grandma Herminia
Selfish but interesting, sometimes even fun, for photos can be both revealing and misleading. One of my maternal grandmother Herminia accurately captures her "don't mess with me or I'll break both of your knees" personality.

Except I also know about her incredibly tough life. She lost her husband early on and had to raise two girls and three boys by herself, through the chaos of Cuba's economy, in a struggling small farm outside the town of Cienfuegos in southern Cuba.  You don't survive those circumstances by being a cream-puff.

Then I also recall her doting on me--I was the youngest grandchild--and of her phenomenal cooking skills. Anything for Alfredito. Tough? Bah! She was putty in my little boy's hands.

Other pictures make you wonder what were the subjects thinking. A picture of Stew's paternal grandparents Christopher and Verda, probably taken in Norway in the late 1800s, is a beauty.

It's a very formal shot, both sitting behind a desk rapt in their own thoughts: They seem to be looking past each other. Christopher's eyes are focused on something above, like he's bored or just arrogant. His manicured moustache, hair style--that shock of hair combed over his forehead!--and his starchy outfit suggest a man of means or some importance. Or maybe photographs were so rare that common people dressed up for the occasion as if they were aristocrats.

Verda and Christopher
Verda's sweet face is a true semblance of her personality. Stew once took me to visit her in a suburb south of Chicago, when she was in her early 90s, physically frail yet her mind still razor-sharp. Verda lived with Stew's aunt and her husband.

When I met her, Verda told me how she still read newspapers from Norway, about her keeping a small Norwegian flag on her bedroom dresser and about the family dog named Marshmallow. The second time we came by, she recognized me right away, remembered my name and everything we had talked about during our first encounter.

She loved to tell stories and in my mind was the very model of sweetness and grandmotherhood. Stew confirms that no one ever had a bone to pick with Grandma Hammer.

Old photos inevitably send you careening down the "wonder what happened to them" alley.  There's a picture of me and two school friends sitting at Varadero beach in Cuba. Judging by our ages it must have been taken shortly before Castro's arrival. The friend on the left is Francisco, a classmate who was tall, slender and a bit effeminate. He was teased because of his mannerisms though I suspect  because of jealousy too because he was far and away the smartest guy in the class. His younger brother Augusto was short, chubby and as stolid as Francisco was willowy.

Francisco, Alfredo and Augusto
From what I've heard Francisco remained in Cuba and became a lawyer though he gave that up to play the piano at tourist hotels in Havana. Not an unusual trajectory, given that in Communist countries cab drivers and piano players working for tips often make better money than doctors or university professors.

Meeting up with Francisco, and comparing our parallel lives--his in Cuba, mine in the U.S.--alone would be worth the price of a trip to Cuba, assuming I could find him.

His brother Augusto left Cuba, became a citizen of Spain and a diplomat for that country. I emailed him this picture, hoping to get some updates about his brother and family.

And the guy in the middle with the Obama-size ears? Ah, yes, that's me.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A year without cosmos

Except for a patch growing by our driveway it appears the Lady Upstairs may have cancelled the annual outburst of  cosmos which in a good year covers countless acres of open land around San Miguel.

The ones growing by the driveway, typically spindly and with flowers delicate as fine silk, attentively follow the sun as it travels across the sky (Mexicans call cosmos girasoles or "sunflowers").

These have prospered because we planted ornamental grasses and agaves in that area and the cosmos seeds apparently took advantage of the extra water. Wild flowers can spot a survival opportunity when they see one.

Their cousins in the open fields haven't been so lucky and more important, neither have the corn, beans and squash crops so essential to the subsistence farmers around us.

We had been hearing about how the terrible yearlong drought that has scorched most of Texas and the northern edge of Mexico has ruined crops and killed livestock. That while other parts of the U.S. have experienced tornadoes and unusually high precipitation and heat.

When we visited Chicago six weeks ago monsoon-like rains kept the grass on the parks growing and the city's lawnmowers going all day long, beginning at 7:30 a.m. Driving down Lake Shore Drive with some friends one afternoon the cascades of rain and the flash flooding made it feel as if we were visiting Bangladesh.

Around the ranch the weather has not experienced either extreme. The Texas drought hasn't reached us so the fields are still generally green, but the rain we've received so far this year has not been enough. Also, we've had generally cool temperatures, unlike the heat waves in Texas that have sucked the moisture out of the ground.

Rains in the San Miguel area are supposed to begin around June and build up to torrential gully washers by July. So far this year we've had a few heavy rains of an inch or so, but the rest have been but teasing drizzles and impressive but unproductive shows of thunder and swirling dark clouds.

The craters and other depressions in the landscape that should be filled with water are just muddy and covered with opportunistic beautiful wild flowers.

Our only measuring device is a 99-cent plastic rain gauge, which has started to tilt back slightly in the dry soil as if it too were imploring the clouds for rain. As far as I can tell we've received only five to six inches, far from the usual 24 inches or so we should receive between June and September.

Two months ago we planted 15 10-foot-tall evergreens that despite a good drenching at planting quickly started to yellow. Suspecting some dreaded pine scourge I called Louis Franke, an American nurseryman and possibly the only person in San Miguel to carry some sort of factual botanical database in his head. He quickly diagnosed the problem as lack of water. It just hasn't rained enough this year. 

Félix the gardener, who from now on will be referred to as just Félix, started a crash watering campaign and all but two of our evergreens recovered. 

Things are far worse for the farmers around us, including Don Vicente, whose six hapless mutts show up at our gate every day looking for food.  From our terrace we have a panoramic view of his rancho of  about 50 hectares of marginal soil and rocks, dotted with some mesquite trees.  

When the rains finally came in July we saw him patiently plowing his land with a contraption pulled by two horses, followed by two of his sons sowing corn and bean seeds from a bucket. Despite such primitive methods the result was amazingly symmetrical: Perfectly straight rows, from the stone fence closest to us clear out the man-made pond at the back of his property. 

But by now most of the beans are fried and the corn stunted if not dead. Vicente has no way to irrigate the land and has no choice but to sit and watch his entire crop, his chief means of subsistence during the winter months, slowly die. 

It's no more sickening, I suppose, that what his counterparts in Texas are going through, except the latter may receive some disaster help from the government. Vicente, his wife, 14 children and his motley herd of sheep, goats and cows are on their own. 

I'm sure Vicente will survive. Subsistence farmers are nothing if not used to living on the brink. 

And in the next few weeks we might still get a few gully-washers that could save some of the crops of Vicente and others like him. Some patches of corn down the road are about shoulder-high, probably because they were planted earlier in the season, and may come through. 

And so there's still a chance the cosmos, yellow daisies, tiny zinnias and other wild survivors in the fields might come back for their yearly show. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Our not so big or fat Mexican wedding

Except for the Bee Gees' "How Deep Is Your Love" and other American romantic oldies wafting from a boombox resting on the counter--and the ear-to-ear smiles pasted on the couple's faces--you couldn't tell a wedding was about to take place.

We were on the second floor of a largely empty shopping center that once housed a tired "Gigante" supermarket and San Miguel's only two movie houses, and where the State of Guanajuato has set up an office, somewhat similar to a county clerk's office in the U.S., to issue licenses, including births and marriages, and other official paperwork.

The freshly remodeled space is cavernous, clean and sterile, with rows of chairs filled with citizens patiently waiting to be summoned to the counter by the unsmiling clerks, to transact their little bit of business. Not a single peso has been spent to decorate the expanses of white drywall or to otherwise visually soften the space.

At one end is the "Sala de Matrimonios" or "Wedding Hall," a name far grander and cheerier than the actual space deserves, also painted white. Furnishings consisted of a office desk, six chairs and a government-issue sign above the door. The only concession to romance or love ever-after was a dusty pink plastic rose in a wooden container vase at one corner of the desk.

The Wedding Hall was dismal and not even functional: In addition to the government clerk and the bride and groom, the ceremony requires the presence of four witness, the parents of the couple and usually a photographer. That's four chairs short in this crowded and mirthless space, even with photographer standing.

I didn't expect a Vegas wedding chapel with an Elvis impersonator, but this room seemed depressing. It's the only ceremonial venue for poor folks who can't afford a church wedding or a banquet hall, and this is all the pomp and elegance the government can provide?

Even in no-frills countries like Cuba the government has set aside a fancy building, usually a former mansion, as a "Wedding Palace" to provide one day of glamour in the proletarians' otherwise plain lives.

The reason Stew and I were gathered here two weeks ago was not to get married--same-sex marriages are legal only in Mexico City--but to celebrate the wedding of our gardener Félix, 25, to Ysela, a shy girl with a freckled, baby face that looks younger than 20. They brought along their girl Alondra who, stricken with a bad case of "the terrible two's," remained unsmiling, fidgety and grouchy the entire afternoon.

Although Félix had referred to Ysela as mi esposa or mi mujer (my "wife" or "woman"), in fact they had just moved in together two years ago, I suspect prompted by Alondra's imminent arrival. When Stew and I returned from a two-week trip, which earned Félix extra money for taking care of the house and our dogs and cats, he announced he had saved enough money, would like to get married the following Friday and would we give him the day off.

Sure. Congratulations, man!

Our role in the celebrations grew as the week went on. Félix and his family had no way of travelling to the ceremony, and would we give them a ride so they wouldn't have to take the bus.

So on Friday at 12:30, an hour before his appointment at the Wedding Hall--Félix worried about being late for his own wedding--his entire family was waiting for us under a huge pirul tree by the side of the road to Jalpa. Five of them, including Ysela and Alondrita, piled into our pickup, which Stew had vacuumed for the occasion, and four others into our VW station wagon. The remainder of the party, brother Juan and his wife, Félix's two sisters, and a nephew and his girlfriend rode into town in another pickup, the last two on the bed of the truck.

As we met and congratulated Ysela we noticed there was another, perhaps more compelling reason behind the marriage: The bride was quite pregnant.

Félix also enlisted me as photographer. The guy who hangs around outside the Wedding Hall would charge about $25 U.S., he said, and the ever-thrifty Félix thought I'd be a better and cheaper option--cheaper like zero pesos and zero centavos.

The day before the event Stew and I drove to Querétaro and at Wal-Mart picked up a bouquet that included three beautiful roses among other flowers, and at Costco a large chocolate cake decorated with  flowers, a smiley sun, balloons and a generic "¡Felicidades!". We figured these were two luxury items Félix probably wouldn't be able to afford. We were right.

Felix wore a white shirt with thin black stripes, black pants with a white patent leather belt and the pointy dress shoes favored by Mexican men. Ysela had on a dress with a gingham-type pattern and two bows on her still damp hair. The only two other people who had dressed up at all for the occasion were Ysela's mom, a stern-looking matron in her 60s who wore a shiny blue shawl over her shoulders and nylon stockings, and one of Félix's sisters who wore a blue skirt made of some sort of shimmering fabric.

As I looked through my viewfinder for the group shot, I paused as I realized the obvious: Félix and his family are dirt poor. Even Félix and Ysela, the fashion plates of the bunch, were wearing hand-me-down outfits probably picked up at San Miguel's Tuesday flea market.

I was also taken aback by the matter-of-fact mood among the party. Missing was the glee, back-slapping, crying, and hugging and kissing one expects at a typical wedding. These folks looked as humorless as a bunch of Norwegian undertakers.

Maybe their hard lives had sucked the joy out of even a momentous occasion like a child getting married, though at the local fiestas people seem to whoop it up with dancing, drinking, fireworks and otherwise great relish.

Or perhaps the crush of so many children, who get married, or not, pregnant, baptized or whatever, turns a modest wedding into a here-we-go-again affair.

On the way to the wedding I asked Ysela's grizzled father, who was sitting on the front seat of our pickup, how many children and grandchildren he had. He paused for a few seconds to do the math in his head. Answer: 10 children and so far four grandchildren--he thinks. During a conversation with Félix and his brother Juan after the wedding, I asked how many kids their sister had. There was a brief, embarrassed giggle because they didn't agree whether it was seven or eight. Correct answer is seven.

But for all the ho-hum attitude among the relatives, Félix and Ysela couldn't stop grinning, joking and just gazing at each other in wonderment.

How much I love you! How fortunate I am to have you!

These two seemed really, really happy.

The actual wedding ceremony was conducted by a uniformed state employee, a woman who couldn't squeeze a faint smile from her lips or even an interested look from her eyes as she recited the requisite boilerplate. With no wedding rings to exchange, Félix and Ysela just held hands and they were officially married.

Then it was back to the station wagon and the pick-ups and on to the wedding dinner at Pollo Feliz ("Happy Chicken"), a franchise operation in the spirit (if not the taste) of Popeye's Chicken. Félix sat next to me and confessed he needed help ordering because he'd never been to Pollo Feliz. I counseled under-ordering because tortillas and salad came with and you didn't want to end up with too much food.

Cake and more pictures followed. Félix and Ysela just kept smiling while the relatives remained non-plussed.

When he returned to work Monday, Félix thanked me profusely and offered an unexpected compliment. His relatives had declared Stew and I to be buena gente, "nice folks." It was not for buying the cake and the flowers, or chauffering the family around, but just for being willing to share the modest event with poor folks like them.

Actually, the honor was all ours.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Don't open any email about a "Youtube" video

Some people have received an e-mail supposedly from me, directing people to a video in "Youtube". I didn't send any such thing, so don't open any link and just delete the message. Thanks.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Life without, or at least fewer, gringos

At the heart of the forbidding, fortress-like Biblioteca building in the center of San Miguel is the homey and beautiful Café Santa Ana, a colonial patio with a large tree and fountain in the middle. A few of the tables are under the open sky but most are protected by a high overhanging roof, and there's a pastries and espresso bar at one end. The clientele is gray-haired and library-quiet, gathered in small groups, along with a few loners sipping coffee, reading a book, working a crossword puzzle or just rapt in their own thoughts. The tranquility of the place and the median age of the customers can't help evoke an image of a day room at a retirement village.

Indeed, despite a valiant facade of bilingualism, La Biblioteca ("The Library") is primarily a community center for San Miguel's English-speaking retirees. The book collection contains endless linear feet of shelves of middle-brow paperbacks and old magazines in English. Americans provide most of the funding and make up the board of directors; the programming is almost all in English, including lectures, tours of luxury homes, movies and amateur plays. The one significant exception is the Biblioteca's charitable arm which channels tens of thousands of dollars of aid yearly to talented but underprivileged Mexican students.

So it is interesting to note the decline in customers at the Biblioteca nowadays and speculate how it may signal a change in the demographics and ambiance of San Miguel.

Last week we attended a guitar recital held in the Sala Quetzal, a room off the Café Santa Ana, and only seven people showed up including us. A showing of the 2010 film "Howl", starring James Franco as the poet Allen Ginsberg, attracted nine customers. A lecture later in the week about money and how it affects one's life was more successful probably because of the persistent belching of the Dow Jones Index and the U.S. economy: 15 attendees, many of them fretting about their portfolios.

We had bought tickets in advance because in past years Biblioteca events usually sold out. This time even the Café Santa Ana had plenty of empty tables.

The absence of pale-faced tourists is also noticeable on the streets: Where are all the bermuda shorts and cowboy hats? It's supposed to be one of two high seasons, this one attracting Texans fleeing the scorching heat and humidity in Dallas and Houston. In the old days they not only drove down by the thousands but also stayed for several weeks. Hell, the giddier ones would even buy real estate on the spur of the moment.

The chief reason for the slump now undoubtedly is the bad news about violence in Mexico, primarily along the U.S. border. Some angry expats in San Miguel blame it on anti-Mexico bias by the American media though if you read Mexican newspapers the news is far more alarming and unrelenting. Still, many Americans and Canadians continue to drive back and forth across the border, singing "¡No Problema!" along the way.

Safe or not, surely it's the Texans' loss for not coming down. While they're frying their butts off back home, weather here is as close to ideal as one can get. Highs in the mid-80s dropping to perfect beddy-bye temperatures in the 60s. Rainfall is below normal but sufficient to keep the landscapes kelly-green.

As the number of American tourists declines there seems to be an uptick in the number of national visitors, along with license plates from Mexico City, Nuevo León, Chihuahua and other Mexican states. Rumors fly of wealthy Mexicans from Monterrey--where recently 53 people died when someone fire-bombed a casino--San Luis Potosí, and the capital moving here to escape the violence. More hearsay: Ten units sold in an ultra-upscale townhouse development near the center of the city were all bought by Mexicans, except one purchased by a Canadian couple. Personal observation: More of the tourists pointing cameras at old buildings definitely are speaking Spanish to one another.

Give it enough time and San Miguel may become a more Mexican town, with less English spoken and fewer establishments catering to gringos. Real estate salesmen no longer will be able to assume most clients will be English-speaking foreigners. The Biblioteca may have to start looking for vintage Lola Beltrán and Cantiflas films.

But for now all we can do is to sound as TV reporters do when they're trying to spin a story without sufficient information: "Only time will tell."

Harrumph. Time for a word from our sponsors.