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.
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.