Apr 142009
 

Published in the Vail Daily 4/12/09

 www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Mexico 10-Final Impressions

Fireworks announce the approach of the Lord of the Column

Fireworks announce the approach of the Lord of the Column

 

I sometimes feel that, compared to Mexico, we live in a sterile, homogenized culture. In San Miguel de Allende, any minor saint’s day provides reason for a festival. At any time, you can be surprised by a parade or procession disrupting traffic. 

One afternoon a raucous parade of fifteen foot tall dancing puppets and crowds of masked, costumed characters followed a solemn procession of young girls dressed in white. Another day, thousands of fantastically costumed children paraded past the Jardin. Another, a circus parade clogged the streets. Almost daily, fusillades of rockets celebrating lord knows what, are heard from some corner of town. 

 

 

 

 

Fiestas:

There is a peculiar joy to being rocketed out of a sound sleep early on a Sunday morning by a fusillade of bombs bursting overhead immediately followed by a band and a chorus of bells. Make a joyful noise unto the Lord! 

Close to noise it is and clearly joyful. From the squealing clarinets, the out of tune trumpets, the blaring trombones projecting their hearts through their instruments, to the punctuating blasts of a sousaphone, enthusiasm reins.

How can I not smile, a former orchestral musician, at the joyful cacophony of a band playing in multiple keys. Charming though, is not an adjective I would use before sunrise. Add roosters startled into an early crowing, roof dogs barking their counterpoint, the joyful songs of hundreds of birds and how could it not bring a smile? Nobody I ask has any idea what occasion it is. It goes on for hours.


Mariachis:

 

I love Mariachi music. There is no more joyful sound as when a Mariachi band strikes up the moment a newly married couple exits the church. So, don’t get me wrong…  If you have a Pride of Lions, or a Gaggle of Geese, or a Shrewdness of Apes or an Exaltation of Larks…what do you have when, on a typical Saturday night, 4-5 Mariachis bands are playing different tunes in different keys simultaneously at one end of the small central plaza? Why a Cacophony of Mariachis of course!

 

The Procession of the Lord of the Column:

We were told to get up at five am and follow the crowds. The streets are dark, practically empty but for groups of people closing the bars. Couples, arms wrapped around waists, waver unsteadily down the cobbled sidewalks. 

 

 

Rounding a corner suddenly presents an amazing spectacle. Under bright lights, carpets of fragrant herbs and elaborate, colored designs, stretch for blocks. The street is a mosaic of paintings and designs. Columns crowned with arrangements of fresh flowers line the route. Overhead, thousands of intricate paper ornaments shroud the street. People worked all night, putting great effort and skill into the artwork composed of dyed sawdust and wood chips. Finishing touches are still being applied.

 

 

 

Camommile, Fennel, Basil

Camommile, Fennel, Basil

 

With the dawn, bursts of rockets approach along with the procession. Fireworks explode overhead. A band and voices of hundreds, singing hymns, gets louder. Girls, dressed in frilly, white dresses lead the procession followed by Jesus in a purple robe and a squad of Roman soldiers. Next comes the statue of the Lord of the Column and two other large, heavy figures, each born on the shoulders of eight men. The procession left the shrine of Atotonilco at midnight, walking the eight miles to arrive at dawn.

 

 

For generations, one family has had the honor of portraying Roman Soldiers

For generations, one family has had the honor of portraying Roman Soldiers during Easter

 

Thousands line the route, crossing themselves as the figures pass. The procession stops beneath my rooftop perch as mass is said, then moves toward the Church of San Juan del Dios, home to the figures through the Easter holidays. The pungent aroma of crushed herbs fills the air.

 

The procession approaches after walking most of the night from Atotonilco

The procession approaches after walking most of the night from Atotonilco

 

Jesus, followed by a centurian, walks the last blocks to the San Juan del Dios church.

Jesus, followed by a centurian, walks the last blocks to the San Juan del Dios church.

 

The Lord of the Column

The Lord of the Column

 

 

And this is only the first procession of Easter. 

 

The moment the procession passes, those who made the designs and decorations quickly clean everything up.

The moment the procession passes, those who made the designs and decorations quickly clean everything up.

 

Safety:

At no time did we feel even the least bit unsafe, nor did we get even a little sick. All the more, in the large cities we visited, Guadalajara and Guanajuato, also in smaller Puerto Vallarta, there was no time when we felt threatened. I was always very aware and watchful, of course. Yet, I walked the streets freely, even at night, expensive camera in hand, often with $10,000 worth of cameras and computers in my backpack, and felt perfectly safe.

We crossed the border twice in our car, drove 600 miles each way; no problems. We met people traveling in small RVs all over Mexico for months on end. No one reported anything but wonderful experiences. Clearly there are problems along sections of the border. Those places are easily avoided. You also do not drive at night. That is a basic precaution. 

The U.S. State Department is performing a grave injustice in issuing warnings against travel to Mexico. The incessant reporting on border violence by the news media, as usual, fans irrational fears. This violence, I might add, is a direct result of the complete and utter failure of the so-called “War on Drugs”, forty years of un-enlightened prohibition wasting tens of billions of dollars every year. 

We are the ones fueling the violence.

 

Expatriates:

The expatriate population has influenced and benefited San Miguel deeply. Tourism provides good, relatively stable jobs, supporting many families. Restaurants, hospitality, shops and markets benefit while the resident gringo population employes services of all types and contributes charitable works.

Yet there is clearly a divide. Expats have driven up housing prices to unimaginable heights. Large houses go for over a million dollars. Segments of expatriates lead the insular lives led by colonial occupiers throughout history. Though most gringos are gracious and respectful, arrogance is not unseen.

 

The Art Scene

 

A gallery in the Fabrica de Aurora during the Champaign and Chocolates artwalk.

A gallery in the Fabrica de Aurora during the Champaign and Chocolates artwalk.

 

San Miguel de Allende has been an art colony for decades. Artists from around the world have drawn inspiration from its colorful ambience. The arts scene continues to be lively with frequent gallery openings, regular art classes, concerts and plays. An old factory has been turned into an arts center. It features scores of galleries and work spaces for artists in all mediums. Their semi-annual Champaign and Chocolates evening brought out thousands of people.

 

James Harvey with some of his art at the Fabrica la Aurora

 

 

A few private collections are open to the public by simply calling ahead. One, in Casa de la Cuesta, a B&B, features possibly the largest and best collection of indigenous masks in Mexico. Another in Atotonilco, Galleria Atotonilco, is an exceptional folk art gallery. It has one of the largest serape collections in the world.

 

A few of the masks for sale, not part of the collection, at the Casa de la Cuesta.

A few of the masks for sale, not part of the collection, at the Casa de la Cuesta.

 

From painting to stained glass, photography, sculpture,  weaving and music, San Miguel de Allende remains a center of vital arts activity. Literally every day sees several arts activities on the calendar.

 

Clara Dunham, Gaby Perales and Xavier Hernandez, accompanied by Mauro Ledesma

Clara Dunham, Gaby Perales and Xavier Hernandez, accompanied by Mauro Ledesma perform a recital of operatic arias at the Biblioteca Publica

 

Making Friends:

We have never been to a place where we’ve made such fast friends. You could say there must be something in the water, except it’s all purified. The gringos coming to San Miguel are unlike others we’ve met in places around the world. Frequently, when one meets an English speaker while traveling abroad, there is a bond and often quick, friendship. But we’ve never experienced it on this scale. Where ever w were, after a lecture, in a restaurant or sitting in the Jardin, we met people who were sincerely warm and open. Frequently, deep conversations developed leading to shared meals and more time together. Of all the memories, the people we met will be the most lasting.

 

Yolanda and I enjoying a Valentines dinner on the rooftop terrace of La Posadita

Yolanda and I enjoying a Valentines dinner on the rooftop terrace of La Posadita

San Miguel de Allende is a very special place. A place of warmth, hospitality and culture. A place where cultures co-mingle, creating a synergy benefiting each. A place of deep history and rich sacred traditions. San Miguel is not just a place to vacation, but a place to learn, to grow and to experience life on a level outside our sometimes pale homogeneity.

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

Apr 062009
 

Published in the Vail Daily March 29, 2009

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com

 

The Geographical and Historical Center of Mexico

 

The Basilica in the heart of Guanajuato

The 16th century Basilica in the heart of Guanajuato on the Plaza de la Paz.

 

Historical currents swirl around San Miguel de Allende. Events emanating from the region have swept over Mexico several times. Within an hour’s drive, revolutions began, tragic empires were vanquished and the western United States was created. The state of Guanajuato, Mexico’s geographical center, is the birth place of Mexican independence and its silver mother-lode.

 

The statue of Father Hidalgo with his parrish church behind, stands proudly at the center of Dolores Hidalgo's main plaza.

The statue of Father Hidalgo with his parrish church behind, stands proudly at the center of Dolores Hidalgo's main plaza.

 

The 1810 revolution began in Dolores Hidalgo a half hour from San Miguel de Allende. On the morning of September 16th, Father Hidalgo, issued his cry of independence galvanizing a downtrodden people against their Spanish masters. 

 

The Santuario of Atotonilco behind ruins from another time.

The Santuario of Atotonilco behind ruins from another century.

 

Seven miles from San Miguel lies the tiny town of Atotonilco, one of Mexico’s most sacred shrines. After issuing his cry for independence, Father Hidalgo, leading his growing army of ill-armed peasants, along with Ignacio Allende for whom San Miguel is named, stopped at the shrine of Atotonilco. Taking its banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe to use as their standard, they passed through San Miguel and surrounding towns, gathering a force 20,000 strong. This ragtag army then marched on the city of Guanajuato for the first battle in a thirteen year struggle for independence.

 

Guanajuato with the University and Basilica to the left and the San Diego Church and Plaza de la Union at bottom center.

Guanajuato with the University and Basilica to the left and the San Diego Church and tree covered Plaza de la Union bottom right.

 

Guanajuato is a lovely university city set deep within a mountain valley. Steep, narrow alleys, wall to wall with brightly painted houses, zigzag up the precipitous hillsides, one person’s roofline sometimes becoming another’s foundation. 

 

 

 

Traffic is restricted. The primary thoroughfares move within a labyrinth of stone-walled tunnels beneath the city. Guanajuato is a walking city with a wealth of tranquil, tree-shrouded plazas in which to sit, converse, enjoy a drink and people watch. The opulent, 19th century Teatro Juarez and the ornate, San Diego Church, preside over the elegant Parque de la Union, the city’s focal point.

Spanish colonial influence is ubiquitous. I have not experienced a city in the Americas so full of European flavor. With a university dating back to 1732, it is an intellectual and cultural center. The annual Cervantes Festival has a long tradition. October plays host to theater, musical, and dance performances in the plazas and theaters across the city.

 

A statue of Don Quixote and the front of the Cervantes Theater.

A statue of Don Quixote and the front of the Cervantes Theater.

 

A traditional pastime, musical groups lead people through the streets singing.

A traditional pastime, musical groups lead people through the streets singing.

 

The elegant Baroque organ in the Basilica of Guanajuato

The elegant Baroque organ in the Basilica of Guanajuato

 

The vast wealth of Guanajuato’s silver mines fueled the city’s importance making it the commercial and financial center of the region. For a period, one mine alone, La Valenciana, supplied the majority of riches accumulated from the New World by the Spanish crown.

 

Ceramics stores along the streets of Dolores Hidalgo.

Ceramics stores along the streets of Dolores Hidalgo.

 

Other than Dolores Hidalgo’s historical significance and its lovely plaza fronting Father Hidalgo’s parish church, two reasons remain to visit: the beautiful, talavera ceramics, and it’s ice cream. Several ceramics factories supply store after store with colorful and inexpensively priced pots, plates, bowls, decorative items, wash basins and even toilets. Find an intricately painted wash basin you like and there’s a toilet to match, inside and out.

 

Ceramics in the factory Artesanos Gamez being displayed for sale and readied for export.

Ceramics in the factory Artesanos Gamez being displayed for sale and readied for export.

 

Artists decorating ceramics prior to firing.

Artists decorating ceramics prior to firing.

 

Dolores Hidalgo’s ice cream though, is in a world unto itself. The central plaza practically overflows with ice cream vendors, each apparently trying to out do the next with exotic and unique flavors. Ever had avocado ice cream? How about tequila? Chicharron, fried pork skin, is a popular flavor and maybe some shrimp ice cream would go well after your meal of camarones al mojo del ajo: garlic shrimp.

 

Don Gabriel, a patriarch of Dolores Hidalgo ice cream vendors.

Don Gabriel, a patriarch of Dolores Hidalgo ice cream vendors.

 

Moving yet closer to San Miguel de Allende, Atotonilco, “place of hot waters” is a popular day trip. The Santuario has been called the “Sistine Chapel of the Americas”. Its walls and ceilings are covered with a “riotous outpouring” of folk art frescos. Unfortunately, the murals have deteriorated drastically, but with the coming bicentennial of Mexican independence in 2010, teams of conservators are painstakingly restoring the interior of the shrine to its former outlandish glory.

 

The as yet unrestored ceiling in the Santuario of Atotonilco.

The as yet unrestored ceiling in the Santuario of Atotonilco.

 

One of the several ornate altars in the Santuario.

 

Devoted pilgrims come from all over Mexico, swelling the population of this tiny town by thousands for much of the year, to crawl on bare, bloodied knees around the Santuario, to sleep in bare stone cells, and flagellate themselves with whips. I saw several men walking around with crowns of thorns loosely wrapped around their heads

Finally, an hour to the southwest lies Queretaro, the capitol of Mexico in the mid-1800’s when American troops invaded Mexico City. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed here in 1848, ceding half of Mexico; California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Utah, Nevada, and Colorado, to the U.S.. In 1867, the hapless, Habsburg Emperor of Mexico, Maximillian I, a somewhat naive Austrian Archduke installed by the French, was captured and brought here to be executed, ending his tragic, three year reign. 

Clearly, history walks the streets and roads of the region instructing those who would listen, speaking of tragedy and hope, fortune and struggle, ever-present within the rich culture of the Mexican people.

 

Copyright 2009 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging

www.dreamcatcherimaging.com