Archive | June, 2012

The Bells of San Miguel

13 Jun

I cannot remotely claim to understand the bells of San Miguel.  I have been unable to conjure up a theory which could possibly explain the timing and variety of their ringing.  When I quizzed my Spanish teacher, a woman who has lived in San Miguel her entire life, she just smiled and shrugged.  There are bell towers all over town, too many to count.  I’ve been told there are 278 churches and chapels in the greater municipality, most of which are equipped with at least a single bell, if not multiple ones, which ring in different tones in different octaves at mostly different times of the day — although once in a while it seems they all ring at once, a cacophony of sound.  Sometimes there is a slow low tolling of the bells which I’m told signifies the death of a parishioner.  Other times there is an exuberant pealing, so rapid it is hard to distinguish between the individual rings and becomes more like a reverberation or an echo of a sustained and quavering note.  The bells do not necessarily correspond to the hour and there seems little consistency in the number of peals or chimes, sometimes few, sometimes many.  The first bells usually ring around 6:30 in the morning, just as it is getting light, perhaps to awaken the faithful and call them to mass.  And the church bells go on, punctuating the day and evening and into the night; last night I heard 3 bells as I was falling asleep at 11 p.m.  It’s a sound so unique and yet oddly familiar, perhaps reminding me of Spain and Switzerland, circa 1973.

As Oliver and I take our early morning walk, we watch San Miguel awaken.  Shopkeepers slosh buckets of water on narrow sidewalks, sweeping them clean with what appear to be homemade brooms fashioned of twigs.  The populace threads their way through the streets, some en route to morning mass, others headed for work or school, coffee shops abuzz with activity.  We wander the great slabs of stone sidewalks, worn smooth by generations, and navigate the cobblestone streets, sometimes strewn with confetti left over from the previous night’s festival.  It seems there is always a party and the evening dusk is often filled with the sound of firecrackers, followed at night fall by the sight of impressive fireworks, a common event over the main plaza and easily visible from our deck.  Last week it was the celebration of Corpus Christi — which I had previously known only as the name of a town in Texas.  As it turns out, the Feast of Corpus Christi is a Latin rite celebrating the tradition and belief in the body and blood of Christ through the Eucharist.  There were decorations all over town, mostly in the form of deep crimson banners hanging from windows and doors.  I’m told there was a procession of the blessed sacrament through the streets but, alas, I missed it.  Today is the Feast of St. Anthony and Sunday is the Day of the Locos (Crazy People) which we’re told is quite an event.

At the risk of repeating myself, I must comment once again on the formidable walls which embrace the narrow streets, in shades of cayenne, rust, clay and mustard.  Yet contrary to how it might seem, San Miguel befriends you, drawing you in; it’s easy to engage here.

Our afternoon walks often find us at the Mercado de San Juan de Dios, a large marketplace with many stalls where we buy fruit and flowers, yesterday a dozen gladiolas for 40 pesos ($3).  And on Fridays we pick up a copy of the

 Atencion, the weekly bilingual newspaper that reports on local matters and has a ‘que pasa’ section detailing the various pleasures scheduled for the upcoming week, including art openings, restaurant specials, concerts, etc.  The newspaper also keeps us informed about the coming elections and the season is upon us with banners all about town.  Mexican elections occur every six years and here in San Miguel the citizens will soon vote for a new President, a new Governor of our State of Guanajuato, and a new Mayor of San Miguel.  Mercifully, the election season is relatively short with only a few months of campaigning.  My favorite taxi driver predicts the “pretty boy” will win the Presidency.  Another item in the Atencion that I usually peruse is the Police Blotter.  Last week there were 6 residential burglaries, 6 muggings, 4 stolen vehicles, 10 street fights and 10 instances of vandalism in a city with a population of 80,000 to 90,000.  My bet is the vandalism is mostly attributable to graffiti which has been a growing problem and seems to be largely perpetrated by the junior high school crowd.

We often end up at the Garden, the Jardin Principal, a shady square-shaped park with black rod-iron benches under trees carefully pruned into geometric rounds.  Vendors mill about selling balloons, wind-up dogs, cotton candy, roasted corn on the cob, and soft drinks.  Wrapped in hand woven serapes, indian women lay out various arts and crafts on the sidewalks for sale to passersby.  As the sun goes over the mountain, mariachi bands gather to entertain. It’s easy to spend an hour or two, just watching the life of the town as it ebbs and flows past the Garden.  And walking home we hear the strains of guitars, or trumpets, streaming from doorways as we pass bars and restaurants where evening festivities are getting underway.

Another place that exerts a gravitational pull on us is the Park which I have mentioned before.  We find our way there at least once a day, sometimes twice, and never tire of its allure.  Although I’m sure there is a soccer field somewhere in San Miguel, basketball appears to be the sport de jour and except for the Saturday morning aerobics class (which takes up the entire basketball court), we have never been in the Park without seeing a game in progress, women, men, leagues, complete with uniforms, referees and score keepers.  In spite of the multiple activities which occur there, underneath the human voice is a penetrating and profound silence.  As we walk home from the Park, our favorite stop is at the Cava Deli where the most delightful man sells cheese and other gourmet items — we’ve become so friendly that recently he allowed me to take his picture.

Until I accepted the challenges proffered by the New York Times crossword puzzles, I had never thought of the word “artsy” as a pejorative; nonetheless I’ve come to understand that in certain instances it refers to an affected or pretentious display of an interest in the arts — as in, I suppose, the phrase “artsy fartsy.”   I don’t know how to find the line between art and artsy but San Miguel clearly has both.  Walking down the sidewalk the other day I looked up to see this:

With a long reputation as a haven for the visual arts, San Miguel attracts both professional and amateur painters, sculptors, printmakers and, in recent years, writers.  The town is awash with music and theater, workshops and classes, a plethora of galleries and a ton of jewelry makers.  There’s a marked creative atmosphere and I’ve spoken with several people who never thought of themselves as artistic until falling under the spell of San Miguel.  Free art classes are offered to the children and The Children’s Art Foundation offers an annual contest with several hundred submissions.  And finally there is something about the light.  Isn’t that what all artists seek?  The light?  It reminds me of a poem I read years ago by Michael Blumenthal entitled “Light, at 32.”  Here’s a portion of it . .

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