Autumn in Mexico

12 Nov

In their 2013 annual survey, Conde Nast has chosen San Miguel de Allende as the number one city in the world.  For those of us who live here, initial pride and pleasure were mitigated by surprise and disbelief, especially in light of the runners-up.  Florence, Italy and Budapest, Hungary were tied for second; Salzburg, Austria garnered the number three spot while San Sebastian, Spain tied with Charleston, South Carolina for number four — behind which trailed Vienna and Rome.  In the expat community there has been speculation that money may have changed hands.  It reminded me of a Christmas more than 20 years ago when, largely based on the recommendation of Conde Nast who had named it the number one resort that year, we elected to spend our holiday in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.  Among other failings, it was too cold to ski and the bars were closed on Sundays; not our most memorable holiday.

When I last checked in, San Miguel was preparing (and I was bracing) for the only annual festival that I had yet to witness:  La Alborada, an homage to San Miguel’s patron saint, the Archangel St. Michael, held each year at the end of September.  While as anticipated it lasted all night, it was a fine celebration in which Catholic and pagan practices merged inseparably.  Pre-Hispanic dancers moved to the rhythm of ancient drums and the early morning sky (3 a.m.) was bejeweled by nearly continuous fireworks.  Giant puppets are a common sight in San Miguel, particularly as an element of wedding celebrations, yet are never seen in such numbers as they are at La Alborada.  These smiling, grotesque giants fashioned of papier-mache and cardboard date from the conquest when the original images were of kings and queens with a few saints thrown in.  These days they often represent the defects of both public servants and celebrities — or just silliness.

IMG_0684Although I failed to get a photograph, one of the final events of La Alborada is the procession through town of the statue of St. Michael, taken from the highest part of the altar in the Parroquia, and carried through the streets to the other main churches.  This image of St. Michael, wearing armor made of sterling silver, is over 100 years old and represents his physical presence in the town of his name, allowing the populace to view him up close once a year.

September gave way to October when everywhere one could see preparations for Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, an event I wrote about in some detail last year.  Parks and public squares, sidewalks and cafe windows, all began to display the marigold flower, known as the flor de muertos, the flower of the dead.

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But before that event, at the end of October our good friend Andres celebrated his 35th birthday at a party on his ranch, just outside of town, and we were among the invited guests.

IMG_0708The party began mid-afternoon — and in typical Mexican fashion, went on into the night.  Mariachis were in attendance as well as numerous adults, children, goats and dogs, including our Oliver.  Here’s a shot of Andres and his mother Carmen singing after imbibing a few tequilas.  It was a memorable event.

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And then a few days later it was time for Day of the Dead.  This year, instead of merely observing the various aspects of the celebration, I elected to “participate” by constructing an altar, an ofrenda, in the Mexican tradition to honor our dead — or, as they say in Mexico, to pay homage to those who are “ahead of us in their journey” — and to invite them back for a visit.  First I had to find sugar cane, traditionally used to fashion an arch over the altar, the arc of which represents the journey from birth to death.  Then I purchased various required items such as candles, incense, sugar skulls and the ever-present marigolds, the scent of which is allegedly enticing to the ‘other’ world.  Another traditional element is to add food and/or drink that the deceased especially favored, another incentive for them to visit on that day; hence, many altars are replete with bottles of tequila or mescal.   My mother favored Hershey Bars with almonds; I was sorry to realize I know so little about my father than I had no idea what his favorite food might have been.

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In addition to my parents and those of my husband, we included the Trela family, relatives of our San Miguel friend Tom, as well as my nephew’s beloved father-in-law, John Carlton Hopkins, “Jack,”, who died on October 25th.  We also included Peter Sansevero, my husband’s long-time friend and mentor who died on September 14th.  The process of constructing the altar is a ritual I will continue in years to come, although in modified form (the sugar cane was difficult to fashion).  If nothing else, it gave me an opportunity to reflect from whence I came.

The artistic expression in evidence for Day of the Dead is monumental in scope; I include here but a few examples:

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Now that I have experienced the Day of the Dead for the second year in a row, it has become clear to me that I understand but little.  In response to my myriad questions about culture and meaning, my friend Andres will often reply “It’s complicated.”  And so it is.

The autumn has brought me yet another gift with the rediscovery of old friends.  It was in the fall of 1967 that I first met Sterling Bennett, a young and new German professor at Sonoma State University in Northern California.  Years later, in 1980, I met Dianne Romain, a professor of philosophy with whom I studied.  My friendship with both of them grew through the 80s until life took us in different directions in the 90s.  I had learned that they were retired and living in Mexico and I recently discovered they are indeed nearby, living in the city of Guanajuato, an hour’s drive away.  We hooked up for lunch one day recently when they visited San Miguel and it was just as one would hope:  the conversation just continued where it had left off although, granted, there has been much activity in the intervening 20+ years since last we were together.  Although we covered a lot of territory, I woke up that night thinking of all the things we hadn’t talk about such as Sterling’s novel, Playing for Pancho Villa, of which reviewers have opined, “With prose as stripped down and unforgiving as the Chihuahua Desert itself, this novel is at once a gritty historical adventure, a haunting story of relationships and love, and a story that dares to confront the reader with unanswerable questions.” Sounds like a book I need to read.  He also has a blog, http://sterlingbennett.com, subtitled, “Stories from Mexico and other yarns.”  Dianne has accomplished much in the intervening years (which she didn’t mention but which I have since learned) and also has a blog called “Writing in Fits and Starts” — a title to which I can well relate.  She can be found at http://writinginfits.com/.   I am excited to have made this re-connection; it is not only delightful but deeply satisfying to look into the familiar eyes of old friends with whom there is shared experience and I am happily anticipating our next rendezvous.

There are no more major fiestas scheduled for November so we can concentrate on our own:  Thanksgiving.  We eagerly await the arrival of one of our most reliable and faithful old friends, Marie, who for many years has rarely been a stranger at our Thanksgiving table.   She and her friend Dan will arrive on the 26th, and be with us for nearly a week, a week we are happily anticipating.  And speaking of Thanksgiving I am reminded of a quote I wrote down long ago (with apologies to its author whose name I failed to note).

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.  It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.  Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.”

Speaking of a vision for tomorrow, . . . .

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One Response to “Autumn in Mexico”

  1. Maria harrison November 13, 2013 at 8:54 am #

    Dear Lynne,

    what a wonderful and moving entry . So glad I’ve signed up to follow your blog. With your permission I will copy your gratitude quote and send to family and friends.

    My best to you and Michael, regards to Marie whom I remember meeting with you here in Panama !

    Abrazos,

    Maria H

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