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On Mexican Time
“Terribly seductive—an enticing and intoxicating vision of Mexico.”
“Cohan describes life in Mexico as ‘intimate, voluptuous, sense driven,’ a phrase that also describes On Mexican Time.”
—Boston Sunday Globe
“On Mexican Time is more than a travelogue, more than a vicarious journey for the reader. It is a gentle reminder to examine our lives and weed out the unnecessary, the chaotic, and the frivolous.”
That evening, after a thundershower, I left the house and walked several blocks to El Petit Bar on Calle Hernández Macias. Founded by a couple of old acquaintances, Jacques and Sophie, “Le Petit,” as it was called, had become a watering hole of choice the last few years, reflecting the town’s new cosmopolitanism. Jacques’s quirky, sculpted furniture and lighting, the subdued speaker throb of Brian Eno or St. Germain or Leonard Cohen, offered an alternative to the Andean flutists, mariachis, and cool jazz found elsewhere around town. Deeper inside the old property they’d lived in years ago, when they were still married, a courtyard restaurant gave play to Sophie’s art and cuisine.
Jacques and Sophie had migrated to San Miguel the year we did, after living for some years in the Peruvian Amazon. He French, she French-Canadian, architects by trade, they’d raised their two towheaded boys here before sending them off to Havana, one to become a keyboardist, the other to study with the Cuban National Circus. At El Petit Bar regulars mingled with newcomers, local news circulated, and romances bloomed or died. You could look at the art on the walls, read Jacques’s trilingual monthly culture magazine, El Petit Journal, or simply sip in silence watching people. Here Jacques, genial host, seemed to have found his true métier.
I located Xavier in a deep leather chair, drinking tequila in the company of a young woman he introduced as Lluisa from Barcelona, here visiting a friend on the movie set. Xavier, wry poet and relentless anatomist of the town, was a tender misanthrope, a cheerful fatalist. Hopelessly romantic, he dreamed of the world beyond while showing little interest in actually visiting it. He pursued women, and sometimes men, with the same wishful languor. Once a month he taught a writing class at the local prison above the town, and on Sundays he ran a poetry workshop at Bellas Artes Institute. He tilted at a pre-Columbian/postapocalyptic epic verse novel he’d probably never finish. He knew English—I’d caught him once in the jardín reading The New York Review of Books—but steadfastly refused to admit it, remaining comfortably embedded in Castilian, inviting you to come over and meet him there. Droll diagnostician of chance, he considered himself a disciple of the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso, perhaps best known for having written the shortest short story in the world: “Cuando despertó, el dinosaurio estaba todavía ahí.” (When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.)
By way of catching me up, and no doubt to amuse the fetching Lluisa, Xavier began briefing me on local developments in my absence. A woman we’d known, an avid flyer and proprietress of a notoriously overpriced restaurant, had allegedly embezzled money from her sister-in-law, an aged writer, then inexplicably crashed her Cessna into a mountainside in coastal Oaxaca. A kidnapper known as the Earlopper was running amok in nearby Querétaro. Xavier really warmed to news of Epifánio, a contractor around town who’d helped me build the stairs to my roof. It seems Epifánio had started up a cantina and whorehouse outside of town—prostitution is legal in the next state over but not in this one—and now was in the hospital with broken legs and ribs after leaving the cantina at five-thirty in the morning with four of his prostitutes, then crashing his car into a village chapel trying to outrun police. More poetically, and dearer to us, a shy, beautiful girl named Paloma who sold books at the Bellas Artes and had never uttered a word had suddenly, mysteriously burst into speech.
A boisterous gang from the movie crew piled into the bar, and soon we couldn’t hear ourselves think, let alone speak. Xavier proposed we move on to La Cucaracha on Calle Zacateros, living descendant of the old bar where Kerouac and Cassidy had guzzled in the 1950s. But still feeling the effects of the day’s travel, I took this as my cue to say an early goodnight.
The oft-repeated tale of origins that San Miguel de Allende tells itself—scrolling past as if depicted on a mural, left to right, divided into three large, vivid-hued panels—begins with a mythic past of Chichimeca and Otomi Indians living close to the earth until a kindly Franciscan father arrives to enlighten them; then enters history as the colonial epic unfolds literally inside San Miguel homes, where a heroic priest and a colonel conspire to overthrow the Spanish Crown; then climaxes as modern travelers discover that the little mountain town, four hours north of Mexico City, is a paradise. San Miguel de Allende: site of fiestas and miracles, ecstatic religion and fiery revolt, unearthly beauty and curative air—a place for dreamers and artists.
Its truer history—less symmetrical, less seemly, grislier—records that the indígenas were enslaved or driven off, the few surviving descendants sometimes still to be found in tattered costumes selling dolls along the first block of Calle Flor. Father Hidalgo’s and Colonel Allende’s heads dangled in cages for ten years on the granary wall of nearby Guanajuato after they were hunted down by the Spanish, the end result of their revolt being to establish a new aristocracy of local landowners, requiring another, bloodier revolution later that delivered equally dubious results. The old weed-clotted town cemetery next to the church of San Juan de Dios, now so oversubscribed its locked metal gates forbid entry, brims with the earthly remains of victims of deadly epidemics that ravaged the town. As for the Inquisitor’s House on Calle Pila Seca, it would rather keep its ghosts safely hidden away behind the antique furniture now sold there.
Set in an agrarian region with wealth derived from the nearby silver mines of Guanajuato, San Miguel long served as a traders’ and travelers’ stopover. In centuries past it functioned as the region’s slaughterhouse, and Calle Flor was a street of tanners. In the late 1700s residences came to be built, including sections of this abandoned, decaying structure we’d bought in 1988 for very little. After the Revolution of 1910 and the violent Catholic counterrevolt that followed, the town fell into a kind of slumber, the old colonial houses sinking into decay, the fiestas desultory, the churches and monasteries languishing. Tunnels that ran beneath the town, and our house, collapsed, though rumors of buried treasure still circulate. A train running between Mexico City to the Texas border sometimes stopped at the foot of San Miguel to take on water, collect mail, and discharge or admit the occasional passenger.
An educated Peruvian vagabond named Felipe Cossío del Pomar debarked from that train in the late 1930s, became enchanted by the place, and founded an art institute on the grounds of a sprawling hacienda that belonged to a leading family of the town. A gentle, resourceful, eccentric American, Stirling Dickenson, arrived around the same time, as did José Mojica, a Mexican opera star who built a rambling home bordering Juárez Park. A massive, deserted nunnery in the town center became another art school. When soon after World War II some young Americans came to study art on the GI Bill and Life magazine wrote it up—“How to Live in Paradise for $100 a Month”—the third panel of the mural was begun. Still quiet, beautiful, and cheap when Kerouac, Cassidy, Ginsberg, and Burroughs passed through, scattering legend in their wake, San Miguel gradually gained currency among artists, backpackers, and a handful of foreign retirees. More years passed, and journalists began writing up this “hidden gem” in the travel magazines. When a new airport nearby shortened the trip here by half, tour agencies started working it into their packages.
In the coda, or epilogue, of the narrative–the fourth panel of the mural, sketched in but unfinished, hidden in a shaded alcove in its ambivalence or shame–burros become automobiles, the old ruined facades sleek hotels and bars, the stone buttress of the parish church the site of a pricey restaurant, the town square thronged with T-shirted tourists. In this depiction, old-timers and locals are seen fleeing in the face of the desecrations. This panel, like the David Álfaro Siqueiros mural in San Miguel's Bellas Artes building, may forever remain unfinished. Entitled, perhaps, Tarnished Eden, it bears no more or less proximity to truth than the other panels. After all, if the idea of a traveler's paradise is a cliché, so is its ruination.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted July 11, 2009
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As a passionate lover of the Mexican culture, I found Tony's book spot on with respect to the careful way he poetically presents his discoveries of a culture rife with extremes. He writes like a smitten schoolboy- we see Mexico as an object of affection; something to be cherished and wooed. I loved reading every word because he writes the way I wish I could when it comes to truly representing this fantastic land and its wonderful people.
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Posted March 13, 2011
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