Dear Readers and Friends,
I am sure some of you are anxious to know more about San Miguel de Allende and why I returned in such a drastic move. Here is a little tidbit of the Eighties in San Miguel, which forms part of my memoir. Presently San Miguel is a paradise mostly for wealthy retirees who live on the fringe of the Mexican culture. In the Eighties, the delight of its ambiance was not just the physical charm of a historical village, but the enchanting lure of a true bohemian life. This is what I yearned to recreate as I drove the twisting highway south of the border to the land of el Bajio in Guanajuato. And now, San Miguel in the Eighties....
San Miguel in the Eighties
San Miguel de Allende; the sound of it rolls off the tongue like honey. A legend to adventurous souls who sought refuge and enlightenment, San Miguel was a Mexican Shangrila hidden within the Sierra Gorda Mountains. Most of the people I met during the summer were artists, drawn to San Miguel because of the stories they had heard concerning the unusual light that shimmered throughout the cobblestoned village-- the angle it fell against the pale peach of a stucco wall, the illumination of hidden corners and crevices, the sensation of warmth and honesty it projected as it caressed your open face at midday, all the pinnacle of seduction. Everyone fell in love with San Miguel de Allende. In fact, everyone fell in love while living in the lucid dream of her charming embrace.
If you were hungry for color, San Miguel was the place to be. Under the arched portales bordering the central plaza, sellers peddled their effusive magenta and fuchsia flowers. Stout men with white sombreros shading their tanned faces piled pink watermelon, orange papaya and slithering yellow mango slices into plastic cups in their little stands parked on corners. The paroquia, a glittering, salmon-stoned architectural marvel, rose majestically in front of the square or jardίn. More often than not, a wedding party would be standing outside the arched doorways, elegantly- garbed women leaning onto their men dressed in formal black or white suits, clusters of flowers clutched in one hand while they gazed at the carriage which swept the happy couple up toward marital bliss on Salida a Querétaro.
In the Eighties jewelry puestos or small booths lined one side of the plaza under the portales, where you could easily see the famous brass and leather San Miguel bracelets piled in hap-hazard heaps. In addition, street venders sold mosaic alpaca earrings and pins, zinging with pinks and cobalt blues, as well as cheap Guatemalan textiles, such as small woven coin purses and velvet shoulder bags faced with embroidered design. Along side these tourist mementos lay the ubiquitous and coveted American candy bars; Snickers and Butterfingers, black market goodies for the nostalgic expatriate chocolate-lovers.
In the evenings all around town you could find taco venders, elote or corn-on-the-cob venders, cheap hamburgers and “’otdog” venders. And, if you crawled home from the downtown bars at four in the morning, you still might see them standing next to their grills, a tin lamp swinging in the wind, and perhaps a norteña band standing a few feet away, plunking out a ranchero tune.
In the morning, if you were an early riser, you would do well to walk down one of the oldest streets in town, Barranca, for there you would encounter a little group of Mexican San Miguelenses surrounding Doña Carmen, her giant basket of bolillos and pan ducles, or morning sweet breads, tantalizing the senses. If you timed it right, you might also catch the caravan of burros being herded by Don Samuel, their cumbersome load of leña or cut wood, causing them to sway back and forth languidly on the cobblestone street. If you were even luckier, you might catch the lone burro with the large silver milk cans tied to each side, and get a taste of fresh, unpasteurized milk. Heading down through the curvy calle, you’d pass my favorite house in San Miguel, a true piece of Mexican architecture, with the living room sitting smack out in the open air, under a wooden structure topped with petates, or woven mats, the other rooms with their private entrances facing the stretching stone patio surrounding the outdoor living room.
If you weren’t too tired, you could chance the steep drop and twisting, narrow lane called Chorro, and arrive at los lavenderos or the ancient outdoor laundry site, with the busy presence of women washing their colorful ropa in cement stalls. Accustomed to the stares of foreigners, the señoras rarely acknowledge the curious, so you might as well politely continue down the way and spend time in Parque Juarez, otherwise known as the French Park, teeming with raucous blackbirds and ancient oak trees. Finally, you could imbibe in one of the best and cheapest breakfasts in San Miguel, at the lovely Santa Monica. Nestling into your round-back leather chair in front of the elegantly laid table, you could lean back, and gaze to the open heavens--for that is, indeed, where you have miraculously landed.
During the Eighties in San Miguel, one reveled in unexpected sights, sounds and smells. But truly, it was the sky that sent shivers down your spine. A spectacular expanse of mesmerizing blue hung over the sloping mountains in soothing rapture, flaunting a sun whose presence never ceased to amaze those norteamericanos such as myself. And, like all the eager souls who found themselves in this Mexican paradise, I soaked in the mystical rays of a daily light, with the eager hope that deep inside a creative seed was germinating.
Going to the Bellas Artes twice a day for classes became my stabilizing ritual, as well as my entry into the lives of fellow seekers. I entered the arched passageways as if I were passing into another world, and the luxury of taking classes in a place once resounding with daily prayers seemed heavenly. The large interior patio was a stunning menagerie of bamboo, bougainvillea and lemon trees, with a fountain dominating the center of the space, water gently gurgling into the soft breeze.
Working in the dank ceramics studio, I learned inductively by observing more experienced students. After I coiled clay into intriguing shapes, Bianca, my instructor, showed me how to burnish the pots into a glistening shine. Later on I went with the class to fire them outdoors, buried under dried burro dung, so as to create a swirling black color. I also learned to make glazes by formulas, though my preference was clay slip colored with oxides. Delighted to be part of an international group of artists from Venezuela, Germany, Switzerland and Mexico, I was the grateful recipient of ideas and techniques most generously shared.
Before long we organized weekly parties, bringing food, boom boxes and guitars to our funky San Miguel apartments. Sue, a DC journalist, paired up with Brad, a Canadian engineer, and I paired up with an older man from Germany, Rolf. Rolf couldn’t have been more my opposite, having traveled to many parts of the world and worked in what appeared to be the black market. Sandy, a middle aged poet, and her musician boyfriend, Lalo, came often to our get-togethers. True to the nature of San Miguel, we were all searching for something, confused about the stagnancy of our lives or fed up with the routine and the shallowness of the early Eighties.
Copyright 2010, Daughter of Corn: Coming of Age in the Americas Corinne J. Stanley