When I decided to go to school in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I made a list of all the things I thought I needed to bring with me. After two weeks here, I have learned that I should have left behind my alarm clock. Sleeping past 7 a.m. is only for the infirmed, and definitely for the hard of hearing. At that time of morning, the town’s marching band winds its way through the cobblestone streets. Some mornings, I lean out my bedroom window and watch them as they approach from the far end of my street. They look like little toy soldiers in oversized uniforms. I think every band member has been given a different exercise to practice. They couldn’t possibly be on the same note, much less the same melody. Their chaotic symphony makes me remember the time my ex-sister-in-law talked me into going to church with her. She failed to mention that it was a charismatic congregation. It was during a hymn that I first realized people seemed to be singing different lyrics. The place sounded more like a packed control room for United Nations interpreters than a church. Even remembering the scene now, I recall some degree of monotony in their voices. However, the music coming from this ragtag-marching army of musicians can be described as inextricably painful and, oddly enough, charming.
The entire town has been delegated a national monument by Mexico as well as being a UNESCO Heritage Site, which insures the preservation of the Spanish Colonial architecture that abounds here. My mother, Carmen was born in this country, but I am not a native. To my Mexican family, I am the Gringa. I have come here to study Spanish and art for six weeks. Afterwards, my husband will join me in Ixtapa, on the Pacific Coast for a vacation, but that is still several weeks away.
Each morning, I walk to school by way of the Parque de Juarez. An abundance of towering trees and vegetation make this place cool and shady. The heart of the park is a tall fountain, its waters emerald with tarnished centavos and spent wishes. I can’t see it, but the constant, steady motion of life is thick in the air. I become like a child again. I breathe in the scent of wet clay and remember how, as children, we happily acquired grass stains and soiled-stained knees.
This lovely oasis would be a jungle if it weren’t for the battalion of gardeners who lovingly prune away with their crude scissors. These colorfully dressed workers seem very exotic to me, singing their songs in the morning as they haul off the corpses left from the rubber plants that grow like trees, the fallen orange mimosa blossoms and the decomposed boungavilla flowers. These men with their small, uncovered hands work quietly as if in a chapel. At intervals, they stop, and with their hands on their hips, lovingly inspect their sanctuary from every different angle. With a whisk broom, they might cart away a few forgotten leaves or create a pattern in the dirt. Nothing they carry in their pouches comes from Sears and I’ll bet they have never heard of Miracle Grow. I think of my power edger, my weed whacker, and my blower, Martha Stewart, and all my garden catalogs. I think of all the noise I create when I garden and then I think of how quiet it is here in this haven. There is something so unabashedly simple about it all that the memory of wet clay when I was a kid comes to mind again…and then I realize that as a child I played closer to the soil and that is why I keep thinking about how it smells.
It is here in this park that I have come to cherish this time in my life. Good Morning America is no longer a part of my morning. I’m living in a modern place and I could watch cable TV if I wanted, but I know that this time is special and I shouldn’t waste it. Now my distractions are watching people, watching their street-wise dogs, learning their morning habits and relishing in its familiarity. Across the street is the local open air laundry mat which only consists of around twenty concrete sinks. The source of water is from the water treatment plant on the hill above this neighborhood. It is better than washing your clothes in a shallow stream. The women are hunched over the sinks. The wooden, grinding sounds coming from their washboards remind me of Cajun bands. Their small children play together, the poor man’s form of day care, while the women carry on a steady chatter that is peppered with laughter. Coming up the street, a man with cotton candy hair is pushing his cart that carries hot, steaming tortillas. Mexicans cherish their fresh tortillas the way the French love their croissants. In a melodic voice, he repeatedly sings out, “Tortillas, Tortillas”. Everywhere you go, hawkers are bidding for attention. The men flirt and blow kisses at you, while their women eye you suspiciously. Sometimes, they make me laugh like the round-bellied man who balances a 5 foot high tower of hats on his head. I can’t help thinking that it wasn’t that long ago in my own country when newspapers were sold on street corners to the cry of “Extra. Extra. Read all about it.” Now, when I think about it, the sports arena is the American hawkers’ last domain….”hot dogs – peanuts”.
A park bench near the entrance gives me a great view of the interior lushness of this urban rain forest. The calls of exotic birds and other unfamiliar animals transport me to another continent. For a moment, I swear I see monkeys swinging from branch to branch. Somewhere off in the distance, the marching band has made its way back to the school playground and the town gives a sigh of relief. Two young lovers lean against a tree in a tentative embrace. She wary of talk in town –- he of her older brothers.
Near the fountain is an open diagonal area, a miniature bullfight ring. A young matador practices with a boy who I guess to be around ten years old. The little boy is wearing a paper mâche bull head, heavily weighted with real bull horns. The dance he does is for the benefit of the matador. There are no words spoken between the adult and this costumed boy. Occasionally the boy takes the mask off and wipes his brow. Although the bull head is large and heavy, he never complains. As he prances and swoons back and forth before the crimson cape of the matador, I think how he must be envisioning himself in the midst of his own bullring one day. Flowers thrown by cheering crowds bite the blood-stained dirt at his feet as he soaks in their homage. I am envisioning it myself, his adoration of the matador is so great that I too find it contagious.
When I was around 16 years old, I went to a bull fight in Mexico City with my older cousin. We were of the privileged class and had our own booth. It was for that reason only, I assume, and maybe because I was young and pretty, that the matador dedicated a bull to me, a grand and flamboyant gesture that made me swoon. Clad in his traje de luce, suit of light, he strutted around the circular arena and suddenly stopped and looked up. Struck by the intensity of his gaze, I suddenly felt his piercing eyes on me. I looked at Arturo for guidance. What does a 16-year gringa know about bullfight protocol? But, it wasn’t just that. No man had ever looked at me that way. As my face burned from the curious stares of others around me, my cousin whispered these simple words, “Be gracious”. Up until that moment, I had been thinking the whole sport barbaric and cruel. Now, this single act of chivalry turned me into a fan. I never saw the bullfighter again. Another matador presented him with the ear of the bull, and then the crowd had whisked him away on their shoulders. Once he turned around and looked back in my direction, but the magical moment was gone. When Arturo told me to be gracious, I had locked eyes with the matador, smiled and lowered my head. The child in me knew I was too young for this wild spirit.
The moment has long since worn off and I have never stepped foot in a bull ring again. That is, until I happened upon this imaginary one in Párque de Juarez.
Circa 1988. (Note to Reader: I have been back to SMA many times since then. The park is as tranquil and beautiful as ever. However, the concrete sinks near the park are no longer in use. I miss seeing the women there, but I am happy they have advanced to modern machinery.)