The Flower Carrier
"Why do you want to leave California?" my Uncle Arthur asked me. "Why do you want to abandon your friends and family and go to some godforsaken Mexican hill town where you don’t have a job and nobody knows your name?"
"That’s why, Arthur," I said.
What I should perhaps have explained is that San Miguel Allende is not exactly your average godforsaken Mexican hill town.
San Miguel isn’t even really Mexico, the gringo old-timers will tell you ruefully, acknowledging the fact that this famous artist’s colony is hardly representative of the whole. What it is for me and the many gringas like me who come here – widowed, divorced, never married, gay, whatever, but unequivocally single and happy about it – is a place to reinvent ourselves, to wade shallowly or plunge deeply into the arts, to teach or study or perform, to have massages or facelifts or affairs, or maybe just to watch the bananas ripen and ponder the curious courses of our own lives.
And yet – I think San Miguel is indeed Mexico, or at least just another singular manifestation of this nutty, complex, infuriating, and irresistible country. Like Mexico itself, San Miguel is a weird and wonderful mescolanza, a mixed-up juxtaposition of cultures, peoples, incomes, lifestyles, sexual preferences and philosophical outlooks. And what’s nicest about San Miguel is that these outlandish life forms live peaceably side by side. Burros and RVs, hippies and Indians and yuppies (Mexican and American alike), mariachis and Mormon missionaries, dopers and drinkers and people working hard to recover from both, painters and peasants and priests hang out companionably in the Jard�n at dusk when the grackles swoop down into the trees and the parish church of St. Michael the Archangel glows in the last light like our very own pink wedding cake. We get to know each other, smile, murmur buenas tardes, go about our business.
And there are certainly a lot of businesses to go about in San Miguel. Restaurants for every taste and pocketbook, handsome artesan�as and upscale art galleries, inexpensive pensiones and luxury B&Bs, cheap cantinas and Internet cafes, discos and devil dancers, horchata and tamarindo on the street corner and bourbon and Chardonnay in the bars, even the latest trendy nonsense if you insist on having it: cigar bars peddling the real ones straight from Cuba, sports bars with giant TV screens, nightclubs where the bouncer checks you over for the appropriate level of coolness before letting you in.
Everywhere, of course, are the fiestas for which San Miguel is famous. San Miguel has more fiestas per square inch than any town in Mexico, the guidebooks tell you, and for all I know it’s true. Here you can have a fiesta to celebrate the fact that there is no fiesta. There’s Saint Michael’s Day. There’s Cinco de Mayo and 16 de Septiembre and all the other independence days including the Fourth of July. There’s Corpus Christi and Semana Santa and the usual festivities at Christmas. And for what somebody or other is bound to tell you is the real Mexico, there’s the flagellants’ pilgrimage from Atotonilco, when the unbelievably gory Se�or de la Columna – Our Lord at the Pillar, bound in torment and streaming blood from peculiarly Mexican wounds – begins his yearly peregrination to the local churches.
And then there are the fiestas that were simply made up as an excuse to party. Like the locos who take over the town on the feast of San Antonio, for instance. These transvestite dancers have nothing to do with Saint Anthony and started appearing only a few years ago, but it was such fun that now they take over the whole town and you don’t even try to drive your car that day. And there’s the pamplonada, a Pamplona-inspired mob scene when the bulls are let loose in the streets to pursue the thousands of young mexicanos and occasional intrepid turista who come to town, get loaded, and prove their manhood the old-fashioned way by tempting death. Dozens are injured each year, and occasionally someone gets killed, but what the hell, the tourists like it and it’s good for business, so we overlook the cruelty to the animals and have ourselves a bull, er, ball.
It’s possible, of course, to insulate yourself from all this messy, pullulating life if you wish to. In the golden gringo ghettoes that perch on the hills above the old town you can hide at your leisure from all things Mexican except the cheap labor and the glorious view, trekking occasionally into Queretaro to pick up supplies direct from los Estados Unidos at Sam’s or Wal-Mart or Office Depot.
Or you can try to go native, live in the barrio on a few hundred bucks a month, subsist on beans and tortillas and kid yourself that you’re as poor as your neighbor who’s feeding eight kids on less than you spend in a week.
For most of us, though – and I’m thinking particularly of the women – San Miguel offers the chance to explore corners of our psyches left unvisited during lives devoted to having careers and raising children and taking care of husbands. There are more interesting women in San Miguel than I’ve ever seen in one place. And – there’s always a worm in the apple – very few men to match. Women marry younger and live longer, and so are more often left alone in life.
It is also said that we bear widowhood better, find greater consolation in solitude, learn to live on our own and like it. Well, with those stats, we’d damn well better, hadn’t we?
And San Miguel gives us ample opportunity to explore. The bulletin boards around town are papered with a dizzying array of classes, therapies, shamanic journeys, Thai massage, pre-Hispanic music, Italian cooking, gringo fundraising, Mexican theater, reiku and watsu and tai chi, all of it cheap and inviting and worth-a-try-at-least-once. For the artistic, there are the Instituto Allende and Bellas Artes. For the linguistic, there are Spanish schools on every corner. For the hedonistic, there are wine, wo/men, song, and – I am told – fantastically cheap drugs. For the altruistic, there are unlimited opportunities to heal and to help. And for the fatalistic, there is the opportunity to begin to learn that unmatchably practical philosophy that is the Mexican outlook on death.
So that’s what I should have told my uncle: I get to be myself here, Arthur.
(A shorter version of this article appeared in Ken Luboff’s, Living Well in Mexico.)