by Cat Calhoun San Miguel de Allende, Gto., México
Yesterday I was in artistic creation mode, so I forgot that we are about to kick off Semana Santa (or Holy Week) here in San Miguel de Allende. DeLora has been gone all week, back in Texas to retrieve her mom. I came out of my artistic trance about 3:30 and realized that I needed to run to get some groceries so she could eat well when she got back.
I got dressed in something suitable for public consumption, grabbed my walking stick and set off down the dusty streets in our barrio of Santa Julia toward downtown. I saw some beautiful decorations, heavily featuring the color purple and remembered it was Viernes de Dolores, literally, the Friday of Pain or Sorrows.
It is the Virgin Mary who is celebrated this day, honoring her sorrow over the death of her son. House after house was decorated heavily with purple and white ribbons and paper cutouts and fresh flowers (the colors of funeral flowers), bitter oranges (representing her tears and sorrows), and candles. But alongside the sorrows and suffering, there was freshly sprouted wheat grass, and the fragrant smells of chamomile, mint, and fennel, representing rebirth and the new life of Spring.
Families that participate often clear out their whole living room, continuing the theme and remembrances into their homes, for a time transforming their dwellings into living shrines. I saw some truly beautiful altars and a couple of families even extended their tradition of handing out sweet treats to me, a foreigner.
Some of you will wonder why I’m not sharing more pictures if the visuals were so spectacular, but some things aren’t meant to be photographed by gringos. The moments are too sweet and too personal. I did take one for you though, at the request of the woman who created it.
Regardless of whether you are a practicing Catholic or a heathen like myself, happy Spring. May your tears water the soil of your life and bring you renewed joy and life this Semana Santa.
Each morning I wake to the sound of bells ringing next door at Casa Hogar, a girl’s home run by the Hermanas Dominicas de María order of nuns. A moment or two after waking and stumbling to the kitchen to open the windows, I smell delicious aromas – onions and garlic frying with eggs and various “carnes” – and am reminded of how different food is here as compared to the United States.
Americans, at least in my experience, largely shop in supermarkets or grocery stores. My family shopped at HEB (because Texas, that’s why) and, when I was very little, Piggly Wiggly. That’s definitely not how most people shop in San Miguel de Allende, nor in most of Mexico from what I can gather. Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely a few supermarkets here. Mega and Soriana Súper come to mind. There are even a few HEBs in big cities, but not where I live.
(Fill-in-the-blank)-arias, tiendas, and mercados
So how do you shop? Generally speaking, if you want to buy food here you go to a smaller store (a tienda) that specializes in what you want to buy. Need fruit or produce? Go to the verduraria. Bread? Go to the panaderia. Fish? Pescaderia. Beef or chicken? Carniceria.
If you happen to need meats, produce, beans, and bread all at the same time, then you hop on the bus for 7 pesos (about 37 cents) and go to the mercado. Mercados are big warehouse looking places with a ton of little specialized tiendas in them – bread, dried goods, produce, meats of all kinds. The San Juan de Dios market here in San Miguel is my favorite so far. Not only can you find food to cook, you can also find food stalls with people making fresh pozole, sopas/soups, tortas/sandwiches, tacos, and sweet treats.
As an added bonus, you can get all the plastic crap ever made in all of China such as laundry baskets, strainers, cups and glasses, fly swatters, and stuff I cannot yet identify. In San Juan de Dios you can get costumes, clothing, shoes, boots, hats, sporting equipment, and tons more. You can even buy minutes for your cell phone here. (But if you’re looking for all the cool ceramic Mexican dishes, rugs, or other traditional items, you have to go to the artisan’s market. The mercado is mostly about daily life.)
There are also small local corner stores where you can pick up Mexican Coke (like they’d carry any other kind!). I’m not normally a Coca-Cola fan, but we had urban hiked a lot one day last week and had run out of water in our bottles, so we snagged one from the tienda at the corner. Now I understand all the hoopla about Mexican coke! Damn, that stuff is good. 2.5 liters for 22 pesos (about a dollar). If the bottle is labeled “Retorno” they’ll give you 10 pesos back when you drop off the empties. Haven’t seen that since I was a wee little tyke.
Sorry. I got lost there – all caught up in the Mexican coke revelry. The little corner tienas also sell cookies, bandaids, aspirin, a little this and that, and they often have good-sized produce sections. You know where all the candy, chips, and processed foods are in a 7-11? Take that out and replace it with produce and you have an approximation of a local tienda.
Can you buy pre-cooked food like you do in the HEB deli? Yes, you can. These are also in specialized shops. There are tortillerias every few blocks – a small shop with a tortilla press and a couple of women making homemade corn tortillas they sell buy the kilo. How many tortillas is that? More than you can eat in a week by yourself. I fry them up with a little coconut oil and they are divine. You want flour tortillas? Well, too bad, gringo. I haven’t found those in San Miguel de Allende yet.
Yesterday I had hiked up a huge hill and stopped for a rest in front of a rosticeria (a chicken roaster) offering roasted chicken with corn tortillas and peppers – $45Mxn for half of a chicken or $85Mxn for a whole chicken. As I watched she pulled a whole chicken off of the roaster and cut it up with shears I swear could cut through bricks, packaged it with the peppers and tortillas in less than 30 seconds. Impressive.
While this is representative of how rosticerias work, this is not the one I was resting in front of.
How much food to buy
When I lived in Austin I had a big pantry and a little pickup truck that could hold enough groceries to feed a small village for a week. A very small village, but you know what I mean. I could and often did stock my pantry until the whole closet was full. We do have a car here in Mexico and I could drive down to Soriana Súper and fill it up, but both driving and parking here are challenging to say the least. Even if I did feel like driving (and no thank you), I have nowhere to put massive amounts of food.
That means I shop like most families do here. You get what you need for a few days and limit yourself to one or two shopping bags full per individual, knowing that you’re going to have to take a taxi (two shopping bags per person) or a bus (one shopping bag per person) to get back home. Buses are often crowded and but are about 6 times less expensive than taking a taxi, so guess which one I pick! Bingo. Bus it is.
The fun part – food eating!
In the United States I relied way too heavily on processed food. My household is vegan, but I won’t lie – I still miss meat in a big way even when I get plenty of protein from other sources. To quell my cravings, I fell back on Gardein’s faux meats. And while I was buying those I would stroll down the center aisles at our local food co-op or at Whole Foods and pick up vegan snacks like bagged popcorn and cookies. Whole Foods has delicious sweet/salty kettle corn, those bastards! I gained 10 lbs eating it and it made me swell up like I was on steroids. But I ate it anyway. Rarely did I eat fresh produce or fruits. As it turns out, it’s way too easy to eat junk in America and still be considered vegan or vegetarian. (Did you know Oreos and Fritos are actually vegan? True story.)
Those processed vegan crutches just aren’t available here and I’m actually relieved about that because I have no willpower. I’ve probably eaten better since I’ve been in Mexico than I have in the last 30 years of my existence. Because there is a decided lack of vegan prefab, I find myself defaulting to fresh fruits and veggies and to cooking for myself instead of eating out. I had pineapple dressed with fresh peach juice and coconut this morning for breakfast. Lunch was an egg dish (yes, I know that’s not vegan, but I splurged at the local organic market and bought a couple of fresh eggs). Tonight I dine on Spanish rice and beansthat I cooked myself, coupled with corn tortillas I purchased from the local mamacitas at the tortilleria.
(Click on the rice and beans links above for the Instant Pot recipes.)
There are a million restaurants in San Miguel and I doubt I’ll ever darken the door of most of them. Why? Most of them don’t offer much in the way of vegetarian or vegan fare and my cooking is better anyhow.
There are a few exceptions to the “Sorry, it’s all meat all the time here” rule. Last Saturday our downstairs neighbor Amy helped us get to the Saturday organic market. Amy has lived here for five years and showed us where to catch the bus and the best place to flag down a taxi. Once we got to the market we found a vegan tamale stand where we got a couple of tamales, beans and a salad. I think the total bill was less than $10, which sounds hella cheap, but those are gringo prices because the whole market caters to the local ex-pat and Mexican tourist population. I confess I’m not generally a salad eater, but this was delicious! It was garnished with dried and candied Jamaica flowers (pronounced ha-MY-kah), which you probably know as hibiscus flowers. Amazing. And the tamales? Moist and fresh. Totally worth the price, actually. Might have to go again this weekend.
For now however, the sun is setting, I hear the dinner bells ringing next door at Casa Hogar and I can’t quit thinking about the rice and beans I promised myself for the evening repast. I’m going to go cook myself some dinner.
San Miguel de Allende is deep in the throes of a three-day holiday weekend. How do I know this? Did I read it on a flyer? Find out from a neighbor? No. I woke at 5:30am from a frustratingly real nightmare to the sound of six immensely loud thundering noises in a row. In my half-asleep state I first thought it was a neighbor in the compound banging on the front gate after having forgotten keys or a drunken tryst looking for a booty call. Next I thought maybe it was a metal door being dragged across San Miguel’s cobblestone streets. Then I remembered David, our next door neighbor, saying I might wake to the sound of explosions occasionally and not to worry, just fireworks.
I got out of bed and trekked to the kitchen to peer out across the city. It’s handy having an apartment way up on a hill. For a moment I saw nothing, then white sparks shone in the sky followed by the booms a second later. I watch for a while as smoke filled the valley below then went back to bed. The booming went on for a couple of more hours, but I somehow fell asleep in the midst of it only waking with the sun streaming through the windows of my partially glass house, the thundering noises still echoing through town.
Amy, the downstairs neighbor, mentioned yesterday that it might be a good idea to get anything we need in town and then hole up because this is a 3 day weekend. I didn’t really pay attention at the time, but the fireworks drove the point home and made it worth investigating. Turns out this is the alignment of three notable holidays.
Oil Expropriation Day
We probably all know about Hernando Cortez and his merry band of slaughtering Spanish conquistadors and how they helped Spain gobble up all the wealth and life they could squeeze out of Mexico’s indigenous population. Mexicans struggled angrily and desperately for independence in the 19th century, working hard not just to fight off Spanish, but also French, and American oppression. In 1938 they took back what had been stolen from them and nationalized all of their own oilfields, pushing more modern-day foreign marauders away from the wealth they knew they would need to thrive.
Then in 2013 the Mexican government opened up the same oil fields that had been so difficult to nationalize less than 100 years earlier to foreign investment. Last year when we were here for a visit there were riots in the streets in Mexico City when the Mexican government further broke the monopoly of the national oil company (which kept prices suppressed on gasoline), allegedly seeking more green solutions. . . but really it looks like they want foreign corporations to help them go after deeper oil. Someone’s pockets are getting lined and it’s not the Mexican people’s. We were staying in Guanajuato when all this happened, but ironically visiting San Miguel de Allende the day the riots began. We were blissfully unaware of them, but we did see a number of armored personnel carriers on the streets that day filled with people in military gear and armed with assault rifles.
Benito Juárez Day
The guy was a very popular president, one of Mexico’s best actually, evidenced by the fact that there are monuments to him spanning from Chicago to Mexico. He was and is he only indigenous president of Mexico (Zapotec, specifically) and was committed to restoring rights to the indigenous peoples. He was also the guy who finally ended the serial dictatorships of General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
This was no small feat: Santa Anna was dictator, overthrown and then dictator again eleven different times in the 1800’s. Benito Juárez got rid of him for good, which ended Santa Anna’s serious drain on Mexico’s wealth. Fun fact: there is a monument to Santa Anna, despite his thieving ways, of him on a horse with one hand reaching back toward Mexico City. I’ve heard Mexicans joke that his hand points to the national treasury, hoping to dip back in for one more hand full of gold.
I digress again. Benito Juárez was born on March 21, so it’s not actually his birthday yet, but who doesn’t love a long weekend? And an excuse to set off fireworks for 2 hours on a Sunday morning? Heck yeah.
So not only is it Oil Expropriation Day (which is ironically named in light of current circumstances), but also Benito Juárez Memorial Day. But that’s not all….
It’s that too. Though Mexico is majorly Catholic, the old ways are still buried deep within its’ Catholicism. This is a huge day. I hope to get to Chichen Itza for sunrise on spring equinox some day. I’m told by people who have seen it that on this day in particular you can see the shadow of what looks like a huge snake slither down the pyramid as the sun moves.
If you don’t like snakes, I hear you. I feel the same way about big spiders. But this snake is Quetzalcoatl (kayt-zuhl-KWAH-tuhl), the feathered serpent, who will some day bring salvation and peace to Mexico. The shadow on the pyramid at Chichen Itza represents the return of freedom and prosperity, the breaking of the yoke of oppression, and deliverance for Mexico’s people.
I’ve had a special affinity or Quetzalcoatl and the old deities of Mexico since I took Professor Don Chipman’s History of Mexico class at the University of North Texas. Professor Chipman had a way of bringing historical stories to life and watered the tiny seeds of my love for Mexican history until it was a beautiful flowering tree. He also contended that proof of the existence of god can be found in a flour tortilla. I never quite understood that, but when I bite into a fresh made, light and fluffy flour tortilla, I am inclined to think he might be right.
I digress yet again. (Sorry. Bad habit.)
Snakes in most cultures represent the old ways when we were more connected to the earth, in partnership with it rather than chewing it all the way down to the bone like Spain did with Mexico. Snakes represent that primal connection we know we have, deep down inside ourselves past the cultural and religious conditioning, to this earth and this universe. Snakes are life, fertility, and healing. They recall the energy of the divine snaking its’ way up from our earthly origins and connecting us to the heavens, allowing us to meld with the light, and to embrace the Kundalini energy within each of us. They remind us to channel that divine energy and work with it in a powerful partnership that can help us gracefully find our way in this world without damaging it.
Time and time again, organized religion has worked overtime to crush our own knowledge of our connection to All That Is. We are easier to control that way, you see. That’s why all the imagery about crushing snakes under the heels of Christians exists. It’s why St. George slew the dragon, another ‘face’ for snakes. It’s why St. Patrick allegedly drove the snakes out of Ireland.
Disconnecting from our own divinity and from our connection and partnership with this earth has had dire consequences. If we still saw her as our mother and our partner, we wouldn’t rip it apart and pollute it like we have. Would you do that to your own mom? No. You are part of her and she is part of you. When one is damaged, the other is too.
So bring on the fireworks, Mexico. Quetzalcoatl’s return can’t be that far off….can it?