Travel: A February Sojourn in the Heart of Mexico
I’ve known John Byfield since 5th grade. When I moved to Seattle in 1992, John and his wife Kate, who travel a lot, were among the four or five people I knew. They made me welcome then, and they made me welcome again in THEIR new home, Mineral de Pozos, Mexico when I went down to visit this past week. Did you need to know any extraneous circumstances? Don’t ask, and don’t ask about my uncle.
One of them cowboys, he starts to draw I shot him down Lord, he never saw Shot me another, right then he hit the floor In the confusion, my uncle grabbed the gold And we hightailed it down to Mexico.
I told you not to ask!
I’m at the center of this picture! Heart of Mexico …to whence I travel.
…is a mining town about 40 minutes outside of San Miguel de Allende (el Corazon de Mexico). Mining started there in the 16th century. The Spanish subbed it out to the Jesuits and then kicked them out and took it over, both parties using, I believe, slave labor. The town had as many as 50,000 people until they exhausted the mining…silver mainly. It shrank to its present day 5,000, with somewhere south of 40 gringos…below is a picture of some of the mining ovens/furnaces used for smelting, a signature image. There are many tours of mines, especially on the weekends when the out-of-towners arrive.
[a higher quality version of this, plus many other great photos, can be found on my Shepherd Siegel Facebook page...]
This part of Mexico was beyond the reach of both the Aztec and Mayan civilizations, but it was known for the fierce Chichimeca Jonaz warriors…Wikipedia says:
For the Spanish (in the words of scholar Charlotte M. Gradie), “the Chichimecas were a wild, nomadic people who lived north of the Valley of Mexico. They had no fixed dwelling places, lived by hunting, wore little clothes and fiercely resisted foreign intrusion into their territory, which happened to contain silver mines the Spanish wished to exploit.” These tribes moved freely back and forth
from what today is southern Utah and had definite settlements in parts of Texas. In modern times only one ethnic group is customarily referred to as Chichimecs, namely the Chichimeca Jonaz of whom a few thousand live in the state of Guanajuato.
John and Kate always seem to travel to places to live that are about to get popular and transform: Jacksonville, OR; Paso Robles, CA; and now Mineral de Pozos.
Because of its historic importance, the town was eligible for a government program, Pueblas Mágicas. The program protects historic sites and turns them into public parks. Our $2.25 admission fee entitled us to share a shot of mescal with the guide (whose talk in Spanish we could get the gist of). Pueblas Mágicas also supports development, schools, and various means where, as a historic site, the people who live here will get opportunities to cultivate skills, find a livelihood, and improve their quality of living. I thought, ‘the government is supporting this, what a novel idea.’
Just a fraction of the fun to be had with our Mexican brothers and sisters. After a deep visit of Mineral de Pozos and San Miguel de Allende, we left for Querétaro, the town where the Mexican Constitution was signed, on a Sunday. Monday was to be Constitution Day, so we were at the heart of it and expected to see the best parade.
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Pedro Infante has always been my favorite mariachi artist. But a friend of John and Kate’s introduced me to Jorge Negrete, kind of the more classically trained and refined counterpart to Infante’s coarser, ‘street’ approach. The two seemed to have been friendly rivals…check out this video from 1953 featuring them both (Infante first, then Negrete), singing Coplas De Dos Tipos De Cuidado. This Mexican form of dozens engages and entertains…what a battle!
Negrete was in a lot of movies and came off to me like a Mexican Clark Gable, very handsome with romantic leads. One of his big hits was ‘Yo Soy Mexicano’, and as our adventures with mescal continued into the evening, our neighbor host Daniel offered a fine rendition.
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As it happened, Constitution Day was a bust, or something like one. It was the heaviest military and police presence I had seen in a long long time. There were so many barricades, it kept people away from the place where Mexico’s president was to speak. There appeared to be only ONE way to get to it. We were too early for his Noon address, so we wandered Querétaro, a town that was taking the day off as a day to relax and sleep in rather than actively celebrate. Everywhere were secret service or staffers, all but one male, all in black business suits, all on their phones, etc., looking somber and professional. Plus police. Plus military.
We found a hip little joint that was the host of a tamale festival, with 15 types of tamales, of which about 9 were still available. After ordering the sweet one, the one with the half-cooked egg, and the chile and cheese one, we got one with mussels, one with pork chunks, and yes, the chile and cheese one. And it took so long, we missed the speech, and who knows if there was even anybody there not in a uniform.
Yet as we wandered the city, we came across a very well-attended demonstration on behalf of indigenous women. I’m not sure of the specifics of their issue (I do have a handout, in Spanish). It was very impressive, probably over 6,000 people. The march was diverted away from the main plaza where El Presidente spoke.
And what about this this city of Querétaro?
Querétaro is the capital of the state with the same name. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s huge, about a million people. It’s been there since 1531. The city sprawls out rather than up, not a lot of skyscrapers. It’s the safest city in Mexico. And many Americans, my impression is mainly Texans…do a lot of business there…. Wikipedia says The city is the fastest-growing in the country, basing its economy on IT and data centers, logistics services, aircraft manufacturing and maintenance, call centers, the automotive and machinery industries, and the production of chemicals and food products.
The region of Querétaro has a rapidly growing vineyards agriculture and hosts the famous wine producer from Spain Freixenet. Wine production in Querétaro is now the second largest in Mexico after that of the Baja California region. Thus we met a couple of women taking vacation over the weekend to visit the wineries. And the small but efficient airport has English-speakers: the busy run is from Querétaro to Houston.
Lots to say about San Miguel de Allende, watch for it in a future post! And in the meantime, here’s the beautiful church at its center…
Dozens is a form of verbal combat, exchanging insults, often humorously, until one of two competitors is left aghast. Originating as slanging matches around the tables of the Norse gods, the art form expanded in African-American culture (yo’ mama!), but also has this very amusing version from a 1953 Mexican movie.  Legally protected by international treaties. The sites are judged important to the collective interests of humanity.