Imagine a Mexican “Magical Mystery Tour.” I was on one. I have just returned from a trip to magical towns in the fascinating, central Mexico state of Guanajuato.
The magic arises from tradition– pre-Hispanic era and colonial heritage. It is also a very contemporary magic. It is energized by the pulse of friendly people, a continued wave of tourism to San Miguel de Allende and the capital, Guanajuato. That charming town is famous for its foreboding underground tunnels, its mummies and for Pípila, its hero, a native worker who helped defeat the Spanish in the struggle for Independence.
I accompanied a lovely lady, Luz, from Rio Grande City, Texas, and a cultured gentleman, Memo, from San Isidro, Texas (both towns in legendary Starr County). We constituted an intellectual menage a trois. They are experienced aficionados of San Miguel. I am an amateur (in the sense of “lover”) of Mexico, its culture (my wife and family, especially), a researcher and professor of its politics. We helped one another learn more about magical Mexico.
We learned and re-learned many micromatic details (about religion, food, tourism). Among macromatic things we realized in front of our own eyes: Mexico is on the rise, its spirit, its economy. Contrast with the U.S. is wide and deep. Lamentably, the U.S. seems on the decline, if treason and kleptocracy are not stopped. Case in point: Republicans just voted down funds for countering Russian invasive cyberwar. Few of them realize or oppose Trump’s witless decimation of American values.
The magic started for us with an affordable bus ticket (Omnibus from McAllen, ETN out of San Miguel). Safe travel, water, sandwich and clean restrooms are provided. It continued with arrival at the home rented, in the cool (59 degrees) highlands. Greeting us were church bells, fireworks (no, not for our arrival, but for religious festivities), giant balloons, skyward. In the jardín of the centro, above the Gothic church, the 21st century invades with drones, as well as colored balloons for children, giant puppets of bride and groom for the novios, the happy couple honeymooning in SM.
Don’t drive; bus! The modern bus terminal in Monterrey (short wait before transfer) is safe and pleasant. The Omnibus is made by Volvo. The type used in San Miguel is a luxury, double decker. (I still miss the Tren Azul from Mexico City when I traveled, 1987, with our babies. Sad, the passenger trains are now gone, both in the U.S. and in Mexico.) But San Miguel de Allende continues as a destination fully deserving of its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Art and culture mix in delightful ways; cuisines, Mexican and international, prevail. A local, organic market is booming. SM is pet-friendly; well disciplined dogs of all razas are numerous. I marveled at the brother and sister Borzai dogs (Russian) at a trendy festival featuring U.S. music (and closing World Cup games on big screen), Mexican and Spanish food, but even hamburgers.
As was true during my first visit, 55 years ago, locals and ex pats get along well. (Art unites people; the SM annual film festival began as we left.) I overheard only one “Ugly American” voicing support for Trump, yes—go figure—while sitting (and drinking) among all those friendly Mexicans he has excoriated; the man “joked” the problem with San Miguel was “too many Mexicans!” The main change in the state of Guanajuato, of course, is more tourists, more traffic. Most obey the “uno y uno” advice for auto drivers (one after the other), leading to urban respect, few accidents and relative peace.
In nearby Guanajuato we met a delightful ex-pat, a former Peace Corps volunteer. His wife, from Mexico City, trusts in Homeopathy (as do many Mexicans) and treats patients with teas, bells, crystals . . . and magnets! They are for sale in local markets and do a brisk business. Guanajuato is also a World Heritage Site and features, in October, the famous, month-long Cervantina.
Most nights, one can follow the medieval-dressed players of the Estudiantinas, as they travel along cobblestone streets to “El Callejón del Beso,” with drink and song. Standing, imposing, in front of all, the grand Teatro Juárez Opera House, modeled after La Scala, featuring classical and contemporary arts and music all year long. (Another miracle: these monuments were not sacked during the Mexican Revolution of early 20th century.)
But the real magnet that kept pulling me onward lay in the small, nearby town of Villa de Bernal, or Santiago de Bernal. The Peña de Bernal is, indeed, incredible. A majestic outcropping of rock, it allegedly possesses magnetic, magical properties. Hundreds of devotees, dressed in white, trek up the mountain side each spring equinox to pay tribute, emulating their Otomí ancestors. They bask in the presumed healing powers of the third highest monolithic promontory in the world. Many residents live to over 100 years old, attributing their health to the monolith. Light shows and parasailing have been added. Mountain climbing is permitted (with ropes, not picks).
The Peña is, I contend, Mexico’s hidden secret. (I even paused before speaking of it, lest it become too well known.) It was my Holy Grail, fulfilled. I was taken there and hosted by my wife’s delightful cousins, Honoré and Amparo, who live in nearby Querétero. The ancient and modern coexist. We drove past the vast new campus of the University of Arkansas, on the way. We feasted on cesina and sopes, under an ancient mezquite, dense and wide enough to serve as roof for the patio café, the Peña calling, watching over us, in the distance. The magic was also the family, fellowship and food, as it can be anywhere.
Back in San Miguel, magic of an international kind could be observed—the confluence of cultures. Native vendors, in traditional dress, utilized cell phones with acuity. A Mexican child in the plaza displayed his “Proud U.S. Army” tee shirt. Many others (two of three?) sported U.S. university logos or English language advice (“Ask Me About My Granddaughter”) from wearers who might not have had full understanding of the message. (I’m certain they understood the more vulgar suggestions.)
Those magical connections and the links from the vast amount of U.S. high-rise hotels and industry in populous Querétero (two million) will, I predict, never be broken. Passing through neighboring Juraquilla, one only need gaze in amazement at the long miles of working trucks, newly minted tractors and combination PEMEX/Seven-Eleven stations. Some might try to disrupt–a Trump willing and able to tamper with NAFTA, spoiling valuable bilateral trade between our two countries. But how foolish for him to try; how bizarre and self-defeating for Republicans to accede to his whims.
The Mexicans I encountered are more pragmatic, more hopeful for the future. Guanajuato, unlike most of Mexico, voted for the right-of-center PAN candidate, Ricardo Anaya, but are reconciled to work with the (only slightly) “leftist” winner, the President-elect, AMLO. They love to entertain miraculous, magical, that is, hopeful things. They are also practical, down to earth and love good humor (often in the form of educational jokes). One joke I love to share is about a holy man consulted by a concerned citizen: “Maestro, how can Mexico solve its problems?”
“Two ways, the miraculous way and the technical way.” “The technical solution: la Virgen de Guadalupe appears, waves her hand, and cures our problems.” But, wait, the perplexed supplicant rejoins, “THAT is the technical way? Then what on earth is the miraculous one?” “Oh, the miracle would be for Mexicans to cease their divisions, and to develop solutions for their own problems.”
Divisions have not ceased but, for the time being, there is some compromise and a promise of attacking problems such as corruption and violence under leadership of a new government. The new beginning starts in December, with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He is often referred to by his initials, AMLO. (Notice, please, he should be called López, not Obrador.)
AMLO won by a landslide July 1st. Upper class Mexicans (and fearful, conservative Americans) are still reeling but most are reconciled and satisfied the change was necessary. This new attitude will go far to help Mexico recover. It will also provide a welcome lesson for the U.S., one of reconciliation and progress. Ojalá! Would that God help us! And would that we embrace both the magic of peoples’ faiths and the technical approaches of their intellect, based on science. Mexico does both, very well. (Few sane Mexicans doubt global warming or detest science, a la Trump and Republicans.)
One magical mystery tour is over. I trust there will be more (at least in my mind?). I thank my friends, Luz and Memo, from the south Texas Valley, for their generosity and helpfulness. I thank Honoré and Amparo for introducing me to their beloved Peña. None are responsible for my political beliefs expressed here. But they are all responsible for an enhanced appreciation of friendship with them—and with Mexico. Viva la amistad! Viva México!
Editor’s Note: The photos in the slideshow were provided by Dr. Gary Joe Mounce.