Best of Mexico

History as Commodity

in San Miguel de Allende

by Sareda Milosz
Publisher of El Independiente
San Miguel de Allende

Various circumstances transform a foreign citizen into an expatriate resident of Mexico. Sometimes it’s strictly practical, as in, "My husband’s a diplomat." Or it may be romantic: "We came here on our honeymoon, bought a condominium, and now we’re here 10 months out of the year."

My own arrival 20 years ago was catalyzed by a magical moment in Puerto Vallarta several months previously. I stood at a curve in the road on the town’s south end, my five senses in tranquil harmony, fascinated by the comings and goings of the women, who carried just enough groceries to prepare comida. I could see and smell the sea, and on the other side of the road the green jungle emitted strident insect raspings. Burros brayed.

My attention was drawn to a building site. Due to the rusty rebar and the twiney encroachments of tropical plants, it was impossible to guess whether the structure was in ruins or if the builders had let a new project go for a few months while they accumulated further construction funds. I enjoyed the unique time-warp sensation presented by the quandary. Just as I became conscious of the fact that I was experiencing a moment during which time could have been flowing in any direction, a Chatter of Parrots flew overhead and I knew I was moving to Mexico—an option I had never even thought about until that instant.

Today that mystery building is obviously a municipal medical center. But the sense of living history and the addictive everyday ‘paranormal’ experience of whirlpools in the flow of time have kept me here in Mexico.

Imagine my fascination with the half-millennium of New World history laid like a blanket over the eons of lost civilizations that constitute the past of the cities and hamlets of the central Mexican plateau. Still, in 1981, many of the elderly residents of San Miguel de Allende’s thermal-watered outskirts spoke only Otomi; now the conquest has taken its toll, and the old native speakers have passed on, to be replaced by youngsters who are fluent in Spanish and pidgin English.

But history and mystery continue to sell Mexico to tourists. History as a commodity is the latest cottage industry here in San Miguel de Allende. Within the last two years, at least 20 businesses of the genre bazaar/antigüedades have opened.

Whether one is a casual tourist or a local homeowner intent on creating authentic ambiance in the kitchen and dining room, these shops are worth exploring. They offer furniture, retablos and ex-votos, wrought-iron gates and balustrades, mesquite troughs and basins, enameled basins, porcelain basins and huge, timeworn wooden doors with small openings for people and huge openings for carriages. Also available are turn-of-the-century wedding portraits — those nameless brides and grooms captured by the camera in stiff and formal wide-eyed anonymity in celebration of their union. I am capable of creating an entire family genealogy, complete with adventures and misfortunes, based on a glimpse of one of these implication-laden photographs. There are old radios, cloudy mirrors housed in frames that are turning to dust, and simple tin housings for votive candles.

Two of the shops feature entire walls displaying the contents of ancient pharmacies, including huge porcelain jars, tiny blue frascos and everything in between. These conveniently serve my Mexican time-warp theory: two functioning pharmacies on Calle Reloj — one at Mesones and one at Insurgentes — continue to employ the same setup. Along with dispensing the latest from Sandoz and Burroughs-Wellcome, the pharmacists may also disappear behind the counter to mix a gram of powder into a container of spring water, thus concocting a restorative, inexpensive tonic.

These bazaars can be found on most of the streets of downtown San Miguel. Some are big and fancy, and have gone into the replica business as well; others are tiny. Several of the smaller shops are part of a ‘chain’ whose proprietors have lucked upon a source. Both types of establishments can be found on Calle Ancha de San Antonio near the Instituto Allende and on Calle Canal between Hidalgo and the Quebrada bridge. Smaller stores are located on Umarán below Zacateros, Calle Reloj and on Calle Hernández Macías.

Happy is the person who enters one or more of these places. Whether or not there is a business transaction, the experience of passing through the doors of such a mini-museum adds to one’s perspective on Mexico’s living history.
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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