Me and the Morning Paper

Reunited with an old friend, who shows up every morning on my doorstep, bearing tidings, good, bad and in-between, gossip, a peek into lifestyles not my own and just like mine, I feel like my life’s back on track. La Voz de Michoacán and I have had an off-and-on relationship for years, or at least since I first laid eyes on Morelia back when José López Portillo was moving out of Los Pinos.

La Voz is everything that the rest of the pack isn’t. It’s a tabloid, designed for reading on the subway, which Morelia will never have. It’s about as flashy as a pair of Flexi shoes – and just as reliable. It’s not a sexy, edgy newspaper, but it’s solid, comprehensive, and it delivers what it’s supposed to.

It’s also the only newspaper published in Michoacán which bears its price both in Mexican pesos and U.S. dollars. 10 pesos and 1 USD. You know what that means.

And it’s also the only paper around, at least that I know about, that has the P’urhépecha Jimbo—a page printed in P’urhépecha and in Spanish.

It sells out faster than its competitor at the abarrotes in my neighborhood.

The late Miguel Medina Robles was a publishing giant, and even though I only met him once, at the annual dinner over at the rectory during my colonia’s fiesta patronal, he made a lasting impression.

There is just something civilized and disciplined about print that the digital world doesn’t deliver. I’m forced to read sections that I’d ordinarily skip online. Sure, the digital version is easier, but it encourages skipping over items that I find myself poring over in print: two-page spreads about Pre-Hispanic music in Michoacán, what the recipients back in the Old Country do with remittances sent back home from migrants, the career of a caricaturist over at the Plaza de Armas. I can tear out sections to save for later, clippings to be passed on instead of forwarded.

Newspapers have been as much a part of my life as magazines. I grew up on the Los Angeles Times, followed by the San Diego Union and the San Diego Evening Tribune, the St. Joseph News-Press and the St. Joseph Gazette, the Des Moines Register and the Des Moines Tribune. For twenty years, Sundays were filled with both the Omaha World-Herald and the Des Moines Register. Each foray to a new city meant having to pick up the local newspaper, even if it was just to read the obituaries of people I never knew.

But then my lifetime ambition, never fulfilled, was to be editor of Parade. A slender printed-on-newsprint accompaniment to the Sunday newspaper, it was read by more people than any other magazine.

Every newspaper demands reading in its proper order, which is probably not how the editors intended. The Sunday New York Times means grabbing the magazine.

But we’re talking about La Voz here. And this is the order in which it’s read in my house:

• Toca Mal. Everything worth knowing can be f0und in that small below-the-fold (if a tabloid had a fold) on page 2A. Toca Mal, who has gone from Francisco Lopez Guido to someone else, is the Herb Caen of Michoacán.

• Facetas. The F section, these are the social pages, where I concoct connections and stories in my own head about the lives and people who grace those pages. I get to keep up on the birthdays and saints’ days of people who’re a notch above me.

• The back page of the A section: seguridad. That’s the crime page.

• Dinero. The C section tells me how broke I am.

• The A section. That’s the main body of the newspaper, containing the far-too-lengthy-to-read editorials. And the esquelas. Those are the obituary notices placed by businesses, organizations, and important people lamenting the demise of important people. I am amazed at how quickly, sometimes only within hours of an unexpected death, these notices appear.

• The B section (pais) and the G section (regional news).

• Finally, the E section, called O. which stands for ocio (free time), containing entertainment and cultural news.

• And then I’ll do a switchback to the F section for the crossword and horoscope.

• The D section? That’s the sports section, which my employee grabs before the newspaper reaches my hands.

And what did I do this morning while reading the print version? I clicked on the web version just for the update.

At Home in Michoacán

Michoacán – the soul of Mexico

 

The state of Michoacán is an uncommon place. From the sugar cane fields of Los Reyes, the avocados, coffee, and macadamia nuts of Uruapan, the melon fields of Apatzingán, the rice fields of Lombardia and Nueva Italia, the pears of Ucareo, the pescado blanco of Patzcuaro, to the ruggedly pristine Pacific coast, the endless pine-crested peaks of Mil Cumbres, the mines and butterflies of Angangueo and the former mining town of Tlalpujahua.

 

Michoacán is as varied a state as you’ll find anywhere in Mexico. Michoacán is craft-central for all kinds of handicrafts and ground zero for Noche de Muertos. The guitars of Paracho, the lace of Aranza, the deshilado of San Felipe de los Herreros, the masks of Tocuaro, the devils of Ocumicho, and the pottery of Capula… And don’t miss the Meseta Purépecha, the archeological wonders of Tingambato, Tzintzuntzan and Ihuatzio or the copper workers of Santa Clara de Cobre. Morelia, the most Spanish of all Mexican cities, warrants a book all its own.

 

This is the state which produced one of Mexico’s most revered leaders – Lázaro Cárdenas. This is the state which has sent off the second-highest number of its own to work across foreign borders. This is the state in which the oldest university in the American continent was founded back in 1540.

 

Michoacán is craft and industry. Michoacán is history and leadership. Michoacán is a kaleidoscope of natural beauty. Michoacán is art and music, and Michoacán is education. Michoacán is the guardian of tradition, and the face of tomorrow. This is the state whose pride knows no bounds, and this is the state everyone loves.

 

I wrote that a dozen years ago, dashing it off in a few minutes one evening.  Felipe Calderon, Morelia’s own, had yet to become president.  Narcos were around even then, but they weren’t the center of our universe. Maestras and normalistas overtook the streets, but they were a much quieter bunch back in the day. There was no cuota to the Pacific shores. Altozano was barely a twinkle in its fathers’ eyes.  And still, Michoacán remains the best damn state in the Republic. Every time since, when my plane lands at MLM, when I cross over the Michoacán state line, I know I’m home.

Walking up my street, I realize that I’ve walked that adoquin over four decades of my life.

Some 26 years ago, I sat on a rock in my newly-acquired yard, feeling as lost as Dorothy in Oz. And now I wouldn’t live anyplace else.

The Dragon of Santa Maria

 

Santa Maria 005There is a dragon in my neighborhood, and this is his story. Well, that and more.

Back in the day before city water, the people of the pueblito would go to the dragon for their water. That, of course, was long before my time. The dragon still resides in Santa Maria behind the walls of private house. That much is no legend, because I’ve seen the dragon.

 

There was a day when Santa Maria wasn’t what it is now. Or maybe it was. In the 19th century and up until around the time of the Revolution, Morelia’s city folk had very simple summer homes up on the hill. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a place to escape Centro.  And then they left, leaving little behind but crumbling walls and tales of buried gold. The Cristero Rebellion rolled around, and religious orders headed for the hill, where some of them remain to this day. World War II would come to an end, and foreigners found this part of town a pleasant place to live. In fact, until the last couple of decades, foreigners tended to congregate predominantly in Vista Bella and Santa Maria.

An e-mail from one of those foreigners who spent a few years here in the 1950s arrived out of the blue six years ago. And I’m sharing it with you.

January 2008

My dear Jennifer Rose,

I am indeed now in your debt for having sent me this treasure trove of information concerning Santa Maria, i.e. the precise location of the house which I had occupied for about two years in the fifties — as well as the name of the main street, etc. I doubt very much that I would have found that precise location, for Morelia has changed so much in the intervening years — and Santa Maria even more so.

I was the first American ever to have lived in that house, and I had rented it from Sergio — for the life of me I cannot remember his last name. He was either the son or grandson of a physician who had built it — I believe very early in the last century — and had used it as a summer home. After graduating from the University of Maine, and traveling for a couple of years in Europe and vagabonding aimlessly around the U.S., I ended up in Morelia where I eked out a living by teaching English at an American cultural institute. I soon made my way up to Santa Maria where the rent was cheaper than down in the city. I rented the place for 80 pesos a month (around $10 U.S. dollars at the time). And it made a nice home for me, my wife (a peasant girl from Zacapu), her son, and one of her nieces. When we moved into the place one of the rooms was in a shambles (only the walls were standing) but the rest of the house was in fairly good shape.

As regards the dragon. . . Oh my Gawd! Now I remember his name. Your mention of Torres Manzo suddenly rings a bell. I believe the person from whom I rented the place was Sergio Torres M, but I believe the workers are quite wrong about the fountain, for I was always told that it was built at the time the house was erected. As a matter of fact, the stone is even of the same type and color as those in the pillars supporting the porticos. (If they are still there.)

Oh, thank you so very much for having answered my letter. I am including a copy of the image I had previously sent. At the moment it seems to be the only one I have. I do have friends, though, who visited me and my wife when we lived there, and I believe they may very well have some other photographs. I shall contact them to see what they might come up with. If they have any, I shall see that copies are sent to you.

Again, my dear Miss Jennifer, thank you. I am in your debt.

Sincerely,

Charles Lewis

Enrique Alferez and his wife Peggy would go on to buy that house, which is now owned by their daughter Tlaloc, a physician in New Orleans. Alferez was a master of outrageous tales, and just when you thought the tale he was telling was pure fantasy, there would be something that would connect, and by God, you’d learn he was telling the truth all along. He was a fascinating fellow, always generous with his time and opinions. The last time I saw Enrique in Morelia was in the very early 90s, and I visited him in his home in New Orleans around 1994.

The main rooms of the house were simple, entering at the kitchen, going to the living room and bedrooms, but as the house progressed around the corner, it became very rudimentary. Enrique used those rooms as his studio. The garden was overgrown and like a jungle. The entire place is being restored, the vigas cleaned up, everything else shored up.

Curiously, when I was looking for a place to buy almost three decades ago, I’d been told that the place was for sale, so I knocked on the door. It wasn’t for sale, but Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was just leaving. Peggy and Enrique Alferez invited us in, and that’s how I met them. Of course, I didn’t have the first clue back then about who any of these people were.

From: “C. Warren Lewis”

Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2008

I do remember the Shoemakers. They may very well have been the first American residents of Santa Maria. When I lived there, the only other Americans living up on the hill were the Halls. They lived in an old house near where you say you are living. I used to visit them from time to time — especially when the weather was cold — for they had built a corner fireplace. The only source of heat we had in our house was the chimenea in the kitchen — and that was used just for cooking.

Now, there were five habitable rooms in the house at the time. While living there I did repaint the walls and repair the vigas in the sala — the main room that opened onto the street — but I ended up never using it for anything but storage, for my wife would have nothing to do with a sala. She accused me of being “presumido.” “What are you going to with a sala?” she would ask me rather witheringly. Was I going to fill it with “confidentes” and entertain the grand ladies of Morelia? She was always of the opinion that if there was any entertaining to be done, it had to be done in the kitchen. My wife simply could not abide anything that smacked of being upper class — or even middle class, for that matter. And a sala was definitely upper class. She was of the peasant class and very proud of it. There was a lot of class discrimination in Mexico in the 50’s — and I suspect matters have not changed all that much in the intervening years.

Now, the Halls did not live up there for very long, for Mrs. Hall had inherited some money. She and her husband built a rustic house on the side of a hill located on the road up to Santa Maria. (On a steep curve.) There were also two or three Americans living in an apartment building — also on the same road — built by a Jaime Sandoval. And, of course there was a rustic hotel in the same general area — one built while I was there by a Mr. Cote. It may have been what is now Villa San Jose. Is that possible, I wonder?

Anyway, Sergio Torres would sometimes think about selling the house, but claimed its title was tied up among other family members who did not want to sell. I would have bought it in a minute, for I loved the place. And the only reason I moved out was because one of the rooms, a corner bedroom, started leaking badly — and Torres would not make repairs. One night while a visiting brother from Maine was sleeping in that room, a viga came crashing down. That is when we moved down to Felicitas del Rio.

It is interesting that you have heard that the dragon had originally been located on the plaza. I had never heard that story. Indeed, I had always been told that it was constructed along with the house. I did entertain the idea, though, that it may very well have served as a cistern for the house — that the water from the roof may have been shunted into it.

As regards the grounds, my wife and I always kept that looking very nice. We even had a vegetable garden — and a few animals (including a few Duroc Jersey sows). And the fruit trees! They were a sight to behold!

When I lived in Santa Maria, one never saw even a discarded tin can. Everything was used. People would come to my door to see if the “rich American” had any Nescafe bottles that he was thinking about discarding. Yeah, I was the rich American. I was living at the time on something like forty dollars a month.

Oh, incidentally, if Mr. Martinez and his sister Guadalupe still run the family pulqueria near where I lived, please give them my regards.

From: “C. Warren Lewis”

Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2008

[All that opens onto the street in your old house is the gate to the property. What had been windows at one time have been filled in with stone for ages. I don’t remember how large the property is, but it would sell for around $850K USD now, just as a terreno.] For that much? Wow! Before leaving Mexico to go to Puerto Rico to teach at the university — after having finally gotten a steady job and having settled down — I had actually purchased a house located on one of the side streets up there in Santa Maria. Well, it was not much of a house, but rather just a ruin. I finally ended up in graduate school and was in need of money, so I sold it. I am now beginning to wish I kept it.

The Halls were around for a few years, and they — other than the Shoemakers — were, I believe, the first Americans to have built a house in that area. It was located right on a sharp curb somewhere below the apartment building — and on the left hand side of the road going down to Morelia. I knew the Halls quite well. I am sure there are people in Santa Maria who may remember them. And if not, then someone around there must still remember their big-finned yellow Cadillac convertible. The children used to chase it down the street. Believe me, it was a sight to behold — especially since there was not much traffic up in Santa Maria at the time. About the only other motorized vehicle up there in those days was the bus that came up from town several times a day. [Ray Cote’s rustic hotel became the Villa Montana, http://villamontana.com.mx/, the swankest place in town. He sold it to Philippe de Reiset, a French count by way of Ecuador in the early 70’s. Cote moved to Cuernavaca and died a few years ago.] Cote was another American I knew quite well. As a matter of fact, I served as his “private secretary” for a while. At the time I got to know him, he was in the process of divorcing his wealthy wife — an owner of a swanky hotel in Little Rock — and needed someone to help him with his legal documents.

When I arrived in Morelia I rented an apartment on Isidro Huarte down near the Bosque in Morelia. I had been constructed by Sandoval. His wife ran the Instituto Cultural where I taught.

[What happened to your wife? Did she follow you back to the U.S.?] Oh yes. First to Puerto Rico where I taught for some five years. We finally settled down here in Southwest Virginia where I got a teaching position in the late 60’s at UVA Wise, a four year liberal arts college. By this time, we had adopted two of her orphaned nephews from Zacapu. Both grew and attended school here in Wise. My wife died some 15 years ago. One of the boys works as an architect here in Virginia, and the other works as a computer programmer for Boeing out in Mesa. As a matter of fact, the one in Mesa is forever asking me about Santa Maria. Although he was only four years old at the time of his first and only visit with us up in Santa Maria, he still remembers the dragon very well.

From: “C. Warren Lewis”

Date: Mon, 14 Jan 2008

[Geronimo Martinez is dead now, and so too probably is the pulqueria. His son Agustin Martinez is the Jefe de la Tenencia. I’ll pass on your regards to him.] The last time I saw Geronimo was some fifteen years ago. A very nice type. I had gone to Mexico with my wife’s ashes. On her death bed, I had promised to take her remains back to Mexico — and I kept my promise. They are currently in a church over in Celaya.

Although I cannot remember the name of Mr. Hall, I do now recall that Mrs. Hall’s name was Joyce. And if your friend grew up near Villa Montana, then she might also possibly remember a Mr. Bensel (a German) who had built a house near what was then an apartment building. There were also other foreigners living in Morelia whom I came to know quite well. A German, Mr. Brabender who ran a cantina down in town, and a Cornelius van Vliet a retired Dutch cellist — a good friend of Zalce the muralist. Courtly Mr. Van Vliet used to come to our house quite often and was adored by my wife. He didn’t mind being entertained in our kitchen — for my wife was a great cook — but he did not at all like our rather primitive toilet facilities. A very interesting character.

You mention a Padre Alfaro. Now that name rings familiar. He may have been the priest living up there in the fifties — but I thought he lived in a house on the main street. Anyway, he did not quite approve of my living with my wife-to-be, Amparo, before we had gotten married — and neither did many of my friends and acquaintances who lived downtown. The priest for reasons of morality, and the people in town for reasons of class. What did an educated young American see in an uneducated member of the servant class? The only one who really appreciated our relationship was van Vliet, and I guess that is what had endeared him to my wife. And after I did get married (a civil ceremony), many of the same upper class people who had broken bread in my kitchen up there in Santa Maria simply could not come to terms with the fact that I had married “such a woman.” One such individual — a Mr. Jorge Verdusco who owned a roofing factory down in Morelia — said to me, for example: “Now I would like to invite you and your wife to my house to meet my family, but you know I can’t.” Even the good padre suggested that when people came to my house it might be better for me to present my wife as “mi ama de casa” rather than as “mi esposa.” The class system was that rigid in those early days.

Do forgive me for rambling on. I am getting old — and old people do have a tendency to ramble.

[Now, what do you know about Gordon Bodenwein?] When I lived in Morelia there were stories about his having practically purchased a young boy from a poor family who lived down in Morelia. It was generally known that he was gay, but no one really seemed to care. There were quite a few gays in Morelia at the time — and they felt very comfortable about living there. I trust the gay community is even larger today.

From: “C. Warren Lewis”

Date: Fri, 18 Jan 2008

I had always toyed with the idea of writing a story about Santa Maria, but the closest I ever got to it was to write “A Part of the Great Design,” a play about the down-and-outers living in a vecindad down on Padre Lloreda. Santa Maria is like something out of Our Town or rural Arkansas Oh, I agree.

[Walter Hans Bensel Krause is buried in the Santa Maria cemetery. I came upon his tombstone one Day of the Dead, just looking around at neglected tombstones, and I wondered what his story was.] Is the Benzel house still standing? I seem to recall that it was up the hill a short distance from the apartment building. He was of about the same age as van Vliet. And as a matter of fact, I believe van Vliet had introduced me to him. Although Benzel spoke English quite well, whenever he had a chance he would speak German. He was also quite fluent in Spanish, but would sometimes lapse into German in the presence of van Vliet — and at times he would do the same with me. A rather reclusive, but friendly sort of guy.

[Born in Holland in 1889, Cornelius Van Vliet played with the Concertgebouw and was principal in Leipzig and Prague. He moved to the United States in 1911, and played with the Minneapolis Symphony. He was principal cello with the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburg Symphony. He formed the New York Trio, taught at the University of Colorado, and retired in 1953. He died in 1963.] Now, Cornelius was a person whom I got to know quite well. When I first arrived in Morelia I lived in an apartment on Isidro Huarte (down near the Bosque) — another apartment building built by Sandoval. Cornelius was living on the top floor. And that is where we both met Amparo. She worked as a maid for an elderly American couple living in the same building. She and van Vliet’s maid, a lovely old toothless crone by the name of Angelina Nieto, were very good friends. And both lived in vecindades on Padre Lloreda. Both van Vliet and Angelina were witnesses at my marriage ceremony — sort of like best man and best . . . well, whatever Angelina might have been. It was a civil marriage ceremony, and was held in my kitchen.

[Now, what I’m curious about is what brought all of these foreigners to Morelia in those days? Morelia wasn’t easy to access back then; even up until 1990, it wasn’t easy to access. It was a small town back then, nice enough but lacking the appeal of San Miguel de Allende and Taxco. What attracted you to Morelia?] Just an odd quirk of character, I guess. I am probably one of the very few Americans who, for example, ever visited Paris and went out of his way to avoid seeing the Eiffel Tower. I never had any desire to see things that one was supposed to see. I had lived in Europe for a couple of years, but I always went out of my way not to take in “the sights.” They held no interest for me. Morelia was, true, a bit off the beaten path, but I ended up living there quite by chance. No San Miguel de Allende or Taxco for me. I set my sights on — of all places — Patzcuaro. After a couple of weeks, though, I began finding the place a trifle gloomy, lonely, and depressing — so I went back to Morelia through which I had traveled on my way to Patzcuaro. I soon fell in love with it.

From Ferragamo to Flexi

It’s no secret that Red Shoes are Better than Bacon likes her shoes. Cool shoes always held a fascination for her. From Cinderella’s glass slippers to her mother’s yellow satin wedding shoes to the pair of shoes she’d select for that one school day each week when she would wear the non-corrective kind, shoes were magic. Red polka-dotted patent leather flats, shocking pink cowboy boots, black velvet rhinestone-trimmed Mary Janes, kitten heels, French heels, Spanish heels, Cuban heels, blue suede shoes.

She would take measure of another’s worth by shoes and teeth. The wrong shoes or malocclusion were deal-killers.

She would go on to water buffalo sandals, fringed Indian moccasins, Earth shoes, platform shoes, Jack Rogers sandals, high heeled boots, Charles Jourdan pumps, and Gucci loafers (a spare pair still unworn in the original box). One day in 1989, a cast on her leg and in search of Mephistos, she happened upon Frost Brothers’ going-out-of-business sale in San Antonio, spending an extra day en route to Mexico and stockpiling endless treasures which included multiple pairs of the most beautiful shoes in the world in lace-trimmed gold and silver, which still repose unworn.

Finally, she settled upon Ferragamo Vara (priced then at $145 USD) in practically every color and fabric ever manufactured and Mephistos, which she first learned about through J. Peterman, who sold them for $180. By 2013, the same Ferragamos which once sold for under $150 had skyrocketed to just under $500 USD, and Mephistos, once made in France, were now made in China and leaped over the $300 mark.

She had spent years snickering at the Mexican-made sensible shoes which looked like they were made for schoolchildren, old people and lesbians, not that there’s anything wrong with those people, mind you, but she was neither a schoolchild, nor old, nor a lesbian. And then one day, impelled by nothing more than curiosity and time on her hands, she dropped by a Flexi store. And life would change. Not the least of it was being able to find shoes to fit size 9.5 or 10 feet. These shoes were pure, natural leather, inside and out, well-made, light, and rubber-soled.

She bought a pair of what were marketed as School Shoes, simple round-toed, solid, good-quality black pumps. They were instantly as comfortable as old shoes, and she wore them all day long, almost forgetting to take them off before going to bed. And they cost less than $50 USD. She could never imagine that inexpensive shoes could feel so good. She would move on to sandalias pata de gallo (“Rooster feet sandals” sounds much better than thongs.) in three colors, plain and jeweled. She found a favorite pair of bronze ultra-lights that carried her through three continents. Fearful they might be discontinued, she stockpiled an extra pair.

 

58910_NEGRO_DER FlexiNR1 photo391

 

Now, there is a real problem with Flexis. They never wear out. Walk over cobblestones and adoquined streets, walk through puddles in the rain, drive in them, wear them to the market and to a fancy restaurant, subject them to abuse that would have Ferragamos crying for mercy, and they just kept on going. Flexis are the Everready Bunny and Timex of shoes.

Once a week at the mall in Morelia, she would walk past a Mexican version of Michigan Ave.’s Hanig’s Footwear, a store selling fine shoes from Spain: Pikolinos, Hispanitas, El Naturalista. And she would admire the glove-soft leather, gawk over the constant markdowns, almost always coming to the hard realization those shoes seldom came in sizes that would match their price. And she would walk to the next block of the mall, stopping in at the Flexi store just to see what was new.

She would marvel at quality of Flexis, even if most did come in a color palette designed by Henry Ford. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” But then there were suede moccasins in purple, bright pink, cobalt and red. There just weren’t a lot of styles in bright colors. This is a conservative shoe, after all. High quality at an affordable prices does have its limits.

Grupo Flexi is a genuine Mexican success story. In 1935, 18-year old Roberto Plasencia Gutiérrez started up a small workshop with very little money to make children’s shoes under the name “César,” changing the moniker along the way to “Duende.” In a decade’s time, production increased to 300 pairs of leather shoes a day, and by 1965, the company came to be known as Flexi. The nearly 300,000 pairs of Flexis produced each week in factories employing over 4,300 people in Leon, Dolores Hidalgo, San Luis de la Paz, and San Diego de la Union are not only sold in Mexico but exported to the United States, Canada, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Japan. And the company’s still headed up the founder’s own son, Roberto Plasencia Saldaña.

Flexi has 335 stores, and, if those are not enough, Flexis are sold online through its U.S. and Mexican sites.

Red Shoes are Better than Bacon bids farewell to Ferragamo and Mephisto for now. But she really, really wishes that Flexi would come up with red school shoes for her. Maybe she’ll just write the company president and ask.

 

FlexiNR1

My Colonia and Welcome to It

I live in the coolest neighborhood in all of Mexico. Unlike Condesa, it will never make the pages of Condé Nast Traveler. It will never call itself an art district like San Miguel de Allende’s Guadalupe.  It’s far more exclusive than Buenos Aires’ Palermo Viejo and San Telmo. It’s too cool for that.

Greenwich Village of the 1950s and Williamsburg (the one in Brooklyn, not the one that’s always prefaced by “Colonial” in Virginia) meet the Hill Country here. We’re the place everyone in Morelia loves. We’re the place where everyone would love to live.

One visitor likened the village to Montmartre, the city on a hill overlooking Paris and known for bohemians and fast and loose living back in the day. We are the hill with a view of the city, and our neighborhood was known in times of yore as the place where you could get things done that just couldn’t be as easily accomplished in the city.  The local priests were known for creative workarounds to problems that faced someone wanting to baptize a bastard child or solemnize a marriage prohibited by the Catholic Church. And one priest, a very well-liked one within the memory of those younger than you are, even openly maintained a woman with whom he’d sired a child. Squint real, real hard, and maybe, just maybe, you could imagine Montmartre.

Instead of Hasidic Jews and French dwarfs roaming the streets, we’ve got nuns in various habits.

I’d love for my neighborhood to be central Mexico’s Usaquen, but that’s not going to happen in my lifetime.

We roll up the sidewalks at night.  It’s a place where only the rats and rateros roam after dark.  And the velador blasting his whistle as he passes by after midnight.

It’s the kind of place where door-to-door vendors, selling garbanzos from a plastic bucket and pan de rancho, collide with the Testigos de Jehovah.  You can buy pulque on the plaza, along with pirated versions of the latest movies. It would not be unusual to encounter a crazy man wearing nothing but a shower curtain walking down a side street in the middle of the afternoon. Or Pepe, a dual diagnosis kind of guy, asking “Mil pesos for Pepe” and proclaiming that he’s going to Europe as he boards a bus for the Centro Historico.

Soon-to-be quinceaneras practice their choreographed dance with their chambelanes in the driveway under street lamps in the early evening. In the days preceding the fiesta patronal on August 15, some families will build small bonfires in braziers on the street, drinking ponche in the early evening. There’s practically not a block in the hood where someone isn’t selling pozole, tacos or tamales out of a living room. We had puertas cerradas, or closed-door restaurants, long before they become fashionable.

Subcomandante Marcos has spent a few nights in this neighborhood, bunking in some like-minded household.

Church bells mark the time of day. Heavy populated by the university crowd, there’s a PAN component, too.

The artists have been, and are still, here, but they’re the kind who ply their trade for a living instead of just doing the talk and painting en plein air. The late Don Shoemaker, and later his son George, brought steady employment to the hill making furniture. Shoemaker was the Spratling of Morelia, and his name remains revered. The late sculptor Enrique Alferez divided his time between here and New Orleans. Mizraim Cárdenas lives and creates in the neighborhood.

It’s got the second oldest church in all of Morelia, the one where none other than Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon was baptized. Why his mother schlepped him all the up here from downtown is beyond me.

It’s got stores, if you’re after groceries. No less than six kinds of olive oil lurk on the back shelves of Super Leyva, but you’ll have to ask for it. Carambola and grape tomatoes can be had at the fruterias, but the striped eggplant’s tucked away, available only upon request. That can make getting the makings for imam bayaldi not unlike a drug deal. You gotta know who to ask. Pan de leña (bread baked over a wood fire) and tortillas hecho a mano can be had every day of the week.

What you won’t find here is glitz. Coffee shops have opened and closed. More Nescafe is drunk here than Brazil Bourbon Santos. There are no boutiques, unless you’d want to count the small shops selling pure polyester, imported directly from Moroleon. Or plastic toys and cheap fake designer purses straight from China.  But that doesn’t really matter, because our denizens who have better wear old clothes at home and on the street. This isn’t the kind of place where you’ll impress anyone.

Politicians, bureaucrats, expats, and poor folk, and just plain folks like you and I inhabit this corner of the city where you’ll see a Mercedes sharing a one-way street with a donkey and a low-rider. More than a few Estadounidense friends visiting here for the first time wondered if we were down on our luck for landing here. We just consider ourselves damn privileged for getting to live in what was formerly known as Santa Maria de los Altos and  is now known as Santa Maria de Guido.

There is no place else like Santa Maria de Guido.

Why I Live in Morelia

A better choice for anyone who is trying to decide between San Miguel de Allende and Patzcuaro would be to consider Morelia. It has all that both these towns have – and more. And I’m going to tell you why.

Like me, it’s old shoe.

In Morelia, expats just are. There is critical mass, but they’re scattered throughout the city. Some are retirees, some teach and research, some work at home and on the outside, some spread the word of a Christian god, some are married to Mexicans, some are Mexicans by choice, and some are there only because a loved one found himself unwelcome in the Otro Lado.

The newly-landed go crazy taking photos of every fiesta, parade and barber’s gardener’s third cousin’s wedding, performing good and charitable works, and proclaiming themselves 90-day wonders. Those who’ve been here a while are content to shoot photos of their dogs, friends, and gardens. And food at restaurants, just because taking photos of food has replaced saying a blessing over the repast.

Physicians, Walmart workers, mechanics, and even bureaucrats speak English in this town, but they don’t make a point of bragging about it. They’re content to let a gringo make a muddled but honest effort to speak some Spanish before letting on that the conversation could continue in English. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses speak English in this town.

There once was a weekly gathering of English-speakers in Morelia, but as the numbers of English-speakers grew in this town, interest in the group dwindled to the point that a monthly meeting met their needs. But what do I know about that? After presiding over that group for two long years in the century last past, I never went back.  I figure I’ve paid my dues.

It’s easy to go days without seeing another gringo, and that’s just fine with the expats who live here. Even those whose Spanish won’t win them any awards.

There’s no AA group branding itself as bilingual, but one can be created at the drop of a need.

Morelia’s the kind of town where the Costco manager will introduce himself, and in English, to customers, asking them how they’re being treated. It’s the kind of place where parking lot attendants remember you. Get yourself admitted to Star Medica in an emergency, and even if you’re speaking enough Spanish, someone in the emergency room will come up and speak English.

This is the kind of town where you can run into people you haven’t seen in a decade, and pick up the conversation right where you left off.  There’s a steady, evenness to this town. Long before moving here, I asked Montgomery Budd, a long-time expat now long since expired, what the business of Morelia was. “Business is the business of Morelia” was his reply. Beyond being the home base for Cinepolis, an enterprise of the Organizacion Ramirez, which is the largest movie chain in Latin America and the fourth largest in the world, Morelia is government, education, and finance. It’s a clean city, a UNESCO World Heritage site, the planned communities of Tres Marias and Altozano, great shopping and greater golf courses, but it’s also a homey kind of place. It’s the kind of place where you can easily go to the same dentist since 1985, go to the same beauty salon for more than a decade and a half, and where you can run into someone who spent a year at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines.

Beyond learning a few words of a language that’s not your native tongue, be prepared to gain some cultural literacy. We have no English-language newspaper published in this town, and copies of news printed in English are limited and expensive. But that’s what the Internet’s for, isn’t it?

You’ll be hard-pressed to find menus written in English in this town. But really, how hard is it to learn how to read a menu in Spanish?

I think that foreigners should be required to take periodic tests on their knowledge of Mexican history and culture. Hell, for all I care, those questions could be grabbed from SRE’s citizenship exam, starting with really easy ones.

A year or so back, I am having breakfast with two expats in San Miguel de Allende. Both have advanced degrees, committed respectable work back in the Old Country, and one is going on and on about some festival or workshop celebrating poetry, ukuleles, and empowered women.  I bring up my exam idea, posing it as gently as I could when they asked what kind of questions might be asked.

For starters, can you name the state capital of the state in Mexico where you live? (Hint: it’s eponymous.)  Uh, San Miguel de Allende? No.

Can you name the current president of Mexico? Is it Cardenas-somebody? No, and it’s not Porfirio Diaz either.

A successful Estadounidense businesswoman comes by to boast about how special and magic the town is. “Everyone’s so bright and special here,” she tells me. She assures me that something bright and special and magic will happen the very minute these people cross the Rio Bravo, and even to those who might sally up from Morelia. I ask her if I’ll become bright and special were I to move to San Miguel de Allende. She promises me that I will. I laugh in her face. I don’t think she appreciated that.

Morelia’s expats prize continuity and substantial investment in their community over excited flurries of novelty. In more ways than one, we mirror the conservatism of the Mexican community. Foreigners who live in Morelia – or anywhere in Michoacán for that matter – aren’t special, don’t feel the magic, and heck, we’re not even feeling particularly entitled. We just are. And that’s what makes Morelia the perfect, Goldilocks kind of place for me.