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.


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,, 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.