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photo by Joy Morgenstern

Our neighborhood, Colonia San Antonio, is pretty working-class, and residences and businesses are all mixed together. (Actually, this mix is typical throughout the city; only some new, built-for-gringos neighborhoods follow the pattern of US suburbs, with tracts of housing uninterrupted by anything as useful as a grocery store.) Add to these factors a relaxed attitude toward time and a welcoming attitude toward children, and you get a walk home from school that is utterly fascinating to a three-year-old who loves to watch people making things.

Her favorite stop is a carpentry/cabinetmaking shop two blocks from school, where the whine of machinery tells us we’re getting close, and then the smell of pine tells us we’re there. Munchkin wants to know everything: What are they making? What is he doing? What are these curly things on the floor? The man who seems to be the chief carpenter always stops his saw when he sees her and squats down to talk to her, and to give her some of the wood shavings.

A few doors up from the wood shop is some kind of metalworking shop; we haven’t seen it open that often, but one time someone was welding inside, throwing exciting sparks, and we always hope to see it again.

If we take a different route home from school, we pass a mechanic who is just as willing as the cabinetmaker to stop and explain what he’s doing, and whose work is just as fascinating to the munchkin. She thinks it’s very cool that he can put cars together. I tell her maybe one day she’ll be able to do it herself, and she’s pleased by that idea. It will probably still be a useful skill in 20 years–or, if we dare to hope that private cars will be rarer than today, there will still be some kind of engines to repair.

On the street just by the San Antonio church, another mechanic shop seems to be right out in the street. It first caught our notice when there was a taxi out front in a sad state. We walked by it a few times, not realizing it was there to be repaired (I thought it looked like a car by the side of a New York City highway after the chop shop has gotten to it), and then one day a man was working on it and we realized that the whole street is the extension of a mechanic’s yard on the same block. Munchkin wanted to watch him work on the taxi, so we sat up on a wall next to the sidewalk for a long time and talked about what he was doing, which was soldering new parts onto the inside of the hood. He didn’t mind at all. The munchkin was very interested in all the things wrong with the taxi; I was impressed that with broken windows, no wheels, and a devastated front end, it was still going to be fixed up and put on the road again. It has long since left the mechanic street, so who knows, maybe we’ve ridden in it since.

We pass two tortillerias on the way home, one of which is right around the corner from our house. There are plenty of places where you can see women making tortillas by hand, or more often, gorditas (thick tortillas that are cooked, cut in half, and filled like a pita), but the tortilleria has a machine. If it’s running, we’ll stop and watch the tortillas come out of the machine onto a neat stack, just like the kids in a book the munchkin loves from the San Miguel Biblioteca, Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup – Caldo, Caldo, Caldo. I think it looks like a big improvement over making each one by hand, but still a really hot place to work on a June day. The lady at the counter always gives the munchkin a warm rolled-up tortilla, even though we’re no one’s dream customers, the way we buy tortillas by the paltry quarter-kilo.

Munchkin loves to watch people work. So do I. Usually I’m shy about it except in the few situations where the workers expect an audience, such as at a crafts fair where someone is throwing pots on the wheel, or a factory tour. When I was a little girl, a big attraction of going to Pepe’s Pizza was how I’d spend the time waiting for the pizza to come: I’d watch the guys in the big open kitchen ladling sauce onto the dough, slapping down the mozzarella like they were dealing cards, and then sliding the pizzas in and out of the brick oven on their enormous wooden spatulas. When I went back as an adult and stood there watching, the nearest cook kept looking up in a disgruntled way. I hope he isn’t like that with kids, just with adults. Maybe the people in our colonia wouldn’t be so comfortable with my standing there if I didn’t have a three-year-old holding my hand, but all I know is they always seem happy to see Munchkin and to take a moment to chat.

Most of the places we’ve lived, this kind of work takes place behind closed doors and we don’t get to see it in action. Walking through this colonia makes me feel a little like Shevek, in one of my favorite chapters in one of my favorite books, The Dispossessed, when he first comes to Abbenay, and walks through the courtyards where people are building, dyeing, and doing all the other work of a city: “nothing is hidden.”

(#3 of 20 things I’ll miss about San Miguel)

The munchkin often talks about “zooseums,” and I mistakenly thought that it was simply her word for “museum,” so early in our time in San Miguel I told her about a “zooseum” (gallery, actually) I’d been in that I thought she’d like. We all went there and she looked around at the colorful art and said, in a voice that was made somehow more heartbreaking by its simplicity and lack of drama, “I thought we were going to see animals.” My maternal guilt-meter went off the scale. I’d deprived my child of her beloved Coyote Point for six months, plus I’d misled her into thinking she was about to see otters! Joy and I both rushed to tell her that there’s a great zoo in Mexico City and we’d go there soon.

So Sunday we took the long-awaited trip to the zoo in Chapultepec Park. The munchkin did enjoy the zoo very much, but I think in the end the highlight of her day was not the polar bear or hippo or even the terrifyingly agile snakes she adored, but the Spider-Man (-Men, I should say) who hung out in a booth along one of the park pathways and shook her hand. Here they are, only asking 10 pesos each for the photo, with a lesson in the proper hand position for web-spinning thrown in for free.

I’m ambivalent about zoos, to put it mildly. No matter how nice the enclosures (and this one’s are very good), they’re still cages, and the only kind of zoo I could feel 100% happy about would be populated entirely by animals who couldn’t survive elsewhere. (In fact, most of Coyote Point’s animals, and all of their mammals, were found injured and would die if released to the wild.) But it is still amazing to see them so close. And the Chapultepec Park zoo costs . . . zero. Yep, absolutely nothing. Incredible.

The approach to the zoo had approximately ten zillion things for sale besides photo ops with Spider-Man. Shoes, junk food, a skyscraper of cotton candy . . .

(all three photos by my multitalented spouse, Joy Morgenstern)

Our other visit on Sunday was to El Museo de Arte Moderno. The munchkin (who had a hard time the whole week) was melting down at that point, so we didn’t get to spend much time in the exhibit that interested me most, on the creation of Mexican identity. That’s travel with kids for you, even one who has remarkable museum-staying power for a three-year-old. In fifteen years we’ll come here with her and she’ll want to spend more time in museums than we can stand, plus she’ll want to race us to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun. Actually, she did suggest going to the top, but I thought a few steps were enough.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Teotihuacán was Day 3, so I’ll write more about it tomorrow.

At home, before we eat, we all take hands and say “Thank you for the food.” The speaking of the words usually falls to the munchkin, who delights in adding variations: “Thank you to Mommy/Mama for this wonderful dinner,” “Thank you for the shrimp and the noodles and the carrots,” and the like. When we got to Mexico Joy and I proposed saying it in Spanish as well every time. Munchkin responded by adding a third language, one in which she is fluent, and after she’s informed us as to which one will be said by whom, the family meal now begins something like this.

Joy: Thank you for the food!
Me: ¡Gracias por la comida!
Munchkin: Meow!

In such ways do we make rituals our own.

Speaking of which, we went to a fabulous fiesta Friday night, where the image of Jesus “Señor de la conquista” is carried out of the Parroquia (parish church) amid fireworks, dancing, and drumming. The article in the local paper says the fiesta is held “porque el catolicismo conquistó a los indios,” but, while I’m not dismissing the real, frequently devastating impact of Catholicism on native religion, the overall impression I got from the festival is that los indios and their pre-Catholic religious practices are going strong.

People of all genders and ages danced and drummed. The munchkin declared this guy “scary” but loved the whole event. We thought she’d want to watch for a few minutes and then eat dinner; an hour later she was still mesmerized.

The good old Catholic church. “Fine, keep your feathers and your drums and your heathen dances, as long as you add Jesus into the mix.” (Mexican national pride is part of the mix too, as you can see from the dancers carrying the flag.) I’m betting this relaxed attitude toward syncretism is a more successful way to spread the word than uptightly insisting that indigenous people wear trousers and sing Wesley’s hymns–in short, imposing European cultural forms that are not inextricable from the religious concepts.

I make this assertion knowing almost nothing about missionary history. However, I think it’s a point to ponder for people concerned about church growth and diversity. What would Unitarian Universalism look like if we (meaning those who currently “own” it, a term I use ironically) relaxed a little more about the forms it takes on as it comes to different cultures (or subcultures) than the white, English-speaking, Calvinist-descended people among whom it largely originated? I don’t want us to conquer the natives, but I would like everyone who feels the call of Unitarian Universalism to be able to respond, and meet with a warm welcome instead of skeptical looks from those who are at home with the Protestant worship structure and European classical music that dominate today. It will look different in other hands. They will change it for themselves and, in some part, for everyone. If that means dancing like we saw Friday night, it sounds like a win-win to me.

I’ve barely posted about San Miguel de Allende. It seems to call for photos, and I don’t have many yet. Tomorrow morning I’ll take and post some of the house and colonia. First we have to get some decent batteries for the camera, since the ones we bought in the Tuesday market were crap. They’d probably been sitting there for five years. But for now, for a photos-free post, read on.

On our fourth day here, having taken a few rainy days to get acclimated, we set out on a finally-dry day to visit the preschool we’d heard about and the first of the rental houses on our list. The munchkin explored the school playground while we chatted with the director. Bingo. We liked everything we heard and saw and felt, and the format was just what we were hoping for: half days Monday through Friday, allowing us time for our own explorations but giving us more family time than we have when we’re both at our jobs; teachers who understand English so they’ll know what the munchkin is saying; a program that’s half in Spanish so she’ll learn it; kids from all over, some there to learn Spanish, others English. (Back home in the Bay Area, they call it dual immersion.) Having arranged for her to start school on Monday, we had lunch in the cafe across the street and then headed to our appointment to see the house on Calle Esperanza.

We were running late even by the relaxed standards of Mexico, so Joy went on ahead while I followed at the munchkin’s pace. She told me later that as soon as she walked inside, she told the owner that she loved the place and I would too. And when I joined them about ten minutes later, the first thing I did was signal to Joy that I loved it. So last Monday was an eventful day: Munchkin started at her new school and we moved into the house where we’ll be living until the end of July. Taking note of the streets between school and home, Joy said, “OK, this one is Tesoro. We don’t live on Treasure, we live on Hope.”

San Miguel has spiffier, newer, gringo houses; this one is not one of those . It’s a little funky, with lots of things that are just a little broken and almost everything a lot old. (There’s a huge, beautiful, wardrobe in our room with three mirrored doors and a sign on the center one, “Don’t open–it falls!” We’re not sure whether it’s the door that would fall, or the whole thing, and don’t dare to find out.) We’re waiting for the landlady’s brother to come put in light bulbs in the many fixtures that are missing them, and looking forward to being able to cook by overhead light instead of a floor lamp stolen from a bedroom.

Downstairs, an enormous brick fireplace joins the living room and dining room. Upstairs, twenty-five feet of windows fill our room with light. Brick arches, and in one place a brick cross vault, punctuate the stucco walls and ceiling. The house is decorated with years of amateur artists’ paintings and prints (some excellent), a full-length mirror carved with calla lilies, chandeliers made of thick multicolored glass, odd touches such as a wall of antique keys, tile details everywhere, and about twenty crosses, I kid you not. We need a plant for the hook on the stairway wall, and as it’s next to a cross, a crucifix, and a sacred heart, I’m thinking the Wandering Jew currently living on the roof would be appropriate.

A spiral staircase in the middle of our room goes up to the roof. I told the munchkin that in Spanish it’s called a caracol, a snail; she loves snails. She now calls it the snailcase. The huge rooftop has places to sit and a fabulous view of the city. It has a wall all around, but the munchkin still isn’t allowed up there alone, of course. The shared courtyard at ground level–a jungle of plants–is completely shut in and often houses a sweet old Golden Retriever named Zumm, and there she can play with minimal supervision. On her first couple of days here, she seemed to have developed a fear of dogs we’d never seen in her before. There are a lot of wandering dogs in San Miguel, and while I’m glad she doesn’t run up to every strange dog and pet it, I don’t want her to cry and try to climb up our legs every time she sees one, either. She was very scared of Zumm when she first saw him, and who can blame her? He’s taller than she is and about four times her weight. But she bravely made friends on Monday when we moved in, and now asks all the time if she can go outside and pet Zumm.

Tomorrow I’m moving a table into the second bedroom and making it my studio. Room to work, a bathtub the size of Lake Michigan, lots of light, a view of a beautiful city, funky touches everywhere–and all for less than one quarter of our rent at home. We’ve landed in a good place.

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