El Pipila and the MEGA store, revolution and commerce, welcome visitors to San Miguel de Allende, México. El Pipila - born Juan Jose de Los Reyes Martinez Amaro on January 3, 1782 - broke down the door to the Spaniards' cache of weapons in Guanajuato in 1810, winning a role as hero and helping to start the Mexican Revolution. The MEGA sells everything from LCD TVs to Veuve Clicquot champagne, from Del Fuerto tomato sauce to Catarino's frijoles and DVDs of Hollywood movies re-christened for Mexican viewers. It might be a stretch to say that El Pipila broke down the door so his descendants could be free to watch Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis in Una Navidad de Locos, rather than being colonially repressed into trying to figure out Pedro Almodóvar's Volver, but it might not.
With a stone slab on his back, El Pipila shielded himself from the Spaniard's bullets. Now he looks like he's carrying a stone flag for the floor of one of the many haciendas under renovation in this piece of central Mexico that's being choked by expatriation. He helped win Mexico for the Mexicans, but the MEGA seems to have won San Miguel for its current population of North American settlers.
El Pipila's statue stands in the middle of a roundabout where the roads from Guanajuato, San Miguel, Dolores Hidalgo and Queretaro meet, a half hour's dusty walk beyond the edges of the colonial streets and alleys, churches and squares that fill the postcards of central San Miguel. The walk out the Ancha De San Antonio takes you past tiendas, mini marts, hotels, cafes and auto repair stores. You pass Domino's Pizza and the Tostitlan, a local chain, bus stops and carts loaded with flautas, carnitas, tacos and orange sodas. You see stores for home furnishings sold by the pickup truck-load: ceramic sinks and tiles, brass chandeliers, paint, flag stones like the one El Pipila's been sentenced to carry forever. A truck carries glass from the Vidriederia La Divina Providencia, the window store of the divine providence.
The MEGA's letters are big and faux bronze, the same fat sans-serif font and gargantuan size as those on the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. An obese bronze pelican is its logo. A fenced metal walkway crosses above the road to this heaven of consumption, where the cheapest wine, at $52.50 (pesos - about five dollars), is the Mexican produced Sangre de Cristo, blood of Christ. A bottle of Veuve Clicquot will set you back $645, or $60 U.S. The walkway seems unnecessary. The traffic is heavy and erratic, but almost everyone dodges through it instead of climbing the stairs to take the safe way over the road. Its main purpose seems to be to display a banner ad for a new condominium development, Condos Arcangeles. I'm assuming it's an exclusive address, archangels being the superheroes among all the host of heaven. I imagine units named for Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Uriel sometimes makes the cut, but he's usually thought of as a bit of a poser, so perhaps he only rates a one-bedroom.
A girl hands me a mapa de la tienda when I enter the MEGA, which to me seems like a cross between Wal-Mart and Whole Foods. I wander around a while, repeatedly confronted by the jester face of "Julio Regalado." Julio plays the role of "El Maravilloso Reino de las Ofertas" - "The Marvelous Kingdom of Fabulous Prices." His crazy grin shows up everywhere in the store. He holds a sword, wears gloves and a cape, and stands in front of a medieval-looking castle like some middle-aged Harry Potter who's been swigging the Veuve Clicquot.
Outside, there's no walkway to get to the center of the roundabout where El Pipila stands. You have to dodge a swarming stream of traffic merging aggressively into and away from San Miguel to get over to the base, close enough to read the plaque telling his story. He's shirtless, barefoot, wearing calf-length pants, and his stone is strapped to his back with leather straps that cut under his shoulders. Unlike Julio Regalado, El Pipila does not smile as he serves his country.
The man at the next table smokes cigarettes, drinks coffee and has one cell-phone conversation after another for lunch, while his two sons eat beans, rice and eggs and push each other off their chairs. With love. The man asks me for one of the chairs I'm not using when they arrive, and the sugar bowl a little later. He doesn't say thank you. He seems like the kind of guy used to telling people what he wants and getting it. In this he reminds me a little of my late father in law from Panamá. There's neither rudeness nor warmth in the mode of address.
I am in an almost-restaurant on the Ancha de San Antonio, the main road out of San Miguel de Allende towards Guanajuato. It's five tables under an awning. The kitchen takes up the whole building, maybe 10 feet by 12. No one seems to have thought to give the place a name, to know the power that comes with the act of naming. I look for one on the menu, on the wall, but there's nothing.
But it's a good choice for lunch. It's cheap, the food's decent, and I'm hungry. Next door looks a little more precious, but that's only the effect of some bamboo and table cloths. Otherwise it's exactly the same setup, with an adjoining wall and identical brick archway leading to its almost identical kitchen.
While I'm eating lunch the kid who served me, a healthy big boy of about 15, gets out a can of yellow caution paint and a brush and re-lines the concrete edge between his restaurant - the cook is clearly his mother, the man prepping in the kitchen just as clearly his father - and the posh cafe next door. It's hard to tell if he's doing this for the safety of customers who might trip, or to mark off his family's possession of its tiny square of Mexico. Maybe both.
I almost ate at "La Cochinita Pibil," a few folding chair at tables in a dirty, rocky driveway, but the sign of a smiling pig on the body of a 1950s pinup was a little off.
This time I'm not on a trip to the MEGA or to get another look at El Pipila. I'm on the dusty road heading out of town on a quest for a sign that says "SE VENDE/FOR SALE," not because I have a building to sell, but because I want to name a chapbook of poems-in-progress this bilingual phrase you see everywhere in San Miguel. It seems as if half the buildings in town are "se vende." What has been happening to every U.S. area worth living in for a while now is happening even more aggressively here in Central Mexico. Those who can afford to are taking over the cities, reversing the trend of wealth out towards the suburbs to some extent.
I am in between. The man and his kids at the table next to me are not my people, obviously. He has the look and conversation of a contractor, probably making a fair living fixing up houses for expatriate Americans and wealthy Mexicans. It's hard to imagine him spending much time worrying over demographic shifts. In this way he also reminds me of my late father in law, a man who left a poor country to make a living for his family in a rich one. He had little time or patience for sentimentalizing the loss of atmosphere in his own country when he traveled back years after emigrating. Change happens, the world moves on, families need to be fed. Aesthetic sentimentalities, the desire for a fading authenticity - these make no sense to the kind of guy I imagine I'm sitting next to.
I'm just an observer here. Still, I know a building and selling boom when I see it. In Austin, Texas, where I live, it shows in the cranes pulling up giant post-modern condominiums out of vacant lots all over downtown. Here it shows up in the fact that you can't walk a block without seeing "SE VENDE/FOR SALE" signs, sometimes three or four on the same wall.
As I say, I don't have the experience, I haven't put in the time, and don't have the Spanish it would take to analyze the economic and demographic shifts, to figure out who's winning. Maybe everyone is. They always tell us that's what capitalism's about, right?
So I watch the cook place tamales on the sheet of hot metal that serves as the cooking surface for everything at the no-name café on the Ancha de San Antonio. She faces the street, looking out on the traffic and her clients. Her son paints his yellow line. She drops meat into hot oil in a basin sunk into one side of this all-purpose cooking surface, turns tortillas, and gets a plate of flautas ready for a woman who has come in while I've been drinking the rest of my orange soda.
"Tu vas a cuesta dificil," says the man across the counter of the eighteenth hardware store I've visited in a three and a half hour back-and-forth trek. My feet are tired, my shoes dusty. He looks sad, wise, troubled with the wisdom of ages, races, history itself. I have pounded the pavement and the dirt-packed cobblestones of San Miguel, going from hardware store to hardware store - ferreterias - looking for signs that say "SE VENDE/FOR SALE."
Every block has buildings for sale, every street in the center of town has real estate offices, and the Americans are moving in. I am not one of the ones looking to retire here or find a cheap second mansion. I'm a student in a one-month writing workshop, here to read a little and write some poetry, not to soak up the beauty and revel in the inexpensive life an American can enjoy in this painfully picturesque town. Our teacher wants a bound book made of found materials. She's a wonderful hippie, so of course she would prefer for us to go through the garbage rather than to buy anything. I'm not going through garbage, here or anywhere else, but I thought I would do the next best thing and steal signs for my project's cover. One "SE VENDE/FOR SALE" per book. In my eyes, quite literally, this ubiquitous bilingual phrase has come to signify San Miguel. But the signs are up high, riveted to stone walls, and after a couple of days of looking, I've given up on the "found" nature of these materials. I don't want to end up in a Mexican jail. But these are the signs I want, and I have to get some.
On Calle Hidalgo, a street running downhill from the center of town where the Jardin and cathedral sit, I found one, but it was too big and expensive. I am learning, though, and this fact, this experience of going to everyday places and talking to people with no interest in showing off their town to me, is an unexpected gift. I ask for a "signo" and am met with a puzzled stare. I babble until the man knows what I want. They have it, but I cannot pay 70 pesos, or seven dollars, for symbolism and arts and crafts, especially since I'll need a dozen of the things.
So my quest begins. I walk down Hidalgo, out by a dried river where half the stores are dedicated to building supplies, construction, home improvement. They are still the small, independently owned stores that would make an American politician rapturous. But the signs, I learn, are not to be found. They are nail-gunned to every brick and stone wall, stuck in windows, behind wrought iron bars in the colonial buildings all over town, but they are not for sale in any of the ferreterias after the first one.
Javier now lives in São Paolo, formerly lived in New York, and is making his way as a painter, but is back for a visit to San Miguel where he grew up. I ask him how it feels being back home. He was born a block from the Jardin. It is a little past two in the morning in Mama Mia, a huge colonial building, a mansion originally built for one of the early capitalists who got rich off the silver and gold mines in Dolores Hidalgo about 25 miles away. Now it's converted into a maze of bars and clubs that fills up every night with locals and tourists. The salsa band is almost done for the night, and the rock en español has yet to begin. I have been complaining a little about the lack of trombones in Willie Colon cover songs. I don't know Mexico, but I know salsa. Still, the band's pretty good, and the people at my table all guess the lead singer is Cuban by his speech patterns and body language. Cubans and salsa are like Mexicans and mariachi, so this is a good thing for all involved.
Ten years ago, Javier says, Mama Mia was "more bohemian, more hippie." I can see nostalgia in Javier's big expressive face. For a second I see the descendant of a conquistador, but he's an all-American boy now. "Now is good, too," he says, quickly. "But it was wild then."
Javier is friends with Alberto, a friendly guy who's been teaching our group how to salsa dance. At the next table is Ricardo, the manager of the hostel where some of the students in our program live. He behaves very humanly towards me, but has earned the nickname "Man Whore" for his attentions to about a dozen of the women. The singer who might be Cuban calls out to our group - there are so many of us and we're here so often, the band knows when we're here.
I see these people and many like them - our tour guides, the waitress at the café where I use the free wifi and eat pasta when I need a break from Mexican food, the maids at El Mansion del Bosque, a hotel our group has largely commandeered for the month - all over this small city. They seem happy to have us here, to mix with us, eager to socialize as well as to work for us and profit from us.
But you can't learn a complex of colonialism, independence, gentrification, commerce, and history in a month. Maybe not in a lifetime. One of our group members compared El Mansion del Bosque to an M.C. Escher sketch. Its stairways go in all different directions, some seemingly to nowhere. It is outdoors and indoors at once, up and down, no two rooms alike, built by a group of workers who clearly disdained right angles. Mama Mia is another living Escher print, as is the Casa de la Cuesta, a bed-and-breakfast, art gallery and indigenous mask gallery that overwhelms with its richness and beauty. It looks as old as Mexico itself. We find it was built just nine years ago by an American expatriate couple. It's entirely in the Mexican style, built by Mexican workers, clearly artists at what they do, but owned by Americans, run for tourists who can pay $165 per night in a city where I'm paying about $40.
These are just a few of the contradictions of San Miguel and its growth. At times you want to believe the rising tide's doing its democratic best, but then you see buildings crumbling right next to multi-million dollar mansions, and it's obvious that people are living among the ruins. The discordance clearly stems from more than a lack of zoning laws.
I finally find the sign I've been looking for, "EL VENDE/FOR SALE," in Office Depot, in a new complex west of town that astonishes me with its bleached bone whiteness. The buildings are white, the signs are white, vaguely outlined in gray. They have an Office Depot, a GNC, a movie complex, everything our greedy 21st-century could want. But I do not buy it. It is not that I am any better than the expatriates, that I am making a moral decision. The signs are more expensive than I want and I'm on a budget. But more importantly, there was some romance in the quest that cannot be satisfied by making a purchase at Office Depot. I have learned the difference between "signos" - signs in the metaphorical sense, which in this part of Mexico means the religious sense - and "anuncios," or, announcements. Finally, I realize I have been looking for "placas," literally plaques, but more correctly, what we mean in the U.S. when we say "signs" in our most secular sense. Words to display. The conquistadors were looking for signs. So were the conquered. They thought Cortez was the fulfillment of a prophecy.
The time is too short for figuring out the economic relationship between American expatriates and the Mexicans I've been visiting across dance floors and hardware store counters. I know it's problematic, that some are getting more out of it than others, but when one goes out looking for signs it's always possible something - or someone - will get lost in translation.