With a group of 14 painters and Leigh Hyams, an extraordinary painter and teacher using watercolors and journals we brought with us, painted our way from one small town to another in Central Mexico during the month of June in 1999.
The trip began in San Miguel Allende, a brightly painted town in its own rite with a cathedral built by a man who had never actually seen a cathedral in person, and so relied upon pictures of European Cathedrals to design his. It had a bulbous and grotesque presence –like a carved marshmallow.
Nevertheless, its beautiful, particularly at night lit up as it overlooks the jardin, where the townspeople sit and visit for hours on benches under trees where large Mexican birds resembling blue jays that come to roost and squawk at night, against the mariachi band that begins playing somewhere in the late afternoon and quit near two in the morning. I had arrived the night of Corpus Christi, the Christian day that is dedicated to celebrating the body of Christ within the Eucharist. This day is also called Mule Day in Mexico because it was once the day when the Spanish collected taxes. If one was unable to pay, the goods that were made or harvested were packed on mules and delivered to the Spanish. On the morning of Corpus Christi children dress up and families bring boxes of fruit to church to share with their neighbors. Unfortunately I wouldn’t witness this ritual first hand because I arrived too late to see the festivities, but I understand there were parades that went on all day. At night for five nights there were fireworks that went well into the early morning. One night there was a storm that kept my roommate and I up talking until dawn and when there wasn’t storms or fireworks, there were dogs howling and men shoveling until morning. San Miguel was loud with sounds other than cars.
Having missed the Corpus Christi festivities, I began looking forward to a parade aptly named Dia del los Locos (Day of the Crazies), beginning with a mid-morning outdoor mass at the San Antonio Church for the feast day of San Anthony. Since St. Anthony is, among other things, the patron saint of those seeking a sweetheart, the celebrants were originally men and boys dressed up as women looking for mates. The women, whether feeling insulted or just left out, decided many years ago to join the fun – and the parade. There are floats, groups of dancers, and hundreds of those masked and in costumes. The parade winds its way through town toward the Jardin, music blaring, masks grinning, candy tossed through the air to the crowds. However, as I soon discovered, I would be leaving two days before this event to go to our second destination. I began to become a bit concerned. Would I be able to actually document a festival while in Mexico, or would our group be one step ahead or behind every event that took place?
A four hour journey from Allende, Patsquaro was quite different. We were housed in what felt like a dark fortress, a large hotel that had been a family’s home for seven generations. The rooms offered no color at all and all the lights were amber (you notice these things when you are on a painting retreat). In the early mornings there was a market where goods and food were sold and exchanged. Closer to the mountain areas, it rained a great deal in this town.
The next leg of the journey was Guanoatu, a perfectly charming town set within surrounding cliffs and only accessible driving through long tunnels that had been carved in the rock. We stayed in a bed and breakfast that’s decor was devoted to paper-mache Mexican objects of folklore, but the darker imagery – skeletons, monsters and devils. Outside was a large brightly colored tent from northern India. Within it housed a fantastic marionette collection. I asked for a mosquito net and made my way to that tent where I stayed for two days.
I had heard when we arrived that the Feast of St. Anthony, who is most known as the Patron Saint of lost things, celebrations were likely to occur in the town about a 15 minute drive from where we were staying. It was likely that parades and such would occur in the afternoon, so I used my morning to paint. At comida (lunch around 2 in the afternoon) a number of the women had come back from the town to report that indeed the parades had been in the morning and they were absolutely fantastic! Men dressed as paper-mache bulls chasing women, large costumed men on stilts, children dressed up, Indian dancers in the streets. How could I have missed another festival? As I sat there in total disbelief I realized the opportunity (one must always look for the opportunity) in this: St. Anthony was the Patron Saint of Lost Things – and here I was unable to find my way to a festival while in Mexico.
After lunch I went into town with my video camera and filmed the empty streets. It was siesta and practically everyone in the town was resting. I filmed the churches and the streets where the events took place, and I was fortunate enough to see a lone street sweeper sweeping up the paper confetti remnants of the parade earlier that morning. I sat in their Jardin and looked out upon the plaza, lemonade and listened to the ever present mariachi band. A couple of hours passed and people began to come back out. A crowd gathered behind a building and walked over to find out what was going on. A mime was performing in the streets, pulling people out of the audience to enact his plays. I watched him for a very long time until the a group of ten or so minstrels came out and serenaded the town by playing music, singing and walking through the streets. Men and women stood with small carts of ice-cream. Later that night fireworks went off and I concluded that the events we call festivals or holidays at home are happenstance in this town and in many towns in Mexico. Together with their families and friends in the square where performers entertain, fireworks are exploded and people by ice cream and other sweets from little stands, there is always some reason to celebrate.