“Did you know that Maya Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asked as she massaged my oddly shaped adolescent pinky, its knuckle forever sore. “It’s true,” she said as I winced, shook my head, and tilted my head to look up at her to hear more.
“Your grandfather was Mexican, so you never know. You could be an Indian royalty. A princess maybe.” She gave a quick laugh that ended in her characteristic snort. My North Dakotan grandmother had a penchant for coming up with all sorts of random, yet interesting, bits of information. “Doncha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”
And so, going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for twenty-five years, ever since it made its way in when I read Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle, Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, sixty-four hundred feet high in the Sierra Madre of central Mexico, captured my heart and gave me even more courage than I already had to travel alone. And now, I’m finally here, lucky girl that I am, on my own for a weeklong writers’ conference.
The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable–burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled with white, purple, and blue blossoms set off the pueblo colors. Brimming with boisterous gardens and with a temperate, year-round climate of brisk mornings, warm afternoons, and cool evenings, San Miguel is eternally spring. With more than one hundred and forty thousand residents, it can certainly be labeled a city, but deeper down, at its heart, it’s a delightful, lively, village.
There are many places in the world others consider lovely but leave me feeling cold. San Miguel, on the other hand, embraced me the moment I arrived. I feel I belong here, with these people of my writing and ancestral tribes.
During the day, I commune with authors of every ilk–novelists, poets, essayists, playwrights, memoirists, and screenwriters. And when I escape into the long shadows and crystalline light of the late afternoon to wander narrow lanes between high, painted stucco walls and monumental wooden doorways, I’m at home among the locals. They look like my father and my born-in-Mexico grandfather before him. The men are short and the women shorter. Just like my Dad and just like me. I recognize my siblings’ body types–stocky and plump, the women curvy and the men with barrel chests and substantial legs–in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia church. The features set in their smooth brown complexions–heavy-lidded eyes and full lips–are the very same features that look back at me and my easily tanned white skin in the mirror. These people are my forebears, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion in Guadalajara, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background.
Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.
I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central plaza, el jardín. I choose a table in the shade, the breeze already warm. My mouth waters as a beautifully arranged platter of fresh fruit is set in front of me–mango, melon, banana, pineapple, and papaya, with a dollop of yogurt and a sprinkling of granola. The burst of colors is like a bed of flowers that blends together seamlessly with the tiled table on which the tray sits. The waiter, Pablo, could be my brother with his muscular calves and sturdy silhouette. My years of Spanish classes serve me well as he and I chat, even though I admit: “Comprendo mucho, pero hablo solamente un poquito.” I understand a lot but can only speak a little.
Fruit juice drips from my chin and my thoughts drift to a what-if of my family tree. What if my Mexican grandfather and my American father after him, hadn’t both married Irish women, Mae Duffy and Mary Darby? I would likely look just like her, this woman who passes by in a hot pink dress and turquoise apron–traditional dress worn to help sell the handmade dolls and woven flowers spilling from baskets looped over her strong arms. My dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana.
And then I’m off musing about a conversation I had with my mother when I was a little girl. She and my father were set on naming me Maria but in the end decided that Maria Cañedo would sound too Mexican. So they called me Marianne, a nice, European, non-Latina name. And that gets me remembering classmates in high school who made fun of my father, calling him “a little wetback.”
Their teasing seemed harmless, but would it have morphed into malice, their words dark and hurtful, if my hair were long and black and my skin not white but brown? Were I a teenager today living amid the hateful, demonizing rhetoric against Mexicans, would I have heard snickers or worse behind my back? If my first language were Spanish, especially if I spoke English with an accent, how far would the teasing have gone? Would I have opened my brown paper lunch bag to find rice and black beans instead of a bologna and cheese sandwich? And what kind of mocking might that have motivated? But of all these meditations, the questions I can’t shake, those that give me the longest pause are: would a white boy like my husband have dated me if my skin had been several shades darker? And would he have decided to marry me if we celebrated Día de Los Muertos–Day of the Dead–and spoke Spanish at home? I’d certainly like to think so, but my meditation ends abruptly with a quick “señora,” from Pablo. I’m back on el jardín, my new friend clearing my empty plate and asking if I’d like more coffee.
“No, gracias,” I answer and smile. It’s time to get back to my other tribe–my writing tribe–but I’m reluctant to leave this cool, comfortable spot where it’s so easy to contemplate what ifs and watch the world of San Miguel pass by. I pay la cuenta and leave a tip worthy of family.
“Hasta mañana?” he asks as I swing my backpack over my shoulder.
“¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” Of course, I’ll see you tomorrow. I step from behind the table, my crooked pinkie pointing proudly to fast-moving clouds crossing the sapphire sky, and wave adiós in the sunshine.