Apr 15, 2017

Water Fountain Gossips, Altars, and Giant Master Provocateurs…

I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.
Knowledge is limited.
Imagination encircles the world.

Albert Einstein

The famous Parroquia de San Miguel
with balloon vendor in front
One of the most photographed sites in Mexico
In a somewhat ‘ill-timed’ trip to return home, we travelled during Semana Santa (Holy Week), ending up on the road at the same time as millions of Mexicans off for that week.  We knew enough to stay away from beach towns and highly touristic areas but the roads were congested and cheaper centrally located places to stay were hard, if not impossible to find. 

Strangely, for this one week, even Mexico’s most challenged areas are altered, conflicts nearly forgotten, enemies standing side by side, all yielding to a higher power.  Holy Week has a very powerful pull in this country.  We saw many fewer checkpoints and cops while driving during that period.  

Altar to the Virgin of Sorrows.  The first one we saw.
Upon our arrival, our host said it was a good time to see the altars to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Virgin Mary, otherwise called the ‘Lady or Virgin of Sorrows’ for all she suffered).  We had seen Day of the Dead altars over the years we have been in Mexico but hadn’t seen the Easter versions, normally hiding during this very busy week, avoiding anything touristic.  We were excited to see, and perhaps better understand, something new to us.

As often publicized, “People go to Florida to die but they come to San Miguel de Allende to live”. Ideal year-round climate, historic architecture with colorful Baroque-Neoclassical colonial structures, and semi-affordable amenities are some of San Miguel de Allende's treasures. 

We ended up in San Miguel de Allende (SMA for the locals) on the Friday beginning Semana Santa.  Our plan for that night had been to visit Xilitla’s Las Pozas (the wells) but there were no places to stay nearby – something to see on another adventure. 

Around Easter time, there are flowers everywhere. 
Flower crowns that many kids and women wore around town.
We agree with the climate portion of the above statement with the caveat that the air is not that clean.  Pollution from Veracruz, Guadalajara, and Mexico City seems to hang around creating hazy skies.   

SMA is overrun with tourists, making it unsuitable for us.  We like to learn about the true colors of a new place, not some tourist’s fantasy of what they think it should be, usually bringing along what they left behind right here to stay in their comfort zone, so why leave home in the first place?  The jewel that was SMA has been tarnished.   

SMA has become too expensive for locals who now live farther from the town’s center.  By Mexican’s standards, this is far from being a cheap place to live.  There are many gated communities ensuring that the haves and have-nots are separated.  Cringing at the idea… 

We managed to find a quiet, rightly priced hostel, local artisanal beer, organic food, and pet friendly places.  We did some people watching and talking with a few locals.  Not all was lost.

Old woman coming down from market with bundle on her head
One guitar, one couple, one leg, one wall
Vendor of colorful shawls clipping off errant threads.  Many women still wear shawls here.
Traditional meets more modern

Located in central Mexico, San Miguel de Allende was founded in 1542 by Father Juan de San Miguel, a Franciscan missionary who was born in Spain.  Many heroes of the independence movement were born in this town, including General Ignacio Allende, Father Miguel Hidalgo, José Mariano Jiménez, and Juan Aldama.  In 1826, Allende’s heroism was honored by adding Allende to the town’s name.   

Being in Mexico since 2011 has given us a sense of when tourism starts eroding the host community.  The culture and lifestyles of that host community start degrading.  People are forced out of their land/homes, ‘culture’ becomes the sale of tacky souvenirs, and kids are taught to beg for money along with their parents.  Sad state of affair that we saw in the streets of SMA.  There were a few strongholds thankfully with artists from Puebla and indigenous foods found in more remote sections of town.  I’m sure we would find more should we stay longer but nothing is pulling us to stay longer at this moment.

Water Fountains

San Miguel has had many names from San Miguel de los Chichimecas (‘barbarians’ or wild semi-nomadic indigenous who lived here) to the present San Miguel de Allende (the Revolutionary hometown hero, General Ignacio Allende).  Due to their constant presence, both in homes and on the streets, San Miguel could just have easily and aptly been named San Miguel de los Fuentes (Fountains).  More than forty-five fountains grace the streets and homes of SMA. 

Today many fountains are dry but they still have their history and charms.  They offered the water the town needed but also locations providing an opportunity to gossip.  Some of that gossip rippled into international consequences with the notion of gaining freedom from Spain.
Fountain surrounded by green vines indoor
Pink fountain, shell motif is common
Yellow urn fountain
Allende's fountain
The first fountain was approved by the Viceroy in 1613 (more than 400 years ago!) and featured a mermaid.  It was built by Ignacio Allende’s uncle.  Sadly, the fountain no longer exists but by 1750 fountains were in all public plazas and the water flowed to the gardens and orchards San Miguel was renowned for.  Often these fountains were found in Baroque niches.  

Fountains were also used to water the local mules after their long walks into town burdened with goods for sale.  One of the most recent fountains was built in 1932 in honor of the first Bishop of Leon from San Miguel.   


With water now accessible in most homes, and cars replacing mules, the importance of public fountains has faded.  Today there are 47 public fountains with 33 working.  It costs 500,000 pesos a year (approximately $27,000 USD) to maintain them with 60% of the cost going to graffiti removal and 40% for fountain care like replacing stolen pumps.

Altars to Nuestra Señora de los Dolores

Mexico is a land of many Virgins. Most visitors fail to recognize that each of these Virgins is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ as she is venerated in various events and times of her life, or in her many appearances during history.

Altars to Our Lady of Sorrows help participants share her pain and grief, and reminds them that she is considered the greatest of all Martyrs. She gladly experienced this lifetime of sorrow so believers could receive her Son's ultimate gift, the grace of redemption.

Another fountain turned altar.  Jacaranda blooms purple in the background.
How does this go? 

There were possibly just as many altars to see around the center of town as there are fountains.  At dusk, we couldn’t find them easily at first, then we figured out that we had to find lines of people, indicating altar viewers waiting for their offerings as part of this process.  Many were in some side alleyways, not on main roads, a little bit of ferreting was needed to guide us there. 

If you visit a home that has an altar for the Virgin of Dolores, you need to ask the traditional question, "Has the Virgin Mary cried here?" You will be served a glass of limonada con chia (lemonade with chia seeds) a drink to recall the virgin's bitter tears.  At some places, we have seen pastries or ice cream been served as well.  Various fruit juices, not only lemonades were offered, some even salted to represent the tears of Mary.  Some altars are at businesses or on the streets.

Whole street closed for creation of a large altar
Elements of the Altars of Compassion and Grief

  • White draping signifies the purity of Mary.
  • Purple, the color of mourning, and most commonly associated with Lent. 
  • Brown and topped with a cross, representing Calvary.
  • Green plants represent humility.  We mostly saw dill, lemon verbena, palms, ferns, and wheat grass.  Smelled very nice.
  • Yellow centers of the chamomile flowers remind us of the beauty of soul and body, while the white petals are another reference to Mary's purity.
  • The ladder-like structure of ferns and palms call to mind the ladder used to remove the body of Christ from the cross. 
  • Wheat seeds sown in small containers a week or two before, but the wheat is kept in the dark so that the sprouts will be the contrasting yellow color of ripening wheat, a symbol of Jesus as the "bread of life". That yellow is ephemeral, once the grass spends a day or so in the sun, it turns green again.
  • The bright green of new chia plants is a symbol of rebirth and new life. This tradition of sprouting grasses probably was the inspiration for the custom of filling baskets with “Easter grass” north of the border.
  • The light that accompanies Mary is present in the candles.
  • The colorful pitchers or glasses of agua frescas (fruit drinks) represent her tears.  We saw green, yellow, and red drinks offered around town.
  • Bitter oranges, often painted gold, represent the bitterness Mary felt when she saw her son on the cross.
  • The gold in which they are covered reminds us of the joy that Mary felt when her son was resurrected from the dead.
  • Colorful flags symbolize joy, the rebirth of the earth in the spring and the peace around the world that we pray for.
  • Ladders (often cut from white paper) represent the grief of Mary when the body was removed from the cross.
  • The cloak which was divided by the soldiers symbolizes the inhumanity and suffering.
  • The hands recall Pilate who washed his hands clean of the incident.

Side note: when we were in French Polynesia in 2014, we arrived around Easter time and every home/business was decorated with palms too.

Cross shape flags floating above streets
We arrived when altars were being set up and the town was slowly hanging Easter colored flags above the streets.  Late into the night we heard what sounded like Latin chanting.  It went on for hours and marked by the sound of bells at regular intervals.  Sunday morning, we heard the bells of many churches at 6am, so early (for Mexican standard) the roosters and dogs were surprised.   

We left as people were receiving their palms for Palm Sunday.  SMA, and Mexico in general, is quite religiously inclined.  SMA is now rapidly retreating in the rearview mirror, hot air balloons dotting the sky above it, another colorful sight as we say goodbye. 

“We are reminded that these rituals are a delicate dance/balance between awareness and painful denial about the survival of a culture that was violently outlawed and labeled as shameful and inferior.” Gaia Squarci 

Indigenous people made their own practices combining/merging/assimilating different beliefs or traditions (syncretism).  This allowed for an inclusive approach to other faiths without completely sacrificing their own.  We see many examples of this throughout Mexico.

Wedding Mojigangas and tequila carrying burro
Mojigangas walking near main square. 
Spontaneous photo ops with the puppets create joyful fun
Mojigangas, Master Provocateurs of Wonder 

The giant puppet figures known as Mojigangas exude sheer delight and joy, and are an essential part of the San Miguel de Allende fiestas. They can range from 2 to 6 meters.  But the hard work, rituals, and devotion behind the revelry must also be appreciated. To be a Mojiganga entails much more than dressing up and wiggling about in the street. 

The word "Mojiganga" carries with it the meaning of "burlesque"... these giants are farcical and expansive exaggerations of humanity. The artists also create portraiture and realistic style human puppets and animals in their body of work.

The Spaniards brought this tradition to Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The tradition took hold in some places and not others. San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca are two locations where the tradition rooted and evolved to a different, more locally interpreted folk art form.  

Mojigangas were brought to Mexico around 1600. During this early period, they were used to evoke joy during important religious pilgrimages. They also were fashioned as effigies of saints and kings, but figures were also satirically fashioned to ridicule public figures. Such was the fate of an unpopular count or prince, and were any ever popular among the common people? The tradition of the Mojiganga dances disseminated throughout Mexico and took on different manifestations according to the style of the local artisans and the materials available to them.

Circa 1928 in San Miguel de Allende, the names of the very maestros working in that era were made famous due to their ingenious ways of working with paper, paste, and "cariso" (a local bamboo-like reed). Their repertoire included the making of Mojiganga puppets, Judas figures, masks, firework castillos (castles), and the ephemeral globos (miniature hot air balloons of tissue paper sent aloft in the night with a candle urging its ascension).  

With a renewed appreciation of their artisan heritage, interest in Mojiganga making and dancing in barrio Valle del Maíz in San Miguel de Allende was revived. Soon, other families joined the movement and continue the traditions to this day, including the Arroyo family's children, Hermés and Carmela, who have participated in the dances since 1995. 

The making of the giant puppet is part firework "castillo" for the body frame, part piñata for the head, part papier mâché for the hands and other body parts, part sewing of costumes, and 100% creativity to give the Mojiganga a personality and features that will delight the masses. Realizing that figures can be quite tall, there is a great deal of time and work involved, and the dancing has yet to begin. 

For these interested in the Mojiganga as an art form, it is important to emphasize that the Mojiganga is not a random artistic expression, but rather belongs to the universal phenomenon of "The Giant", rooted in the human psyche throughout time and across cultures. This concept has numerous examples existing in legends and stories throughout recorded memory... the artists are acutely aware that the Giants they create are archetypes (in the Jungian sense), that exist in the human imagination and collective consciousness.  

Certainly, the biblical account of David and Goliath is one example, as is the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk and the Golem of Prague. The giant exists as a dichotomy: a larger than life Being who either protects or menaces us. Thus, the actual physical appearance of a Mojiganga (giant) is evocative of a range of underlying emotions... They are intended to be Master Provocateurs of Wonder... and to evoke a wide range of emotions. 

Source: Hermes Arroyo and Cindi Olsman, makers of Mojigangas in SMA and Philadelphia.

Details of pink ‘wedding cake’ church towers. 
These strange pinnacles were designed by indigenous stonemason
Zeferino Gutierrez in the late 19th century. 
He based his design on a postcard of a Belgian church and instructed builders
 by scratching plans in the sand with a stick. 
The rest of the church dates from the late 17th century.
Up and away...
She is so sure of herself...
Colorful intricately carved doors
Fresh flowers around doorway
Newly steamed garbanzo beans and roasted corn
Mexico - the country of old VW bugs
Small details at every corner

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