Nearing the end of my stay, I decided to get a much-needed pedicure. An acquaintance directed me to a salon she liked located in town but well off the tourist trail. I arrived, was warmly greeted and directed to a simple straight back chair. A dish-washing-sized plastic tub was placed on the floor in front of me full of warm water and a sudsy cleaner of some sort. I observed my very white feet soaking in the plastic container thinking what a far cry this was from the motorized chairs at home that can massage our backs if we wish. What was even more striking to me was the contrast of my white feet and the manicurist’s brown hands and arms. The contrast was so marked it set me to thinking of color. Color is something worthy of serious thought. Anglo Americans don’t think long or hard enough about it.
I rarely describe myself as white unless asked that question on some form. I have light brown hair mixed with gray, small almond shaped blue eyes and high cheekbones. I’m 5’5″ tall and fairly fit. I don’t usually think “I’m white.” However, that’s how Mexicans describe me. “You’re white,” they say, “not Anglo, white.” There are loads of whites living in this small town–they are almost entirely North American.
Mexicans’ skin tones vary from quite dark to very fair. I know that besides Cortes and his men, Spaniards have been coming to Mexico for hundreds of years. Some families left Spain in pretty large numbers during the Franco period. Like Pol Pot, the Falangists rounded up and executed professionals, artists, and gays. Federico Garcia Lorca (Bodas de Sangre) was executed by Franco’s men because he was gay, a poet and writer. Others left Spain fleeing the Guardia Civil, prison and execution. Some walked into France through the Pyrenees. Then they took a boat from Marseilles and began their lives over in Mexico City. For a long time these European immigrants held prominent positions in universities, medicine and the law. Over time native Mexicans have moved into the professional class too.
Sunday I went to one of my favorite cafes–Cafe Rama–a popular stop for brunch. Within a 180 degree radius of my table there were three tables of mid-thirties and younger well dressed and attractive men and women. I’d say the woman shop at the equivalent of Nordstrom or even Barney’s. The men were equally well turned out and groomed. Take a look.
The next day I visited Atotonilco considered the best example of Mexican Boroque architecture in the country. It is a World Heritage Site located a short drive outside of San Miguel de Allende on a site that for centuries was sacred to the native people. It was an alluring site due to the natural hot springs with their curative powers. The indigenous people named this place Atotonilco, “in hot water.” They made annual pilgrimages to Atotonilco to repent of their sins and to sit in the hot waters and to enjoy some free wheeling sex after repenting. Sounds like Big Sur in the 60’s to me.
Today five thousand penitents come weekly to Atotonilco for the same reasons–probably the sex is not a big part of the process–as they are now guided by Catholic theology which is just what happened to the indigenous people hundreds of years ago. In the 18th C. Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro supervised the building of the complex using the local artisans to do the work. No more sex after repenting. Father Alfaro lived at the site until his death in 1776. Additional buildings were added over the next 100 years.
The most remarkable aspect of this complex and why it is often called the “Sistine Chapel of Mexico” are the painted walls and ceilings which cover the sanctuary and adjacent chapels. This work was done by Antonio Martinez de Pocasangre and another painter Jose Maria Barajas over thirty years. The friars showed him plates of interiors of Belgian cathedrals as examples of what they wanted him to paint. There is scarcely any blank space. It is breathtaking. Pocasangre was an indigenous man. He was a very talented artist.
So here my convoluted essay on color concludes with the observation that brown people built Mexico–not white Europeans. Brown men and woman raised the food, made the bricks, painted the walls, decorated the churches, built the palaces, adopted a new religion, fought a revolution, elected an Indian to head their government and are devoted to a brown saint–the Virgen de Guadalupe.