Columnist Marianne Bohr in her World of Words
Cinco de Mayo is fast approaching, a holiday that is virtually ignored in Mexico but, for some reason, has evolved into a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in the United States. Here, Marianne Bohr tells a rather different story of heading to Mexico to celebrate her Mexican heritage in situ—an adventure that of course involves immersing herself in a world of (Mexican Spanish) words. —ML Awanohara
Me llamo Mariana Cañedo. My name is Mariana Cañedo.
“Did you know that Mayan Indians have crooked fingers?” my grandmother asks as she rubs my oddly shaped adolescent pinky. “It’s true,” she says as I wince and look at her quizzically.
“Your grandfather was born in Mexico, so you never know. You could be an Indian princess.” She gives a quick laugh that ends in her characteristic snort.
My Midwestern grandmother has a penchant for coming up with all sorts of interesting, random tidbits of information.
“Don’t cha know,” she says, “one day you’ll go to Mexico and find out for yourself.”
* * *
Going to San Miguel de Allende is a calling. The city has been tucked away in a cobblestoned corner of my imagination for 25 years. Mary Morris’s courageous chronicle Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone put it there. Her soul-baring tale of living in San Miguel, 6,400 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 week-long writer’s conference.
Mary Morris’s soul-bearing tale of living in San Miguel captured Marianne’s heart at an early age.
The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color: greens and golds; mango, mustard, and lemon; and of course, every shade of red imaginable—burgundy, cayenne, paprika and raspberry. Ceramic pots filled 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 140,000 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 tribes.
“The place is everything I’d pictured, painted in vivid, brilliant color…” (Photos supplied.)
At home with her two tribes
One tribe is the writers I commune with during the day—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 find my other tribe, the people who look like my father and my 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 in those of the flower vendors and musicians on the square in front of the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel. The features set in their silky 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 ancestors, those in the sepia picture of my grandfather’s 1906 First Communion, his mother and his sister beside him, multiple aunts and cousins in the background.
Yes, indeed, I feel at home here.
The faces of people in San Miguel remind Marianne of the photos of her ancestors. Photo credit: San Miguel de Allende, by Christopher Michael via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
What if my Mexican grandfather…?
I stop for breakfast one morning on San Miguel’s central square. 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 waiter could be my brother with his sturdy Cañedo 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 I speak only 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 arms. My long, dirty blond hair, while still long and straight, would be lustrous and dark, just like hers. Mi hermana mexicana. My Mexican sister.
My new friend clears my empty plate and asks 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 comfortable spot where it’s so easy to 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 bag over my shoulder. Will I see you tomorrow?
“¡Claro que sí, señor, hasta mañana!” Of course you’ll see me tomorrow!
I step from behind my table, my crooked pinkie waving goodbye in the sunshine.
* * *
Marianne, I understand that San Miguel has thousands of Canadian and American expatriate residents as well as an untold number of snowbirds in the winter months, many of whom simply use English, which is widely spoken in the city. I love it that you went to that part of the world for creative purposes and to explore your roots. And of course you spoke in Spanish! (I’d expect nothing less…) —ML Awanohara
Readers, have you ever had the experience of recognizing the faces of your ancestors in a foreign country? Do tell in the comments!
Marianne C. Bohr is a writer whose book, Gap Year Girl: A Baby Boomer Adventure Across 21 Countries, was published in September 2015 with She Writes Press. She married her high school sweetheart and travel partner, and with their two grown children, follows her own advice and travels at every opportunity. The couple has taken early retirement in Park City, Utah, where Marianne is now working on Book #2. She has an author site where she keeps a blog, and is active on Facebook and Twitter.
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Photo credits: Top of page: Marianne Bohr (supplied); world map via Pixabay. All other images via Pixabay except the one of red tape: Tied up in red tape, by James Petts via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).