When we first arrived in San Miguel de Allende I was disappointed in how the city looked. The photos I had seen hadn’t captured the degree of disrepair. I expected old, but in the colonia where we live and other neighborhoods away from the touristic historic district, there was none of the grandeur of the ancient cities of Europe. Everything here spelled poverty to me, even though I knew from prior reading that behind the crumbling walls lay magnificent courtyards and charming rooms. Turns out, my first impression was light years away from how I see the city now. San Miguel de Allende feels humble, but warm and vibrant and welcoming, flowers, murals, carved doors are creative expressions of a vibrance and freedom that I have never seen before, and I feel more alive here, healthier, more relaxed and happier because of it.
Yesterday Jack and I joined his tutor Maria Elena for a tour of a hacienda owned by her extended family. That’s all we knew about the trip, other than the fact that a few other students would be with us. She said we could ride with Jack, another gringo, in his car to the hacienda, about an hour away from San Miguel. Turns out, there were 10 of us, 4 Mexicans and 6 Gringos, plus 3 dogs who caravaned in 3 cars to San Juan de Pan Arriba, which is the name of the hacienda and small village outside its entrance. To me, a hacienda implies wealth and privilege. I wasn’t prepared for the decrepit condition of the hacienda we went to visit. The story unfolded in time.
We entered the property through the wide gateway at the front. Abandoned one story concerete structures with black streaks on arched walls enclosed a central courtyard with an empty fountain dominating the middle. Red flowers did their best to give the ancient crumbling hacienda an air of beauty, like an aged queen long past keeping up appearances who someone had dressed for the occasion. Our group wandered aimlessly around the structures for a bit until one of the Mexicans with us, who had been introduced as Miguel, a tall prosperous looking guy in his 40’s, stepped forward with his two gorgeous brown Vizslaw hunting dogs playing at his side.
“Come this way,” he said in Spanish. “We will start in the room where they made mezcal, the finest label in Mexico.” The room had a large wood vat with the name of the hacienda branded on its side. I needed more information about the place and why Miguel was the one giving us this tour. He showed us the kitchen where 12 or 13 people cooked meals every day for the family who lived at the hacienda. We saw the room where the torreodors who fought the famous bulls who were raised on the property came to drink mezcal and celebrate their victories. A matador from Spain killed the most famous bull from Mexico, who was raised on this property. The gigantic proud head of the Animal hangs on the wall of the taverna.
Turns out, Miguel is Maria Elena’s distant cousin. It was his great grandfather who came from Spain a generation before the Mexican revolution, and his grandfather who bought this property and built the hacienda and the fabulously wealthy businesses that resulted. Miguel showed us the living room with once elegant but now rotting furniture, and a massive dining room. In the entryway a chain hangs from the beams of the ceiling where, during the revolution, a man was hung, with a note attached to his body intended for his grandfather read,“You will be next.”
Miguel spent his childhood sharing weekends and fiestas with his extended family at this hacienda when it was alive and well. His grandfather died 20 years ago. He had by then divided the land among Miguel and his cousins, to do with as they wished. But the house itself and buildings have been trapped in a family squabble ever since over their rightful ownership, which is the reason why the buildings stand forlorn and atrophying from neglect. I cautiosly asked Miguel how it feels to him to visit. “Wonderful,” he said.“This is my home.” He sees what I could only imagine of a life once lived.