I read the ultra cool People's Guide to Mexico and decided to spend the summer after my freshman year in San Miguel de Allende. I enrolled in classes at the Instituto Allende. I flew into Mexico City. There was a brouhaha when it was discovered that I was only seventeen and there was no adult coming to meet me at the airport. I was ushered into an office and seated on a saggy vinyl couch. Ranchero music faded in and out over a transistor radio. Lots of people in uniforms came and looked at my birth certificate and then walked away. The 70s had schooled me in being assertive and a feminist but my interpretation of this cant led merely to a posture of entitlement. I was probably a little abrasive and petulant, particularly as no one seemed to be doing anything to assist me. I missed the shuttle for the four hour trip to San Miguel. Finally I shattered and couldn't keep up the independent self-confident woman facade any longer. I burst into sobs. This was my first lesson that tears were more effective than self confidence or cash for getting doors to open in Mexico. Suddenly all of the officers squeezed into the tiny office and there was some whispering. I was told to follow an elderly guy, barely five feet tall and just about the same width. He insisted on carrying my bags which included a huge suitcase, a duffel bag and a typewriter. I presumed he was going to put me on a flight back to L.A. but he walked me out of the airport and located a driver. I had Mexican cash but no sense of the real value of 10,000 peso notes. The officer negotiated the fare to San Miguel and helped me count out the bills. He even told me he'd included a tip and to make sure the driver helped me with my bags and not to give him any more money. A scapula hung on the rear-view mirror and Beatle's songs in Spanish played on the radio. The driver quizzed me about why my parents had let me travel all by myself. I tried to explain that American parents were different. He gave up on deciphering my mangled Spanish and went back to singing along with the radio.
San Miguel de Allende is a picturesque colonial town in the state of Guanajuato. The campus of the Instituto was originally a church annex constructed in 1734 and beautifully kept up with graceful stone buildings, cobbled walks and fountains. Even at the hottest part of the day it felt cool in the thick walled classrooms or well tended gardens. In 1975 the student body was comprised mainly of American hippies and recent divorcees. I enrolled for classes in Aesthetics, Natural Fibers and Dyes and Weaving. I found a beautiful apartment in a restored colonial building a few blocks from the main square. The property was owned by an American man and his Mexican wife who was a cookbook writer. I shopped at the Tuesday market and filled my basket with marigolds and tuberose and locally made cheese. I experimented in the kitchen with herbs and vegetables I'd never seen before. I brought samples of my creations to my landlady. She accepted my offerings with a shrug and withheld thanks or praise. When my old fashioned oven exploded when I tried to light the pilot and I lost my eyebrows I was chastised by her for lighting it incorrectly.
The Aesthetics course was taught by Pierre, the author of a couple unreadable novels. We'd sit around on the floor in a circle and Pierre read us stuff he was fond of, which much like his own writing, was impenetrable. I never missed a class though because one of my fellow students was Ricky, a gorgeous hippie boy with long black hair and ice blue eyes. He wore overalls with Mexican embroidered shirts and tire-tread soled huaraches. Ricky and his Australian Shepherd, Roxie, had driven his VW bus all the way from Chicago. I spent all summer futilely trying, on various pretenses, to lure him to my apartment. I even promised I'd weave him a vest out of Roxie's fur if he agreed to bring her over for me to brush her every day. He just brought a brown bag filled with her fur to class.
The weaving course was taught by Evelyn, an older American woman with a chip on her shoulder. Evelyn was one of those ex-pats you'd run into and know immediately why she hadn't cut it in the U.S. We learned the difference between warp and woof. Then Evelyn set about teaching us to thread a gigantic floor loom. I never really mastered it and Evelyn made note of this in her typically nasty manner whenever there was an opportunity. I will add that there were a number of artistic weavers, including Evelyn, who were based in San Miguel de Allende. All of them employed Mexican women to operate the looms and could only lay claim to having designed the finished wares.
Natural Fibers and Dyes was taught by Christa, a Chinese American from Berkeley. Her husband taught Sculpture at the Instituto but they were getting a divorce. I saw them screaming at each other in the hall once. A couple of times Christa dismissed class early when she couldn't stop crying. We walked all over the hills gathering stuff that we thought we might be able to wrest some color from. Then we'd boil plants or roots in big cast iron pots. Almost always, even the brightest flowers or fruit would yield a yucky gray or beige hue but we dutifully kept samples in a field work notebook. The next step was to apply a mordant, to set the dye. We used alum or vinegar but Christa said that the traditional method was “cured urine.” She reported having had excellent results with this herself but none of us wanted an “A” that badly.
One day we went on the rickety old Instituto bus to a farm a few miles from the town. There was a field full of sheep. These were in no way similar to the animals displayed by the 4H Club at the county fair. These sheep were stinky, filthy and angry. Our assignment was to sheer the sticky matted shit spattered wool using rusty hand clippers. I don't know if sheep are capable of hatred, but if they are, the one I sheered felt it in spades when I was done with her. And it was mutual. Then we had to card and spin the wool using a manual drop spindle. Then the wool had to be dyed and set. Again, Christa encouraged us to try the urine method but everyone used vinegar. Finally, we were to incorporate the wool into a weaving. I found this weaving when I was cleaning out the garage. It is even more pathetic than the poor shorn sheep. Seldom has such an enormous effort yielded such paltry results.
I shared my apartment with Marie, a Jewish elementary school teacher in her mid-twenties from Long Island. She'd come to Mexico for a breather from Eddie, her fiance. If she didn't call him twice a week from the pay phone at the drug store he'd freak out and start calling our landlady (who wasn't the warmest person in the world) heedless of the time difference. The date was set and Marie already had the dress. She saw a couple months in Mexico as her last hurrah plus the coursework would up her pay-grade. She took up smoking, drinking, swearing and casual sex religiously.
When I noted it was weird to hear a 3rd grade teacher say “fuck” every other word she went off on me. She yelled that all of the things that were expected of her were bullshit. “Fuckin' bullshit!” Later she said she was sorry and that it didn't have anything to do with me. She invited me to the local watering hole to make peace. I tried to keep up with her, drinking straight shots of tequila chased with Corona. Marie left with the guitarist. I stumbled home through the cobblestone streets and puked in a planter on the plaza. Marie, too incapacitated to manage the old fashioned lock, woke me up at dawn. Neither of us were at our best the next day. I managed to make it to the couch but Marie stayed in bed and groaned and made me swear to never let her drink again. The bell rang and I opened to door to a compact American guy with horned rimmed glasses. He asked for Marie. She stumbled out from the bedroom.
“You didn't call me last week,” Eddie bellowed.
“I couldn't get a line out,” she lied.
Within twenty minutes Marie was packed up. They took a taxi to Mexico City and caught a flight home. I got an invitation to her wedding a few months later. I didn't go but we exchanged letters a few times. We fell out of touch after she'd reported the birth of her second kid.
The thing I realized about hippies was that there was always another place cooler than where you were. That summer in San Miguel the groovier destination was Guatemala. I thought about how righteous it would be to drive south with Ricky and Roxie. I'd sew patches on Ricky's overalls and embroider a collar for Roxie. The only thing that went south was the fantasy itself when a petite blonde with lots of teeth arrived in San Miguel. She was introduced by Ricky as “my old lady.” Still, it seemed inevitable that I would find what I was looking for in Guatemala. When Ricky proved unavailable as an escort and I was down to my last few traveler's checks, I invited my mom.
I met Mom at the airport in Mexico City and we flew on a tiny plane through a big rainstorm to Guatemala City. Having just completed a course in weaving, I was enchanted with Guatemalan textiles. Some of the weavers at the Instituto gave me lists of villages worth visiting. We went way off the beaten track and traveled often in ancient vans. These usually had wood planks in lieu of benches and served to transport livestock as well as people. My mom was about the same age then that I am now. She'd been to England and France but otherwise never out of the U.S. I'm sure she made me insane but now that I am the same age that she was at the time I realize what an phenomenally good sport she was. She gawked at chickens and happily held babies as we traversed narrow rocky roads through steep mountain passes in vehicles that weren't exactly in compliance with safety standards. Mom loved bargaining for weavings and souvenirs using her high school Spanish and even managed to strike deals in villages so remote that the natives spoke only in a local dialect.
On the way back home we spent a few days in Mexico City. I'd picked up a beautiful handled basket in Guatemala and was using it in lieu of a purse. It didn't close but at age seventeen traversing the crowded city with my wallet ripe for picking wasn't of concern. Mom and I were in a crowded elevator. When we got off she said, “Check your purse.” She said one of the guys standing next to me had a “funny look” on his face, and indeed my wallet with my cash, traveler's checks and birth certificate was gone. We went to the police station but it was obvious no one had any intention of doing anything. My mother said that based on my stupidity, of course they wouldn't help me. I hated it when she was right and rubbed my nose in it. I was devastated too that my mother's lack of faith in people's goodness was affirmed again. The memory of this incident comes back to me often when there's a circumstance when I know better than my own kids.
We replaced the traveler's checks easily. The Embassy said it would take a long time to replace my birth certificate but flying out of Mexico with my American mother shouldn't pose a problem. We arrived at the ticket counter and were told I couldn't board the plane. My mother went immediately into haughty mode and demanded that they call the American Embassy. “She's an American! She's my daughter! Are you blind?” A guard was called and we were led to an office similar to the one in which I was sequestered upon my arrival in Mexico. “I know what will work,” Mom whispered. “Mexico is run by the mordita.” This literally means “bite” but is slang for bribe. Mom was only willing to part with about three bucks though so I feared a massive backfire. “Don't!” I hissed. “I know how to handle it.” I thought about a cat I'd run over when I first got my driver's license and the tears started to flow. Mom got with the program and emitted some loud sobs and a bone chilling wail. Again, a group of officers assembled in a tight circle and whispered. Several minutes later a man in a suit appeared and said we had to go with him. He led us directly to the tarmac and ushered us onto the plane. No one had boarded yet. When the other passengers came aboard I must have looked very smug indeed having redeemed myself a bit after the humiliating wallet episode. I thought they must have pegged us as real VIPS.