You know what that is, don’t you? It usually strikes when you have reason to believe the snow will melt today, and just when the last little drift is about gone, the sky turns about 49 shades of grey, and the snowflakes begin falling. Again!
If it were 50 shades of grey, it would be shocking or maybe a little interesting; however, at 49, the next snowstorm is just boring. “But it’s so beautiful,” my southern family and friends say. No, my dears. Green is beautiful, as in leaves and grass, and yellow is beautiful as in daffodils and sunshine, and red is beautiful as in geraniums and cardinals, but white is ugly when it’s snow that covers everything in sight. Fortunately we do have cardinals that hang with us in the wintertime. Were it not for them, I’m sure the suicide rate would be much higher when the Februaries strike.
It’s funny – or it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic – I have no need to look at a calendar. I’m just fine on January 31, but come midnight, I go into the dumper. I stay here until the first of March. That’s the problem right there: Did you hear me? I said “here,” as in Granville, Ohio. “Here.” I don’t belong “here.” I belong in Mexico. It’s February, isn’t it? When a body is somewhere other than where a body belongs, it’s bad. Believe me: it’s bad.
I belong in Guanajuato this February. Sometimes I belong in Los Cocos on the west coast in February, and sometimes I belong practically dead center in Mexico. If you place the tip of a finger in the center of a Mexico map, you will touch Guanajuato. It’s one of the wonderful colonial cities. It looks the same as it looked 300 years ago when the locals ran the Spanish out of Mexico. What a story that is! I love the story and lucky you! I’m going to tell it to you.
The Spanish dispatched the Maya and the Aztecs when silver was discovered running in thick veins through the mountains of central Mexico. They enslaved everyone they could find and sent them into the mines to bring out the silver. The Spanish landowners became very rich, and they lived it up for 300 years. They built beautiful buildings, elaborate cathedrals and vast plantations, many of which are still there today.
The place where I always stay in Guanajuato is in a house called Casa de Pita (Pita’s house). It was built by Pita’s great, great, etc., grandfather 300 years ago. Her family has lived there ever since. It is now a guest house with apartments and rooms, which she rents to visitors. It’s a lovely place, and I feel at home there. My hostess, Pita, is also my friend.
To continue the story, at about the time Pita’s ancestor was building her house, the indigenous people, many of whom had by then cross-bred with the Spanish, were plotting to take back their country. The leader of the gang was Father Miguel Hidalgo, priest of a church in the small town of Dolores, Mexico. The pope and cardinals of the Catholic Church already looked upon the good priest with a gimlet eye, for he had publicly questioned the church’s authority. Dolores is near Guanajuato, where the Spanish army was holed up in a granary called the Alhondiga, which had been turned into an armory.
I have been to the Alhondiga many times. It is a huge square building, with an empty middle, where the grain had been kept, but at that time, September 16, 1810, a garrison of Spanish soldiers guarded the armory. I’ll tell you about today’s Alhondiga later.
Now, down the road about 70 miles or so was and is the town of Querattero. The governor had his office and his home in the center of town. His wife was Josefa Ortiz. Unbeknownst to the governor, Josefa sided with the rebels. She held regular meetings with the plotters right under the governor’s nose. She called her meetings a literary society. Having never had a reason to mistrust Josefa, she got away with it.
One night, the governor was meeting with the military leaders in the room next to Josefa’s room where she was holding her “literary society” meeting. Josefa heard the conversation from the governor’s group, and she thought she heard what could very well be a bomb shell. It was early September in the year 1810. The rebels had planned to attack the Alhondiga the following November. But as Josefa crept closer to the governor’s door she heard the generals agree to march on Hidalgo’s insurgents in three days. Just as she turned to run back to her meeting, the governor caught her. He had been suspicious of her literary society and now he knew Josefa was up to no good. He took her to her room and locked her inside. She did not have time to tell her friends what she had learned. She was frantic, but there was nothing she could do. How could she get word to Father Hidalgo that the rebels must march on the Spanish immediately before they were attacked?
Just then, there was a noise at the door, and she heard one of her fellow plotters softly calling to her. Quickly, she whispered through the keyhole, telling him to ride as fast as he could to Dolores to tell Hidalgo that he must gather his forces immediately and attack the Spanish army in the Alhondiga. All would be lost if they followed their original plan.
The keyhole listener ran to tell the other “literary society” members the news. They quickly scattered to alert the countryside, while he rode to tell the priest. When Hidalgo heard the news, he rang the church bells. Everyone knew they had to gather what weapons they could find and go to the churchyard immediately. Father Hidalgo issued the famous “grit of Dolores,” the call to arms.
Word spread through the countryside and hundreds of farmers, miners, and soldiers marched to Guanajuato. When they reached the Alhondiga, the Spanish fired on them from windows and the heights of the building. The rebels had no defense.
But Father Hidalgo had an idea. He strapped a large flat stone to the back of a miner and gave him a torch. “Crawl to the wooden doors of the building,” he said, “and set them alight.”
(I have written this story many times in a lighter vein and have pointed out that the good padre had just invented the bullet-proof vest, and has never received credit for it.)
The miner did as he was told. When he reached the double doors he torched the bottoms of them. The huge doors went up in flames, sending the Spanish soldiers pouring out, choking with the thick smoke.
It was September 16, 1810, and it has been celebrated every year since. The Victory at Guanajuato was the first battle of the War of Independence. The war continued for three years and the heroes of that first battle, including Father Hidalgo, were killed, and their heads hung in cages suspended on each corner of the Alhondiga. He is honored everywhere. The Town of Dolores is now named Dolores Hidalgo. I have been to his churchyard many times. I have seen and heard the same bells that summoned the rebels to go to war.
I never tire of the Alhondiga, I go there every year I go to Guanajuato. One side is dedicated to the heroes of the war of dependence. There are bas relief statues of their heads in each niche lit by spot lights. There is a huge wooden door to the gallery, much like the door the miner set afire. The miner is called El Pipila, or “the turtle.” A huge statue of El Pipila is high on a hill overlooking Guanajuato. There are few places in the city he is not visible.
Guanajuato is a place that is more special than I can tell you. There are tunnels leading into the town. No matter what time you happen to arrive there, you can hear music as your taxi emerges from a tunnel. There is dancing in the jardin, street performers, troubadours singing from every club at night, mariachi bands playing at each outdoor cafe. Artists are at work in the town square, and groups of singers in medieval costumes walk the streets singing till all hours.
I can’t possibly express how much I miss Guanajuato. I miss Pita, Gerardo, Carmela, Arixci, Nando, Paty, Juanita, Fernando, Pepe, Monica, Edgar, and all my friends there. I think about them every day. If only I could hear Gerardo play his guitar and sing just one more song to me, I would be content
My heart is in Guanajuato today. I only wish I were there with it.