Tag Archives: Acapulco

This story begins in Acapulco, but it doesn’t end in Yellowknife

The powerful earthquake that shook Acapulco and Mexico City a week ago made me worry about the damage that it might inflict on those two cities.  At the same time, it revived memories of the many trips I’ve made to Mexico during the past five decades.

My first trip, in February 1970, stands out from all the rest for a bunch of reasons.  It was, notably, my first encounter with the beautiful country of Mexico.

It also represented a tremendous leap from bitter-cold Chicago to a sunny and flower-filled part of the world I couldn’t wait to visit…as well as a total departure from months of hard work at my job.

Until the day I left Chicago for Acapulco–Saturday, February 21–I’d been largely preoccupied with my work as co-counsel in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the restrictive Illinois abortion law.  We filed our lawsuit on Friday the 20th, and I took off for Mexico feeling a great sense of relief as well as anticipation.

Some background:  My first job after finishing law school was law clerk for a U.S. district court judge, Julius J. Hoffman.  [I’ve described my two-year clerkship in a series of blog posts beginning in November 2020.  Please see the first post in the series at https://susanjustwrites.com/2020/11/13/hangin-with-judge-hoffman/%5D  After leaving Hoffman, I assumed a new role that validated why I’d gone to law school in the first place:  a Reggie Fellowship, assigned to work at my chosen office, the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Legal Aid Bureau of Chicago.  [I’ve discussed the Reggie program earlier.  Please see https://susanjustwrites.com/2015/08/07/the-summer-of-69/%5D

As a Reggie, my goal was to achieve law reform for the poor, and I began to focus on my role as a lawyer working on behalf of poor women and men in Chicago. 

So, after a month or two as a Reggie, I conceived the idea of challenging the Illinois abortion law, which clearly had its most profound effect on poor and minority women.  My supervisor approved of my working on this issue, and I was soon allied with another woman lawyer (at the ACLU in Chicago), who became my co-counsel and lifelong friend.  [I’m currently engaged in a writing project focused on this lawsuit.]

After months of hard work, we filed our lawsuit with the U.S. district court in Chicago on February 20, 1970, and I left the next day for my eagerly awaited respite from work, my trip to Acapulco and Mexico City.

In lieu of traveling with a close friend or relative, I set off on my own, but I’d arranged to spend part of my time with another single woman who was also traveling on her own.  I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed sympatica and was knowledgeable about traveling in Mexico.  I’ll call her Sandy.

My first stop was Acapulco and a bargain-priced hotel located near some luxurious hotels.  Sandy, who’d chosen this hotel, arrived shortly after I did and assured me that we could safely melt into the crowd sunning themselves around a pool at one of the other hotels.  (Our place had only a small, mostly unused pool.)  So we probably violated all sorts of rules when we made our way to a crowded luxury-hotel pool, filled with the cool young people of that era, and lounged there, undisturbed, delighted to have escaped the frigid Chicago winter.

I immediately fell in love with Mexico.  Acapulco turned out to be a beautiful spot, exciting and still relatively unspoiled by American tourists.

After soaking up the sun and the nighttime scene in Acapulco for a few days, Sandy and I moved on to a large middle-priced hotel in a great location in Mexico City.  Sandy had taken up with a young man she’d met in Acapulco, and although I occasionally paired up with another young man, making up a foursome, once Sandy and I were in Mexico City I decided to go off on my own most of the time.  So I proceeded to roam parts of the city I wanted to explore, feeling quite safe wherever I went.  I impulsively purchased a ticket for the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico and ecstatically viewed a stunning dance performance filled with music and dances reflecting many regions of Mexico, some incorporating the traditions of its indigenous peoples.  And I made a memorable visit to the National Museum of Anthropology.

Before leaving Mexico, I wanted to see some of the other exciting locations described in my guidebook, and I signed up for a small private tour whose guide would pick me up at my hotel one morning and drop me off there at the end of the day.

So early one morning, I headed to the hotel lobby.  Soon a large black car arrived, driven by a pleasant young man who spoke excellent English, and I climbed inside, joining a few other tourists who were taking the same tour. 

The driver took us first to Teotihuacan, about an hour north of Mexico City, where we saw its astonishing pyramids.  I energetically climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, feeling immersed in pre-Columbian Mexico.  (Teotihuacan dates back as long as 1000 years before the arrival of the Aztecs, and the pyramid I climbed may have been built in the 4th century.)  Seeing the view from the top was exhilarating!

We proceeded to make two other stops:  the charming town of Cuernavaca and the town of Taxco, for centuries a center of silver production.  The people who lived in Taxco mined silver long before the Spanish arrived, using it for Aztec ceremonies as well as jewelry. 

I climbed the steps of Taxco’s 18th-century church, the Church of Santa Prisca, and devoured a tostada, purchased at a nearby restaurant, feasting on the tostada along with the gorgeous view from the top of those steps.  The memory of that indescribably delicious tostada, and the view, has never left me.  After choosing a couple of silver pins at a small jewelry shop (I still cherish one in the shape of the Aztec calendar stone), I reluctantly climbed back into the black car for our return trip to Mexico City, knowing that this ride meant the end of my glorious trip.

En route, I discovered that I was seated with a friendly middle-aged couple who announced that they hailed from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada.  Yes, Yellowknife.  I’d honestly never heard of it before.  I later learned that it was the capital of the Northwest Territories, located on the north shore of the Great Slave Lake.  And it’s famed for its frigid weather.  The average winter temperature is about 30 degrees below zero, and it’s rarely above 40-below.  More than half of each year, deep snow covers the ground.

When this couple learned that I was single, they immediately began to promote Yellowknife, even though I’m sure that they themselves had happily escaped its astonishingly frigid temperatures.

Both husband and wife, sharing a mindset typical of 1970, jumped to the conclusion that I wanted nothing more out of life than to find a husband.  “Come to Yellowknife,” they implored, clearly eager to add to their ranks.  “You’ll find a husband as soon as you arrive.”  (Yellowknife apparently had an overabundance of marriageable men.)

I admit that I had trouble keeping a straight face.  But I immediately assured them that I wasn’t looking for a husband.  I had a fulfilling career and didn’t intend to move anywhere in search of a partner.  I hope I avoided being rude, never adding that, even if I did decide to move, it certainly wouldn’t be to a place like Yellowknife. 

If anything, I thought to myself, I’d move to an exciting new city and definitely somewhere warmer, not colder, than Chicago.

As it turned out, my trip to Mexico—a country loaded with brilliant sunshine and unlimited quantities of breathtakingly colorful flowers—actually did make me think about moving somewhere warmer.  When I returned to Chicago, I began to focus on a possible move, most likely to California.  (My earlier plan to move to DC had ended with the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.)   During my Reggie training, I’d met the director of a legal services program, located at UCLA law school, who’d expressed interest in hiring me to work for him at the end of my Reggie year in Chicago. 

What exactly propelled me to move? 

I’d been growing increasingly dissatisfied with my life in Chicago for a number of reasons. Aside from my job, which I found very meaningful, much too much about the city no longer charmed me. For one thing, I hated the long cold gray winters. The political scene, dominated by a benevolent dictator, depressed me. Repeated visits to the Art Institute no longer left me giddy. And I found the social scene sadly lacking. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t any male companionship. I’d been dating a number of young men. But none of them had struck a spark. So, in the absence of any compelling reason to stay in the city, I began considering my options.

Then there was a blizzard in Chicago on April 1st.  Using a popular term of the day, I told friends that it “radicalized” me and led me to think seriously about moving to California.   [Please see “A Snowy April 1st,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2018/05/%5D

I traveled in May to San Francisco and LA, both for job interviews and for a glimpse into the sort of life I’d have if I moved to one of those fabulous cities. The prospect of that life struck me as quite appealing and at least worth a try.

By June, I decided to give up the lease on my Chicago apartment, sell most of my furniture, and make plans to fly to LA in late August, where I would take that job at UCLA.

I’ve described elsewhere what happened once I landed in LA.  [Please see, e.g., “Another love story,” https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/24/another-love-story/ and https://susanjustwrites.com/2021/05/26/another-love-story-2/%5D

But here’s my belated response to that couple from Yellowknife:  I’m sorry I disappointed you by not adding to your frostbitten population.  I think you probably meant well, but your assumption that I would even consider moving to your hometown–to find a husband–was actually offensive.  

When we met, I was in no way desperately searching for a husband.  Thankfully, I never was.  I decided a few months later to leave Chicago for LA, not knowing how my life there would turn out.  But I never contemplated for even one brief moment moving somewhere like Yellowknife.

Instead, I headed elsewhere, aiming to find—and finding–a glorious future filled with warmth and many, many sunny days ahead.

The Charm of San Miguel de Allende

 

Light rain was falling when I arrived at the airport in Leon, Mexico, searching for the shuttle that would take me to San Miguel de Allende.  A sign listing all the passengers on my shuttle made clear it would be crowded.

I jumped on board, taking a seat near the door. Not a great choice.  Passengers departing before me carelessly left the door open too long, and raindrops pelted me every time.  Even more annoying was the man behind me who talked incessantly, telling another passenger everything to do and see in San Miguel.  I wished he’d shut up.  I wanted to discover all of it for myself.

The shuttle driver finally located the house on Calle del Castillo belonging to Merrily and Paul, my great friends since college, and they welcomed me warmly, ushering me inside.  The house was a wonderful surprise, modern and comfortable, and I felt very lucky to be in their sheltering arms.

For the next few days, the three of us set out together every day, covering a host of sites in and around this charming city set in Mexico’s central highlands.

Why go to San Miguel?  First, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, an extremely beautiful city filled with historic and architecturally-astounding buildings.  Next, although parts of Mexico have sadly seen a measure of violent crime in recent years, San Miguel is still a peaceful sanctuary where one feels totally safe.  And although it’s perhaps best known in the U.S. as a city inundated with American ex-pats, the overwhelming majority of the population is made up of warm and friendly mexicanos.  Unlike the Mexican resort cities like Puerto Vallarta (my favorite) and Acapulco, San Miguel is a much more authentically Mexican city.  You may want to spend a vacation of a few days there, or linger much, much longer.  Or, like Merrily and Paul, you may even want to move there, joining the five thousand or so ex-pats who have made San Miguel their home.

In case you’re wondering how the lengthy name of the city came about, here’s a brief history lesson:  When the Spaniards arrived in this part of Mexico during the 16th century and established a colony, many of the indigenous inhabitants fled.  A Franciscan friar took advantage of their departure and founded a Spanish settlement that evolved in the 17th century into a beautiful town called San Miguel el Grande.

During the next hundred years, when many people who by now considered themselves Mexicans rose up against Spanish rule, Ignacio Allende was a prominent local leader.  He was executed by the Spanish, but he was not forgotten.  After the Mexican army defeated the Spanish in their War of Independence, the city was renamed San Miguel de Allende to honor him.

Today’s city has the Spanish to thank for many of its striking buildings, constructed during the colonial period.  The most magnificent is the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, a pink-hued Neo-Gothic cathedral dominating the Centro Histórico, the historic center of town, directly across from the leafy park, El Jardin.  Originally built in the 16th century, a local architect did a smashing renovation about 300 years later.  Its pink sandstone towers present a facade unlike that of any other church I’ve ever seen, resembling a set right out of a Disney fairytale, and when it’s illuminated at night, it has a truly magical vibe.

The city contains a host of other remarkable sights.  Instead of listing all of them, I’ll highlight just a few.  One of the must-sees is El Jardin (pronounced har-deen), the leafy green park in the center of the city.  It’s a vibrant gathering place, filled with both locals and tourists.  Groups of mariachi musicians play there every evening, and all around its perimeter are vendors featuring kids’ toys, balloons, and lots of food, including some pretty wild varieties of ice cream (helado), including elote (corn), queso (cheese), and guayaba (guava).

El Jardin is also the place where tours of the city center begin.  These tours, organized by a local children’s charity called Patronato de Ninos, are offered at 9:45 a.m. three times a week.   They’re led by a diverse group of cheerful and knowledgeable guides (mine was an American ex-pat wearing an exquisite locally-embroidered dress).

Another highlight is the Fábrica de Aurora, a former textile factory whose machinery has been preserved and can be viewed through large glass windows.  It’s been totally renovated and now houses a wide range of art galleries, craft studios, and delightful places to eat and drink.  A bit north of the city, it’s well worth the trip.

Farther outside the city (about eight miles from downtown San Miguel) is the town of Atontonilco.  Its centerpiece is another World Heritage Site, an astonishing church called the Santuario de Jesus Nazareno de Atononilco.  The church’s walls and ceilings are covered with paintings of religious stories and figures, a remarkable achievement by an artist who spent 30 years of his life creating this result.

We arrived on a Saturday and encountered not just one but two weddings being held in the church.  While the first wedding was being celebrated, the second wedding party lined up outside, awaiting its turn.  On the city streets outside the church, friendly locals offered items for sale, most notably whips of various sizes.  Whips?  Yes, whips–mainly of the “cat-o’-nine-tails” variety.  Why?  Because the sanctuary has a long history as a Catholic-pilgrimage destination, and that history includes self-flagellation by some of the pilgrims.  For kicks, you might want to buy a souvenir whip while you’re there.

Speaking of shopping:  If that pursuit interests you, San Miguel offers a wide range of possibilities.  Merrily and Paul first guided me to a largely low-rent and authentic option (my choice).  Descending to a small alleyway, we found the Mercado de Artesanía, a distinctly non-posh assortment of stands tended by local artisans and their families.  There I purchased trivets and other items made of pewter, earrings made of silver and abalone shell, and colorful embroidered blouses and pillow covers.  Besides admiring their wares, I relished meeting the artisans and speaking with them in my high-school-level Spanish (Merrily helped).

We then went on to some actual shops, like Martha’s shoe store, where she sells the famous “San Miguel” shoes in many different colors; delightful candy shops; and the highly unusual “oil cloth” store, where the brawny young proprietor makes useful items—like tote bags and luggage tags—out of a variety of bright oil cloth patterns.  (I hadn’t seen so much oil cloth since I was a kid in Mom’s postwar kitchen!)  I later sought out stores offering artisanal products like ceramics and jewelry.  My favorite purchases were the ceramic trees-of-life I bought for both of my daughters.

If the art scene is your thing, be sure to check out Bellas Artes, an art school and cultural center in downtown San Miguel.  Stroll through the arcades surrounding its beautiful courtyard and view exhibits by local artists.  As for art galleries, they’re everywhere you look.  Many of the ex-pats living in San Miguel are part of a well-established artists’ colony, and anyone interested in art will have no problem finding the kind of artwork he or she prefers.

And then there are the fiestas.  Mexico has a huge number of outdoor fiestas and religious celebrations, all observed with great exuberance.  I was extremely lucky to be in San Miguel during one of its notable events, the celebration called the Fiesta del Seňor de la Conquista.  I won’t elaborate on its history and religious connotations.  But I was blown away by what I saw and heard.

When we entered the area surrounding El Jardin, we saw crowds gathered in and around it to watch a multitude of dancers garbed in wild costumes, many with brightly colored feathers, masks, and most notably, shells artfully attached to their legs.  As they danced, the shells vibrated, making a wonderful and raucous noise.  The dancing, accompanied by music, went on all day Friday and continued on Saturday.

Combining indigenous traditions with Catholic ones, this fiesta struck me as extraordinary.  But it’s just one in a long list of festivals like it.  In fact, if you happen to be in San Miguel around Easter, you’ll witness an even more spectacular celebration—two full weeks of processions and pageantry.

Here’s one more thing about San Miguel:  Great food and drink are available everywhere.  (Just avoid local tap water.)  For recommendations, check a recent guidebook or ask locals like Merrily and Paul.  The food is delicious and prices are remarkably low.

And just in case you long for familiar surroundings, there’s a busy Starbucks in the center of town and, believe it or not, a place called the Bagel Café!