Friday, January 19, 2007


By Travis M. Whitehead
The Plaza de Armas at the Cathedral of Santiago in Saltillo is a medley offlavor and fragrance. Contented faces shadowed by straw hats talk casuallyamongst themselves, young women in jeans relax on benches of ornate iron while children in shorts or flowered dresses run across heavy stone walkways, laughing with delight as they scatter pigeons into the blue sky.
The 200-year-old cathedral rises behind me, a living shadow of time, the ancient bells lingering in the towersilluminated by the afternoon sun. There’s a spell of tranquility here, cast by the gardens of pink roses, flaming red cannas and magnolias, by the three-layered fountain alive with streams of water arching into the sunlight, and by the laughter permeating the air like the fragrance of flowers.
I admire this fine city, the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila in northern Mexico, for the way its people have created life from desolation. Man and nature have found ways to create beauty through survival; life struggles to free itself from the restraints of desert life, and the desert itself provides the way.
The bells of the cathedral are ringing, and their sound echoes through the cobblestone streets, liberating me from the present and transporting me into history. It’s a history I long to touch, to draw on the peace of past ages, when even in the most chaotic of times people moved at a slower pace and absorbed the flavors of life.
The facade of the Cathedral of Santiago has three tiers, or levels. The first level features garlanded Solomonic Baroque columns that reach upward in a spiral and are believed to resemble those at Solomon’s Jerusalem Temple, hence the name. The second level features squared estipites formed of several sections which look like stacked columns.
This is a feature introduced into Mexico by Jeronimo de Balbas from an area in southern Spain called Andalusia. Balbas worked on the retablo, a gold-covered altarpiece, at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City in the 1700s. He also brought the ultra-Baroque style of architecture known as Churrigueresque to Mexico, and one of its notable features is the estipite which has been used throughout Mexico.The Cathedral of Santiago is considered a fine example of Mexican Baroque, but I discover a little later it is actually a collage of many styles.
Although Saltillo was founded in 1577, construction on the cathedral did not begin until 1745 after the city had become a busy agricultural and commercial center. Its Neoclassical-style belfry was added in 1893, and people continue adding memories to the old church.
I’m looking around for Salvador Medina, a local tour guide, because there’s a memory lingering in the cathedral I wish to touch. On any given day, chances are good you will find Medina in the Plaza de Armas, seeking out tourists who wish to discover for themselves the flavor of the cathedral. He accepts donations to buy food and other necessities for a nearby orphanage. He speaks good English, has a priceless knowledge of the cathedral and the rest of the city, and even presents a business card that reads, “If you don’t know Salvador Medina, you don’t know Saltillo.”
I know Salvador will be here soon. All I have to do is wait. The air is festive around the plaza after a recent rain, filled with the ringing of brakes and the splosh, splosh sploshing of wheels on wet streets. A mother and daughter sit at a bench, the mother in rolled-up blue jeans and struggling with a pencil poised over a crossword puzzle, her 7-year-old daughter in blasted denim leaning over, smiling with curiosity.
I buy a plastic packet of cacahuates – sweet, pebble-sized snacks – from an old man carrying a heavy straw basket filled with clorets, cigarettes, little grape juices, orange candy and peanuts. I give him five pesos, quickly open the packet and pop them into my mouth where they quickly break apart and release their light flavor.
Soon, Salvador Medina appears with a bundle of books and papers. We greet each other warmly, and I ask him to take me up to the roof of the cathedral, offering to pay him 200 pesos. We enter the cathedral and go up the spiraling staircase. We stop at a certain level and he shows me something I haven't seen before.
“Look at that wall,” he says, closing the shutters where the light pours in. The room goes dark, but as my eyes adjust I see patterns moving on the far wall.
“Look at that car,” Salvador tells me. All I see is a flash of light moving across the shadowed wall. I try to look closer. It still looks like a mirage, like something dancing just beyond my imagination, something I’m straining to grasp but just can’t quite reach. I see another flash of light, this time with a distinct pattern. Then there’s another, and another, and another, and I can see they are in the shapes of cars. And then there’s the layout of the plaza, the lamps, and people walking along the sidewalks, and the Mexican flag waving from the top of the governor’s palace, and they are all upside down.
I’m fascinated by the shadows, the images coming to life. This is all coming in through a hole in one of the shutters; workers left the hole there when they restored the windows. Now the hole itself acts as a window, where the shadows of the life outside move across the room. I somehow get the feeling that perhaps the illusions of day evaporate, revealing the silences of life as they parade across the wall.
We go up a long, narrow spiraling stairway of stone steps that ends on a floor surrounded by heavy bells. I look out over the city, the parks, the fountains, the reddish brown terracotta roofs, the marketplaces, the people eating ice cream or smoking Raleigh cigarettes, and I can also see the top of the church’s dome.
“Look at the corners of the dome,” Salvador says. “Those are Aztec symbols.”
The Indians at the top of the dome are crouched, their arms straight back holding tightly to the dome behind them, leaning forward and looking out over the city in an interminable stare.
“When the Indians came here, they wondered, ‘What to do with our gods?’” Medina says. “They decided to place them on the side of the dome to ask for the rains and food and ask for crops and a good year. They would come and venerate these gods.”
Images of Quetzalcoatl, the rain god, surround the middle of the dome. This god is represented by a serpent that seems to leap out of the dome, its mouth open in a vicious, eternal stare, teeth bared, feathers festooning its head.
At the base of the dome sit Aztec gods in long skirts and sandals and hands resting on hips. They represent the moon, earth, sun, rain, thunder, lightening. A band of flowers around the rim of the dome are offered as presents to the gods. Salvador opens a small iron gate and we walk across the roof of the cathedral to an old iron bell enshrined in a small brick archway next to the dome.
"This was the first bell that was placed here in 1561 by the Jesuits,” he says. “It was in the La Hermita church, it was all open. When they built the cathedral they put this bell here.”
This is the memory I’m searching for. The bell has been here for over 400 years, silent, but its ring is true. I wonder what it has seen, the changes, the evolution, the metamorphoses of life’s pace. I touch the bell that was forged and rung by people who saw life through faded windows that were once clear, and I feel I’m reaching across the centuries, drawing on their energy, and I wonder if I listen closely enough, could I perhaps hear the bell still ringing.But there is a place in Saltillo where history still lives, and the desert’s voice can be understood.
Salvador and I part company, and I catch a taxi to Museo del Desierto. The driver knows exactly how to get there. This is one of the many advantages of traveling by bus and taxi in Mexico. I have driven exactly twice to Saltillo and it’s exhausting; you have to be constantly vigilant because the traffic is much more spontaneous, and you can drive all over town and still not find what you are looking for.
Taxi drivers don’t have that problem; they are often very sociable and you can practice your Spanish and learn more about the area you are visiting. The first thing the taxi driver asks me to do is fasten my seatbelt.
When I first visited Saltillo two years ago, signs throughout the city reminded drivers to do this, but the taxi drivers didn’t mention it. The driver tells me local city leaders have become very stern about the enforcement of the seat belt law. I get flashbacks of seatbelt campaigns north of the border with the popular catch phrase, "Click It or Ticket." I would prefer not to be reminded of such neuroses, although perhaps Saltillo's leaders are just as tired of unnecessary traffic fatalities as their North American counterparts.
As we race through town, the rosary hanging from the driver’s rear-view mirror shakes as we pass over the stony street and the speed bumps. We talk about the recent rains from a tropical storm. He says it caused no serious flooding, but several years ago another storm hit Monterrey and people died. We talk more about the area, about tourists, about the Dallas Cowboys; he lived in Michoacan for awhile before returning to Saltillo. I tell him it’s a fabulous place and he agrees.
At the Museo Del Desierto, I first notice the admission has increased from 20 pesos to 45 pesos, but I later learn it’s well worth it, because there are more displays, more sound effects, and even a temporary exhibit of animated dinosaurs to delight young visitors.
I walk into the museum and stroll down winding hallways passed world maps of brown deserts contrasted with green jungles and temperate zones. Signs explain how wind circulation is one of the main factors that cause deserts, and the sounds of wind and rain, wind chimes and birds and crickets draw me into the spell of desert life.
As I enter a hallway with interpretations of desert plants, I am met with the cries of dinosaurs and primordial moans of synthesized music filling the hallway. I look to my left to see replicas of dinosaur skeletons rising from a lower room. More displays explain how desert plants have adapted to dry conditions, how the desert’s spirit has exercised her ingenuity to create beauty from nothingness.
The gobernadora, (creosote) one sign says, is a plant whose leaves are present all year long and grow vertically to avoid over exposure to the sun.
“If the leaves grew horizontal, they would reach mid-day temperatures of more than 30 degrees Celsius,” reads the sign which shows a picture of a branch covered with tiny oval-shaped leaves reaching upward, pointing their thin edges to the sun.
“Those that grow vertically maintain lower temperatures,” the sign continues. “The nopal orients its stems vertically, so when the sun is over them at the hottest time of day, the solar rays don’t hit the whole stem, avoiding excessive heating.”
The signs describe how some plants, such as cactus, protect themselves against heat through a mechanism called “Lanosidad,” which refers to a wool-like covering which keep the plant up to 10 degrees Celsius cooler during the hot summer months.
I move passed more discussions of mesquite, palo verde and other plants, and then I pass a window where I can see scientists working at long tables loaded with old bones. Paleontologists have reassembled a dinosaur’s spinal column on a serpentine metal frame, and huge dinosaur leg bones with bulbous sockets lie in a box of sand.
I move on toward discussions of how various animals, such as rabbits, snakes and bats, have adapted to the desert. Touch screens offer an interactive approach to desert ecology, with pictures of bleary-eyed owlets and bats diving fiercely into red cactus blooms, and just a light touch brings up explanations of how some bats adapt to life in the desert and to the consumption of nectar and pollen. The magueyero bat's feeding is related to the pollen and nectar of the maguey. In this way they do a great service by pollinating many species of maguey and cactus.
I enter another area with numerous exhibits detailing the history of man in the area, beginning with American Indians and continuing to the lives of European settlers. Examples of early serapes and looms bring visitors into contact with man's relationship with the desert. The sign says that Tlaxcaltecan colonists introduced the use of plant fibers into which they wove colored wool and cotton that much later gave birth to the famous serape of Saltillo.
More exhibits tell the story of people's daily lives here. The rooms are filled with old butter churns, wagons, earthenware jars and tubs, hammers, spurs, shears, metates, shoe maker’s tools, screws, metal seed planters, carpenter’s tools, an iron and metal plow; hammers, clothes irons, tongs, bellows, and chisels cover another table.
The museum has resurrected the history of these tools, brought them to life with the ringing of church bells, the bleating of sheep and goats, splashing of water and chickens cackling. Horses whinny as their metal horseshoes clop-clop-clop on stone streets through marketplaces busy with the voices of men and women bartering for goods.
Suddenly, the music of the past echoes into the present, and I’m strolling down the streets of old Saltillo, through air filled with the smell of livestock, wet hay and muddy streets, the clanging of church bells, rattling of wagon wheels, pounding of butter churns. I can feel the heat of convent kitchens and of blacksmiths forging farm implements.
Leather workers fashion saddles and harnesses, men work the sugar mills and construct aqueducts, weavers fashion serapes, and then I remember there is a place in Saltillo where the music of the city's history still plays.
At El Sarape de Saltillo, just up the street from the cathedral, past becomes present.
This shop is famous throughout the world for its colorful serapes. While the owners make many of the serapes sold there, they also import numerous other items from throughout Mexico.
“We make serapes, ponchos, blankets and we get things from 23 Mexican states; blown glass, pottery, jewelry, belts for cameras and guitars,” says Ana Maria Mendoza Oyarzabal, manager. “We have place mats, tortilla warmers, cloth carry bags, wall hangings with Aztec calendars, ponchos, carpets, runners for the table.”
The bright colors rush at me, drawing me in to their magic, and I am at once caught up in their celebration of life. Serapes with geometric shapes of bright red and green and yellow sit folded in stacks throughout the store next to colorful napkins and tablecloths. The walls are festooned by embroidered cotton dresses and wall hangings with bands of red fading into orange and then yellow.
We step into one of the rooms.
“We make all these wall hangings or ponchos or serapes with natural colors,” she says as she points to a wall hanging with red and black geometric patterns, another with navy blue ducks, and still others with colorful butterflies, bands of spring yellow, turquoise blue and orange that fade into each other. Stacks of green, brown or orange wall hangings sit on shelves.
The other rooms are filled with shelves of pottery with geometric shapes and patterns of dull green, simple blue and red ochre, light blue with intricate white floral designs.
The shelves crawl with beaded lizards, turtles and snakes, next to glazed ceramic balls and black glazed pottery of suns, pierced pots, plates, pitchers with white calla lilies and images of cactus, red-shirted farmers and bunches of grapes, dogs and cats, fish, wooden masks, leather whips and maracas, straw baskets and place mats.
I enter a back room filled with upright floor looms threaded with yarn. A worker is sitting at one of the looms, a deep red serape wrapped over the breast beam; tight bundles of blue, maroon, bright yellow and orange yarn spread out at geometric angles across the serape and strings of yarn are attached to small shed sticks.
The worker steps on one of two peddles on the floor to raise a harness that lifts a layer of white warp threads to create a shed. He quickly pulls up three or four threads, pushes one of the shed sticks underneath, loops it around, presses it down onto the bundle, pops it under the threads again and loops it over rapidly.
He works feverishly, pushing the peddle down, raising a layer of white thread, throwing a shed stick of bright blue yarn through it, the ancient wooden frames held up by rough hemp rope and creaking and brushing back and forth as he switches to a maroon spool.
As he steps on the pedals, up and down, back and forth, the shed sticks swooshing as they race through the sheds, he resurrects a distant rhythm from the silent spaces, a music that glides through the air. He tosses the sticks through several times, stops, pushes the thread down, then throws the large wooden shuttle with a bobbin of deep red yarn across the entire width of the serape, then pushes it down with a wooden beater. Slowly, geometric patterns with bands of green, yellow, blue and orange appear on a field of red.
“They have all the designs in their minds,” Mendoza Oyarzabal said. “There are only a few patterns, about 20, all different. When they learn, they mix the colors. They have their own patterns, they change their colors and design. It depends on the person making the serape.”
Mendoza Oyarzabal says that, although the Tlaxcaltecan Indians started the serape business, there have been many serape makers in Saltillo. Mendoza Oyarzabal’s family has owned this particular business for ninety years.
“This one was going to close the shop, and my grandmother took the workers because she didn’t want them to lose the business,” she said. “But she didn’t know nothing about the serapes. She learned how to dye the wool.”
She says one of her workers recently retired at age 82 after making serapes for 70 years.
“It takes two years to learn everything,” she said. “He helped to teach them (the new workers).”
This is the heartbeat of Saltillo, a pulse of times past, where the breath of history still lingers. There's a fleeting echo here of artisans who have worked here for centuries, and the dreams they left behind are still vivid in the imaginations of present generations thanks to the stewardship of the workers at El Sarape de Saltillo. Thanks to them, a trace of history has yet to be erased, and future visitors might still be able to walk in their footsteps for years to come.
The following morning, I step into the street at about 7 a.m. as the fine velvet purple of dawn creeps into the streets. Nothing is open yet, but I like to absorb the energy of awakening. A man mops the tiled sidewalk, a petite young woman walks quickly past him, a middle-aged man in black jeans and blue T-shirt and bag slung over his back ambles by.
On a street corner, a man turns a lever to lower a blue and white awning, and across the street from him an older man reads a paper and waits patiently for anyone wanting their shoes shined. A little after 8 a.m., I walk across the street for breakfast at El Cisne where I step into one of the side rooms facing a window that opens onto a courtyard. I sit at a tiled table bordered with pictures of pots and plates and birds in subtle shades of yellow and blue.
I order machacado con huevo - eggs with shredded beef - and watch the morning sun as it shines across the terracotta tiles of the roof on the other side of the courtyard, spreading bands of bright sunlight that edge slowly across the rim of each tile and cast morning shadows through the curving iron window bars.
The waitress brings my breakfast, liberal helpings of shredded beef mixed with eggs, plus tasty sides of frijoles topped with shredded cheese and tortilla chips. Hot coffee and a tall glass of orange juice complete the meal.
As I eat in the peaceful diner, I reflect on how good it is to be alive. The morning has awakened the city, music has filled the streets, history is moving forward with the present, and I’m dreaming of my own journey through a world of enchanting beauty. I’m thankful for the hospitality I’ve found here in Saltillo. I’m glad Salvador Medina is seeking out people to share the experiences, both past and present, of this old city filled with new life. I’m glad the workers at El Sarape de Saltillo are providing an avenue through which the people of the past can share their art with the future, and that the clowns, guitar and bongo players and taco stands are still creating the spontaneous energy that draws me here.
But I’m thankful most of all for the security of knowing that the pace of life will continue here, creating its own realities, and that I can return and absorb those realities to empower my own. I carry in my memory the noises of marketplaces, the scent of flowers and perfumed faces, the colors of serapes and glazed ceramics, and human imagination set free to express itself. I can dream of the quiet beach of Playa Azul on the Pacific Ocean, of eating hot mole in Morelia, relaxing in the zocalo in Mexico City or exploring the fairy tale streets of Guanajuato, and I can dream still of the many more sights to be seen as I seek out the Grandeur of Mexico.

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