A mexican town of any size at all has at least one plaza.Casas Grandes has two.The smaller one lies between the main street and the parish church.The larger is in front of the presidencia.

The presidencia, by the way, is the seat of local government.The state is divided into municipios.These are roughly the equivalent of american metro governments, where city and county functions are merged in a single governing body.The municipio has a governing board, called the ayuntamiento, and a president as chief executive.So the building housing the offices of the president and other chief officials is the presidencia.

Our presidencia is a magnificent old building, dating back to 1901.It is built as a series of large rooms wrapped around three sides of a central patio so as to form a U shape, with a rear wall completing the enclosure of the patio.Each room opens directly onto the patio, or, more specifically, onto a covered walkway around the inside of the U.There are benches in the walkway and in the open patio, and in the center is a pool and flowing fountain.The rooms, housing the various offices of government, reek of elegance, from the deeply polished wood floors to the open-raftered ceilings sixteen feet above.Old wooden casement windows and ponderous wooden desks stand in contrast to the sharply dressed girls running state of the art computers on those desks.In the archivistís office glass fronted cases display leather bound volumes of pages twenty-four inches long, recording in flowing pen the official acts back to the establishment of the municipio.

As for plazas, they always have plenty of benches and shade trees, and both of ours also have gazebos in the center.The plazas are used for all sorts of public meetings, celebrations, concerts.

But the plazas also form a social center.At most any hour of the day, and up until ten or eleven at night, if the weather is comfortable there will be people in the plaza.Children running and playing, their parents watching from nearby benches.Old men passing their final years talking together about old times.And from time to time, especially around the gazebo, young folks courting, walking hand in hand, stealing occasional kisses.From time to time there is a little train for kids to ride, round and round the several sidewalks.It is pulled by a garden tractor.The cars are made of 55-gallon plastic drums, split in two lengthwise, with an ingenious arrangement of drawbars so that each car follows precisely the path of the one in front of it, just like a train, although there is no track.

For a small price a merchant can rent space to erect a stall on the edge of the plaza.Our main plaza has two.One is a shoeshine stand, open only on weekends.The other sells ears of corn.Yes.There is a great kettle holding ears of corn on the cob, boiled and at just the right temperature to eat.For ten pesos they will open the kettle, hand you the tongs, and let you select your ear of corn.Then they drive a stick into it for a handle, dip it in melted butter, and roll it in parmesan cheese.And it is sooo good!They also have some kind of soup for sale.But I love the corn on the cob so much I have not even tried the soup.My mouth always waters for that corn.

Across the street from the plaza is a shop offering hot sandwiches and ice cream.Even in this small shop, there are eight flavors available in cones and at least sixty in popsicles, both cream based and water/fruit based.There are a dozen sandwiches to select from.The sandwiches are overflowing with meat and with lettuce, tomato, and abundant slabs of avocado, and it takes both hands to pick one up and bite into it.I always buy the torta de puerco [pork sandwich].It is like that ear of corn; I bought it the first time because it was listed first on the menu; I continue to buy it because it is just so good I canít bring myself to try anything else.

To the right and on the corner is another ice cream shop, and on the curb outside it is a hamburger stand.The stand is portable but is nearly always parked here.I have never tried either of these places.Again, the corn on the cob and the hot pork sandwich are so good I just have not tried anything else.

There is, however, a portable hamburger stand on the small plaza, the one by the church.One night as I was going home hungry and late I got a couple of hamburgers here.They were delicious.At this stand, as at most others, the charcoal fire is always burning but no burger is cooked in advance.They put the meat on the fire when you order the burger.At this stand the burgers are quite good, but not quite the same as you would get in the States.But then they are not the same as you get at any other hamburger stand, either.At least in this part of Mexico, there are no fast food franchises.

Thatís right; there is no McDonaldís here and no Pizza Hut.Each restaurant, each sidewalk stand, is independently operated, and no two are alike.You get to know each place.And after a few visits you will be known as well, and the owner and your favorite waiter will greet you with a handshake when you come in.

Letís go back to the main plaza.I wanted to tell you about the salůn de actos [city auditorium].It too faces on the plaza, between the presidencia and the sandwich shop.It is available for all sorts of functions public and private.It has no permanent seating; there is a supply of plastic patio chairs that can easily be put in place or removed according to need.

My first visit to the salůn de actos was on the occasion of an informe [report].The president and governing board of every mexican municipio must, at the end of each fiscal year, give a public report of what they have accomplished that year.As it happens I had met the municipal president a few days earlier.He had invited me to attend the informe as his special guest and gave me his card entitling me to sit in the front section.So I did.

The informe was elaborately presented.The ayuntamiento and all the other municipal officials were on stage, along with a representative of the state government.A military color guard was there to bring in the flag and lead the singing of the national anthem.And at one side of the stage a large screen was installed.During the informe, computer controlled pictures were constantly projected on this screen, at each moment illustrating what the speaker was talking about.Impressive.

After the meeting I got up to go.But I was some distance from the door, and it seemed no one was leaving.Rather people were moving the chairs into conversational circles.And as I looked for some circle to join, here came girls bearing large trays loaded with glasses of beer, free to all in attendance!After everyone had a beer, or two or three, the same girls started bringing out plates of barbecue.Now that will get people out to a town meeting!

The following day someone mentioned that I had been at the informe the night before.He hadnít been present, so I asked how he knew so quickly that I was there.Well, it seems the presidencia has a public access television channel, and they used it to broadcast the informe.And without knowing it, when we rearranged the chairs for eating, I had placed myself front and center on the screen.


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I said above that there were no franchised fast food outlets here.Subsequently I learned that there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken placeóbut just the building.The business went bust.


© 2004 Joseph Mansfield