I have written elsewhere about the long, long history of our town, going back well over a thousand years and embracing four major peoples who have lived here in that time.  With a history like that, it will not surprise you that every year, in july, our town has a ten day festival celebrating its history.  Officially, the festival is called Nueva Paquimé, esplendor de culturas [New Paquimé, splendor of cultures].

The splendor of our present culture shone forth last night in a guitar concert out at the colony, presented by ten guitarists comprising the Orquesta de Guitarras del Conservatorio de Música de Chihuahua.  About two hundred folks went out to hear a night of exquisite music.  Of particular interest to me was a quartet of Miguel Bernal.  Its third movement, a minuet, swirled and turned, making it so easy to close one’s eyes and see dancers bringing sound into motion.  But it is the second movement, a zarabanda [sarabande], that echoes in my ears this morning.  The zarabanda was danced in Spain three hundred years ago.  It is a stately, formal dance in three/four time that is oh so very slow.  Such is the dignity of a zarabanda that I have from time to time played one at the organ as a voluntary before or during a mass.  The people never know that that moving, spine tingling music they hear is but the dance music of an age gone by.

I said the concert took place out at the colony.  I refer to a village about eleven miles west of here, Colonia Juárez.  It is a mormon colony, populated in the 1880s by mormons migrating southward.  They found a fertile valley with sufficient ground water for planting.  The colony puts on a number of cultural events each year.  The sports program of their school, especially basketball, draws a number of spectators from the pueblo and the station.  The mormons also built Colonia Dublán as a northern suburb of the station, Nuevo Casas Grandes.  Their hospital there is possibly the most modern in the area.  I had occasion to visit there just one time—the patient I visited being the mother superior of the local convent of capuchinas.

Another interesting group in the area is the Mennonites.  They migrated from Germany to western Canada in the 1880s.  As a principle of their religion they are strictly pacifist.  But the canadian government, in the first world war, would not recognize their pacifism and drafted them into service.  After the war they went looking for a new home and found it in northern Chihuahua.  The mexican government invited them to occupy undeveloped desert land and make it productive.  In return, among other considerations, the government would permanently exempt them and their descendants from military service, a year of which is normally mandatory for every mexican boy.

Originally the mennonites lived a very strict life, the men dressed in bib overalls, the women in black dresses and scarves and looking not unlike nuns.  They rejected the use of alcohol and tobacco and avoided the products of modern technology, such as the farm tractor and the automobile.  But they have changed, and today may be seen stepping out of their SUVs to enjoy beer with their meal in the restaurants, and a nice after-dinner smoke, sometimes with their pleasure broken by the jangling of their cell phones, which they, like just about everyone else here, always carry.  But they still make fine cheese and butter, and fine large families, and their clothing has changed just enough to let the ladies have bright splashes of color on their black dresses.

But we were talking about the festival.

Tonight’s activity will be a callejonada.  Now calle means street and callejón means alley, so a callejonada means a procession through the streets and alleys.  Somewhere I’ve heard it called “alley crawl”.

The callejonada is scheduled for eight o’clock tonight, meaning people will start gathering on the plaza a bit after eight.  The procession won’t move until more like nine.  When it does move, it will be headed up by some musicians playing and singing popular songs, with most of the people joining in.

The procession is also headed by a burro with a pack saddle.  And hanging on either side of the pack saddle will be a keg of sotol, the potent local hooch made from the sotol plant.  Participants who have bought a thirty-peso ticket will have received a little earthenware cup with the ticket.  As the procession moves, they will fill these cups from the kegs and put down all the sotol they can get.  It won’t be too much because the cups are mighty small—a bit short of an ounce.

As the procession comes to places of historical interest it will stop while short skits are put on.  I have heard that in the past these skits pertained to the history of the sites where they were presented.  Nowadays they are often just good humor.  After all, when you have a crowd of three or four hundred people walking and singing and feeling their sotol, who wants a history lesson?

I recently made a business trip to the US.  While I was there a client told me I ought to move back to the States.  Said there was nothing for me in Mexico.  Said, –Those people down there are too simple.  You have nothing to gain from them.

I was flabbergasted, and I am still flabbergasted, and I still think about this remark every day.


Where do so many americans get the idea that americans are sophisticated and the rest of the world simple?

Especially americans like this one, who has never visited Mexico, given that a weekend in Cancún doesn’t count.

Nothing to gain?

Maybe not.  Not unless one likes just plain doggone good friendly folks, kind, helpful, smiling, full of fun.

Is it the happiness, the good cheer, of mexicans that makes americans think they are simple?

Oh, but that you could see the tragedies, the tragedies of history, the tragedies of individual lives and families that these people have had to live through.  No, they’re not simple.  Their history is not simple.  Their language is not simple.  Their souls are not simple.

But they are a happy people.  They have the gumption to be happy in spite of their sorrows.  They have the courage to laugh in the face of their tragedies.  And they have the magnanimity to accept the stranger, to welcome the newcomer, to take in the wanderer.

And this is among the principal reasons why I live in Mexico.  For I am no mexican, never will be.  At the rate I am going I will never even be fluent in spanish.  But I came here as a wanderer, I came here on an intuition.  I came as a stranger to a strange land.  I am still a stranger here and always will be.

Yet, though a stranger, I am at home.


© 2004 Joseph Mansfield