A walk on a dusty road with friends. (photo: Evelyne Pouget)
I fell in love with Mexico on my first trip in 1989. I was on my honeymoon and travelled around by bus for a month with my new husband. Merida, in the Yucatan was our first stop and when we arrived, it was a blissful sensorial shock to my system. The language fell melodious into my ears. The smells flowed through and out my pores. The vivid color threatened to burst my retinas. All of the “foreignness” intrigued me and I absorbed it like my sweat-soaked tank top in the jungle of Quintana Roo.
My month-long initiation prompted me to dream, If I ever get the chance to move to Mexico, I will. My “chance” came in 2012, in the form of a job teaching English Language Arts at a new high school in San Miguel de Allende, the colonial jewel in the heart of the country. For most of my life as a visual artist, I had sustained myself in part by teaching. Coincidentally, my mother-in-law and her husband, both writers, had lived in San Miguel for 15 years. Long known as a mecca for artists and writers, I visited them there twice in the 1990s. The charming town worked its famous magic and it felt meant to be that I should be offered a job in that very same place.
Former students, Dia de Los Muertos
When I informed my then-85-year-old mother that I would be moving to Mexico, she asked, “Why in the world would you do that?” To my way of thinking, “the world” was the reason. Since I am an artist, I have often looked to other cultures for my muse in color, pattern, inventiveness and traditional craftsmanship. My mother’s question was no doubt motivated by losing her middle daughter to great distance, but living in another country was always something that intrigued me. I never quite understood where the desire came from, as I certainly did not grow up with any sort of travel in my childhood. Aside from one trip to DisneyWorld with my family when I was 12, the Jersey shore every summer was the only destination that took me out of my native Philadelphia. My father, who travelled the world as a young marine, however, often dreamed of travel in his later years. He always encouraged me to wander, and unlike my mother, he reveled in my decision and gave me his blessing. Even though that initial teaching job turned out to be not what I wanted, it allowed me to move to Mexico and continue the love affair.
Dia de Los Muertos market
After that initial visit in 1989 and perhaps laying some unconscious foundation, back in the U.S. I began to study Spanish. This endeavor was accelerated after I made the decision to move. I was fortunate to find a native Spaniard who gave small weekly classes in her home. She helped me approach this seemingly daunting task with discipline and enthusiasm. Learning a new language has been challenging but undoubtedly has created new pathways in my brain (and heart). I also firmly believe learning the language is essential to begin to understand the culture in earnest. How could I learn about Mexico, if I couldn’t speak to its people? My observation is that if you can speak the language, or at least attempt to, you are treated more as a welcome guest. The language keeps me on my toes and gives me great joy. I’m constantly fascinated to compare how two languages can express the same thing so differently.
When I first moved to San Miguel de Allende, I kept a diario that turned into a newsletter I sent to my friends and family. I was intent on capturing my observations and reactions in order to more fully understand my transition. Newness was everywhere and I was navigating sola, so that aloneness needed to be processed as well, and writing was my way in. Most of this diary took place during my first few weeks here.These short vignettes offer a glimpse into what it feels like to be an extranjero. And here I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t feel strange anymore. Like the hot chiles I regularly enjoy, Mexico has permeated a few layers of me and continues to lodge itself deep under my skin. Having said that (and because this is beloved, but unpredictable Mexico), I continue to adapt and sometimes be baffled by many things. I try to never forget that I am a guest in this beautiful country and to have respect for the customs and way of life, however inconvenient they are at times. Finding humor in all situations is a helpful tool for survival here.
"Mojigangas" puppets wandering the streets
Everyone talks about the same things that drew them to Mexico, and in particular, San Miguel de Allende: the people, the climate, the culture, the food, the beauty—not to mention a lifestyle mas económico. I of course, second everything on that list and more. But those of us who've lived here a little while understand that in the end it isn’t about the things on that list, but what happens around all of those things. In other words: the experience, the exchange, the connection. And this Mexico has in abundance.