That morning in Guanajuato, the city of frogs and of the Cervantino, I was writing my second novel and battling an infinite number of cheesy ideas that had prevented me from writing more than six miserable lines in four hours. My mood was terrible and my current literary inspiration, a girl with whom I had had a forgetful adventure, was not stimulating me in the least bit. I was spinning my wheels and I felt I could easily kill the first idiot who would dare smile at me or, at the very least, toss the goddamn computer out of the window. I put on the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to cheer me up. It didn’t work. Outside of my little cell, on Calzada de Guadalupe street, a party was revving up big time: bugles were screaming loud enough to shatter windows, drums were being pounded generously as if to announce the start of a war, and fireworks and firecrackers were blowing up all over the place. The thought that there were people out there having a good time was pissing me off and fueling the visions of massacre that were growing within me. Why was I in such a bad mood? Was it because I woke up with a cold; because the gym was closed today; or because I had lost half an hour searching the internet to find out whether Benedetti was or was not the author of the poem Don’t give up? The previous night I had read the last two hundred pages of Fear of animals and when I finished, at three in the morning, I had sore eyes and a sour taste in my mouth left by the happy ending. In theory, I should have been happy for the protagonist because we were so similar: full of doubts, frustrated, incapable of finding a vocation in this world, etc. But I was not. On the contrary, I was rather upset, as if the author had personally betrayed me.
Around two in the afternoon someone knocked on my door; the sudden interruption was much welcomed. A twenty-something American girl had come to offer me some cake to celebrate the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I thought it was a little weird that a complete stranger would offer me cake just like that; perhaps they had dared her to go give an offering to that mysterious foreign ogre that was spending his entire days locked up in his tiny room doing who knows what… I started talking to her and quickly noticed that she was nervous. Perhaps she felt uncomfortable because her poor Spanish skills were not allowing her to express herself well (I sure as hell was not going to switch to English even though we both knew that I could; we’re in Mexico goddammit!), or perhaps the ‘’toxic’’ fumes emanating from my poorly ventilated room had finally reached her fragile little nose…Who knows? After two long minutes she left alone. Although the cake was of poor quality, it was one of those that is way too sweet and has a ton of frosting, I devoured it all. I then I went outside to see if the crowd of partyers would cheer me up and get me out of my creative slump.
The street was bursting with life. I meshed with the crowd, and on my way uphill towards the church I started to relax. I listened to the marching bands composed of teenagers, adults, and kids play their instruments loudly and proudly; watched many followers carry on their shoulders huge replicas of the Virgin adorned with flowers; and smelled all the different types of food being sold in small temporary stands on either side of the cobblestone street. How would I have been able to stay grumpy in front of such a spectacle? One of the things that rejoiced me the most was seeing so many disguised kids: little girls wore a pink robe and a green veil adorned with stars, while little boys wore a costume of San Juan Diego and the obligatory mustache painted on. The precise moment when my bad mood evaporated was when I saw a six month old baby with a mustache and some very impressive sideburns; seeing a newborn in diapers disguised as a hairy Indian was just too much for me to hold back the laughter. Temporarily, I had made peace with life again. I sat next to a churro vendor, enjoyed the sun which had just decided to grace us with it’s presence, and I observed people waiting to enter the church. After a while I decided to take my newly found good attitude back to my writing cell to give it another shot; I failed. The creative slump was still there. Whatever.
Four or five hours later I left the house to go get some super. Night had fallen and there were still tons of people all over the place. Instead of going to my usual Nevería y Lonchería Los Rosales I decided to satisfy my curiosity for new flavours and eat on the street like everyone else. My first choice was a stand that sold ‘’French fries’’ covered with four different condiments which made the whole thing look like a cross between patatas bravas (I had first tried those three months before in Barcelona) and the biggest Québécois contribution to the culinary world: poutine. Distracted by the carnivalesque atmosphere, the vendor quickly jolted me back to reality with a loud and friendly ‘’What do I put on it güero?’’ ‘’Everything.’’ I then started to laugh. After all my trips to Mexico I had never quite gotten accustomed to people, even complete strangers, calling me whitey. In all fairness, the ‘’nickname’’ is as harmless as it is accurate. I took my fries, walked in the middle of the street , and once more headed uphill towards the church. On my way I stopped to buy a bag of sugar cane. When I thanked the lady she responded with a caring ‘’You’re welcome mijito.’’ That night people around me had definitely made a secret pact to do everything in their power to make me feel better. I continued my walk and proceeded to spit out chewed chewed sugar cane fiber left and right like a true Mexican. The plaza in front of the church was even more packed then when I had come earlier in the afternoon. In a corner, close to a big stage where a band was playing cumbia, teenagers were trying to climb up a greased-up metal pole while pilgrims, with their offerings, kept coming in and out of the church. That afternoon I became curious to know where all the people were leaving the donations of fruits, vegetables, and sweets that they were carrying in their hand baskets and boxes. With all the people that had gone through the church’s doors, surely they must have filled it up to the roof!
I entered the church and sat next to an old man. People of all walks of life, of all ages , entered with humility to cross themselves in silence and to give their offerings. I saw a skinny old man, dressed as a cowboy, carry three huge crates of eggs on his fragile shoulder; little kids carrying their donations on heir backs; young boys that looked like gang members arrive with overflowing baskets; a woman carrying a big bouquet of flowers walking on her knees to the altar; I saw a united people. A woman accompanied by her teenage son, both of them dressed soberly and elegantly, stood right next to me; her son’s hand resting peacefully on her shoulder. They stayed there in silence, like my old neighbour and I. After crossing themselves multiple times, the mother took her son’s left hand with her right hand and they prayed with eyes shut and palms facing up. I felt like crying. Was it the Virgin of Guadalupe trying to soften the heart of this atheist? Was it the emotion of seeing so much generosity? I am not sure, but in that moment I think I realized that I too would have liked to have been from a similar people: united and close to it’s traditions. I started thinking about my own people, a people that is certainly rich, but spiritually poor; a sad and cold people which remains indifferent to it’s dying culture. I felt a mix of sadness, shame and anger. I left the old man in his spot and approached the altar. I closed my eyes and lowered my head; the world around me stood still for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes I followed the others which were exiting through a door located behind the altar. I found a path that lead to an interior garden of colonial architecture where volunteers were sorting food donations. The hallway that surrounded the garden had numerous big piles of carrots, radishes, mandarins, apples, bananas, tomatoes, onions, etc.; in the grass of the garden, organized neatly in rows, hundreds of eggs had been organized in little bags of a dozen or so units. Just when I was about to take a picture, a little girl of about seven years old, with two little pigtails and an enormous smile, grabbed me by the arm.
‘’I know you,’’ she said.
‘’Really?’’ I answered while trying to hide my confusion behind a smile.
‘’What’s your name? Where do you come from?’’ she asked.
‘’My name is Max, I’m from Canada. Do you know where Canada is?’’
I felt a little uncomfortable talking to her because from the corner of my eye I could see an old nun with a stern demeanor that seemed to be prying into our conversation. On the other side, about three meters away, a bored security guard was sitting on a chair. How long would our conversation last before one of them would start finding it suspicious that a tall güero would be talking to a local little girl?
‘’Yes, I know where it is,’’ said the charismatic child.
‘’And what’s your name?’’
I suddenly realized that I already did know her. She was the daughter of the lady that worked at the pastry shop where I would go almost every day to buy desert! The mysteriousness of our quirky encounter had now vanished and this allowed me to relax a bit.
‘’Yes, of course! I also know you, you’re Valeria from the pastry shop! How are you?’’
‘’Fine,’’ she said with another enormous smile.
At that moment the dried up old nun that was spying on us interrupted our meeting and asked the little one to go finish her work. She listened to the severe-looking penguin and simply said ‘’Adiós.’’
When I left the church, the crowd at the plaza started cheering loudly: a shirtless young man had finally gotten to the top of the greased-up pole and, well positioned atop in some sort of basket, was having fun firing up the crowd and tossing the gifts that the organizers had put up there. I directed my attention to the stage where Los Rams were still playing their energetic cumbias for fifty or so young couples that were dancing and singing joyously. I stayed there for half an hour and then returned home.
When I went to bed that night, I felt good.