Greetings from San Miguel

Candelaria is, originally, a Roman Catholic celebration dating back many centuries. It arrived in Latin America with Spanish invaders beginning in the 15th century but, as with much of the Catholic religion brought to the Americas, the Indigenous peoples ignored what didn’t suit them, took what did and mixed in liberal doses of their own spiritual beliefs and rituals.

In San Miguel, where my partner and I spend time each winter, Candelaria celebrates the arrival of spring and the start to the growing season. On February 2, a ceremony is held to bless the seeds for the year’s plantings and harvest. The connections among the elements, humans, animals, the earth, water and plants are recognized and honoured. Traditional food is prepared and eaten: tamales (anglicized from the original Nahuatl word tamalli), which are corn husks stuffed with masa (corn dough) and meat, chiles, vegetables or fruits and then steamed, often served with atole, a hot corn and masa based drink.

For the next two weeks, flower and plant vendors will spread their wares throughout a city park, creating a beautiful and colourful palate from which locals and visitors alike can purchase the plants they want for their gardens and terraces.

It is a beautiful celebration that seems largely unconnected with its Roman Catholic origins.

An uphill journey

We arrived in San Miguel on February 1st this year for what will be our longest stay yet. Our suitcases – every year we swear we will bring less and every year we curse ourselves for failing to do so – are empty except for the clothing we won’t need to wear again until we head home on March 31st and tucked out of sight. I have unpacked my Mexican apron and our orange juicer. Slowly, we are getting our San Miguel legs: it takes a few days to adjust to the altitude, steep hills and cobblestoned streets and sidewalks.

In past years, we have lived downhill from the centre of town and the main markets. This year, the house we have rented is uphill, which means the walk home with backpacks and bags full of groceries is a strenuous one. (Well, the truth is that, so far, we have taken cabs home, but we hope to be walking uphill soon.)

But being uphill also means we are surrounded by trees and have beautiful views from our terrace and rooftop, so we will endure the challenging walks until we acclimatize. Who knows, we might even return home in better shape than we were when we left.

Appreciating our privilege

We know how fortunate we are to be able to escape the cold and snow of Ontario winters for a couple of months. (It is the portability of much of my work — a luxury that few people have — combined with the ease of long-distance, technology-enabled communication that allows us to make this trip.) We intend to appreciate that privilege in as many ways as we can. Living in the moment while soaking up the climate, culture and people is the first step. Also on our list for this trip: tai chi in the park, involvement in community activism relating to water, women’s right, migration and other issues, cultural lectures, films at the tiny pocket movie theatres, meals and conversations with friends — and lots and lots of walking.

For two months we will enjoy mango, avocado, oranges, pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruits and vegetables the way they are meant to be eaten: picked ripe and nearby, rather than the way they appear at home: picked green and gassed for their long journeys north.

I always plan to learn how to make my own tortillas, but it is just so easy (and cheap) to buy them warm and fresh off the grill at any of the many tortillerias scattered throughout the city that it hardly seems worth the effort to make them. However we acquire them, tortillas will be part of our daily diet.

While we have yet to haul the ingredients up the hill to our house, there are bound to be a few margaritas made and enjoyed as well.

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