Kathleen Alcalá

The Clueless Eater

El fin de Guanajuato

Guanajuato III

The hills around Guanajuato are alive with mining, with small towns attached to them. All of these are accessible by bus. I visited two of them, not to see the mines, but to visit the churches, or templos.

La Valenciana was planned as a small chapel but grew larger and larger in scale as the wealth of the mine owner increased. It is a huge, baroque edifice most famous for the interior. The altar piece and flanking tableaus are almost entirely covered in gold. It sparkles and reflects light from its intricate, carved surfaces, with representations of the Christ, Mary, and some of the apostles nestled into the gilded woodwork.

The church is in high demand by the upper class residents of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende for weddings. It is, apparently, hard to book.

Outside the church is a smattering of gift shops, from outdoor stands to regular stores, almost all of them selling gold and silver jewelry, all promised to be made of ore from La Valenciana mine. Some of the stores sell minerals either as jewelry or in situ for the collector. Gold has always occurred with other hard gems and minerals, and a type of amethyst seems to predominate, with tourmaline second in abundance.

I bought a pair of earrings for a friend in a style typical of Mexico. I also bought a pair for her in Guanajuato, so whichever she does not want, I will keep. Also at La Valenciana, I bought a wooden bracelet with a picture of a saint on each section. While we all have the potential to become saints, it doesn’t hurt to have a little backup, especially at ten pesos.

The other church I visited is at La Cata mine. It is called Señor de Villa Seca (Our Lord of the dry villa). This is the church that is most holy to the common people of the town, although no Guanejuatenso would say one church was holier than another. Let’s say it is closer to their hearts.

I first heard about this church at the Museo del Pueblo, which includes local colonial art, a section of contemporary art, and a roomful of retablos – thanks for miracles wrought that are painted on wood, tin or paper, all dedicated to el Señor de Villa Seca. When I asked the guard about Villa Seca, another viewer said her daughter had been married there, and both women assured me that it was worth visiting the church to see more of this testimonial art.

To one side of the main church is a barrel-vaulted room made entirely of fist-sized stones. Into this are inlaid, in even smaller stones, religious symbols such as the bleeding heart of Jesus and a crucifix. At the front is an image of the Virgin Mary. This room contains retablos, wedding bouquets, and children’s clothing. At the back, in a dim niche lit only by votive candles, is the painted representation of Christ most associated with this church, rather than any of the images in the main sanctuary. While I was there, a man was consulting little pieces of paper and praying in front of this image. He also had a notebook with him. It occurred to me later that when people arrange to have prayers said at a specific place, someone has to do it. I think that was his job.

On the other side of the church, in a little outbuilding, is a gift shop. The man staffing it said that Villa Seca had been the name of the original mine owner. He had been well regarded by the people, which was not usual, and had brought the original image of Christ from Spain. In time, the name Villa Seca came to be applied to the Christ figure itself. He said that there were many more retablos that had been put away for restoration, and would be exhibited at a later time. I was told by others that some of the gifts and retablos were so popular they were being stolen.

The retablos not on view include some made during the tumultuous times of the Revolution of 1910. Many people, like my father’s family, went away to find sustenance and safety. The shopkeeper told the story of a man who was perdido – lost – for 25 years when he went to the United States before returning to visit. He, now well-dressed, and his brother, who had become a priest, travelled to town on the same train without recognizing each other.

In front of the church were three men selling Squirt, miniature mine carts filled with minerals, and helados. They were dressed as you would expect them to be, with a little hope that el Señor de Villa Seca would look kindly on them.

Selected Works

Anthologies
From the early literature of the Americas to the late 20th Century
Creative Nonfiction
Essays on Family and Writing

The Desert Remembers My Name makes an important contribution to discussions of ethnicity, identity, and the literature of place.”
Bloomsbury Review
Fiction
"...a mesmerizing tale... the author explores the fascinating confusions and contradictions plaguing a culture precariously poised between tradition and modernization."
Booklist
"She never forgot the power of storytelling as testimony."
The Utne Reader
"Kathleen Alcalá's Spirits of the Ordinary is an enthralling book..."
–Paul Yamazaki, City Lights Books

"This book entered my dreams."
–Alberto Rios
Short Fiction
"Thoroughly satisfying."
The New York Times Book Review

"By turns touching, entertaining, and surprising, and uniquely her own."
Publishers Weekly

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