Innocents in Mexico, Chapter 12

Although I can’t find any of the photos I took in San Miguel, the background of this retablo I made while living there shows a shot of the courtyard of the hacienda where Ernesto wanted us to live.

Innocents in Mexico

Chapter 12


  The next day, I awakened early.  We were unsure whether Theresa, the housekeeper, came at 8 or 11.  Susan had told us one time, Steve the other.  I sat in the office in the balcony across from the master bedroom, watching Bob sleep as I started my laptop.  The sounds of the neighborhood flew in over the tall wall that I could just see over there on the second story of the house.

            When Theresa did not come by 11, we decided she was not coming, but we left one door ajar for her, just in case.  She had the key to the compound, but not the house.  We walked to the main road and caught a taxi to the Biblioteca, where we were to meet Ernesto and Dirk to go on a tour of the hacienda and Ernesto’s new school.  Everyone was on time and in fact, everyone had arrived early and gone somewhere to wait, mistakably expecting everyone else to be on Mexican time.  When I told Ernesto we had rented a house, he seemed crestfallen. 

            “Why would you want to rent a house for a month?”  he asked.  “You could be staying at the hacienda for $16 a night.” 

            We explained that we loved the house and that we needed space and privacy to work. 

            “At the hacienda, you could ride horses and use the kitchen,” he answered, still looking disappointed. 

            The tour took much longer than either we or Dirk had anticipated.  Dirk had brought his wife, Maria Antoinette, who was with us as we started out viewing the hacienda.  Everything seemed to be in a state of flux there.  In one large library , a computer stood on a table  and paintings were stacked ten deep against the walls.  They had been taken from the walls, said Ernesto, and replaced by other paintings.  The pool table had been taken from one room and sat, covered, in another.  Piles of mattresses lay in corridors or the corners of rooms.  In the kitchen, something bubbled on the stove:  a pot of beans and a succulent smelling joint that Ernesto insisted was being cooked as dogfood for the dogs.  A large room adjoining the kitchen was available for fiestas, explained  Ernesto.  We saw no one.  Eventually, a distinguished looking older man walked into one of the bedrooms we were inspecting.  He was introduced to us as the Don and he shook our hands politely, but did not seem too pleased to have us there.  In a rapid exchange, Ernesto seemed to be asking him how much it was to stay there.  It turned out that it was $16 per person, so at $960 a month,  it would have been more expensive for us to stay there than in the house we were in.  The Don left and we moved  through arched courtyards and gardens, and ruins partially intact left for atmosphere.  We saw a huge pool, apparently long drained, which Ernesto insisted was still functional, but too expensive to maintain.  They would convert it to solar and then refill it, he said.  But come.  This was the small pool.  Come see the large one.  I started  to feel like we were wandering on a private unauthorized tour through San Simeon prior to its restoration.  Below the “large” pool was a two-story house presently going through restoration.  The views from the patio––of rolling hills and green fields–– were breathtaking.  At one time the hacienda spread as far as the eye could see.  This was before the revolution.  Ernesto’s school was situated in the Armory, where troops used to guard gold and silver shipments, but first we must see this house.  We might want to rent it, he told us. 

            The house seemed to be partially occupied.  There were clothes and toiletries in the bathroom, food and pans in the kitchen.  Half-packed boxes lined the stairway.  Ernesto told us that the people had moved out, but it looked more like they were in the process of moving out.  As usual, there were many mysteries in the world as presented by Ernesto.

            Dirk, worried now that he would not get Maria Antoinette to work on time, asked when we would see the school.  He had expected this to take two hours, he said, and it had been that long already without seeing the school.  We must drive to the school, said Ernesto.  Slowly, since the road is bad.  We would drive most of the way and then walk, but first we must have some refreshment. 

            We pulled over in front of a tiny adobe casa by the side of the main road.  A bus drew up, disgorging schoolchildren home from school.  They scattered like wild kittens.  One small girl entered the courtyard we were entering.  We tried to crowd into a tiny shop, but there was not room for more than three.  Bob and Dirk went in to order Coronas for Dirk, Ernesto and me, juice for Maria Antoinette, Coke Light for Bob.  The Senora who lived in the small house behind the shop and who was the shopkeeper found chairs for all of us and we pulled them into a circle in the bare dirt courtyard.  A huge mesquite tree cast shade over half the yard.  The small girl picked a flower from it and handed it to Maria Antoinette.  If unfurled, it would resemble an hibiscus flower, but its petals were pulled down into a bell.  It was variegated tangerine, gold and orange––the exact colors of Maria Antoinette’s blouse and hair and skin.  We sat in the courtyard and told stories.  Bob, who was given to introspection before speaking, did not fare well against the talkative Dirk and Ernesto.  Maria Antoinette, who was originally from Mexico City but who could, she told us, now pass for a native of San Miguel, entered the house and fell into conversation with the Senora, who eventually pulled up a chair and joined us.  Dirk speculated on what Bob might be thinking, and Bob admitted he was anxious to see the schoo––what we all came here for.  Dirk again expressed worry that Maria would be late to work, teaching English at a private school, but Ernesto insisted we all have a second Corona.  In the end, he and Dirk had another Corona.  I  was already feeling the need for a siesta after one beer.  The hot sun and the lulling effect of far off echoes from the broad landscape had  made me content but sleepy. 

            We were very lucky, said Dirk, to be seeing the real life of Mexico.  Not many tourists saw  what we had seen today, he told us.  Not feeling like a tourist, and feeling like this is how I always traveled or lived in the countries where I have visited, nonetheless, I agreed.  Eventually, we drove on a bit, then parked under a tree after removing several large rocks from the road.  Ernesto unlocked the gate in the tall compound wall.  Towers rose above us––where armed soldiers once guarded the shipments of precious metal.  To our left was a huge bank of blue, glittering in the sunlight.  Next to it was a mound of goldish red, another of white.  They were like a rubbish dump where all of the refuse had been sorted by color.  As we got closer, I saw  that they were mountains of glass.  One was deep cobalt blue––like the color of Mexican blown glass tumblers.  The next drift was broken Pepsi bottles––clear for the most part, but here and there we could see the blue and red of the logo.  Mounds on the other side of the compound were of raw semiprecious stones still in their matrix.  One was of opals, the other chalcedony––what Bob and I knew as poppy and picture jasper.

             We went  first into the room where Ernesto had set up lapidary equipment.  The good equipment was in Texas, he said.  Most of this equipment was used or gerrymandered, but 20 or more stations had been set up. 

            Maria Antoinette sat down on a couch at the entrance and promptly fell asleep.  Ernesto  turned on a fan and directed it toward her and we left her to dream.  He showed us the faceting  tool and the opal grinder.  He showed us the ghastly clay fountain which he sought to mass produce.  It was a wet bar, a fountain and a lamp.  He could sell it very cheap, he said.  He showed us several wax sculptures that they would cast in bronze.  One was by a Swiss lady who wanted to study there, he told us.  His plan was to set up a mobile home park in the center of the compound, where people could come from the States for lapidary and casting workshops much cheaper than those in the States.  They would have school for poor and crippled children, as well.  They would feed them lunch, Ernesto explained.  We moved into another building.  In it were mounds of pot metal molded trinkets––cats, dogs, women, crosses, flowers, every conceivable shape.  Piles of circular molds covered a table.  He pressed the “on” switch on the machine used to melt pot metal. He wanted show us how quickly  this could be done.  He pounded talc onto the molds, fit the two pieces together, and put them up against the snout of the pot where the metal was being heated.  Poof, that quickly the mold was filled and placed to cool.  Then another and another.  You could do twenty in one minute if they were all prepared, he told us.  When he peeled the mold apart, we saw a circular chain of trinkets––perhaps thirty or more––ready to be separated, tumbled and gilt or silver plated. 

            Hanging from the ceiling was a large toy plane––perhaps five or six feet long.  It looked like it had been constructed from old soda cans or recycled tin siding, but Ernesto said it was very expensive.  Strapped to its bottom was an infrared camera.  It was a remote-controlled plane  (the predecessor to the now-ubiquitous drone) which he could send up to locate water and minerals, he told us. 

            Next, we moved to a side compound filled with slab cutters and diamond saws.  Most were rusty, but all functioned, he told us.  Earlier, there was a flood and all were underwater, but they may all be made to work. 

            Bob suggested that more than a resident artist, Ernesto perhaps needed a production manager.  Whereas Ernesto insisted the school would be open in two weeks, it looked more like two years to us, and it looked more like a sweatshop than a school, although Ernesto insisted the money would go to the kids with only enough going to the “school” to keep it functional.  When I questioned Ernesto about the artistic side of things––most of these designs were just being mass produced and were less than esthetically pleasing––at their best pure kitsch––Ernesto insisted they would also do their own designs.  That would be where Bob came into the picture, he insisted, but I could feel Bob’s interest fading.  Years ago, before he himself had built diamond saws and slabbers and drills and worked with stone, perhaps it would have been challenging, but at this stage it felt like going backwards, not forward.

            I asked Ernesto what his goal was.  He said that the metal and gem crafts of Mexico for generations had been centered elsewhere, in towns where they had been passed down in families, from father to son.  He wanted to open up the crafts to everyone and to establish San Miguel as a center where people could set up their own studios and establish their own crafts.  This was the beginning part only.  The school had first to support itself to enable the students to go on and become independent.

            When Ernesto talked like this, I believed him.  He told us he had sold his Mother’s house in New Orleans to enable him to buy two factories and  two mines.  This was where the tools and the raw minerals had come from.  The glass was from a glass factory which he rented out space to here in the armory, but they hadn’t paid rent for a year, so he had locked them out .  That is where the glass came from.  They would use it to make enamel. 

            “How many people have been working on this school?”  I asked him. 

            “One,” he told me, and pointed to himself.  “Sometimes two.” 

            Although the don had offered him lodgings in the hacienda, Ernesto said, he had a very nice apartment and girlfriend in San Miguel, where he preferred to stay, but when I went in search of a bathroom, I saw in a back secluded corner of the workshop a cot covered by a tarpaulin.  On the tarp were several piles of neatly folded clothes.  By the side of the bed was a refrigerator wrapped in chain with a padlock. 

            Later, I confided to Bob that I wondered if Ernesto was indeed living in the armory.  Bob admitted  that he wondered the same thing.

            Dirk, who was a retired dentist and lapidarist, confided to me that he was tempted to stay in Mexico and get involved in Ernesto’s project.  It was the first thing that had peaked his interest and made him want to get active again in years, he said.

            Sweat shop or school?  Mass production or art studio?  Visionary or Con Artist?  Who could know?  But Ernesto continued to intrigue us with his tall dreams and his big stories.  How did people discover the truth about each other?  One part of me wanted to believe in his dream, but intuition told me we were being gently conned.  Well, manana.  We would wait and see.


Chapters 1-11 can be found in earlier blogs published in the past two weeks.

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