Not Just a Walk in the Park

Last week, on a particularly dazzlingly bright and sunny Saturday afternoon, I decided to return to my former neighborhood near my beloved Parque Benito Juarez here in San Miguel de Allende to visit some of the familiar faces I used to know there. It’s a long walk, but I was up to it. I wanted to know how they were faring in this pandemic.

In the courtyard by Los Lavaderos, the once-public laundry on the corner of Recreo and Santa Elena, a stone’s throw from the park, I stopped to say hello to a sweet man I used to greet every day on my walks to the park when I lived there. This middle-aged man, shortish and stocky as many Mexican men tend to be, makes his living selling decorative, hammered-tin objects – such as candlesticks, angels, many-pointed stars, mirrors and picture frames – to tourists.

In the nine months since I moved away, my Spanish-language skills have improved a bit, so I thought he and I might be able to converse, really for the first time.

Los Lavaderos near Parque Juarez

He appeared genuinely happy to see me again. He asked where I’d been, and I explained I now live in Colonia Guadalupe – “una distancia,” I said, waving my arm in that general direction – and my daily walks now take me to Parque Zeferino, nearer where I live. When I asked how things were going for him, he smiled a wan smile and shrugged a little. “Más o menos” (more or less), he said bravely. But I could tell it was more like menos.

Inside Parque Juarez, the 100-plus-year-old jewel of a city park that’s been entirely refurbished in recent years, I saw that only two artists had set up their paintings against a long retaining wall. In pre-COVID days, Saturdays became outdoor art exhibitions in this park, with dozens of Mexican artists showing their work for the pleasure of – and, with luck, purchases by — passersby. Sadly, not now.

One of those two, whose name I knew – Carlos – waved to me and smiled in recognition, so I stopped to talk with him in Spanish too. When I asked how business was going for him, he answered matter-of-factly, “Ahora no mucha gente” (not many people now). His handsome face expressed neither anger nor defeat, but rather: this is life.

It was a good thing I was wearing a face mask and large dark sunglasses because they hid my tears. As I walked away from Carlos, in the dappled sunlight filtering through the 100-year-old trees, past empty park benches and the unused basketball courts and the silent kiddie playground, I began to cry.

One of the many empty park benches in Parque Juarez
The empty basketball court in Parque Juarez

This, now, is the tourist season in a city dependent on tourism for its lifeblood. But because of the pandemic, one sees very few foreign tourists here these days, and next to none of the usual American and Canadian snow birds here for the winter.

The Candelaria plant-and-flower fair, which used to transform Parque Juarez into a huge colorful garden when nurseries from all over Mexico brought plants, pots, and flowers for display and sale during the first half of February every year, is not happening this year.

The renown San Miguel Writers Conference, which has attracted thousands of writers and book lovers to this city from all over the world at this time of year for 15 years, is also not happening as such. The events are all online now. (Go to www.sanmiguelwritersconference.org for more details.)

I have no doubt that the municipal government is doing its best to deal with the pandemic, and I’ve observed that most locals are following the rules with characteristic patience and endurance. Despite this, it appears to me, as an outsider, that the people are hurting. It’s beginning to show.

And more and more people are dying. As I write this, the number of people who have died from the coronavirus here in San Miguel since last March has reached 156. Just this week I learned that a friend’s favorite doctor died of COVID; the owner of a much-loved store, San Miguel Shoes, died of COVID; and a radio personality on the local station, a voice that came into everyone’s homes, has been silenced by COVID.

These are strange and strained times for everyone, everywhere. I feel fortunate, though, to be old now and retired, living on a small but steady monthly Social Security income. I feel deeply grateful to be a permanent resident of this beautiful old colonial city in this sunny, embracing, affordable country. I feel indebted to Mexico for a new lease on life. And I would urge my fellow-expats to feel the same.

We gringos, who I maintain should behave as respectful guests in this country, must not, I feel, isolate ourselves in our comfy cocoons, remaining glued to the news on our computers or TV screens all day, to the point where we are blind to the current struggles of the Mexicans living all around us. We must, I believe, go out for walks (wearing a mask, of course), to stretch not only our legs but also our hearts and our minds, to open our eyes to this grave situation on the ground, and then do whatever we can, whatever is within our individual power, to help.

At the entrance to Parque Juarez on Aldama

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I invite WOW readers to share in the Comments section their specific thoughts and suggestions on HOW we might help.

31 thoughts on “Not Just a Walk in the Park”

  1. Bonnie, just today Ellie and I were talking about our canceled trip to San Miguel last year, and how sad we still are not to have been able to make it there. I told her that even the parks are closed there now, but evidently not? Did they reopen or did I misunderstand?

    I am so impressed by how clean and beautiful everything still is there. They are keeping it beautiful for the time when people can flood back into the streets and enjoy their culture and each other. It reminded me of Out of Africa, when Baroness Blixen was away for medical treatment for syphilis, and her manservant, Farrah, put fresh flowers on her vanity every day.

    1. Yes, Be, last year at this time we were so excited about your upcoming visit, which (alas) had to be canceled. The Jardin — the beautiful park in the town square — is still closed, but Parque Juarez and Parque Zeferino have reopened, gracias a dios. And, yes, this city is well cared for, kept clean and manicured, always.

  2. Nice writing, Bonnie….and such a sad situation for the people in SMA and elsewhere in Mexico. It is heartbreaking indeed. Sadly, it may be a long time before things improve.

  3. Thank you, Bonnie, for this lovely blog. Personally, I tip more now into the customary tip cans on the counter tops, and I stop to give coins wherever I can. I think how lucky I am to be in this beautiful city, and give wherever possible on a small retirement income (still so much more than many have).
    I try to frequent the local merchants to buy their wares – and the young children selling miscellaneous goods from their baskets,. More often I just give them coins rather than buy, the food, and their grateful smiles are reward enough for me.

  4. Beautiful testament to the resiliency of the Mexican people. I am hopeful because of all the grassroots initiatives like that in our own neighborhood of Guadalupe as well as the retooling of non-profits like Feed the Hungry that provide food each week so that people are not starving. There are so many ways to give back here! I am so thankful for these and our beautiful, well maintained parks that provide food for our souls.

    1. Thank you, Suzanne. Yes, Mexicans are so admirably resilient! If you would like to post here some links to the nonprofit organizations you’d recommend WOW readers might support, that would be terrific!

  5. Bonnie,
    I visited San Miguel de Allende for the first time last February, before I was aware that a pandemic was coming. Everything about the visit was special… the city, the food, the sunshine, the most gracious people. It is a trip I frequently relive in my mind as I shelter at home, feeling so isolated. I can see why you love living there, I became attached in just one short week, having been the recipient of so many acts of kindness and wonderful conversations. Let us hope the vaccine flows freely over all the world so the people can rebound and share community again.
    Paula

    1. Thank you so much, Paula, for this. Let’s hope that things will improve here (and everywhere) so that you can return to SMA in the near future and enjoy all that it has to offer again. Best wishes, Bonnie

  6. Dear Bon,

    I get the feeling here, that while we are being told things are getting better, they really are not. I think the news only cares about certain people, who also happen to be those who are doing well. Beyond the financial struggle, there is also the mental struggle. We have all been traumatized by this, and it doesn’t get enough attention. People are living in silent fear. Thank you for another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Love,
    Paul

    1. Thank you, dearest Paul. Just promise me that as soon as such travel is safe, you’ll come to visit me here in SMA to recover from all this trauma so we can celebrate together! 🙂

  7. Querida Bonnie, thank you for this reminder that so many have been affected in so many ways by this pandemic. I am so sorry, but not surprised, to hear that so many in SMA are struggling. Cuidate Amiga. xoxox

    1. Thank you, dear Kim, as ever, for your empathy and compassion. I’m sure that most of the people who live in beautiful, touristic places in the world and who rely on tourists for their livelihoods are suffering similarly.

  8. Lovely, mournful, empathetic, Bonnie. I know how the lack of visitors crushes so many people dependent, more or less, on them.

  9. Dear Bonnie, A beautiful reminder of why I love San Miguel so much. Can’t wait to get back in March to walk the streets, the parks and give what I can along the way. Hope to see you then.
    Abrazos, Alice

    1. Can’t wait to see you back here, dear Alice! SMA misses you. And I saw on FB that you made my recipe for shortbread hearts! Hope they were a hit with your family. Happy V-day to you, BB

  10. Ive been living in the San Miguel area now for over 40 years…There have been three epidemics in that time…However…This is definitely the very worst of them. People will be all right when it passes. But in this particular case new versions are spinning off and are even more infectious than the earlier ones. San Miguel has always had a strong heart. And a highly cooperative nature. Pulling together is our best defence against this plague. And as always before the folks here are doing exactly that.. My biggest concern is the doctors and nurses and first responders who are also becoming ill. I dont know if losses in those groups can be replaced …we must support and appreciate them…And pitch in wherever we are able to…Even small gestures are seen and encourage the aid groups..

    1. Thank you SO much for your perspective and experience, Sterling. I especially appreciate your sentence, “San Miguel has always had a strong heart.” Yes, el corozon de Mexico [SMA] will get through this, with all of our support.

  11. Hello, Everyone — Bonnie asked me to post my comment here, instead of just among neighbors in Colonia Guadalupe. San Miguel has been hit hard by economic shutdowns, particularly our neighbors — artisans, taxi drivers, waiters, hotel housekeepers — who depend on tourists. Since April 4th, we have been feeding as many as 180 families a week through an all-donation based and all-volunteer effort run by our Mexican neighborhood association Por Amor a La Guadalupe. Many of us here donate on a weekly or monthly basis, but we also count on friends from far away. If any of you would like to help our neighbors through this ongoing crisis, you can donate via PayPal. catepoe@gmail.com (REALLY IMPORTANT: After you enter the amount and click, the next screen gives you the option “send to family and friends”. PLEASE select that, otherwise a chunk of your donation goes to PayPal instead of food. Thanks!)

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