Tag Archives: Mother Land by Paul Theroux


A friend recently said to me, jokingly, as we strolled along the streets of San Miguel, that there are two kinds of gringos in Mexico: Those who are wanted (as in, appearing on posters in the U.S. Post Office), and those who are not wanted (as in, by their families back home). I laughed. But like most jokes, this one had a loud ring of truth for me.

I can’t speak about the wanted ones, though I have no doubt there are a whole lot of gringo-bandidos in our midst here in Mexico – people who are on the run from the law in their own countries (mainly the U.S.) for whatever reason.  I’ve never met any. I imagine I might cross paths with them if I were to hang out in bars or nightclubs after dark, but that’s never been my thing. I’m more of a daylight kind of person.

I prefer to venture out in the afternoon and enjoy the beauty, sunshine, and warmth of this gorgeous old colonial city on foot, alone, with my camera in hand. I walk miles, striving to observe and admire everything – the cobalt blue sky, the twisted-limbed trees, the stony old walkways, the vivid dripping bougainvilleas, the misty distant mountains – all of the foreground, mid-ground, and background landscapes of San Miguel de Allende.

I’ve noticed, in my new passion for watercolor painting, that my daily exercises in learning this challenging art form have mostly been of landscapes – small paintings inspired by my favorite photos of the day. It’s not enough to preserve the beauty I see around me here with photography; I seem to need to take it a step further and put my fingerprints over the scene via my paintbrush on 100 percent cotton paper.

This is my way of saying: I am here now, this is the land I now call home, I am profoundly thankful for all this earthly beauty, it gives me joy, and these small landscape paintings are my proof.

On a walk in El Charco, SMA’s botanical gardens

Clearly, I belong to the second group of gringos, by my friend’s jokey definition – those who are not running from the law but rather seriously seeking a sense of belonging and acceptance not found in our hometowns or home countries.

My friends here, most of whom are single gringas about my age, have similar stories to mine. Our stories are different in details but alike in that “family” is a painful concept. Some never experienced a happy family, some have lost their families to tragic death or bitter divorce, some have grown children who have cut ties, some have hateful daughters-in-law who have exiled them from their sons and grandchildren, some chose not to marry and have children and are now alone in the world. All of us have made new lives for ourselves here in warm, embracing, healing Mexico. And most of us, in our own small ways, are thriving.

Last month I read Paul Theroux’s novel Mother Land, a thinly veiled autobiography, which resonated with me, as it would with others from less-than-loving families. Jay Justus, the protagonist of Mother Land, comes from a large and contentious New England family that was so unsupportive and mean-spirited, he couldn’t wait to leave it and find happiness elsewhere in the world — as far away as possible. Naturally, Jay becomes a travel writer.

“Travel had always been my salvation,” Jay states at one point, “though perhaps I was less a traveler than a refugee. … Everywhere I went I found strangers kinder and more civilized than my family.” Later he adds, “all I knew of family life was wreckage – a shipwreck that cast forth scavengers and wounded, frightened people, potential cannibals, fighting to survive.”

This week I received an e-mail from someone in my family of origin suggesting that instead of my thinking of my watercolor efforts as “third-grade” level, as I related in a recent post (www.bonnieleeblack.com/blog/third-grade/ ),  I should consider my level as “pre-school.” This kind of remark would be categorized as humorous to them, but I don’t share their sense of humor. They are not my tribe.

My new tribe is found here in this sunny, earthy landscape, among the kind, good-natured, tolerant, nonjudgmental Mexican people — and the gringo misfits like me who are not wanted back home.