Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Old Gringo

A few years ago, I went to school in Zacatecas, Mexico.  This is a beautiful old mining town nestled high in the mountains of Central Mexico.  I had been there several times before, but this was the first time I had been there for weeks at a time.  I loved it.

The silver mine was actually deep under the city and produced staggering amounts of silver ore from the seventeenth century to just a few decades ago.  The town shut down the mine, in part, because they were tired of the blasting rocking the buildings' foundations.  It must have been like living in a permanent earthquake zone.  (Oh, wait!--that was even before the mine opened.)

Today, the town still specializes in a lot of silver jewelry.  The mine, however, has turned into a nightclub.  You can ride down the mine shaft in old ore cars to a dance floor, deep below the center of town, where you can literally rock through the night.

I have to admit, the night club was never my thing:  places where you can still hear the music from last week reverberating should be avoided.  On the other hand, I love Zacatecas.  I love the old world charm of the town, the way the streets randomly intersect, the great food, and the French architecture.

It surprises the first-time tourist how much the town resembles parts of Paris.  Before the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1918 overturned the cultural identity of Mexico, the country copied the art and architecture of France.  The wealthy elite spoke French, guzzled champagne, and ate in the best French restaurants.  When the revolution started, President Porfirio Díaz fled to spend his final days in Paris.  Mexico more or less rejected almost everything European--but kept its belle époque buildings.  (Well, artillery in the war did rearrange the architecture of a few of them, but you get the general idea.)

The layout of the city is atypical of Mexico.  Most towns in Mexico follow a strict pattern.  During the Spanish Colonial period, the King found it rather hard to rule colonies three thousand miles away, so he set up a special group--the Council of the Indies--to set laws for the administration of the colonies.  The council was full of experts (that means they were mostly lawyers who had never been to the New World).

The council's rules included the layout of the town, the width of the streets, and the strict position of the church on the town plaza.  This is why the center of town looks pretty much the same whether you are in Tegucigalpa, Chihuahua, or Santa Fe.  Zacatecas, however, is different.

The discovery of silver ore produced a rush to the town.  Long before Spain knew of the discovery, the town was already established.  And it is a mess:  twisty streets that turn a corner and turn into stairs.  Alleys that turn into avenues that turn into alleys again.  And every street goes up and down hills like a roller coaster.  It's beautiful!  Zacatecas is my favorite town in Mexico.

In 1913, Ambrose Bierce decided that he wanted to travel and visit the Civil War battlefields where he had once fought.  So, naturally, he went to El Paso, Texas, and crossed the border to Ciudad Juárez, where he joined the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa.  If you have ever read anything of Bierce, you know this makes perfect sense.  (Nor is it very surprising that Bierce simply vanished, never to be seen again.)

Or maybe not?  No one is really sure that Bierce went to Mexico or if he really joined Villa's army.  But, unless he shows up tomorrow, we are pretty sure that he vanished--it is one of the great romantic mysteries of the Twentieth Century.

Years ago, Hollywood decided to make a movie about the whole affair, called The Old Gringo.  Gregory Peck played the part of Ambrose Bierce and for reasons that only make sense to Hollywood, they added Jane Fonda to play...Jane Fonda.  (Or whatever she was doing in the movie, I was only paying attention to the scenery!).  A lot of the movie was filmed in Zacatecas, in places I knew perfectly.

Every day after class, I used to go sit at a sidewalk cafe, where an imitation French waiter would bring me an Indio beer and a crystal bowl of peanuts, while I read a newspaper or simply watched the people on the street.  Every day, I was conscious that I was sitting in exactly the same place, at the same table, in the same restaurant where Gregory Peck sat in the movie.

And every day, I had the same thought:

"Hell.  I am the Old Gringo."

1 comment:

  1. A friend of mine wrote a screenplay also about an "Old Gringo". It was kind of confusing. I never quite figured out the point of the story.