The Hidden Lovers of San Miguel

The Hidden Lovers of San Miguel

In the political thriller THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, Luz and Eddo briefly escape a political scheme to buy the Mexican presidency with drug money, and spend time away from the world in the lovely Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende.  A 4-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel is a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its creative atmosphere.  The historic streets are lined with shops full of Mexico’s best handicrafts and artwork, the architecture is a wonderful mix of European inspiration and Mexican flare, and it is home to the annual San Miguel Writers Conference and Literary Festival.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Creative mecca

The conference website says it all: The cradle of Mexican Independence, San Miguel de Allende has long been a mecca for social creatives – writers, painters, musicians, poets, philosophers, liberation theology clergy. Maybe it’s the crisp mountain air. Maybe it’s the thermal pools infused with natural lithium. Maybe it’s the Dalai Lama’s blessing. Maybe it’s you.

Several years ago our family joined two others for a wonderful and memorable trip to the city.

We stayed at a “villa,” which was really a long, low house near a hotel. Perfect for a group as big as ours, the location was secluded yet within walking distance of the hotel where we went for breakfast. There was a big field in front where the kids ran around with toys we bought in the square called El Jardin: balls on a string outfitted with long flashing streamers.

The villa and the field would create a pivotal setting for the novel. Two people from opposite ends of the social spectrum in Mexico–and it is an unforgiving fact of life there–in a place where no one knows them.

No one knows who they are or what they have been through.

No one to approve or disapprove of what they want.

Photo journal

I was experimenting with art and photography at the time, and the resulting pictures inspired the trip that Luz and Eddo take in the book.

Antique lanterns in San Miguel de Allende

 

View of La Parroquia from the villa

 

El Jardin

El Jardin bustling with people and energy

 

The cathedral of La Parroquia

 

The front entrance of San Miguel’s famous cathedral, thought to be designed by a local stoneworker after seeing pictures of European cathedrals

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

How to Find Love at Mexico City’s Markets

Love to find that perfect travel memory? Love authentic handcrafts? Head for Mexico City’s markets.

Markets inspired much of the atmostphere I wrote into THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY, the romantic thriller and modern Cinderella story. The sights, sounds, and temptations of Mexico City’s markets helped drive the novel’s authenticity.

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Find more than souvenirs

Mexico City’s markets are where you can fall in love with the country’s culture, people-watch both buyers and sellers, and find some of the best street food, too. Just watch your purse/backpack/wallet. Like every big city, Mexico City has its share of clever pickpockets, even in the best markets.

Related: The Lost Chapter of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Each market has its own flavor and specialty items and everyone I know has their favorites. These are mine.

Bazaar Sabado

Bazaar Sabado art

Samples of handicrafts available at Bazaar Sabado. Courtesy http://elbazaarsabado.com/mx/#expositores

A straight shot down the big Periferico highway from the upscale Lomas de Chapultepec area, San Angel is the most colonial of all the Mexico City neighborhoods, with old Spanish architecture and a charm that makes you want to stay and explore. The market—Saturdays only–is located on the edge of the Plaza San Jacinto and spills outside the building, making it an interesting but fairly well contained exploration. This is the place for very high quality (prices reflect that, too) glassware, metalcrafts, mosaics, artwork, etc. There are several restaurants nearby with great food, too. The market’s website gives more information.

The main building is organized like a US antiques mall, with vendors in stalls surrounding the building’s courtyard. My favorite purchases there have been beautiful laquerware and cedar carvings of a village, including different churches. Alas, the dog ate the carvings (no kidding) and when I went back the vendor wasn’t there. The rule here, as with all Mexican markets: if you see it and like it, buy it NOW. You probably won’t see it again. These are pieces of art, not mass market products.

I’m also kicking myself for never having bought any of the glass mosaic pieces—candle hurricane lamps, bowls, etc– that are a feature of this market, so if you go, let me know.

Jardin del Arte

Jardin del Arte Mexico City

Photo by Agustin Valero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9070692

“They waded into the sea of paintings that was Jardin del Arte.”

This quote from THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY says it all. This Sunday market is devoted to paintings of all sizes and shapes and is one of my favorite weekend places. It is held in a park at the northeast end of Rio Lerma (on Saturdays there are ballroom dancing events where older couples come out and dance to big band sounds.) Artists whose paintings are sold for thousands in galleries come with the lesser pieces which you can buy for a fraction of their worth.

Then there are the unknown artists with one or two unique items, the artists who make a living selling the predictable Mexican village scene of a house, a girl, and a donkey, and the rest who make this a feast for the art lover.

On the fringes of the park there are vendors who sell art supplies—every size and shape of canvas and type of paint and pastel. I knew one American woman who bought several paintings every weekend for a year and opened a gallery in the US with them. No doubt she jump-started many a Mexican artist’s career.

Related: Read Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

Mercado de Jamaica

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This is where people buy their voodoo stuff, I was told. Be careful if you go.

And yes, I saw the voodoo candles and statues of Santa Muerto, the saint of death idolized by drug cartels. Bottles of herbs and pamphlets with incantations. I bought a candle with special coins guaranteed to enhance the wealth of my family . . . still waiting to see the results.

Bu this sprawling market is also where the best Halloween/Day of the Dead costumes are sold, as well as flowers, food, pets, fabrics, household pots and pans, and just about anything else you can expect a Mexico City householder to use. Here’s a wonderful description of the market by Mexico City-based artist Jim Johnston.

Don’t miss out! Get your free copy of the Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico. Free download here.

Cuidadela

The market at Balderas

Photo courtesy Leigh Thelmadatter, https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/

This downtown city market is a warren of vendor stalls with a big selection of handicrafts and household goods. It is big but the quality is a notch below Bazaar Sabado and the pickpockets are more in evidence. Expect more aggressive vendors, too.

My best purchase there was a ¾ size guitar for $40 that was well-crafted with a nice solid sound, perfect for a son learning a new instrument. We still have it, many years later.

I also got a Bruce the shark piñata for my daughter’s Nemo-themed birthday party that was nearly impossible to break (Daddy had to cut it open with a penknife before the kids could get the candy inside!)

This is a great place for embroidered tablecloths and talavera, the heavy painted pottery from Puebla. Many vendors will take custom orders and deliver the finished tableware to your house. If you aren’t ready to buy, ask for the vendor’s card (tarjeta) so you’ll know how to find them when you are.

Insurgentes

Otomi embroidered cloth

Photo courtesy Anne Damon, Zinnia Folk Arts, www.ZinniaFolkArts.com

This upscale market on the Reforma side of the Zona Rosa is the best place for jewelry and the beautiful embroidered cloth by the Otomi Indians. It is near the Plaza des Angeles, a wonderful (and pricey) antiques mall with Spanish Colonial china, furniture, and artwork. (I have a soft spot in my heart for this place because I once left my car unlocked all day in front of it and the car was wholly untouched when I returned. A small urban miracle.)

The Insurgentes market can be a tight crawl; the vendors are squeezed together and the aisles between the rows of stalls are narrow. Most sell sterling silver jewelry and weigh an item before giving you a price. Stall owners can usually be found with a cloth polishing their silver inventory and will want to show you more items than what is on display. Lots of good copies of Tiffany, Louis Vuitton and TOUS jewelry but the Mexican-designed necklaces, rings, and bracelets can be breath-taking, especially those with semi-precious stones.

The Otomi cloth is unique, embroidered with big animals, many of which are imaginary. The thread is often one color, making a big statement that looks very modern, although some are multicolored. Vendors at the market generally sell pieces big enough to be a bedspread—for $300 and up—as well as pillow covers, table runners, and place mat-sized pieces. Ask to see more than what is displayed; almost all fabric vendors will have more folded up and stacked somewhere. So You Think You Can Dance TV host Cat Deeley had a pile of Otomi pillows on her patio in InStyle magazine. If you can’t get to the market, find these beautiful textiles at Zinnia Folk Art, which always has a wonderful selection.

Coyoacan

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

Photo courtesy Alex Fisher

The market in Coyoacan, near the bright blue Frida Khalo museum, is worth a stop if you are in the area. Coyoacan was among the first of the Mexico City’s neighborhoods to rbe named as one of Mexico’s Barrios Magicos (Magic Neighborhoods) due to its  tree-lined cobblestone streets, colonial-era homes, and rich cultural history. It’s got great local produce, as well as as a carnival of street food, including chapulines (fried grasshoppers.)

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

Padre Ricardo and the Sacristy of Santa Clara

The Hidden Light of Mexico City contains a number of references from my own experiences in Mexico City.  I’ve already written about the  class struggle of simply standing in a line but also wanted to share a sadder, more compelling event that helped shape the book’s narrative through the character of Father Santiago.

Related: Read HIDDEN LIGHT’S First 2 Chapters

Father Richard

Father Richard Junius–or Padre Ricardo–was the pastor at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Mexico City when I lived there.  He was an Oblate Missionary who had been in Mexico for years, ministering mostly to the rural poor.  St. Patrick’s was a sizeable urban parish  in a fairly tough neighborhood. It was the only designated English-speaking church in the city.

Fr Richard Junius

Years ago the church had sold off the school building next door. Funds from the sale  were held in escrow by the diocese for maintenance of the church and attached rectory.  The previous pastor had been removed due to a number of misconducts; when Father Richard arrived we were all cautiously hopeful that the new priest would set things right.

St. Patrick’s sacristy was a place I came to know well; the ladies of the parish cleaned it up for the incoming priest, removing layers of grime and polishing the few silver items the church possessed. My son was an altar server and I remade and cleaned all of the altar server vestments, hanging them in the room’s small closet.  The description of the sacristy of the church of Santa Clara in The Hidden Light of Mexico City is based on St. Patrick’s.

 

Father Richard was old and patient and tireless in his efforts to reach out to the local community and deal with their family issues. He made his new English-speaking congregation aware of prison irregularities in Mexico and didn’t flinch when an armed drug addict, stoned out of his mind, walked through the church and accosted him on the altar during midnight Mass.  He spent nothing on his clothing, wearing threadbare corduroy pants and sweaters that became the fictional Father Santiago’s wardrobe. 

Controversy

Father Richard had spent most of his time in Mexico in rural areas. Now in Mexico City, he seemed naive in the midst of Mexico’s spiraling crime and drug war. 

Twice he was assaulted and robbed while alone in the church counting  the Sunday collection. When parishioners insisted that the funds be handled differently, he disagreed, adamant that church funds were solely his responsibility and that he would not close the church at any time. 

He lent a substantial amount from the maintenance funds to an unscrupulous businessman man who never repaid the loan. Father Richard contracted for the bathroom repair without consulting with the parish council. Again, funds disappeared. The job was left half done and toilets didn’t flush.

Never afraid of controversy, he petitioned the bishop to change the church’s status from English-speaking to multi-lingual. The move angered some of the original congregation, but was welcomed by local families.

Much of the English-speaking congregation moved on, angered by his financial floundering. Several years later I was to learn that he’d been murdered.

A violent death

In August 2007, Father Richard was found stripped, tortured, bound and strangled to death in his bedroom in the rectory of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mexico City.  His body was found the morning after a fire had broken out in the basement of the church late at night.  Initial Mexican news reports speculated that the death was a result of “sexual misconduct,” and downplayed the fire as well as the theft of several items from the church.  The charges were heatedly denied by Catholic Church officials in Mexico, thousands of faithful, and the  Oblates, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Other reports of his death noted that he’d been in conflict with the owner of  a bar near the church whom Father Richard had publicly called out for serving alcohol to minors. The Oblate website reported that “many believe that the brutal crime was in retaliation for Fr. Ricardo’s efforts to impede the drug traffic and the sale of alcohol to minors in the neighborhood. He had reported to the police that such activities were taking place in a building near the corner of the parish church.”

From the family

Fr. Richard’s cousin got in touch with me in April 2016 as a result of this blog post. In an exchange of emails, she related how she was informed by the Oblate Provincial in Belleville, Illinois that Fr. Richard was murdered:

“After I explained my connection, the Provincial began hesitantly stating, “I don’t even know how to say this.” When I asked what he needed to say, he responded that Father Richard had been murdered between the Saturday night Mass of Anticipation and the early Sunday morning Mass. I later heard that his sister expected his body to be returned to Eagle Pass for burial near the grave of his cousin, my uncle Father Bernard C. Junius, OMI. Sadly, the Mexican authorities buried the body quickly in Mexico City.
 
Prior to his death, Father Richard had written a lengthy letter to my uncle Paul explaining all of the activities he was involved in – a thrift store, a radio show, marrying Spanish and Anglo couples. His passion for service and love of those he served threaded through the letter. His death seemed like the waste of a true servant of the people.”
 

Catching his killer

Father Richard was 79 at the time of his death and only a month away from celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest.  To my knowledge, his murderer has never been brought to justice and the official record remains death by misadventure.
 
Not content with that, I wrote “The Angler,” a novella based on the murder of Father Richard. In “The Angler,” Detective Emilia Cruz, the first female police detective in Acapulco, faces a similar crime. This time, the murder is solved.
 

The Angler by Carmen Amato

 

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

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A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

A tale of Mexico: the school bus and the thriller

THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY is a political thriller, with characters based on many people I met in Mexico City.

And a bus.

The setting

Let me set this up for you.

Our house was at the start of the school bus route going home. My children had a 10 minute ride. In the morning; they’d be the last to be picked up for a short ride through Chapultepec Park to the American School. To give you an idea of the student body, one of the other students was the son of a Mexican diputado. His bodyguards rode in an unmarked follow car. We never saw the bodyguards in the afternoon; I presume the chauffeur picked up the child like so many other children who attended that school.

One afternoon, a late model sedan parked near our house. A woman got out of the back seat, wearing a stylish dress, heels and ropes of gold chain. She introduced herself as Marit and said that her children rode the same school bus as my children.

They lived at the end of the bus line, she explained, and while she wanted her son and daughter to have the experience of riding on a school bus, it took too long.  In future her children would get off at our house and be driven home by the chauffeur.

Related: Reads Chapters 1 & 2 of THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY

A tenuous friendship

We spoke a number of times after that, me in my jeans on the stoop and she in her designer clothes from the window of the car.  When she learned I was new to Mexico City she took it upon herself to give me a tour of the best shops and restaurants in our neighborhood. The children and I were invited to a midday meal with her husband and children.  The event included lunch at their house–about 15 minutes away–and a stop in the kitchen to view the 5 uniformed staff and present my compliments to the cook in her white jacket.

Related post: Swimming lessons or how he wound up in a thriller

Soon after, Marit came over for coffee before meeting the bus. Our housekeeper, a wonderful young woman whom we did not require to wear a uniform, met us in the living room.  I introduced them as I would any two people, using full names.  To my surprise Marit immediately addressed the housekeeper using a common nickname rather than the housekeeper’s actual name. The grilling about work hours came next. It was an effective and not very subtle message: the housekeeper was getting above herself using her full name, not wearing a uniform, and leaving the kitchen instead of waiting to be assigned her work.

Related post: Itzel’s story or how she came to be in my novel

Marit also called me the next day and took me to task for not making the housekeeper work more hours–a day maid should show up to work at 7:00 am at least. By asking the housekeeper to come at 10:00 I was only encouraging her to become lazy.  I should note here that my husband generally referred to the housekeeper as the “Mexican Tornado” for her amazing work ethic. Marit’s words told me that there’s a caste system in Mexico that bottles up more people than just the Mexican Tornado.  So escape it, people will mule drugs or risk an illegal crossing into the United States.  Or both.

Be careful, I’m a writer

There were no more coffee or lunches after that but the final break came when Marit called to ask if, as an American, I could get her maid a visa. The family wanted to go to Disneyworld and take their maid to look after the children in the evenings.

The visa process took too much time, Marit said.  If the maid had to stand in line at the US Embassy she’d miss work.

I replied that I had no ability to obtain a visa for her maid and I never heard from Marit again. The car no longer stopped in front of my house to pick up her children.

But I had stored up enough from her tone, mannerisms, and home tour to cast Marit as Selena de Vega and transpose her home and servants into the Vega home. There are some differences to be sure, but the social ladder that Marit showed me became the impossible mountain that fictional maid Luz de Maria must climb in THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY.

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CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict.

 

Detective Emilia Cruz series

Find the Detective Emilia Cruz mystery series on Amazon

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