Hiding in Plain Sight Interview
Recently Maria de la Luz (Malu) Barboza sat down with San Miguel’s top ranked walking tour guide and bestselling author of the San Miguel de Allende Secrets series of books following his ever popular History and Culture walking tour with some questions:
Malu: First off, I applaud you for vast knowledge on why we do what we do in today’s San Miguel. Whatever sparked your interest?
Joseph: Endless curiosity, like George’s, the monkey.
It started when I first arrived and was a volunteer English teacher. One of my favorite students was a grandmother named Mercedes who took me aside to ask if I would be her Danzon partner. (I learned much, much later Danzon, not ‘dance on’, is a style of dance featuring women with fans.)
My response was I didn’t then speak Spanish or know how to dance, so I didn’t really see the upside to partnering with me. She replied, in a tone normally reserved for dim witted cats, “That’s OK, you’re a man.”
Eventually we got good (now I teach dance) and we performed in events in SMA and around the state and country. These events were based around religious fiestas. Who were these Virgins and saints I knew nothing about despite having been taught by nuns all the way through graduate school?!?
Following an event I’d do the research (mostly oral history because what I do you won’t find in books, certainly not ones in English) to understand the festival and wrote what I learned down. Soon I amassed over 80 stories on local faith and culture that were then compiled into a web site so when folks were on vacation and heard fireworks they could look up by date and have a notion about what was going on. The tours started from that as fundraisers and they instantly began a life on their own. Now I do multiple tours a week on a wide variety of subject matters from volcanoes, cave art and the Silver Route for weddings, photographers and intrepid travelers. I adore meeting folks from all over the world and comparing customs.
Last fall I combined the tour stories into four books that upon release shot up to the number one slots on Amazon for Mexican History and Travel.
Malu: What would you like to say to people all over the world about life in SMA?
Joseph: Exactly what I do on tours and in books. Namely, I’m not asking you to believe what others do, I’m asking to understand why and what they believe because with this knowledge your life becomes way more interesting and fun.
For example, now instead of simply being stuck in traffic in the blistering sun, you understand you are behind a procession guiding someone to their eternal life in heaven. Suddenly a five minute delay in getting to the grocery story is much more tolerable.
Knowledge removes fear, and its pal, anger.
Malu: What about the founding fathers, the Revolution from Spain and alike.
Joseph: Oh, Ignacio de Allende, Fr. Hildago and alike are all in the tours and books. I just focus on more than where Allende and his cronies met. That stuff is important, but covered in many walking tour pamphlets around town. I’d rather focus on the indigenous gods featured in our main plazas folks pass by daily and are normally completely unaware of.
Malu: Yours is a more unique perspective that needs to be taught .
Joseph: Gracias! I, and those that take my tours and read my books, certainly think so! Many foreign visitors don’t know the Inquisition lasted here much longer than it did in Europe, until 1820. Then it took another century, and a revolution, for the Church to lose any real power.
So if you were born a resident of San Miguel, you may never go to mass, but you’ll still name your kids after saints and have a big birthday party when your daughter turns three, because Mary did. Even pals of other faiths (or nun, I mean, none) will sponsor a posada, the Catholic telling of the Christmas story, as it is all part of daily life. If you picked out the Catholic threads of daily life your fabric will come apart.
Malu: Then why isn’t what you do done by many others?
Joseph: Because in a Northern culture one doesn’t discuss faith, religion, beliefs and alike unless you are trying to convince someone of something. Chat up my brother the Southern Baptist minister and he’ll let you know, in under a minute, if you aren’t Southern Baptist you are on the express train to Hell.
There are some really good Northern speakers on Mexican history here in town, but they’ll never mention the C word (Church) because of this discomfort. To me, knowing when battles occurred is nothing compared to knowing why they did. And why comes down to what folks believe.
For example, you may think you are simply woofing down a tamale, but in reality a tamale represented to the indigenous that early man was made from corn. That’s why Monsanto cannot genetically modify corn in Mexico, since we all come from corn. Then the Spaniards arrived explaining how a tamale represented baby Jesus and you keep the leaves on to keep the baby warm. Hence every faith based event in town (and everything is but the film festival and other modern commercial ventures) features tamales to remind each other of baby Jesus.
It all ties together and connecting those dots, and explaining them, is what I love to do!
Malu: Close on a funny story showcasing this thought you told on the tour about the St. Francis Church.
Joseph: Gladly. The St. Francis Church was built at our economic height and the height in popularity of Baroque architecture. Consequently there is an awful lot to see on the façade featuring a small army of people.
For well over a year I trained a group of foreigners that provided an architecture tour and they explained to me how no one knew who all the people featured were. That they even paid for an expert to come identify them and it wasn’t possible. I’ve read the same in a book in English.
Casually I mentioned this to a Mexican pal once when walking by and she was incensed. She sat down and wrote out for me line by line exactly who is featured on the church. And, trust me, some are very obscure in today’s world. My Mexican pal stated that the other guides were gringos, and Mexicans know who is up there!