Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Historic Research

While waiting for things to get started on the house, I began doing a chain of title. The people at the records office looked at me like I was nuts when I kept going back and back for more records. One actually refused to get me more information, claiming it had been lost. She apparently did not think what I was doing was appropriate behavior. I finally got the document from another employee. The Notary Public when we bought the house only went back to the late 1940s, one of the reasons I wanted to do a real chain of title.

In 3 or 4 hours, I was able to get it back to the 1940s in the current property records; and then had to get a special permit to work in the historic archives. This meant a copy of my passport and two passport-like photos and meeting with the head archivist. Fortunately, we had some photos left over from our visa registration in June.

Working in the historic archives was a different process. Not only did I have to buy and use a face mask and surgical gloves (for my protection presumably), but rather than looking things up by date and time (you find the date and time of the previous sale in the record of the current sale), you need to know the name of the Notary Public who oversaw the transaction. All the historic records are organized by Notary Public. These are the actual records that the Notary Public maintained and that have now been donated to the archives. They are written in longhand in large ledgers with tax stamps and annotations as the property later changed hands. They are not all complete or indexed, so it is a challenge. I now have our house back to 1919, with a reference to a purchase in 1899. Problem is that in 1919 various properties were transferred in an inheritance, and the normal rule of following the Notary Public may not apply as there is no reference to a Notary Public for our house, although there is for another property in the inheritance.

Little things creep out in the property transactions including the fact that women often had men sign for them since they could not write (and it is apparent that some of the signatures in the records are from people who did not often sign their names), that people were selling property to their tenants and family members, that the then current addresses of the purchaser and seller were usually listed, that the property in the 1930s starts being referred to as a farm which probably means they used the back of the property where the kitchen and back garden were to grow stuff for sale, and that the price of the house often stayed the same from one purchaser to another for a decade running, or that it even lowered in price.

The neighbors are, with one exception, the same now as they were in 1919, and that exception was the sister of one of the other owners. This is, of course, patently impossible unless we have three people in our neighborhood who must be aged 110+, and I know the neighbor to the south has only owned it for about 10 years. There are usually references to people’s nationality (always Mexican), age, marital status, and sometimes occupation. One of my favorite occupations was “dedicada a las labores proprias de su sexo”, the woman was “dedicated to the labors proper to her sex”, i.e. a housewife, and that was in 1945. Sounds like south Georgia of the 1970s. Neither the husband nor the wife could write and “signed” the papers with their fingerprints.

If I can get past the 1919 transfer, I hope to get the chain back to the time the house was first built so I can figure out who might have had the fresco painted and when.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas in Querétaro

Plaza de Armas at Night

It would be impossible to explain what happens in Querétaro at Christmas in anything less than a book. Every night since December 12, Virgin of Guadalupe Day, the city has organized an event at Zenea Garden. This can be a chamber music ensemble, a choir, a pastorela from a school or club, an estudiantina, or whatever. Zenea has been decorated with Christmas scenes, including a vision of hell complete with flames and demons with pitchforks, a traditional indigenous Christmas, a nativity scene, the three wise men’s encampment complete with elephant, camel and horse (different bible, I guess) among other things. Here are some pictures of Zenea Garden. All the other gardens and plazas also had something almost every night.

Part of an image of hell at Jardin Zenea.

I missed the horse and elephant, but here's the Three Wise Men's camel.

In addition, every school, club, church, or group has a posada or pastorela or party or public display. We have been to Mozart’s Requiem with the Querétaro symphony, to a chamber music concert with the symphony, and to a piano and soprano recital at the Teatro Nacional. One of the best was a mariachi concert of Mariachi Vargas, the “original” mariachi band in Mexico, with the symphony playing back-up. The auditorium was packed with people who knew most of the words to the songs, and we even knew the words to a couple. There were plenty of otras, encores. There have been weddings, sometimes several a day, at the more popular wedding churches, everywhere people are carrying loaded piñatas headed to parties, the peddlers are selling everything under the sun in the streets, and the streets are periodically closed and turned into outdoor restaurants with no prior notice.

Last night, we went to the Christmas parade which had commemorative floats celebrating the year of the anniversaries. 2006 was the year of the 475th anniversary of the founding of Querétaro, the 375th anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of Pueblito (the “queen and protector of Querétaro”), the 350th anniversary of the naming of Querétaro as the “most loyal and noble city of Querétaro de Santiago” by the king of Spain, the 200th anniversary of the founding of the parish of Santa Ana, the 180th anniversary of the biblical parade of Querétaro which will be held tonight and which was the precursor of parades with floats in the city, and the 100th anniversary of the library of Sagrado Corazon and the Eiffel Kiosk in Zenea Garden (yep, that Eiffel). After we have dinner with Sophie and Pierre and their kids, who are here for Christmas, we will go to the parade of biblical floats. And of course, I expect to get a phone call from Mamita wanting to be picked up at the bus station from the airport. Another full day.

Oh yeah, a pastorela is a typically Mexican play based on the Christmas story but which now includes devils, in addition to the angels and shepherds, and which is laced with political comment, double entendres, and some weird turns such as Zorro (our Spanish teacher, Alberto) leading the shepherds back to their wives who have headed on to Bethelem without them. An estudiantina is a group of young people, students, who dress in medieval university outfits, and wander around playing mandolins and guitars and singing traditional songs and ballads. A piñata is a container, originally a clay pot and still is sometimes, filled with candy and goodies for kids made to look like the President, or a star, or a donkey, or whatever, that is especially popular at Christmas. The kids break the piñata with a stick to get the goodies.

Breaking a piñata at Jardin Zenea.

And a posada is a ceremony that involves people in a neighborhood or street who go from house to house singing a traditional song to be allowed in “as there is no room in the inn”. This happens every night for the nine nights before Christmas. People inside the houses, sing back to them that there is no room and they should keep moving. Finally at the last house, they are allowed in and there is a party which is preceded by reciting Hail Mary a few times in the more traditional areas. The next night, it is someone else’s turn to host the party. We helped Bob and Maria who are padrinos (godparents) of the posada group in their neighborhood and who hosted the final posada party at their house a couple of days ago. Bob’s piñata , a big black spider, was especially popular with the 15 or so kids in the group. The next day I visited our “new” house, and found out that there had been a posada in our street the same night, and people had wanted to use our house’s electricity to help with the neighborhood decorations, but they could not since we weren’t there. Next year, I guess we will have our own posada to help out with. Ours will be organized by La Cruz church, while Bob and Mary’s was organized by the people in her street. There is a lot more that I won’t write down here, enough, in fact, to fill a book.

Christiane and a "student" at Niños y Niñas at the school posada. (Taken with my phone camera.)

Niños y Niñas' posada. (Taken with my phone camera.)

House Update

We started work on the house Wednesday before last. We still do not have permission from INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) who has to approve any changes to houses in the historic district. There were numerous little hurdles to jump over, such as proof that our house’s address is really its address, which takes a few weeks to get; a building permit from the city approving our plans; powers of attorney to allow our architect to get the permits; etc. So we started with things like demolition of non-historic structures, patching non-historic holes in the walls, etc. We have now torn down the shed in the back garden, the shower and laundry tub in the old bathroom area, the stairs to the 1950s service room over the bathroom, the blocked off door from the old dining room into the back garden that had been closed when the stairs were built, and the kitchen counter that turned out to be pretty recent, despite my earlier thoughts to the contrary.

Here are some before and after shots.

Shed in back patio BEFORE

Back shed area AFTER. The waste pile has since been removed.

Kitchen window area BEFORE.

Kitchen window area AFTER with stairs removed and old doorway reopened.

Stairs to upper guest room (actually the maid's room, but we won't have a maid) BEFORE.

Stairs to upper guest room AFTER.

Kitchen looking towards window BEFORE

Kitchen looking towards window in process of demolition DURING. Demolition has now been completed and the wall has been patched getting ready for finishing. Note the modern brick in the wall behind the counter that I initially thought was so old. Oh well.

Kitchen looking the other way BEFORE.

Kitchen looking the other way AFTER.

Looking down on the shed and back patio BEFORE.

Looking down on the shed and back patio DURING and before the stairs were removed.

The plan has been slightly changed from the last iteration, with two French doors to the patio from our bedroom instead of a window and a door, and a single large arched glass door from the new dining/living room to the patio. We also added a window to the storage room to allow some light and air.

I have been picking (can’t keep my hands off it) at the paint covering the fresco in the entrance. The entrance will be left alone to give me time to find an art historian which so far has been hard to do. I hope to get a lead from the local preservation group after Christmas, but they rarely answer the phone or even come to their office. Turns out the current governor is not a preservation kind of guy, and cut their grant this year. This is an NGO (NON-Governmental Organization), and yet they expect and get money from the government and apparently cannot function without it. This goes along with my previous post about waiting for the government to do everything for you.


After 3 or 4 months of dealing with a buyer who never fulfilled a promise until the last one, we finally sold our house in Atlanta. After our wasted visit to Atlanta in October to close on the house, when the buyer never showed and apparently had not even applied for a loan or do any of the other things a buyer is supposed to do, and after dealing with an agent who never learned the meaning of the term "time is of the essence", I had given up much hope of actually selling the house to them.

About a month ago, the buyers' father asked to replace his daughter in the contract. We said OK since it was the father with the good credit rating anyway. But two or three other deadlines to close came and went, and we finally put the house back on the market. Most recently, they said they wanted to close last Friday. When Thurs evening came, and we had heard nothing from our agent, I figured we would not close until next year, if ever. Mamita, who had power of attorney, was coming to visit us in Mexico on Sunday and Friday was our last chance to sign anything for this year. But that evening, hours after work hours, she called saying that the closing was on for the next morning.

And it almost did not happen then. One of the buyers still had not sent his power of attorney to sign the papers by the next morning. What with bad weather and Christmas traffic, I was getting ready for another abort, but after 3 and a half hours in the lawyers office, we finally had it sold. Of course, it was so late in the day, that the money could not be transferred to our account. But we have been assured by all involved (I would not believe the buyers or their agent) that it will be transferred after Christmas.

We celebrated by having a little party at Harry's cajun restaurant at Plaza de la Constitucíon. It is still hard to believe. These two sales were the hardest I have ever been through. It is bad when you cannot trust the people you are dealing with, but thanks to our agent and Mamita, we pulled off a great Christmas present.

Back to the Blog

Wow! We have been too busy to take the time to write down what we have been doing. I often write a paragraph in my mind, but by the time I get back to the computer, I have forgotten it. The problem is that many of the little things I would like to report and remember are ephemeral and I only remember them later in relation to something else, so that I am building up a corpus of experiences that together inform my views on living in Mexico, but that separately are hard to pin down as isolated events. Things like the Indian ladies who sell things they have made (baskets, embroidery, dolls) or bought (little plastic toys or gadgets) either by sitting on the sidewalk or wandering from café to café and who then sleep with their kids in a doorway. Giving one of them $10 MN (they usually only get a peso or two) makes them just stare; and it is heart breaking not to be able to do anything really lasting or worthwhile for them and their kids. The kids we work with at Niños y Niñas are also street kids, but their mothers are a little more urbanized than the ladies with the Indian clothing selling handicrafts; and I often wonder if working with our kids will have a lasting effect anyway.

The little Indian ladies may be beyond help in this generation, especially the ones who are over 50 and apparently have no family, and who are reduced to begging on the sidewalks. With Christmas, the number of people begging has increased exponentially. The solution to this problem is beyond what a government can do; and will involve a complete change in attitude on the part of all the citizens of Mexico, not just the indigenous population.

There has to be a change from the paternalistic, top-down, approach to social problems, that have always been pushed by the church and state (conservative or liberal), to one where people begin to believe they can change their lives, and then take responsibility for doing so. The problem is that the church and state have never done anything to help people believe they actually can do anything on their own to improve their lives and the lives of the next generation. The whole idea that the next generation will and should be better off than the current generation is restricted to a very small and educated portion of the middle class. The upper-class wants to keep things as they are, which they see as to their benefit, incorrectly in my view.

Probably 70% of the population believes and accepts that this is the way life is, the way it has always been and the way it will always be. In Mexico, religion is not much help and is truly the opiate of the people. Unfortunately, all parts of the political spectrum feel that more and more government is the answer; while in fact, the answer is for people to be able to do things on their own, including being effectively involved in the political process.

The other day there was a story in the paper about a group of clowns in Mexico City who were having a campaign to make people more tolerant while being caught in traffic jams. This sounds innocuous enough, but their signs said that since you cannot do anything to change the traffic, you may as well sit back and take it easy. Even the clowns did not think that there was anything people can do to effect change in government, and that people should just accept it and relax. It is this attitude, which permeates society here, that is the basic underlying problem and the reason Mexico has not, and probably will not, meet its potential economically and socially. ‘Nuf soap box.