By: Carlos Dragonné
The day begins with that feeling of sadness that always accompanies farewells. Today is our last day in Morelia and we enjoy a coffee on the terrace and breathe the aroma of the city. Madero Avenue reveals the path that will lead us to our last destination in this state of the Republic. There is silence at the table that only breaks when Erick Legaria, our tour guide, greets us and gives us a book about spoken traditions in Michoacán.
Already awake and having said goodbye to all those who made our stay at the Boutique Hotel Los Juaninos a real pleasure, we take the van to Santa Fe de la Laguna, a town near Lake Patzcuáro where the program ATHESIRU is working to develop a sustainable community through the salvation of Purépecha traditions. Before reaching Santa Fe de la Laguna, it is essential to make a stop in Quiroga, a town just three kilometers from our destination and the place where Don Vasco de Quiroga settled upon his arrival in Mexico. He made the deep and valuable work of acculturation without transgressing the deep-rooted traditions of those who already inhabited the place.
One of the dishes that most represents Mexico in the world and is also one of the most consumed throughout the country, has its origin in a small place in front of the main square of Quiroga: the famous Carnitas. And there is no better place to try them than where they were first made: Don Carmelo. In spite of the history and the leading role that the restaurant has in popular Mexican gastronomy, the place remains simple, with that spirit of town that, between its plastic tables and colorful walls, welcomes us from the sidewalk with traditional Mexican music from a band serenading the morning.
After fulfilling the whim, we cross the short distance that separates us from Santa Fe and we walk to the main square where people are working to rebuild it to its original state. They carefully restore the streets, houses, and chapels, to keep their place among the Magical Towns recognized by the Ministry of Tourism. In front of the square, a small restaurant owned by Berenice awaits us. She is a young woman who would not only surprise us, but, as Erick Legaria warned us the day before, would deeply touch our hearts.
Berenice receives us with a shy smile and invites us to occupy a table next to her kitchen. This act demonstrates the greatness of the traditional cuisine of the indigenous communities. Forget about all of the cuisines you have discovered while traveling the world. Berenice creates flavors in a stone oven fueled by firewood and, above all, makes use of what may be the most Mexican of all accessories: the metate. And it is not only a matter of resources in the middle of the zona lacustre de Michoacán («lake area of Michoacán»), but her voice is filled with pride and respect for the use of the metate that has shared its flavors and journey for hundreds of years.
Forget also what you have heard about dishes prepared by those who call themselves creators of Mexican cuisine. Berenice knows that in order to create an emblematic piece of gastronomic history, she needs to honor time that the slow processes take. She talks about days and not hours when referring to a specific dish. Since the selection of corn and the whole process until the final presentation, shows us that the best ally of a kitchen rich in flavors and complexity, is devotion.
While listening to her experiences, the feeling of admiration is inevitable for a woman who, every day, struggles to get ahead in the midst of the adversities. Government programs seem to forget her community except for when they need the protocol photo. Or when they have found a window of hope in the work done by Erick, to continue fighting for the perpetuation of the community’s processes, its language, its way of life and its tradition. Of course, Berenice tells us that she is dressed in typical dress like the ones that people are accustomed to seeing at festivals or documentaries. Berenice tells us that, in reality, it is her daily dress while she shows us her intricate daily process. When asked about this topic, without losing her smile, Berenice responds: “It is not complicated. And, even if it was, it’s a real pride to go out into the street with something that is part of our identity.”
Sitting at the table, drinking a tea prepared with Nurite, a wild grass only found in the zona lacustre de Michoacán with a flavor that we had never experienced. The soft voice of Berenice conquers us while talking about a dish that is served in the community with the greatest respect and the most profound ceremony on only truly special occasions. And, beyond the saucer, what draws our attention is that in order to weigh the fish that they use in the recipe, they must request it from the fishermen of the region. The local women still use stones from the river to calculate the remaining ingredients. Hence, they call it a Pescado de Cuatro Piedras («Fish of Four Stones»).
We left conquered by a woman who, for the first time in our travels through Mexico, demonstrated the daily struggle to keep traditions of a particular region alive, and honored the way of life and the entire culture she was born into: the culture that she was raised with and saw her become a woman. Between the streets that separate the four neighborhoods of the town, we come to another project in the ATHESIRU Program: a hostel that welcomes us with a tradition that we did not know about. They call it The Big Room and Berenice tells us that, when arriving at the house, one must enter and stand at the furthest wall so that the host can arrive and welcome the guest, in a kind of rite that reveals trust. This tradition is honored by those who cross the doors of each house in Santa Fe de la Laguna. It is not only for those who visit somewhere for the first time, but it is carried out daily by the inhabitants. It speaks of the deep respect between them. A concept that, undoubtedly, in the big cities seems to have been lost.
And this is where the magic of Santa Fe hits us. Being among the people who receive us with a smile and a sense of peace as they open the doors to where they begin and end their lives, puts us in total clarity. We appreciate the simplicity and honesty of those who greet us as they pass by in the street. It is here where the work of recovery and the protection of traditions and customs reveals its importance to us. What we discover goes beyond a regional herb tea, or a process of creating crafts, behind the doors of the homes and in the hands of countless families. It touches the humanity of communities that, between rural and single-lane roads that meander through Mexico, stand proud of who they are and who they have become through centuries of stories, experiences and moving. It is here, among these streets that breathe the history of when they received those lucky people who settled, where they feel, in a definitive way, the essence of a community whose customs, cultural wealth, and native language still in full force. Above all, the people who they have seen come and go, take with them the importance of what Mexico means today.
When leaving Santa Fe de la Laguna and reaching the road that will take us back to Mexico City, few words seem to define what runs through our veins after these three days and, above all, after this last stop without which our trip would have been incomplete. The streets of Morelia guide us to the toll road that will bring us home. There, we say goodbye to Erick, knowing that these paths that we have crossed will run parallel for a long time.
Already on the way back, it is impossible to forget the words that Berenice used to say goodbye to us after we suggested promoting the cuisine of Santa Fe de la Laguna through our experiences with her. While we talk about the possibility of inviting her to Mexico City to share her cuisine in the cosmopolitan whirlwind, her eyes light up. With a smile impossible to describe in its purity, she confesses that she could finally fulfill her dream to travel on a plane. With the soft sound of the tires on the pavement and the air entering through the window of the truck, I can not help but think that, by showing us the essence of a Mexico that seems at times lost in the whirlwind of urbanization, she opened the door and showed us not a latent past, but a present moment full of history. Without realizing it, she helped us fulfill our dream.
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