5.0 out of 5 stars. From Midwest Book Review.
The spice of life awaits anyone who seeks to find it. “San Miguel, De Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing” is a tale from Rick Skwiot as he reflects on turning his life around during an extended trip to Mexico and learning what it had to offer him. With a thoughtful approach and no shortage of sensational writing that doesn’t skimp on the interesting parts, “San Miguel, De Allende, Mexico” is an excellent blend of travelogue, memoir, and spiritual reading.
By Rose Postma
Today University of Missouri–St. Louis alumnus Rick Skwiot is an award-winning author of several books, but in 1965 he was just a freshman beginning his education at UMSL. His unversity experience challenged and changed him.
“Many students were first generation university students like me – ethnic, eager to break from working class backgrounds,” he said. ”It was intellectually and socially stimulating. It made me think about living large, having a life of the mind.”
And live large he has. After earning a BA in sociology in 1970 from UMSL, Skwiot spent a large part of the 1980s in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico, trying to understand the culture and find himself.
Those years in Mexico provide much of the basis for his new memoir, “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico: A Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing.” His sojourn was filled with struggle, drama, seemingly supernatural occurrences, beautiful settings, humor and even a little sex and violence – the perfect subject for a memoir.
“In writing a memoir you get to use all your skills as a novelist and fiction writer, but you don’t have to spend all that time making it up and agonizing over plot, characters and causality,” he said. “Also, nonfiction has a certain credibility and accessibility for many readers who may not always buy into fiction. It’s simply another way at getting at the truth.”
Skwiot’s native St. Louis makes several appearances in the book as he periodically returned to Missouri in order to work to finance additional time in San Miguel De Allende. And even though he currently lives in Florida, he still makes it back to St. Louis several times a year.
“No living relatives left here,” he said, “but many friends and memories – of all sorts.”
Antaeus Books, which recently published “San Miguel De Allende, Mexico,” is a new publishing house founded in 2010 and is also reissuing Skwiot’s earlier published works in new editions.
“It seems committed to doing first-rate production of good literature,” said Skwiot.
Rick Skwiot has come a long way since those days as a freshman at UMSL and said a thousand things have shaped him, including his love of life and literature.
“Even as a child, I was interested in dramatic stories and books and hypersensitive – all helpful characteristics of a writer,” he said. “I’ve also learned self discipline and self reliance. Nothing good is ever accomplished without hard work and dedication, and no one else can do it for you.
Frequent SLM contributor Rick Skwiot writes both fiction and nonfiction; what he’s after is truth. In his new memoir— San Miguel de Allende, Mexico: Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing—it takes experience, memory, and imagination (not to mention women and tequila) to dissolve his North American angst. “Instead of cluttering their psyches with the debris of envy, hypocrisy, or regret,” he writes, the people of Mexico “exposed their sins and shortcomings, often with humor and a lack of self-consciousness or contrition that astounded me.”
You stayed in San Miguel de Allende 25 years ago. What surprised you, when you started remembering and writing about it?
How susceptible I was then, how much it all affected me. Living back here for so many years, I had redeveloped a gringo veneer. The other thing that was surprising to me was the schism between my memory and the journal I kept then, which was more on-the-spot reporting. I had remembered things differently than I had written about them. It made me start thinking about not only my own mind but how memory fluctuates and expands and moves about.
Which reality do you prefer—the one your imagination has elaborated, or the purer documentation?
The former. I’m very intuitive, very emotional. So the hard facts of things are not as important as the way they affect me. In my personal life, too, I want to get at what the truth is, whatever takes me there.
So what took you to a little town in Mexico called San Miguel de Allende?
I was going down a road in life I didn’t like very much. I had married in college. That didn’t work out. And I had spent three aberrant years in the corporate world, doing PR for AT&T of all people.
Yeah, truly. I wasn’t being myself. That’s what made me so vulnerable. I had this compulsion: I had to do something to change myself.
It’s interesting: You felt so driven to take action, yet the solution turned out to be passive, even indolent.
Yeah. There’s this Mexican philosophy where you just let things happen to you and take advantage of the moment and drop what you are doing if a friend comes by. There’s much more spontaneity.
Mexicans say, “Gringos do not live in their bodies.”
Yeah, and I think that’s become exacerbated now, because we have so much passive visual stuff we’re always focused on, and our work has gotten a lot more physically passive, and we’ve gotten more estranged from nature. Plus we’ve got this whole history of Puritanism and the Protestant Reformation and everything that drove the beginnings of the United States. A denial of physical pleasures runs very deep in this country.
Your book makes it pretty clear that sex, and the sensuousness that surrounded it, helped transform you. How?
The way we are abstracted and living in our minds a lot, sex is one thing that takes us back to what we are all about. Primal urges and feelings, love and affection and family and procreation, all these instincts are blended. It’s our chance to be animals again. It’s the most affecting thing we do to get back in touch with nature. It does get us out of living in our minds. Not only is it transformative, but it’s transcendent. We move out of daily routines and everything else when we are in someone else’s arms.
A woman you knew in Mexico said, “Ay, Rick. You try to speak our language and live like us. But you will never be a true mejicano if you can’t make love with people watching.” Can you now?
What did you leave behind, when you retreated from gringo culture?
A lot of guilt. A lot of self-criticism. I learned to forgive myself, and to forgive other people.
So what did you jettison first?
Being self-assured and closed down socially. A lot of prejudgment. We’re descended culturally from the Brits, and we have this thing where we judge people by the way they look or speak or smell even. That you had to get rid of pretty quickly. Mexico is a different land, and there’s not that much focus on style as there is on substance.
What was it like when you came back to your “cold, gray, cerebral existence” up north?
Why did you come back?
A lot of it is just being ambitious as a writer, and trying to feed myself. I don’t have a trust fund.
You write about finding a neighbor’s dead body, and how she haunted you, ashen-faced, for the next three nights. What do you make of that, 25 years later?
[He sighs.] I don’t know. I go back and look at that section every time I reread the manuscript, and I still don’t know what to make of it. I don’t discount any possibilities. I guess the Mexicans taught me that.
In Mexico, death is not only ever-present, but it’s treated lightly. How did living there change the way you thought about death?
Ultimately, I stopped fearing it. And I think part of that was simply because I’d started living.
“I thoroughly enjoyed every page. The writing is, as expected, exquisite, but there is something new and powerful about this memoir… [It] builds a strong emotional core that pulls you in from start to finish… And then, there are countless characters that just make you laugh out loud… Like the land it depicts, this is a book of rare beauty, hope and possibility.”
“A sensual feast. Rick Skwiot gives us history, culture, and humor as he describes the beauty, poverty, and peculiarities of life in small town Mexico. His words will make you feel the warm sun and the lure of tequila, but are grounded in the reality of life struggles–his own, other gringos, and his Mexican friends…Excellent read.”
“…a man’s version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love but without her fat checkbook and self-indulgence.”
“It is not about folk-art and being a clever expat artist living an unreal cocooned life in a Third World country, but about a man, a bit lost, who discovers things about himself through his interaction with people who really live there. If you want to know about the real San Miguel, and not the Tourist Guide version, then you will enjoy this book as I did.”
“…The author’s elegant, evocative style demands that the reader slow down–as the American who would absorb and understand Mexico must–and relish each carefully crafted phrase, apt image and well-chosen word set before him. In an era when our neighbor nation to the south appears inscrutable, incomprehensible and dangerous, Skwiot lays it bare, picks it apart for our study and reassembles it whole in a love song to the land where he came of age, lived within his body and found his writer’s soul. Memorable and important, this slim volume is to be savored, reread and treasured.”
“I read it once and just had to go back and read it again–I was so fascinated–for it delves into the lowest and highest reaches of Mexican culture… [The] award-winning author has accomplished another masterful writing…”
“…a thoughtful, sensitive and sometimes funny memoir of the author’s personal journey to personal discovery… His transformation occurs through personal observation and deep understanding of the people he meets. People who live in the present, live in their hearts and most of all live in their bodies… Skwiot discovers that to become an artist requires all one’s ardor. And that is not bad advice for the rest of us.”
By Rick Skwiot
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico:
Memoir of a Sensual Quest for Spiritual Healing
De Efe Mexicans call it, D.F., El Distrito Federal, or simply México. Licha was a chilanga, a native of the capital, a choking city of twelve million then, in 1983. I had agreed to accompany her there one weekend, hoping to get my tourist visa extended in the capital. (I should have known better. That Friday morning at the Gobernación, the department of the interior, I learned that the sole person in charge of tourist visas for the whole country had begun his weekend early.)
Licha had come to see her son, Alejandro, who lived with his lawyer father. That the father would get primary custody of a child in a Mexican divorce was not uncommon among her class. The daughter of an army general, she had married at nineteen into a wealthy family of lawyers and judges and into a life of suffocating ease and scrutiny. Servants did all the housework, cooking, and gardening. Licha was expected to travel by chauffeured car each morning to take coffee with her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law. Then she was free to do as she pleased: to shop, to visit her mother and married (but not unmarried) girlfriends, or to see a movie. But always escorted, purportedly for her safety in the teeming city, by the chauffeur, who’d sit two rows behind her in the movie theater. Licha spent a lot of time alone, reading. She suspected that her husband, like many men of his class, kept a mistress at a casa chica somewhere in De Efe.
I never doubted Licha’s accounts of her married life, which she gave only reluctantly and with an anger in her eye that I would not have wanted focused on me. Further, she was so clueless about household chores that I figured she had to have had servants her whole life. Also, I had heard stories of marital malpractice from Mexican women of all classes. Women whose husbands would not let them smoke. Wives who, like Licha, were not allowed to travel un-chaperoned or attend classes. Women who were required to devote themselves to the maintenance of rigid traditions, fulfilling endless social obligations—christenings, quinces, birthday parties, saint’s day celebrations, weddings, and funerals—with a dizzying number of in-laws. Nor was physical abuse uncommon. All this with macho husbands who often were having sex with other women or men.
As a result, many educated and independent young Mexican women like Licha, informed and emboldened by feminist movements in Europe and America, opted out of ossified Mexican marriage. But with few educated and non-traditional men about, some turned to lesbianism. Others sought out less tradition-bound European and American men.
That Thursday afternoon I had met Licha at the hotel when she got off work, and we walked down the hill to the dusty San Miguel de Allende bus-plaza. There we caught a grimy, smoke-spewing Flecha Amarilla headed for De Efe, some five hours distant, and settled back amid campesinos and workers on their way to San Juan del Río and Querétaro.
I tried to sleep, but the lowering sun came streaming through the window of the stuffy bus. Licha and I had been out dancing the night before, locals’ night at the disco, when the usual cover charge was lifted. We’d met Martina at La Fragua at nine-thirty for drinks and near midnight walked down the hill to Laberintos. There we danced and drank until four, leaving then only because both women had to work in the morning. As a result I was, typical of Thursdays, tired and hung-over.
I tried to open the window, but the latch was missing, and I thought of The Man with the Steel Teeth. I’d heard his legend from a friend who claimed to have met him. An American CIA operative who had lost his real teeth in Vietnam, he traveled about Mexico ferreting out information on radical groups. But he had seemingly lost more than his teeth in Vietnam, for he always carried in his coat pocket a miniature tool kit of screwdriver, pliers, hammer, wire, screws, nails, nuts, and bolts. With it he tried to fix Mexico, which had been left in disrepair. He leveled beds in hotel rooms, tightened legs on restaurant tables, and reattached handles in taxis. If he had been in my bus seat he would have likely gerry-rigged a latch and opened the window that I could not.
It had been dark for hours when our bus pulled into the capital’s Terminal del Norte. We bought a taxi voucher and queued for a cab. Then, since we were headed to the far south side of the city and taxis were scarce, we were shoved into a small cab with four other passengers, along with their plastic sacks and paper-wrapped packages.
We sat in the back seat, Licha pressed against the left door, me against the right. Between us sat two stoic mestizas clutching bolsas on their laps. The taxi moved silently through the cool night. I lay my head against the glass and finally dozed. But then a raucous yelp broke inside the packed cab. I woke with heart thumping, turned and saw the woman next to me tucking the head of a rooster back inside the plastic sack on her lap. Licha looked away, hand over her mouth, trying to stifle her laughter and turning dark red from the effort. A minute later when she had regained control, she got my attention and mouthed the words: “Only in Mexico.”
After an hour in the cramped cab we arrived at the home of Licha’s ex-sister-in-law Griselda, who lived in a new two-bedroom apartment with her husband Armando and their son Armando Junior. Though no doubt considered luxurious and commodious by the millions of Mexicans ringing the capital in shantytowns, the building seemed flimsy and a potential hazard in earthquake territory. And, like many Mexican structures, it stood uncompleted. The hallways were but partially painted and light bulbs there dangled from wires. I learned that Griselda and Armando had moved in three years earlier.
But more bothering was the smell. Somewhere in the darkened valley stood a paper mill that spread a putrid cloud across the sky day and night. I supposed one got used to it after three years.
However, once inside the apartment I forgot about it. Griselda was beautiful and charming and soon pulled me aside conspiratorially to share a flattering letter that Licha had written her about me. Armando, a mechanical engineer, brought out drawings of an invention he was working on, a wind-resistant bicycle. Armandito, just six, sat on my lap smiling and holding my hand. It was like coming home for the holidays but without all the family baggage.
Since I had not eaten since lunchtime and the women wanted to talk, Armando took me to a nearby restaurant in a new shopping mall. I guess he thought that as an American that’s what I’d want. He ordered us beer and shots of tequila and began telling me of his recent business trip to Los Angeles.
Armando could not speak English. Yet, for the benefit of the middle-class Mexicans seated around us who perhaps had not noticed that he was in the company of a gringo, he did so anyway. At least on occasion he threw in a few English words, the most Anglo-Saxon he could muster.
What he found most amusing on his American trip he had encountered at a sex shop. With tears of mirth he related his discovery of inflatable American “party dolls.”
“Primero, they inflar,…” Armando made a pumping motion. “Then…then they fook it! Ha ha ha ha! They fook it!”
Armando was nearly falling off his chair in delight over this bit of Americana. I glanced at two prim women seated next to us, but they seemed not to hear Armando or be offended by his four-letter words in this land of five-, six-, and seven-letter expletives.
While I ate, Armando drank, patting a premature paunch and stating he was on a diet. He talked more of his invention and laid out our plan for Saturday: Licha would visit her son. Armandito would go with his aunt for his piano lesson. Griselda would clean house, as was her custom on Saturdays. And Armando and I, under the guise of attending the horse races at the Hipódromo, would go to a brothel near the Plaza Garibaldi and get laid.
“Yes,” he said winking. “We go fooking.”
Next morning Licha went to visit her son, Alejandro, as planned. Armandito’s aunt picked him up for his piano lesson. Armando and I walked downstairs to his car, ostensibly on our way to the Hipódromo, Griselda following.
I had no great desire to go fooking as Armando had plotted. I was still hot for Licha. But as a writer, or at least as someone striving to become a legitimate one, I saw this as valuable research. I figured to get a short story or magazine article out of an afternoon in a De Efe whorehouse. But Griselda acted suspicious. Maybe she sensed something in Armando’s manner, or maybe she knew him only too well. Even after he and I were seated in the car and he’d started the engine, she lingered, leaning an arm on the roof and making idle chatter.
“It is such a beautiful, sunny day. I hate the thought of being inside.”
“Then why not come to the Hipódromo with us, mi amor, as I suggested.”
“No, you men want to be alone. We agreed. I would only intrude.”
“You know you are always welcome, wherever I go,” said Armando. “To the ends of the earth.”
She stepped away from the car. “No, no, no. I should stay home and work.”
“Well, whatever you think is best, my kitten.”
Griselda glanced down to Armando in the idling automobile and frowned as if she had just gotten a whiff of the paper mill. Then she looked up and squinted at the sun. “Well, it is a nice day. Maybe I will go with you after all. If you two don’t mind.”
“Of course not. We are overjoyed. Come, my sweet.”
As she walked around the back of the coupe to get in on my side, Armando looked at me and shrugged complacently. “Ni modo,” he sighed.
At the racetrack Armando insisted on getting a table in the open-air clubhouse overlooking the final turn. We ordered cocktails and la comida from a white-jacketed waiter. Another came to take our betting slips and place our wagers. For a railbird like myself it was quite luxurious, with bleached tablecloths, crystal, and polished silverware. And the track was beautiful, with pink flamingos strolling about a lake on the infield. I suspected it to be somewhat beyond Armando’s means, though he insisted on paying.
But luck was with me, and I was able to put him onto some winners going off at two-to-one and better, which more than paid for the outing. It had been the same on my previous trips to the Hipódromo. I suspected the Mexicans to be emotional, not scientific, bettors, playing lucky numbers or fetching names. Maybe some could not read The Form. Whatever, I saw to it that Armando came out in the black even after picking up the tab. Which was considerable given what he consumed.
He had apparently come off his diet. Before dinner he drank three tall cubalibres. Then he ate a meal consisting of soup, salad, roast lamb, fried potatoes, and dessert, a piece of flan, with coffee and brandy. But he was still hungry. He looked to his wife, holding his forefinger and thumb a millimeter apart.
“I’ll get just a little more, my dear. I still feel a bit empty.”
Griselda sat smoking. She glanced at Armando with heavy eyelids and went back to gazing at the flamingos and nursing a vodka-tonic. Armando called over the waiter and ordered a piece of chocolate cake. As he was finishing that we won another race. Feeling celebratory he ordered us more brandy and himself another piece of cake, lemon this time. Griselda sat and smoked.
The waiter returned with our drinks and placed the piece of golden cake, Armando’s third dessert, in front of him. Eyeing it with obvious lust he lifted his fork. As he did Griselda took a final puff on her Marlboro, reached in front of him, and pressed the cigarette out atop his cake, the red tip hissing in the yellow icing and turning black. Then she turned again to the flamingos.
Armando looked at his cake, fork frozen in midair. Then he lowered the utensil, pushed away the dessert as if uninterested, and, turning to me, shrugged. Ni modo.
That evening Licha returned to the apartment in a black mood. Her ex-husband had done his best to undermine her plans with their son, having arranged a children’s party that left her little time alone with Alejandro. She paced from kitchen to dining room as if searching for an object on which to vent her frustration. I vowed that I would not be that object and hunkered with Armando in the living room. I had seen Licha angry before, had seen her blister those who crossed her with hot harangues, eyes ablaze, nostrils flaring, the trilled double Rs of her rapid Spanish sounding like machine-gun fire. Further, I had just awakened from a brandy-induced siesta and wanted to return to full consciousness in peace, with a mild kick-start from the coffee I sipped and some dark-chocolate toffee I’d bought at the track.
But just as I was reaching for the toffee, Licha stormed through the living room. She stopped abruptly before me and gazed down with eyes wide. “Chocolate toffee!” she exclaimed. “That is my favorite!”
I froze, momentarily speechless. But then I felt Armando’s light touch on my sleeve.
“¡Sí! ¡Exactamente! That is what Rick said when he bought it for you: ‘This is Licha’s favorite. I will buy it for her because she too is so sweet and delicious. I have missed her so much all day.’”
Licha gazed down at me, tears welling in her eyes, a smile playing on her lips. “¿En serio? No, you didn’t really say that, did you, Rick?”
Again I heard Armando’s words sliding over my shoulder. “I swear to God, Licha, those were his exact words.” Armando sat erect, right palm raised as if taking an oath.
I felt his hand release my sleeve. I grasped the chocolate, stood, and presented it to her with a kiss. She stared into my eyes and caressed my cheek.
As she devoured the toffee I glanced toward Armando. He winked and surreptitiously made a brief yet obscene gesture with his fist.