A Mexican-American Dynamic
Two Sides of the Peso

by Lydia-jane Failing, including photos

I had been living in San Miguel for just a few months when my little Schnauzer, Boo! was dognaped and held for ransom. I received assistance from a new Mexican friend to get him back. It was the first occasion I experienced the extremes of ordinary, daily Mexican culture. I saw the best and the worst: kind-hearted, fun-loving, generous and do-anything-for-you, versus, devious, thieving, dangerous and gringo-baiting. In the four years I've lived here since I have not experienced such a stark example of this dichotomy. Here's what happened.

Most of the streets in San Miguel de Allende are cobbled. Many are narrow. Some are barely passable by modern vehicles. I've always been a careful driver, but this was so new to me. I, along with many others, found myself constantly getting dents and dings, in my case, in the big ol' Ford Taurus I naively drove down from the States, thinking it would be safer.

Realizing my mistake I wanted to get bodywork done before returning the car to Texas to swap for a more appropriate vehicle. I was referred to a fellow, Leonardo, who did bodywork close to where I lived. Leonardo was a street auto bodyworker. His business occupied a small garage and 8-10 parking spaces on the street in front, in which all the actual work was done. A nice-looking Mexican man, in his fifties, Leonardo would have been handsome were it not for the fact that he had lost all his upper front teeth in a car accident in his youth. Typically, he never had the means to get the necessary dental work done so was sensitive to this loss. Sadly, Leonardo rarely gave a full smile.

He did a good job on my car, was most accommodating and took a shine to me, no doubt due to my red hair and bright blue eyes. We became friends. When I moved to a new apartment he helped with the move. Unfortunately, the neighborhood I moved to was rather rough, evidenced by the attempted theft of my car battery the first night I was there. Lacking a garage, I had parked on the street in front of my house.

A neighbor without a car offered me the use of her garage, which I eagerly accepted. It was just around the corner from where I lived. However, it was a bit tricky to get into and out of, so I usually let Boo! out before I maneuvered the car into the garage. The street was totally quiet and he's a dedicated dog, not liking to let me out of his sight, never running off, So it was a shock when, moments after I had let him out and put the car away, I found he had disappeared. I immediately began calling for him and rushed up and down the street, to no avail. Boo! was gone.

Distraught, I rang my neighbor's bell and told her what had happened. I drove all over the neighborhood looking for him, had a photo made into posters, which I put up all around and showed to folks in the surrounding streets asking if anyone had spotted him. I was sick with worry and fear; what if he had been stolen to be used to train killer fighting dogs, or otherwise abused, put up on a roof without food or water? I cried myself to sleep that night.

Common wisdom was to post a reward on the local radio station to which the locals listen. On my way there I stopped off to see Leonardo, to tell him what happened. He offered to go with me to the station, and afterward, to pass the time we drove up to the Mirador/overlook which has an encompassing view of the city. We saw planes flying overhead in a formation - there is no airport in SMA, so what was that about?

It turned out to be the fiesta day of Señor Allende, one of the heroes of the Mexican Independence war with Spain, a hometown fellow. In honor of the his sacrifice of his life for the cause of freedom, San Miguel added "de Allende" to its name. Every year on this day several of the Mexican Air Force planes fly in formation over the city - what a fortuitous time to be at the Mirador when that was happening.

Afterward we stopped off for tamales at a street stand, and although I hadn't had much of an appetite since Boo! disappeared they tasted sweet and nourishing. Leonardo accompanied me home, and kept me entertained with his bird imitations, cheerful pep talks, and admonitions not to worry - everything would be OK. For several hours he kept my mind off Boo! and I calmed down. It was such a gift of helpful, cheerful kindness.

Three days after Boo! disappeared two boys on a motor scooter showed up at my door, asking if I had lost my dog, and was I offering a reward for his return? They brought him back, safe and sound, and happily collected the reward. When I asked where they had found him, they mentioned a neighborhood far away, which I knew could not possibly be true, as he would not have wandered so far away from me.

I phoned my neighbor with the garage to give her the news, and she said they had come to her house first and she had sent them around to my house. Only my phone number was on the posters and the radio ad, no address and certainly not hers - so how did the boys know from where he had disappeared? Something stinky was going on, and I didn't like it one bit.

My neighbor knew the boys, sons of a taxi-driver who lived close by whom she had often hired. She surmised he had been driving by in his taxi, spotted the cute little dog with the collar loose in the street, and scooped him up figuring he was worth a reward. He waited a few days, then sent his sons over to her house to get the money from the gringa.

She thought about confronting the taxi driver with his nefarious scheme, but when she mentioned it to friends in the neighborhood they advised against it. The taxi-driver's brother lived across the street from me, and he was a bad hombre, not to be messed with under any circumstances. I knew his house, had heard late-night loud parties and noticed unsavory characters hanging about at all hours. We decided discretion was indeed the better part of valor, and let it drop. But it sure bothered me: the father stealing a dog to get a reward, then sending his two boys off the collect the reward and return the dog - how very sad.

Next day I took Boo!, who was fine, just a little nervous, over to Leonardo's work street spot to share the good news. He was delighted, and told me he had gone back to the radio station again and paid to have the reward notice re-broadcast for me. He probably barely had the price of the ad in his pocket, but he had given it up for me and my Boo!.

I did not stay in that apartment very long - the neighborhood was too dangerous, and, anyway, the landlady sold the house. I moved several times afterward and Leonardo persistently stayed in touch. We occasionally got together; he took me to the house where he lived with his mother, showed me the grave of his daughter, (and together we went collecting the documents he needed to get the national health insurance, so he could get his teeth fixed.)

One Sunday he convinced me to try to local home-made pulque, a mildly alcoholic fermented cactus juice. It must be an acquired taste, because I did not enjoy it, but Leonardo got a bit tipsy from it. We went for walks, he was a great walker, going miles and miles over the surrounding countryside and every year he went on the pilgrimage of Our Lady of Guadalupe, an arduous several-day cross-country walk .

Leonardo eventually began asking me for money, to pay his rent, his electric bill. I gave him money for the electric bill, and told him I didn't want to see him again. Later I found out the amount of the bill he showed me was about 100 times a normal home electric bill. I'd never had to pay one directly before, it had always been included in my rent so I had no idea. It must have been from someone's business or something. He took advantage of my friendliness. Being the cliche of the "rich American woman," who should pay for what he himself was responsible for totally rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not rich, and was in no way inclined to pay his bills.

I ran into Leonardo one time, many months later, on the street. He was so happy to see me and Boo! again, and asked where I was living; I didn't tell him.

Our friendship was fun and interesting. It showed me the life local Mexicans live. And even though our relationship also showed me something of the other side of the peso, some less savory aspects of the Mexican-American dynamic, I'll never forget the kindness Leonardo showed me over Boo!.

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Lydia-jane Failing has always been happiest when she has been either working with or creating interesting, beautiful things and unusual people. Her most rewarding vocations were those that engaged her in these activities: Fine Art and Antiques Appraiser; Client Account Manager for Christie’s auction house in New York City; Vice President of the Wine Society of America, Marketing and Education; Manager, General Affairs for Gekkeikan Sake. Avocationally she has designed and sold a line of greeting cards and a mixed media / collage series called Medieval Women.

These activities either led to or resulted from a peripatetic life: she has lived in New Orleans, Houston / Austin, New York City / Duchess County, Australia, San Francisco / Sacramento and the Washington DC area. She landed in San Miguel in 2013, and expects this is where she’ll finish up, working with beautiful things and interesting people. And writing about them.

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