Destination—Bronze: Las Pozas

by Victor Walsh

In the afternoon sunlight, the peaks of the Sierra Gorda Mountains in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi have turned the color of burnished medal, while a smoke-like mist hovers in the valley below. On the steep sloped hills lush with vegetation and terraced with coffee beans stands the village of Xilitla (he-leet-la).

As the road climbs, it becomes a series of narrow paved switchbacks built more for donkeys than for cars. Unable to make a hairpin turn around a wall, Dick backs up and swings the Grand Marquis wide along the ledge. Below is a near straight drop through trees and brambles. Eventually the big car carries us into a maze of narrow cobbled streets.

The December cold chills us to the bone. Laurel trees, decorated with ribbons of Christmas lights, line the rectangular plaza. They are beautifully trimmed with the overhead branches laced together. At the end of the plaza is the gold bronze head of Benito Juarez, Mexico’s only full-blooded Indian president.

Across the stone walkway are several crowded outdoor stands. Children mill about, looking enviously at the goodsnot the vegetables and nuts, but the imports: the plastic toys, games, and tapes. A group of old men stand in the background. The light from their cigarettes casts shadows across their weathered faces.

One of them motions to me with his straw hat. He’s selling herbs in a wheelbarrow. One of the packages says, “una cura de diabetes” (cure for diabetes). A diabetic for over 35 years, I ask him about it. “It is good. It is grown here. Boil it for ten or more minutes,” he tells me. He needs the cash, and I decide to buy it. Later I boil up a brew. It’s bitter, and has no effect.

On the far side of the plaza is the church. Its stone archways and tower glow in the moonlight. Formerly an Augustinian convent built in the 1550s, it’s the oldest standing building in the state of San Luis Potosi. Portions of the facade are blackened with soot from a fire many years back.

The wall in the entrance is plastered with matrimonios announcing recent marriages. The tiny black and white photos of the young men and womenall campesinosstare back at me. They are enduring testaments to lives that revolve around la tierra y la familia (the land and the family). Off to our right is a small courtyard. Several girls in the adjoining room are practicing some kind of religious skit.

The church is bare and quiet. Flickering candles dance on the dark whitewashed adobe walls. Painted above the altar is a huge gold chalice, the cup shaped like a half-sun bursting with light. To the left is a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Her mestizo face is warm and protective.

Françoise, Dick, and I exit quietly past an old man, kneeling; his hands folded in prayer. The church is the center of people’s lives.

At a small café off the plaza, we order coffee and ask directions to El Castillo, the eight-room guesthouse that was once the home of the eccentric British millionaire, Edward James. The waiter points and says, “Right there, just down the hill.” It’s only a half block away.

The street, which is for pedestrians only, is so steep that it literally slides off from the plaza. We walk down the stone steps and ring the outside bell. Peering through the iron-grated door, I can see large, clown-like, cement blocks in the form of footprints leading to the entrance.

El Castillo is full. We make arrangements to have breakfast and to check in the following evening. Then, we trudge back up the steep street, wondering whether the Grand Marquis can accommodate all three of us at once.

Fortunately, we get the last two rooms in a hotel on the plaza. Its decorthe exposed pipes and unblemished concrete is unusual. “Must have run out of money, and decided to go early bombshelter,” says Dick. There’s no hot water for showers; in fact, there’s no water period from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. And the roosters begin crowing at first light. But the rooms are cheap, about $10 a night.

That evening we eat at a little restaurant tucked away in the darkness off the plaza. It’s a magical place. The rain bounces off the tin roof like popcorn. A breeze blows in from the vine-covered back veranda, and the parrots, hidden in the darkness, cackle away in Spanish and English. Lanterns cast soft halos of light above the wood-paneled stalls. “I see why Edward James came here,” I tell Dick and Françoise. “It’s primitive, dark, surrounded by the jungle below, like some medieval fortress.”

Sitting directly across from our table is a young woman stylishly dressed in black slacks with smooth copper brown skin, high cheekbones, and long, raven-black hair. She is holding a long, slender cigar in an ivory-tipped holder, while she chats with a waiter. She probably owns the place, and is most likely unmarried, given the fact that she wears only one ringa silver-banded turquoise ringon her right hand.

“Why don’t you go light her cigar, Victor,” says Françoise teasingly. But I make no move largely because I’m seeing two cigars after drinking most of a carafe of red wine. “Then, in that case, light her pistola,” Dick says half in jest. I say nothing, continuing to drink.

By now she is sittingalone. The smoke from her long cigar curls around her like a veil.

She is a woman who does not appear to bow to the patriarchal conventions of rural Mexico. Her silhouetted face, so stark in the soft light, epitomizes the unwavering spirit of La Soldadera. Dick is right: Her grandmother could have ridden with Zapata. She appears to have inherited the air of stoic equality, and the beauty of Adelita, but instead of a rifle she holds a cigar.

Mexico is a world of masks. Convention and tradition often conceal reality. I cannot bring myself to talk to her because she represents an impenetrable mystery or perhaps the illusion of this place.

There is the shadow of fear and prejudice in this remote mountain village. Several hours earlier, Dick and I had peeked into a saloon, with swinging cowboy-like doors. The sign on a ceiling-high post in the entrance said: “No men in uniform, armed men, or women allowed.” What does this meandrug racketeering? Military raids? And why women?

The next morning we return to El Castillo for breakfast. From the street the three-storied, oblong concrete building, with its jumble of rooftop turrets peeking above the high stucco wall, seems unsightly. “Looks like a tinker toy cathouse,” I quip.

But once inside, my impression changes. Thick, ivory-white stone archways, reminiscent of Old Spain, hold up the massive veranda. A tropical garden envelops the little flagstone patio. The upper-levels have a distinctive Moorish style with their diamond-shaped lattice of white rails and narrow columns. Everything seems disconnected, yet symmetrical. The swimming pool in the rear, nestled among flowering red orchids, ferns, and palms, provides a sweeping panorama of the jungle. “The place has more color than a box of crayons. This is an artist’s dream,” Dick tells me.

Over a breakfast of corn tortillas with scrambled eggs, fritas, and fresh fruit, we learn that James first visited Xilitla in 1945. He was only 38, and had already lived a full life as a fabulously wealthy art patron and world traveler. Rumored to be the bastard son of Edward VII, he grew up alone and largely ignored in a 300-room mansion in the English countryside. One Sunday his mother asked the maid to fetch one of the children to accompany her to church. “Which one?” the maid asked. “The one which goes best with my blue dress,” she replied. Edward sought solace in an imagined world of his own making.

A self-indulgent “free spirit,” he turned his back on the rigidities of Edwardian England, and traveled throughout Europe. For a time, he lived in New York City, before eventually ending up in Hollywood where he hobnobbed with motion picture stars like Bette Davis, Ronald Colman, and Humphrey Bogart. His wealth and eccentric charm gave him entrée into any social or artistic circle that struck his fancy. Among his friends were the playwright Noel Coward, the writer Aldous Huxley, and the choreographer George Balanchine.

His closest friends, though, were the “modernists”painters like Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, and Salvador Dali. In Dali, he found a genuine kindred spirit. After viewing some of his paintings, James had his couch designed in the shape of Mae West’s lips. Dali once told the psychologist Sigmund Freud that “Edward James is crazier than all of the Surrealists put together. They pretend, but he is the real thing.”

As a wealthy patron of his friends, Edward purchased dozens of their pieces. Later, as he continued to squander money, his art collection proved to be his last and most saleable asset. His former home now produces income for the family of his close friend and heir, Plutarco Gastelum, the Yaqui Indian, who designed and built El Castillo and lived there with his family and James. Plutarco’s children nicknamed James “our magical uncle.”

The next morning the Grand Marquis bumps along a winding dirt road through the rain forest. Our destination is Las Pozas, James’ sculpture garden. Built mostly in the sixties and seventies, it encompasses 80 acres on the side of a mountain dotted with 9 spring-fed poolspozasthat flow into a small river.

At the entrance, a pebbled footpath leads steadily upward past a column of concrete snakes. Red and purple bougainvilleas somehow shimmer in the dim winter light. Concrete bamboo trees sixty feet tall, doors opening into empty spaces, stairways spiraling into voids, and columns topped with gigantic flowersall a surreal fantasy born of James’ wild imagination.

Many of the re-bar concrete structures represent the animalsocelots, deer, monkeys, and flamingoesthat James dearly loved. There’s an Ocelot House, Parrot House, the Bamboo Palace, and House with a Roof Like a Whale. Seasonal rains have seeped into the metal rods, sprouting from the concrete blocks, rusting them and causing them to swell. Miraculously, most of the structures remain intact, but they will not stay that way indefinitely.

By all rights, the place should be a Mexican national monument, but it isn’t because it’s out in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, it defies order, logic. In the mist, I manage to lose Dick and Françoise, indeed all sense of direction, despite being a seasoned hiker and backpacker. The landscape seems to spin without an axis.

Climbing steadily higher among towering trees, I find myself staring into a snake-like gorge of pools below me connected by waterfalls. It begins to rain, becoming a torrential downpour as I retreat down the footpath towards the gorge. I slip into the pool just below the Henry Moore grotto, floating as the rain pummels me. The waterfalls become imagined water slides. Tall leafy trees float by, silhouetted in a smoke-like mist. Rocks, smooth as glass, are transformed into giant birds and flowers. I slide into three more pool before emerging at the foot of a concrete buttresses. Check notes.

Sopping wet, I eventually find Dick and Françoise at a thatch-roofed cafe near the exit. “How’s the water? Is it warmer than that dang shower at our first motel?” Dick yells. “I need tea, hot tea, not more water. It’s a monsoon out there!” I holler back.

Later that evening back at El Castillo we hear an interesting story. James revisited Xilitla in 1947 after hearing that orchids grew in profusion on its jungle slopes. He brought his secretary with him. The two of them stopped for a mid-day swim, and when the young man emerged from the water, he startled a colony of sleeping butterflies. They flew up in a huge cloud and then landed all over his naked body. To James, this was a mystical momentan epiphany. He had found his raison d’etre. A short time later, Plutarco bought the land for him. (Foreign-born residents could not own property in Mexico then.)

James set about recasting the jungle into his own private dream world. Plutarco became his foreman. By the 1960s he had a workforce of forty men. They built some 36 concrete structures, platforms, and aqueducts, and installed electrical lines to light the jungle at night in strands of dazzling colored light. All told, James spent five million dollars constructing Las Pozas before his death in 1984.

Today, 10,000 people live in Xilitla. Much of the mountain water is being diverted to accommodate more people and farming in the surrounding valleys. Modernity intrudes, manifested in the rooftop TV antennas and Internet cafes. But the old ways endure, carried from centuries ago in the folk memories of people shaped by this lush, primeval land.

Xilitla is a magical place, much as it was when Edward James discovered it. You hear it in the screeching cry of a wild animal at night. You see it in the eyes of a young boy playing his wooden flute on the plaza. And you feel it all around you in the mountain jungle. Hopefully, the little pueblo will remain what it isan enchanting retreat, where you might find your own wild orchids and butterflies.

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