Sounds of San Miguel de Allende





By John Simonds


The sound of hammer on chisel is the music of San Miguel de Allende; it is what built this ancient community for over a century and it is the means of putting food on the table in the campo. In the hands of the thousands of construction workers, the hammer and chisel makes the sounds of life.

I am watching a listening while five workers set about converting the house next door into an exclusive boutique hotel using the tool passed onto to them by their fathers.

A lone white egret is roosting at the top of the tallest tree adjacent to Casa Liza where we are spending the winter months. It is a windy day, fourteen days after we arrived from the arctic know by most as Chicago.

 I sit and watch, and listen, wearing a Dartmouth cap that someone carelessly left in my closet in Chicago.

There are eight umbrella tables on stone surface installed by workmen trained in the craft by their fathers who never finished sixth grade.

The feisty wind has unhinged one of the umbrellas so that it spins at a forty-five-degree angle like the spinnaker on a sailboat. It fills with wind, spins and then subsides. The other six umbrellas are not enjoying the same fun. At midday, the sun is bright as San Miguel transitions from winter to the much awaited the glorious spring with its unfailing promise of blooming Jacaranda trees.

One of the workmen is wearing a head covering that drapes over his neck like the gear worn by the French Foreign Legion. He is operating a hammer and chisel to remove plaster covering the old brick.

 The sound is as familiar in Mexico as the sound of a buzz saw in the woods of Oregon. (My friend Tom claims the national anthem of Mexico is played on a hammer and chisel.) I suspect that Verdi was inspired by the sound of hammer and chisel to write the Anvil Chorus for the world to love.

The other two are rebuilding a wall out of old red brick pounding each brick in place with a small sledgehammer, designed specifically for the purpose. They make their own grout on the spot. Rebar structures sprout above and beside them ready to support unseen flooring that will appear at an unknown and undetermined time in the future, not the craft of bending rebar into shape.

Those on the roof bending and shaping the rebar must be decedents of the famous sculptor, Alberto Giacometti who created famous work that sell for millions of dollars and are revered in the art world.

In Chicago, modified forklift rides on the flatbed truck that carries the large quantity of bricks to be delivered-a single driver handles the whole operation depositing his load at the construction site, just in time, as they say.

Yesterday, a similar flatbed truck arrived at the construction job I am watching. It carried neat stacks of bricks aligned shoulder to shoulder like cadets at West Point. Six workmen appeared; each carried about six bricks on their weary shoulders until the truck was empty after two hours of back-breaking labor. That is how it is done in Mexico, without complaint.

I speculate that if the construction industry in Mexico were to become mechanized, as it is in the U.S., millions of uneducated workers would be unemployed and thus become a burden to the already emergent government.

Mary Jo invades my reverie. We leave the terrace where I have been scribbling to go for a cocktail at the Sierra Nevada Hotel. To get there we have to negotiate the ever-dangerous cobblestone on Calle Recreo. Again, we encounter the ubiquitous construction workers digging up the street to reach the utilities. Their tools of choice are shovels, 16-pound sledgehammers, long-handled picks, and blood, sweat and tears for twelve hours a day, sometimes.

This scene is replicated all over town-the utilities are old and vulnerable, typical of ancient cities like San Miguel built before the pick-up became a staple of life.

The Mexican’s here are known to keep a vehicle going long after it would be declared junk in the U.S. The old ones can be distinguished by the rattling sound on cobblestone as they leave a layer of exhaust in their uncertain path.

It is the end of a long day. The work is over. A pick-up truck arrives with a wife at the wheel, two small children beside her. Her workman husband jams himself into the front seat for the trip to the campos.

 A roof-dog barks as they leave the construction scene. The evening doves begin to coo and the sound of Modelo Beer being opened can be heard nearly everywhere.