Dawn breaks with that sadness sensation always present in goodbyes. Today is our last day in Morelia and, from the terrace where we enjoy a coffee that helps us to fully awake and breath the air of a city saying goodbye, Madero Avenue show us the path to what is going to be the last step in this journey. There’s a silence that only ends when Erick Legaria arrives to takes us to our destination and, after saying hello, he gives us a book that narrates the oral tradition recovering process he’s been working on from some time now in Michoacan.
Fully awake and after saying our goodbyes to all the people who made our stay at the Boutique Hotel Los Juaninos a remarkable experience both in confort and pleasure, we get and take route to Santa Fe de la Laguna, a little town near Patzcuaro Lake where the ATHESIRU social program is working to develop a sustainable community rescuing the purepechan traditions.
Before arriving at Santa Fe, it’s almost obligated to stop at Quiroga, a town just 2 miles away from our destination and the place where Vasco de Quiroga, the first bishop of Michoacan, established himself in 1537 and from where he realized a profound and valuable work for defending the indigenous communities while the cultural alienation was taking progress. In Quiroga, town named obviously after him, we stopped for a taste of one of the most representative dishes of Mexico around the world and, also, one of the most consumed ones in the country. This dish has its birthplace here, in front of the main plaza in a little venue called: Don Carmelo. We’re talking about Carnitas, the classical Mexican pork roast. Despite the history and fame of this place in popular food in Mexico, the restaurant is still the simple place it has always been, with that town spirit portrayed in its plastic tables and colorful walls. A music band appears out of nowhere to stand at the sidewalk and enrich this morning experience with traditional band music.
After this, we travel the short distance to Santa Fe and, walking the streets, we arrive at a main plaza where people is working everywhere to restore it to its original state and, among a careful process of restoration all over town, achieve the Magical Town tourism designation provided by Mexican Tourism Ministry. There, across the plaza, a little restaurant owned by a young woman named Berenice awaits us for, just as Erick Legaria warned us the day before, amaze us and deeply touch our hearts.
With her shy smile, she invites us to a table next to her kitchen in which the greatness of traditional cuisine of the indigenous communities is clear. Forget of all those massive stations of the kitchens you’ve known on your travels around the world. Berenice creates the flavors and signature of her cuisine using a stone oven feed by wood fire and, mostly, by using what is probably the most Mexican of all kitchen accessories: the metate, a stone mortar used to grind grains, corn and an endless list of ingredients. And she doesn’t use this because of funding for her kitchen in the middle of the lacustrine zone of the state, but because– and her voice is filled with pride and emotion when she explains this – using this stone mortar has a meaning going back hundredths of years and that’s something to pay respect to.
Forget also about what you’ve heard about dishes prepared by those who call themselves as creators of Mexican cuisine. Berenice knows that creating an emblematic piece of gastronomic history, you need to give it time to it, which is the reason behind days – and not hours – when preparing a dish, from picking up the corn and processing correctly, to its final presentation, which proves again that the best ally, in the richness of a flavorful and complex cuisine, is devotion.
While telling her experiences, it’s inevitable to feel admiration for a woman struggling everyday against all odds, even against the government programs that, to be honest, always seem to forget about them except for the protocol photo shoot. These men and women have found in Erick’s work a window of hope to keep fighting for the perpetuation of their processes, language, lifestyle and tradition. Of course, Berenice is telling us this while wearing the traditional outfit that we’re used to watch only in festivals or documentaries. She tells us that, actually, is her daily clothing – having a luxury one for special occasions – and walks us through the complexity of what it is to put it on. When asked, without losing any bit of her smile, she just answers: It’s not that complicated. And, even if it were, it’s a real honor to be on the street wearing something that is part of our identity.
Sitting at the table, drinking a tea with a never before tasted flavor, from a wild herb only found around the lake, the voice of this woman captures us talking about a dish that, in this community, is served with the biggest respect and the deepest ceremony just in very special occasions. Beyond the dish, what calls our attention is that, weighting the fish used in the recipe – personally collected with the fishermen of this region –, is made the same way it has been made for countless generations: balancing river stones into the scale to calculate the ingredients they’ll need for the rest of the dish. That’s why they call it, for example, a Four Stone Fish.
We went out gained by a woman that, for the first time in our travels through Mexico, is the living proof of a daily struggle for keeping not only traditions alive, but a way of life, and the whole culture where she was born, and within which she grew and became who she is. We arrive at another venue hosted by the ATHESIRU social program, a hostel that taught us with a ritual we ignored until that moment. It’s called The Big Room and, arriving at any place, one must enter this room and wait in the farthest wall for the host to welcome you to the place. This action is a trust sort of moment, in which those entering the place gets the confidence of the owner and the bonding of what this trust means. This tradition is not only used for strangers, but for everyone in Santa Fe de la Laguna and tells us about the respect between them, a concept we tend to forget in the big cities.
This is when the magic of this place gets revealed. Between these people smiling at us as we pass by gets very clear the humility and honesty of those who walk these streets day by day. And it is here where we understand the importance of recovering and defending the traditions gets its whole meaning. It’s not about a tea from a local herb, and it has nothing to do with the crafts created behind the doors of many homes and in the hands of a larger number of families. It’s about humanity in these communities, located along the rural tracks and one way roads all around this country. It’s about the pride they have on being what they are and who they have become in the course of centuries of stories. It’s here, in these streets that breath de years and steps of those who walked over where you can feel the essence of a town that, with its costumes, cultural richness, a native tongue more alive than ever and, above all, the people who has come and go, is ready to take possession of his rightfully owned place in the develop of what Mexico is and forever will be.
Leaving Santa Fe de la Laguna and already on the road back, there’s no words to describe what runs through our veins and minds after these three past days and, mostly, after this last step without which, for sure, our journey wouldn’t be complete. The streets of Morelia watched us arrive just to take the main highway back to Mexico City and to say a goodbye to Erick Legaria that won’t last for long, for his road and our road have still destinations to discover.
On the road, it’s impossible not to remember the words that Berenice spoke when saying goodbye to us and after we propose to her to find a way to bring her to Mexico City for her to show the gastronomy of Santa Fe de la Laguna with her own hands and her own flavors. While we were talking about this possibility to share her cuisine in this cosmopolitan whirlwind, her eyes light up and with a broad and pure smile of joy, she confesses that If so, I’m going to fulfill a lifetime dream by traveling on a plane… With the sound of the tires over the pavement and the air getting through the window, it’s impossible not to think that, in showing us a sometimes forgotten essence of Mexico, she opened her door and revealed us not an ongoing past, but a present full with history and, without noticing, helped us to fulfill our dream.