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Open Road

by Catherine Watson
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February 2010 Archives

An Enchantment in Mexico

It was the last night of Mexico City's winter festival a year ago, and I'd gone to the Zocalo - the great plaza that has always been the city's heart - for one more glimpse of its giant ice-skating rink and the brilliant tapestries of Christmas lights on the surrounding buildings.

The festival ended with a literal bang - a giant fireworks display with fiery rockets and rainbow-colored stars exploding from the rooftops, followed by thousands of balloons drifting up into the darkness. As they faded, the full moon rose, its light like molten silver.

Thousands of people had watched the finale - teenagers, young couples, whole families from tiny children to grandparents, everybody bundled against the kind of cold weather that any Minnesota would call spring.

Now the darkened plaza was emptying out, and I was part of a peaceful flood of folks walking westward on the shopping street called Madero.

But as one show ended, another was starting. Every 50 feet or so, on both sides of the street, the living statues were setting up for work.

I'd call them mimes, because they never speak, but they mainly never move. That's their talent. Living statues are doing this for money in big cities all over the world, wherever crowds and tourists congregate. They've turned begging into performance art.

They hold very, very still for a very, very long time, usually in metallic costumes with their hands and faces grease-painted to match. But if you drop a coin into the tin can at their feet, they come alive for a moment, moving like automatons before they freeze into another pose.

This night was already magical, and the living statues made it more so. In just a couple of blocks, I passed a golden Cleopatra, a "Star Wars'' storm trooper in white armor, the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz,'' several clowns, and a good-looking young guy in a mariachi costume - tight black pants, black bolero jacket, huge silver-trimmed sombrero and, of course, glistening silver skin.

The mariachi didn't move much when I put a coin to the dish at his feet - just gave me a wink and a smile - but it was enough to make me smile back.

One of the statues got there late. As I watched, a short, plump woman in blue jeans rushed up to an empty spot at the curb, with her husband and little boy in tow, and got ready so fast that she was a show all by herself.

She set a plastic stool on the sidewalk, took a shimmery black-and-silver robe out of a bag and pulled it over her street clothes, put on a black face mask with a silver nose, added a pointed sorcerer's hat and got up on the stool. Her long robe floated down and covered it, making her look as if she stood on stilts.

Then her husband handed her a silver box, and she froze, transformed instantly into a tall, magisterial wizard, staring over the heads of the passing crowd, while her family melted into the shadows.

By then I'd noticed that when people gave coins to the living statues, the statues appeared to be giving something back. Usually, that doesn't happen, and I couldn't make out what it was.

Curious, I donated a peso to the now-serene black-and-silver wizard. Grandly, in very slow motion, she turned her eerie mask-like gaze toward my own, opened the silver box she held, bent forward and silently offered it to me.

The box was full of what looked like little tickets - inch-long pieces of colored paper, printed with tiny words. The one I picked was bright pink, and the writing was so small I could barely read it.

I expected a rhyme or a joke or a Spanish version of the messages you find in fortune cookies back home. But when I translated it, I saw that I'd been given something much better - something between a philosophy and a promise.

I've been carrying that little scrap of pink paper around with me ever since, like a talisman. All it said was this:

Dawn begins whenever you open your eyes.