Virgins and Saints in San Miguel’s Art
By Blondina Clarke
I am a visiting psychotherapist professional. I completed TripAdvisor’s best rated history and culture walking tour in San Miguel and then sat down with the guide for hot chocolate at the Santa Ana Café. An apt location, as guide Joseph Toone’s workshops and storytelling, like the hot chocolate, benefit the library’s arts programs for children.
Blondina Clarke: That was a solid two hours of storytelling about why folks in San Miguel do what they do, and you hopped across time and place constantly to settle squarely back in San Miguel. How do you do that?
Joseph Toone: It’s what I do, and love doing. There are countless stories of colorful saints, saucy virgins, and religious art, but unless I can tie them to today’s San Miguel celebrations I don’t commit them to long term memory. That’s why people come to see me, to understand what is going on around them.
BC: You hopped quickly to top of TripAdvisor’s ratings. Care to explain?
JT: I can’t as I’ve no control over that. I’ve been really lucky to have great folks who attended tours and workshops and want to encourage others to have the same experience. How lucky am I to do what I love?
BC: “Great folks” you say. Care to elaborate?
JT: Well, my tours don’t try to convert anyone to any particular line of thought or faith, but I do explain why we in San Miguel de Allende believe, and more importantly, do what we do. That attracts a certain curiosity in folks who want to know more than when the parade starts, but why it still exists and how come everyone is eating tamales!
BC: Yes, after hearing how tamales represent baby Jesus and our need to keep him warm in the corn leaves, I’ll never approach my favorite breakfast food in the same way again. San Miguel attracts a wide swath of visitors. Who have been some of the more interesting ones to attend a tour or workshop?
JT: Well, hands down, the funniest was a gal my height (I’m tall), but twice my width. Her career is a cabaret singer on gay cruise lines, a line of work I didn’t know existed! She basked in the recent fame of Adele as folks mistook the English singer for her, and I quote, “I’ve never had so much sex!” On a more serious level I get ministers, museum administrators, and art professors. Plus Mexicans returning on vacation with their families from the US or Canada who want to expose their kids to authentic Mexican culture. They are often the most intriguing as they have parts of the story of Guadalupe, for example, but never understood why her image was all around their home.
BC: With so many options for visitors, and other tour guides in town, why take yours?
JT: Long answer short, because I focus on what is going on in San Miguel, and why, during your stay. I constantly recommend some great guides for exploring Guanajuato or the pyramids and alike. I also train guides for other walking tours to provide a more culturally relevant perspective to their tours. I’m not better than anyone else, just different with a certain sense of humor that can, to some, be appealing.
BC: How did this all start?
JT: My first year here I was a volunteer teaching English and one of my students, a petite grandmother, pulled me aside to ask me to be her danzón partner. (Danzón is a style of dance, like cumbia or salsa.) I stressed that classes were in Spanish (that I didn’t know then) and I never danced before. I had to bend over low to hear a secret from her, that “I was a man.” And she needed a partner.
Eventually we became good, and I volunteer to teach dance now. We would perform at festivals around town for virgins and saints I had never heard of. To learn more I’d do research and write down the stories. Last Christmas I realized I had over 80 stories that I poured into a website to aid visitors. The tours started as an off shoot to promote the website but quickly took on a life of their own leading to a weekly column on the Culture of Faith in Atención and frequent fundraising workshops at the Santa Ana Theater.
That’s what is fun about living in San Miguel, you never know where today’s interest will lead.
BC: Last question, you pull your family into your stories with such regularity I feel like I know your parents, siblings, and children. Why?
JT: Like the saints and virgins in San Miguel, you want to be relatable. For example, all the ladies dress in black to keep Mary company the Saturday before Easter because they know what it is like to lose a child and don’t want Mary to be alone. My family tales make what we do in San Miguel something we’ve all experienced on some level. OK, maybe not everybody’s brother was a circus clown or had a father that hosted comedy roasts dressed as a nun, “Sister Virginia, Virgin for short but never for long.” But we all remember stuff heard while laughing more than any other time!
Toone hosts public tours Thursday and Friday mornings from the Oratorio at 9am. Throughout the year the Santa Ana Theater provides Toone’s fundraising for La Biblioteca workshops on art, saints, holidays, and virgins special to San Miguel.