INSIDE THE HISTORIAN'S TOWER

In the fall of 2008, I had the thrill of visiting San José de Gracia, Michoacán, the hometown of the great historian Luis González y González, who had died five years earlier. The unexpected journey to the almost-mythological highland hamlet came after having had the honor to speak at a scholarly symposium at the Colegio de Michoacán, which González had founded, in the provincial city of Zamora. A baker's dozen years earlier I had been introduced to don Luis in the Hostería Santo Domingo, the venerable Mexico City restaurant named for the colonial plaza near it where for centuries scribes and later printers have produced letters and ephemera for walkup clients who often dictate their words. I was in Mexico City to present a paper, drawn from the dissertation I was then completing, at an international congress of historians of Mexico. In graduate school I had been enchanted by don Luis's miraculously novelistic study of his ancestral locale; Pueblo en vilo (1968), published later in the United States as simply San José de Gracia, is a literary as well as historical masterpiece. Being in the presence of González that one time recalled the one time I saw the aged Borges, about a dozen years earlier still, as an undergraduate at Cornell; reverence charged my body for this writer who could now barely see but whose words had changed not only historical writing but Mexican geography. González's artful paragraphs, at once vivid and lyrical, had made a tiny place giant. They had put San José de Gracia on the map historiographically but in actuality it remained largely unseen. 

At the Colegio de Michoacán symposium's concluding dinner, I found myself serendipitously seated next to Luis González's youngest son, Martín, himself a noted historian and evident mensch. 

As we ate and drank, I implored Martín to map for me on a napkin where exactly was his family's famous (because of his father's book) pueblo, a place that even people I had randomly, hopefully asked in Zamora, people who initially insisted that they could locate it finally could not pin it down as their solicitousness slid into head-scratching apologies and the awkward return of my pen and pad. When Martín, who lived in Zamora, suddenly invited me to accompany him and his family to San José de Gracia the next day, I reflexively chucked my plans to go to Guadalajara for a postsymposium sojourn with a historian pal traveling with me to snatch this opportunity, hoping that it would not evaporate once Martín and I dried out by morning.


The offer proved solid. But Martín's red Beetle barely endured the climb to a place about which I had dreamed but never believed I would see. Would we make it all the way there in this stuttering jalopy? Did San José de Gracia actually exist? But now I was, finally, there. And the experience of jumping into a world created by a book was surpassingly surreal. I ecstatically perambulated the town don Luis had narrated into a legend, inventorying the quotidian sites his book had so tactilely described. 

I shyly joined the extensive González clan at a golden anniversary party for two married cousins, which had been the destination of Martín's journey, and was for me a ghostly prosopography; I felt don Luis's aura from every corner of the giant shed that covered the fiesta.

But it was the historian's familial home which held historical secrets. The house's hidden chapel, where Catholic rebels, Cristeros, had covertly worshipped (during their civil war against postrevolutionary Mexico's radically anticlerical central government in the 1920s) impressed but was not the compound's most stunning discovery for me.

No. The most magical moment was when historiography hit history in the secondary courtyard behind the main residence.

There, a whimsical tower, Bauhaus meeting Gaudí, selfdesigned by González rose several stories. It was the historian's library and study, which, without knowing what it looked like, I had wanted to see.

But the treasure, for which I did not know I was searching, was resting casually within this castle that González had architected for storing and writing books: a bin of velum rolls, blueprints don Luis drafted to guide his construction of the histories he penned inside the Borgesian bastille he had built.

This discovery exceedingly expressed what I had long believed and taught; writing history (like making documentaries) is architecture, much more than it is archaeology. But seeing don Luis's geometrically and thematically meticulous renderings was a revelation beyond my (but certainly not Borges's) imagination.


I have here immodestly indexed bibliographies to my publications with photos I snapped, on that unearthly October day, within and around don Luis's tower. Among the essays is one I wrote generated by my Zamora presentation and published by the Colegio de Michoacán. It respectfully took González's famous biography of San José de Gracia as its point of departure from where to interpret research from which my documentary, Our Neighborhood, has grown.