Laura Stern, Frances Marshall and me at the reading

MamaBookThe View from Casa Chepitos: A Journey Beyond the Border is due for release on September 15th! Read further for a synopsis and to hear what people are saying about my memoir.

On a ten-day a visit to San Miguel de Allende, Judith Gille falls in love…with a hot pink house on a rundown alleyway. Without consulting her husband or knowing how she’s going to pay for it, she makes the owners a full price offer.

Despite a bumpy start in the new culture, Gille and her family eventually befriend their neighbors on callejón de Chepito and form a close bond with the Cordova clan. As their affection for the lively Mexican family grows, so do the complications of their cross-cultural relationship. When the oldest daughter seeks to cross the border illegally, the lives of the two families become inextricably entwined.

The View from Casa Chepitos puts a human face on the immigration controversy and paints an intimate portrait of Mexican life. But the story also explores the deeper issues women of all ages and cultures face: affirming their self-worth and purpose, building enduring relationships, and discovering where it is they truly belong.


“Judith Gille offers a clear-eyed look at making a new life for oneself in another country. Setting her new existence against the one she left behind, she finds revelations at every turn.”

—Tony Cohan, author of On Mexican Time and Mexican Days.

“Reminiscent of Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, Judith Gille tells us in elegant and evocative prose, how a tourist becomes a traveler and how a place where we were once a stranger can become home.”

— Mary Morris, author of Nothing to Declare.


I’d always intended to throw a big party in San Miguel de Allende for my 60th birthday. I figured I’d not only celebrate my birthday, but also the twelve years I’ve lived part time in Mexico.

Ten years earlier, my husband had invited fifty friends to our house in Seattle to celebrate my half-century mark. It was a big surprise and people came from as far away as Oregon and California. The best surprise, however, was when my friend Martha showed up and brought her son Silas, who I helped deliver into the world when the midwife was too preoccupied unwrapping the cord from his neck to catch him. His mother and I had been estranged for over ten years and a teary rapprochement at the party led to our renewed relationship.

I remember thanking everyone, not only for coming, but because each person there had helped me, at one time or another, through a difficult time. That party was the closest thing to a perfect birthday I’d had since the surprise slumber party my best friends threw for me in 9th grade.

But the closer I got to 60, the less I felt like partying. In fact, I felt quite the opposite.

What I wanted most was a week of contemplation and retreat: yoga, meditation, reading and a tiny bit of writing sounded ideal. My only other requirement for it was that it be in Mexico, the place I love most in the world. So I signed up for Elizabeth Rainey’s yoga/meditation retreat in Sayulita, in the state of Nayarit, and booked an extra three days at Playa Escondido on the front end for a pre-retreat retreat. I spent those first three days meditating, reading, getting massages and staring at the ocean for hours at a time. My idea of pure bliss.

The day the retreat started I walked up the hill from Playa Escondido to the Haramara Retreat, ten minutes away. The following week held even more delights than the first three days: there were abundant ocean and mountain views from Haramara; six a.m. meditation sits as the sun came up; an amazing array of birds twittering, tweeting, or bursting into song; morning and evening yoga sessions with the yoga goddess, Rainey, that strengthened my muscles and my commitment to do yoga until the day I die; a congenial and interesting group of fellow yogis; the ever-present sound of the ocean, clear air and brilliant blue skies. And a very special night spent watching the full moon in Libra rise over the coastal range of the Sierra Madres from the lower pavilion.

For me, however, the sweetest surprise of the retreat happened the night a guitar player came by to serenade us at dinner.

The main course had been cleared as we sat around a big communal table gabbing. The guitarist was playing an assortment of old Mexican favorites mixed with a smattering of Flamenco. He played La Llorona, a Mexican ballad I adore, especially when Chavela Vargas sings it.

Then a waiter emerged from the kitchen bearing a giant gluten-free birthday cake for me and my fellow yogini, Joyce, and the guitar player immediately switched to Las Mañanitas, the Mexican birthday song. The guitarist’s friend, a buxom middle-aged woman dressed in a hot pink t-shirt, stood and sang the complete version for us. Like the Spanish language in general, the Mexican birthday song is far more romantic than the English one. I translated for Joyce and our group as she sang:

Wake up my dearest, wake up, see now that the day has dawned
now the little birds are singing, the moon has finally set.
How lovely it is in this morning, when I come to greet for you
we all come with joy and pleasure and to celebrate with you.
The very day you were born all the flowers here have bloomed
and in the baptismal font all the nightingales have sung.
The dawn has come my darling, and the sunlight’s here for us.
Rise and shine up with the morning and you’ll see that here’s the dawn.

Later, as we were all straggling out of the dining room and back to our palapas for the night, I stopped by the table where the guitar player and his woman friend were sitting.

Muchas gracias for singing Las Mañanitas to us,” I said to them in Spanish. “It was a very special birthday present.” The singer smiled at me.

“Can I give you a birthday hug?” she asked.

 “¡Claro, que sí!” I said.

She stood up and enveloped me in the most generous, life-affirming embrace I’ve ever received. And that’s saying a lot. I’ve been hugged three times by Amma, India’s Hugging Saint, and it didn’t feel half as love-filled and genuine as the woman in hot pink’s hug. She smelled sweet and spicy like a good Oaxacan mole. Her body was warm and her skin smooth and soft. I felt as if I were being embraced by Mother Mexico herself.


Once a year, on the first Sunday after the feast of San Antonio de Padua (June 13th), the entire community of San Miguel de Allende lets its hair down for the town’s most imaginative event of the year: El Desfile de los Locos or the Locos Parade.

Los Locos resembles Mardi Gras in New Orleans, only on a much smaller scale. Teams from different barrios (neighborhoods) spend weeks creating floats, working up dance routines, and fabricating crazy costumes for the parade which starts in the San Antonio neighborhood and windsthrough a number of San Miguel’s major streets to reach the Jardín. As with Mardi Gras parades, candies are tossed from floats and off the backs of pick-up trucks. Spectators, who line San Miguel’s streets hours before the parade arrives, often bring umbrellas to turn upside down and catch more candies.

Outrageousness is the order of the day, the more fantastic a costume is, the more the crowds appreciate it. And while Mexican men are often thought of by outsiders as macho, trans-dressing is hugely popular during Los Locos. Men who are dressed up as models, female celebrities, nuns, geishas, witches, or female action characters draw cat calls and the most laughs from the audience.

The party continues long into the night with music, dancing and fireworks in the streets around the plaza of the San Antonio church.

Coyoacan, a leafy, tranquil suburb of Mexico City, is home to Frida Kahlo’s house, the Casa Azul, which is located there on Londres street. A few blocks away, and yet often overlooked, is the Casa Trotsky. On a warm day in February, after visiting the Casa Azul, two friends and I decided to walk around the corner to the house where the fomenter of the Russian revolution spent his final days.

A friend from San Miguel who leads tours of Mexico City, had told us not to bother.  “It’s incredibly ugly and not very interesting,” she said. I have to agree, Casa Trotsky looks more like a rundown prison than a house. Yet I found Trotsky and his house fascinating. First, because of who he was; second, because of the inadvertent role he played in the demise of my father-in-law’s career; but most of all, because of the job of a brilliant, quirky young guide did escorting us through.

I’d just purchased my ticket when a thin, stooped young woman wearing a t-shirt bearing the logo of the Museo Leon Trotsky approached and asked in barely audible Spanish if my friends and I would like a guided tour of the house and museum.  “Cuanto cuesta?” I asked, wanting to know the price before we committed. “It’s free,” she mumbled, looking at her feet. I quickly consulted my friends who agreed to the free tour.

“My name is Alma,” she said when we were all gathered. “I speak Russian, French, English and Spanish. Which would you prefer we do the tour in?” “English, please!” the three of us said in unison.

Alma, a young woman in her late twenties or early thirties, looked as if life was a massive allergen for her. Her face, neck, arms, and hands down to her finger tips were red and inflamed with eczema. She seemed painfully reticent and had trouble maintaining eye contact. But as we wandered through the museum where photos of Trotsky, his wife Natalia, and various friends and famous people hung on the walls, she came to life. Like a marionette whose strings have been pulled taut, she was surprisingly animated as she recounted intimate stories of Trotsky’s life in Mexico. As we studied the photographs she named everyone in them and told us some fascinating tidbit about their relationship to Trotksy. She spoke fondly of the Old Man,  as if he were a beloved uncle.

In addition to the gossipy bits, we learned plenty of real history about Trotsky’s life from Alma. That he and his wife Natalia had arrived in Tampico, Mexico in early January 1937. That they’d spent the previous two years in exile in Norway; that just as the Norwegian Minister of Justice—probably in collusion with Stalin—was preparing to send them into exile on an island off that country’s coast, word arrived that the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera had convinced the Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas to grant them asylum; that with all other possibilities exhausted the Trotskys were resigned to living out their exile in Mexico; and that, initially, they lived at Frida’s house, the Casa Azul.

Casa Trotsky, as my friend had warned us, is a dismal place. It is a rambling mishmash of brick and stone buildings with a massive perimeter wall surrounding it. A series of chicken coops, rabbit hutches and a small cactus garden provide the only respite from the brick and mortar drabness of the place. According to Alma, the house and grounds have been preserved exactly as they were the day Trotsky was murdered.

As we toured the leader of the Red Army’s bedroom and that of his grandson Seva, it was evident that nothing had been changed. The walls of the bleak rooms were riddled with bullet holes. It was under the simple iron beds in those rooms where the Trotskys and their grandson took cover during a failed assassination attempt led by the painter David Alfaro Siqueiros. Siqueiros and a band of murderous—and most likely drunken—Communists had breached security and invaded the property on the night of May 24th, 1940.

Trotsky’s study, the place where in August 1940 Ramón Mercader delivered a fatal blow to Trotsky’s head with an ice axe, was a simple room with a map of Mexico on one wall and a large, stained-glass window on another. There was a long wooden desk surrounded by straight-backed Mexican chairs, an ancient Dictaphone, and shelves packed with leather bound books. In addition to many of his most famous letters and manifestos, this was the room where he’d written his book on Stalin. If publishers had found the courage to print it earlier in 1940, it might have changed the course of World War II and world history.

Many people suspect Leon Trotsky was manic-depressive and his days in Mexico were marked by a deep depression. Living that narrowly circumscribed existence where nothing but bad news arrived each day, only served to worsen his symptoms.  His closest comrades were being tortured or killed by Stalin, his son Lyova was murdered in Paris by the G.P.U.  He was obsessed with his own health and thoughts of death. Unable to sleep, he took double doses of sleeping powders.

His mania manifested in days of relentless work, dictating letters, writing articles, books and publishing his latest manifestos. He exhausted both himself and the cluster of young men who served as his secretaries with his urgency and driving will. His manic side also expressed itself in his grandiose plans for revolutions in unlikely countries. In the last weeks of his life, a tiny delegation of Minnesota Socialists arrived in Coyoacan to discuss the overthrow of the American government. Trotsky eagerly partook in the conversations, convincing the young men that it could and should be done.

As we ended our tour with Alma, I couldn’t help asking her about Trotsky’s relationship with Frida Kahlo. It is widely believed that Trotsky had an affair with Frida and that Natalia, hurt and  angry upon discovering it, insisted they move out of the Casa Azul to the Casa Trotsky on Avenida Vienna.  When I asked Alma about it, she vigorously defended Trotsky. “There is no concrete evidence that Leon Trotsky had an affair with Frida Kahlo. His grandson, Seva, is a close friend of mine and he also disputes the affair.” She was so firm in her conviction, I didn’t argue. Seva, in his eighties, lives only a few blocks away from the Museum and Alma told us she sees him almost daily.

In the last room on our tour—the dormitory-like quarters where Trotsky’s many young male  secretaries slept— I decided to share with Alma a small piece of my father-in-law’s history.  “My father-in-law’s name was Leon Trotsky Atlas,” I told her.  “Leon Trotsky Atlas?” she said with surprise.  “Yes. He was a medical doctor in the United States.” What I didn’t tell her was that his name had likely cost him his research fellowship at the NIH during the days of McCarthyism in the late 1940s. “Leon Trotsky Atlas,” Alma repeated slowly. “That is such a beautiful name. I must tell Seva tonight!”

Dia de la Candelaria

February 2nd

Dia de la Candelaria (Candlemas)

This celebration marking the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox is a hybrid of Catholic and indigenous ritual. In Catholic tradition February 2nd as the day Christ was presented to the temple, since women in ancient times were not able to go out in public for forty days after giving birth. The Mexican Dia de la Candelaria includes a tradition of dressing up dolls representing the Christ child, el niño Dios, in fine clothes and presenting them to the church.

The other, more indigenous aspect of this celebration, is about preparing the earth for the coming year’s planting season. In San Miguel de Allende, the Juarez Park is a profusion of color with a huge weeklong plant sale that marks the coming of spring.

Also during Candelaria, neighborhood tamale parties are hosted by the lucky individual who bit into the tiny plastic muneca, or doll, in his/her slice of the Rosca de Reyes on Three King’s Day, January 6th, the day when Mexican children receive their presents.

For more information: www.internetsanmiguel.com


Americans visiting Mexico often don’t venture beyond their palapas at popular resorts like Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, or Los Cabos. But for more adventuresome and curious travelers, Mexico offers an array of colorfulfestivals. Many combine Catholic ritual with indigenous practices, giving visitors an intimate view of a uniquely Mexican way of life. Our first blog of 2011 is a sampling of Mexico’s finest festivals and cultural events, including the best places to enjoy them.

January: January Fair and the Festival of San Sebastian, Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas

Despite its origins, this spirited festival is more about merrymaking than martyrdom. Hundreds of Parachicos, masked dancers sporting exotic wigs, are the highlight of this fair that starts mid-January. For more information: www.travelchiapas.com

February: Veracruz Carnival, Veracruz, Veracruz

One of the world’s largest pre-Lenten celebrations, the Carnaval de Veracruz kicks off with the Quema de Mal Humor, the burning in effigy of bad humor. Daily parades with imaginative floats, coronations of a queen, an ugly king, and one child king, dances and concerts. On Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) the party ends with the burial of Juan Carnaval, the symbol of wanton excess. More info: www.carnaval.com/cityguides.veracruz/vc_carnaval.htm

Photo: Lori Makabe

March/April: Palm Sunday Folk Art Market, Uruapan, Michoacan

One of the largest open-air folk markets in Mexico takes place in the city of Uruapan on Palm Sunday weekend. On Saturday morning, artisans in native dress parade through town to the central plaza where a week of selling begins. Avid collectors are among the bargain hunters searching for ceramics, jewelry, copperware, clothing, furniture, and guitars. For more info: http://www.michoacan-travel.com

March/April: Holy Week, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

Semana Santa in San Miguel de Allende begins two weeks prior to Easter Sunday, when pilgrims transport a figure of Jesus, known as El Senor de la Columna, through the night from Atotonilco. Predawn fireworks announce their arrival in San Miguel.

The following Friday (before Palm Sunday) is Viernes de los Dolores, or Night of the Sorrows. On this special evening people travel door-to-door admiring beautifully decorated home altars. These statues of weeping Virgins, surrounded by sweet grass, oranges and sand paintings, are tributes to Mary’s suffering. At many houses, guests are treated to a dulce, or sweet.

Palm Sunday is celebrated with a procession from the Parque Juarez at 10 a.m. down Sollano Street to the Parroquia church. Houses along the narrow cobbled street are decorated with brightly colored paper banners.

The week culminates in a Good Friday re-enactment of Christ’s persecution in San Miguel’s central plaza, (referred to as the jardin). Men dressed as Romans on horseback and a cross bearing “Christ” are the centerpiece of an elaborate procession. But it’s the multitudes of little girls dressed as angels that capture many spectators’ attention.

San Miguel’s many churches hold extravagant paschal masses on Saturday evening. Sunday masses are smaller, but in the late morning people crowd into the jardin to watch as papier mâché figures of Judas, rigged with firecrackers and suspended from wires above the plaza, are exploded. More information: www.internetsanmiguel.com

April/May: San Marcos Fair, Aguascalientes, Aguascalientes

The oldest fair in Mexico, the San Marcos Fair in Aguascalientes, is also Mexico’s largest, and loudest. Beginning in mid-April, this impressive agricultural fair runs for three weeks featuring cockfights, bullfights, spectacular fireworks displays, and a wine pavilion.  Don’t miss the charreria, or horse show, that takes place in the magnificent Villa Charra. More information: www.aguascalientes.gob.mx

July: The Guelaguetza, Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

For lovers of Mexican folk music and dance, attending Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza is an incomparable experience. Guelaguetza, a Zapotec word translated as “offering” or “exchange,” began as a tribute to the corn goddess, Centeotl. The modern festival’s main attraction is a folk dance competition at the open-air auditorium on Fortin Hill. Stunning views of the colonial city’s center add to the brilliant regional clothing, music and lively dances at the  The Guelaguetza takes place every year on the first two Mondays following the feast of St. Carmen on July 16. For this year’s dates and more info: www.go-oaxaca.com

September: International Mariachi Festival, Guadalajara, Jalisco

More than 500 mariachi bands from as far away at Japan and Croatia participate in the world’s largest mariachi festival. The battle of the bands takes place at the sumptuous Benito Juarez Theater. Parades, folk ballets, rodeos and art exhibitions round out the list of events. For info: www.mariachi-jalisco.com.mx

October: International Cervantino Festival, Guanajuato, Guanajuato

Begun in the 1950’s as a student tribute to Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes, the “Cervantino” has become Mexico’s most prestigious arts and music festival. World-renowned artists flock to this European-style colonial city to perform opera, ballet, music concerts, and exhibit their art during the first three weeks of October. The popular Entremesses, short skits written by Cervantes, are staged in parks, plazas and in haciendas throughout the city.  More info: www.guanajuatocapital.com

November: Noche de Muertos, Patzcuaro, Michoacan

While Noche de Muertos or the Day of the Dead is celebrated all over Mexico, the villages surrounding the city of Pátzcuaro are the epicenter of Day of the Dead activities. A few days before the official observance on Nov. 1 and 2, artisan markets sprout up throughout the city.

photo by Lori Makabe

The narrow, cobbled streets near the Basilica become a sea of purple stock, golden marigolds and magenta cockscomb. Special treats are abundant: sugar skulls and skeleton candies, and crispy fried tacos. Early on November 1, the village cemeteries overflow with people adorning graves with flowers, photos, candles, and fruit. Later that evening the atmosphere becomes more somber as families gather for the nightlong candlelit vigils. For more info: www.patzcuaromexico.com

December: Night of the Radishes, Oaxaca City, Oaxaca

Christmas in Oaxaca is a sumptuous treat, but Noche de Rabanos, the Night of the Radishes, an event unique to Oaxaca, is a must see. Each year on Dec. 23 lowly radishes are transformed into miraculous creations. These piquant root vegetables, some fantastically large, are carved into nativity figures, saints, revolutionaries, animals, dancers, and musicians, then put on display in Oaxaca’s festively decorated central plaza, the Zocalo. For more info: www.go-oaxaca.com


ACCOMODATIONS: Many of these festivals are very popular and it is recommended you book at least six months in advance. These websites can help in planning your trip:

www.mexconnect.com Whether planning a visit or retiring in Mexico, everything you need to know can be found here.

www.mexonline.com Book both hotels and flights, or learn more about cultural events in Mexico through this informative, easy-to-navigate site.

Whether you’re an avid traveler or only an armchair enthusiast,

you can find useful information about the diverse arts and

culture of Mexico here.