The cadence of CUBA

by Pete McBride on September 8, 2015

Dancing in Havana

With the U.S. policy toward Cuba shifting, this long-forbidden island has quickly jumped rank on personal map quests. A tour of Havana with National Geographic photographer, writer, and filmmaker Peter McBride reveals that the rhythm of these storied streets can be bitter sweet, yet dances with a culture and community that is as authentic as its Caribbean history.
Around every crumbling corner, the rhythmical cadence of rumba and son, the musical signature of this Caribbean island, echoes down the street. The beat—a sultry, steady
cadence—one, two…one, two, three…one, two—perfectly aligns with my pedestrian tempo.

As I leave one block behind, another pocket of rumba floats toward me. It seems there is a band or musician behind every pastel-painted wooden door, linking the island beat from home to home. Even the clip-clop of horse hooves on stone falls into rhythm. The clank of a purple cruiser, built before Kennedy was president, rumbles past. Its tail fins sashay under a tired suspension as it motors into the dusk light. Otherwise, these streets are empty of wheeled traffic.

Over the last 15 years, I have visited Cuba and these streets five times, working as a photographer and journalist for magazines including National Geographic. I’ve captured stories on varied subjects, from Olympic athletes and tobacco farmers to diving with sharks and stalking tarpon on the island’s pristine marine parks. I’ve even followed some of the island’s famous musicians, finding my own beat with the members of Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro Cuban Allstars. Along the way, I toured music schools and too many musty cafes to recall, but my feet have retained a few amateur salsa steps.

As the U.S. and Cuba step toward a warmer relationship, I wonder how life will change here and at what pace. From my limited perspective, rethinking the embargo is long overdue. The only visible affects I’ve noted from this U.S. policy are that it challenged the simple needs of local Cubans.

Walking the streets, I ponder Cuban life as I look for an old friend.

Despite the politics, there is a fiery, messy vitality that defines Havana life and caresses every corner of this weathered port. It dances around me. Kids play stickball mid street; the home plate a rusty manhole cover. The air is warm and salty. The sun, now a giant, blood-orange lazy orb, bleeds behind a weathered skyline.


I’m sauntering a few blocks off the Malecon, near such tourist spots as the Florida Hotel and La Bodeguita del Medio, the alleged birthplace of the mojito and haunt of Ernest Hemingway. I’m looking for Papi, a friend I met years prior. Since then, I’ve only heard from him once via a weathered, snail- mail letter written in Spanish. He asked when I was coming back. It was signed “tu hermano (your brother), Papi.” The return address offered Habana Vieja, Cuba. Nothing more. The letter had been carried by a traveler and mailed from an airport. Postmark, Texas.

Without a proper mailing address, there’s little confidence in a post getting past the doors of an unpredictable embargo with a dated postal service. As such, I’m responding to Papi in person, by showing up, old school, at his doorstep. A promise I’m hoping to realize. I’m not sure he still lives here, or if he is even alive.

On this return trip, my fifth, I find that the majority of Cuba and much of Havana remain timeless, with the exception of some new and unfamiliar development. The changes aren’t huge, but just enough to confuse my dusty memory and inner compass. Private restaurants are now more common, as are cell phones (service weak and inconsistent), both of which didn’t exist on my first visit a decade earlier.

The most obvious change, however, isn’t what’s new, but what’s missing. Socialist propaganda signs in Spanish, which blanketed every corner during my visits in the 2000s—signs proclaiming “Work Hard and Beat Imperialism,” “Viva la Patría,” and “Until Victory”—are surprisingly gone from hand-painted, wooden billboards and concrete walls. Perhaps it’s the sign of changing times. Fidel has passed and Raul has been in control for probably longer than most admit.


During my time dancing through this forbidden realm, I’ve learned I’m never completely in tune with the Havana rhythm. No matter how hard I try, I am always a step behind the real pace, be it on the dance floor, or be it the truth on the streets. As a result, I always seek local insight to navigate the labyrinth of the Castro world. These street-savvy locals can decipher the secrets that cloak much of this political island and have helped me do my job more effectively.

Papi was one of my favorite fixers. We met on the street. He was in his early 20s at the time and bubbling with youthful energy. He wanted to practice his English with me, and quickly proved to be a logistical wizard. He found a cherry, white-vinyl-seated convertible Oldsmobile for me, with red trim, tail fins, and fuzzy dice (the full works, perfect for a travel story), for a quarter of the tourist price. After that, I hired Papi for any logistical Havana hurdle. He used his Cubano street savvy to land me a better deal or discover secret gems, ones I’d never uncover on my own, such as hidden restaurants or rumba concerts tucked away in artsy alleys. Cuba is a treasure trove of cultural jewels but sometimes you need a navigator to find them.


My favorites are small, nondescript homes that, only through local connections, you learn can double as headquarters for voodoo doctors that read past and future (hauntingly well), or serve as secret poetry societies and weekly rumba jams. “Rumba Alley” is just that, an alley, but loaded with art. On Sundays it explodes in a cacophony of all-age dancing which made the feet of my soul boogie.

On the streets of Havana Cuba, a group of friends starts up an impromtu rumba jam - not an uncommon sight in Cuba where music is everywhere. On the streets of Havana Cuba, a group of friends starts up an impromtu rumba jam – not an uncommon sight in Cuba where music is everywhere.

During the trip I met Papi, I hosted a party for he and his family at their home—my form of a thank you—the night before I departed the island. It was also an authentic way to see the “real Cuba” by spending time in Papi’s world.
We ate, drank, and salsa-ed merrily inside the high-ceiling, one-bedroom art-deco apartment, which Papi had retrofitted into a two-story family home. This cheerful, endlessly wheeling-and-dealing kid had lassoed the time and resources to stretch his average $15-a-month Cuban salary into a full apartment remodel. He created a bedroom for his mother and younger sister, and built a loft for himself. His father had passed years earlier, so Papi was living up to his name. I brought a case of Cuba’s finest, Cristal beer, and Papi’s mother whipped up a traditional meal of yucca, rice, and beans. It was a memorable goodbye to a friend I feared I potentially may never see again.

When I rallied at 5 a.m. the following morning for my flight to Mexico, Papi was waiting at the door of my rented apartment, (cheaper than hotels, equally safe and legal).

“Can I please come visit you Pedro?” he asked tearfully.

I told him I didn’t know how he could. I honestly didn’t know how to help. But I replied, optimistically, that I’d return one day and find him. With that, I gave Papi what little cash I had left and my running shoes, a white pair of Nikes straight off my feet. They were slightly worn, but in good shape. I knew they would be gold to him—a tip he’d cherish more than cash, at least for a few months.

Now, years later, I am attempting to live up to my promise, but only if I can find my friend. Without an email, cell phone, or physical mailing address, my only option is to revisit his home. I am also carrying a new pair of running shoes for him. I figure he is long overdue for an upgrade.



What consistently fascinates me about this communist enclave is the spirit and warmth of its people, whether they want to be there or not. It’s poor on many economic levels, but surprisingly rich in humanity—especially on the street. Behind government doors, I’ve witnessed families drown beneath the weight of bureaucracy and even corruption. But on the street, the country’s living room, genuine hospitality is often king.
As a way to return the many gestures of local kindness, I always bring small gifts that Cubans can’t easily find—pens, toothbrushes, baseball mitts, bats. One colleague once brought a used violin for the music school. The student wept, and then played the most magical string version of “Guantanamera,” a Cuban classic, that I’ve ever heard. Such gifts, even trivial, material American items, can be significant to Cubans. And the display of gratitude is profound.

That white, 1960 Oldsmobile Papi scored became a passport to discover rural Cuba and meet lifelong friends. The driver, a round, gentle man named Chino, quickly became my surrogate guide, watchdog, and buddy. He toured me to hidden beaches, tobacco farms, the UNESCO world heritage village in Trinidad, and Ernest Hemingway’s home, where, in 1951, he penned the Pulitzer-Prize winning The Old Man and the Sea. Today it’s a museum maintained in its original state, with typewriters and even a handwritten journal mounted on the bathroom wall where Hemingway recorded his body weight.


My gift for Chino was two cases of spark plugs utilized for pre-1960 American cars. His jaw nearly hit the steering column when I handed them over as an early thank you. No money could have enabled him to procure such parts.

“You just added years to my ride, Pedro. Gracias.” Chino said, slightly emotional. We’ve stayed friends and crossed paths three times, but only in Cuba. That gift, I believe, also led to a one-leaf cigar experience, as Chino demanded I try a “real cigar,” “not the ones sold to gringos.” I told him I wasn’t a big smoker but he insisted I needed to experience this. So on a humid afternoon, on a farm in the remote hills of Viñales–some three hours outside of Havana–we sat on the veranda of Chino’s friend’s house, drinking rum. Children laughed and music lilted behind the house. Chickens roamed and two horses stood near the front door, saddled, awaiting riders. The scene felt like the verse of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez poem.

2. farmer Vinales

The farmer then produced the sweetest cigar I’ve ever smoked. It didn’t come from a nearby factory or a climate-controlled box. He just rolled one tobacco leaf that he had grown behind the house and dried in his barn. I marveled how the flavors tasted more like a creamy dessert than a cigar.
As if thinking to himself aloud, the farmer stated, “Life in Cuba on $60 a month is perfect. Education, food, medicine, ocean, and good friends…” He paused and looked down at the red dirt. “Too bad we only make $10-20 a month.”

His words rang true. Everything I’ve ever witnessed in Cuba is nearly perfect. I don’t romanticize the Cuban world. For us travelers, it’s easy to get swept up in its romance—the music, warm culture, and timeless antiques. In the perfectly preserved, 19th-Century, colonial village of Trinidad, some five hours inland from Havana, I witnessed a cowboy on horseback serenade a woman on a second-story balcony. His baritone voice echoed down the cobblestone street. The scene so perfect I thought it must be a movie in the making. Just young love.
But behind such romantic charm, I also have too many friends like Papi that have struggled to get ahead. I respect the impressive 97-percent literacy rate. Women enjoy a progressive, extended maternity leave, and for the most part, the majority of residents enjoy some level of health care. You rarely, if ever, glimpse a homeless person.


Yet Cubans such as Papi should have more opportunities to pursue their dreams. Warmer relations with the U.S. might help. But I’ve also seen enough on this marvelous planet to know that development can be double edged.
As political tensions soften, it’s hard to say how the Cuban Castro economy will leap into the modern world. Perhaps more Cubans will make $60 a month, or more. Hopefully estranged families will reunite after years apart and hard-working folks like Papi can afford new running shoes. But I wonder what may become of the magical, poetic pace and horseback serenades that can, at times, appear idyllic and dreamy to high-paced Western neighbors. What may happen to hand-rolled, one-leaf cigars, the sleepy, horse-and-buggy roads, and the pulse of rumba that gyrates throughout Havana’s alleys?

1. Cuba, Trinidad; storm


Back in Havana, after a fruitless few hours hunting my friend, I’m lost. Crumbling and being rebuilt in tandem, every building looks similar. I can’t find the blue door to Papi’s pad—a four-story colonial design with arched balconies. Before giving up, I decide to test my luck Cuban style; I ask the first person I see, a middle-aged woman confidently wearing a red spandex jumper (trendy Cuban fashion at the time.) Papi is a generic nickname in Cuba, but this kid was special. Like most Cubans, he had the entrepreneurial spirit of a Silicon Valley startup junkie but the warmth of the Caribbean in his soul. And his smile stretched the length of his neighborhood street. I had a feeling everyone knew Papi, if he was still here.
“Do you know a guy named Papi? He lives somewhere on this street I believe, mid-twenties, big smile?” I ask in my best Spanish. The woman nods, walks across the street, and talks to an elderly lady. Thirty seconds later, I hear voices ricocheting from balcony to balcony down streets and alleys, hollering over the percussion of more rumba. “Tell Papi there is a gringo here for him.” Cuba’s wireless, social network at its best.

Within minutes, a lanky, mid-twenties Papi trots down the street. He looks anxious and ready to hustle a deal. I’m sure he has met hundreds of tourists over the years and probably can’t recall most. He looks all business as he saunters my way. But when he sees me, a smile creeps across his face. I can see the memory gears in his head ticking over.

“Remember me, Papi?” I ask.

“Peeeedro. Ha! I knew you would come back. Que rico!” He gives me a bone-jarring hug, then adds, “Quick, come back to my house. You have to see my mother.”

We walk quickly, catching up while en route. His life is good, but hard, he says. There are signs of stress and fatigue on his face, lines I don’t recall from my last visit. He also seems hurried. We enter the blue door (I was a block off) and climb the stairs to his loft. A new rumba song beats nearby. This time, the lead singer a woman. Different block, different band.

Before we meet his mother, Papi tells me he wants to show me something. He pulls a plastic bag from underneath his bed and delicately reveals the shiniest, whitest pair of Nike running shoes I’ve ever seen. Newer than nue- vo.

“Your shoes, Pedro, remember?”

I’m shocked. Welcome to Cuba, where lemonade is made daily, often with- out even lemons.

“It looks like you are ready for a new pair,” I say, smiling.

I pull the new sneakers from my backpack. Papi’s grin grows wider and his youthful spark reappears.
He replies, “Good to see you, hermano.”
2. Cuba - tobacco factory, Vinales


A “distant relative” heads into the central Mexico’s colonial towns to find a revolutionary named Josefa, the star in his family saga.


This could be it. A treasure trove of a library in what was a 16th century Franciscan monastery might be where my great-great-great-great-great- grandmother and I finally. . .meet. Marimba music lilts outside. In the sun-splashed library room, shelves crammed with bound parchment paper, religious leather journals, and government letters sit below walls hung with Catholic relics and cracked oil paintings. I’m told there are roughly 14,000 historic documents in the archive. What I don’t see are temperature and humidity control devices. I better not cough; centuries of Mexico’s written record could be reduced to dust.

It’s two weeks into my ancestral scavenger hunt through Mexico’s central highlands. My quarry, Josefa Ortiz Dominguez, has thus far been eluding her distant grandson. Too many muddy patches obscuring my craggy roots. But now, perhaps, pay dirt?

David Vega (the librarian here for 30 years, I would later find out) greets me. I explain my mission. Of course he’s heard of Josefa: She was and remains the heroine of Mexico’s 19th century War of Independence against Spain. She was also the mother of 14 children. David smiles and suggests he might be able to help.


Within minutes, he brings me a pile of handwritten letters dated 1806. The Gs and Qs have flamboyant, playful swirls. I imagine they shadow the arc of the feathers that penned them. Stamped on the letters signed by Miguel Dominguez, Corregidor—Josefa’s magistrate husband—are Spanish government seals. Moments later, David returns to my table and hands me a thick book. It is an account of “Los Corregidores” offspring. Pay dirt. Finally something. Queretaro’s oldest building (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) is going to unveil my family’s genealogy story. How David retrieved these documents so quickly, astounds me. He heightens the sense of mystery when he says, “You can feel the spirit in the books.”

For generations my family has boasted about our connection to Mexico’s great revolutionary. Without her courageous involvement, the story goes, Mexico’s liberty would have been delayed—at the very least. Heroism aside, though, it is Josefa who I credit for my bleeding passion for Latin culture, food, and rhythms. I’ve also come to believe she is the root of a rebellious streak that has me marching through life to a rumba beat. I want to know her better.

I open the book David gave to me and think of my grandfather, who introduced me to our family’s famed heroine. Years ago, he gave me a rare, devalued 20 Mexican peso bill with Josefa’s faded portrait. I carry it with me now.

My search begins in the bustle of Mexico City, where splashy murals, oversize plazas, and a friendly vibe nearly distracted me for days. But I am eager to head north to the Ruta de Independencia, a series of winding mountain roads that connect the colonial hotspots of San Miguel, Hidalgo, Guanajuato, and Queretaro—all key to Mexico’s revolutionary history.


Some two hours north of Mexico City, I drive down a cactus-covered hill as the radio crackles to life with the accordion strains of norteño music. Candy-colored buses and tired looking trucks flank me. On the road’s shoulder ahead, three charros (cowboys) move a herd of loose-skinned Brahman cattle—swirls of dust chasing their sashaying horses. Over the next hill, on the outskirts of the prosperous city of Queretaro, I head north onto a mighty historic stretch of road. On September 13, 1810, a rider galloped some 40 miles from Queretaro to the cobblestone streets of San Miguel. He carried an urgent message from an activist named Josefa—Maria Josefa Crecencia de la Natividad Ortiz Tellez Herón Dominguez, to be precise. Yes, the leading lady of my bloodline.


No one knows the exact words of that note, but history got the message—Begin the revolution NOW. In 1810, fed up with the second-class treatment of Mexico’s people, Josefa and her revolutionary colleagues spawned a plan from her Queretaro home to break from Spanish rule and liberate Mexico. But word had leaked four months early and Spanish officials lost no time rounding up the insurgents. Josefa’s husband, Miguel, aware of his wife’s activities, locked her up in their home. But somehow she managed to slip her historic notice through the keyhole to a rider. That simple act toppled the first domino in what would come to be known as Mexico’s War of Independence.

My plan is far less ambitious: I am following in Josefa’s footsteps and consuming everything Mexican Revolution—museos, música, molé, and more. I’ll finish my ancestral hunt at Josefa’s home in Queretaro—where it all began. I visited this town years prior for a study abroad program. Today those memories have faded. But I recall one thing. Serendipity should be my guide. The beauty of Mexico is often measured not in its planned efficiency but in its melodic rhythms that push one to a different beat. And serendipity often proves to be the best drummer for that beat.


In arty San Miguel I expect to find revolutionary trivia and lore scattered in inviting secret alleys and magnetic music-soaked plazas. While I discover a culturally rich town with sweeping views, I uncover nothing about my ancestor. My quest is temporarily placed on hold. In the meanwhile, a rodeo at a local ranch offers balm for my frustration. An old friend has invited me to Rancho Emilia, an elegant throwback to the 1800s, down to such details as horse stalls crafted with hand-hewn timbers. When the rodeo starts, I watch another century swirl before me. Sombrero-clad charros gallop through explosions of red earth as escaramuzas (cowgirls) ride sidesaddle in swishing Spanish dresses. Bulls are ridden and mariachis trumpet.


A man in the audience stands, toasts the rodeo, downs a tequila shot, and starts to sing. His deep baritone carries the haunting nostalgia of a broken-heart ballad. The 12-piece mariachi band immediately jumps in. Violins pierce the air. The crowd is captivated. Dust clings to the sweat on my face. I am right where I want to be—back two centuries and ready to add to the music. I belt out some notes as my thoughts return to insurgent granny Josefa.

On September 15, 1810, Josefa’s message reached a co-conspirator, Father Miguel Hidalgo. At 6 a.m. on September 16—celebrated as Mexico’s Independence Day—Hidalgo rang his church bell and delivered a historic sermon that would serve as a rallying cry. It was time to pick up arms, march north, and send the Spanish home.

By car it takes me 30 minutes (half a day by horse in 1810) to reach the plaza of the blue-collar pueblo of Hidalgo. Children’s laughter punctuates the tranquil vibe. Edging the plaza is a school, the Escuela Corregidora. Metal etchings and bronze busts of Josefa surround the building. In the center of town I find statues of Father Hidalgo and Josefa. I visit the cathedral where Hidalgo inspired his flock—mostly peasants—to become an army. Outside, a jovial scene: people singing and two-stepping to the polka beat of folksy ranchero music. A young woman belts out a heartfelt solo, her eyes clenched shut and her brow furrowed. I ask her what the song means. “It is a song of love and freedom,” she says, adding, “I love to sing, music carries my blood.”

I push on toward Guanajuato, down the Revolution Highway, for more Josefa scouting and Day of the Dead festivities. The road is just about empty, with spectacular curves and sweeping views of La Sierra Gorda. The few vehicles I encounter, mostly weathered trucks, wave me on. Within an hour, eye-popping views of Guanajuato’s kaleidoscope-colored architecture flash past as I descended into the city’s tunnels that carry me through time.


In late September 1810, Hidalgo hurried his ragtag wagon train of insurgents along the route I now drive. When they reached Guanajuato, they solidified the revolution by surprisingly overtaking the Spanish barracks. Hidalgo’s army then moved north. A few months later, he and his cohorts were captured by the Spanish and executed. In an effort to thwart further insurgent activity, the Spanish displayed the head of Hidalgo and his three top men in cages suspended on the corners of a granary—for ten years. Contrary to plan, the gory symbols served to strengthen revolutionary resolve. I walk through the granary, now an open-air museum. A giant mural of Hidalgo’s caged head covers the stone floor. His eyes seem to follow me.

Back outside, I stroll a maze of alleys and tunnels that create an atmospheric blend of Spain and Mexico. When I reach Jardín de la Union, Guanajuato’s heart, I encounter painted skeletons wandering the square. A clown makes people howl as roving mariachis keep up the beat. In restaurant Cafe Valadez, off the plaza, I sit down to a cesar salad with a dressing of bleu cheese ice cream. A father stands to sing “O Sole Mio” to his family at a nearby table. Perfect accompaniment to my ice cream salad.


The next day, November 2, visit a cemetery blanketed with people and fresh flowers. Miniature skulls made of sugar are sold everywhere. This holiday, also known as the Day of the Dead, is all about recalling the departed. I spend the afternoon wandering the walled Pantheon that overlooks hilly Guanajuato and its gravity-defying architecture, thinking about Josefa. I stroll back downtown at dusk. Murals of skeletons made from colored sawdust have magically appeared here and there on the pedestrian streets. One mural looks to be a rendition of Hidalgo with Josefa profiled in the background. But I’ve seen enough statues and murals. I wanted the real Corregidora. Its time to visit her home in Queretaro.

Its not my first visit colonial city. Call it a simple twist of fate. Twenty years ago, in an attempt to work on my Spanish, I’d applied for a college semester abroad in Spain. I was turned down—and offered an option to study in a city I’d never heard of. Queretaro. I said yes. En route by train from Mexico City, I opened a package my grandfather had given to me before I headed off. In it were a 20-peso bill emblazoned with a picture of a woman, a bundle of letters, a hand-scribbled family tree, and a typed note: Peto— I am delighted to know you are going to Queretaro. You are headed to the center of your family’s history.

Queretaro appears about twice the size I remember it. To my delight, I quickly find Calle La Corregidora and turn toward the centro historico, weaving through vaguely familiar blocks until I reach Hotel Casa Marquesa. Located a few cobblestones from the central plazas, it is the perfect base for my familial explorations. My room’s name: Doña Josefa. No kidding.

I walk the streets. Déjà vu greets me on every corner. The statue of Josefa looming over the Plaza Independencia looks better than I recall. Restaurants and chic bars with dappled light fill what were ghostly streets when I studied here years before. And just as I’d encountered in every town along the Independence Route, live music bubbles from many an open door.


I climb to the city’s aqueduct overlook. Just above sits Josefa’s tomb. Once the site of heated revolutionary fighting, Querétaro’s Pantheon is now a memorial for Josefa, her husband Miguel, and other historical dignitaries. La Corregidora is the only woman honored. Inside, I listen as two Mexican women discuss the revolution. I ask them about Josefa. The shorter of the two looks at me, cups her right hand low by her waist, moves it up and down and smiles. I understand the gesture of male bravado perfectly. The taller of the two women shakes her head. “I don’t agree,” she says. “Josefa was just doing her duty. Little do they know that the woman in question is my huevos grandes granny.

The next day, I tour Josefa’s home, now the town’s main government building. It is in perfect historic condition with white stucco and a courtyard. Two guides kindly lead me to the stateroom. “Today, this is where anything important happens,” one tells me. It is the very room where Josefa’s history-changing “start the revolution” message slipped through the keyhole—and went viral. As her distant relative and, I like to believe, kindred spirit, I can’t help but wonder: Could I start a revolution? Do I, or my inner Latino, have the guts?

The next day, on the suggestion of a friend, I visit Queretaro’s regional museum, considered the epicenter of revolutionary history. Within those museum walls is a library. . .

When David the librarian hands me the exact text I’ve been searching for, I know I have reached the dragon’s lair of my quest. From my pocket I pull out my grandfather’s handwritten family tree sent two decades ago, swallow my hesitancy, and open the book. Immediately I find a family tree and zealously search for familiar names.
I trace the chart of names detailed in my grandfather’s letter—backwards. I cross reference with the book—going forward. Dominguez–Dominguez. They start to match.

But then they don’t.

Something isn’t right. I check both again—three, four, five times. The two lists don’t line up. Our family names don’t match any offspring of Josefa’s grandchildren. No bueno. Then I notice a blurb about Josefa’s fifth son, named Miguel (our alleged link). He moved to southern Mexico (our Dominguez relatives lived there too), but there is little documentation of his life beyond that. He married but had no marriage license, nor children. Then I read in Spanish: “One family claims to be related, but have been proven to be imposters.”

The marimba music outside, stops. A shadow sweeps across the room. I realize I am not who I think I am. I have not descended from a famous revolutionary. The sangre of Mexico’s great heroine does not dance in mine. My non-revolutionary blood starts to rise.

I leave the museum in denial. Must be a mistake. My grandfather liked stories, but how could this tale carry on for seven generations? Is this the power of mythology—a story too good to be disrupted by the facts? That night I call a few family members and share my discovery. My cousin Laurie asks, “You mean we’re related to some average locals and not the woman on the Mexican 20-peso bill?”


“Wow. Think of all those school presentations our nieces gave,” she says.

“I know.”

Imposters. It starts to sink in. My family’s proverbial connection to historical fame is, well, fiction. Or is it? Many revolutions have led people to change identities. And there is always the question of illegitimate children. After Hidalgo was executed, Josefa was captured and sent to Mexico City by a Spanish battalion (she allegedly spat in the face of every soldier). Her life was spared but she was imprisoned for eight years.

Was there a secret 15th child during imprisonment? Did her son Miguel have undocumented offspring? Does it really matter?

My journey opened a portal to a time in a region whose soul is music and whose heart is friendliness. Not to mention the molé. My lurking inner Latino might not come from Josefa’s DNA, but it still jumps when a mariachi wails.


On my last night in Queretaro, I stumble on a little Oaxacan style restaurant, Maria’s Bici. Featured 12 flavors of molé. My dream. After asking (begging), they let me sample them all. Two musicians play aching campesino tunes. People merrily share tables, jokes, and tequila. I might fight a revolution for this, I realize. Such simple joy, such decadent molé, and such rich, decent humanity. Isn’t that enough to fight for? Maybe this is not the Mexico Josefa dreamed of, but it seems better than the one she revolted against.

Perhaps fate’s humor is that my grandfather died before discovering our family’s genealogy twist. I’m not sure he would have cared whether it was truth of myth he carried onward. Why not do the same? We must all pave our own ways, but it is fun having a force in one’s past—real or imagined. So I decide to adopt Josefa Ortiz de Dominguez, La Corregidora, as my favorite and only insurgent granny, just like my grandfather did.


High in the Himalaya: 36 Avalanches and a Silent Refuge

February 18, 2015

Silent Baba from Pete McBride on Vimeo. September 17-28, 2013 Just before sunset, the snow starts to fall. The flakes are wet and heavy. Jake looks up and says as much to the sky as to us, his climbing partners, “This feels like one of those monsoon storms that stick around.” Dave and I listen […]

Read the full article →

Chasing the Sacred: Down the Ganges From Snow to Sea

February 17, 2015

Chasing the Sacred: Snow to Sea down India's Ganges River from Pete McBride on Vimeo. In northern India, there is a river with over a hundred names. It starts in the Garhwal Himalaya and drops over 14,000 feet from the terminus of the Gangotri Glacier before marching some 1,550 miles to the Bay of Bengal. […]

Read the full article →

Chasing the Sacred – Source to Sea down the Ganges

September 9, 2013

If I reach my arm out the window, I could casually shake hands with the man next to me — the driver of a truck going some 50 m.p.h. just inches from the car in which I am riding. I look at him and he smiles subtly, then lightly wobbles his head. Such vehicle proximity […]

Read the full article →

Connected by the Most Endangered River in America

July 17, 2013

Their logo says “Rivers Connect Us”. It is a catchy phrase but how do these slivers of life do it? Is it simply their waters that run through so many of our plumbing systems? Or is it their ancient, weathered beauty that lures us to their banks to listen and watch? Maybe its their splashy […]

Read the full article →

The Water Tower

November 9, 2012

In central Kenya, northeast of the Rift Valley, there is a tower. It is a monumental, granite swell with a crumbling pinnacle that stretches 17,058 feet into the sky. Many people throughout this region of East Africa believe their God, Ngai, lives on top. While this second tallest African peak named Mt. Kenya, may be […]

Read the full article →

The ol’ Blog Bulletin Board — and the toe grab.

September 4, 2012

Fear not. I am not a blogger nor intend to be one. As I see it, the world needs more physical doing, less blogging. But, like many, I have collected an eclectic assortment of tales. So consider this a bulletin board of stories, video clips, a few photography tips, snapshots and a some magic moments […]

Read the full article →