The frail, aging man with watery blue eyes might have been a gringo, but his English was not that good. Incongruously turned out in faded blue jeans and one of those gingham cowboy shirts with snaps in place of buttons, he introduced himself as Brother Bonifacio, a Franciscan monk.
We were at the Monastery of the Holy Cross in Queretaro, about 120 miles north of Mexico City. Handsome from without, its two domes and bell tower fronting on a lovely park, it is a gloomy maze of corridors and cloistered gardens within.
"From here, the missionaries went to California and to Texas," Brother Bonifacio declared. "It was here that Junipero Serra prepared himself and from this place departed the brothers who would build the Alamo in San Antonio.
"Here the College for the Propagation of the Faith was founded. It is headquartered in Rome now, moved after Mexico became independent."
The friar pointed to a faded portrait of the Blessed Antonio Margil de Jesus Ross, who came from Spain to Queretaro in 1623. "He was to have been canonized a saint but after independence, the process was halted."
Brother Bonifacio himself is from Spain, which may explain his dim view of violent separation from the motherland. Odd, then, that he should have settled in Queretaro, which bills itself as the cradle of Mexican independence.
The city throbs with history. Things kept happening here long after the split from Spain.
Brother Bonifacio led us up dank stone steps to the monkish cell where in 1867 the Emperor Maximilian spent his final days. Earlier, we had been out to the Hill of Bells to see the spot where the ill-fated sovereign cried "Viva Mexico!" and went down before a firing squad.
Max was an Austrian archduke who let himself be conned into trying to establish monarchy in Mexico back when the United States had its hands full with the Civil War. After Appomattox, Washington rushed troops to the border, the French army backing the emperor hurried home, and President Benito Juarez restored the republic. Juarez ordered the execution to set an example for meddlers.
The Austrian government put up a pretty little chapel to mark the spot where Maximilian fell. Then, about 20 years ago, the Mexican government erected a 200-foot statue of Juarez to tower over it, and an ugly monolith the statue is. "A monument to bad taste," said Brother Bonifacio.
That the Americans helped save the Mexican Republic is little noted in Queretaro, but then, too, neither is the fact that the Americans had butchered the republic here 20 years before.
It was in Queretaro that the treaty was signed ending the Mexican-American War in 1848, ceding to the United States most of the land from Texas to California in return for $15-million.
Nobody is quite sure whatever happened to that money, which may explain why so many Mexicans remain bitter about a conflict most Americans have forgotten. It all started, you will be told here, because Texas wanted to be independent, the Texans complaining that as part of Mexico they were not allowed to own slaves.
History takes on strange hues when you cross borders.
It is that way with Mexican independence, which, according to the official guides, was conceived in Queretaro. Back in 1810, the town was a hotbed of nonconformity, salons and cafes filled with plotters scheming against the government. Word leaked out to the authorities and they chose to act.
Josefa Ortiz, better known in these parts as La Corregidora (wife of a corregidor, a local official), was Queretaro's Paul Revere. She sent out the word "The Spanish are coming!" and in Dolores, a few towns over, the parish priest, Miguel Hidalgo, called his flock to arms.
But probe carefully and you find it was not independence Mexicans were fighting for, but a return of their old king. In 1810, Napoleon had conquered Spain, ousted the monarch and handed the crown to brother Joseph.
People wanted their Fernando VII back. Queretaro had done quite well under Spanish rule. You catch a glimpse of the longest aqueduct in the country as you roll into this town. The Marquis del Villar ordered it built in 1726 and paid half the cost out of his own pocket.
They have a statue of the marquis on the plaza. He is elegantly turned out in knee britches and brocade coat, four bony hounds beneath him spurting aqueduct water from their mouths.
Queretaro also had the counts of Ecala, both wealthy, mine-owning families. They and others of generous spirit supported the work of Eduardo Tresguerras, foremost architect of New Spain. Tresguerras was one of those 18th-century renaissance types and his works have made downtown Queretaro an outdoor museum of mansions, palaces and churches. Every other church in town is a gem, which really is too bad. Seeing too many can leave you numb.
The one famous antique structure not designed by Tresguerras is the Theater of the Republic, which dates back to 1825, just after there was a republic. It was here that the present Mexican constitution was hammered out in 1917. Recognizing workers' rights to unionize and providing for agrarian reform, it was one of the most radical documents of the age.
The Theater of the Republic also is where, in 1848, the peace treaty with the United States was signed, but guides don't dwell on that.
The once-busy avenues of downtown Queretaro are closed to traffic now. The outskirts are all factories and 18-wheelers pumping out diesel fumes. Mexico is supposed to be poor and backward, yet it is one of the most industrialized countries. And Queretaro is one of its manufacturing centers.
Downtown, however, the 18th century holds a tight grip. Pedestrians wander without a worry. No horns blare. Instead, there is the chirp of the balloon vendor, the cry of the lottery hawker. You can breakfast at an outdoor fonda by the square where a statue to La Corregidora stands and later lunch at the Meson Santa Rosa, an old coaching inn that is now an imaginative all-suites hotel.
Seeing Queretaro takes so little time that bus tours through the colonial highlands schedule only a few hours here. But this is the kind of place you can spend a week in, pretending to be a native.
Jim Budd is a former foreign correspondent who lives in Mexico City.
IF YOU GO
With no scheduled air service to Queretaro, the easiest and most enjoyable way to get there from Mexico City is by train. The Constitutionalista leaves Mexico City in the morning and arrives in Queretaro before noon, returning each evening; a meal is included in each direction. Buses are a trifle faster, but you spend an hour getting to and from the Mexico City terminal, on the northern edge of the capital.
The more adventurous may want to rent a car. This can be expensive. With mileage to Queretaro included, even a standard-shift subcompact is likely to run up to $100 a day. On the plus side, getting on Highway 57D, a toll road, is fairly easy from most Mexico City hotels, and with a car you can stop off en route at the Viceregal Museum in Tepozotlan and visit the Toltec archaeological zone in Tula. Also, a car is handy for travelers staying at one of the hacienda resorts outside of Queretaro. Most lavish is the Galindo, at more than $150 a night; the Jurica charges about half that, and the Estancia even less. All three have golf courses along with riding horses and swimming pools.
For those who want a touch of home, there is a Holiday Inn on the edge of town and the very pleasant Real de Minas. Smack in the heart of the city is the Meson Santa Rosa, an old coaching inn that has been modernized and offers suites.
Americans need only a tourist card and proof of citizenship to visit Mexico; these are available from travel agents, airlines and Mexican consulates. While tourist cards are free, Mexico does levy a hefty $12 tax on passengers boarding international flights; this often comes as an unpleasant surprise.
Further information is available from the Mexican Government Tourist Office at 128 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables, FL 33134; phone (305) 443-9160.