It used to be common to see swallows flying in the blue sky of Oaxaca. As a child, I remember that as night fell while I walked the streets of Morelos, I would find several small mounds made of mud stuck to the wooden eaves of houses. I was told these were swallows’ nests. Swallows are daring, migrant birds that travel long distances; they’re pretty with their long, curved wings and forked tails. Their name in Spanish is very musical—golondrinas; it delights the ear. That is why, when we chose the name for this hotel, we thought of them, as they also symbolize our purpose: that our guests come back for the kind treatment and good service that we offer them—that they return, like swallows.
When we returned from Mexico City in late 1987, we visited the property where Hotel Las Golondrinas now stands. I remember that it was the middle of of a very sunny day and when we entered the house, there were some small children playing who just came back from school.
From the hall, you could see what the house was: a “neighborhood house”, that is to say, a place where many families lived with parakeets and other birds, chosen for their beautiful songs or colors. You could tell how much activity was going on in the house by the noise that came from the kitchens or the small workshops where something was being made or repaired—there were jewelers, cobblers, carpenters, merchants, and other people of various occupations. In the courtyard, the women washed clothes, which were then hung to dry from clotheslines that crossed in all directions in an orderly fashion. The clothes shone bright white as they dried in the hot sun. So as not to hurt the eyes of the passers-by in the street, it was customary to add a dash of what they called “blue dust” to the final rinse.
The house was spacious and because of the unevenness of the terrain (since it is located in the foothills of Cerro del Fortín), three patios were laid out: the first one letting out onto the street of Tinoco y Palacios and the final one with a door onto Calle Allende. The area around the Allende patio was calmer and was where the woman in charge of the house’s administration lived—Doña Petra. She was 60 years old with energetic features and very beautiful white hair that was sometimes braided. Doña Petra was a good manager because, rain or shine, she ran the house with a commanding presence. The early morning was one of the busiest times of the day, when the people waited in line, often impatiently, for the bathrooms. Life in the house was one of warm and supportive cohabitation, as all the neighbors helped each other, cared for each other, and talked frequently.
Doña Petrita collected the rent and issued receipts monthly, along with determining what needed repairs and pressuring the builders or plumbers to ensure that the commissioned work was done well and finished quickly. At noon, she would show up at the owners’ house and sit discreetly on a bench in the hallway, always carrying in her purse the papers she needed for reports and accounting. It really wasn’t necessary to do this all the time, but she enjoyed having this follow her daily tasks, sharing a meal with her “bosses,” as she called us.
One day when we were in Mexico City, one of the tenants who was close to her, named Don Alfredo, called us. He shocked and saddened us by telling us that Doña Petra had died the night before. Even though she had called her doctor, she went fast, and had asked before she died that she be buried that same day. Although we were grieving, we agreed to honor the memory of the unforgettable Petrita and respect her last wishes by agreeing to let Don Alfredo hire the hearse. We knew we wouldn’t get back in time, but we immediately prepared our return.
When we arrived in Oaxaca, several neighbors, including Don Alfredo, told us an interesting detail about Doña Petra’s burial. However, I’ll first tell you that Don Alfredo was a bricklayer of about 50 years old. He lived in the house with his wife, Doña Concha, and his young nice, Toñita. They were renting a room -the one that is now C23 in the Allende courtyard, adjacent to the current cafeteria. Remember that, at that time, one of the characteristics of neighborhood houses was that each tenant normally only rented one room, even if there were two or more people living there, plus pets. Don Alfredo was no exception, because, in addition to his family, his room was the official residence of a turtle dove, two pigeons, and an egg-laying hen. As “house servants", Don Alfredo fed a black cat who was an expert mouse-hunter and a wild, mixed-breed dog that for security reasons had to be very carefully monitored. The birds hung in their cages from the branches of a young grapefruit tree that adorned the courtyard for many years.
When Doña Petra died, it shocked the house. Everyone was in mourning, and even the children were quiet and stopped playing their games. It was said that the house felt empty with so much silence.
The burial was just past noon, the hearse arrived on time, and the mourning tenants of the house and their children formed an orderly line in the courtyard. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the procession left for the Iglesia del Carmen Bajo and from there to the Panteón de San Miguel. At the beginning of the procession, flowers were distributed among the women and the body was taken out of the house via the Allende door in and orderly and silent manner. The attendants formed a long line in Calle Don Alfredo and her family presided, following the instructions that we had sent from Mexico City.
Everything was ready, the driver and his assistant got into the hearse, but when the driver tried to start the engine, it only made a clicking noise and wouldn’t turn on. Again and again he tried to start the car but with no luck. So the driver got out of the vehicle, opened the hood, and checked the engine, the cables, everything. Then he lowered the hood, went back behind the wheel and turned the key again, only to hear those interminable clicks again. An attempt followed to push the car to start but in vain. The mourners began whispering and everyone looked puzzled. Don Alfredo then called his wife Concha to come over to him. The two of them stood behind the car, Don Alfredo took off his straw hat, the driver opened the hatchback of the hearse, and the coffin was in front of them. Don Alfredo sadly exclaimed:
“Doña Petra, go in peace. The bosses told me last night when I spoke with them that I will be in charge of the house from now on, and I know how you like things done, and that’s how I will do them. So go, Doña Petra, rest in peace, and know that your house will be in good hands.”
Don Alfredo and Doña Concha made the sign of the Cross, the driver closed the back door to the hearse, got in the driver’s seat, turned the key, the engine started, and the car slowly started making its way to the church.
Since then, the house has had good fortune; it is safe, calm, and adorned with the beautiful plants that Oaxacans have always loved. It is said Doña Petra is still looking after the place.
Jorge Augusto Velasco