Culture, romance in Mexican memoir

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Lynn Greene | June 30, 2015

TOWN OF LYONS—Sonette Tippens wrote in her journals figuring that she would read them later in life and recall all the things she'd done, the fun she'd had. But when the retired Big Foot Union High School teacher kept hearing from former students that she should write her stories down in a book, Tippens looked at those journals and decided to put them to good use.

“When I was teaching Spanish, first in Elkhorn and then East Troy, my students always enjoyed my stories about Mexico,” Tippens said. Her new book is based on those stories and her journals and is now available in paperback.

The memoir recalls Tippens' experiences as a Beloit College art student studying abroad in Mexico. Her experiences are atypical.

“I was one of the first to study abroad back then -- it was 1963,” Tippens said. She graduated in 1965 but recently returned to Beloit for a college reunion and alumni weekend. It was the first place she held a book signing -- at Turtle Creek Books.

“There was a lot of interest, a lot of people turned out,” said Peter Fronk, store manager.

Back in 1963, when Tippens stepped off the train and first touched Mexican soil, she felt as if she belonged there. She decided she would pursue only Mexican friends and speak only Spanish, all to experience the real Mexico, in picturesque San Miguel de Allende.

The memoir recalls living at Casa Sautto and visiting a former convent that became the city's Palace of Fine Arts.

“I had spent many hours there, during my first trip, studying Flamenco dance, and also attending dreamy guitar concerts of Segovia and the great masters with Aberlardo …” Tippens wrote.

Ahh, Aberlardo -- the man, who by his very absence, has been such a large part of Tippens' life and consequently, this story. You see, Aberlardo became quite taken by Tippens during her visits. And although she initially turned down his proposals, she unknowingly agreed to marry him by her actions during a midnight serenade.

“I didn't know there was more than one way to propose or to accept a proposal,” she said. “I didn't understand the customs.”  

Complications arose when two years later her “fiance” was murdered. But the ties of the presumed future marriage forever bound her to Abelardo's family. The story of this romance is revealed in rich detail as Tippens returns to San Miguel to take her place in the family home.

“The book really is not about me as much as it is about the last of the Mexican Great Houses, one that has lasted since 1640 to the present day as a one-family residence, intact and original, preserving the traditional and gracious style of the Colonial era,” Tippens said.

As an American, Tippens remained just enough of a stranger to be aware of the many cultural differences and lifestyles of the upper and servant classes.

“I am just the recorder giving an inside look from the point of view of a beloved American, accepted as family due to my accidental engagement,” Tippens said.

The story unfolds as a jaunt through time, opening with Tippens' trip back to Mexico in 2002, with her husband the late Richard Salter, a fellow artist and teacher at Big Foot Union High School. As Tippens and Salter arrive in San Miguel, they are welcomed by Raul Rodriguez, who is Abelardo's nephew and the current owner of the house.

San Miguel is a colonial town, and like historical towns in the states, strict building codes -- and traditional values -- have kept the look and feel of the town the same as it ever was. Because of this, it is easy to spur Tippens' memory back 40 years to her first visit. The story of their romance is revealed in rich detail through flashbacks.

Embraced by Abelardo's sister as a sister-in-law, Tippens is visiting when mysterious digging undermines the structure of the house. Presumably the digging is a search for gold hidden under the stables centuries ago; the midnight excavations cause a portion of the upper stories to collapse. The one witness willing to testify is found mysteriously dead in his apartment across the street, and the Rodriguez family is menaced and threatened.

It took Tippens four years to complete the book. She asked one of her old students, Fred Noer, a freelance writer and photographer, to read it. Once her book was done, she approached publishers, but as a rule it is very difficult for new authors to catch their attention. She decided to get it done with Red Apple Publishing, an e-book publisher from British Columbia.

Shauna Paynter and Lynn McCarthy of Red Apple Publishing consider stories gifts from the ancestors. They founded their publishing company to help others tell their stories and get published. Red Apple books are printed on demand and are available from and Barnes and Noble stores.

Tippens said she is happy with her decision to self-publish.

“You order the book online and they ship it right to you, usually in two or three days,” she said.

Terri Lindmark of Rockford said she is enjoying the book.

“Without revealing the marvelous unfolding of the narrative, the depth of the experience reading was an adventure unequaled in my past even though I have had the pleasure of visiting and hearing of friends' homes (in Mexico),” Lindmark wrote in a review.

Tippens hopes other readers also will enjoy her story and looks forward to meeting with book club members to discuss the book. Contact her at SonetteSalte[email protected] if you would like to invite her to your book club.

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