A Singular Place

5 May

The official name of Mexico is the “United Mexican States” or Estados Unidos Mexicanos.  I didn’t know that.  Nor did I know that Mexico is a federation comprised of 31 states, with the capital, Mexico City, a federal district similar to Washington D.C.  In retrospect it seems strange to me that I know so little of this country, having grown up in Arizona and California, both of which share a border with Mexico.  I remember studying South America in the 4th or 5th grade but I recall nothing about Mexico; having a checkered academic past, perhaps I was distracted during the Mexico module.  I remember going to Tijuana when I was about 8 and as an adult I have spent a week in Cabo San Lucas and ten days on the Yucatan peninsula.  I like Mexican food and can sing “La Bamba” in Spanish; otherwise I’m clueless.  And now I live here, in the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende, State of Guanajuato, in the United Mexican States.

Historically San Miguel de Allende, commonly referred to as San Miguel, was the first town in Mexico to declare its independence from Spanish rule during the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821).  It is also known as the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, an early leader of the rebellion, whose surname was added to the town’s name in 1826.  Yet in spite of its auspicious beginnings, by the beginning of the 20th century San Miguel was in danger of becoming a ghost town.  In 1937 the seeds of its renaissance were planted by a young American, a Princeton graduate with a trust fund.  A writer and artist, Stirling Dickenson had first come to Mexico in 1934 to research a book, Mexican Odyssey, and then in 1937 found his way to San Miguel.  Although he had done post-graduate study at the Art Institute of Chicago, he knew enough to know that he would never be a great artist.  However his love of art led him to become the first director of San Miguel’s first art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes located in a former convent, and  then, in the early 1940s, to establish another art and cultural school, the Instituto Allende.  Then after the Second World War the United States Congress passed the G.I. bill which allowed U.S. veterans to study abroad; some came to San Miguel.  In 1947 Life magazine published a three page article entitled, “G.I. Paradise:  Veterans go to Mexico to Study Art, Live Cheaply and have a Good Time.”   As a result of this article, more than 6,000 G.I.s applied for admission to the Instituto Allende at a time when the population of San Miguel was only 10,000; 100 were accepted.  The town’s regeneration was well under way as more and more G.I.s, artists and writers arrived spurring the need for new hotels, shops and restaurants.  In the 1950s the town took on a Bohemian quality; in the counterculture environment of the 1960s, hippies arrived, many of whom appear to have remained.  There is a huge population of vintage VWs here, vans and beetles alike, and Birkenstock sandals on bearded aging gringos a common sight.  Americans are credited with having saved the town from obscurity and unlike many other places around the world, Americans are warmly embraced here; it is estimated that one out of every ten residents is an American.  Today there are more than 100 non-profit organizations in San Miguel, all of which are headed by Americans, a fact which is well known and much appreciated among the native population.

The growing attraction of the town and its colorful colonial buildings created a vibrant real estate market which seemed more or less immune to the ups and downs of the Mexican economy since most of the real estate buyers were foreigners.  The real estate market peaked here in 2008 and has been depressed ever since with prices falling 25 to 45 percent.  It is not only the world’s economic woes that have affected real estate but the onslaught of  negative press regarding drugs, cartels, crime rates, kidnappings, etc., none of which are evident in San Miguel.

We have rented a house  just down the way from where we were staying and like many structures in San Miguel, it is narrow and vertical with a small garden and a fabulous book collection including old New Yorker magazines and Stanford Law Journals.  Our landlords are both Stanford graduates and a delight; they live just a few blocks away.  We moved in on Wednesday and had our first guests for cocktails last night.

Walking about in the evenings, one hears music coming from bars and restaurants, the majority of which is live.  In the main square, known as the garden, musicians wander with guitars and trumpets and art galleries abound.  Dogs and children populate the narrow sidewalks, green and white taxis navigate the cobblestone streets, and one hears singing at all times of the day and night.  It is a happy place.

It is tempting to make comparisons between Mexico and Panama but to do so is largely unfair since not only is San Miguel not representative of Mexico, but neither was our residency in a small corner of Panama.  Nonetheless I am compelled to make a few general observations.  First, San Miguel is very clean, as was the road we travelled from Mexico City (a toll road which may have been a factor).  Although it may exist, I have yet to see any razor wire in San Miguel; rather stucco or adobe walls are topped with either decorative rod iron spikes, or broken glass artfully arranged by color.  While safety bars adorn windows they appear more as exercises in rod iron art with decorative flourishes.  Because of the large expat population English is widely spoken and even more widely understood.  And, surprisingly, things seem cheaper.  We have just returned from the “Saturday market,” a weekly outdoor organic market complete with live music (a guitarist/signer and a bass player), and lots of expats in an acquisition mood; we got some fabulous cheese, a quiche, a brownie, and some homemade bread.

Our boxes are scheduled to arrive from Panama in the next few days so I’ll find the cord to connect my camera to the computer and my next post will have photos — I promise!

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