Where visitors are treated like family...
...welcome to San Miguel de Allende
by Lou Christine
On a sunny afternoon the old-timer unfolded his easel under the white statue of Ignacio Allende. He unrolled a blank canvas, attaching it to the three legged stand, and opened a dented paint kit. Across the calle, activity in San Miguel's well-manicured jardin attested that it was business as usual. Folks leisured on the jardin's cast-iron benches, Spanish and English filled the air.
The old-timer's gaze wasn't focused towards the popular town square, but rather towards the direction of San Miguel de Allende's renowned landmark-- its towering Parroquia.
The old-timer said his eyes never tired when gazing up at the neo-gothic church, permanently fixed in a precipitous stretch, heading towards the clear blue sky. As he began a sketch, he remarked that he first stumbled into town some forty-years ago, "for a fast cup of coffee." Since that defining day, he's spent more than half a lifetime painting in this colonial town, which is tucked off the beaten path in central Mexico's Bajio region.
Later he confessed-- he actually had come for a month, to take art classes at Instituto Allende. One month passed, then two, then decades. Other than occasional short visits back to somewhere up in the Midwest, he hasn't been able to pull himself away.
The old timer's story isn't all that uncommon. San Miguel de Allende has a knack for reeling in wanderlust-struck artists and writers. This quaint town, located in the state of Guanajuato, has a reputation for low-key easy-living, a temperate climate and magnificent light. Then there are the many stories-- like when writers Jack Kuerac, Ken Keasey, William F. Burroughs and somebody named Cassidy use to raise hell in the old place. The community has always been an eclectic mix of Mexican, American, and ancestral Europeans-- a combination of traditional Mexico keeping pace with the new wave of the future.
San Miguel was first settled in 1542 by Spaniards, but prior to the Conquest the area was inhabited by the Chichimeca, a civilization never subjugated by the Aztecs. The old-timer spoke of an indelible spirit, stemming back to the days when Mexico's founding fathers, Miguel Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende, rallied the masses against the Spanish crown, bench-marking the place as Mexico's cradle of liberty.
San Miguel is deemed a national treasure, to be preserved as it once was, with its steep cobbled-stoned streets and colonial architecture. The stately haciendas behind bougainvillea covered walls maintain the luster of a glorious time long, long ago.
During morning hours, a large contingent of expatriates gather in San Miguel's plaza to buy the dailies and exchange tidbits. The afternoon gives way to siesta time, where locals sun themselves. Evening has the jardin turning cafe ole, as San Miguel's young people congregate and Mariachi bands serenade. In the wee hours, homeward-bound party goers stop by the square for eats. If San Miguel is the heart of Mexico, it's plaza has to be its heartbeat.
The old-timer smiled at a pretty girl checking out the progress of his work. With a twinkle in his eyes he said, "This town has always had the prettiest of girls." He laughed gently and further stated, "I met one, married her, long ago. Today, she's still as pretty as that first moment."
As his well-tanned, steady hand drew confident lines, the old-timer commented how San Miguel has changed, and then in the same cadence he voiced, how in all actuality, it hasn't. "Oh sure, the place has grown, done so by leaps and bounds, but there's still the Parroquia, it's as picturesque as ever. I don't think the spirit of the people here ever falters. There's the one-of-a-kind street scenes, the kind of stuff ya can't buy a scalper's ticket for. Every morning I open my eyes I feel special!"
The old-timer turned from his work, scanning 360 degrees. "Special!" He exhaled, "You know what it means to wake up each day feeling special?"
As if rejuvenated, he picked up his pace, adding color to the sketch. During his initial days he could hardly speak Spanish, he confessed. That "pretty face" he spoke of, why she "no habla una palabra de Ingles." He said, with a twinkle in his eyes, it was a real "hole in his donut." One could tell the language barrier hadn't stifled romance. "Like nothing before in my life, I wanted that pretty face to understand me, and I really wanted to get to know her. Next thing you know, I'm spending more time at the Instituto, simultaneously taking art and Spanish."
With catlike moves, the old-timer loosely went about his work, injecting comments from time to time.
"People worry, they say the town's getting too crowded with cars and all. I think it's overblown. The thermal springs outside town are rarely crowded, and there's always a seat in a good restaurant. Sure, during the fiestas in September, or over the holidays, they stream in from Mexico City and north of the border. I stay home. Plus, I'm too old to run with the bulls, but I walk everywhere. Tell me a town that's more fun to walk around."
Futzing, the old-timer confessed that he never misses the "The Parade of the Locos." He laughed about the down-home, outrageous, razzing performance. "Nothing's sacred. That's another reason I love these people. The locals do it up pretty good, flocking to town during the aborrida, on San Miguel Day. They celebrate a miracle which took place here long ago, during a battle, which caused the sudden conversion of the indigenous population to Catholicism. There are lots of stories, young fella..."
The old-timer added, "As for entertainment, there is Angela Peralta, the town's main theater. From soup to nuts. Saw the Vienna Boys Choir there not too long ago and that magnificent dance company from the University of Colima. Not a weekend goes by without something going on!"
The old-timer sighed, he's been settled down for some time and more than likely misses visiting the numerous night-spots with live music-- the Latin jazz, salsa, and waltzing the waltz to all hours.
One could sense the endearment the old-timer has developed for Mexico. As his portrait took final form "el maestro" spoke of family life and Mexican decorum, "It was in San Miguel I discovered how to become a gentleman."
"The town's changing al'right. We now have four-star hotels and there's a line up of economical posadas that are clean and secure. Business must be good. I bet the world of tourism would be hard pressed to provide a friendlier rival. One never feels as if they're a stranger in San Miguel, but more like distant members de la familia who have found their way home.There's nothing quite like Mexican hospitality,"
Time slipped by as the old timer dabbed away. "You know, San Miguel's coming up in the world. When I first came there was no TV, now we have 50 channels with the cable. Then there's e-mail and the Internet-- even I'm hooked. I have my own fantasy football team on the web. Back in the fifties there may have been a restaurant or two. There always have been taco stands, but today-- caramba, besides Mexican, there's Italian, Middle-Eastern, Chinese, French, Creole, Sushi, Spanish and Yankee."
The painting of San Miguel's parroquia was almost finished. A couple of brown-eyed children came around the corner and wrapped their arms around the old-timer's legs. "Abuelo! Abuelo!" they shouted with glee. The old-timer beamed with pride, rubbing his hands over the tops of their heads as he leaned forward to plant kisses on their foreheads.
"Speaking of food. I'm hankering an appetite. How'd ya' like to come home with me for the best dog-gone enchiladas this side of the Mississippi? Truth is, I'm not sure which side of the Mississippi we're on, not that it's important. Remember that pretty face I told you about? Well, lucky man that I am, she's home right now, humming in the kitchen. Please come and join us. In San Miguel we like to share."