We LOVE San Miguel de Allende. This photogenic town always leaves us wanting more. Enjoy our video poem to the song ” Ojalá Que Llueva Café” by Cafe Tacuba.
San Miguel de Allende is the seat of the municipality of Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, a historic town founded in 1542 that has become an attractive tourist destination for wealthy Mexico City residents and has a large American and Canadian expatriate community composed primarily of retirees.
The town was founded in 1542 by the Franciscan monk Fray Juan de San Miguel. It was an important stopover on the Antiguo Camino Real, part of the silver route from Zacatecas, Zacatecas. The town featured prominently in the Mexican War of Independence. General Ignacio Allende, one of San Miguel’s native sons, was a leading player in the war against Spain for independence. Allende, captured in battle and beheaded, is a national hero. San Miguel el Grande renamed itself “San Miguel de Allende” in 1826 in honor of his actions.
By 1900, San Miguel de Allende was in danger of becoming a ghost town. Declared a national historic monument in 1926 by the Mexican government, development in the historic district is restricted in order to preserve the town’s colonial character. During the Cristero uprising in Mexico, when clergy and their families were persecuted, the grandchildren of Gen. Mariano Escobedo came to San Miguel de Allende, which was conveniently secluded.
In the 1950s, San Miguel de Allende became a destination known for its beautiful colonial architecture and its thermal springs. After World War II San Miguel began to revive as a tourist attraction as many demobilized United States GIs discovered that their education grants stretched further in Mexico at the U.S.-accredited art schools, the privately-owned Instituto Allende, founded in 1950, and the Bellas Artes, a nationally chartered school.
American ex-servicemen first arrived in 1946 to study at the art school. By the end of 1947, Life magazine assigned a reporter and photographer to do an article on this post-war phenomenon. A three-page spread appeared in the January 5, 1948, edition under the headline “GI Paradise: Veterans go to Mexico to study art, live cheaply and have a good time.” This was possible when apartments rented for US$10 a month, servants cost US$8 a month, rum was 65 cents a quart and cigarettes cost 10 cents a pack.
As a result of the publicity, more than 6,000 American veterans immediately applied to study at the school. Stirling Dickinson thought that San Miguel, which then had a population of fewer than 10,000, could only handle another 100 veterans, bringing the student body to around 140.
Ex-GIs were more demanding than previous students. Contemporary and friend of painter and muralist Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, another icon of the Mexican mural movement and a vocal member of the Communist Party, was hired as a guest lecturer. He agreed to work with the students on a mural of San Miguel’s most famous son, Ignacio Allende. When Siqueiros reviewed the budget, he and the art school’s owner, Alfredo Campanella, had a falling out and the artist threw him down a flight of stairs.
The faculty and the majority of the students then walked out in support of Siqueiros. When this forced the school to close in 1949, Dickinson opened one of his own. But it did not receive accreditation from the American Embassy, so most of the veterans either went home or transferred to other Mexican schools.
In the counterculture years of the 1960s, San Miguel began its career as a center for American expatriatism and was a popular destination for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, as recorded in Tom Wolfe´s novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Beat writer Neal Cassady died beside the railroad tracks between San Miguel and Celaya after a party in town.
During the final week of July, San Miguel de Allende and Guanajuato, Guanajuato, are co-hosts to the Expresión en Corto International Film Festival, Mexico’s largest competitive film festival and the most prestigious of its kind in Latin America. The internationally renowned festival is free to the public and screens over 400 films from 10am until 4am each day in 16 venues, which include such unusual locations as San Miguel’s Jardín Principal (or main square), the subterranean streets and tunnels of Guanajuato, the Guanajuato Mummy Museum and both city’s municipal graveyards (Panteones).
The fact that this festival uses the city graveyard as a venue is seen as a completely inappropriate abuse by those who have their families and loved ones buried there. Most of the approvals and event management are carried out by those who are not native to San Miguel and are at best vaguely aware there is some public dismay of this event’s (more gory and frightened) take on death, vs. the Mexican style of reverence and ceremony of loving spirits.
San Miguel de Allende was also named a Pueblo Mágico in 2002. In 2008, San Miguel was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This despite the fact that UNICEF has been concerned about the lack of sewage management flowing past schools housing thousands of children at the San Juan de Dios neighborhood. There were several ineffective city administrations and self-proclaimed committees vying for the UNICEF funds which then dropped the project until recent commitments to put sewage into one big pipe. See UNICEF on YouTube.
Murals: In 1941-42 at age 25 Eleanor Coen painted a Mural in fresco in at the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. It was damaged but has been recently restored. Eleanor was the first woman employed by the TGP in Mexico City where she worked with the founders in 1941. At that time her work was influenced by Jose Clemente Orozco although her mural’s subject matter, women washing at a river with children, shows a woman’s point of view.
Recent demographic changes
Famous worldwide for its mild climate, thermal springs and colonial-era architecture, San Miguel de Allende has attracted a large community of foreign residents. Exact figures are difficult to obtain since Medicare, the U.S. public health system, cannot be claimed abroad, and many expatriates return regularly to the United States to receive treatment as well as to maintain their residence status in their home country. Both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad have active chapters in San Miguel and retain their involvement with U.S. politics. Canadian residents often live six months in Mexico and six months in Canada to maintain their Canadian health coverage.
SMA city government leaders in 2006, as reported in Atención (the local bilingual newspaper), did realize that a population surge of foreigners was growing that year and its size could not be documented. There was a rash in home sales and construction of new housing developments, with rapid profitable turnover of new housing units. However, the slowing of the housing market in the United States in 2006 was also felt in San Miguel.
Many Mexican and foreign residents protested the number of new developments in San Miguel in late 2006 and early 2007. During this time, a major new supermarket, Mega/Comercial Mexicana, opened at one end of the urban area, and another major shopping mall with a Soriana supermarket, an eight-screen movie theater, an Office Depot and a McDonald’s opened slightly farther away. A 700-space city parking lot was built on the edge of the historic Centro area to help reduce traffic within the city.