San Miguel De Allende: Mirage in a Desert

"What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'"

- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

           I eventually learned to love Mexico City but I'd be lying if I didn't confess having suffered a near coronary upon stepping off the plane into the Districto Federal.  Maybe it was the fact for my first meal, I inadvertently ordered a soup that had a flaming shot of mescal poured into it.  Or maybe it was trying to sleep in a hostel that resembled what I imagine purgatory to be like.  Or the conversation I tried to have with some Mexican travelers from Monterrey who insisted on conversing with me in Spanish about Buddhism.  And though I had every intention of soaking it all in, I just wasn't ready for it quite so suddenly.

        So it made perfect sense when the conversation about Buddhism evolved into a conversation about a small town a four hour drive further into the desert called San Miguel de Allende.  In the guidebook I have borrowed there is no mention.  So what if this was a conversational suggestion made at 2am after a couple of tequilas?

        Barely half a dozen hours later I am curled up in a contorted fetal position on a bus, trying to catch up on the sleep I didn't get during the hostel snore-a-thon.  I am groggy when we drive past a couple of industrial towns in the middle of nowhere.  Other than that, the vista is a bit bleak... hundreds of miles of cacti, brush, chaparral-covered volcanic hills.  Dry, dusty and desolate, even in December someone could die of dehydration out here without a soul to notice.  Eventually the bus driver pulls over to the side of the highway without uttering a word other than the name of my destination, leaving only a cloud of dust for me to swallow.

        My God.  What have I done.

Dry desert on the way to San Miguel De Allende
         I'm picturing my parents having to fly down to claim my body in an unmarked shack serving as the local morgue.  After fifteen of the longest minutes of my life, a taxi appears, and with my backpack bouncing on my tailbone, I desperately chase him down on the other side of the highway.

        "El Centro por favor," not knowing what exactly the center town entails, gambling heavily on a church, a plaza, possibly an ice cream push-cart.

        A mere seconds pass when we enter cobblestone streets carving through piles of brightly-colored Spanish stucco buildings, illuminated bell towers, and a panoramic vista overlooking a hillside town dotted with lights.  In the center, as suspected, is a Spanish cathedral, gracefully illuminated.  Snacking on fresh churros in one hand, hot chocolate in the other, I wander around a stunning town square, and my biggest concern is to not spill the hot chocolate as I cross the cobblestone streets.  For a while I see no Westerners and hear no English.  My plaza companions are well-dressed Mexicans.

          In a cafe I eventually encounter something of a curiosity:  an elderly gringo, possibly in his eighties, skin light as day.  To his companion he mumbles something in American English, but then just as easily orders his drink in perfect Spanish.

         Later that evening, I am seated a bit awkwardly on the corner of my bed, in attempt to invoke the wisdom of wikipedia on my smartphone in my charming but budget hotel with concrete and stucco walls.  (Turns out that colonial-style walls are not so wi fi-friendly.)

        The town was originally named after a man of the cloth named San Miguel who, with the help of dogs, discovered a spring and founded the town under Spanish colonial rule.  Ironically, the town also bears the name of Ignacio Allende, the Spanish nobleman turned insurgent who fought for Mexican independence from Spanish colonial rule.  The town was his birthplace and the first to declare independence from Spain.

         The town of San Miguel de Allende won its political independence from Spain, but cultural independence it did not.  To this day its architecture is pure Spanish colonial and was such when it was discovered by Stirling Dickinson, a wealthy American Princeton graduate, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, fresh off a stint in World War II.  At the time of his arrival the city had been long suffering from an economic decline with the collapse of the mining industry and general post-war blues.  So enamored was he with the town that he first became the director of the newly created art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, and effectively lured a number of his fellow veterans armed with education stipends from the GI bill and eager to continue their international experience.  He then started his own institute after accusations of Communist sympathies led to his dismissal.  Quiet and unassuming, Dickinson lived modestly despite his inherited wealth, and by his own admission was a mediocre artist at best.  In his days as an art teacher, he instituted a curriculum based on Mexican culture and tradition and was fluent in Spanish.

        Eventually the economy had been fully transformed from agricultural to one based on tourism.  Today, visitors from all over Mexico are driven to its abundance of galleries and theaters, all featuring local artists and musicians that since flourished beginning with the influx of expat investment in the 1940's.  Inconvenient enough from the capital city and devoid of beaches or resorts, the foreigners it attracts tend to prefer aesthetics and culture.  English is seldom heard on the streets and the art schools place heavy emphasis on Mexican-rooted culture.  Diego and Frida are the icons of choice and no one mentions MTV.

        Despite my best intentions in my five days here, I've failed to make it inside a single gallery or museum.  Instead I've managed to while my time away wandering up and down the cobblestone streets, through the artisan outdoor markets, the produce markets, the public squares.  I have sat inside the towns' cathedrals staring at life-sized sculptures of the Passion, I have stalked my favorite fresh churro vendors, and I end every single night listening to live music be it Latin jazz or Mexican folk.

           With the restoration of colonial structures funded by American expat investment, San Miguel de Allende has been likened to Disneyland.  I am the first to be embarrassed by loud American tourists.  It is a city that once existed as a Spanish colonial city before the Americans got here, and the "Disneyland" was eventually resurrected by a group who chose to serve in a war against Fascism and racism, and returned home with a new appreciation for culture and a desire to create art, and learned to speak the language.  Not the most terrible set of Americans I've run into;  certainly less distasteful than the twenty-something set in Mexico City I overheard from the other side of a cafe clarifying to a Mexican that they hailed from "Brooklyn, not New York."

        And of course, the story of Dickinson in itself is intriguing.  A mediocre artist himself, he seemed to be more blessed with vision than artistic talent;  not only did he move to a foreign country, facilitating the creation of a fine arts school, but he also effectively convinced his brethren to leave their homeland to do the same.  To have lived part of his life in war to support his political beliefs, then to turn his energies to an equally daunting task of creating and facilitating art and beauty--it is an ideal easy to admire.

        As an American traveler, I belong to one of the most elite demographics on the globe.  As in the case of Sterling Dickinson, the effect of American money has an impact of exclusion every place it touches, despite even the best efforts to avoid this.  But if only we can at least funnel the effect of our wealth to in some way facilitate the flourishing of art and music.  I aspire to one day be as much of a contribution to the art and music of a traditional culture as at least one American has done before me.  Sterling's impact was undeniably a form of colonialism, as is my sheer existence as an American in Latin America.  But it is one I can stomach--alongside those freshly made churros.


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