All too soon, it seemed, we were loading our bags into the van and leaving Guadalajara. Thanks to Rodrigo, I was at least leaving with my backpack, Kindle, and passport. While there was still so much I had not seen, I was incredibly excited to be heading to San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato. This stop was the main reason I wanted to take this particular trip. My anticipation made it almost impossible for me to relax on the five hour ride across the central highlands. I could not wait to tramp up and down those hilly, cobblestone streets, stand in the middle of El Camino Real, and count and compare doors (to determine if there really were over 2,000 different ones).
San Miguel de Allende left me as breathless as I had anticipated, and it wasn’t because of the climbs up and down steep streets. The homes and business were painted warm shades of mustard yellow, terra cotta, and barn red. (Residents have seven colors they can choose from for their outside walls.) Rooftop gardens bloomed. Doors were made of heavy wood, some of them even original. The cobblestone streets were in meticulous order, and I never saw so much as one cigarette butt or scrap of paper littering them. Bus traffic was barred from some streets in the central district, as they were just too narrow. Originally, of course, roadways were designed for carriages and donkeys. The sidewalks were equally tiny, requiring pedestrians to step into the street on occasion to avoid bumping into one another.
The parish church, San Miguel Arcángel, is probably the most recognizable landmark in the city. It dominates the central plaza and is as stunning at night as it is during the day. Side note: the central plaza is not referred to as a plaza. It is called a jardín, or garden. This caused some confusion, as San Miguel de Allende has created a beautiful green space just a few blocks away. I thought this park was the jardín everyone was talking about! I almost led our group astray during our pursuit of churros y chocolate by heading toward the wrong jardín. And believe me, after two days of climbing hills to get from Point A to Point B, no one is even trying to get additional steps any more!
My abilities in differentiating between churches, cathedrals, and chapels is seriously lacking. Due to its size and grandeur, I incorrectly assumed the San Miguel Arcángel was a cathedral. (Fancy and huge = cathedral, right?) But in the late 1600’s when the church was built, San Miguel de Allende was not a large enough city to be home to a cathedral. It is only a regular, old parish church.
The man who built the church had absolutely no training as an engineer or architect. He worked as a mason. His idea for the church came from a postcard of a cathedral in Cologne, Germany that he carried around with him. I cannot even put together a child’s Lego set without studying the instructions for a couple of hours and then spending another couple just psyching myself up.
Its exterior is pink, thanks to a local sandstone used in its construction. (There are actually five unique colors of sandstone in this region: purple, pink, green, chocolate, and gray.) I loved waking up to the church bells ringing each morning (followed immediately by the rooster), and I never quite figured out their timing. The inside of the church honors both indigenous, pagan beliefs and Catholicism. Interestingly enough, however, Indians were excluded from celebrating mass in the central church. They were required to attend smaller churches scattered throughout town that were literally small, dark, concrete walled rooms.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why San Miguel de Allende was so instrumental in the Mexican fight for independence. It was the birthplace of General Ignacio Allende, whose home still sits just across the plaza from the building where secret resistance meetings were held. General Allende fought alongside Miguel Hidalgo in the very early battles. His name is shouted out every September 15 in the reenactment of the “Cry of Dolores” in celebration of Mexico’s independence.
The influence of the Canel family is still alive in San Miguel today as well. They were a family of traders: leather, grain, and animal fat. In 1733, the patriarch began construction on the family’s second home. It was not entirely finished until his grandson was of age, and the grandson and his family were the first to live there full time. More servants lived in the home than family members! The first floor of the home (mansion? palace?) was reserved for business meetings and guests. The front doors were high and wide enough that a carriage could drive right through them into the central courtyard. The stable was located just off the courtyard, near the servants’ quarters. The family occupied the second floor.
One of the daughters of the family chose a life dedicated to God. She used her inheritance, or at least 70,000 gold coins of it, to build the Convent of the Immaculate Conception. The nunnery is active today, housing 14 cloistered nuns, women who have chosen to remain separate with the outside world in order to devote their lives to prayer and meditation. They are even kept out of the sight of other parishioners during mass. Today, Belles Artes, an art school, shares space with the remaining nuns.
And it may have been art that saved San Miguel, a city that suffered mightily during the Mexican War of Independence and a flu epidemic in the early 1900’s. It was rediscovered by international artists. Jackson Pollack got his start in San Miguel, where he attended a workshop led by David Alfaro Siqueiros, one of Mexico’s “Big Three” muralists. Students came in droves, especially American veterans after World War II. Artists and passionate amateurs continue to flock to the city today taking photography, drawing, painting, and cooking classes and workshops. San Miguel de Allende was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, further cementing its appeal to retirees from the United States and Canada and increasing numbers of tourists.
How does the saying go? Every cloud has a silver lining. Perhaps the reverse is a bit true here. The cloud is that many Mexicans born in San Miguel de Allende are now being priced out of homes in the central district, forcing them to live further from the city center and its main marketplace. Beautiful mountain views are now obscured by condominiums, apartments, and large homes. It is quite possible that water could be in short supply in the next 15 years due to the increasing population. In addition, traditional work opportunities in agriculture and commerce are being lost as more services are needed to accommodate the influx of visitors and foreign residents.
Whoa. I am kind of depressing myself.
I loved San Miguel de Allende and the people I met there. I am inspired by history of the city and the effect it had on all of Mexico. I admire the efforts the government and all citizens have made to preserve its colonial integrity. Most of all I am grateful for the important lesson, intended or otherwise, in being a mindful, gracious visitor to another’s home.