Travels November 2006

The Spell of San Miguel

A Mexican hill town’s indolent beauty belies its fiery past
Also see:

San Miguel: The Travel Advisory
Where to stay, what to eat, and things to do.

When a friend announced last winter that she would once again be renting a house for a month in San Miguel de Allende, and invited me to stay with her, I decided to accept. The thought of spending early March in Mexico rather than Massachusetts was too powerful to resist.

I’d never visited Mexico, which in my mind was a vague jumble of Hollywood westerns, news reports about immigration, and a cuisine I’ve always loved. And not in this incarnation would a place like Cancún or Acapulco induce me to make the trip. San Miguel was said to be safe and generously larded with norteamericano retirees, which appealed to the timid monolinguist in me. Its setting, in the country’s northern central highlands, evoked images of Italian hill towns, and the guidebooks I consulted promised all the ingredients of a restorative vacation: numerous artists and art galleries; a bilingual public library complete with a stage for cultural events; plenty of good restaurants; pretty residential streets with views of the surrounding countryside; and handsome colonial architecture, preserved by San Miguel’s status as a Mexican national monument. Mexico’s revolution against Spain began in Guanajuato, the state in which San Miguel sits, and one of its greatest heroes, Ignacio Allende, was born and lived in the town. I decided to shape my stay around the dramatic events of the revolution’s first days.

The heart of San Miguel is the Plaza Principal, where baroque mansions and arcades ring the jardín, a densely green resting place for tourists and residents alike. The plaza’s wrought-iron benches and street lamps, fountains, bandstand, and balloon sellers create the effect of a European park. The treetops are rigorously pruned into Tinkertoy lollipops, and above them soars the late-nineteenth-century facade of La Parroquia, the city’s parish church. Allende, whose name was appended to San Miguel’s in honor of his role in the independence movement, was born in a grand house on the southwest corner of the plaza. The privileged son of a wealthy Spanish merchant, he nevertheless had a mosca in his soup: the presumably degenerative effects of having been born elsewhere than in Spain relegated him and his fellow criollos to second-class status in the colonial aristocracy. They were resentful. And after Napoleon high-handedly put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne in 1808, fracturing loyalty to the crown, they were rebellious, as well.

Diagonally across the plaza sits a house that belonged to Allende’s brother. The revolution’s plotters are said to have met there, either under the guise of a literary salon or behind the noise and diversion of dances and parties, depending on the source. One of the plotters was Father Miguel Hidalgo, the deservedly beloved parish priest of the nearby town of Dolores. As a known dancer, gambler, and father, he could have attended such functions without remark.

My friend and I took a bus to Dolores to see the church where, on the morning of September 16, 1810, Hidalgo called for freedom in what is known as the grito de Dolores, issued to rally the core of his army. He and Allende had been meeting in the town the night before when Juan Aldama, another criollo son of San Miguel, rode in to warn them that their intention to rise up the following December had been discovered. They risked imminent arrest, which forced an acceleration of their plans. (Our walking-tour guide in San Miguel, a retired U.S. structural engineer, retailed the most romantic version of that night’s events, in which a local magistrate’s wife, known to admire the dashing Allende, was locked up by her husband to prevent her from leaking word of the discovery. She cajoled the guard outside her door into carrying a note, and thus sent Aldama off on his ride.)

Inside Hidalgo’s church we became absorbed in watching workmen painstakingly apply gold leaf to the pulpit. The altar gleamed with the results of their recent efforts; pink stone columns soared to a high celadon balcony; the ceiling was painted with delicate vines. These boudoir colors seemed anomalous in Mexico’s “Cradle of Independence—particularly alongside the Museo de la Independencia Nacional, half a block away, where graphic images of Spanish oppression, lavish with blood, depict faces darkened by cruelty or agony.

On our way to visit Hidalgo’s house, we stopped at a corner of the central plaza for ice cream. Forewarned that a number of bizarre flavors—shrimp, mole, avocado—would be on offer, we were trying to puzzle out the listings of two rival vendors when a young woman named Claudia stepped up to help. She had spent some time as an au pair on Long Island, and saw us as a chance to use her English. After no more than ten minutes’ conversation—during which she saved me from choosing what I thought was cinnamon but was actually pork crackling—Claudia kissed us both on parting.

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Martha Spaulding is a former deputy managing editor of The Atlantic.

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