Travels November 2006

The Spell of San Miguel

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

That September morning in 1810, commemorated today as the Día de la Independencia, Hidalgo invited the prisoners in Dolores’s jail (now the museo) to join his army, replaced them with the town’s Spaniards, and set off with his forces for San Miguel. On the way they stopped at the sanctuary of Atotonilco and took up the banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose dark skin endeared her to the Indians and mestizos of Hildalgo’s flock.

Atotonilco was constructed in the 1740s as a moral corrective to the hedonistic behavior of Indians at the several mineral springs nearby. Its builder, Father Luis Alfaro, a priest apparently drawn to suffering since childhood, succeeded in creating a destination for pilgrims and penitents across Mexico and through the centuries. On the day we visited, a weeklong penitential retreat was about to begin. The dusty road flanking the sanctuary was thick with stalls where merchants sold brightly colored knouts, crowns of thorns, rosaries, and the tiny metal votives called milagros. Happily, the knouts looked too flimsy to inflict much damage, and the thorns projected outward only. Furthermore, the pleasure grounds that the scandalized Alfaro meant to stamp out also continue to thrive. Lolling in a warm pool at one of the springs several days later, I wondered what dim view he might manage to take of the multigenerational families who were innocently splashing and chatting their way through the afternoon.

When the rebels reached San Miguel, Allende had the Spanish loyalists there locked up in a college with their portable wealth and persuaded the government regiment to stay in its quarters, thus protecting his social set from a bloody confrontation. (By then he may have realized that his vision of a reordered aristocracy was ill-matched with Hidalgo’s goal of liberating the lower classes.) The Spanish in the city of Guanajuato, about fifty miles west of San Miguel, were not so lucky. They and their gold had taken refuge in a granary, where they were massacred by the army of the revolt. A few other rebel victories followed, but by the middle of 1811 Hidalgo and Allende had been chased north, captured, and executed. Their heads hung in cages on the Guanajuato granary for ten years, until one of the last of the rebel leaders, Vicente Guerrero, brokered a peace with the royalist commander Agustín Iturbide, and Mexico’s independence was won.

In those days San Miguel was a prosperous way station on the silver route between Zacatecas and Mexico City. Now its itinerants are students at the several art and language schools, and tourists who don’t always go home. Time and again I heard stories of people who came for a week and stayed for a month, or came for a month and stayed for three, or started looking for real estate within days of their arrival. The city’s even-tempered climate year round, its relatively low cost of living, and the indolent beauty of its winding cobblestone streets and fragrant courtyards are largely to blame. But to my surprise I concluded that the expats themselves are a draw. Those I met were friendly, expansive, civic-minded, and culture-oriented. Some are also philanthropic: the walking tours benefit an agency that provides medical and dental care to needy children; the library’s enormously popular house tours fund language, literacy, and art programs for Mexican youth. On a guided tour of El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden and nature preserve high in San Miguel’s northeastern corner, I wondered if the dedicated assistant director who led us was hoping that in that large group of gringos lurked the seeds of a Friends of the Botanical Garden.

I had arrived in San Miguel at night, after a ninety-minute taxi ride through virtually unbroken blackness. The morning I left, the sere brown countryside looked like a vast moat surrounding a storybook city. I’d like to return some September, at the end of the rainy season, when the moat turns green, the hills are covered with wildflowers, and fireworks explode over the jardín in celebration of independence day.

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

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