The Spell of San Miguel

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


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.

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.