I’m bringing it up because I spent a few days last week in San Miguel, which is the only place in Guanajuato (the state) that most Americans have ever heard of. That’s because in this part of Mexico, San Miguel is Gringo Heaven.
I like San Miguel, it’s a charming colonial town with a beautiful cathedral, old-fashioned anklebreaker cobbled streets and a thriving artists’ scene. Over the years, I’ve run with the bulls downtown (back when they still did that), partied until the wee hours in the local nightclubs (back when I still did that) and enjoyed restaurants and coffee shops that always seemed a notch above the offerings in Guanajuato (which feels a lot more urban than San Miguel).
But I’ve always gravitated to Guanajuato. It was my first love south of the Rio Grande, the first Mexican city I’d lived in, the place where I learned to speak the language and love the culture. I picked it over San Miguel, which had plenty of language schools of its own, because of the gringo factor. My friend Ramon (a Mexican journalist and Zorba-like lover of life and explorer of the world) had warned me: “In San Miguel, everyone will speak English to you,” he said. “Guanajuato, you’ll be forced to speak Spanish.”
He was right. And it’s still that way. San Miguel is the third-most popular destination for American ex-pats, behind Tijuana and Lake Chapala near Guadalajara, according to the 2010 Mexican census. Guanajuato (the city) didn’t make the top 20.
In San Miguel, a good portion of the locals who work in the restaurants and bars and gift shops switch to English when they see norteamericanos coming. The town is dotted with little gated communities filled with north-of-the-border retirees and part-time expats – it also has a lot of artists and fixed-income retirees who rent places among the locals.
In Guanajuato, the restaurants and bars and tour buses are packed with Spanish speakers – the tourists here are overwhelmingly Mexicans from other parts of the country. In the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve run into two people in the service industry who have a good command of English. There’s no “American section” that I know of. It’s a challenging place to navigate if you don’t speak the language.
It’s not that one is better or worse than the other. It’s just what kind of experience you’re looking for as an outsider. I like coming to Mexico and having to adapt to life here rather than being where a lot of the locals have adapted to us.
Some Americans like to argue about whether the gringos have ruined San Miguel (or more likely, older expats complaining that the newcomers are ruining their Mexican nirvana). I don’t live there. I don’t know. But San Miguel doesn’t feel like an Americanized parody of Mexico to me – it’s still a very Mexican town — and I always leave San Miguel feeling pretty good about the whole Mexican-gringo relationship.
For all the hand-wringing about the American (and Canadian and European) presence in San Miguel de Allende, it strikes me as a place where foreigners can be as insulated or as integrated as they want to be.
I have a different perspective on the place now that I have family-by-marriage in San Miguel. My cousin Doug married a local about five years ago, and this month his wife Bety came back to San Miguel from Austin with their daughter for a long visit with her family, so I hopped a bus to see them.
Bety played the tour guide, taking me to a couple of local restaurants and bars, visiting the Catholic temple that still had the heavy wooden pews her carpenter father had built three decades ago, strolling through the parks and the outdoor art fairs and the main plaza where a folkloric dance troupe had drawn a big crowd of locals, tourists and expats.
I first met her family when Doug and I – and my brother and sister-in-law – flew down for Doug’s first meeting with his future in-laws years ago. I was the official translator (No pressure). Bety’s family made me feel like a member of the family the moment I stepped through the door. It was the kind of hospitality I’ve encountered all across Mexico over the years.
A little snapshot of the cross-cultural stew in San Miguel: A couple of years ago her dad (now a widower) began renting out the extra space in his mostly empty nest — two self-contained apartments on the second floor — to a retiree from Dallas and a couple from Canada.
Bety and I sat on the new rooftop terrace with the woman from Dallas and drank wine and talked. She loves Mexico. Wants to live out her days there. Likes the people, the low cost of living, has both American and Mexican friends. Her Spanish is pretty rudimentary, but she makes an effort (and she gets a kick out of the irony of Americans complaining about Mexicans not learning English when so many Americans move to Mexico and don’t try to learn Spanish.). She has meals with Bety’s family sometimes. She and Bety’s dad (who speaks about as much English as she speaks Spanish) sit together and somehow cobble together conversations.
He gets extra income from his tenants. They get a nice, cheap place to live — with rooftop views of the city to boot. And there’s a lot of mutual respect. It works.
I hear Bety and her family talk about how much the town has changed over the years with all the foreigners moving in – the tourist/expat money pouring into the city is a big plus, the rising prices for property and other things is a minus. I know some longtime expats worry about San Miguel losing the small-town colonial charm they fell in love with.
But they’re all sharing the city in apparent harmony, and the place hasn’t lost its soul as far as I can tell.