We were rolling across the green highlands of central Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, white cumulus clouds hanging on the horizon, when I realized that Valente Juaréz, the driver who’d picked me up at the airport in León, had asked if I believed in miracles. Not wanting to offend, I said I believed in luck, coincidence; not wanting to lie, I said no, I didn’t believe in miracles.
He nodded, satisfied we meant the same things. Semantics, I imagined him thinking. How we’d gotten into metaphysics I didn’t know. We had had a pleasant conversation during most of the 1½-hour trip; now I was worrying about our destination, wondering if I would recognize San Miguel de Allende after 13 years and fearing a repeat of the unnerving experience of returning to Mexican towns I remembered fondly, only to discover that they had disappeared inside a crust of commercial development. American friends who live part-time in San Miguel had been telling me the town had changed dramatically in the past three years. Breathlessly, they reported that two big shopping centers were being built on the edge of town, that the central plaza—called El Jardín—across from the parish church, La Parroquia, had been redone, and that two high-end international hotel chains were entering the market. Moreover, rich Americans were buying up everything. Houses that had sold for tens of thousands five years ago were now going for millions. It sounded like the beginning of Aspen Syndrome—charming and eccentric small town becomes so desirable that local people are forced to move. Unwelcome visions appeared: hordes of lost-looking tourists filling the cobblestoned streets, the 500-year-old town turned into a shopping arcade.
I was scanning the countryside for high-rise buildings when Señor Juárez waved his hand toward the windshield, announcing, "Aquí está San Miguel." Nothing looked even vaguely familiar. We passed a raw-looking development of boxy row houses plunked down in a pasture, then a huge Pollo Feliz (Happy Chicken) restaurant, part of a Mexican chain, and the steel skeleton of a new shopping center. At last the massive gray stone walls of the Instituto Allende—the art and language school that has brought American students to San Miguel for 50-plus years—came into view, and we started up Zacateros Street toward the heart of the colonial town I remembered. The sound of tires on cobblestones, the narrow street embraced by high stucco walls in shades of red (cayenne, rust, clay); it all came back as a physical rather than mental memory. El Jardín looked exactly as I recalled it, people sitting on benches beneath small trees with canopies clipped into geometric boxes, and a woman selling helotes—roasted ears of corn—from a cart. Everyone seemed to be facing La Parroquia, as grand and fanciful as Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, but here, rather than melting, the architecture soars, the rose-colored spires flaming against the deep blue sky. Evening was settling. Up the hill above town, someone was shooting fireworks, which sounded like a mortar round; a puff of smoke followed each explosion. When I looked back toward where we had been, the street framed a view of the green plateau and, in the far distance, the Sierra de Guanajuato, its peaks turning dark sage-blue.
Many beautiful towns keep you at bay. A traveler can admire, shop, eat, sleep but never break the surface. San Miguel, however, takes you in, befriends you. Here, the town is the thing, the promise of community. The streets and sidewalks are narrow. People talk to each other, engage easily. More than likely, you will see a sprinkling of Americans crossing El Jardín or sitting on its benches, but they aren’t necessarily tourists. According to Christopher Finkelstein, secretary of the San Miguel City Council, 12,000 to 14,000 of the city’s population of 80,000 are expatriates, roughly 70 percent of them from the United States. They don’t just reside in San Miguel—they also own and run small businesses. Americans, Canadians, Italians, and Argentinians have started cafés, bakeries, guesthouses, clothing stores, art galleries, language schools, day spas, and bars. They teach cooking classes, arrange traditional Mexican weddings for non-Mexicans, and lead architectural tours. They write guides and publish a newspaper, an art magazine, and a telephone directory for expatriates. They realize their fantasy of living in a Mexican town by translating it for others. Gradually, over the past 50-odd years, they’ve turned San Miguel from a quiet historical artifact into a cosmopolitan center with more restaurants, nightlife, and good shops than in much larger cities in the United States.