In my casual weeklong poll, it was mostly the American expats who were nervous about the latest influx of their compatriots—especially those building 10,000-square-foot mansions in gated communities that advertise locations "just three minutes from town." The expat community, some wealthy, others not, all of them able to live better in Mexico than in the United States, tends to be liberal and anti-Bush. Nonetheless, their adopted country has its own deeply entrenched class system, a long history of dramatic income disparity. The Mexicans I spoke to, from my driver, Valente Juárez, straight up the hill to the mayor, said they were happy to see rich Americans come to their town. For Señor Juárez, San Miguel’s booming economy has enabled his daughter to start a local tourism company, for which he works as a driver. "It’s good," he assured me. "She has her kids in a school where they’re learning English. Everything is good."
"Everyone benefits from foreign investment," Jesús Correa, San Miguel’s mayor, said. "Unskilled workers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, architects, and contractors—we all benefit. We’ve been living in harmony with foreigners for forty years." This feeling was echoed by Senator Villarreal, a 13th-generation San Miguelense, Correa’s predecessor and the first mayor to actively involve foreign residents in city issues. "We believe the government must be for everybody, not just the people born and raised in San Miguel. These people live here, they’re San Miguelenses."
"But don’t they drive up prices so high that Mexicans can’t afford to live here?" I asked.
"No, we have neighborhoods outside the historic district that are less expensive. If a Mexican sells his property, then I blame him."
Billie Halpert lives in a 300-year-old colonial house a block from La Parroquia. In a town famous for great houses, hers is considered one of the finest, yet you’d never notice it from the street: just a wooden door in one of those tall, thick red walls. I visited her and her husband of seven years, Luis Halpert, and two of her grown daughters. "San Miguel has always been a place where people of like minds congregate," said Billie, who also made a point of estimating that local charities garner 90 percent of their support from Americans in San Miguel. "CASA provides family planning, and the first midwifery school in Mexico has just opened here. Feed the Hungry builds kitchens at rural schools and provides meals to 3,000 children a day. And we have the best bilingual library, La Biblioteca, in Mexico."
Travelers, of course, won’t see much of this. What they will notice, particularly if they are familiar with the urban landscape of Mexico City or other parts of the country, is that the streets are clean, women and children aren’t begging on the sidewalks, walls aren’t topped with broken glass or razor wire, and it feels safe to walk around at all times of the day or night.
Listening to the Halperts, it occurred to me that they weren’t the typical American family. Daughters Lis and Vivian Bisgaard look Nordic and don’t have Spanish last names, but they grew up in Mexico and culturally they are Mexican. They speak the sort of colloquial, affectionate Spanish that can’t be taught, that is the soul of identity. Their stepfather, Luis Halpert, was born and raised in Mexico City, but he spent his entire professional life practicing urology in Portland, Oregon. Billie did the opposite: born in California, she had her family in Mexico City before moving to San Miguel to open an art gallery.
Were they American or Mexican?A lot of the people one sees on the streets of San Miguel are bicultural, because so many World War II vets who studied at Bellas Artes married into San Miguel families. You meet Mexicans with English and German last names, and if you glance through Juarde, the expatriate telephone directory, a surprising number of surnames are Spanish. San Miguel is a study in how fluid nationality can be.