The Spell of San Miguel

Amy Dickerson
by Logan Ward - Mexico - December/January 2015

With its cobblestoned streets, colonial architecture, and ever-growing creative class, this Mexican mountain city—an expat enclave since the 1940s—continues to bewitch Southern travelers

The original San Miguel expat was the late Stirling Dickinson. In 1937, the diffident twenty-seven-year-old Chicago trust funder—a Princeton graduate who also studied at the L’Ecole d’art Américaine at Fontainebleau near Paris—booked a train ticket to San Miguel. Upon arrival, he took one look around and, you guessed it, stayed. Dickinson was something of a visionary. The former mining outpost was nearly a ghost town. By 1900, the silver had dried up and the population was moving on; by the 1920s, after a decade of bitter civil war, fewer than seven thousand called San Miguel home. Dickinson moved into an abandoned stone tannery and became director of the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, San Miguel’s first art school. During World War II, Dickinson served as an intelligence officer in Washington and Italy, but he returned to San Miguel in 1945 and laid the groundwork for its comeback as a magnet for artists and American expats. His secret? The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, better known as the G.I. Bill. So many veterans signed up for art school in San Miguel that in 1948 Life magazine called the city a “G.I. Paradise.” Before he retired, in 1983, Dickinson had helped bring some forty thousand American students to San Miguel, many of whom chose to stay.

If Dickinson inspired waves of expat artists, a Fort Worth art patron named Martha Hyder did the same for Texans. In 1959, she and her now late husband, Elton, bought a sprawling walled home a few blocks south of the main plaza, where Martha became famous for her lively house parties and deliciously unhurried, salon-style luncheons. Thanks to the Hyders, folks from Dallas–Fort Worth started coming to San Miguel, followed by Houstonians and Austinites. The border is twelve hours away by car, but today, with direct flights from a number of Southern cities, getting here is easier than ever. During my visit, I meet lots of Southerners—folks from Alabama, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia. And, of course, plenty of Texans. They come for the three-hundred-year-old houses, market stalls full of produce and flowers, and a culture that favors long lunches and afternoon naps. San Miguel is like Provence without the jet lag, and with prices in pesos, not euros.

Walking is the best way to soak up San Miguel’s charms. Under the Mexican sun, the city explodes with color—a range of earthy ochers, the rosy hues of cantera (a local volcanic stone), bursts of fuchsia bougainvillea. It’s a painter’s city, if there ever was one. I poke my head into art galleries carved out of the grand historic homes and find the mother lode at the Fábrica la Aurora art and design center, a former turn-of-the-century textile factory filled with galleries and working studios. There, and inside both the Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende, the other cultural center Dickinson directed, I find bulletin boards shaggy with flyers for exhibits, art classes, and cooking lessons.

The culinary-arts scene is a more recent San Miguel phenomenon. Instructors often begin class inside the labyrinthine daily market near El Jardín or at the massive Tuesday market, El Tianguis, just outside the historic center, filling baskets full of nopals (cactus paddles), fresh and dried chiles, mangoes, and passion-fruit-like granadas chinas. Local chefs take advantage of the abundance, too. There are countless cafés and restaurants in town, but sitting atop the food chain is American expat Donnie Masterton, chef and owner of the Restaurant. Masterton worked in Washington, D.C., and Beverly Hills, and ran his own eatery in San Francisco before leaving the rat race in 2005 to serve his global comfort food here.

More and more of that local bounty is organic. Leading the charge is a nonprofit organization called Vía Orgánica, which operates a farm outside San Miguel and a retail store, restaurant, and training center in town. One morning, Lisa Coleman’s twenty-six-year-old son, Charlie, and his friend, Vía Orgánica program director and Dallas native Griffin Klement, invite me for a farm tour and a horseback ride. The two are part of a new wave of younger expats—chefs, DJs, artists—migrating to San Miguel.

Vía Orgánica’s farm manager, Humberto Fossi—sporting a goatee and a faded Jimi Hendrix T-shirt—leads the trail ride. He’s taking us into the hills to visit Doña Beatriz, who bottles his favorite pulque, a frothy fermented beverage made from the sweet fluid tapped from giant agave plants.

We cross grasslands filled with blooming cosmos, black-eyed Susans, and a color wheel of wildflowers I’ll never identify. As we climb, our perspective broadens. Below, an ancient hacienda slowly crumbles beside a shallow lake. We clop along weedy cobbled roads, no signs of vehicles anywhere.

After an hour in the saddle, we dismount in Lagunilla, a tiny hillside village with a grassy courtyard, a stone church, a schoolhouse, and scattered houses. Doña Beatriz, a short, stout woman with a black apron and black hair pulled back from her face, welcomes us to her low-slung dwelling, seating us out back beneath a vine-choked arbor. Fossi pours everyone a glass of the fizzy yellow liquid. It’s cool, tart, sweet, and refreshing, like cider made with honey instead of apples. The food starts to arrive: quesadillas made with purple-corn tortillas, beans, squash blossoms, and stringy goat cheese; a grapefruit-size zucchini halved and stuffed with cheese and tomato and served over rice; and a tomato-based soup with the tender, mild meat of a giant white puffball mushroom.

Back in San Miguel, feeling rejuvenated by the return ride (or maybe the pulque), I dress for yet another social engagement. (Since I arrived, Lisa has arranged drinks and tours in the homes of several gracious Texans.) The finale is a grand soiree hosted by a French couple who divide their time among here, New York, and Paris. I arrive at the address and once again find myself standing on a cobbled street before a windowless wall and a heavy wooden door. From within, faint laughter. Having experienced the wonders of Casa Acanto, I can only imagine what awaits on the other side.