Published in the Vail Daily February 22, 2009
It began in the 1930’s. The Instituto Allende Art School initiated an influx of foreigners unabated to this day. The GI Bill after World War II enabled veterans to stretch their benefits while studying in San Miguel de Allende. Over the ensuing years , especially the last fifteen, the growth of the expatriate population has brought significant changes.
San Miguel has grown from a sleepy backwater to a thriving, international community. There are somewhere between 6,000 and 13,000 foreigners in San Miguel, nobody knows the exact figure. In a town of 85,000, the impact is remarkable and disproportionate to their numbers.
Some decry the gentrification, the large, expensive homes and rising prices but on many levels, gringos make vital contributions to the social fabric
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 am the dedicated, knowledgeable docents of the Patronato Por Niños lead tours of the historic center. Each year, the Patronato, founded in 1970, provides medical and dental care to thousands of children living in and around San Miguel de Allende. Last year, over 7,000 children received care ranging from eye glasses to kidney surgery.
The 100 peso donation, $7, goes directly toward this care. The popular tours are a usual first stop for hundreds of tourists each week who gain first hand knowledge of the town and it’s history from the expatriate guides.
The second thing most tourists do is the home and garden tour. This is another philanthropic venture began by the expat community. Every Sunday, up to 700 people, (no where near that amount on the day Yolanda and I attend), tour three beautiful homes. The charge is 150 pesos, around $10. The money goes to fund the Biblioteca Publica, the public library, and it’s many educational programs for the youth of San Miguel.
The biblioteca is a cultural and social epicenter for visitors and residents alike. From morning to night plays, concerts, lectures, movies and discussions groups fill it’s busy calendar.
The Sunday morning tours begin in the spacious courtyard of the library. Visitors from around the world join the numerous resident volunteers mingle and enjoy a band of local musicians before boarding the buses to this week’s homes. Three hundred homeowners have volunteered to open their homes for the tour. Every week is different.
When we went, each home provided a unique experience. The first, belonging to a several generation native, was elegantly understated, with clean interior lines and bright, airy rooms.
The second, perched above the town, held a panoramic view. Each room situated to partake of the town below. It’s rich interior punctuated by a wall of exquisitely framed, original Rembrandt etchings.
The last house was just plain fun. Like so many houses in San Miguel, the exterior walls give no hint to the surprise lurking behind them. Upon entering, an 85’ long, bright red, arched roof leads the visitor into a garden that is a riot of life. Every room of the house, every brightly colored wall, nook, cranny and horizontal space is filled with fun, fantastic folk art. The sense of humor at work is infectious.
The garden is a work of art, a labor of love filled with ponds, plants, fruit trees, sculpture and tranquility. The zen-like quality of the recently added rear cactus garden and spare, modern guest house are a quiet exclamation point juxtaposed against the tumult of the house and original garden.
And these are just three of the three hundred homes available to the tour!
I must write another article on the impact expats have on their adopted San Miguel de Allende. The “Insiders Guide” lists 22 organization where one can volunteer and there are others deserving mention.
Lastly, there is the Jardín Botánico and El Charco del Ingenio preserve.
El Charco covers 250 acres of canyon, hillside, lake and wetlands, Well maintained trails provide access to the preserve. The crown jewel is the beautifully designed and landscaped Botanical Garden and Conservatory containing a collection of 850 species of native succulents and cacti.
El Charco was also honored by the Dalai Lama who proclaimed it a “Peace Zone” during his 2004 trip to Mexico.