" The Real San Miguel "
By Bill Wheeler
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
January 11, 2006
San Miguel is a Catholic town in a profoundly Catholic country and was founded by a solitary priest named Fray Juan de San Miguel in 1542 as San Miguel de las Chichimecas. His Mission along the Rio Laja and among the Indians was not particularly fruitful, and he would have disappeared as a footnote in the Vatican Library had not some Spanish explorers looking as always for Gold struck an immensely rich seam of Silver in the nearby Sierras of Guanajuato. It is said that one legendary mine, La Valenciana, alone accounted for 20% of all the silver coin in circulation in Europe in the 17th century. San Miguel grew as a watering spot and trading center through which the silver traveled on burro trains to Mexico City and on to the coffers of the Crown in Spain.
It was now called San Miguel el Grande. With the miners came settlers and more priests. They tore down the Pagan Temples of the Chichimecas and rebuilt on the same foundations the many and magnificent Churches to recognize the Glory of God and Expiate the Sins of those who brutally exploited the lives of the Indians laborers. A one hundred-thirty pound Indian was expected to carry his equivalent weight of silver ore up the hundreds of steps cut in to the spiraling rock mine shafts. His life expectancy was short and cruel.
The priests also wisely chose the Saints' Days from the Catholic calendar corresponding to the Pagan Feast Days, so when the Chichimecas showed up at the Temples-converted-to-Churches, they encountered another sleight-of-hand. The Gods they had worshipped for centuries had been turned into a single, White Man with a Beard being crucified on a cross. And, after a period of intense reeducation by the Church, it seemed to suit them fine.
San Miguel de Allende
By the early 19th century because of the severe depredations of the War of Independence and the playing out of the easy silver, San Miguel become something of a ghost town, similar to Antigua in Guatamala or Santa Fe, New Mexico. The gracious old buildings and narrow streets were left to quietly fall into ruin. In the early 20th century, Don Felipe and other Latin intellectuals and artists, including Pablo Neruda, Rufino Tamayo and the muralist David Alfaro Sequeiros, and other gifted Mexicans visited San Miguel and took part in the cultural rebuilding of the city.
From the 1930's to the 60's, wandering tribes of Americans were attracted by the Bohemian Lifestyle. Some were World War II Vets who were stretching their GI Bill benefits and some were Trust Funders inspired by the beauty and solitude of the place. Water from the springs of the Chorro once again transformed the dry earth into beautiful gardens where Bougainvillea and Jacaranda trees flourished. At 6,000 feet, with water and abundant sunshine almost any plant would grow. The Artistic Renaissance of San Miguel had begun.
Two Cataclysmic events in Mexican History should be mentioned: the War of Independence from Spain in 1810 and the Revolution of 1910. The first was much like our War against Great Britain. Even pure-blooded Spaniards born in Mexico, called Criollos, were not able to hold important public offices as it was believed that the climate affected their intelligence. They tired of repatriating a large portion of the wealth they were digging out of the ground or developing from the vast cattle ranches and the new textile industry and seeing Titles to New Spain passed among the Hereditary Spanish Nobility who were lounging around back home like wastrels.
This was too galling even for Colonel Ignacio Maria de Allende y Unzaga who commanded the Queen's Own Dragoons and lived sumptuously in San Miguel. So Allende plotted with Aldama and Unmaran (two important street names) and others against the Crown. Their actions were precipitated when a simple, but charismatic Padre from nearby Dolores marched on San Miguel under the protection of the image of the Virgin de Guadalupe with a ragtag army of peasants carrying sticks and machetes and gave the Cry (El Grito de Independencia): "Viva Mexico y Viva Nosotros".
The War lasted twelve bloody years, but for Allende and Hidalgo only the first year. They were captured; and, as traitors, their heads were hung in cages for ten years from the corners of the Spanish Armory in Guanajuato as an object lesson to other freedom lovers. But after Independence, the citizens recognized the sacrifice of the Colonel by adding de Allende to the City's name. Father Hidalgo's name was appended to the nearby town of Dolores. At least two magnificent statues in San Miguel of Allende mounted on a charger with sword drawn keep his memory fresh. And in Dolores-Hidalgo, we can see statues of the Padre striding forward toward his Uncertain Future.
The Revolution one hundred years later in 1910 was classic Have-Nots versus Haves and their allies, the Church and the Foreign Interests, such as the American Oil Companies. The War of Independence had only transferred the control and wealth of Mexico to the now elite Mexican Criollo class. Rural poverty still was the reality for most Mexicans. The peasants with their sticks and machetes rose up again under the colorful and brutal Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and a mix of opportunists against the thirty year regime of Porfirio Diaz.
Ironically, the Porfiriato dictatorship , like General Augusto Pinchet's in Chile in the 1970's, was remarkably productive in moderizing Mexico. That did the poor little good; so the wealthy and the priests were run down and run through and their grand Haciendas, Mansiones, and Seminarios, like the Chateaux in the French Revolution, were looted and anything of value, including the building materials, was carried off. Fifteen years later the fighting finally stopped, a Constitution was signed and a Land Redistribution Program set in place. Both the Independence War and the 1910 Revolution were hugely damaging to the physical and psychic well-being of San Miguel.
(Bill's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org)
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