Bridging Cultures and Generations in San Miguel
On Feb 7, 1937, a Chicago-born artist named Stirling Dickinson arrived in San Miguel de Allende by train, then took a mule-drawn cart into town. “I looked up and saw the Parroquia sticking up out of the fog, and I said, ‘My gosh, what a place!’
At the time, the town had a population of about 9,000 and had long passed its glory days during the silver rush of the 17th and 18th centuries. But by 1948, Dickinson’s influence had changed San Miguel’s destiny. In that year’s January issue of Life magazine, an article described the town as a “G.I. Paradise” where "veterans go to study art, live cheaply and have a good time." There are photos of young American couples in their $10-a-month apartments, taking art classes with live models and enjoying a fiesta with mariachis.
Fast forward to an afternoon comida I attended (as a writer for San Miguel Life) with my two girls in the spring of 2022. The gathering was hosted at a restored family property owned by third-generation Sanmiguelense José Antonio and his wife Katharine, originally from Birmingham, Alabama.
Kids skip around the garden, shaded by mesquite trees, while tacos sizzle on a giant comal. The guests chat, mostly in English with a sprinkling of Spanish. We are all connected to San Miguel with strong ties of family, work, and land.
Jim and Ann Dolan have been here for 26 years, have three children born in Mexico, and own a successful real estate business (with Katharine’s mother, Nancy Howze) as well as a horse ranch just outside of town.
My family’s connection to Mexico began with my grandparents, who moved from Minnesota to Mexico City in 1960. My mother brought my sisters and me (all born in Colorado) to San Miguel for the first time in 2000, and I now have two Mexican-born daughters.
The Dickinson-era image of San Miguel as a bohemian escape still resonates, even though the town has since arrived on the international luxury travel scene with gorgeous hotels, celebrity visitors, and a climbing cost of living. But there is a deeper past here, another story: a legacy of Mexicans and foreigners who have bestowed a bridge between cultures and generations.
Sitting on hand-carved furniture on the patio, the sound of decorative papel picado fluttering in the breeze, José Antonio explains how this property once belonged to a 256-hectare ranch that has been sold off over decades. “We kept a small piece of land here and started to restore this ruin into a house. All the materials for the house tell the history of this area. The stones are quartz from the Obraje quarry and were used in SMA over 200 years ago.” The home’s décor is both bold and inviting, a graceful ode to Mexico. “Katharine’s décor is an interpretation of Mexico--using local materials such as wood, wool, and tin--through the eyes of someone who loves our culture…and is now a part of it.”
“Many Mexicans used to think San Miguel was just a boring town that old gringos came to, but the Americans saw the potential,” says Amber’s father, Juan Nieto, whose grandfather, a train conductor, arrived in Celaya from Michoacán and started a successful sugarcane mill business in 1938. “Americans put San Miguel on the map.”
Amber Nieto and her husband, Clai, both grew up in San Miguel in households with Mexican and American parents, and they are now raising a family here.
Amber was born in the U.S. and was brought back to San Miguel when she was just 12 days old. “My mom arrived in San Miguel from California in 1977. She had never visited the interior of Mexico—and as destiny would have it, she met my father on her first day here. Many years later, my maternal grandmother also moved here and became an important community member. Both sides of my family have important histories in the area.” Amber is proud of her bicultural upbringing, which she shares with her husband, Clai, whose mother was born in Veracruz and whose father is an American.
“I think our kids feel more Mexican than American,” says Ann of her teenagers. “They speak with each other in Spanish—in fact, we tried an experiment to get them to converse only in English at home during the pandemic lockdown, but they said it felt too unnatural and they couldn’t do it,” she says with a laugh.
Like any immigrant community, U.S. transplants in San Miguel have adopted some Mexican cultural habits while also carrying on traditions from their culture of origin. “One of the most amazing things about this community is its inclusiveness,” says Ann. “When we first started coming here, we fell in love with the culture, the weather, the people, and the opportunities. We immersed ourselves more in the ex-pat community at first, but when we had kids, they pulled us more into the Mexican community,” adds Jim. “The Mexican culture of the family always being together is something we have integrated into our life. We had comida together as a family every day with the kids while they were growing up, and it made our family ties much stronger.”
“We celebrate both Mexican and American holidays,” says Ann, describing how her family cherishes their traditions. “We host a Thanksgiving feast every year, and the kids are used to wearing red, white, and blue on July 4th. Then for the Mexican Independence Day, we are always celebrating in green, white, and red."
Jim describes his and his son Jake’s involvement in Mexican Independence Day (16 de septiembre) celebrations every year as part of an equestrian group from Querétaro—“there are 300 of us, and I’m the only American”—in which they re-enact the ride from Querétaro to Dolores with a message from Josefa Domínguez for Padre Miguel Hidalgo.
“In Mexico, it’s all about relationships: to the point that it might trump other factors,” says Clai about how working in Mexico contrasts with the U.S. “The business comidas that go on for many hours, negotiations that end in going to someone’s weekend home with the family.” He is still in the U.S. Army, so he must make monthly trips to the US. “While we choose to make our life here, I still maintain a deep-rooted patriotism for the US.”
“I remember our birthday parties growing up because they were such big events with lots of friends of all ages,” says Jake, Jim and Ann’s son (16). “Mexican culture is so lively, it is something I treasure about my experience growing up here,” says Olivia (17), who plans to pursue law and business in college. “I know that being tri-lingual (English, Spanish, French) will open international opportunities.” Her sister, Sofía, believes that growing up bi-cultural has given her an advantage, being able to adapt to a wide array of situations with people from any background or walk of life.
“One of my favorite parts of growing up here is the diversity--there are kids in my school from all over the world,” says Amber’s daughter Maddie (14). “I think I might go to the US for high school or college, but it’s good knowing I can come back here to Mexico to work and live.”
“I’ve learned that not everything has to happen immediately and that it doesn’t have to happen on my time,” says Nancy Howze, mother to Katharine, contemplating how Mexico has changed her. “I think I’m a nicer and more patient person for living here,”
Everyone emphasizes how the Mexican devotion to family has influenced their lives here. “One of the things José Antonio has taught me is that family is really the heart of everything, it’s important to treasure it. As a person growing up in the US, it’s not the same: everyone scatters. But here, they all come back home, all of them contribute,” observes Katharine.
Stirling Dickinson did not leave behind a family, but he did create a legacy. He lived humbly, ventured on expeditions around Mexico to collect orchids, and quietly laid the foundation for generations of foreigners to not only visit this once sleepy town but to give back to it.
“I love and welcome ex-pats here,” says Juan when asked about how he, as a Mexican, regards the foreign influx. “Look at how much they have done here, all the charities, the bilingual library, the art scene, and much more.”
“See the three paths in this garden?” José Antonio points out winding flagstone paths. “They represent my two brothers and me. They all eventually lead back here, to the home. My abuelo was a visionary, and he wanted to restore this property for his future descendants, people he would never know. That is what a legacy is.”
CDR | Forbes Global Properties @cdrsanmiguel
Author: Kathleen Bohné Lowenstein www.themexpatriate.com
Photos: Jorge Alcala