It’s hard not to like Mexico. First of all it’s easy to fly there from here, and the cost of airfares has fallen over the past decade. Once you arrive, visitor clearance is pretty straight forward, especially at the major airports like Mexico City. There are convenient car rentals and hotels nearby, and limousine services with bilingual drivers to smaller centres that cater almost exclusively to certain types of tourists.
San Miguel de Allende is such a place. Nestled in the Mexican central highlands at an elevation of 1,900 metres, it is famous for its baroque Spanish architecture, mountain fresh air, and cultural festivals. It is simultaneously home to poets, painters, jazz musicians and a thriving arts community that draws its talent internationally. San Miguel’s population is just over 150,000 people. Its hillside location and defining architectural features make sprawl and expansion difficult. Densification with condo towers and complexes is just beginning to happen.
In the cobblestoned centre of the city is the neo-Gothic church Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel, with pink stone towers that rise high above the El Jardin main plaza. Encircling the centre are neighbourhoods of refurbished villas that reveal the Spanish roots of Mexican architecture. Typical to the larger homes are inner courtyards, rooftop patios and walls that provide privacy from the street. Many of the finer examples of these old colonial haciendas are owned by foreign nationals who fly in for vacation breaks, and rent their homes out to tourists for the balance of the year. The finer ones typically come with staff, including gardeners, maids and cooks.
Over the years, more and more expats have arrived in what they inclusively refer to as SMA, as in, “We’re spending this winter in SMA.” While it’s difficult to get hard figures on the size of the expat community, it is generally held to be in the neighbourhood of 15,000 people (including a dominant population of perhaps 12,000 Americans), or about 10 per cent of the population. There are blogs devoted to their interests, and some strong critiques of their behaviour:
“Americans living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico either do not understand, do not want to understand, or are in simple denial regarding the effect they’ve had on this Central Mexican Colonial Town. I find their constant shock and surprise at the observations made by the rest of the world about the effect they have on the city too incredible to believe . . . the arrogant condescension with which these rich, country club, we-are-better-than-you-because-of-our-money Americans treated them (Mexican craft vendors) . . . is behaviour we have grown accustomed to in the San Miguel de Allende American expat community (Doug Bower, Expat Focus).”
To be fair, and only anecdotally, the Canadian parties in which I have travelled to San Miguel de Allende made efforts to learn and speak Spanish, shopped in the local food markets, and made significant efforts to blend in – to be what I think of as ‘anthropologically sensitive.’ These efforts, even minimally observed, go a long way to building rapport with the actual citizens of the host community. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to remind yourself, on a daily basis, that you are a privileged guest with the ability to relocate at will, to buy or rent high-end local real estate, to retain servants, and perhaps most important – to spend your days consuming, conspicuously not producing. All of these behaviours are obvious to local citizens, and contribute to the creation of national stereotypes.
I love Mexico, and especially San Miguel de Allende. It is not lost on me that very few Mexicans come to Vancouver for parallel vacation experiences in my country. Very few citizens of SMA could afford the trip, especially the ones who are so essential to creating the cultural vivacity and alegria de vivir. It is a tribute to their cultural strength and integrity that we want to spend our time with them.
But underneath all of this self-serving sensitivity is the fact that I can and they can’t.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.
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I agree with Charles (read below), but I am “only” one of the yearly vacationers, who keeps returning because SMA maintains its charm , friendliness, beauty, etc.
I am not certain what San Miguel de Allende, Mexico you were referring in your recent anti-American piece. It is not the San Miguel de Allende I recognize, where I have been visiting for 15 years and living for 10 years.
It is not the San Miguel that I know – where thousands of American and Canadians volunteer their time for more than 100 non profit organizations to benefit the city and its residents.
It is certainly not the San Miguel where I have lived and loved for so long.
It may be the San Miguel where I overheard a well coiffed woman saying “All my friends from Toronto are coming down this winter.”
Yes, there have been many changes in San Miguel over the last 15 years – some good, some bad.
The most obvious change from ten years ago is that there are many times more Mexican residents and tourists, reflecting the increase in the Mexican middle class and its ability to travel. Maybe you’ll see some of these Mexicans in Canada if they are courted and welcomed.
On the weekends we now see the town center full of young Mexicans, often in short skirts and high heels, drinking and smoking. We experience the Chilangos (Mexico City residents) driving their big cars recklessly through the streets, without showing the normal courtesy of permanent residents of San Miguel (including taxi drivers).
I certainly don’t see any substantial difference between the Canadian and American visitors. While many of them try to master the Spanish language, it is extremely difficult to learn a new language after the age of 50. Some don’t even try (Canadians and Americans both). I have even met Canadians who speak French-Canadian, and scarcely a word of English or Spanish. Try explaining that to a Mexican who has spent a lot of effort learning English. (by the way, I speak Spanish and French)
I have noticed in my home rental experience over the past few years that more and more of my renters are contacting me from Canada. They often mention the low cost of living here. Frankly, I’m not interested in visitors coming here because it’s “cheap” or because the Canadian dollar has fallen. Let them go somewhere else. I’m interested in attracting visitors who are willing to participate in the rich cultural life here.
I don’t see many visitors – Americans or Canadians – making friends with Mexicans. In order to do this, you have to be able to communicate in their language, as I do.
Perhaps Mike should visit south Florida, where Canadians escaping the cold winters have taken over large tracts, and where the same charges are leveled against them that Mr. Robinson levels against the Americans in San Miguel.
And I haven’t found that many Americans, or Canadians for that matter, treat their household employees as “servants.” Ask a maid or gardener for whom they would rather work – Mexicans or Americans/Canadians. They will always respond that they would prefer to work for the Gringos, who treat and pay them better. It is the Mexicans who treat household staff as servants – not the Gringos.
Mike, please come visit my San Miguel de Allende, which apparently is located somewhere else than yours.
Do you even live in San Miguel? Or just came and “absorbed” the culture in the taxi ride from the airport to your lodging? And your source Mr Bower, as I recall, lives in Guanajuato so what does he know about San Miguel American Expats? Please do us all a favor and read, educate yourself, participate, and after you come to your own conclusions, keep them to yourself. Embarrassing to read a column like this.