I have lived in San Miguel de Allende permanently for eight years. I rarely return to the United States because I can’t think of a good reason to spend the money to go back when there are so many places in Mexico I have not yet visited. I first came here for three months in the summer of 1979. Afterward I returned as often as possible in order to work without interruptionon one of my books, to study Spanish, or to learn a new artist technique.
For my first visit I arrived by overnight train from Nuevo Laredo. At that time there were two trains going and coming on the same track: the Aztec Eagle and the Resurrection. I arrived on the Resurrection which I thought was a good omen because I was in process of resurrecting anovel I had abandoned, Principia Martindale. The book is about a Southern Baptist faith healer. It’s also about resurrections of all kinds so quite appropriately, I boarded the Resurrection at 6 P.M., and after dozens of stops the train arrived in San Miguel the next afternoon at 2:30. There were dormitorios on the train, little rooms with bunk beds and a bathroom, but I was pinching my pennies that summer so I bought a third class ticket and traveled on a hard bench with a lot ofcampesinos and animals of all kinds including two goats. Fortunately I like goats.
I chose to come to San Miguel because of a photograph I’d seen in the Peoples Encyclopedia when I was ten years old. My mother bought the encyclopedia from Sears and Roebuck, and it was a photograph of the Parroquia and jardin that caught my attention. The caption described San Miguel as a colonial town, the cradle of Mexican independence, an artist colony in the mountains of central Mexico. I’ve got to see that place. That was my first thought.
I was 36 years old and a published novelist when the Resurrection finally delivered me tothe San Miguel train station, then located in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t a taxi in sight, so I walked into town with my portable typewriter and a bag of clothes. With the help of a friendI’d already rented an apartment on Terraplén, and it was there that I resurrected Principia Martindale from the garbage can.
Shortly after arrival I discovered that the town was experience a shortage of electricity so every night the lights were turned off for about 3 hours. There were fewer cars and taxis in those days so we navigated the dark streets on foot with flashlights, candles, or oil lamps in hand. We also sat in the dark jardin and cheered when the lights were turned back on. That summer theteenage boys entertained themselves royally by running through the dark streets and pinchingNorth American ladies on the rear. From my upstairs apartment I could hear the ladies screamingand the boys laughing, their footsteps receding in the distance. It was quite a sport, but I don’tthink that the ladies enjoyed it as much as I did. One dark night on Aldama I received a big pinch myself. I accepted it as one of the greatest compliments of my life. “¡Otra vez, otra vez!” I shouted to my laughing assailant, but he did not return. I guess he thought there were other people in town who needed his attention more than I.
At that time San Miguel was a town of about twenty-five thousand people. Now, of course, it’s a small city, but the beautiful streets are much the same only more congested with cars. I wish we could get rid of all the cars, (even my own) but no one seems to know how to accomplish such a thing. Even still, nothing seems to disturb the charm of the centro historico. In contrast, I recently visited a pueblo magico that had been so scrubbed and freshly painted that itlooked unreal, like a movie set before the lights had been turned on. “Does anyone live here,” I wondered. Fortunately, San Miguel still appears to be a town that’s lived in, not just preserved.Even with all the new improvements: freshly painted buildings, street lamps, additional street sweepers and snazzy bus stop pavilions the place is not squeaky clean; it still appears to be a town where people live and work, a comfortable place that people love to visit.
It seems to me that the entire world eventually passes through San Miguel and many of the visitors decide to stay. I have always said, “If there’s anything you want to learn to do, there’s someone here who already knows how to do it and will teach you for free, or a small fee.” The artist community is very generous and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of back stabbing competition. Because there are more than 50 art galleries here, it’s a good place for visual artists to work and exhibit. It’s a good place to learn another language, almost any language. It’s also a good place to hide from the world and give all your energy to a book in-progress or some other all consuming project. And if you’re sitting in a cafe writing or studying, no one interrupts you. (At least they don’t interrupt me – not after the first time anyway.) These are some of the reasons why I returned so often, and why I finally settled here permanently.
I am often asked, “What do you miss from your first visit to the present day?” I don’t have to think very hard to come up with an answer. I miss the Resurrection and the pinch.
Edward Swift is a novelist and a visual artist. His last book was The Daughter of the Doctor and the Saint was designed by Zonagraphica. His sculpture can been seen at theSortilegio Gallery, Fábrica la Aurora in San Miguel de Allende, Gto.