Magazine article Sunset

Sleepless in San Miguel

Magazine article Sunset

Sleepless in San Miguel

Article excerpt

Mystical, vibrant, surreal: This Mexican village turned national monument can fire a person's soul

It is dawn, just. A cool morning full of clanging church bells and muffled fireworks. The last day in September. Senor John Kay and I sit slumped in equipales, those peculiar Mexican curved-back chairs, on the patio of his small but elegant hotel, La Puertecita. I am unshaven, my eyes watery and red. Senor Kay doesn't look half as haggard, but then he is used to this. He lives here. Except for the briefest of afternoon naps, neither of us has slept in two days. It is safe to say that in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, only babies and village dogs sleep this time of year.

It is the end of the Fiestas del Santo Patrono San Miguel Arcangel - the Feasts of the Patron Saint Archangel Saint Michael. It began two days ago with a dawn candlelight procession through town to Mexico's most famous neo-Gothic church, La Parroquia, and ended this morning at 4, when half the town, Senor Kay and myself included, gathered in San Miguel's central square - called, simply, the Jardin, or Garden - wearing cardboard boxes over our heads.

It is difficult to explain, but to understand why we were standing in the Jardin with boxes over our heads two hours before dawn is to understand much about the complex nature of the Mexican spirit. We were standing in the garden wearing boxes because the church, La Parroquia, was shooting rockets and fireworks directly into the crowd, and without the boxes over our heads, we might be burned. But why, you might wonder, as did I, does the church shoot fireworks at the crowd? It is clear, Senor Kay says, shrugging: to fire a man's soul.

An age of riches

Located in the vast central highlands northwest of Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is as surreal as a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and as vibrant as a Frida Kahlo painting. During the colonial period, when thick veins of ore in the nearby hills made the town as rich as the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, palatial mansions and ornate churches exploded across the Hill of Moctezuma, to which the town still clings, like Roman candles on a dark night.

It was an age of riches. Elegant residences fronted the Jardin, the town's communal living room. On Saturday evenings, young men in embroidered shirts and high-waisted jackets wooed beautiful, dark-haired women. Ancient women sat next to small carts with kerosene lamps selling roasted corn dusted with cinnamon, and charros, or Mexican cowboys, admired silver trim on belts and boots sold in the markets.

The thing is, it is still that way, though now the young men are more likely to wear crisp Polo shirts and the women prefer skintight black dresses to the long, gathered skirts and colorful rebozos of their ancestors.

Much of San Miguel, though certainly not all, has been frozen in time. In 1811, to be exact. That is the year the town's hero, General Ignacio Allende, was executed before a firing squad for leading the war for independence against Spain. His head was displayed for 10 years in a cage on the corner of a granary in the capital. During those same 10 years, the town was sacked by Spanish soldiers, and a thriving population of 50,000 was reduced to a small cadre of caretakers. As one historian writes, San Miguel became a city of "custodians of churches and palacios of colonial splendor lacking both devotees and merchant princes ... left to itself, the seasons and the sun."

In other words, a hundred years of solitude.

In 1926 the federal government, recognizing the beauty of this colonial gem, declared San Miguel de Allende (the town had added the general's name to its own in the 19th century) a national monument. The cobblestone streets, churrigueresque facades, and mansions were to remain as they had for decades. But what strikes one visiting San Miguel for the first time is not only what has always been here but also what has never been here: no neon signs, no modern glass buildings, no traffic lights, no golden arches. …

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