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The two faces of San Miguel de Allende

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

Translated by Julian Nihill

San Miguel de Allende (SMA) is often referred to as the “heart” of Mexico due to its importance in history and its location within the Mexican Republic. However, the rapid growth of this city and the arrival of thousands of foreigners as tourists and new residents have displaced those who originally lived there.

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The economic boom from 2008 to 2019 was a cornucopia for everyone, especially for the middle and working class of San Miguel. According to Datamexico.org, in September 2019, the town had a favorable international trade balance of approximately $13.8 million. In August 2022, that figure exceeded $33.2 million. Not surprisingly, early this year, SMA was lauded as the best travel destination in the world and, “a great place to live all year round,” according to Forbes and Travel and Leisure. 

However, not everything is milk and honey, there is another side to SMA, that of the merchants, artisans, waiters, stylists, makeup artists, musicians, chambermaids and micro-entrepreneurs who have faced a devastating economic crisis during the pandemic.

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These families, lacking the government support provided in the United States, counted pesos and tortillas to survive during the pandemic. Now, they grimace and struggle to reimagine their lives while faced with an overwhelming influx of wealthy outsiders buying all the surrounding land to live in this jewel of the Ruta de la Independencia.

“For me, the pandemic made me reflect,” Fabiola, a stylist and daughter of the owner of a small beauty salon in Callejon Loreto, told me. “Now I study English and nursing in the evenings, to join the caregivers who cater to the retired foreigners who come to live out their last years here,” she said.

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While SMA is identified as one of the most prestigious destinations in the world, inadequately planned growth in luxury real estate, condominium developments and golf courses with views overlooking the city’s picturesque iconic church spire, has caused problems in the city. The overuse of the water supply that has been ongoing for over 10 years, is worse than ever. The drainage system has been without planning or maintenance for more than 20 years and sewage tends to descend toward the city’s heart, its main square, and ancient surrounding homes.

The San Miguel families that have lived for generations in the city center, both in houses and in romantic alleys and popular neighborhoods, have been displaced to settlements that do not have enough water or basic plumbing.

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But all is not lost, the cultural offering that goes hand in hand with the great community that exists in SMA is, perhaps, its most beautiful and seductive face. Cultural centers, housed in beautiful colonial buildings such as Casa del Mayorazgo de la Canal, the famous Allende Institute, founded in the ’50s, the AC Public Library (1957), El Nigromante, the Angela Peralta Theater, and other cultural organizations that are more than just surviving, they are thriving.

They produce art and promote culture, for both SMA´s inhabitants and for visitors or resident artists. These centers are frequented, managed and sponsored by the various communities of the wealthy, the artistic and the philanthropic: American, Canadian, European as well as local SMA residents. 

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SMA is host to a melting pot of well-organized people who have exponentially expanded the cultural heritage of the city. With their love of the arts, their dreams, and years of tireless effort, they made magic. 

Magic that has generated a disproportionate increase in tourists, new residents and even couples from all over the world who flock here to marry with all the fanfare and charm of this wonderful place with, on average, 800 weddings a year since 2018.

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The result is an unlivable place for the local population who have resided here since before 1980. Once known as a Pueblo Magico, SMA has abandoned its magical status to become a World Heritage Site (2008), with an inequality as shocking as the garish Mexican colors.

Having spent more than four weeks in a small house, next to the fabulous SMA handicrafts market, I have thought a lot about what is happening in our Roaring Fork Valley, a place as livable as it is naturally beautiful, a charming tourist destination whose community is also extraordinary and diverse like that of SMA.

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In this Valley, culture and artistic expressions are diverse and shine from Glenwood Springs to Aspen. Fortunately, there is no water problem. There is a housing issue. I have witnessed the growth and development of real estate in recent months, and I fear that a deterioration in lifestyle for the locals, the ordinary people, is inevitable. I can only hope that our community will do everything possible so that inequality does not overwhelm us.

The view from la Calle Cuesta de San José toward the city center. Photo by Janie Joseland Bennet

Tags: #Angélica Breña #Julian Nihill #San Miguel de Allende #Sopa de Letras
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