A City of Stars
Between its cobblestone streets and Baroque cathedrals, San Miguel de Allende boasts an impressive catalogue of residents both past and present. Heroes of Mexican independence were born here. Since the early 20th century, the city has drawn artists and writers from beyond the border. We celebrate some of the illustrious figures who have made this city a melting pot of old-world charisma and bohemian cool.
WHEN UNESCO NAMED San Miguel de Allende a World Heritage Site in 2008, it praised the city’s cultural significance and its pioneering art and architecture. Yet Belmond Casa de Sierra Nevada recognises that San Miguel’s colourful past and ever-brighter future hinge on its pioneering creatives.
General Ignacio Allende is a Mexican national hero. It was in San Miguel, in 1810, that this Spanish army captain defected to the cause of Mexican independence. Allende led the rebellion to key military victories before being captured and beheaded by Spanish Royalists.
In 1826, some five years after Mexico shook off the shackles of Spanish colonialism, Allende’s heroism was posthumously honoured and his name was suffixed to that of the city. The house where he was born now serves as a museum, as does the former grain store, Alhóndiga de Granaditas, where his severed head was once displayed.
Fast forward to 1938 when Stirling Dickinson, the first of the city’s colony of expatriate artists, arrived in San Miguel de Allende. Legend has it that one sunny February afternoon, as he rode a donkey into town, Dickinson gazed up at the Parroquia and said: “My God, what a sight! I’m going to stay here.”
The former Chicago art student went on to establish the Bellas Artes and the Instituto Allende. After World War II, many US veterans flocked to these art schools, after they were encouraged to study abroad under the G. I. Bill. Make sure to take a look at their rotating exhibitions.
In the 1950s, Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros rose to fame as Mexico’s foremost muralists and social revolutionaries. The latter was famously involved in a 1940 plot to assassinate Leon Trotsky. Rivera’s childhood home now serves as a city centre museum, featuring his work alongside contemporary exhibitions. Look out for the sketch of his wife Frida Kahlo.
Speaking of which, this champion of Mexican folk art needs little introduction. It was in San Miguel that Kahlo hosted some of her famous salons. Today her legacy is omnipresent, her images found on everything from shopping bags to jewellery. Indeed, producers of the 2002 biopic Frida, starring Salma Hayek, chose to film many of the scenes in San Miguel.
THE FILM STARS
By the 60s, the now cosmopolitan San Miguel had taken on a bohemian quality. Its film industry boomed thanks to the city’s well-known comic actor Cantinflas, star of the 1956 Around the World in 80 Days. The city was the birthplace of golden-age singer and actor Pedro Vargas, the Nightingale of the Americas. Stealing the spotlight too was Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica, who combined his activities as a tenor, actor and Franciscan friar.
San Miguel’s writing community is equally impressive. It includes Vance Packard, the author of a groundbreaking expose on the advertising industry. There was also W. D. Snodgrass who won the 1960 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Author Beverly Donofrio lives here too. Her 1992 best-selling memoir Riding in Cars with Boys, was adapted into a 2001 film starring Drew Barrymore. The city was home to Beat poet Neal Cassady, whose spirit is immortalised as Dean Moriarty of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. After joining Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and falling into drugs, he died in 1968 in an accident on San Miguel’s suburban rail tracks.
CONTEMPORARY SAN MIGUEL
Today, the legacy of this vibrant arts community is tangible. Street artists seem to work around every ochre-hued corner. Stop by one of over 130 art galleries. Contemporary fans should head to Arte Contemporaneo, or try Galeria San Francisco for expats' work spanning ceramics, paintings and jewellery. Come July, enjoy the free Guanajuato International Film Festival.
Rivera once wrote: “I never believed in God, but I believe in Picasso.” It’s a statement that echoes San Miguel’s cultural sensibility; art here is divine. Creativity is firmly rooted in the city’s past. Come and see it blossom today.Visit San Miguel de Allende
My God, what a sight! I’m going to stay here.