SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico
I was fortunate to have spent eight days of the Christmas season here with one of my former students and his spouse. The visit gave me needed respite from the caustic politics and social conflicts back home in the United States.
I met dozens of natives and other people from around the world, including U.S. tourists and expats, and none would discuss U.S. politics. It was a relief. And being without cable news and National Public Radio, I quickly found myself immersed in the cultural and social fabric of San Miguel and its environs.
Rarely have I fallen in love with a landlocked city. San Miguel, in a valley with hills all around, is near the center of the country and is nicknamed the "Heart of Mexico." Its altitude is 6,000 feet, and the nearest beach on either the Gulf or Pacific side is roughly 600 miles away.
To say that San Miguel is "magical" is not a cliché. This is a magical place, starting with its colonial architecture. Many of its large and colorful homes are nestled among jacaranda and decorated with bougainvillea. As I walked the narrow cobblestone streets, music and gaiety greeted me. In 2008, the city's historic center won UNESCO World Heritage Site designation.
On my first full day, I visited El Jardin plaza, the city center. Thousands of people, locals and visitors, gather here daily to relax and absorb the vibrancy. On Christmas Eve night, I witnessed a citywide celebration featuring music and dance. It's no wonder the plaza, in front of the Parroquia, the parish church of San Miguel, is called the city's "living room."
The U.S. and Canadian expat community makes up some 14,000 of the city's 140,000 population. Many are retirees enjoying the relatively low cost of living and artists and writers who find inspiration, fellowship and communal affordability. All enjoy the year-round comfortable weather.
Charles Thomas, a California expat and former banker, told me that once expats settle in, the rigid class distinctions and social grouping practiced back home are mostly abandoned. In short, the old identities disappear, often bringing millionaires and starving artists together as friends.
Although I enjoyed eating in San Miguel's fine restaurants, walking its old cobblestone streets and visiting excellent art galleries, I wanted to know more about the lives of area residents outside the city, away from the glitz of foreign investment.
One of my hosts, 25-year-old Eduardo Mora, was born and reared in El Picacho, a village of 1,006 residents, a little more than one hour's drive from San Miguel. On Christmas morning, he took me there. Officially, El Picacho is about 150 years old, and like many other villages in central Mexico, it is poor by any international measure.
Because Mexico is predominantly Catholic, the family remains paramount, Mora said. But he sees change coming because of strong U.S. influences.
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"We are slowly shifting into a more individualistic culture," he said. "For instance, during my father's youth, it was implicit that he had to give part of his salary to my grandfather to help him raise the rest of his children, and he also had to take charge of the financial expenses of the elders. It was also implicit that he would inherit part of the family's estate.
"Now, young people keep their money. Some spend it on cars, which in a way is a symbol of success. Others who are thinking about getting married buy lots and start building their houses apart from their parents, and the bigger the better. This also is a symbol of financial stability and social status. We still take care of our elders but not with the same devotion as we used to."
Mora, a college graduate and successful real estate agent, worries that Mexico is a victim of stereotypes and media inaccuracies, especially when crime is at issue.
"Mexico is a big and diverse country," he said. "Oftentimes, people in the United States think Mexico is only what they see in border towns and on Fox News. The reality is that just like any other country, we have some specific areas that are unsafe, but the vast majority of the country is safe. I am not saying there is zero crime. What I am saying is that if we compare Mexico to the U.S., we are a safe country."
San Miguel is heavily policed, and I felt safe everywhere I went. Not once was I hustled on the street. I plan to return in 2018 for the San Miguel Writers' Conference & Literary Festival. Meanwhile, I'll work to improve on my smattering of restaurant and taxicab Spanish.