Living  |  See all articles tagged perspectives or in region San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

The foreign enclave in San Miguel de Allende

Stan Gotlieb

I don't remember where this picture was taken, but I thought it a nice little color splash to brighten your day. Photography by Dan McWethy

[This article, as many I have written, says at least as much about me as it does about my subject. To my friends who live there, I say "remember, negative publicity helps to keep your rent down."]

I have seen San Miguel de Allende, and it is us. Remember the line in "Death On The Nile", where the hero has just killed a cobra in his cabin, and called the steward in to take it away, and the steward lamps the cobra and says "Cripes! Never have I seen such a large serpent in a first class compartment!"? Well, never have I seen such a large collection of gift shops on the main street of a Mexican town.

No doubt about it, folks, this is shopping heaven. Every other doorway leads to more variety, more taste, more, more, more. There are ceramics, wool, tin, iron, wood, cotton, plastic and glass, shaped into garments, jewelry, furniture (indoor and outdoor), fountains, mirrors, rugs and ashtrays. The quality is surprisingly good, and the prices only a little higher than we are used to.

There are also lots of Italian, middle eastern, and other specialty restaurants, as well as deli's. Interspersed are packing services and cyber cafe's. All the conveniences are here. So why don't I like it very much?

All these wonders are shoulder to shoulder. At first blush, they don't just dominate the main downtown streets, they consume them. There seem to be no "local" businesses, no pharmacies, no doctors' offices, no lawyers. There appears to be little of use to the Mexican folks who live here. Only on the second day do we begin to notice that such facilities are in fact available in the center. It is indeed possible for local folks to get what they need. I offer this failure to correctly observe, not as proof of my distracted and confused reality, but rather as anecdotal evidence of the massive and overwhelming Yankee presence.

English is everywhere. Menus, signs (a large building bears a sign: For Sale Inquire at: xxx), narratives at local sights. Where there is Spanish used, it often comes second.

The largest circulation newspaper in town is in English. The largest library, likewise. U.S. license plates can be seen on every block. For the first time, our van, parked in front of our motel room, is surrounded by vehicles with foreign plates; and the campground behind our room is filled with big rigs the like of which we have not seen since California.

We had traveled extensively in Mexico, from the Yucatan to Veracruz to Chiapas to Morelia, and nothing we had seen prepared us for either the number or the influence of Norteamericanos we encountered here. In the beach resort areas along the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, the center of town caters first to the local folks, not the tourists: they are funneled to new areas built especially to house them, or they have to fit in among the people who were there before them. It is this feeling of foreign occupation of the center of town that, finally, overwhelms me.

I contrast this in my mind with the nearby (three hours) town of Morelia, also filled with marvelous colonial buildings and cobbled streets, where in two days of combing the downtown area, we encountered only a few foreigners, and hardly any signs were in English. This in the capital (twice the size of Oaxaca) of a relatively rich state, with a wealth of artistic and handicraft production, that sports an indoor mall which in size and variety of stores, puts most US centers to shame.

Don't misunderstand me here: San Miguel is not in bad taste. Quite the contrary. Nor is it "gringoized" in the sense of having been turned into a Mecca for brand name sport shoes and Domino's pizza parlors. It's just that, after four years of living and traveling in other areas of the country, it seems so uniquely foreign to me, so un-Mexican. And while there is much about Mexico which I find it difficult to adjust to, I didn't come here to be taught batik by other gringos, or to buy my artesania from an Oklahoman, however pleasant and respectful of Mexican culture they may be. Nor do I wish to put down the many fine people who over the decades have built a unique and popular place for my paisanos to visit and live in: they have a right to live the way they wish.

It's just not my way, and that, as a friend says, is why they make shirts in different colors.


Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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