Struggling to free itself from a century of economic decline and stagnation, the town of San Miguel de Allende, nestled in the hills of central Mexico, discovered that its “timeless” quality could provide a way forward. While other Mexican towns pursued policies of industrialization, San Miguel—on the economic, political, and cultural margins of revolutionary Mexico—worked to demonstrate that it preserved an authentic quality, earning designation as a “typical Mexican town” by the Guanajuato state legislature in 1939. With the town’s historic status guaranteed, a coalition of local elites and transnational figures turned to an international solution—tourism—to revive San Miguel’s economy and to reinforce its Mexican identity. Lisa Pinley Covert examines how this once small, quiet town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of Mexico’s largest foreign-born populations. By exploring the intersections of economic development and national identity formation in San Miguel, she reveals how towns and cities in Mexico grappled with change over the course of the twentieth century. Covert similarly identifies the historical context shaping the promise and perils of a shift from an agricultural to a service-based economy. In the process, she demonstrates how San Miguel could be both typically Mexican and palpably foreign and how the histories behind each process were inextricably intertwined.
About the Author
Lisa Pinley Covert is an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston.
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San Miguel de Allende
Mexicans, Foreigners, and the Making of a World Heritage Site
By Lisa Pinley Covert
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
Making a Typical Mexican Town
José Mojica's decision in 1935 to purchase an abandoned estate in San Miguel de Allende arguably altered the town's trajectory more than any other twentieth-century event. The Mexican opera singer turned Hollywood star, drawn to the property's orange groves and serene, babbling brook, felt compelled to purchase and renovate the ruin. For him the estate offered the possibility of escape from the chaos of Hollywood life and a peaceful refuge for his ailing mother. When he rechristened the estate Granja Santa Mónica, a nod to the city he had called home in the United States, Mojica probably did not realize how difficult it would be to leave his former life behind. He soon found himself at the center of social and cultural life in San Miguel's elite circles and hosting visitors from around the world. Mojica participated in historic preservation efforts and, in his words, played an "instrumental" role in the establishment of an art school in San Miguel. Indeed during his relatively brief time in San Miguel from 1936 to 1942, when he left for Lima, Peru, to dedicate his life to the Franciscan order, the town underwent an extraordinary transformation.
Although he was not solely responsible for the transformation, Mojica did serve as a catalyst that ignited changes in San Miguel during a moment of transition. Mojica and others have described early twentieth-century San Miguel as a sleepy, timeless town, unburdened by the weight of the tumultuous changes in the world around it. But far from sleepy, timeless, and detached, the people of 1930s San Miguel directly grappled with the challenges and opportunities of the time. Church-state conflict in the 1920s and 1930s and the global economic depression established the preconditions for the subsequent reimagining of San Miguel. Both of these factors disrupted local social and economic life, leaving San Miguel on the margins of emerging narratives about Mexican national identity and state and national economic development strategies. Closer examination of the processes that created instability in San Miguel during the early 1930s, however, reveals that they also created an opportunity for local elites to chart a new path for San Miguel. A coalition of local elites and newcomers like Mojica sought international solutions to local economic stagnation. Nostalgia for San Miguel's eighteenth-century past, especially on the part of descendants of the leading families, laid the foundation for twentieth-century claims about its significance. By the end of the 1930s the elites and new arrivals had successfully converted San Miguel from a town that subverted revolutionary change to one that was officially recognized as a typical Mexican town (población típica) and destination for international art students. The process by which San Miguel became a typical town demonstrates how debates and ideas about national identity were closely intertwined with economic development strategies in Mexico's postrevolutionary provinces.
San Miguel's trajectory during the twentieth century, including the possibilities for economic development as imagined by its residents, was profoundly influenced by ideas about its past and its location in the state of Guanajuato in a region known as the Bajío. Although scholars have defined the Bajío in different ways, most concur that it is both a geographic and a socioeconomic region in northern central Mexico encompassing parts of the modern-day states of Jalisco, Guanajuato, Michoacán, and Querétaro. The Bajío, often portrayed as a relatively Hispanized region compared to other parts of Mexico, in fact has a history of diverse cultural encounters and dynamism predating the arrival of the Europeans. Historians characterized the region as a "frontier zone" in the pre-Hispanic era, and John Tutino has described the sixteenth-century Bajío as the first "new world," in contrast to Spanish Mesoamerica, which "adapted, changed, and endured despite conquest and colonial incorporation" but was not fundamentally new. In Tutino's formulation the society that emerged in the Bajío was not simply "Hispanized" but a unique and unprecedented amalgamation, "globally linked, commercially driven, ethnically mixed." The persistence of certain indigenous cultural and spiritual practices at least into the late eighteenth century attests to the limits of Hispanization in San Miguel and its environs.
Because of its proximity to some of the world's most productive silver mines, the Bajío had become the richest region in the Americas by the mid-eighteenth century. It sustained dramatic population growth and was highly urbanized and industrialized compared to the rest of New Spain. Towns such as San Miguel produced textiles, leather goods, and other manufactured products to support the booming silver mining industry in Guanajuato and Zacatecas. The mining industries declined in the early nineteenth century after Mexico achieved independence from Spain, sending ripple effects throughout the regional economy. The Bajío reemerged as a significant agricultural and industrial center in the late nineteenth century and continues to be one of Mexico's most economically dynamic regions into the twenty-first century. This is in no small part due to the fact that foreign corporations perceive it as less expensive and safer for manufacturing operations than the violence-plagued northern border region. Despite its economic vitality, the Bajío has also been one of the primary Mexican regions sending immigrants to the United States, making it a pocket of sustained and heightened international contact through informal, and at times formal, channels.
The Bajío is notable for its centuries of economic growth, but it has an equally significant political past. The people of this region historically have resisted attempts at political centralization. This tradition dates back to the indigenous peoples, who long resisted incorporation into the Mesoamerican empires and who subsequently defied Spanish efforts to sedentarize and Christianize them. It includes the criollo (creole) conspirators and their followers who rose up against the Spanish in 1810, the counterrevolutionary cristeros in the 1920s and 1930s, and the founders of the National Action Party (PAN), which in 2000 successfully challenged seven decades of one-party rule under Mexico's Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI). Economically and politically, then, the Bajío has been at the forefront of efforts to challenge and redefine the status quo. While this is not a study of the Bajío per se, San Miguel's location along its northern perimeter has influenced the way that sanmiguelenses, government officials, and foreigners imagined San Miguel's place in the nation.
San Miguel's own historical trajectory is at once typical of and a departure from the Bajío's broader historical currents. Its foundation and early history as a frontier outpost made it quite similar to other settlements in the region. No evidence exists indicating the precise date that Europeans first established the settlement that would become San Miguel. David Wright Carr explains that 1542, traditionally recognized as the year Franciscans founded the settlement, fits into the regional context well enough. It was a period of extraordinary transition and conflict when not only Europeans but also displaced indigenous peoples pushed northward from the Mesoamerican central valleys. The discovery of silver in Zacatecas in 1546 and in Guanajuato in 1555 accelerated colonization of the region and intensified struggles with the diverse array of sedentary and semisedentary peoples who had been living there. These struggles eventually spiraled into a four-decade-long war known as the Guerra Chichimeca, a name derived from a condescending term akin to "barbarian" that Europeans and their allies used to refer to all indigenous peoples who fought to preserve their autonomy. In the midst of this conflict San Miguel's early settlers moved from the valley to the hills, the location of the present-day city center. In 1559 the viceroy of New Spain recognized San Miguel as a "villa," officially converting the frontier settlement into a formal political entity. The end of the Guerra Chichimeca brought a massive influx of European immigrants to the area. San Miguel's early history was quite typical of the post-Conquest frontier society.
Over time San Miguel's path became more distinct. Three specific factors heavily influenced the town's growth and development in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. First, San Miguel (which gained the designation "el Grande" to distinguish it from other towns named after the archangel) became one of the region's most important centers of agriculture and manufacturing. Large ranches undergirded textile, leather, and other industries, all of which found expanding markets in Guanajuato and Zacatecas. San Miguel also earned a reputation for artisanry, with skilled stonecutters, metalworkers, and weavers forming a vibrant working class. The vast majority of workers were indigenous peoples and castas, or people of mixed heritage. Rapid commercialization and economic expansion contributed to almost exponential population growth between the mid-seventeenth and mid-eighteenth centuries, when San Miguel's economy reached its colonial-era apex. As Tutino has noted, the population of the entire district grew from fewer than three thousand in the 1630s to more than twenty thousand in the 1740s. This rapid economic and demographic growth set San Miguel apart from most other towns in the Bajío.
The second factor that distinguished San Miguel from other emerging cities in the region was the degree to which a few families controlled local economic and political life. Unlike Querétaro and other regional cities where European and indigenous elites jockeyed for influence, recent Spanish immigrants and their descendants dominated San Miguel's urban population. Three families in particular rose to prominence and cemented their position through intermarriage: the Landetas, the Lanzagortas, and the Canals. Other families, such as the Sautos, Allendes, and Lambarris, increased their influence but never successfully rivaled the dominant clans. The concentration of power meant these families could amass a great deal of wealth in prosperous times, but it also meant that there would be limits to political participation and economic growth for the broader population. These factors contributed to a climate that put San Miguel's so-called "marginal elites" at the center of early struggles for independence from Spain.
The third characteristic that distinguished San Miguel was its religiosity. The historian Margaret Chowning has described eighteenth-century San Miguel as a "pious town," a curious distinction at a time when religion and governance were closely intertwined across New Spain. For Chowning, several factors made San Miguel's religiosity particularly noteworthy. First, the Canal family spent lavishly on religious institutions in the heart of the town, contributing to an already abnormally high density of such entities for a town of that size. Next, the local priest Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro forged connections across several of San Miguel's religious institutions and oversaw the foundation of another, the Sanctuary of Atotonilco. Father Alfaro encouraged intense penitential devotions inspired by the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. These devotional practices included everything from self-flagellation and weeklong religious retreats at the sanctuary, to Good Friday processions that involved the extraordinary theatrics of a man periodically holding Alfaro upside down and driving his head into the ground to press in a crown of thorns, leaving blood to run down his face. Lastly, Chowning attributes the town's unusual religiosity to the large number of artisanal guilds and corresponding confraternities that were responsible for what one colonial official believed to be an "excessive" number of religious celebrations. Together these factors created a religious presence that was unparalleled in the region.
San Miguel el Grande reached its zenith economically and demographically in the late eighteenth century, but changes in the regional economy followed by more than a decade of political upheaval took their toll and the town suffered an equally dramatic decline. As manufacturing increased in cities such as León and Querétaro, San Miguel's share of the market decreased and never quite recovered. A group of Sanmiguelenses led by the second tier of elite families became instrumental in regional conspiracies against Spanish rule, undoubtedly motivated by the combination of economic decline, changing political factors across the empire, and local limits to their power. Spain executed native sons Ignacio José de Allende y Unzaga and Juan Aldama for their participation in the failed 1810 armed uprising, now famous for Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla's rallying cry, the "Grito de Dolores," and for the Virgin of Guadalupe banner that the insurgents obtained from the Sanctuary of Atotonilco. The people of San Miguel then faced harsh repression for their role in the conspiracy until Mexico finally achieved its independence in 1821. The town took the name Allende in 1826 to honor the fallen hero and to mark its role in the nation's independence movement, but it paid a high price for that distinction. Within a matter of decades San Miguel shifted from a bustling manufacturing and religious center to a town facing rapid economic and demographic decline. Liberal reforms and anticlericalism in the mid- to late nineteenth century further affected religious life, leading to the closure and repurposing of many of the town's religious institutions. Agricultural production on the large estates once again drove the economy. It was not until the construction of the rail lines in the late nineteenth century that manufacturing returned to San Miguel, and even then it was at a greatly diminished level.
Old elite families continued to dominate agricultural interests in the area surrounding San Miguel in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but the nature of their influence shifted. Like other large landholders in the Bajío, they avoided various federal attempts at agrarian reform by turning to a sharecropping system whereby workers received plots of land and contracts guaranteeing daily wage labor and access to other resources. Almost half of San Miguel's rural adult male population held sharecropping contracts by 1930. By circumventing land appropriations and swelling their patronage networks, landowners maintained local power and influence, even though urban professionals occupied most government posts. As Tutino argues, this system also likely reduced the appeal of agrarian insurrection that propelled many other regions of Mexico into revolution in the early twentieth century. While many key battles between the factions in the Mexican Revolution occurred in the Bajío, the ranchers and sharecroppers of the region did not mobilize in the same way that peasant communities did in other parts of the country.
Scant research exists on revolutionary-era San Miguel, but the extant studies suggest that the early national revolutionary movements did not have broad appeal. An event in 1911 illustrates how the old political leaders attempted to maintain support and control while the regime of President Porfirio Díaz (1876–80 and 1884–1910) collapsed around them. Francisco Madero led a coalition to overthrow Díaz in 1910, beginning the Mexican Revolution and a decade of violent bloodshed. The jefe político, or district prefect of San Miguel, Dr. Ignacio Hernández Macías, organized a rally in support of Madero's revolutionary government, but the rally devolved into a riot. As the historian Mónica Blanco has observed, the nature of the riot indicated that the citizens of San Miguel acted on old grievances: they freed prisoners from the jail, stole funds from the municipal treasury, burned government offices (including the town's archives), and forced Hernández Macías to resign his post. In Blanco's reading, Sanmiguelenses were more concerned with local power dynamics than they were with the national implications of the various revolutionary movements. Indeed while numerous individuals from San Miguel and the surrounding region likely joined one of the revolutionary factions at one point or another, followed the 1917 constitutional convention in nearby Querétaro with interest, and felt the effects of disease, demographic decline, and overall uncertainty wrought by the decade-long violent conflict, the Mexican Revolution was not a defining moment in local historical memory.
Excerpted from San Miguel de Allende by Lisa Pinley Covert. Copyright © 2017 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Making a Typical Mexican Town 2. Good Neighbors, Good Catholics, and Competing Visions 3. Bringing the Mexican Miracle to San Miguel 4. Containing Threats to Patriarchal Order and the Nation 5. San Miguel’s Two Service Economies Epilogue: From Typical Town to World Heritage Site Notes Bibliography Index