In 1937, after several months spent traveling through Mexico, a gangly, 27-year-old Chicago native named Stirling Dickinson, who had been somewhat at loose ends since graduating from Princeton, got off a train in San Miguel de Allende, an arid, down-on-its-luck mountain town 166 miles northwest of Mexico City.
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Taken from the ramshackle train station by a horse-drawn cart, he was dropped off at the town's leafy main square, El Jardín. It was dawn, and the trees were erupting with the songs of a thousand birds. At the eastern side of the square stood the Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel, an outsize, pink-sandstone church with neo-Gothic spires, quite unlike Mexico's traditional domed ecclesiastical buildings. The first rays of the sun glowed over mountain ridges to the east. "There was just enough light for me to see the parish church sticking out of the mist," Dickinson would later recall. "I thought, My God, what a sight! What a place! I said to myself at that moment, I'm going to stay here."
Founded in 1542, the settlement of San Miguel had grown rich from nearby silver mines during centuries of Spanish rule, then fell on hard times as the ore was depleted. By the time Dickinson got there, the War of Independence from Spain (1810-21) and the even bloodier Mexican Revolution (1910-21) had further reduced the town to 7,000 inhabitants—less than a quarter of its population in the mid-1700s. Houses languished in disrepair, with shattered tile roofs and crumbling, faded walls.
Dickinson made his home in a former tannery on San Miguel's higher reaches and soon became a familiar sight, riding around town on a burro. For the next six decades, until his death in 1998, he would lead a renaissance that would transform tiny San Miguel into one of Latin America's most magnetic destinations for artists and expatriates, most of them American, looking for a new venue—or a new life.
"Stirling Dickinson is without doubt the person most responsible for San Miguel de Allende becoming an international art center," says John Virtue, author of Model American Abroad, a biography of Dickinson. Although only an amateur painter himself, Dickinson became co-founder and director of the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, an art institute that he opened in a former convent only a few months after his arrival.
During World War II, Dickinson served with U.S. Naval Intelligence in Washington and the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) in Italy. Returning to San Miguel after the war, he recruited hundreds of young American veterans to study at Bellas Artes on the G.I. Bill of Rights.
In the postwar years, non-artists and retirees, as well as painters and sculptors, were drawn to the city from its neighbor to the north; today, some 8,000 Americans—one out of ten residents—live there. Eighty percent or so are retirees; the others oversee businesses, from cafés and guesthouses to galleries and clothing stores. Most of these expats—some of whom have Mexican spouses—volunteer at more than 100 nonprofit organizations in San Miguel, including the library and health care clinics.
"This mestizaje—cultural mixing—has profoundly changed and benefited both sides," says Luis Alberto Villarreal, a former mayor of San Miguel who is currently one of two senators from the state of Guanajuato, in which the town is located. "We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stirling Dickinson for helping this come about and for raising San Miguel's profile in the world." Walking the cobblestone streets flanked by stucco houses painted vivid shades of ocher, paprika and vermilion, one passes lively squares full of street musicians and vendors hawking tacos. In the distance rises the Sierra de Guanajuato. In 2008, San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, in large measure because of its intact 17th- and 18th-century center.
While mass murder and kidnapping linked to narcotics gangs have overtaken parts of Mexico, the region around San Miguel has thus far been spared. "The cartels' violence often centers on ports of entry into the U.S. and involves consolidation of contested border areas," says Rusty Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. "San Miguel does not fit these criteria."
Dorothy Birk—today Dotty Vidargas—was among the first of the young Americans to answer Dickinson's call, in 1947. Six decades later, at age 85, she oversees a real estate agency and furnishings store across from an 18th-century church.