Under the Spell of San Miguel de Allende- page 2 | Travel | Smithsonian
Renowned as an art colony, San Miguel also mounts festivals showcasing indigenous cultures. (Ann Summa)

Under the Spell of San Miguel de Allende

Ever since American Stirling Dickinson arrived there in 1937, the Mexican town has been a magnet for artists and U.S. expatriates

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Vidargas grew up in Chicago, a block away from Dickinson. She says he had three passions: art, baseball and orchids. At Bellas Artes, she recalls, he formed a baseball team that won 84 games in a row and captured several regional amateur championships in the 1950s. He traveled throughout Mexico and the world to collect wild orchids, breaking three ribs in a fall during a 1960s expedition to southern Mexico's Chiapas highlands. An orchid he discovered there in 1971 was named after him—Encyclia dickinsoniana.

In 1942, in her sophomore year at Wellesley College, Vidargas left academia to enlist in the war effort, eventually serving as a Navy recruiter and, later, as an air controller for the Army Air Forces outside Detroit. After the war, she enrolled at the American Academy, an art institute in Chicago. But in 1947 she decided to spend her G.I. Bill subsidies in San Miguel. "My mother knew Stirling and figured it would be all right for me to go," she says.

She was one of 55 veterans accepted at Bellas Artes that year. More than 6,000 veterans would apply to the school after the January 1948 issue of Life magazine called it a "G.I. Paradise," where "veterans go...to study art, live cheaply and have a good time."

But Vidargas' first impression was well this side of paradise. Arriving by train in the pre-dawn darkness, she checked into a hotel where electricity and running water were sporadic. Many of the surrounding buildings were near ruins. Burros outnumbered cars; the stench of manure and raw sewage was overpowering. "I was cold, miserable and ready to board the next train home," she recalls. But she soon found more comfortable student lodging and began her Bellas Artes course work. Between school terms, she traveled with fellow students and Dickinson throughout Mexico.

She even joined the local bullfighting circuit as a picador, or horseback-mounted lancer. "It was after a few drinks, on a dare," Vidargas recalls. Soon "la gringa loca" ("the crazy Yank"), as she was becoming known, was spending her weekends at dusty bullrings, where her equestrian prowess made her a minor celebrity.

Meanwhile, some members of the town's conservative upper class were outraged by the American students' carousing. The Rev. José Mercadillo, the parish priest, denounced the hiring of nude models for art classes and warned that the Americans were spreading Protestantism—even godless Communism.

In fact, in 1948, Dickinson recruited the celebrated painter David Alfaro Siqueiros, a Communist Party member, to teach at Bellas Artes. There he lashed out at his critics, far exceeded his modest art-class budget and eventually resigned. Siqueiros left behind an unfinished mural depicting the life of local independence leader Ignacio Allende, whose last name had been appended to San Miguel in 1826 to commemorate his heroism in the war. The mural still graces the premises, which today is occupied by a cultural center.

Apparently convinced that Communists had indeed infested Bellas Artes, Walter Thurston, then the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, blocked the school's efforts to gain the accreditation necessary for its students to qualify for G.I. Bill stipends. Most of the veterans returned home; some were deported. Dickinson himself was expelled from Mexico on August 12, 1950, although he was allowed back a week later. "It was the low point in relations between Americans and the locals," recalls Vidargas. "But my situation was different, because I got married."

José Vidargas, a local businessman, who today is 95, had met his future bride at a bowling alley, one of many postwar fads to invade Mexico from the United States. Some of his relatives wondered about his plans to marry a gringa. "Suddenly, I had to become a very proper Mexican wife to be accepted by the good society families," recalls Dorothy. The couple had five children in seven years, and Dorothy still found time to open the first store in San Miguel to sell pasteurized milk; the real estate agency came later. Today, three sons live in San Miguel; a daughter lives in nearby León; one child died in infancy.

By 1951, the various controversies had closed down Bellas Artes, and Dickinson became director of a new art school, the Instituto Allende, which soon became accredited and began granting Bachelor of Fine Arts degrees. Today, the nonprofit school, attended by several hundred students annually, encompasses a fine-arts degree program, a Spanish-language institute and traditional handicraft workshops.

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