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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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In 1960, Jack Kerouac, the novelist who had catapulted to fame three years earlier with the publication of On the Road, went to San Miguel with pals Allen Ginsburg and Neal Cassady. Ginsburg read his poetry at the Instituto Allende, while Kerouac and Cassady spent most of their time downing tequilas at La Cucaracha, a traditional Mexican cantina that remains popular to this day. The trio remained only a few days, but in 1968, Cassady returned to San Miguel, where he died at age 41 from the effects of alcohol, drugs and exposure.

The plaintive recordings of Pedro Infante, still Mexico's most popular country singer more than a half century after his death, can be heard most mornings at San Miguel's largest traditional food market, the Mercado Ignacio Ramírez. Vendors display varieties of chile, red and green prickly pears, black and green avocados, orange and yellow melons, tropical fruits including mamey, with its pumpkin-hued flesh, and guayaba, whose texture resembles a white peach. Nopales (cactus leaves shorn of spines) are stacked alongside Mexican herbs, including epazote, used to flavor black beans, and dark red achiote seeds, an ingredient in pork and chicken marinades.

"I love the presentation of the food stands," says Donnie Masterton, 41, chef and co-owner of the Restaurant, arguably San Miguel's top culinary establishment. He is shopping at the market for that evening's eclectic menu: a chilled cauliflower soup with lemon grass and shrimp; duck with mole negro (a complex sauce based on chiles and herbs) and handmade tortillas; churros (a pencil-length fried-dough pastry) with dark Mexican chocolate pot-de-crème (a creamy custard). More than half the diners will be residents—Mexican, American and Canadian; the rest will be foreign or Mexican visitors. "It definitely won't be the same food they will get back in New York or Los Angeles," Masterton promises.

A Los Angeles native, Masterton settled in San Miguel six years ago, drawn by its beauty and the opportunity to own his own restaurant. The Restaurant occupies an inner courtyard under a retractable glass roof. "I wanted a seasonal menu with as many locally grown ingredients as possible," says Masterton. To meet his own standards, he purchased a quarter acre inside an organic farm outside San Miguel, where farmers harvest produce grown from seed: Swiss chard, bok choy, mache and arugula. His biggest complaint is the lack of fresh fish. "The quality is inconsistent," says Masterton. "I'm exploring the idea of phoning a fishing boat off the Pacific coast to order the fresh catch of the day."

Cheryl Finnegan came to San Miguel in 2000 from San Francisco, where she had spent 14 years in the marketing department of Levi Strauss, the jeans and casual wear manufacturer. "One day I woke up and asked—Where is my passion? I had no passion," she recalls. "So I just dropped everything—my marriage, job, home, box seats at the opera—and moved down here."

A chance occurrence launched her new career. A decade ago, she was vacationing in the Mexican village of Sayulita, some 35 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast, during the annual December 12 celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. (The festival commemorates the day in 1531 when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared on the outskirts of Mexico City.) As Finnegan strolled the town's central square, a fragment of fireworks hit her in the throat. A local doctor told her she would be permanently scarred. "The wound was shaped in the silhouette of [Our Lady of] Guadalupe, and when I walked around Sayulita, the villagers said it was a sign that I was her chosen one," says Finnegan. "Two weeks later, the wound disappeared without a scar—the doctor couldn't believe it!"

What remained was an obsession with the Virgin of Guadalupe. Finnegan began designing key chains, cameos, rings and belt buckles with the Virgin Mother's image, coated in resin and decorated with crystals. In 2004, paparazzi in the United States photographed pop singer Britney Spears wearing one of Finnegan's belts. "It put me on the map," says Finnegan. Other singers—Tim McGraw and Shakira—have sported Finnegan buckles.

Today she employs ten women to help run her jewelry and clothing accessories firm, housed in a restored 18th-century residence near the town center. Her designs, bearing tags with New Age slogans—"Everybody needs a miracle once in a while"—are sold throughout the United States, Europe and Asia under the name Virgins, Saints & Angels.

Jorge Almada, 37, is the grandson of Plutarco Elías Calles, a revolutionary general who served as president of Mexico in the 1920s. Almada and his French-American wife, Anne-Marie Midy, 38, met in New York City. After traveling across Mexico in search of artisan-made furnishings, the couple settled in San Miguel in 200o and began designing furniture to export to the United States and Europe under the Casamidy brand. "There is great artistry throughout Mexico," says Almada. "But we found San Miguel artisans to be the most open-minded and receptive to designer suggestions."

Refugio Rico García, 64, an ironsmith, is among the artisans employed by the couple. He lives and works in the same house in which he was born. The residence, a warren of rooms and tiny patios verdant with potted plants, scales a steep hillside. Photographs of his grandparents, faded to sepia, greet visitors in the foyer. "My grandfather was a potter—[he produced] pots and also sewage pipes, which used to be made of clay," says García. "He was the one who got me interested in becoming an artisan." (García's sons reject the life of an artisan as too lonely and demanding. The elder boy is a migrant worker in Arizona; the younger is a student.)

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