Under the Spell of San Miguel de Allende- page 4 | 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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García labors up to 14 hours a day. The walls and ceiling of his workshop are blackened from the charcoal fires that fuel his forge. Near the furnace stands a heavy wooden table fitted with an iron plate; here he hammers half-molten metal into various shapes. García produces headboards for beds, chandeliers, and chairs and tables fitted with glass tops for Almada and Midy.

The Hotel Oasis, a restored 18th-century house with four guest rooms, features Casamidy tables and chairs in an interior designed by Hong Kong-born Leslie Tung, a San Miguel decorator, and hotel owner Nancy Hooper. A native New Yorker and former Texas resident, Hooper acquired the property in 2006.

Widowed in the 1990s, Hooper decided to spend a summer in San Miguel with her teenage daughter, Tessa. "I wanted her to feel that life goes on and to give her a sense of new adventure," she says. In 2000, Hooper moved to San Miguel from Texas. She was intrigued by an abandoned house and a spacious room she could see through a window as she walked by. "It just wouldn't leave me alone—I knew I wanted to turn it into a hotel," says Hooper, who had no experience as an innkeeper. "From the beginning, I envisioned an oasis—a place where visitors to San Miguel could get away from the bustling outside."

By the early 1980s, Dickinson had begun to distance himself from the growing number of Americans. "Stirling must have shuddered the day he saw the first tourist bus arrive in San Miguel and disgorge tourists wearing shorts," wrote biographer Virtue. "These were exactly the type of people he railed against in his own travels abroad." In 1983, Dickinson resigned as director of the Instituto Allende, where, during his 32-year tenure, some 40,000 students, mainly Americans, had matriculated. Increasingly involved with the Mexican community, he oversaw a rural library program that donated volumes from San Miguel residents to village schools. He also began to support financially the Patronato Pro Niños—the Pro-Children Foundation—an organization providing free medical service and shoes for impoverished rural youngsters.

On the night of October 27, 1998, the 87-year-old Dickinson was killed in a freak accident. As he prepared to drive away from a Patronato Pro Niños meeting held at a hillside house, he accidentally stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake. His vehicle plunged down a steep embankment; Dickinson died instantly. More than 400 mourners, including foreigners and Mexicans from the countryside, attended his funeral. He was buried in the foreigners' section of Our Lady of Guadalupe Cemetery, just west of San Miguel's center. Today, a bronze bust of Dickinson stands on a street bearing his name.

The Guadalupe Cemetery attracts huge throngs on November 2, the Day of the Dead, when families of the deceased carry food and other gifts to their relatives' graves. "One brings what the dead liked best in life—liquor, cigarettes, especially a favorite food," says Dehmian Barrales, a local anthropologist. "It's a bit like a birthday party, and the family is saying to the dead: 'Here are your presents; we are here to keep you company.' The idea is to leave the food long enough for its essence to be consumed by the dead; its material form can be eaten by the living."

On a sunny November morning at the Guadalupe Cemetery, crowds shuffled through the white-walled entrance. Graves were festooned with orange cempasúchil blossoms, cut only on the Day of the Dead. Photographs of loved ones were propped against headstones. At one grave, a priest hired by relatives led prayers and psalms. At another, a mariachi band belted out the deceased's favorite Pedro Infante ballads, while relatives feasted on barbecued pork tacos and glasses of tequila that the dead had "left over."

The foreigners' section of the cemetery was empty of visitors, except for a small contingent of Mexicans and elderly Americans who clustered around a memorial fountain dedicated to Dickinson. The fountain, near his burial site, commands a view of the other graves. "He is watching over them," said Jorge Antonio Ramírez, 80, a retired Bellas Artes employee and former Dickinson baseball player, who had brought a cempasúchil bouquet to commemorate his friend. "Just like he always did in life."

Jonathan Kandell lives in New York City. Photographer Ann Summa is based in San Miguel de Allende and Los Angeles.

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