UU liFE: Why did you find yourself in San Miguel the first time, and when was that?
Sara: We first came to San Miguel 10 years ago when I was hired by a friend in NYC to lead a workshop here. He highly recommended the location. We decided that I didn’t need him to do a workshop; I could do it myself. So we started coming every year.
The city is named for Allende, who basically freed Mexico. It’s a UNESCO Historical Heritage site. The buildings are very much the way they were. There is a huge number of churches, mostly Catholic and Mexican, although the gringos have several, too, including Episcopal, and a few Christian non-denominational. And of course, the UU fellowship (uufsma.org), which is the best, I think!
I checked out uufsma.org and Google Street View of San Miguel. All the pics I see are of white gringos like me. Are there any natives still living there?
The city has about 100,000 people and is very much Mexican. Only about 10 percent gringo, who retire or visit here. The businesses are mostly run by Mexicans, although there are also many artists here who are gringos and have studios and galleries, but this is a small percentage of the total.
A staple of San Miguel are the Mojigangas (giant dancing puppets) and the Mariachi bands. They come out for most occasions, which there are oh so many – pretty much weekly. The Jardin Centro fills with joyful Mexicans to celebrate weddings, quinceañeras (girls turning fifteen), and the many religious and native celebrations and holidays. There is music, fireworks, dancing, singing in the streets, and lots of parades. New Year’s Eve is amazing, and right after that, the Three Kings come into town on horseback in a large parade. Even Valentine’s Day here is like a national holiday! This week we celebrate the birthday of Ignacio Allende, for whom the city is named. He was a Spaniard who switched sides and fought with Hidalgo for Mexico’s independence. The celebrating will go on all day and evening!
Do you have a gallery in San Miguel? How are you practicing your art while living there?
Along with teaching, I have had a show and been represented in a couple of the galleries here, but not at present. I paint a lot while I’m here – plein air (on location outdoors) or in the studio in our rental house. I also work on things to take and sell back home.
I was teaching a class when a group of people came by who were working on a video about tourism in San Miguel for a local TV station. The “director” had their young people come and interact with me and put it in the video. They were so much fun! We had to keep doing the scene over and over till they got it right.
One day while I was teaching in the Jardin Centro (the park in the center of town), one of my students and Tim were painting, and some of the charming students from the local art college came and “helped” us.
Tim’s website has lots of photography of San Miguel, especially service organizations and activities. Can you tell us more about that?
Tim has been doing a lot of photography work here gratis for social service agencies. Through that we met some of the movers and shakers of San Miguel. One was the director of the well-known annual Chamber Music Festival, who hired Tim to shoot the event, which he did for four years.
There so many intelligent and interesting people here who have retired here. They bring a truly amazing wealth of experience and energy to the gringo community. The gringos do amazing things to help the people here. Many social service organizations do so much, especially for the children.
Do you live among the natives?
We live in a Mexican neighborhood, which we love. There are very few gringos near us. We live on a street called Cuesta de Loreto. It is amazingly steep.
It’s the route many Mexicans take as they transport huge bags of rice and other things on burros, back and forth up the hill to their homes near us. The burros seem well fed and very gentle. They’re also used for celebrations. In weddings, they lead the parade with their baskets filled with tequila and flowers. The bridal party have little cups on cords that hang around their necks, and I imagine it’s for never ending toasts!
The huge market here, the stalls all run by Mexicans, including some of the indigenous people who are descendants of the Maya. They sell sculpture embedded with thousands of beads and other arts that only they do.
El Chapo is back behind bars – for now, at least. Does that make you feel any different?
We don’t hear about drug lord and trafficking here. It’s far from any borders and way up in the mountains. It’s a favorite tourist spot for Mexicans from Mexico City. I think this is not where most would go for that kind of trafficking activity. But last year, they did capture a well-known drug lord here in San Miguel. He was on vacation and having dinner. We heard he was not in town for business – just to get away (ha!), and he was followed here.
Are you and Tim coming back? Will we ever see you again?
We leave San Miguel the last day of February.
[In coming weeks: Sara and her San Miguel friends, Social Justice work at UUFSMA, Tim’s volunteer work with non-profits in San Miguel. ]