People who travel beyond the beach resorts in Mexico probably know about San Miguel de Allende. It’s in the center of the country, in the state of Guanajuato, 274 km from Mexico City and far from any beach. San Miguel has the reputation of being a world-class art center and a stay-awhile place filled with friendly gringos, excellent restaurants, and shops that sell merchandise that would look just right in your living room back home.
When UNESCO designated San Miguel a World Heritage Site in 2008, it said foreigners were attracted to the town because of its atmosphere, preserved colonial character, mild climate and optimal size. But first those foreigners had to know about San Miguel and the credit for that goes to Stirling Dickinson for it seems he encouraged thousands of Americans and Canadians to follow him there.
Stirling Dickinson first came to Mexico in 1934 with a Princeton University classmate Heath Bowman and they liked what they saw in San Miguel, despite it being rather run down at the time. They decided to stay for a while and write. Dickinson got involved in the local community and within months of his arrival co-founded an art school in a former convent called the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. He also started a local baseball team that he continued to support until his death many decades later.
Enter World War II and Dickinson went off to fight but returned to Mexico in 1945 when the war ended and encouraged other Americans to join him. The Bellas Artes closed during the Red Scare because authorities were concerned it attracted too many communist sympathizers, but soon Dickinson was involved with a new art school, the Instituto Allende.
Dickinson was said to be a fantastic promoter of the school while his Mexican partners were credited with having great ideas and the necessary political contacts so that the Instituto Allende was able to establish links with schools in Mexico and abroad.
Then came the American G.I. Bill that provided free education for veterans and many of them chose Instituto Allende over American institutions. The school attracted both professional and amateur artists and even Diego Rivera taught classes there at one time. The curriculum expanded and the Instituto Allende was soon offering Spanish courses with credits transferable to American or Canadian colleges/universities.
As more foreign students came, hotels were built and shops opened. When students returned they often brought their friends and the town prospered, seemingly overnight. By the time Dickinson resigned as director of the Instituto Allende in 1983, thousands and thousands of American students had graduated from the school. Today San Miguel is one of the oldest and most famous American expatriate communities in the world.
Dickinson was an interesting character. It was said that he lived a simple life although he inherited considerable family money. When he died in an automobile accident in 1998, his Princeton Alumni wrote about his considerable accomplishments. He was not only responsible for transforming San Miguel into an international art centre but was a community leader in other ways: vice president of the Red Cross, secretary of the Club Malanquin, president of the Twenty-Four Hour Association, director of the School for Handicapped Children, treasurer of Escuela Colonia Azteca, manager of the San Miguel de Allende baseball club, a member of Lions International, and on the local hospital board.
Dickinson oversaw a rural library program that donated books from San Miguel residents to village schools, which makes me think that he and Helen Wale, a Canadian, were probably close collaborators. She started a library in San Miguel for Mexican children in 1954, initially a modest undertaking that over time grew to be a integral part of the community. Today it houses more than 60,000 books in Spanish, English, German and French, has ambitious scholarship and rural library programs, while largely run by volunteers who undertake a range of revenue generating activities.
There are now similar communities that replicate the features of the San Miguel de Allende model, such as Merida, and there have been critics. Some say that Dickinson hurt the Mexican culture and that it has been a period of American colonization.
UNESCO, however, says “foreigners contributed to the appreciation of urban and architectural values of the town, and to the preservation of its heritage, through restoration and renovation of ancient buildings. At the same time, the incorporation of cultural activities, such as music and theatre, contributed to preserve San Miguel as a lively historic centre”.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Barbara Reinhardus
© Riding the buses 2013