San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato

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San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato©María O. Baum

“Itzcuinapan” Náhuatl “water dogs,” – San Miguel de los Chichimecas, San Miguel el Viejo and now San Miguel de Allende

The colonial town of San Miguel de Allende is located in the central part of México in the State of Guanajuato. The semi-arid climate town is 7,000 ft. above sea level, surrounded by hot springs in the area known as the Bajío (Lower Plain).

   The Bajío  region is one of the richest regions of the country for its natural resources, mining, commerce and industry. Located 35 miles/56 Km. from Guanajuato, the state capital, 170 miles/274 Km. from México City; 106 mi./171 Km. from Léon and 60 mi./97 Km. from Quéretaro. Originally named “Itzcuinapan” (Náhuatl “water dogs,” ) the name was later changed to San Miguel de los Chichimecas, San Miguel el Viejo and now San Miguel de Allende.

The land of thermal springs is known for its prominent role in the process of Mexican independence, climate, beautiful colonial buildings, hot springs, art schools and egrets nesting on top of the trees near the Juárez park. It is a Mecca for artists and writers and a great place to retire. Home of a large community of foreign retirees, artists, writers and tourists San Miguel has been declared a World Heritage Site  because of its Baroque and Neo-classical colonial XVII and XVIII C. buildings.

When the Spanish conquered Mexico they chose San Miguel as a rest stop because it had a good water supply  and it was on the way to the silver mines. The town was established in the XVI C. in order to protect the Royal Spanish Route, a network of roads that were built to connect the mines, main villages and evangelization centers.  By the XVIII C. many of the beautiful Baroque-style buildings were built including the fortified church that the Jesuits built 8.6 mi./14 Km. outside the town which has a World Heritage status; Atotonilco.

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San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato ©María O. Baum

At the beginning of the 20th C. the town was almost empty when it was re-discovered by artists who began art schools. The Instituto Allende and the Bellas Artes School attracted artists with great reputation as David Alfaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, among others. In 1946, after the Second World War, former U.S. soldiers studying on the G.I. Bill moved to San Miguel to study at the accredited Art School of Bellas Artes with grants that they received from the American Government.

Some History

San Miguel was a necessary stop to transport the silver so by 1521 the Spaniards established different roads. The Royal Spanish Inland Road connected Mexico City to the South of what is now known the United states of America going through the main points. The mining centers, villages and important evangelization centers were connected.

  • By 1542 Fray Juan de San Miguel, a Franciscan Monk, was sent by the Spaniards to convert the natives and control the Copuces; one of the feared Chichimeca tribes.
  • 1555, after many attacks by the Copuces, the Spaniards fortified the place and called it Villa de San Miguel el Grande, in honor to the Franciscan Monk Fray Juan de San Miguel to protect the “Camino Real de Zacatecas,” the Royal Road to Zacatecas.
  • I1734 the first college of the zone was built: the Colegio de San Francisco de SalesIgnacio Allende and Juan Aldama, two of the heroes of Independence, studied there and helped in the Revolution later on.
  • 1748 Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro founded the six churches of the Sanctuary of Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco to offer Christian education based on the doctrine of Saint Ignacio of Loyola. The Sanctuary was built on top of a pilgrimage site of the locals, as it was the Spanish custom, to built their churches on top of the sacred sites, temples and pyramids of the locals, so that when they came to worship, they found a church instead of their temple. The popular image of the Guadalupe Virgin stems from Atotonilco.
  • 1810, the revolutionary army came to San Miguel from the nearby town of Dolores, known as the Cradle of the Mexican Independence.  Ignacio Allende joined the army as the chief lieutenant of the Priest Don Miguel Hidalgo as well as Juan Aldama.
  • October 13, 1810, the Priest Hidalgo was excommunicated by the Holy Inquisition for protecting the rights of the poor. This was the beginning of the Mexican Independence. Both were captured and executed in less than a year.
  • 1826, the town renamed itself as “San Miguel de Allende.”
  • Artists and writers contributed to what is today San Miguel.

Heroes

The historical town was the birthplace of Ignacio Allende, a captain of the Spanish Army who sympathized with the Mexican Independence Movement and fought along with the leader of the Mexican War of Independence, the Roman Catholic priest Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla. Captain Ignacio Allende was captured by the Spanish in the northern state of Chihuahua and executed for treason in 1811. In 1826 his name was added to the town becoming San Miguel “de Allende” (of Allende). San Miguel was the first municipality that declared its independence from the Spanish.

Juan Aldama 1774-1811 – Born in San Miguel el Grande now San Miguel de Allende. Mexican revolutionary rebel soldier during the Mexican War of Independence in 1810. Captain of the cavalry regiment of the Queen’s militia, attended the conspiratorial meetings for independence in Querétaro organized by Josefa Ortiz de Domínguez, “la corregidora.” When he heard news that the conspiracy had been betrayed by a supporter he went to what is now Dolores Hidalgo to inform the priest Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and Ignacio Allende.

On the September 16, 1810, Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla announced the beginning of the Mexican War of Independence from Dolores, near Guanajuato. This announcement which started the armed conflict is now called the Grito de la Independencia,”Cry of Independence.

Aldama was captured in 1811 and executed for treason by firing squad on June 26, 1811, together with Allende, Mariano Jiménez, Manuel Santa María and others. Aldama’s head was taken to the Alhóndiga de Granaditas  in Guanajuato where it was shown to the public inside a cage.

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San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato ©María O. Baum

Ignacio Ramírez “El Nigromante”, was born in San Miguel in 1818 held numerous public offices and was always concerned to extend the benefits of knowledge. Tireless writer, materialist and combative, he believed that the church had to pay taxes as everyone else. His reputation as a revolutionary man was seen in his various writings and speeches until his death in 1879.

Learning Centers

San Miguel not only is famous for its beauty and laid back lifestyle, but it’s also known for its learning centers. You can take classes of Spanish, History, Jewelry making, Yoga, T’ai Chi, Painting, Music, etc… Bellas Artes, Instituto Allende and the  Rangel Gómez Studio  are some of the best known places to take classes or use a space for your work. Several galleries congregated in The Fábrica La Aurora with artist studios and galleries but walking and discovering other galleries and shops in the center of San Miguel is and adventure. The Handicraft market covers several streets in the downtown area but you can find several vendors walking around and offering their goods.

Buildings, History and Sites

Look around and marvel at the architecture, design and history of every building.

  • Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel – Constructed by Zeferino Gutiérrez, a craftsman that was inspired by a German illustration at the end of the XVII Century. He had never traveled, he took the illustration and built the Church.
  • Museo Casa de Allende – Home of Allende, Building from the 17th. Century. Latin inscription: “ic nathus ubique notus”, “born here and known everywhere”. 

Fossils

Fossils and 20,000 years old ivory weapons were discovered near San Miguel. At one time they were on display in the Museo Casa de Allende  but at this time they are not on display and although I received several e-mails from different sources giving me different explanations on how and where the pieces are, after I wrote that ‘nobody could tell me with certainty where they are (2013).’ I will certainly miss those pieces!

I consider that museums should be an exciting place for the children so that they are happy to visit them. Without the fossils and the archaeological part of this museum, it is not attractive and exciting for them. I hope one day this exciting part of the museum will be returned. The glyptodont, an armadillo-like creature the size of a rhinoceros once roamed this region. Fossils of giant sloth’s, camels, horses and mastodons were found and are still found in the area.

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Mural “Vida y Obra del  Generalísimo Don Ignacio de Allende” David Alfaro Siqueiros  ( 1948 ) ©María O. Baum

  • Bellas Artes Institute – Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramiez, or El Nigromante, was once the convent and church of the Sisters of the Conception – Hermanas de la Concepción founded by the De la Canal family in 1775.  By the end of the 19th century, the convent was closed because of the Reform Laws (Reformation) and remained empty until the last decades of the nineteenth century when it was used as a Primary School.
  • 1912 – Used as a school for young ladies run by Spanish nuns.
  • 1914 – When the Revolution broke the space was used as barracks until 1936.
  • 1938 – The Ministry of Finance rented the building to individuals to found a school of Fine Arts, which ran until 1948. The building was leased to Felipe Cossio del Pomar who founded the School of Fine Arts. After that, the Ministry of National Assets granted the property to the National Institute of Fine Arts, being in complete ruin.
  • 1961 – The space was rebuilt adding an auditorium, classrooms and galleries.
  • 1962 – The cultural center was inaugurated as “El Nigromante” in honor to  Ignacio Ramírez El Nigromante.
  • 1938 – Felipe Cossío del Pomar and Stirling Dickinson started the Escuela de Bellas Artes, today is part of the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes INBA.

Murals:

The beautiful building houses art exhibits, different classes and murals: The “Vida y Obra del Generalísimo don Ignacio de Allende” is an unfinished mural by David Alfaro Siqueiros. In 1948 he gave a class to a group of American veterans starting this mural.

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“Las Lavanderas,” by Eleanor Cohen – 1941 ©María O. Baum

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“El Fanatismo del Pueblo,” by Pedro Martínez – 1939. (La Caza del Vampiro).

The Fanatism of the Town – The Vampire Hunt ©María O. Baum

“Los Tejedores,” 1940, “The Cantina,”  and “Guanajuato Almacigo de Patriotas” by Pedro Martínez – 1941.

Other important buildings and structures that shouldn’t be missed:

  • Inmaculada Concepcion Church or Las Monjas (The Nuns) was originally constructed as part of the convent that now houses Bellas Artes. 1755 The octagonal cupola with Corinthian columns was added by Zeferino Gutierrez in 1891, inspired by the Les Invalides Church in Paris. The cupola is decorated with a statue depicting the Immaculate Conception.
  • Residence of Doña Maria Antonieta Petra de Santo y Jáugueri.
  • La Casa del Inquisidor – 1780 – Residence of the Inquisitor.
  • Mansión del Marqués de Jaral de Berrio –  1791
  • Casa del Conde de La Canal
  • Oratorio de San Felipe Neri
  • Templo de San Francisco
  • Jardín Principal –  Concerts, gatherings, people watching and music.
  • La Casa de los Perros –  home of Don Juan de Umarán, one of the Independence fighters.
  • Jardín Botánico Cante – Botanical garden with cactus and samples of the region.
  • La Santa Casa de Loreto – Conde de la Canal, donated the money to build this house. It is a replica of the House of the Loreto Virgin in Italy.
  • Zona Arqueológica Cañada de la Virgen – “Gorge of the Virgin.” Important pre-Colombian ceremonial center. 18 miles/30 Km. from San Miguel.
  • Capilla de Casqueros en San Miguel Viejo –  The bearded Christ carved on stone in memory of Fray Bernardo Cossín, who constructed the chapel and was killed by a Chichimeca arrow, so they say.
  • Wool, stone, glass, ceramic and jewelry are some of the local handicrafts. More than 40 galleries.
  • Concerts, Theater and a wonderful park where there is always something going on. A place where culture, art and an active volunteer community has something to offer.
  • Wonderful classes are offered; jewelry, T’ai Chi, Yoga, music, painting, ceramics, sculpture, weaving. Anything you want. Plan to stay for at least a couple of months and check the local paper for what is being offered.

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Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco – Crowns of Thorns sold by the priest ©María O. Baum

Atotonilco

Known as Jesús Nazareno de Atotonilco, Santuario de Dios y de la Patria (Sanctuary of God and Country), the Sistine Chapel of America or simply as Atotonilco was built in the 18th century by Father Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro. This is the church from which the Priest Don Miguel Hidalgo took the Virgin of Guadalupe standard for his army.

The baroque Sancturay is a structure with abundant decorations and covered in murals Flemish-style with scenes from the Bible done by Martínez de Pocasangre over thirty years reflecting the doctrine of San Ignacio de Loyola and oil paintings by Rodriguez Juárez.

The site was originally a sacred site for the natives, but the Spaniards built their Churches on top of them. The conquerors would built their churches on top of the pyramids and temples of the locals and use the stones to build their homes. This way the locals would come to their place of worship and find a church in what was once their sacred sites. The church is near where the locals gathered at the hot springs. It is still use for prayer and mortification.

The locals were considered ‘less than humans: animals,’ as they did not believe in the Spanish god. Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro (1709-76) said in his memories:

“the Indians did abominations, blunders and idolatry. They were things of the devil….”

idolatrías, torpezas y abominaciones. Ellos eran cosas del demonio…….”

Neri de Alfaro claimed he saw a vision of Jesus carrying a cross and with thorns in his head so he ordered the construction of the church on top of the sacred site of the locals. Now, you can see the church selling crowns made of thorns and whips with nails for the bleeding on the Easter festivities. It is still a very special place for the locals and a very rich church as it receives more than 5,000 visitors every week. The money that the church receives does not stay or help the locals.

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San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato©María O. Baum

Otomí and Chichimeca

There is a great mix of cultures in the area, mainly Otomí and Chichimeca.  The Otomí worshiped the moon, practice Shamanism (Chamanes) and believe in Nagualism, a pre-hispanic believe in transformation. Nagualism belief is that humans have the power to turn into an animal form, usually a powerful animal like a jaguar or puma. As they transform into an animal they will take the strenght of it and use this powers for good or evil, to heal and to predict future events.

  • The Ñuhu or Ñuhmu are the Otomí from the mountains of La Huasteca, a region located in the northeast of Mexico; Guanajuato, Puebla, Veracruz Tamaulipas and San Luis Potosí.
  • The Hñähñu Otomí are from the states of Hidalgo, and Querétaro.
  • Smaller Otomí populations live in Puebla, Tlaxcala, Michoacán and Guanajuato.
  • 2000 years ago, the Chichimeca colonized Itzcuinapan, now San Miguel. One of the local tribes, the Copuces was feared by the Spaniards.

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San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato ©María O. Baum

Chicomoztoc “the living oracle”

Legend says that a very famous Chichimeca used to preach at one of the local hot spring baths. He was a very wise man. His name was Chicomoztoc, which means ‘seven caves’.  

   Before the conquest, Chicomoztocthe living oracle, came frequently to the hot springs. He would float on top of the water until he fell asleep. He then would talk while people gathered around to learn from him. Everyone remained silent. Chicomoztoc would tell them that “life has to be simple and full of love and compassion”. 

When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they started using the hot springs, and tried to capture Chicomoztoc when the locals gathered. They never did; “He would just vanish.”

This place is near the Santuario de Jesús Nazareno, Atotonilco. Atotonilco is located in the road that takes you to the famous town of  Dolores Hidalgo.

Chīchīmēcah (pl.) Chīchīmēcatl (sing.) – “inhabitants of Chichimán” “Milk” in Náhuatl

The semi-nomadic people from the north of Mexico and what is now the south-western part of the United States were the Chichimeca. 

   The name was used by the Spanish and is still use as a pejorative word meaning lower barbarian, primitive and uneducated.
Hernán Cortés writes in 1526, that “the Chichimeca were not as civilized as the Aztecs but that they might be enslaved and used to work in the mines it is easier…..”

The Chichimeca rebellion resisted the Spanish and started the  Mixtón War (1540-1542) between the invaders and the nomadic Indians of the area of north western Mexico. Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) led the expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire.