History of San Miguel de Allende

    San Miguel de Allende started with a bang. A big one. Around 12,000 years ago the Palo Huerfano volcano erupted creating a range of mountains to the south called the Picachos, and that cool crack you can see running along the top of the city. If you satellite image the area you can actually view the crater.

About a thousand years ago, the inhabitants here were a group known as the Chichimeca. They lived along the Picachos; an offshoot of these people, the Otomi, lived on the other side of the crack.

    These were mostly semi-nomadic tribes in the area. It was a pretty peaceful existence until Spain colonized the country and found silver about 300 miles from here. Soldiers started coming and tried to force the Indians to mine and work the infrastructure. This proved to be a violent challenge. To secure the route for transporting all that stolen silver, the Spanish took high-ground routes from Zacatecas, Real de Catorce, through here, all the way to Vera Cruz where they could load it on homebound ships. San Miguel el Grande, as it would come to be known provided a safe haven for these silver trains. The street Mesones today recalls the time that it was the street of guest houses and inns – ‘mesones’ for the travellers.

    These caravans were constantly attacked, and the conquistadors constantly ruined local settlements. The bloodshed was unceasing, and soon the invaders chose to change tactics. They strove to win the hearts and minds of the locals instead. So enter the priests.

    Fray Juan San Miguel established a chapel on a river near here in 1542. He named it for his patron saint St. Michael the Archangel. The river, however, had this annoying habit of not having any water in it. The legend is that the residents found dogs drinking at a natural water geyser called  El Chorro today. The priest moved his settlement to the place the Otomi called Escuinapan – ‘thirsty dogs.’

    After a bloody fight in which the new village was burned down by the Chichimecas, the Spanished placed a garrison here, and established San Miguel el Grande in 1555. The silver came through for centuries. Wealthy silver barons built enormous mansions and haciendas all throughout the state.

    At the beginning of the 1800s Spain began to lose its grip domestically, and especially as a world empire. The time was right for revolt, and right here in San Miguel de Allende, it all went down. Read about that here.

    Ignacio Allende, from here, was one of the leaders of the War for Independence, and he  paid the ultimate price. After the fight, Mexican government leaders were concerned about all the power and wealth the Catholic Church still had. In an attempt to encourage patriotic feelings some religious-named towns got heroes added to their names. For example Dolores, which is a reference to the Blessed Virgin, got the hero Hidalgo added to it – today it is Dolores Hidalgo, and San Miguel el Grande got changed to San Miguel de Allende.

     Despite the conflict between Church and state, it was in the 1880s when one of the greatest churches in Mexico was created. Architect Zeferino Gutierrez designed an entire new facade for the main parish cathedral, which had been standing in various states of repair for 200 years. The word for ‘parish’ is parroquia and the grand church  was created. The style is not just Baroque and Gothic mixed – it was Gutierrez’s idea of those styles. Some quibble today how the church doesn’t really go with the Colonial architecture around it, but there is no doubt that it is the very stunning symbol of San Miguel de Allende.

    Throughout the 19th Century San Miguel subsisted on the great local farmlands and textiles. The most beautiful zarapes, a kind of woven cape, were created here. At one point there were over 350 looms operating. These gorgeous creations were proffered as luxurious gifts for such luminaries as Maximilian and Pope Pius IX. The weaving industry remained here through the 1940s.

    As the silver mines got depleted many towns in Central Mexico started to die out. For example an awesome side-trip from here is to visit the former silver-mining giant Real de Catorce. Ttoday it is surrounded by ghost towns. In 1918, the Spanish Flu pandemic nearly wiped out the population of the town.

    San Miguel de Allende started to decline. In an ironic twist, American ex-pats, normally seen as corrupters of local cultures, helped save the city. After World War II the American government created the GI Bill which paid for any veteran’s college expenses. Stirling Dickinson, wealthy adventurer, author, intelligence officer, came to San Miguel and helped to establish The School of Fine Arts – Bellas Artes here.

    The school brought in famous muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Ex-soldiers found they could collect their GI Bill money while learning to paint in inexpensive San Miguel. Many, many came down, and San Miguel de Allende gained a reputation for being an artist colony. Siqueiros went on to become an outspoken political activist. His disturbing and powerful murals can still be viewed at the Bellas Artes.

    By the 1960s San Miguel de Allende attained an almost mythical reputation across the border. Hidden in the Mexican mountains, provocative stories of peyote and pulque emanating out, stress-free lifestyle – painters, photographers, writers, all forms of left-brainers seemingly wandered in.

    Included in this convergence of artistas was Neal Cassady, intriguing member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters – the legendary acid-dropping, bus driving wandering hippies. Cassady loved San Miguel, lived near the Centro, and would party at the legendary Cucaracha Bar. The bar has since moved, but it used to be on the Jardin.

    A figure who was characterized by many writers including Hunter Thompson, Jack Kerouac, a few Grateful Dead songs,  Cassady would drink at the Cucaracha with other lights, among them Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Sadly, Cassady was found passed out at the train station near town early one morning, and later died of drug and alcohol overdose.

    In the past 50 years, more and more people have discovered San Miguel de Allende. Like many other special places – New Orleans, Austin, San Francisco leap to  mind – San Miguel is walking a tightrope between cultural vibrancy and gentrification. The outskirts are filling with fraccionamentos – subdivisions – traffic on the perimeter is growing, food and coffee chains are starting to appear, and the innocence of even twenty years ago seems to be going.

    At the same time, there is an amazing diversity of activities, food, healthy options and special experiences like few other places offer. Beyond that, the Mexican government is extremely jealous and strict about preservation. The Centro is judiciously manicured and maintains its stunning and joyful character. It is still possible to savor the passion and aesthetic joy here.

    San Miguel de Allende, a jewel in the center of a great nation.

Too Short History of Mexico

Mexican history is, in a word, impossible. This is a way-too-short look at a knotted, intricate, fascinating story.

Following it becomes a convoluted exercise, following series of native dynasties, revolutions, economic collapses, land rights’ struggles and keeping straight all the crazy presidents. One guy was president and exiled four times – he also presided over a funeral for his leg.

    One aspect of the nation’s history that differs from American history, say, is rather than a severe separation, there became a tight fusion of the native people and the invading Europeans. Finding it difficult to subject the people militarily, the Spanish chose to assimilate the natives through religion and social coercion. The effect is still seen today in the faces of the folks that live here – from willowy Continental-looking characteristics to dark native features of ancient tribes; and a palette of mixes in between.

    There have been people here for 13,000 years, and about 3000 years ago, the big men on campus were the Olmecs. These are the folks that made those giant carvings of big round heads with thick lips. They ruled over the eastern part of the country and developed ritual bloodletting, writing and ballgames – several ancient rubber balls have been recovered from Olmec sites.

    Concurrently, Mayan society flourished out in the Yucatan. The Maya developed a complete writing system, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, artwork and many advances in social structure. The descendants of this amazing culture still survive in a swath from the Yucatan through Belize, Honduras, Guatemala to El Salvador.

    It’s a mystery how the Olmecs disappeared, but the next ascendant tribe were the Mixtecs – who ultimately became known as the Aztecs. The legend is one of their nomadic kings was told by a god he would see an eagle eating a snake perched on a nopal cactus, this would be the sign that his people would find their home. Apparently he witnessed this graphic occurrence on an island in ancient Lake Texcoco, and Mexico-Tenochtitlan was founded. Today the site is Mexico City, and the picture of the king’s vision appears on the national flag, one of the most intricate flags of all nations.

    ‘Mexico’ derives from the Nahuatl word for ‘place of the Mixtecs,’ and funnily, the country gets its name from the city. Spanish invaders flip-flopped between calling the area ‘New Spain’ and ‘Mexico,’ because of the ruling city. There was never an official place called ‘New Spain,’ and there are references to this being ‘Mexican Territory’ as far back as 1590.

    The Aztecs were legendary leaders of the New World. Though their immediate empire spread across most of central Mexico, there is evidence of trade from as far north as Wyoming and as south as Panama. The Aztecs built majestic pyramids, temples, causeways, markets – the population of Tenochtitlan passed 200,000. The Aztecs cast their cultural shadow across Mexico affecting a population of more than five million.

    Then Hernan Cortes happened. The first of the many vicious conquistadors, Cortes came to Tenochtitlan at the same time as an Aztec religious prophecy was to be fulfilled. He was at first greeted as a god; but soon turned out to be a devil. Moctezuma II (notice it’s not ‘Montezuma,’ the song gets it wrong) lavished golden gifts on the Spanish leaders. Rather than create a friendship it aroused a voracious avarice, and soon Aztecs were getting massacred.

    During this dark time for the Aztecs, Cuahtemoc became king at age 25. His name translates to ‘pouncing eagle,’ but with his city besieged and his people dying of foreign-borne smallpox, he went against his nature and attempted negotiation. The invaders were led to sources of gold. 

     It wasn’t enough.

Literally holding Cuahtemoc’s feet to the fire of broiling stones, the soldiers tortured, and ultimately assassinated, him in their lust for gold and desire to impress the King of Castile. 

After a brutal siege, Cortes destroyed Tenochtitlan and conquered Mexico.

    When silver was found in central Mexico, around the mid 1500s, more soldiers came and atrocities between the natives and the invaders were rampant. Right behind the soldiers came the priests, and a universal campaign to convert the Indians to Catholics began. Today Mexico is one of the most devout Catholic nations on earth.

    The silver ran out, Napoleon kicked Spain’s butt back home, and Spanish influence waned. As the Stones sang ‘the time was right for fightin’ in the streets,’ and the Mexican War for Independence began right here in San Miguel de Allende. Get that story here.

    Independence was rocky and it was a full century before Mexico could find its political legs. Lopez de Santa Anna – pretty boy, nouveau riche wannabe, selfish demagogue, forced his way to the presidency on four different occasions. Americans know him as the guy that crushed the Alamo. Mexicans know him as the guy that lost his leg in a battle – so it, the leg, got a military funeral.

    The United States was the next aggressor to lust after Mexican stuff, and stole Texas. Allowing thousands of non-Hispanic families to secretly cross the border into Mexican Texas, the American government moved swiftly to have these new residents vote themselves into a republic. This is why Santa Anna was at the Alamo in the first place, Mexico wanted its land back. Eventually, the nation of Texas got itself admitted to the United States as a state. The whole thing took about fifteen years. The War of American Intervention lasted only two years, but it defined today’s Texas-Mexico border, it is referenced in the Marines’ Hymn where they misspell Moctezuma, and it introduced Ulysses S. Grant to Robert E. Lee.

    Finally rid of the Gringos, a relentless civil war followed. Miraculously, the great Benito Juarez was elected president following the tenets of the Mexican Constitution he helped create. Similar to Abraham Lincoln, Juarez came from a humble background and is a national symbol today for visionary ideas. Juarez was a liberal and fought for an open democracy, rights for downtrodden groups, economic reform, and stripping the Church of its political influence.

    Then another annoying greedhead showed up – France. They sought to collect debts owed to itself, England and, of course, Spain. Juarez basically told them ‘Y’all took enough from us, we ain’t paying a centavo.’ So, aggressive Napoleon III dispatched French troops, under the guise of repo-men. At first it looked good, the underdog Mexican army won at the Battle of Puebla! This took place on May 5, 1862. Today Cinco de Mayo is a minor holiday in Mexico, but is heartily celebrated at college campuses and sports bars across the United States.

    The tide turned against Mexico, and France finally wedged in deluded Maximilian and his loopy wife Carlota as emperor and empress of Mexico. This, predictably, did not go well. The Americans didn’t want any Frenchies on their borders, and they interfered as much as they could. In an attempt to remove resistance, Maximilian executed thousands of Juarez supporters. Finally it all fell apart for the interlopers:  his wife – monomaniacal, paranoid, depressed – went back to Europe never to return, and Maximilian faced a firing squad.

    Juarez went back to power. (We told you this stuff was impossible.) But after his death the government came under the control of Porfirio Diaz … for the next 35 years. There is still a raging discussion in Mexico about the Diaz era – on the one hand he pushed Mexico into the modern age, wanting his country .to be seen on a par with European countries. He built schools, hospitals, bridges and encouraged a European-style art architecture scene, One of the side effects was he brought beer to Mexico with modern-sounding names like XX (as in Twentieth Century), or old Europe sounding like Bohemia or Corona (a king’s crown).

         On the other hand, Diaz was in the back pockets of many American and other big businesses, he allowed child labor, and he could be a vicious despot to combat those who spoke against him.

    Sick of Diaz’s caca de vaca, Francisco I. Madero called for an armed uprising against the government, and in 1910, the Mexican Revolution raged. Pancho Villa in the north and Emiliano Zapata in the south, along with dozens of other local and national clashes, fueled the uprising. United States business interests threw a tantrum cuz they lost their puppet Diaz, and had Madero assassinated. The Revolution was ugly. It had infighting, betrayals, a couple of civil wars, mass confusion, to this day scholars ponder if it was a good or bad thing; but finally, after the dust settled – around 1940 – Mexico had a solid constitution, was a free nation, and stood as one of the first great social successes of the Twentieth Century.

    With a few hiccups, some extremely ugly, Mexico, as a nation has progressed into one of the great world nations. In 1938 President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized all the oil in Mexico, creating Pemex, the national oil company. The world went ballistic, but Mexico secured a stable income stream from its own resources. The economic news has been mixed, but it seems to be more good than bad for the nation because of it.

    In 1968 Mexico City, at the time the largest city in the world, hosted the Summer Olympics. It signalled Mexico as a nation that could sit at the table with the big boys. It must be noted that ten days before the Olympics opened, Mexico City police opened fire on 10,000 student protesters, killing hundreds. Yet another occasion where Mexican history mixes social change and blood.

    Today, Mexico suffers internationally from bad press because of the insidious drug cartel wars. The reality on the ground, however, is that these incursions are very localized, and despite the vicious stories, day-to-day life in virtually all of la Republica is safe and quiet. Additionally the atrocities don’t often occur near where travelers would go. In the tourist-y areas, security is a premium. In revered places like San Miguel de Allende there is a relaxed, comfortable vibe that makes it a dreamland for the visitor.

    The Mexican struggle for, and commitment to, freedom has been a bloody, passionate trail for centuries. With such community-wide life lessons, the citizens here possess an inner peace, a mystical satisfaction in their hearts that is obvious to any visitor. Viva Mexico!

Who Was Allende?

So who is Allende? And no, his first name isn’t “San Miguel.” His actual name is Ignacio Jose de Allende y Unzaga. When you had all those names, it meant your family was important. And at his time this town was known as San Miguel el Grande – St. Michael the Great. Ignacio lived in the building that is on the square – across Cuna Allende – from the church. He was a Commander in the Queen’s Dragoons. Dragoons are horse-riding soldiers.

When Napoleon attacked Spain in 1808 – making it vulnerable, there was a growing hunger for independence here in New Spain. Allende started conspiracy meetings in different parts of the country. Ultimately, however, these rebel meetings took place at the house of the mayor of Queretaro, nearby. The mayor was called el Corregidor then, and his wife Josefa Ortiz de Domiguez was a powerful voice in the movement. Today she is known as la Corregidora. Also at these meetings were the rich Aldama brothers, and a priest named Miguel Hidalgo.

Now the insurgents wanted to revolt on December 8th, 1810. This is Immaculate Conception Day, and all the villagers would be out. But someone snitched. On September 15, 1810, the Spanish authorities discovered the conspiracy in Queretaro. The heroes’ lives were in danger. La Corregidora sent a messenger immediately to San Miguel to warn Allende.

When the messenger arrived, Allende wasn’t there. He was in the nearby town of Dolores with the priest Hidalgo. The message got to them that evening. They decided to start revolution immediately.

At the amazing church in Atotonilco, they rang the bells in the early morning of September 16 and Hidalgo gave a rousing “Cry for Freedom.” The Spanish word for ‘cry’ in this sense is El Grito – which today is the name of the National Anthem, and mayors all over the country re-enact it on Independence Day in the main squares.

About 700 insurgents carrying tools and simple weapons, with the flag of Our Lady of Guadalupe before them, marched to San Miguel led by Allende. Upon arriving, Allende guaranteed the safety of the Spanish prisoners there. And the fight for an independent New Spain began.

There are stories that a mob followed the rebels into town and started looting stores; and that Allende broke it up with strong words, and a whip. The fight moved on to the capital of the state – Guanajuato. In a stunning victory there, they defeated the Spanish at a battle for an old warehouse known as Alhondiga.

Though the insurgents won early victories, it didn’t end well. Hidalgo wanted to lead, but wasn’t effective. Allende took over, he re-inspired his men, but ultimately the cause was betrayed and his army was ambushed.

Allende got the firing squad for insubordination, and his head was hung in a metal basket from the top of that warehouse Alhondiga. Today his remains are at the Independence Column, the very symbol of the country, in Mexico City.

On the Vino por Vino History and Culture Tour we walk the streets of the Centro. The very names recall this heroic time: Hidalgo Street, Aldama Street, Insurgents Street (Insurgentes), Corregidora Street, and of course, the Cradle of Allende (Cuna de Allende).  It’s not only the birthplace of one of Mexico’s greatest heroes, but the birthplace of the Homeland itself.

Story of Saint Michael

Vino por Vino wine toursThough San Miguel de Allende is the most well-known, almost every state in La Republica has a town named “San Miguel.” Here, you will see hundreds of dramatic images and statues of the sword-wielding Archangel conquering the devil.  What is the deal with Saint Michael? And why is he revered here?

There are many interpretations of the story, and this one is chosen, frankly, cuz it’s the most dramatic version.

The story of Saint Michael is an apocryphal creation story. In other words it does not specifically appear in the Bible, but it remains as a sort of myth explaining the beginning of humankind. Saint John writes a vision of it in Revelations 12:7-10.

In the aeons before God created man, the story goes, He lived in Heaven surrounded by His angels. There are different types of angels, and the most important ones are the Archangels. They had names like Gabriel (the one who announced to Mary she was going to bear Jesus); Raphael, Uriel, etc. Notice the names all end in “el,” this is the ancient Hebrew word for God. So, for example, “Michael” means “who likens himself to God?” We’ll get to that in a bit.

Angels have all the immortality, spirit and love of God, but they lack one thing:  free will. They are there to glorify God, sing praises, run messages, and tidy up around the place. Michael is a badass. He is kind of the sergeant at arms for Heaven. Why would a bunch of beings made of love and light need a bouncer? Hold on.

One day the Almighty announces that He is going to create a new being, made of earth and spirit – humans. Further, He added, He would endow these things with the ability to choose their own fate – that is, free will.

When God proclaimed His intention, the most handsome angel – Lucifer protested. Lucifer means ‘light bringer,’ it is also the name of Venus when it shines in the morning, bringing the light before the sun. Lucifer’s problem was that if God created humans who had options, they might choose against God. This would be intolerable!

Michael, clearly the muscle in the organization, said something to the effect of “Hey! God Almighty said He’s gonna do it, who are you to argue? So shut your yap.”

Lucifer did not, and it ignited the Great War in Heaven. Michael was the general of his side, Lucifer lined up his party; and they fought. In the Bible vision Lucifer becomes a dragon.

Michael won, of course, and he cast Lucifer out of Heaven, followed by the rebel angels. He stood over the fallen devil and proclaimed “Who likens himself to God?!” or in ancient Hebrew:  “Michael!” God punished Lucifer basically saying “You care so much about people making evil choices? Then you be in charge of those souls,” and created the darkness of Hell where Lucifer, the former light-bringer, presides.

The image of Saint Michael with his foot on the neck of the dragon Lucifer, brandishing his sword arouses a religious fervor in the hearts of Mexicans. Remember, Mexico, a fiercely Catholic country, has gone through two bloody revolutions for its freedom, first slaying the dragon of Spain, and then a misbehaving despot. It seems the San Miguel story resonates with citizens in a profound way.

Brief History of Wine in Mexico

Mexicans love beer, tequila, mezcal, and believe it or not, their number one drink is brandy. They are the fourth largest population of brandy drinkers on the planet. In almost every home you will see a bottle of El Presidente brandy with a bottle of Coke not too far away. Most grapes in La Republica, for years, were produced to produce brandy.

So how did wine get overlooked? The nation of Mexico has virtually every climate type found in the winemaking world – from stable Mediterranean warmth; to all-four-seasons Continental weather; to balmy, moist Maritime – meaning almost every varietal can be viticultured here. Twenty years ago, had you asked about the lack of winemaking, you would get vague answers of “We were a colony, it was a Spanish thing,” etc. And there is truth in that elliptical response.

When the Spaniard conquistadores arrived in the 1500s, they were aghast at (what they thought were) Godless heathens running around half naked, drinking liquor from scary cactuses, honoring false idols, etc. Most amazing, there was no wine here! And when they discovered amazing amounts of silver, well it became no question, Cortez thought: “We have to save their souls … and grow wine grapes.”

Importation of inexpensive Mexican wine into Spain got so out of hand, by 1699, it was depressing the Spanish wine market. So King Carlos II outlawed winemaking in Mexico (New Spain), except for church use. This ban remained in effect until the Mexican Revolution, 1910! The only folks producing wine were clergy. Consequently, the populace never really embraced wine.

In the 1850s the Church and the State were not getting along, and the government seized a ton of mission land, especially lands that contained lucrative wineries. They sold these to laymen investors. But, many of these missions were abandoned.

The last sip in the early taste of wine in Mexico comes with the Molokans – Russian Christian pacifists who came to Baja to escape persecution from the Czar. These Molokans brought modern cultivating and viniculture techniques to Mexico.Hello?  Escape bleak Russia and its harsh treatment to chill on the beach and make wine? God does work in mysterious ways.

By the end of the Twentieth Century, vintners had started to appear in fits and starts. Almost every state in Mexico produces grapes. And several areas have so-called microclimates – these are tiny areas of a unique weather type. These produce great vines. The main regions producing new wines were Baja California, Northern Mexico, and the area just surrounding us here in Queretaro and Aguascalientes.

Today, Mexican wine is the oenological world’s biggest secret. Wine is produced across La Republica. In the area around San Miguel de Allende, known as El Bajio, the Northern California climate and hardworking locals have created an entirely new and exciting industry. Further as the state of Guanajuato is replete with creative artistic minds, each winery is a distinct, fascinating, sometimes life-changing experience.

There has been no formal public way to get out to these surrounding gems, until now. Vino por Vino has a mission to enrich visitors’ experience here. We want to share the best of San Miguel de Allende downtown and out in the grapes. Raise your glass! Salut!