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The Establishment of the Artistic Colony of Expats in San Miguel De Allende.
The Establishment of the Artistic Colony of Expats in San Miguel De Allende

by Eva Luz Villalón Turrubiates

Eighty years ago, on the foggy morning of February 7, 1937, the American Stirling Dickinson arrived in San Miguel de Allende for the first time, invited by Mexican actor José Mojica, who had moved to live in town and had his house in the Villa Santa Mónica. And so the migration of artists, American and Canadian expats, began.

After World War II, with the application of the G.I. Bill, which allowed war veterans to apply for a scholarship in the School of Fine Arts (Bellas Artes), many artists started to arrive in town. In January 1948 Life Magazine published an article about San Miguel that captured the attention of readers to the point that the school received 6,000 applications; only 100 were accepted.

Among the newcomers in the 1940’s was James Pinto, a Yugoslav painter who had worked for the Disney Studios for a while. He arrived with his wife Ruska to study muralism with David Alfaro Siqueiros. Pinto stayed in town, taught painting classes in the Instituto Allende and died in San Miguel in 1987. His work can be appreciated on the murals he left on the walls of the Instituto. Most of his paintings were acquired by the University of Guanajuato

Other notable expats were Leonard and Reva Brooks, a Canadian artist couple, who also arrived in San Miguel in the Bellas Artes era (1947), intending to stay here only for a year.

Leonard Brooks was a musician, poet, painter, writer and a war veteran. In San Miguel he had a very important pictorial production. He opened a specialized art gallery and wrote several books about painting. He also had an extraordinary participation in the musical scene of the city, establishing the musical program in the Cultural Center “El Nigromante” and teaching free music lessons to unprivileged young boys. Among his prominent students were Daniel Aguascalientes and his five brothers, who in 1976 formed the famous musical group of the International Violins of the Aguascalientes Brothers. The annual Festival de Música de Cámara (the San Miguel Chamber Music Festival) that is celebrated in San Miguel since 1979 was another legacy of Leonard for San Miguel. He died in 2011, just two weeks after he had been honored for his 100th birthday in the Teatro Ángela Peralta.

His wife Reva was a renowned photographer who in 1975 was named by the Museum of Art of San Francisco as one of the top 50 best female photographs in history. Her work was centered in capturing the everyday life and the essence of Mexico and its people. Her most widely known work is the photo called “Confrontation”, that shows the mourning face of Elodia, a young indigenous mother who had just lost her baby. The photography caused a big impact and it was bought by the Museum of Modern Art of New York. Her work was in exhibitions in America and Europe and she has permanent exhibitions in museums in Mexico, the United Stated and Canada. Reva died in 2001 in San Miguel.

With the arrival of the expats and the establishment of the artistic colony in San Miguel it was necessary to open new business like hotels, restaurants, shops and all kind of services, which encouraged the economic growth of the city. The hotel Posada San Francisco was built as the first modern hotel in town, with the amenities of an American hotel, such as private bathrooms in each room, a restaurant and a bar. Many other hotels started to open, like the one operated by the Instituto Allende, which was considered one of the best hotels in Mexico at the time, or the hotel and ranch El Atascadero, a typical Mexican hacienda. Restaurants like the Bugambilia, El Patio or The Dragones also opened at the time.

Shops like El Iris (est. 1921) and El Colibrí stocked artists with material. Souvenirs and gift shops were opened and local crafts were in high demand.

As an interesting fact, in 1955 Walt Disney came to San Miguel to oversee the shooting of the movie “The Littlest Outlaw”, that was filmed in town and he stayed at the house of Mexican actor Pedro Vargas, lead actor in the movie. Even though the Sleeping Beauty Caste in Disneyland was inspired by the Castle of Neuschwanstein in Germany, some of the oldest sanmiguelenses think that probably Disney had the idea of building a castle in the middle of his park when he saw the Parroquia standing proudly at the center of the town. We will never know.

Important members of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac (“On the Road”), Neal Cassady and poet Irwin Allen Ginsberg visited our town in the 60s. Ginsberg, author of the famous poem “Howl” even gave a few lectures in the Instituto Allende. And it was here, in the year 1968, where Cassady died one cold night when he was walking along the railroad that goes from San Miguel to Celaya. His cause of death was possibly exposure, but it’s possible that his death was caused by an overdose after attending a wedding that evening.

San Miguel has always been a magnet for artists. There’s a special energy in town that inspires creation. Many brilliant minds had wandered through our cobblestoned streets and they have impregnated our walls with their creative energy. Celebrating the eightieth anniversary of the arrival of Stirling Dickinson to San Miguel and the establishment of the artistic colony of expats, we can say that a lot of people came, many of whom never left.

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Eva Luz Villalón Turrubiates:
Born in Celaya but Sanmiguelense by heart, she is the author of two books of oral history, traditions, folk tales and legends of the city of Salamanca. She's a professor in the university, a historical researcher and a volunteer in the Biblioteca Publica of San Miguel. She has written for several newspapers and magazines and also has been awarded with the literary prize "El Timón de Oro" by the Naval Academy. Currently she's working on a historical fiction novel set in San Miguel in the post-World War II era.

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