Rediscovering San Miguel

When I was a grad student at Penn, I did a lot of research on Appalachia. I grew up in Appalachia, so I was interested in the history and develop of the region, and one of the more fascinating points I uncovered is that Appalachia as a region is that it has been “rediscovered” about every twenty years since the 19th century. What happens is that some journalist will drive through the region, witness it’s stunning natural beauty, which contrasted with the region’s extreme poverty. It’s a poetic irony, abundant natural beauty amid human scarcity.

On Monday I mentioned that I interviewed Inés Roberts of The San Miguel Chronicles. Among the many things that she and I talked about was the recent “rediscovery of San Miguel” by some of the more recent expatriates, realtors, and others who seek to profit the ever-expanding foreign community here. Part of this rediscovery is an overt attempt to “sell” the idea of SMA to potential retirees. You can fall in love with San Miguel, but like any relationship, you need to fall in love with the real place, not the fantasy that someone has constructed (and which may not in any way resemble SMA).

The problem with rediscoveries is that that lack historical depth, and along with this, accuracy about the expatriate’s community, their work to develop SMA’s infrastructure so that today the town is much more livable from the typical American’s perspective. There is a good private community hospital in town, and a major medical center within 45 minutes drive. The cultural events are extensive, for instance, there are three major music festivals every year. There are also a large number of art galleries that have frequent openings, there are also cocktail and dinner parties, and literally hundreds of local charities to which one can belong.

In short, the older expat community here has worked very hard to build this community, and they like what they’ve created. They’re also not pleased about the current rediscovery of SMA. If there is one thing that the longer-term expatriate community dislikes, it is the way that outsiders (and some who live here) try to promote SMA as a means to enrich themselves. In June (before I came here) I wrote about the hype promotions about “living cheap in Mexico,” and it’s obvious that this and similar advertisements are fueling some of the discontent within the expat community. These promotions (i.e., “retire and live in Mexico only on your social security,” or “buy a house in SMA and make 17% profit in six months”) are not only misleading, they also attract a different type of expatriate, one that is more likely to be disappointed with living here, and less likely to fit in with the current community.

There are other splits in the community that are probably even more disruptive, such as the uber-rich who have been moving here over the last five years, building huge houses in gated communities, and basically not becoming involved with the expat community, except perhaps to show up at gallery openings or to host or attend lavish parties. These most recent arrivals are less likely to live here year-round and less likely to participate in charities and other important aspects of community life. The most wealthy people who come here are resented, not just because they have money, but because they are attempting to reshape SMA into something less than Mexican (yes, I did that on purpose). Nearly everyone from the longer-term expat group contends that the part-time McMansion set want to make SMA a bit more like “hometown U.S.A.,” or perhaps more accurately, “gated suburbia U.S.A.” –Just writing that makes me feel ill.

The basic idea here is that most of the expatriates came here to get something that they believe is not available in the U.S.: a true sense of community. I know that there have been efforts (largely unsuccessful) to do this in the U.S., such as the “community centered” subdivisions (i.e., Celebration, Florida) and revitalization in small towns (see Kennett Square, Pennsylvania), but the reality is, U.S. life moves fast, we work too much to be concerned with anything other than our immediate families, homes, jobs, and so on. And most importantly, we won’t get out of our cars. We don’t work were we live, and there is no true indication that we want to do this. We also don’t want grocery stores, restaurants and pharmacies in our neighborhoods, something I must admit, completely baffles me. We have created a bedroom community America, and the people who are moving here and building out of town behind their gates are re-creating it here. So in short, we cannot have “community” in the U.S. in the sense that it is possible in Mexico, and from the looks of the recent developments in SMA, people coming here don’t want it here, either.

The risk of this most recent “rediscovery” of SMA is that, for many who have lived here for two decades or more, the expatriate community is drastically reshaping into something that looks like another subdivision in Anywhere U.S.A. It’s less than Mexican, and it leads me to wonder why so many people come here to try to recreate something that is easily possible in the U.S.

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