This article is from the May 2004 The Mexico
Back to Articles List
“On Mexican Time” Revisited
by Gordon Jett
Gordon Jett is a regular and frequent contributor to Mexico File. He and his wife, Betty, have lived in San Miguel de Allende for the last ten years. During that time they have traveled from the Gulf Coast to the Pacific Coast, and from the US border to the Belize border. But they always go home to San Miguel.
In 2000 a talented writer named Tony Cohan published a book called On Mexican Time. It is the story of Tony and his wife Masako’s discovery of a small Mexican town called San Miguel de Allende. The book opens in January 1985 on a bus from Mexico City to San Miguel and chronicles their long, not un-bumpy, love affair with the place.
Both Tony and his wife (an artist) were experienced world travelers. Their first visit to San Miguel was for three weeks. Back in California after their first trip, they keep reminding each other of other places they had visited – Southern France, Marrakesh, Kyoto – that had appealed to them, but somehow San Miguel always edged out every other place.
They ended up selling their California house and moving to San Miguel. They rented a place for four years. Tony describes their life as “sensual, revelatory, engaged.” He is finely attuned to the sounds, colors, rhythms, and culture of Mexico.
The heart of the book is the engaging description of finding “the” house they wanted to own and the bittersweet experience of turning a 250-year-old, abandoned wreck into their dream home.
As a full-time resident of San Miguel for the last ten years, I found much has changed here since Tony wrote – and much has not. On the Cohan’s first trip here they had to fly into Mexico City and take a bus for the last 140 miles. Now there is an international airport in Leon, a “mere” sixty miles away.
Tony mentions a “little bilingual library” several times. I don’t know how big or little it was then, but the Biblioteca Publica is now the largest bilingual public library in Latin America outside of Mexico City. The old Colonial-style building houses a weekly English language newspaper, a restaurant, a little theater (both film and performing arts), and a gift shop.
The outdoor Tuesday market is now located in a huge lot just east of town, cheek to jowl with a supermarket.
And the man who killed another man twice, “Ramatar,” is still around.
Tony complains that several articles in travel magazines tout the charms of San Miguel and bring more and more visitors. Little did he know! In the last two years articles in Conde Nast Traveler, Money, and AARP’s Modern Maturity all claim San Miguel to be in the top ten worldwide places to visit or retire to.
Tony and his wife took four years to decide to own property here. My wife and I had decided we wanted to retire in Mexico, but we didn’t know where. San Miguel happened to be the first of half a dozen places we wanted to check out. We bought a house here the second day.
When the Cohans bought property, they really didn’t own it. At the time gringos had to have a fideicomiso, a complicated thirty-year lease. The law changed in 1990 and foreigners can now own property outright as long as it is not near a national border or the ocean. We have a small two-bedroom home on the south edge of town. We own the two contiguous lots, now a lush garden with a fountain and outdoor living room. Our real estate taxes are $100US a year.
When we moved here permanently in 1994, the expatriate community consisted of people (many of whom lived in other foreign countries) who appreciated and respected the Mexican culture. Unhappily, the recent spate of publicity about San Miguel is attracting people who come here now because it is “fashionable.” Many complain loudly that San Miguel is “so foreign!” The streets are narrow and clogged, there are no MacDonalds, electricity is unstable, etc. They write passionate (and rude) letters to the local paper with suggestions on how to “fix” things. And the final insult, to my mind, is that Jack Nicklaus is planning to build a golf course / condominium project north of town. (If you want to play golf, go to Florida!)
For all my crotchety complaints about there being too many damn gringos in town, San Miguel’s charms still make it the best place on earth, to my mind. The colors are as bright as ever, the weather blissful year ‘round, the cost of living here (though rising) still beats any place we know of in the States. And the beautiful, sensual, vibrant Mexican culture is still here for those of us who wish to enjoy it.
Like Tony, every time I have to leave town to visit family, I say “Ojala.” God willing, I’ll be back.