Ghosts of San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende was a jewel on the map of my childhood. Many times circled, marked with a push-pin. Coming here always felt like coming home. I loved the smell of old stone courtyards, the sound of water splashing onto cobblestones as people cleaned the streets in front of their big-doored colonial houses, and the chorus of blackbirds in the Zocalo as the sun set behind the enormous pink Cathedral, which looked like something made up by a little girl with an overactive imagination.

Cathedral in downtown San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

As a little girl with an overactive imagination myself, San Miguel was a paradise for daydreaming: Monasteries like castles, the French park like an emperor’s private garden, the wrought iron grates that guarded dark stone rooms where one could imagine the rustle of long skirts and the hush of Spanish fans.

And then there were the people who storied the establishments. Wandering around San Miguel was like visiting Mr. Rogers’ land of Make-Believe: Someone you know was bound to pop out of the woodwork with appropriate eccentric flare. At the shady Zocalo in the center of town, we inevitably ran into at least one person we knew—perhaps David, an artist with a pate like Charlie brown, a whimsical sense of humor, and an apparently invincible belief in his own genius. Or maybe Frank–whose ham pink face, bushy grey beard, and gravely voice made him seem an unlikely candidate for the polyamorous life he was always espousing. Or possibly Virginia, who ran a restaurant and a rug factory and still had the energy of a small battalion.

My parents’ friends were living the dream. They lived in beautiful houses with courtyards and maids. They wore turquoise jewelry and large sunglasses and hand-woven kaftans. They painted and played in flamenco bands and threw fashion shows, and they drank at bars like La Cucaracha and La Fragua, where I would crouch under the large wooden tables and listen to them tell stories late into the night.

To me the heart of San Miguel was always la Casa, which appealed to my childhood fancy because from the outside it looked so plain: A very old door in a very old wall on a street that was barely more than an alley. You pulled a string that rang the doorbell, and the maid would answer, and then you walked through a stone hallway and beneath the bower of an immense old bougainvillaea, dreamlike fuchsia in the afternoon light. A winding outdoor path connected the other parts of the house, which were all separate buildings: a ramada-style dining room, a grotto of a kitchen that smelled like cold water and tiles; there was even a tower. Tropical flowers and succulents grew everywhere, and a jacaranda tree littered the path with purple blossoms.

The queen of la Casa was Diana, a loquacious Texan with honey-colored hair and a delightful laugh. She was married to Napoleon, a Mexican lawyer who had the distinguished grace of a very large cat, perhaps a panther. Together they had three sons, Alejandro, Damian, and Adan. The boys and I played in the courtyard as small children. When we grew a bit older, Alejandro and I would climb up the bougainvillaea to the rooftop to spy on Adan and his girlfriend, flirting shyly in their school uniforms. When we were older still we had the run of the streets and we’d get ice cream floats at the corner store and hang out in the video arcades with a pack of expat kids, including my friend Theron, who knew all the best ways to get into trouble.

My family’s stays in San Miguel varied in time: Sometimes a couple of weeks, occasionally a couple of months. Sometimes we camped at the edge of town, other times we house sat. Over the years, I attended several different schools in San Miguel. But the consistent factor remained: San Miguel was a definite stop on our annual trip; it didn’t just feel like a home away from home—it felt like home.

Then I turned into a teenager and stopped traveling to Mexico every year with my parents. When I was eighteen, Diana died of a heart attack. As the years passed, several other old friends from San Miguel passed away and many more drifted away, back to the states, down to the coast, further south. Because I wasn’t making my annual migration to San Miguel every year, not only did I miss out on really mourning these deaths, but I also missed out on the organic process of making new connections to replenish those that had disappeared or atrophied.

When I returned to San Miguel at age 21, the town had changed. It was even wealthier and a lot more polished. Many of the funky touches were gone. That said, the place still had its magic: My heart trilled as I wandered down the winding cobblestone streets at night. There was the Parrocchia, massive against the starry sky, there the glimmering lights of Mama Mia’s. But where was everyone I knew?

My sainted mother now lives outside of San Miguel and I return here whenever possible. I sit at the Zocalo and watch residents stroll and gossip and exclaim as they spot cohorts. I watch groups congregate, laughing, in the bars. We still have a couple of dear family friends here, but for the most part I feel like I’m revisiting the set of a movie that used to be about my life, but isn’t anymore. Or as Pavement put it: “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation / Of the sequel to your life.” As I nurse a cold Victoria at la Cucarracha, I can’t help but wish I had what my parents had: A fabulous cast of characters to keep me company here in this most dreamlike of towns.

Should you feel sorry for me? Uh, no. I’m hanging out in a beautiful colonial city in Mexico. Really, I’m just spoiled because I’m  fortunate enough to have a glittering network of friends that extends through many locales and I’m not really used to lurking at the edges of a set anymore. Maybe it’s good for me. It does make me think. It makes me think how utterly dependent upon people I am. It makes me think about how towns are layered: lost world upon lost world upon lost world. What would San Miguel de Allende be without all the beautiful ghosts?




16 Responses to “Ghosts of San Miguel”

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  1. Lorena says:

    Ah Churpa, you put it so eloquently. I’m sitting here now, remembering San Miguel ghosts.

    • -El Codo- says:

      Ah Jeez, Lorena! Go easy with the melancholy stuff por favor! I’m at the sensitive advanced age where like a quemadura del sol (sunburn) the slightest touch makes me wince.

      This is a beautiful city made deliciously eccentric by the great number of even more outrageously eccentric ex-pats. Artists, poets, slackers. IMHO SMdeA should rank very very high on a “newbie’s” bucket list for a great start to a Colonial Cities tour, or for that matter a super launching point to continue south, or west or wherever.

  2. churpa says:

    Thank you Lorena. Would love to hear some of your stories when you get the chance.

  3. Rich says:

    Nice work, fearless leader.

    Though I don’t have a lifetime of memories here, San Miguel has earned a permanent place in my heart. Though I look forward to the rest of our adventure in Mexico, I am a bit sad to leave this jewel of a city. Año próximo!

  4. Tina V. Rosa says:

    Gosh! Made me homesick for my old life here…..

  5. Morgan says:

    Hear, hear!

  6. Michele Eliezer says:

    Churpa, Your wonderful story telling takes me back to the time, a bit before the Negretes lived in the casa, when I lived in that wonderful house. I labored to make what was Eve’s old potting studio into my weaving studio. I was optimistic enough to believe I could give my complex diagrams for a large loom to a local carpenter and it would be built. After some months and much pleading, it did get built and it worked a charm. So much was based on blind faith then and so much came out well…….

  7. Hannah says:

    So lovely, Churpa! Time for some new traditions. xx

  8. sheila says:

    ohh churp! those were the days, and me too, lived in john and eve’s beautiful casa while they were in new mexico putting the idiot VW book together. important memories and how amazing so many of us are still
    connected, and good for us. tina and i met in san miguel in 1968 and steve, carl and lorena, we all met at
    tenacatita a year later. keep on keepin on. . .

  9. Napoleón says:

    Churpa gracias, tus palabras me conmovieron y llegué a sentir la historia toda de la vida de sta casa, aquí los tengo a todos quienes por aquí pasaron, vivieron y dejaron una perte de ellos. Es una casa que a todo el mundo les gusta y seguramente se debe en mucho a las vívidas vibraciomes que flotan en el ambiente que todos ustedes dejaron. También me hace sentir el privilegio de vivir en este maravilloso pueblo.
    Los abrazo a ti y todos ellos.

  10. Fred says:

    Gracias Churpa, I’m hoping your “Ghosts of SMA” is only the first edition of, many to follow. I love your stories of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende and the nostalgia ride. Historia, Fantasmas y El Sendero del los Gringos! What I think of most often is the wonderful feeling at one or two in the morning, wandering the quiet streets of San Miguel, feeling as if the town was all mine; and it was absolutley OK, and even preferred, that you or anyone else felt the same way – like it was your town too. Though I knew I was just one of the many players who over the years/centuries, felt they were also part of a grand Cervantes story – such a magical spell SMA had on me. Hey, I know that movie about my life, your life, other’s lives, and not anymore. Reading your ghost story, your words felt just exactly right!

    One ghost story, if I may: Four plus years back, when last in San Miguel, I had spent the day at various spots around town, spreading the ashes of my dear friend Graham Nugent, who had recently passed on – weeks before, with family and friends we had spread the majority of his ashes, in the Valle Vidal, NM. Going into gardens and other places around San Miguel which I knew were special to Graham; leaving a pinch or two of his ashes, at each place. Intently at my task of spreading ashes for most of the afternoon, I was feeling a bit high on the experience. In search of more worldly companionship, now making my way to the Jardine as evening, turned to dark.

    This same evening was the kick-off to Fiestas San Miguel, with thousands of people starting to crowd into the Jardine/Plaza to watch the fireworks and Castillos being fired off and the Globos (my favorites) sail through the night sky. I was standing on the corner of the Jardine (next to where “La Terraza” restaurant once was) and to my left, the view was almost exactly like the photo you have included with this story (photo 2nd from bottom/ at night, the lights on La Parochia church) when a huge Barn Owl, with a wing span equal to my arms spread wide, flew between the two churches and seemed to hover motionless in the air. Eye to eye, only fifteen or twenty feet away, the Owl stayed hovering for what seemed like three or four minutes. Remember, there were literally thousands of people at that moment, standing in the Jardine. As I looked around in amazement, no one else seemed to notice, except for one guy – who was on a scaffold, working the lights for a TV broadcast – and whose wide open mouth and look of awe and amazement, has stayed with me since. The Fiestas will not be televised – or so, I once thought. Completely blown away and absolutley sober, I knew in the very depths of my heart and soul, the ghost of Graham Nugent, did indeed approve. Su Socio, Fred

    • churpa says:

      Gracias, Fred! Great story–you really conjure San Miguel. That’s amazing about the owl. Though I didn’t know that Graham had passed away…If it’s the same Graham I’m thinking of, I remember good times at his house in New Mexico when I was a kid…


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