After a rich and well-traveled life from California to Norway to America’s desert Southwest, Rae Miller finally found her artist’s life among the hills and cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende.
The sixty-one-year-old Miller had been reading about San Miguel since the 1990s and kept thinking she really wanted to go there, although she was no stranger to Mexico. She had become a certified Scuba diver during her many trips to Puerto Vallarta, Cancún and other beach resorts in Mexico.
“I came to San Miguel for two weeks in 2004,” Miller said, “and I just really liked it. I could not believe how clean it was, how nice the people were and how colorful everything was. The air was so beautiful and the light was really different. I just came down here by myself and knew I was supposed to be here.”
The road to San Miguel was long and varied. Miller was born in Corona, California but lived in 35 U.S. cities as the daughter of a U.S. Air Force military contractor, and on her own.
By age 18 she was living in Carmel, California and attending a community college in nearby Monterey, studying business administration and French. But she dropped out college for the adventure of working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean.
“I worked for Norwegian Cruise Lines as the beauty salon manager,” she said. “Our ports of call were Cancún, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel, so I got to know Mexico at an early age. I also married one of the ships officers, who was Norwegian.”
After two years with the cruise line, she and her husband moved to a small town in northern Norway, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle, but left several years later.
“My stepdad and mom ran a resort in Elephant View, New Mexico, which is halfway between Albuquerque and Las Cruces, and asked us to help out,” she said. “Unfortunately, my marriage ended soon afterward.”
After stops in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson, Miller found herself in Marin County, just north of San Francisco working in real estate to support her work as an artist.
“Three years after my trip to San Miguel in 2004,” she said, “I had a big upheaval in my life. My brother died and my marriage of 10 years blew up. I just thought ‘if not now, when?’ I just sold everything, packed up a few things and drove down.”
She checked craigslist.com and found a place to rent on a six-month lease. Her new landlord was a woman from San Francisco who “showed her the ropes.”
“There were quite a few things for me to learn when I first arrived and she was very helpful,” Miller said. “She showed me how to pay my bills, where everything was and how to deal with life in general in San Miguel. Then, she threw a party for me and invited all of her neighbors to meet me. That was a wonderful welcome.”
In 2008 Miller discovered she had breast cancer, so she packed and left for Tucson, Arizona where she stayed for six months of treatment. Her recovery took two years.
“I returned to San Miguel in 2010 and found a new place to live,” she said. “I was also on the top of the list to get an art gallery and got one right away.”
San Miguel de Allende’s long-standing reputation as an art center in Mexico and its large and active community of artists drew Miller to the city.
“As a child, I knew I wanted to be an artist,” she said. “Real estate and other jobs I have held throughout my life helped support my art habits. In San Miguel I can rent a gallery, paint and run my own studio. The energy of the place really made me feel like I could do it. I think that’s true for some people who move here. You kind of get the feeling that you can accomplish a lifelong goal.”
Miller is a contemporary artist, primarily abstract art. She works in a medium called encaustic, which is a Greek word meaning “to heat or burn in.” Heat is used throughout the process, from melting the beeswax and varnish to fusing the layers of wax.
“There are several artists who use the encaustic medium,” Miller said. “It’s been nice to have a community working in the same medium. There is also a Mexican form of encaustic that is a bit different than ours, so I have been learning how to do it.”
Her studio – Rae Miller Studio Gallery – is in a former textile factory on the north side of San Miguel that was repurposed as an art and design center. Miller said there are over 30 art studios and galleries housed there, as well as a few boutiques and four restaurants. Her art can also be found online at raemiller.com and galleries in Dallas and the Novato Arts Center in Marin County, California.
Miller remarried a few years ago. Her husband – William Martin – is also an artist and paints in the style of the old masters.
The couple moved from a home just a few minutes from her studio to a new development on a hill above San Miguel, primarily to escape the noise and traffic of the city.
“Our new place is only three miles from my studio and very quiet,” she said. “It’s a Mexican contemporary about 2,200 square feet in size with three-bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths. The living room has a wonderful fireplace, which we use to heat our home when it turns chilly at night during the winter. But the best part of the house is our roof terrace, which has wonderful views of the city. We pay just US$1,000 a month, which I am sure will make many Californians very envious.”
For fun and entertainment Miller and her husband enjoy San Miguel’s rapidly expanding and varied nightlife.
“We go out a lot to restaurants and places with live entertainment,” she said. “ My husband plays the blues harmonica and just got asked to join a band called Los Roadrunners, so we’ll be out a lot. The restaurant scene here is improving rapidly with a lot of new four-star restaurants popping up. We also love several restaurants that are just a few miles out into the countryside. You can be in the country in less than 10 minutes, which I really love.”
Miller also loves going to local organic farms to buy produce. She told us that an armload of fresh vegetables costs her about US$5.
One of the lesser-known facts about San Miguel is its status as the unofficial wedding capital of Mexico. The city supports many businesses that cater to the wedding industry, like hotels, food services and transportation. Many of Miller’s expat and Mexican friends are entrepreneurs, although not specifically focused on the wedding business.
“A lot of our friends are in the restaurant and bar business, but others have boutiques,” she said. “One of my friends has a beautiful mid-century furniture store, which is a big trend now. Everyone seems to be interested in contemporary art and things. San Miguel is a colonial town but there is a big influx of modernism.”
Miller likes the dry and temperate year-round climate in San Miguel de Allende, where snow is very rare. There are definite seasons, unlike many of the coastal resorts where seasons are defined by dry and wet. The summers attract many visitors from the southern U.S. and winters are a magnet for almost everyone.
She also enjoys San Miguel’s central location high in the central highlands of Mexico.
“Most places in Mexico are pretty easy to reach from San Miguel,” she said. “For instance, I can jump on a plane at the new airport in nearby Querétaro in the morning and be on the beach in Puerto Vallarta by noon. By automobile, it’s about eight hours. Guadalajara is about four hours by car.”
When traveling to California, Miller and her husband use either the airport at Leon – about 80 minutes by car – or the airport at Querétaro, which is about an hour away. They fly to the Tijuana airport and use the new tunnel that connects to the U.S. where they can pick up a rental car or take a bus into San Diego.
After living in San Miguel de Allende for nearly 10 years, Miller looked back on some of the cultural integration issues she has had to deal with.
“Language, of course, is a big obstacle when you first move to Mexico,” she said, “but I can now understand everything. My grammar could use a little more improvement, so I’m going to get a tutor. We’re lucky because there are so many Spanish language schools here. San Miguel is a world center for Spanish language instruction.”
One of her biggest cultural shocks, though, was her expectation about how and when things should get done, not uncommon for non-Latin people.
“You will be disappointed until you learn things are done differently down here,” she said. “There is a different time frame, but if you learn to adapt to it, you will love it here. Just remember that mañana doesn’t mean tomorrow, it just means not today.”
San Miguel de Allende, which has attracted thousands of expats since the end of World War II, continues to charm new expats, Miller said. In just one day last month she met three different couples who had just moved to San Miguel from the U.S. None were retirement age, belying the misperception that most expats in Mexico are retirees.
We asked Miller what advice she would give to those thinking about becoming expats in Mexico.
“I would advise them to pack their suitcase and get going! I really love it here. I think they should first take an exploratory trip to check it out. When I saw it, I really liked it. I went back, got my car and drove down.”
For a video version of this interview, visit our YouTube channel.
You can also discover more about San Miguel de Allende in our Cities section.