After living 10 years in the town of San Miguel de Allende in central México, I never thought I would end up living on the edge of a small village and loving country life in Mexico. It’s a quiet place during the week, but on weekends people come from all over the country for pilgrimages.
The town is called Atotonilco, and my house is 20 minutes from San Miguel. It doesn’t feel like a holy place today, not like it was for the indigenous people who lived here long before the arrival of the Spanish in the 1540s.
As was its practice throughout México, the Catholic Church adopted sacred sites and reconsecrated them for its own purposes. In the first half of the 18th century, the Church built a sanctuary here dedicated to Jesus of Nazareth. The style is late Baroque, and it’s reputed to be the site of miraculous cures.
In addition, the local (and national) hero of the War of Independence, Ignacio Allende, a San Miguel native, was married there in 1793. In 1810 as an army commander, he led his troops in revolt against Spain. They traveled the 16 kilometers to Atotonilco where they joined forces with Father Miguel Hidalgo from the town of Dolores who had led his 8,000 Indian followers to the meeting. From the church, they took the painting of the Lady of Guadalupe, attached it to a pole, and used as it a battle standard. Then they traveled into San Miguel and announced the birth of the nation of México from the old city hall.
The divine standard didn’t help them to win against the overwhelming Spanish colonial forces, and the two pioneer leaders were both dead by June of 1811. But as in similar situations, they were as valuable to their cause as dead heroes as they had been as living leaders.
Every day when I drive past the sanctuary I think of them on that hopeful day in September of 1810. It was one of history’s tipping points.
My house is a little more than a kilometer from the square in front of the church. It occupies a sweet spot at a sharp turn of the Rio Laja, a river that is only a dry creek eight months of the year. There the views go on for 25 or 30 kilometers.
The house is built in the Santa Fe adobe style. The side that fronts the valley to the east is mostly glass, so the views go on forever in the morning light. On three acres, our neighbors (we can see only two from the house) are within waving distance, but too far away to have a conversation without shouting. This is the antithesis of our situation in town, where like everyone else, we were close enough to shake hands over the wall.
The sounds are different too. In the distant village of San Miguelito, a crew of dogs starts to respond to the chickens around 5:30 in the morning. The sheep wake up about the same time. None are close enough to disturb us.
The insect life is more diverse than in town. The large cockroaches that emerge from the sewers in San Miguel in hot weather we have not seen out here, but we’ve killed dozens of scorpions in the house. These are not the smaller pale ones that are so poisonous, they’re the larger dark reddish-brown version whose sting is mild. In any case, their sinister look wins them no friends.
As a writer over the last 16 years, as I produced 43 books, I’ve worked in both chaos and calm. I know I can manage in either condition, but I greatly prefer calm, and that is the feature that drew us most to this place. In the yard fronting the house we have two fig trees and a hundred olive trees. The garden is full of lavender and roses
The people around us are both crushed by poverty and top heavy with affluence. The disparities are evident. Our neighbor across the valley is a very wealthy Mexican who sometimes comes and goes by helicopter.
I never thought I would end up in a place like this, but serendipity is a powerful, if subtle force. I would never try to ignore it.