viernes, 21 de marzo de 2008

It’s time to save San Miguel

By Elliot Holt
March 21, 2008
San Miguel de Allende

Probably few people in San Miguel can remember the different local businesses that have disappeared along with the “progress” the city has experienced in the past few years.

One of the places at the Portal de Allende used to be La Bouganvilea, where Chiquis sold us ice cream and sherbet popsicles while we waited for the arrival of the El Corsario Limousines, which preceded the Corsarios del Bajío buses. The tables were made of aluminum topped with a sort of yellow plastic, the same color as the plastic upholstered chairs. A few steps from there was La Cucaracha, a bar where local and American rummies would spend long hours sipping drinks and telling tales.

Across the Jardín, on the Portal Guadalupe, were the La Gardenia store and another ice cream store, as well as a haberdasher/sundries store, whose name I forget. There was also the El Popo ice cream parlor, where Pablito would sell us ice, ice cream and popsicles.

On the upper side of Mesones was the Hoyos family’s seed and grain store, which served as San Miguel’s only bank before the national ones opened branches here. You could deposit money and buy beans and raw sugar known as piloncillo at the same time.

As to cars, really only a few were in town. The taxi stand was on the Jardín, in front of the Parroquia, and they had a phone booth hanging from a lamppost where the drivers received calls for the “sitio.” The car everyone knew was the old Ford Model A that belonged to Lino Gutiérrez, which he would park on the corner of Hernández Macías and Umarán; in fact, it was the only car parked on Hernández Macías between Pila Seca and Canal.

From what I remember there weren’t any pharmacies as such, but apothecary shops called boticas—1st and 2nd class ones—where you took your own jars or bottles for buying alcohol or different creams or salves, because the only facial cream that was sold in its own container was Pomada de la Campana. It wasn’t until the sixties that they started selling Nivea, whose slogan was, “You can take it anywhere.”

There were a number of bakeries around town. I used to shop for bolillos and teleras at the one run by an old man on the corner of Hernández Macías and Pila Seca. He would bake delicious sweet conchas which we would have as a snack with café con leche in the early evening.

You may well ask yourselves, where is all of this going? Why these reminiscences of an old San Miguel resident who no longer even lives here? Well, I simply want to highlight the fact that San Miguel had its own shops and businesses and stores and restaurants and marketplace, without the need for outside businesses. In fact, San Miguel has been an important agricultural and commercial hub since Spanish colonial times and continues being so today.

It has had its own commercial and business class, whose successors continue contributing to the town to this day. In short, San Miguel survived for hundreds of years without an invasion of businesses, stores and chains that are alien to its culture and traditions. As time passed, the town became a unique tourist destination, first for the North American market and, later, the European.

During the past several years, travel and tourism have become principal job-creating industries around the world, along with the entertainment, gambling and second-home industries.

Currently the travel and tourism industry accommodates different kinds of tourists—those who seek adventure, or sports, or nature or sun and sand. One of the fastest-growing segments belongs to the traveler looking for educational, historic and environmental experiences, and these are the ones who have always come to San Miguel. This tourist is looking for something different from the familiar; they seek the experience of a place that is unlike where they live on a daily basis, a place where they can learn something valuable about another country or culture.

If the idea is to disconnect, why then insist on establishing businesses such as Starbucks? Or McDonald’s? Or Blimpie? Could it be that sanmiguelenses are deluded that having these brands in town somehow makes us better or improves us as a travel destination? I would think we would have had enough with the Mexican mega-stores such as Liverpool, Gigante, Comercial Mexicana and Aurrerá, without having to fall into the “me too” globalized consumerism represented by international brands and logos. It isn’t that businesses shouldn’t be established in San Miguel, just that they should be sensitive to the town’s reality, its surroundings, its traditions, its own culture.

If there is one thing that distinguishes excellent travel destinations such as Florence, or towns similar to San Miguel such as Cuenca in Spain or Bruges in Belgium, it is that the stores, businesses and restaurants are native: they belong to the place. None of these destinations has needed to establish business brands that are alien to their own identities as towns, as communities.

One thing that always has made San Miguel distinct is its uniqueness; it is real.

San Miguel is not a fantasy created by Disney, nor has it been globalized in such a manner that it has fallen prey to the “Californization” of everything: the same chains, the same stores, the same attractions that can be found pretty much anywhere in the US, where you sometime don’t know whether you’re in Denver, San Antonio, Kansas City or Los Angeles. Much of the US has been so homogenized that the majority of its cities have lost whatever made them distinct.

We shouldn’t let the same thing happen in San Miguel. We should actively work toward keeping and improving that which is ours and oppose the establishment of brands and chains that do not contribute to all that makes San Miguel de Allende distinct.

Elliot Holt was born in the US, spent much of his childhood in San Miguel, a part of his adult life in Mexico City and currently resides in Puerto Rico.

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