You Had Me At Hola
San Miguel De Allende: Mexico With a Berkshire Accent
Peggy Reeves Photo
Vastly different yet alike in many ways, the Berkshires and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, are both considered getaways. Their beauty, colonial history, and the ways in which a steady crop of outsiders has transformed them without changing their essence. Each has a distinctive sense of place and, at its best, a close-knit community of caring people, damn proud of where they live. But it’s the prevalence of cultural activities that most readily draws comparisons between the two distant locations.
“Mexico with a Berkshire accent” is what Harriet Vines calls San Miguel, located in the high desert of Central Mexico and where she has stayed 11 out of her last 14 winters. Like others from the Berkshires, Vines considers her south-of-the-border haven like an old friend she is drawn to visit regularly. Honey Sharp of Great Barrington, who bought a San Miguel home in 2010 with husband David Lippman, says that “one of the reasons I keep meeting Berkshire folks in winter months is that, aside from blue skies and sun, we are also sustained by concerts—classical, jazz, Cuban, you name it.”
San Miguel, or SMA as it’s sometimes called, is a destination for both foreigners and Mexicans. It’s as far from Mexico City as NYC is from the Berkshires. A large community of expats and foreign retirees—about 10,000 of a population of 80,000—come for the relaxed lifestyle, reasonable cost of living and friendly people. Yet it’s Mexico all the way: slow-paced, friendly, family-oriented, rich in music and history, spicy to the tongue.
Gina Hyams of Housatonic has deep SMA roots through her mother, Leigh Hyams, an artist and teacher who died in 2013. Leigh arrived in SMA, a single mom with kids in tow, to study art in the 1950s. Now her daughter, an owner of homes in both Housatonic and SMA, shares the expats’ credo: “People go to Florida to die, and San Miguel to live.”
“I love the culture, the music, the color, the pace of life, the focus on living well that’s not in terms of fancy things, but focusing on what’s important—your relationship with friends and family,” says Hyams.
Geneva Grey grew up in West Stockbridge, lived in San Miguel with her Mexican husband and three children for nine years, and now travels back and forth to the Berkshires. She once worked at Café Pomo D’oro and brought to Mexico a touch of the Berkshires when she ran her own Good Food Café for a year in San Miguel, specializing in fresh, local sustainable foods.
And at the urging of his Mexican daughter-in-law, who told him SMA was the “heart of Mexico,” John Davidson, singing entertainer now touring in Wicked, and his wife Rhonda moved to San Miguel. There, they built a huge dream house—too large he adds—filled with arts and crafts they collected. Six years later, they returned to the U.S. and in August 2013 bought a home in Lenox. (When he’s not touring, he can sometimes be heard at the Firefly.) While Davidson adores Lenox, he still plans to return to SMA, where he has close friends.
Both San Miguel and the Berkshires have revolutionary pasts, and both were later settled by those bearing a new religion. Both the Berkshires and SMA bear the stamp of their colonial past, although San Miguel’s is centuries older. Before San Miguel became a refuge for expats, it was a diamond in the rough. Then Stirling Dickinson, who had been a student of the Berkshire School, arrived in 1937 and almost single-handedly transformed the town. First he founded the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, later directing the Instituto Allende art school, which over three decades has drawn 40,000 students, mostly Americans. Dickinson has a street and a statue bearing his name.
San Miguel is a World Heritage site with a stunning blend of Spanish colonial and Mexican aesthetics. Next to the city’s Gothic pink-stone church sits the town’s main square, a plaza punctuated by box-clipped laurels, cast-iron benches, and a raised and covered, octagonal band kiosk at its center. Cobblestone streets lazily meander away from the square, flanked by low-lying buildings in turquoise and ochre—all under a perennial blue sky. No wonder, when our brutal winter arrives, Berkshire locals begin to feel the pull of SMA, a place that feels just a little bit like home.
Amy Cotler hopes to move to SMA in a few years with her husband, who grew up in the region.