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The Gringas of San Miguel de Allende : They Came, They Saw, They Set Up Croning Ceremonies--How A Community of Women Grew and Flourishes in the Land of Machismo.

July 31, 1994|Jeff Spurrier | Los Angeles journalist Jeff Spurrier writes frequently about Mexico; he is currently building a house in San Miguel de Allende.

To Mexicans, San Miguel de Allende is the birthplace of independence; although Father Miguel Hidalgo issued the grito , or shout for independence, in 1810 from neighboring Dolores Hidalgo, the annual re-enactment takes place in San Miguel's main plaza.

A new grito is heard in San Miguel these days, not shouted, but murmured. Quietly, in meetings at the Unity Church, in the waters of Escondido hot springs, over cups of espresso at El Buen Cafe, wherever the expatriates hang out. San Miguel is not as spacey as Sedona or as precious as Taos--there aren't graphic ads proclaiming "Death begins in the colon!" in the local weekly--but here, in the heart of the country that invented machismo, you can now find hypno-therapy, lymphatic cleansing massages, ozone treatment, book clubs, goddess workshops, a local channeler, art classes, dressage classes, tai chi, yoga, crone ceremonies under the full moon and nearly daily AA and CoDA meetings. To regular visitors, the change is apparent: male to female, hedonism to introspection, bars to coffee houses. All this in a town that just a few years ago had a reputation as a hard-drinking, ass-kicking hangout, a blend of cowboy and Colonial where even a married woman would not be safe from unwanted attention if her husband left her side.

Two hundred and fifty kilometers north of Mexico City and a mile high in the heart of the Bajio, the agricultural heart of Mexico, San Miguel de Allende is a window on a Mexico of centuries past, when New World silver fueled the world's economy and the Inquisitor held court. For nearly 70 years, it's been a National Monument, a status that has kept the town of 49,000 free of neon, traffic lights and fast food. A long day's drive from Texas, it has for several decades been a favorite destination for Americans: Artists discovered it in the '30s and '40s, followed in the '50s by ex-servicemen stretching out GI Bill benefits. In the '60s and '70s came hippies, backpackers and retirees. During the winter and summer, the transient population swelled with Canadian snowbirds, Spanish students and fledgling artists, drawn by the Instituto Allende, one of Mexico's best art schools.

Then in the '80s, word spread through travel articles, and the gringas began to arrive. Unlike their male peers, many stayed. And they're still coming. Over some gender-based network, the word has gone out: If you're a single woman in search of deeper meaning, San Miguel is the place to live. You can work on yourself in Colonial style, complete with cable TV, maid service, weekly massages and a sense of safety difficult to imagine back in El Norte.

Some who come are familiar with Mexico and know of San Miguel from past visits; others have never been south of the border. They have drastically skewed the gender balance among the 5,000 or so expatriates--four single women to every unmarried man, says guidebook publisher Joanie Barcal. They are twentysomethings to geriatrics, although most are in the 30-to-50 range. They are a tossed salad of political types, hard-core feminists and free-spirited space cadets. They come to retire, to set up a business, to study art or Spanish, to write, to escape an abusive relationship, to heal from a painful divorce, to join a lover, to pursue a cowgirl dream.

Not many come to hang out and drift through the two-hour siestas and cheap margaritas at La Fragua bar--that can be done anywhere. San Miguel is for finding out who you are or who you can be: an artist, a publisher, a designer, a masseuse, a spiritual teacher, a writer, a therapist, a champion horse rider. And unlike Manhattan or L.A. or Houston or Boston, there is a concentrated and easily accessible community of women of all ages and backgrounds. The town itself seems to be a medium for healing and growth. Maybe it's the air or the water or underground chakras or magnetic forces or simply the understood trade-off that one has made by coming here.

"It's like Amazon Village," says sculptor Rita Torlen, 50. "Never have I met so many accomplished women. I love it. I never understood what sisterhood was until I moved to San Miguel."

"There is a force here," agrees Barcal, 47. "This place has a strong female component. Single women feel safe here. There's a sense of community and potential. I knew when I came it wasn't find-a-mate paradise, but that wasn't my purpose. My purpose was to be fuller, however that is."

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