Founded in 1542, the settlement of San Miguel had grown rich from nearby silver mines during centuries of Spanish rule, then fell on hard times as the ore was depleted. By the time Dickinson got there, the War of Independence from Spain (1810-21) and the even bloodier Mexican Revolution (1910-21) had further reduced the town to 7,000 inhabitants—less than a quarter of its population in the mid-1700s. Houses languished in disrepair, with shattered tile roofs and crumbling, faded walls.
Dickinson made his home in a former tannery on San Miguel’s higher reaches and soon became a familiar sight, riding around town on a burro. For the next six decades, until his death in 1998, he would lead a renaissance that would transform tiny San Miguel into one of Latin America’s most magnetic destinations for artists and expatriates, most of them American, looking for a new venue—or a new life.
“Stirling Dickinson is without doubt the person most responsible for San Miguel de Allende becoming an international art center,” says John Virtue, author of Model American Abroad, a biography of Dickinson. Although only an amateur painter himself, Dickinson became co-founder and director of the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, an art institute that he opened in a former convent only a few months after his arrival.
During World War II, Dickinson served with U.S. Naval Intelligence in Washington and the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA) in Italy. Returning to San Miguel after the war, he recruited hundreds of young American veterans to study at Bellas Artes on the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Dr. Hernández Macías 75, Centro, 37700 San Miguel de Allende, Gto., Mexico
In the postwar years, non-artists and retirees, as well as painters and sculptors, were drawn to the city from its neighbor to the north; today, some 8,000 Americans—one out of ten residents—live there. Eighty percent or so are retirees; the others oversee businesses, from cafés and guesthouses to galleries and clothing stores. Most of these expats—some of whom have Mexican spouses—volunteer at more than 100 nonprofit organizations in San Miguel, including the library and health care clinics.
“This mestizaje—cultural mixing—has profoundly changed and benefited both sides,” says Luis Alberto Villarreal, a former mayor of San Miguel who is currently one of two senators from the state of Guanajuato, in which the town is located. “We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Stirling Dickinson for helping this come about and for raising San Miguel’s profile in the world.” Walking the cobblestone streets flanked by stucco houses painted vivid shades of ocher, paprika and vermilion, one passes lively squares full of street musicians and vendors hawking tacos. In the distance rises the Sierra de Guanajuato. In 2008, San Miguel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, in large measure because of its intact 17th- and 18th-century center.
While mass murder and kidnapping linked to narcotics gangs have overtaken parts of Mexico, the region around San Miguel has thus far been spared. “The cartels’ violence often centers on ports of entry into the U.S. and involves consolidation of contested border areas,” says Rusty Payne, spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. “San Miguel does not fit these criteria.”
Dorothy Birk—today Dotty Vidargas—was among the first of the young Americans to answer Dickinson’s call, in 1947.
Getting off the bus in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Iʼd had no idea that Iʼd ﬁnd an unﬁnished David Alfaro Siqueiros mural tucked discreetly away in an 18th century convent. I waited as people left to hear my own voice resound with what remained.
All I could ﬁnd out was that Siqueiros had left the project in the late 40s after a political disagreement with an administrator from the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. The National Institute of Fine Arts acquired the rundown building in 1962, establishing the Centro Cultural Ignacio Ramírez – El Nigromante in honor of the San Miguel writer, atheist and progressive thinker. Theater props had been stored in the room until 1997, when Vida y Obra de General Ignacio Allende went on view for the centennial of Siqueirosʼs birth.
Before leaving Mexico City, I hoped to unravel more details at the Sala de Arte Público Siqueiros, where heʼd been living until 1960, when with his wife Angélica Arenas at the wheel, the two were followed and chased by Secret Police. Falsely accused in connection with a teacherʼs strike turned violent by Mateos regime provocateurs, Siqueiros was charged with social dissolution to silence his open, unyielding political honesty. Angélica, joined by four years of worldwide protest, ﬁnally won his release.
The museumʼs coordinator for documentation, Mónica Montes, ﬁlled me in with what she knew about the mural and what had happened with the schoolʼs director, Alfredo Campanella, but with our language limitations, I knew Iʼd have to keep digging. Leaﬁng though archival photographs, I noticed one where the room was covered with illustrations that detailed the life of the San Miguel born national hero, Ignacio Allende, a leader in the 1810 rebellion for Mexican Independence. It wasnʼt clear why this earlier version had been abandoned.
Exiting through the lobby, I was drawn to the slick black angles, racing optical shapes and blunt concentric circles that Siqueiros had painted, ﬂoor, wall and ceiling while converting the building into an art center in the late 60s. Surprised, I had to wonder how abstraction ﬁt in with his political ideology. Noticing my interest, the guard recommended Siqueirosʼ ﬁnal monumental sculpture-painting, The March of Humanity on Earth and Towards the Cosmos, Misery and Science (1965-71) at the Polyforum Cultural Center, a must see.
Walking into the domed, diamond shaped auditorium, panoramic bas-reliefs advancing and receding from every direction swept me among the masses through oppression and exploitation from darkness to hope. I retreated into the mosaic ﬂows of color crescendoing to the sky, imagining how Siqueiros might have expanded San Miguelʼs abstract platform into yet another cinematographic narrative.
It turns out that the Escuela Universitaria had been bought by Campanella, a Mexico City lawyer with limited interest in the arts, in 1946 from Felipe Cossío del Pomar, an art historian and exiled political activist who was returning to Peru. With the programʼs approval under the U.S. GI Bill that same year, he was anticipating ﬁnancial gain from direct payments of tuition grants.
Resourceful and connected, Pomar had hired Stirling Dickinson, an aspiring writer and artist, to run his modern art school in 1938, once the cavalry regiment housed in the convent was kicked out. Dickinson had recently landed in San Miguel on the invite of the famed opera tenor, José Mojica, whom heʼd once recognized on a train to Oaxaca. Mojica was leading a coalition to promote San Miguel as a magnet for cultured tourists. Film stars, composers, singers, intellectuals, local politicians and artists showed up regularly at his soirees.
To attract serious artists rather than dabblers, Dickinsonʼs brochure read, “For students of discriminating taste, situated in beautiful surroundings and under the direction of renowned international instructors….the faculty of the school is of the ﬁrst order, including the most famous Maestros of the Latin American Renaissance.” 10,000 were distributed throughout the U.S., Canada and Latin America.
It wasnʼt until Life magazineʼs January ʻ48 issue referred to San Miguel as a “GI Paradise” on a $65 monthly allowance that 6000 eager veterans applied for the additional 100 spots that Dickinson thought the quiet town could handle. But, there wasnʼt the distinguished faculty as advertised. Complaints appeared at the American Embassyʼs Veteransʼ Affairs ofﬁce that might jeopardize the schoolʼs ﬁnances. Campanella, no supporter of Siqueirosʼs politics, found no choice but to invite the acclaimed painter as a visiting professor.
Gachita Amador, who was now living in San Miguel, had married Siqueiros as he was en route to France after having fought in the Constitutionalist Army during the Mexican Revolution, but their revolutionary fervor and social theories collided with those of the Parisian avant-garde. Traveling to Italy with Diego Rivera, Siqueirosʼs evolving anti-formalist concepts were further clariﬁed by the frescos of Giotto, Masaccio and Michelangelo mixed with the visual aesthetics of the Italian Futurists. When he returned in 1922 with Gachita, the new democracyʼs Minister of Education, José Vasconcelos, had already put artists on the payroll, commissioning public murals to preserve and advance the nationʼs culture and uplift and educate the future society.
The ambitious muralists, impatient and distraught by workersʼ responses that their efforts had neglected to directly confront the conditions behind social and economic struggles, turned to the Mexican Communist Party. On their advice, Siqueiros, Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and others joined the party and organized the Union of Technical Workers, Painters and Sculptors to redeﬁne the responsibilities of monumental public art, turning to Mexicoʼs pre-Christian, pre-Conquest art to reassert their countryʼs indigenous identity.