The Gangs of San Miguel de Allende
I discovered the satirical blog The Gangs of San Miguel de Allende by Richard Lander* while doing research on the town. It was the first blog that had made me laugh out loud in a long time. It was hilarious but it especially resonated because we were in San Miguel and we quickly recognized the people, their strange customs and their daily rituals that Richard so vividly brings to life.
We had to meet this man! Sadly, we had just missed Richard, who had already flown north to his home in Canada. The following interview took place, somewhat appropriately, between here and there, in the illusory world of cyberspace.
When you first visited San Miguel you wrote that you thought you were visiting a quaint parochial Mexican town but discovered something different.
I was shocked by the huge number of Americans and Canadians there. I had been to Puerta Vallarta and Cancun, so I was used to seeing a large foreign presence but they are Tourists. But San Miguel is in the middle of Mexico and not easy to reach and it seemed full of Tourists but I couldn’t see the buses that brought them. I was soon told that these were not Tourists but Expats. They actually lived in San Miguel. What was that all about, I thought. Why would someone sell everything at home and move to a Foreign Country.
Is that how Gangs of San Miguel de Allende came about?
Yes, I created Gangs to figure out why so many people lived there and why they acted so oddly, in particular the clothes they wore. I have a post on the San Miguel Snicker. On my first trip there I would see someone wearing a rug and poke my partner and start to snicker. Everyone there seemed to have a purpose and I, for the life of me, could not figure out what that was. Why did they leave Kansas and move to San Miguel? It was more likely Houston, Austin, San Diego or San Francisco, somewhere clever from where they came and not Kansas. The only concept that worked for me was that they must be in a gang and I had to discover what those gangs were about.
Tell us a bit about these gangs?
Gang members are generally people who were not very interesting until they came to San Miguel. A common expression is that people come here and the Magic of San Miguel takes hold of them and within days they buy a house, as in Caren Cross’ film Lost and Found in San Miguel. Then the reality hits of what they have done and they have to find things to fill the hours of retirement so they reinvent themselves and find a gang to either join or form.
The Doing Good Works Gang is full of people who want to ‘give back’ and ‘help’ the local Mexican population whether they want help or not. Often the doing of the good work is more important than the good work. One of the biggest is rescuing dogs in Mexico, not people but dogs. Another strange one is Expats creating a program in schools to teach kids about the environment. You have seen the garbage everywhere – as if they care. They have more concerns, like where the next peso is coming from, than recycling plastic.
Then there is the Artist colony designation of San Miguel. Artists find interesting places before anyone and move there. Art then attracts wannabees or people who are rich enough to buy art – the Patrons. Not everyone has talent but everyone has the desire to be creative so they look for ways to express the artists in themselves. Clothing is one way to be creative hence all the clothing gangs in the big hats, shawls, capes, large jewellery, boots, serapes. Each day you are struck in San Miguel by the outfits people have assembled to express themselves. We have this expression when we see a woman in an over the top outfit: “She looks like she belongs in San Miguel.”
The gangs are mostly female. The joke is that there are five females to every male and that the males there are gay, married, or leaving on Tuesday. So women form dress up gangs to fill the hours and be Creative. The males of San Miguel who are married are simply adjuncts to their wives. They sit in the Jardin and talk to other married males about sports and stuff. There is a huge gay male population, most of whom are fabulous and rich and the liberals of San Miguel love them.
Is there a gang you’re particularly fond of?
I am partial to the Day of the Dead Gang aka the Face Lift Gang. One of the results of pulling all the skin so tight is that everyone looks alike. I am never sure who is coming towards me. Is it Donna or Helen or Mary? So I have taken to calling all of them Darling. I dare not ask them their names and few of them can talk to tell me because their mouths have been stretched. So when I see a Day of the Gang member coming toward me, I know it is going to be fun to figure out who it is.
We think we may have had an encounter with the Face Lift Gang and their leader dancing to Steely Dan at Woolis bar.
I know of whom you speak. She is of the Day of Dead Gang and a very good dancer. You are a very brave traveller to have even entered her den. Obviously you have some talisman to guard against the Magic of San Miguel. If you can spend one week in San Miguel and not buy a house, then the Magic did not work. But few are that strong. Many enter the den, see some Aging Barbie who is ‘hip’ and yearn for that fun they last experienced at a sock hop. And when they leave the den (by the way she is a real estate agent), they head to one of the many Bienes Raices to buy their piece of magic.
Did you ever join or want to join a gang?
San Miguel has been a test for me to fight those tribal desires to belong. Deep down, I do want to give up and stop fighting and be a part of something bigger than me. When I was in high school I really wasn’t part of the In Crowd but I know that desire to want to be part of the In Crowd. But in San Miguel I had a stronger desire to be like Margaret Mead. Well, not look like her, but to be an anthropologist. My mission in San Miguel has been to document these Tribal Gangs from Canada and the US and because this is my purpose in life I can’t join or I will lose my objectivity and not be able to study these tribes. For a joke I did a series of posts on Being An Artist because I was actually taking art lessons. My theme was that I was so busy being an artist that I had no time to do art. I had a lot of fun using myself as fodder for this gang and loved the post I did on the correct Beret to Wear and Plein Aire.
Should visitors staying a while join a gang or stay clear?
Of course a foreign visitor should join a gang! It is the ongoing theme of travel: experiencing the natives. If you go to Hawaii then you go to a Luau. If you go on any cruise then you will attend an evening of ethnic dancing, singing, and costumes in every port. It is all about finding out about the ‘real’ people where you are visiting. You can try to find the most local bar where they can meet the locals and learn about the ‘real’ people. If you come to San Miguel you have a choice between either Mexicans or expats, and unless you speak Spanish (or find a local who speaks English) you can rule out the Mexicans, so that leaves you with the Expat gangs. Remember you don’t want to come home without learning about Local Colour and acquiring an anecdote or two about ‘the real people’. You could and sit and watch the ‘locals’ but that is not as much fun as trying to become a temporary gang member. So grab a rug, throw it over your shoulder, buy a straw hat, carry a drawing pad, and sit in the Jardin, and wait for the Gang members to find you and tell you all about their fabulous life in Mexico.
When we asked for local tips, one expat suggested a jazz performance by a white old American we’d never heard of, a Saturday morning house tour, and an Arthur Murray dance class…
She was a doyenne and was trying to help you. Here you were given the ultimate compliment of being initiated into a gang. First the jazz performance was an invitation to culture. If you had gone you would have experienced a standing ovation as all art in San Miguel is fabulous. No one is ever willing to judge an artistic performance in San Miguel because nothing in San Miguel is bad. One of the major activities in San Miguel is all things real estate. The house tour is a window into that life and provides hours of conversation about decorating, price tags, and where to live. And Arthur Murray is just a chance for a woman to touch a live man.
You write that San Miguel is an “artist’s colony” but say “alas, you can’t buy soul”.
Aw the soul. There is much yearning in San Miguel. Where there is yearning, there will be the Magic and talk about that Magic. San Miguel is one of many Pueblo Magicos in Mexico and every day you hear gang members talk about that magic. Is there a vortex in San Miguel? A friend once said that San Miguel must have a very sick population because there are so many healers there. You could spend all your time in San Miguel healing every psychic wound you have or finding every psychic wound you have. Expats come to San Miguel because of the yearning. Actually all expats yearn. It is not just San Miguel but in Costa Rica, Majorca, Dubai, and all places Expat, they are all full of yearning.
The ‘Good Tourist’ rules in your ‘Smug Gang’ Good Tourist/Bad Tourist post actually seem like pretty good rules to follow.
They are good rules but some Good Tourists are so self-righteous about travelling. They love to talk about Bad Tourists and all have anecdotes about the worst tourist story. After a while you realize they are actually more Smug that Good. The bad tourist is used to make them look good and get you to join in a Bad Tourism bashing. Isn’t simply ‘being good’ good enough and doesn’t require an anecdote? So I am making fun of their smugness no matter how good the advice is, because of their desire to verbalize their good. It is much the same as the Guide Gang who tells you the best of everything or, my favourite, the Translator gang who really can’t speak Spanish but think they can.
If a traveller rents a house in San Miguel, how long does it take before they succumb to the temptations of the gangs?
It takes one week. Once any two of these things happen it is too late:
- You say “Isn’t this place magical!”
- You pause in front of one of the 300 real estate offices in San Miguel and take a look.
- You refuse to buy anything onyx because it is too touristy.
- You buy a piece of clothing that has no buttons or zippers and is thrown over the shoulder.
- You buy a pair of San Miguel Combat Sandals, a straw hat or a bag with Frida Kahlo on it.
- You buy a copy of Atención and read the rental section first.
- You start to recommend to other tourists where to eat.
- Your photographs are of old faces, beggars and happy children.
- You go to Happy Hour and don’t remember any of the evening afterward.
My advice is: travel in twos and have one person wear sunglasses and head for Guanajuato if you start to do any of the above.
* Richard is the father of Christian Lander, author of the hilarious blog and bestselling book Stuff White People Like. So now you know where Christian gets his sense of humour from!