As I did the rounds of the stores, I saw every kind of Mexican handicraft and folk art conceivable, from the fantastic painted wooden animals from Oaxaca to indigenous costumes from the southern states. I wasn’t looking for products from other parts of Mexico, though, I was on a quest to find locally made products that I could promote through this site to encourage people to ‘buy local’.
I was also looking for shops owned by locals, and in San Miguel de Allende that was proving to be a challenge. Time and time again after browsing a store I’d spy an expat behind the counter giving instructions to staff, or in the back room doing the books; shops would be recommended to me, with an explanation ‘you must go to (insert name), it’s ran by an artist from Dallas (or some other place clearly not in Mexico)’.
I discovered Ave María after noticing some fun Lucha Libre t-shirts in the window, and I went in for a snoop. Inside, was a gorgeous store were some fabulous things – quirky works of art, kitsch shopping bags and t-shirts boasting Mexican icons, from Frida Kahlo to the Virgin Guadeloupe, funky handmade jewellery, and idiosyncratic furniture and interior design objects. Some of the objects were not world’s away from products sold in the markets and other stores, they were just cooler and of finer quality.
Another welcome discovery was that the young owner and her partners – her sister and boyfriend – were all Mexicans, born and bred in San Miguel de Allende in fact. Phew!
Giovanna Canela Miranda is one of those Mexican women in the Salma Hayek mould – sassy, sexy and confident, with loads of energy and attitude, and always up for a chat. As a young business owner, she is acutely aware of some of the challenges I described to her – foreign-owned stores all selling similar products, including foreign-made art and crafts and ‘design’ products from Asian factories. When I question her about it, however, she is diplomatic.
“This is why with Ave María we’re trying to do something different, we’re trying to stay one step ahead, and offer things that are unique or are exclusive to our store,” she says, giving me a guided tour and telling me the story behind each product.
Giovanna actually designs many of the products in her shop herself, which she then commissions Mexican artists and artisans, not only from San Miguel but from all over Mexico, to make. Or, she sources products made by other designers (such as the Lucha Libre t-shirts I fancied), but asks for an exclusive deal so that hers will be the only store where you’ll find them in San Miguel de Allende.
Either way it works for me. And it seems to work for the customers too – every time I visited her, the shop was packed with people buying her quirky brand of ‘made in Mexico’ mementoes.
I asked Giovanna for some other shopping tips and she asked me where I’d been so far. “What else have you done?” she asked, following up her shopping and gallery recommendations with other suggestions as to different things we should see and do. Perfect. You can guess what questions I followed up with…
What do you most love about your work as a designer and entrepreneur?
I love designing our own products, which we sell in the store, and meeting people from all around the world, the customers who come here.
Why should people come to San Miguel?
Because it’s a beautiful place to relax where you can enjoy the typical traditions of México.
3 words to describe San Miguel?
Beautiful, tranquil and safe.
And the people of San Miguel?
Happy, polite and easygoing.
Your recommendations for visitors to San Miguel?
Eat a bag of Papas con Salsa (potato crisps drenched in spicy sauce) in El Jardín (the garden at the centre of the main square of San Miguel); join the locals to listen to the mariachis in the plaza; and take a cup of coffee in one of the typical cafés under the arches as you take in the views of the church.
Must-have souvenir from San Miguel?
The red heart of San Miguel, because it’s the typical representation of our city: ‘San Miguel de Allende – El Corazón de México’ (the heart of Mexico). (Note: you’ll find stunning heart pendants and earrings in Giovanna’s shop Ave María.)
Best eating experiences in San Miguel de Allende?
Nirvana Gourmet Restaurant, outside of town, for the tranquil atmosphere and delicious food; the restaurant Hecho en México, which serves Mexican and international food, for their big plates; and La Alborada for Mexican food and to taste their traditional Enchiladas del Portal.
An important thing to know before coming to San Miguel?
Some advice for the women: please don’t bring high heels!! They don’t cope well with cobblestones! Just wear comfortable shoes because you are going to walk a lot.
Most important phrase to learn in Mexican-Spanish?
Cuanto Cuesta? (How much?) Because in any service – whether you’re asking a waiter in a restaurant to pay your bill, or you’re doing some shopping – you will use those words.
Any other advice?
Just relax, take a seat in the jardin (the garden in the main square) and, when you shop, buy local products!