by Andrew Osta
The seven years I spent in San Miguel, from 2010 and 2017, were both a pleasant and a truly magical time. I moved to Mexico from Canada, settling in San Miguel because it was unique in all of Mexico. I was drawn to San Miguel by the many art galleries scattered around the centro, by the Fabrica Aurora, by the international crowds, and by the lack of traffic lights and advertisements. Life seemed more real there than in Canada. The food was more real and fresher. People were friendly and open, free of classism or racism.
However, when my wife Ninfa found out that she was pregnant, things changed. The little yellow house on 22 Hospicio, as much as I loved it, was not the best place to raise a child. Not only was it small and filled way beyond capacity with art, but it was also noisy. On weekends, we would get bumper to bumper traffic literally two or three feet from our window, and the neighbors often rented their home to groups of young Mexicans who drank too much and sang badly chosen karaoke songs off-key till dawn. The neighbors put up an electrical fence between us and them, with a loud "Danger" sign facing our side. Then they built an illegal third floor and installed a jacuzzi there. Minding my business on my second floor patio, I would get splashed with water whenever the renters next door decided to jump into their tub. When everything was new, I could put up with a lot of things. After seven years, not so much. Maybe I just got older.
I started looking into possible homes in San Miguel, Atotonilco, Patzcuaro, Huatulco, Puerto Vallarta, and Oaxaca. We saw several homes in San Miguel and Atotoniclo, but they left a lot to be desired. In seven years, home prices had doubled and tripled, and my budget could not keep up. Then, I visited Oaxaca and found a house I simply couldn't get out of my mind. I was supposed to see a couple of homes in Huatulco, close to the beach, but never got there. Within a week, everything was settled – we would be moving to the outskirts of Oaxaca.
We did not move to the city of Oaxaca as such, but to a little village about 7 km away from the city centre. To put it in San Miguel terms, the distance is comparable to Los Frailes. But it is not a suburb of the city but rather an autonomous village with its own customs, local government, and so on. There were cows and sheep grazing in the fields, few people, no traffic, no excitement. When we arrived, Ninfa exclaimed "What? We left San Miguel for this?"
Ninfa had lived in Mexico City prior to moving, at my request, to San Miguel. Leaving Ciudad de Mexico for San Miguel had been difficult enough for her. For the first few months, she missed the flashing lights, the noise, and the 24-7 activities of Mexico's capital. It took her a couple of years to really begin to feel like San Miguel was home. But my village in Oaxaca was another level altogether – quiet and totally sleepy. No loud parties, no fireworks, no traffic. No fireworks at night - the only sound heard after dark is the chirping of crickets. This quietude was exactly what I needed. Later on, we found out that the village has quite a large international community, and we were able to make many wonderful new friends. But that took about two years, as people in Oaxaca tend to keep more to themselves than their San Miguel counterparts. Our social life had also slowed down because we were busy raising our baby Nicolas and later, his sister Lena.
From our village of San Andres Huayapam, Oaxaca the capital lies 10 minutes away by car. We used to go there several times a week before the pandemic, just to get out. Since March, I've been downtown twice, and to the nearby Walmart maybe a dozen times. My village has pretty much everything I need, while things like art supplies can be ordered over the phone and will get delivered right to my door.
This year, Oaxaca replaced San Miguel as Travel and Leisure's best city in the world. This may be in part because the food is significantly better, and the colorful Mexican customs are more authentic and less of a show. Women do not dress up in traditional embroidered dresses to sit on the corner and beg for money from tourists – they had dressed this way for decades and continue to do so every day, as a homage to their village's identity. Each village in Oaxaca has a different traditional dress.
Personally, I'm more attracted to the State of Oaxaca's mountains, forests, and beaches than to the capital itself. Oaxaca City is beautiful but has a number of problems. There are the teachers' strikes, graffiti and vandalism, communist sympathizers camping out in tents for months on end right in the zocalo, and a problem with poverty and homelessness. Really beautiful areas of town border with ghettos, and the difference is like day and night. Oaxaca's traffic is also among the slowest in the world – it can take an hour or more to drive 5 kilometers.
I love the variety of nature, and the clean air and water in my village. I enjoy hiking and mountain biking, and have even gone fishing and picking mushrooms a few times. I like the many markets, the colorful authentic clothes that are unique to each village, the proximity of villages and places of interest to each other. I also very much like the food – namely the quality of the fresh fruit and vegetables, the hand made tortillas, and of course the tasty Oaxacan cheese. Compared to San Miguel, food in Oaxaca is a lot cheaper and of higher quality too. In Oaxaca City, there are several small art museums, many galleries, and plenty of art, music, and culture.
Would I move back to San Miguel now? Probably not. Seven years were enough to see everything SMA and the surrounding area have to offer. Now I will need another seven years to familiarize myself with Oaxaca. But I still enjoy visiting my old town, walking by my old studio, seeing the Parroquia from Aldama, climbing up to the Mirador, and of course drinking some wine with my many good friends, whom I miss dearly. On the upside, I left San Miguel with many beautiful memories, and I am able to paint it even better now that I'm not in the middle of it. Maybe that's because all of the little annoyances have been erased by time, while the big picture remains clear and bright, overflowing with all of the magic San Miguel de Allende has to offer.
Andrew Osta has long been one of San Miguel's favorite painters. He moved to Oaxaca in 2017, but continues to exhibit in San Miguel. His work is on permanent display in Hecho en Mexico (Ancha de San Antonio #8) and now in La Connexion Gallery (Aldama #3). His images are also available as hand embellished prints on canvas (directly from the artist).