Sunday, September 4, 2011

Life without, or at least fewer, gringos

At the heart of the forbidding, fortress-like Biblioteca building in the center of San Miguel is the homey and beautiful Café Santa Ana, a colonial patio with a large tree and fountain in the middle. A few of the tables are under the open sky but most are protected by a high overhanging roof, and there's a pastries and espresso bar at one end. The clientele is gray-haired and library-quiet, gathered in small groups, along with a few loners sipping coffee, reading a book, working a crossword puzzle or just rapt in their own thoughts. The tranquility of the place and the median age of the customers can't help evoke an image of a day room at a retirement village.

Indeed, despite a valiant facade of bilingualism, La Biblioteca ("The Library") is primarily a community center for San Miguel's English-speaking retirees. The book collection contains endless linear feet of shelves of middle-brow paperbacks and old magazines in English. Americans provide most of the funding and make up the board of directors; the programming is almost all in English, including lectures, tours of luxury homes, movies and amateur plays. The one significant exception is the Biblioteca's charitable arm which channels tens of thousands of dollars of aid yearly to talented but underprivileged Mexican students.

So it is interesting to note the decline in customers at the Biblioteca nowadays and speculate how it may signal a change in the demographics and ambiance of San Miguel.

Last week we attended a guitar recital held in the Sala Quetzal, a room off the Café Santa Ana, and only seven people showed up including us. A showing of the 2010 film "Howl", starring James Franco as the poet Allen Ginsberg, attracted nine customers. A lecture later in the week about money and how it affects one's life was more successful probably because of the persistent belching of the Dow Jones Index and the U.S. economy: 15 attendees, many of them fretting about their portfolios.

We had bought tickets in advance because in past years Biblioteca events usually sold out. This time even the Café Santa Ana had plenty of empty tables.

The absence of pale-faced tourists is also noticeable on the streets: Where are all the bermuda shorts and cowboy hats? It's supposed to be one of two high seasons, this one attracting Texans fleeing the scorching heat and humidity in Dallas and Houston. In the old days they not only drove down by the thousands but also stayed for several weeks. Hell, the giddier ones would even buy real estate on the spur of the moment.

The chief reason for the slump now undoubtedly is the bad news about violence in Mexico, primarily along the U.S. border. Some angry expats in San Miguel blame it on anti-Mexico bias by the American media though if you read Mexican newspapers the news is far more alarming and unrelenting. Still, many Americans and Canadians continue to drive back and forth across the border, singing "¡No Problema!" along the way.

Safe or not, surely it's the Texans' loss for not coming down. While they're frying their butts off back home, weather here is as close to ideal as one can get. Highs in the mid-80s dropping to perfect beddy-bye temperatures in the 60s. Rainfall is below normal but sufficient to keep the landscapes kelly-green.

As the number of American tourists declines there seems to be an uptick in the number of national visitors, along with license plates from Mexico City, Nuevo León, Chihuahua and other Mexican states. Rumors fly of wealthy Mexicans from Monterrey--where recently 53 people died when someone fire-bombed a casino--San Luis Potosí, and the capital moving here to escape the violence. More hearsay: Ten units sold in an ultra-upscale townhouse development near the center of the city were all bought by Mexicans, except one purchased by a Canadian couple. Personal observation: More of the tourists pointing cameras at old buildings definitely are speaking Spanish to one another.

Give it enough time and San Miguel may become a more Mexican town, with less English spoken and fewer establishments catering to gringos. Real estate salesmen no longer will be able to assume most clients will be English-speaking foreigners. The Biblioteca may have to start looking for vintage Lola Beltrán and Cantiflas films.

But for now all we can do is to sound as TV reporters do when they're trying to spin a story without sufficient information: "Only time will tell."

Harrumph. Time for a word from our sponsors.

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