Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Origin and History of a Beloved San Miguel de Allende Landmark: the Parroquia de San Miguel de Arcángel


Towering proudly above the center of our pueblo is the stately and distinctive pink lady, the Parroquia de San Miguel de Allende Arcangel. She is a bit of an anomaly in the sense that her showy towers remind some visitors of a pretty wedding cake that strayed a bit from architectural traditions while others appreciate the way the late afternoon sun illuminates her unique details, creating quite  an extraordinary experience. She has become a destination where Sanmiguelenses and tourists alike make lasting memories. Selfie sticks abound, suggesting people just love this place. With that in mind, I thought it might be nice to delve into the history of the Parroquia, an eternal symbol of San Miguel de Allende.

In 1542, the Franciscan priest, Fray Juan de San Miguel built the Chapel of San Miguel Arcángel on the site now referred to as San Miguel el Viejo, approximately a mile from the center of the existing city of  San Miguel de Allende.  The actual history of San Miguel de Allende is usually dated from that event.

Fray Juan established a mission on that site, and soon moved on to found other projects in other locales. He left San Miguel to be managed by the very capable, Fray Bernardo Cossín, who supervised the conversion of the Chichemeca Indians to Catholicism. Chichimeca was the name that the Nahua peoples of Mexico commonly applied to nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples who were established in the bajio region of west-central Mexico. Chichimeca carried the same inference as the Roman term "barbarian" used to define Germanic tribes.

At this time in history, enormous veins of silver were discovered in Zacatecas, and mule caravans were soon flowing southward through central Mexico, carrying the silver to the capital. In 1550, a group of Chichimecas took issue with this invasion of their territory and attacked the village of San Miguel el Viejo. Fifteen people were murdered and the village was burned to the ground. Fray Bernardo decided to seek safer ground and moved his converts to another location nearby.
Fray Bernardo re-established the group at the site of the Chorro spring (now located in the center of town near Parque Juarez) and began the process of rebuilding. Shortly after the founding of the town of San Miguel el Grande (now referred to as San Miguel de Allende,) in 1555, the original parroquia or parish church was constructed in 1578 at its present location. The church has a long and interesting history well worth investigating.

In 1649, it was recorded that the Church of San Miguel el Grande collapsed after a period of decline. Around 1680 or 1690, thirty years later, the building had deteriorated a second time. As a result, a commission for a grand architectural project to replace it was begun. This version was completed in 1709. The work was directed by the architect Marco Antonio Sobrarías. The church was described by some experts to be in the Baroque style and by other accounts, in the Plateresque style common almost exclusively to Spain during the late Baroque or early Renaissance. Plateresque means “in the manner of the silversmiths.” The style was characterized by elaborate ornamentation suggestive of silver plate. An example of the style can be found in the façade of the University of Salamanca in Spain. 
                       The University of Salamanca, Spain in the                                                        Plateresque style

The style of the church in 1709 was totally different from the current facade of the Parroquia in the Neo-Gothic style that we know and appreciate today.
Celebrated architect, Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras from nearby Celeya, was involved in the restoration of the Parroguia in the beginning of the 19th century.

                              Image of Tresguerras courtesy of                                                       

Tresguerras is  also credited with the design of the Templo de San Francisco in San Miguel in 1799.  

                             Templo de San Francisco designed                                                              by Tresguerra in 1799
                                   photo courtesy of

 He remodeled the interior of the Parroquia and created the crypt that contains the remains of priests and prominent local citizens.

                        Interior of the current Parroquia photo                                                     courtesy of Travel and Leisure

Out of respect for the deceased, public access to the crypt is restricted to once a year during the celebration of el Dia de los Muertos. In 1864, the crypt was visited by Maxmillian Habsburg who described it as “a tomb worthy of kings.” Maximilian I was the only monarch of the Second Mexican Empire. Eventually, the Parroquia began to show signs of wear once again. Cracks and fissures appeared in the elaborate façade and a renewed fear developed regarding its imminent collapse provoking the First Bishop of the Diocese, Don Jose de Jesus Diez de Sollano and Davalos to commission a change in the façade. Shortly thereafter, the Parroquia acquired its current appearance.
The construction of the new facade was started in 1880 and completed in 1890 by the master stonemason, Don Zeferino Gutiérrez Muñoz. To add a bit of local color, Zeferino has been described as a short, chubby fellow with a great deal of ambition who grew up under the poorest of circumstances.

 The new facade was inspired by the great architectural works of Gothic style common in Medieval Europe. Many intriguing tales exist regarding what inspired the simple stonemason (albañil in Spanish) to create the Gothic inspired structure. We may never know exactly what happened. Some say Zeferino fashioned the design after an image of the great Gothic Cathedral of Cologne in Germany that he had seen on a postcard.
                                    The Cathdral of Cologne

Others suggest that he possessed engravings of the Cathedral at Cologne and relied on them for reference. Some people recount the oft-repeated story that Zeferino was seen tracing the plan for the Parroquia with a stick in the red clay soil as a means of instructing the builders. This primitive methodology does not seem plausible to me, but who am I to judge. The towers, portal, niches, coral window, atrium, bell tower with clock and the altars of the interior were transformed by this renovation.

                                    The Clock Tower

 The selection of an albañil rather than an architect for the building project seems odd at first. After a bit of research, I discovered that Zeferino Gutiérrez Muñoz had been commissioned to renovate or build a couple of churches in nearby Dolores Hidalgo in the state of Guanajuato. 

 Zeferino Gutiérrez Muñoz 

 He was called to Dolores Hidalgo to replace the wooden altarpiece for the Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores with one of cantera in a Neo-Classical style.

The Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores

 The Parroquia de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores is historically important as the place where the shout for Mexican Independence took place. He also designed and constructed El Templo de Nuestra Senora de la Saleta in the Neo-Gothic style that was crowned with a splendid dome.

                                     El Templo de Nuestra Senora de la Saleta in Dolores Hidalgo

 Here in San Miguel, he designed the main altar of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in el Templo de Oratorio and then dared to sign it at its base. This altar has since been replaced by another. Concurrent with his work on el Templo de Oratorio, he designed and built the main altar of el Templo de San Juan de Dios, where I happen to attend mass on Sundays.

The altar of Templo San Juan de Dios

 Zeferino also worked on the interior of Las Monjas on Calle Canal. One of the first works he completed in the city of San Miguel was the portico, stairway, and atrium of  La Ermita on Salida de Queretaro back in 1876.  Despite his lack of formal training, he had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with by the time he was approached to design the now famous façade of the Parroquia.

Zeferino Gutiérrez Muñoz constructed the façade with cantera rosa, a volcanic rock that had been quarried locally at the base of an extinct volcano, Palo Huerfano. The volcano is located between San Miguel de Allende and Comonfort in Los Picachos Mountains.

Initially, many critics found fault with the design, suggesting that the dramatic Neo-Gothic style of the Parroquia did not integrate well with the colonial square surrounding  it, that the vertical lines broke with the horizontal lines that characterized the surrounding Colonial architecture.


 It should be acknowledged that this uniquely flamboyant structure has no equal and has become an indestructible icon, an enduring symbol of the inherent charm of Central Mexico. This striking edifice may be one of the reasons that our fair city figures so prominently in Mexico’s current tourism boom. It features importantly in the advertising designed to encourage tourists to visit San Miguel de Allende.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Greater the Obstacle, the More Glory in Overcoming It: A Plea for Help for a Young Mexican Family

“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”

Life provides many obstacles to overcome but, it also offers many opportunities for joy.
A young Mexican family here in San Miguel de Allende has recently experienced the ecstatic joy of welcoming their firstborn into the world . Unfortunately, they have had to overcome innumerable challenges along the way. The young mother, Denis, had a difficult time retaining the pregnancy. On the 15th of January and just 6 months along in the pregnancy, Denis woke in the morning feeling a little strange. When she stood up, she discovered a watery discharge, indicating premature rupture of the protective membranes that surround the baby. At her  father's urging, Denis rushed directly to hospital H+ to find out what had happened.  She knew that this was not  normal. The doctors made a diagnosis and explained that the situation was indeed very serious. The baby's life was in jeopardy and the child required the amniotic fluid to survive. The doctors prescribed complete bed rest . Despite complying, the fluid loss continued. In addition, the  umbilical cord  was wrapped around the child's neck making a natural birth very risky. To complicate matters even more, it was feared that the baby did not weigh enough to survive the trauma of birth.

On February 5th, Denis began to to experience labor pains. She underwent a caesarian section at H + Hospital in San Miguel. The baby was born and immediately transferred to the pediatric care unit to be assessed by the doctors. At birth, the child weighed 1,770 grams, extremely underweight for a newborn. Premature birth gives the baby less time to develop in the womb. Premature babies, especially those born earliest, often have complicated medical problems such as poor lung development.When the child was born , she was kept in an incubator, which is a bassinet enclosed in plastic with climate control equipment designed to keep the baby warm and limit her exposure to germs. Modern neonatal intensive care involves sophisticated measurement of temperature, respiration, cardiac function, oxygenation, and brain activity. The new baby's treatment included fluids and nutrition through intravenous catheters, oxygen supplementation, mechanical ventilation support, and medications.

 The cost of this superior care came to $ 115,167.15 pesos or $ 6,347.43 U.S.  While this seems to be a small price to pay for insuring the life of a young mother and child, the Mexican family was devastated when they received the bill. To put  it in perspective, it should be noted that the minimum wage in Mexico is $4.03 per day.

 Denis and her husband, Jose Manuel, are nineteen and twenty-two years respectively. They have a small government insurance plan, Seguro Popular, but, it did not  provide coverage for  a private hospital stay or the specialized care needed by the child. The parents are both struggling students. They never anticipated the cost of the medical care as no one in their immediate circle of friends and family have ever had to experience such a catastrophe.

I am recounting their story in the hopes that the reader might find it in his or her heart to donate a little bit of cash to help cover the cost of their crippling medical bills. If you feel so inclined, I have arranged a secure account with to accept donations.  Here is the link if you decide to help

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Just a Minute Longer,the Fountains of Alameda Park

I've been quite remiss of late. I haven't posted a thing in over a year. Today,  I was reviewing some photographs I took while visiting Alameda Park in Mexico City during  a particularly balmy Easter week last year.

Bounded on the south by Avenida Juárez and on the north by Avenida Hidalgo, the Parque Alameda Central, is a shady and beautifully maintained green space with fine old trees, benches, numerous fountains decorated with mythological figures, and pieces of sculpture. It is situated next to the most beautiful building in Mexico City,  the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts).  The park was originally constructed in 1592 and in pre-Columbian times had been a bustling market place . 

The Alameda Central Park has been, since its creation, a place in which all classes of  Mexican society come together as equals, a place in which people meet and happily coexist. The thing that really fascinated me about this space was the way that the local people interacted with the fountains with reckless abandon. We Americans tend to be a bit reserved in public. We shy away from being our true selves if we think that anyone might be watching. The Mexican people that  I observed that day enjoying the cooling waters of the fountains appeared completely relaxed, without a care in the world..... such an enviable state! Perhaps, if I live in this idyllic place long enough, I too will find that level of comfort in my own skin. The following is a little verse that I wrote when I reviewed the pictures today.

            Water, water everywhere    

..... cool.....clear elixir of life....I celebrate  your  existence  on this toasty, sweaty summer day...... 

   your  chilly  touch on my  skin makes my heart leap for joy....each time I feel your soft caress, I squeal like a  love sick teenager.

My insides giggle  with excitement.  My tummy jiggles like  a bowl full of tutti fruity jello.  You stealthily sneak up on me, erupting  like a burping  geyser.... making me all misty-faced with your dewy droplets... evoking an exhilarating afternoon jaunt on the Maid of the Mist .

 I love when you tickle my tootsies and trickle lazily down my  nose. You entice me to cavort like a loony, stomping my feet not unlike a goofy toddler until the water licks my ankles 

  .....I prance around in silly circles...... hopping back and forth between the glistening droplets that sparkle like so many crystal  chandeliers....

.... I like to squish you between my toes...or poke my fingers over the water spout in joyful anticipation of your imminent liberation.

 I  loll about,  akin to an over-fed calf in a field of  fresh clover, making excuses to stay" just a minute longer." Such a lucky girl am I.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Why Are There So Many Saints In Mexico? or The Mexican Fascination with Pyrotechnics

When I hear the following words…..bombas,  cuetes, fuegos artificiales,  bottle rockets, fireworks, or pyrotechnics, I immediately think of my Mexican neighbors. None of my previous life experiences had prepared me for the Mexican obsession with things that “go boom.”  Everyone who moves to Mexico goes through  some form of culture shock…… particular cross to bear appears to be connected to the Mexican tradition of shooting off fireworks to celebrate any and all occasions. No life event or ceremony is complete without the firing of rockets and  the noisy commotion that goes along with it. The Mexican people purchase pyrotechnics to celebrate the birth of a child, christenings, anniversaries, weddings,  Quinceañeras (a fifteen year old girl's
coming of age), all Patron Saints connected to Catholicism, Mexico's Day of Independence (the biggest day for fireworks sales in Mexico), Christmas, New Years Eve, and one of the noisiest events, La Alborada  (the Dawn). More on this event to follow…… Incidentally, for Mexico’s recent Bicentennial Celebration,  held in the mainsquare in Mexico City, over 2,400 shells were ignited to commemorate Father Miguel  Hidalgo’s call for independence from Spain.

My first nerve-wracking encounter with this strange proclivity came suddenly while vacationing in San Miguel. I was attending a lecture in the local library one afternoon. In the middle of the talk, four thunderous claps resounded in rapid succession, interrupting the proceedings. The noise was so deafening that one American woman ducked down, seeking cover, as people of a certain generation were taught to do during an air-raid. She mistakenly assumed that it was gunshots she was hearing, revealing the fear that American newscasters have dutifully instilled in the minds of all visiting Americans…. " that Mexico is a very dangerous place.” The amused speaker giggled and assured her that it was safe to get up off the floor; it was simply some fireworks on the street.

Shortly after moving to San Miguel de Allende, I became acutely aware that for every Saint's feast day ( and there are a lot of saints!), someone in the neighborhood finds it imperative to  set off a series of fireworks at the ungodly hour of 6 A.M. The incessant ringing of church bells follows. The fireworks awaken the roosters next door and all hell breaks loose.

Mexico has a long history of fireworks manufacturing, dating back to revolutionary times. In the northern suburb of Mexico City there is a town that is famous for its fireworks. Tultepec refers to itself as the "Pyrotechnics Capital" of Mexico. Most of the city’s 6000 residents earn their living from fireworks, working in small factories that produce everything from firecrackers to 12-inch shells for fireworks extravaganzas. There doesn’t appear to be a lot of government interference with the manufacturing process.  In addition, illegal fireworks production is commonplace. As a result of some overzealous amateurs, there are a lot of people in Mexico who are missing a digit or two and in some cases an arm. Bottle rockets have been  known to have rather unreliable fuses.

According to various news reports, on March 16th of this year, a truck loaded with fireworks exploded during a religious procession in a rural village in central Mexico, killing at least 13 people and injuring a total of 154. The blast  was ignited when a rocket malfunctioned and hit a truck, igniting the fireworks it carried.

I am sorry to report that human remains and burned clothing were spread around a 100-yard area, including nearby rooftops. Ironically, the victims were marching in an annual procession in honor of Jesus Christ, the patron of Tepactepec.

Last year, a friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook of a house in her neighborhood that had mysteriously exploded. After Mexican authorities investigated, it was revealed that the home was the site of a backyard chemist who had been dabbling in fireworks manufacture.

Mexican firework production includes a variety of explosive products including rocas (rocks, a  powerful firecracker), vampiros (vampires), patas de mula (mule hoofs) , bombas (large rockets) as well as frames with pyrotechnics called castillos (castles), toritos (little bulls), canastillas (little baskets) as well as Judas figurines. Every Easter Sunday, following days of solemn processions, the people of San Miguel de Allende string up paper mache effigies of Judas as well as various caricatures of local politicians that have disappointed the populace. The figures are stuffed with explosives and ultimately are gleefully blown to smithereens.

 Some people might refer to this act as poetic justice.

Check out Berkely Roberts video of this event


 Castillos are large wooden, metal, or bamboo frames covered with dazzling flares. They are constructed to honor patron saints or Mexico’s heroes of Independence.

 Toritos are smaller frames fashioned in the shape of a bull, designed to be worn or carried by a person as they are set afire.

 The “lucky” wearer traditionally chases terrified bystanders. A version of the torito is designed to release candy when ignited, having the questionable effect of encouraging children to run towards it, rather than away from it.
The most unique product is called a “piromusical” a series of fireworks synchronized to recorded music and lights.

                                                   Photo Credit: Thomas Prior

                                           Photo Credit: Thomas Prior
An excellent example of my continuing culture shock occurred a few years ago. I attended a Mexican wedding that was being held in a banquet hall. At some point in the evening, the house lights were lowered. The guests quietly waited in nervous anticipation.  Much to my surprise, fireworks had been attached to the floor and were rigged to explode at a particularly poignant moment during the ceremony. No one was prepared for what happened next. The rockets shot up, bounced off the ceiling, and back down to the tile floor, igniting the bride’s train. The groom was seen acting as unpaid firefighter, stamping out the blaze with his shiny patent leather dress shoes.

Recently, I witnessed a more successful attempt at indoor pyrotechnics at my maid’s daughter’s Quinceañera. Rosita wore a fabulous hoop dress reminiscent of Gone with the Wind and was attended by several handsome young men dressed in shimmering, silver, shark-skin suits, as the picture indicates.

They performed a series of synchronized dance routines reminiscent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, culminating in a burst of dazzling pyrotechnics.


As mentioned earlier, one of the most dramatic fireworks exhibitions occurs every year in San Miguel at the end of September. The event is referred to as La Alborada. La Alborada is a special occasion that marks the beginning of the celebration to honor St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of our fair city. Lasting more than eight hours, processions begin in some of the older neighborhoods in the city. In the various communities, people start gathering at 10pm, and until 2:00 in the morning, they feast on traditional food and listen to music. At approximately 3am, a procession made up of mojigangas (giant dancing puppet figures), musicians, and big wooden stars on poles, jauntily decorated with colored paper, leave the neighborhoods and begin the trek towards the center of the city.

                                                 Photo Credit: Michael Amici


When the processions reach the central town square, the launching of fireworks begins around 4 A.M. and continues for two full hours.

                                            Photo Credit: Michael Amici

 I am afraid that I have only had the courage to watch this spectacle from the safety of my terrace, far from the crush of the citizenry. I have heard people’s eye-witness accounts of individuals being hit by flaming bottle rockets and stray embers. This is quite understandable given the display is directly overhead. Part of the frenzied show includes the shooting of thousands of bottle rockets by approximately ten young men placed strategically behind the churchyard fence. The rockets are hurled in the direction of the bystanders.

                                           Photo Credit: Michael Amici

 Part of the fun involves scurrying around to avoid being hit by one of the flaming rockets.

The more savvy citizens come prepared for battle, shielding themselves with cardboard boxes and umbrellas.  An unknowing friend wore a chiffon blouse to her first Alborada and returned with a few holes she hadn’t planned on.

 If you are considering a visit, it might be advisable to wear some flame-retardant clothing. While this event is not for the faint of heart, my thrill seeking husband swears that it is a great time and shouldn't be missed.

Here is a link to a very professional video  by Miguel Fernandez capturing  some of the festivities associated with the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel, shot here in San Miguel.......