The first time my husband and I visited San Miguel de Allende in the hills of Central Mexico, we fell madly in love with it. Although I had traveled widely, until then I’d never encountered any place other than my hometown of New York City where I wanted to live. But after only a few days in San Miguel, John and I imagined ourselves settling there upon retirement, or sooner, if possible.
We fell in love with San Miguel’s sun-splashed cobblestone streets; its bright colors and clear skies; its many festivals and gardens; the historical and contemporary art everywhere one looked — in churches, galleries and museums; its spring-like weather that lasted all year round; and the town center, Jardin, where Mexican families and U.S., Canadian and European expatriates gathered to sing, dance, read the newspaper and gossip.
We quickly fell in with an interesting group of expats: visual artists, writers, clothing designers and chefs among them. We were made to feel that we belonged. Every morning while I wrote in our beautiful rental house, John took long walks up and down the hilly, narrow streets. We stayed a few weeks until our lives and jobs back in NYC demanded that we return.
From then on, as often as we could, we visited San Miguel, and we began to dream — what if we bought a house now, rented it out when we weren’t there to the many tourists who flocked to the town all year round, and moved into it permanently when we could afford to? It seemed a bit of a mad idea, as we struggled financially all the time in insanely expensive New York, but Mexico was so much less costly, we told ourselves.
On one visit, we decided to house hunt for fun. “Just to look,” we assured each other. But quickly we found a large house with a separate casita and two big plant-filled patios in one of our favorite neighborhoods, La Aldea. It had been built in the '60s and needed work on the floors, the walls and the roof, yet still it was a real find. We bought it with money we had recently saved. Having grown up in a struggling family in a Bronx housing project who didn’t believe in dreaming big (or small), I wasn’t that accustomed to dreams coming true, but one of mine just had.
We hired a property manager, a housekeeper and a gardener. We registered the house on vacation rental websites and immediately found eager renters, both short and long term. Assuming an upbeat persona that never flagged, I enjoyed answering renters’ many questions about the size of the bedrooms, the layout and whether the casita was a good spot for an artist’s studio. We made some money from renting out the house, although most of it went back into the house and to the salaries of its caretakers. We stayed in it as often as we could, and continued to lay down roots and build community in the town.
At the same time, John and I were struggling with another big issue in our lives, which was whether to become first-time parents in middle age. Through most of our marriage, we hadn’t wanted children. But unexpectedly, I was bitten by the baby-lust bug. Eventually, after lots of couple therapy and many tearful nights, John came on board. We decided to adopt a child from Guatemala, where adoptions were supposed to happen fairly quickly.
The adoption process took a long time, however, due to changing laws in Guatemala, and during that time, we continued to go to San Miguel as often as possible, falling more deeply in love with our house and the town each time. And then, after what seemed like an impossibly long wait, another of my dreams came true, and we became the doting parents of a one-year-old girl who’d been born in Guatemala City. I was really starting to believe that, yes, I could dream big, despite what I’d been brought up to believe, and that my dreams could actually come true.
We took our daughter with us during our visits to San Miguel. We loved that she heard Spanish, her birth language, spoken all around her, and that everywhere we went, she saw folks who looked like her. Of course we stood out, the older gringo couple with the Latina daughter, yet most people welcomed us.
But then the global economy tanked and, for the first time, we started having trouble renting the house. Making matters worse were the terrible headlines about the violent Mexican drug cartels, although San Miguel remained safe and bucolic. Despite my assurances, potential renters grew terrified and backed out. We lowered the rent on our house considerably, so we no longer had any income from it. Still, it was difficult to find renters. We also now had the expense of raising a child, which we had vastly underestimated. My unwavering upbeat persona began to waver as I watched my dream slip away from me.
Eventually, unable to afford it any longer, we put the house on the market. When it finally sold after two years, I felt a sense of bittersweet relief, promising myself that one day, somehow, I would return to San Miguel for good, and that my settling there was a dream deferred, not lost.