Drought and Depression – Is History Repeating?
Today San Miguel de Allende is dealing with an economic downturn combined with a drought, but it isn’t the first time the town has been at this rodeo. The last time was in the 1700s and the effects of the downturn and drought impact the town to this day.
What happened back then and what can we learn from the past to promote a brighter future for San Miguel de Allende? Or will it take another revolution starting here to bring about a new world order like happened then with the War for Independence?
The importance of San Miguel during the Inquisition, or Colonial Era, is announced by the enduring architectural monuments. Local concentrations of wealth and religion combined to build the great homes, convents and churches announcing the town’s legacy to umpteen tourists.
San Miguel de los Chichimecas (the indigenous hunter-gathers here when the Spaniards arrived) was a founding Spanish settlement to help silver get to Spain and help supplies get to northern mining communities via the Silver Route. Town was a jumping off point for further northern expansion as Spain looked north for growth long before the US imagined a westward expansion.
By 1754 town’s population topped 25,000, two thirds being Spaniards and Spaniards mixed with other races then one third listed as indigenous. With most haciendas (rural estates) devoted to grazing, population concentrated in town.
The population of San Miguel de los Chichimecas increased five times over since the 1630s creating an industrial center larger than any city of British America in 1750 including New York, Boston and Philadelphia!
Textile production peaked in 1755 with 5 major factories each operating 75 looms, plus an uncounted number of household spinners, often female Otomi (indigenous farmers here when the Spaniards arrived). The more silver was mined to the north the more bedding and cloth was needed there.
With the increase wealth the town’s elite built monuments to their, and God’s, glory including religious foundations like the Oratorio, the college of San Francisco de Sales, the cloistered convent of the Immaculate Conception and the Sanctuary at Atotonilco.
As the 1750s began San Miguel changed names becoming “el Grande” as a reference to the commercial, industrial, religious and educational achievements of Spanish North America.
But then life changed for San Miguel el Grande. As the 1700s progressed and mining boomed, San Miguel de Grande’s textile industries did not. The city of Leon took over textiles growing beyond compare being closer to the Guanajuato mines.
Before 1750 rural estates were devoted to grazing. The sheep that provided wool to textile makers and the mutton for meat, kept prices low for both. By 1770 livestock shifted north, increasing wool and mutton prices as nearby haciendas switched to cultivating more profitable carbo-loaded grains.
By the late 1700s there was talk of revolution. By 1810 possibility became reality after two years of drought created a deep crisis of scarce and expensive food mixed with a now moribund economy. An alliance of resistance was born linking frustrated members of the regional elite with desperate farmers.
By the war’s end a decade later mining had dwindled, as had the corresponding textile production, decimating what was left of San Miguel de Grande’s economy. Gone also were the haciendas that now lay in ruins replaced by more modest family farms.
The post-war era depression left San Miguel de Allende stuck in a time-warp of sorts as no one had the money or power to change the look of town. Luckily, for us living today, as the architecture is a huge part of the town’s tourism-driven appeal and charm.