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  • Natalie Taylor

STORIES OF SAN MIGUEL: Lesser known historical events

If you have followed some of my stories about San Miguel de Allende, you may recall that many of them are legends, not based on reality. Legends, however, usually contain a grain of truth, a real event that spurs a retelling, in which details become more important than the actual occurrence, and over time a highly embellished story is created. It is a communal, fictional narrative that becomes part of a community’s identity. Such are the stories about a water creature in the deep canyon of Charco del Ingenio, or ghostly musicians playing along Piedras Chinas.  Perhaps a large creature was sighted once in the waters of el Charco, and there is a high probability that a bunch of musicians played in town till the wee hours, then in a drunken state, imagined a trip to a party in hell. With time, the stories were enriched in the retelling and became part of the city’s lore.

Some rare events actually did happen, their occurrence documented by official records. But their singularity and the presence of few witnesses, elevated them to the status of legend.  I will relate two such stories—one a magnificent natural phenomenon, and another a deadly natural catastrophe.

The Aurora Borealis

The phenomenon called Aurora Borealis—literally “northern dawn”—is a natural light display that commonly happens near the earth’s north, and south poles. The term was first coined by Galileo Galilei in 1619, and he used the term aurora which is the Roman name for the goddess of dawn. He believed that these plays of lights were caused by the reflection of sunlight off the atmosphere. The way scientists explain it now, is that electrically charged particles, ions, shoot out from the sun and interact with gases on the surface of the earth, creating these shimmering films of light.

When seen in the southern hemisphere, the proper name is Aurora Australis, or southern dawn. However, these celestial lights, noiselessly dancing on the horizon, can appear in places far from the poles, in latitudes closer to the equator. The fact that they are so uncommon in such regions make them even more spectacular. San Miguel de Allende is one such unusual location, and the Aurora Borealis was sighted here at least twice.

The first recorded time was midnight of November 14, 1779. As would be expected, those who witnessed it, were terrified by the strange vision in the sky, and immediately assumed that a calamity would soon occur. Nothing untoward happened, and life went on. A major upheaval did take place, but not until 31 years had passed. In 1810 the War of Independence broke out on the streets of San Miguel, led by native son Ignacio Allende. At the time of the celestial pyrotechnic show, however, Allende, head of the insurgent army, was only ten years old.

On September 2, 1864, the meteorological phenomenon took place again. Once more, the majority of the residents presaged disaster: god’s retribution on the community, the final judgement, or simply the end of the world. Fortunately, there were some elders who had either witnessed the previous event—85 years prior—as children, or had heard about it from their parents.

The next time the Aurora Borealis appeared in the skies of San Miguel, was in the 1950s, after an almost identical time lapse. This last one happened in the early hours of dawn, and therefore had fewer witnesses. If we presume that the time period between the auroras remains the same, we ought to see another Aurora Borealis over San Miguel de Allende in eleven years—2035 will mark 85 years since the last one!

A deadly flood in San Miguel

San Miguel de Allende is located at the base of a canyon, which funnels waters from watersheds to the east. Heavy rainfalls increase the volume of water in the canyon and can bring flooding in the lower altitudes. When the rainfall is intense and sudden, the arroyos that normally carry the overflow downward, become overwhelmed and can lead to major flooding, especially along the banks. The channels of what seem like insignificant arroyos, become overfilled and create terrible torrents that descend along the ravines with tremendous power.

Several floods have been documented in San Miguel, since records have been kept. The following floods were severe enough to be placed in the books: 1894, 1933, 1973, and 1998. The last major flood in our city was particularly severe, causing loss of life and property. After two days of heavy rains, neighbors witnessed the amazing power of waters unleashed in the early morning of October 3, 1998. While residents were celebrating the Alborada—the early dawn festival to honor St. Michael the Archangel—water started coming down from the eastern part of the city, and gained power and speed as it approached the upper Presa in Charco del Ingenio.

The torrent carried rocks, trees, animals, and anything it scooped up along its way, it crossed the highway toward Queretaro, and continued its discharge into the Presa. When the upper Presa of Charco del Ingenio became filled, the waters cascaded over the dam in an incredible show of power, then continued filling the arroyo on its way toward the canyon. From there, the waters filled the lower presa and then rushed through Fabrica Aurora toward the center of town.

The pedestrian bridges gave way as the Cachinches arroyo became full, then spilled its borders.

By eight in the morning, the current had covered Avenida Guadalupe in the San Juan de Dios neighborhood, and the windows and doors of the lower levels were disappearing. Cars were carried by the current as if they were toys, and in Plaza Insurgentes only the lamp posts were seen above the rushing muddy waters. Photos show some of the terrible effects of the flood. In the photo below, a van is shown helplessly caught in the current.

Here and there one could hear the sirens of the firetrucks, and ambulances, as the authorities began carrying out their work. Their help was efficient and quick, and although material damage was huge, the loss of life was minimal. Of course, any lives lost are too many, but considering the seriousness of the flooding, it was fortunate that more did not perish.

Official records claim that three people lost their lives. Among the anecdotes was the claim that some people attempted to enter homes after the waters had begun to recede a bit, but what they did not count on was the fact that electric wires had fallen. Several people were supposedly electrocuted. It is not known whether that was indeed the case, and if so, if those people were counted as the three deaths that took place.

Although many other floods have occurred in San Miguel since then—they seem to come during most rainy seasons—none has approximated the devastation of the flood of 1998.

Stories taken from: Espinosa, Jose Cornelio Lopez. La Villa de San Miguel el Grande y la Ciudad de San Miguel de Allende, 2010, p. 27, p. 105

Fotos by Jose Ortiz “El Negro” Moya

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Jun 03

I've been told the flood of '98 was caused by the collapse of a badly built damn upstream closer to Queretaro. People had tired of waiting for the government to do the job, so they did it themselves. Worked OK for a few years until there were unusually heavy rains. And the result landed in SMA.

Jun 03
Replying to

Unfortunately, I did not have that information. You may be right, but it would be good to have sources. Thank you.

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