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  • Natalie Taylor

THE HISTORY OF ART IN SAN MIGUEL: The Biblioteca Publica

“All the world’s a stage,” says Shakespeare in the famous line from As You like It. Then he declares that we’re all just actors, and “one man in his life plays many parts.” As true as this is for individuals, I believe that a similar metaphor may apply to buildings as well. A perfect example is the Bibioteca Publica—the Public Library of San Miguel.


Many ancient buildings go through various phases, from their first intended use, to their final use. In San Miguel de Allende, we have buildings first erected in the late 16th century, surviving to the present in a modern setting. Family homes that became public spaces, then reverted to private ownership, and may be a hotel or restaurant now. Often the transitions are fascinating, especially if the previous use at some point seems totally discordant with its current use. That is the case of the Biblioteca Publica—the Public Library of San Miguel de Allende.


What is particularly fascinating about this building is that it serves so many functions. It is, foremost, a bilingual library—housing one of the the largest collection of books in English in Latin America. But it is also a cultural center, a space for classes, lectures, plays, and musical concerts. It has a lovely coffee shop, and a bookstore carrying international books, and books by local authors. Still beyond all this, are the community programs to benefit all residents—such as a wonderful scholarship program for the young people of San Miguel. Its current multi-faceted is compatible with its varied uses in the past.


The story of the building located on Insurgentes 25 began in 1734. A group of Oratorian priests decided to found a home for poor, single, and widowed women, adjacent to the church of Santa Ana. It became a beaterio—beguinage—a walled space for nuns, and lay women living together in sisterhood. Such lay women are called beguines, thus the name of the institution. This particular beguinage was supported by the Catholic Church, and specifically by the Oratorian brotherhood.


Some ten years later, a donation further helped the community of women. The great-grandmother of Ignacio Allende, Maria de Retis died in 1743, and donated a sum of money specifically for the women of the beguinage. Ignacio Allende, the hero of the War of Independence had not even been conceived; he was born in 1769. Maria’s endowment went a long way to help the women, and it may have been an incentive for others, because the beguinage continued to provide shelter to nuns, and lay women for more than a century, helped greatly by the wealthy residents of San Miguel.


A lot happened to San Miguel el Grande during the next century—the War of Independence began in 1810, and lasted eleven years. Although a large number of wealthy Spaniards fled from the city during this period, the beguinage continued to exist. Then came the first, and second Mexican empire, and finally, in 1857 a new constitution for the nation. One of the most significant changes expressed in that document was the formal separation of church and state. All the churches, and their adjunct structures, were appropriated by the federal government. The same happened with the Church of Santa Ana, and the beguinage at its side. Both became vacant, then changed function. For a time, the area where the women had been sheltered, became a school for children, and then before reaching its final phase as a repository of books, it went through its strangest, and most incongruous guise—it became a slaughterhouse in the early 1900s.



Old photos show men carrying slabs of meat through the courtyard; the same courtyard that today has tables and chairs, for studying and reading. The slaughterhouse stage only lasted a few years, and the building became a flea market; then vacant once again. And then something magical happened that brought about the building’s ultimate transformation.


In the 1950s, Helen Wale was living in the neighborhood. Originally from Canada, she had lived in the United States for many years, before making San Miguel de Allende her home. Helen Wale had magazines, and children’s books, and a giving spirit that motivated her to do good things.


Often, from her home on Hospicio Street she saw children after school milling about, without much purpose. She began to invite them to her home to look at the colorful magazines and books, and gave them paper and color pencils to make their own drawings. The children were hesitant at first, but with time they warmed to Helen, and looked forward to coming to her home to spend time there. As more children came, so came the need for more reading and drawing material. Helen’s friends began to bring more books to her home, more papers, pencils, paints, and brushes. The organic project grew until Helen found that her home was too small for all these children.


With the help of others in the town—both locals and expats—she eventually was given a new, larger space for her fledgling library. Their first acquisition was a collection of English fairy tales, with Spanish translation. Many of foreign students at Instituto Allende, began to donate more books with Spanish translations, and a small children’s library was created. The official inauguration ceremony on November 2, 1958.


Left is the larger space provided for Helen Wale for children’s books. On the right is the inaugural ceremony on November 2.1958, with the opening of the actual library.


The children’s enthusiasm was such that Helen Wale and her friends decided to expand their horizons, and establish a library apt for the entire community. With the support of Stirling Dickinson, ex-governor of Guanajuato Enrique Fernandez, and his wife Nell Harris, an official library opened its doors at the current location—Insurgentes 25. The building was given by the government as comodato—an open-ended lease, to the newly organized Biblioteca Publica, A.C.


For more than 60 years, the Biblioteca Publica has functioned as one of the best bilingual libraries in all of Mexico, with more than 60,000 books, in English, Spanish, and other languages. But it is much more than just a library. It functions on so many levels in the community, that each of these ought to be highlighted. In a future article I will speak about some of the other important roles of the Biblioteca Publica, specifically a lesser known one—a depository of some exceptional works of art.


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