WOMEN OF SAN MIGUEL WHO DID IT THEIR WAY
So much of history, including the history of San Miguel, revolves around men who made a difference. We all know that women’s place in society, and of what was expected of them, was the major factor in this lack of female representation. Things are different today, although there are still many constraints on women, but nothing to the degree of several centuries ago. That’s why, when a woman rose to a position of power in the past, she had to exhibit strong-headedness, and a good dose of rebelliousness, to stand up to societal rules and do things—her way. A number of San Miguel women challenged the status quo, and left a legacy of female power in a way that resonates to this day.
I will begin with the earliest example I could find: Josefa Lina de la Canal. As the oldest daughter of Manuel Tomas de la Canal, Josefa Lina was privileged by the family’s wealth. But as a woman born in 1736, she was restricted by what she could and could not do. For Criollo women living in New Spain there were few options—marriage was, of course, the most common, and it meant moving from the patriarchal rule of her birth home, to obedience to the husband, and bearing children. If a woman wanted independence, the surest way was becoming a nun, because it gave her a semblance of freedom from male dominance. Josefa Lina chose the religious life as a teenager. When both her parents died, she inherited part of the estate divided among the siblings. With that money she built the church, and convent called Las Monjas, which today houses El Nigromante Cultural Center, also known as Bellas Artes. The idea of building a church and convent, is not something I admire. But I do admire Josefa Lina for carving her own way in life; for choosing to live life as a woman without male domination.
The second woman on my list is a true example of woman’s power—power of spirit, and the acquired power of class position. Josefa Ortiz was born in Mexico City in 1768, and was feisty, even as a little girl. Unwilling to live with her older, married sister after their parents’ death, she decided to enroll at university. At the age of 17, she wrote the application herself, citing various reasons why she deserved to be accepted, and was admitted to the Loyola Vizcaina College in Mexico City. She caught the eye of a wealthy donor, a widower twelve years her senior, and they eloped. Her husband, Jose Miguel Dominguez became Corregidor of the state of Queretaro (the equivalent of governor), and Josefa acquired the title of Corregidora—which is how we know her today. Josefa was socially active in her position, and became involved with the revolutionary movement led by Ignacio Allende of San Miguel, and Miguel Hidalgo from Dolores. She attended the secret meetings, where the insurgents were plotting how to strike the first blow that would lead to the War of Independence. Many of those meeting were held in San Miguel at a place called The House of Conspirators, on the corner of Relox and San Francisco. When the insurgents were betrayed, the authorities, including Josefa’s husband, were notified. Josefa immediately wanted to alert the insurgents.
But, familiar with his wife’s headstrong and impulsive nature, her husband locked her in a room to prevent her from becoming involved. Undeterred, Josefa passed a written message under her door to the city jailer, who rode to San Miguel, and notified the insurgents. As a direct result of this information, Allende and Hidalgo chose to start the War of Independence on September 15, 1810, which eventually led to a free and independent Mexico. Josefa was imprisoned, but refused to give any information, remaining loyal to the independence movement. She languished in jail for many years before being finally released. This is a woman who truly chose to follow her own path, and never gave in.
The third woman I would like to feature, also did things her way—with kindness and dedication to community. Helen Wale was born in Canada in 1902, grew up, and studied in New England, and eventually moved to Chicago where she had family. She moved to San Miguel in 1954, and settled in a home on Hospicio Street. She had a large collection of magazines and soon began to invite the local children to her home to read. As more and more children came to her home, intrigued by the colorful magazines, she installed small tables and chairs for them so they could also write, draw, and paint.
Others began to take an interest in what Helen was doing, including Nell Harris and Stirling Dickinson of the Instituto Allende school of Art. They offered to help with additional materials for the children. When the collection of reading and educational material grew, Helen’s home became too small to house them and the children, so they rented a larger space. 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.
However, they decided to expand their horizons, and establish a library apt for the entire community. In 1957, they petitioned the governor, and a year later were given the space on Insurgentes, next to the church of Santa Ana—a space that had been a shelter for single and widowed women, for many years. It is still the location to this day. With funds from the Guanajuato state government, and additional moneys raised through fundraising, they began the renovation of the old building. On November 2, 1958 the library was officially inaugurated by the governor, Rodriguez Gaona. The building was given by the government as comodato—an open-ended loan, to the newly organized Biblioteca Publica, AC.
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. It is also a cultural center hosting conferences, musical and theatrical events, lectures, English-Spanish language exchange groups, and many other activities. The Biblioteca contributes to community education by offering scholarships to students with high scholastic achievement and ambitions; and art classes to young and old. In 1975, the first edition of Atencion, the bilingual local newspaper, was published.
The Biblioteca Publica remains a vital community center and one of the best assets for San Miguel de Allende. All of this thanks to a woman who began in a small way, perhaps never realizing her own power in building a lasting institution. Helen Wale died in her beloved San Miguel de Allende on August 22, 1975, after spending 23 years living in her last post.
There are other women of San Miguel who should be honored for their contributions, and I intend to honor them in the future. As the 2023 International Women’s Day nears, let us recognize these three women—who, each in her own way—was a vanguard of female power.