Isn’t it sometimes the way, when at the end of doing something you find out there was a different or better way.
Our Aussie friends and fellow house sitters, Glenn & Jacqueline Lamb, were staying in San Miguel de Allende at the same time as us and so we were wanting to spend time together exploring the city.
We knew something about street art and wall murals in the Colonia Guadalupe neighbourhood and we were keen to check it out.
I guess we do stand out as being foreigners (gringos), especially when an enthusiastic local woman approached us and asked if we were looking for the murals. She pointed us in the general direction, “but first of all”, she said, “you must drop in at Via Organica cafe”.
Never wanting to miss a new opportunity, that’s where we headed.
What we found at Via Organica was not just a funky organic (of course) cafe and store, it is an impressive non profit organisation with a mission to “promote good nutrition through organic agriculture, fair trade, a healthy lifestyle and the protection of the planet”. After a good look around and checking the menu, we decided for sure we would be back for lunch another day.
There’s no specific map or guide of the Guadalupe murals that we’re aware of so we just spent the next few hours wandering around the narrow cobblestoned streets and being blown away by the incredibly sophisticated art on all kinds of walls.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all and were ready to head back to town a car pulled up and a very striking woman wound down the window and asked us what we thought of “her” murals. She then introduced herself as Colleen Sorensen, and said she was instrumental in starting the street art project back in 2011 and that she operates walking tours to showcase the context of the murals.
Now, that would’ve been good to know, but Colleen doesn’t actively advertise the tours and relies on word of mouth so we missed that vital tourist tip.
Not to worry, Dave and I straight away decided we would definitely take a tour with Colleen the following week but unfortunately the Lambies were leaving San Miguel the next day, so they’d have to be satisfied with our own novice tour.
It seems that Via Organica is a real community hub because that’s where Colleen starts her tours, and so at 10am precisely, together with a really nice couple from San Francisco, we set off on a mission of enlightenment.
An advantage of a guided tour is that it provides opportunities to dig deeper and learn about historical, social and political aspects of a place and Colleen gave us all that and more about the artists and the murals in the Guadalupe district. In fact I wish I had recorded Colleen’s dialogue because it was all so fascinating and I know I can’t faithfully replay it here.
Colleen told us that like every city around the world graffiti and tagging was a problem in the area, which was once considered to be a dangerous neighbourhood to visit.
Colleen’s concerns about vandalism and with her background as an artist working with young people in public art projects in San Antonio, Texas, her goal became to bring the area’s youth into a more creative form of self-expression.
In 2011 Colleen and several other passionate arty folk set about trying to convince various government administrations to allow public mural art into the area, and after a long and arduous process the Muros en Blanco (“Blank Walls”) project finally opened the Colonia Guadaloupe Art District in 2013.
Over the years, thanks to Colleen, Graffiti World and Muros en Blanco, muralists from around Mexico and other countries including Chile, Argentina, Canada, Germany and the USA, have been coming to town and living with locals while they sketch, spray and stencil paint all over the walls of businesses and homes.
Those artists also work as mentors to the local kids which helps develop a respect for the murals while significantly reducing the incidents of tagging and defacing of property.
Over the coming months in 2019, another round of artists will turn up to fill some of the blank walls and to create new pieces over existing murals.
It is a rotating canvas and the paints are mostly donated by local paint companies, so the costs to artists are minimal apart from living expenses. In fact local families open their homes to the artists which really enhances everyones experience.
Colonia Guadalupe was once an area very few tourists or even locals would visit. Residents now have genuine pride in their streets and they come to Colleen asking for the walls of their own homes to be painted. Apparently there’s a waiting list of walls to be enhanced by returning artists.
Fabulous cafes, art galleries and studios have sprung up all around the place and it really does feel like a safe and happy place to visit.
I think we will return to San Miguel de Allende some time, and then I’d love us to stay in Colonia Guadalupe to take in the vibe of the suburb.
And I’d really love us to take Colleen’s tour again to catch up on new developments with the mural street art.
We could not have had a better understanding of the art and the artists without spending those few hours with Colleen.