The Real Story of San Miguel de Allende and Who Put it On Map

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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San Miguel de Allende is located practically in the dead center of Mexico, in the state of Guanajuato, about 170 miles north of Mexico City. Renowned for its Colonial charm, San Miguel's 64-block historic center was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Twice voted by readers of Travel + Leisure as their favorite city in the world, San Miguel de Allende is a mecca for artsy and affluent expats.

Why is this dusty, arid, high-altitude plateau far from Mexico's alluring coasts such a draw for discerning travelers?

Two words: Instituto Allende.

Thanks to this visual arts school, San Miguel was transformed from a down-on-its-luck ghost town into a vibrant, cosmopolitan mecca for culture-lovers.

Now a world class arts destination, San Miguel emerged from humble origins as an indigenous Chichimeca village and then a Spanish mission and military outpost. In the 17th century, San Miguel became a wealthy enclave, thanks to the discovery of silver in the area and the development of textile manufacturing.

Beautiful Panoramic View San Miguel de Allende Mexico
A beautiful panoramic view of San Miguel de Allende

By the 1750s, the population of San Miguel de Allende was more than that of New York City and the prosperous merchants and hacienda owners built the stunning Baroque and Neoclassical mansions and churches that are such a draw today.

Alas, in the early 19th century the start of the Mexican Revolution and the end of the silver mines brought about the collapse of San Miguel's economy, an exodus of inhabitants, and the looting of its romantic architecture that was left to ruin.

Everyone loves a juicy turn-around story and publications from National Geographic to Smithsonian Magazine have reported on San Miguel's metamorphosis from a down-and-out commercial center to the grande dame of Mexico's Pueblo Magicos. Generally, credit for how Instituto Allende transformed San Miguel has been given to U.S. expat Stirling Dickinson.

In our interview with Instituto Allende Director Rodolfo "Rudy" Fernandez, he reveals who was really the force behind the school's founding and survival: his parents Guanajuato native son Enriquez Fernandez Martinez and his American wife Nell Harris.

Guanajuato Native Son A Catalyst for San Miguel Allure

Meg: The Instituto is the reason that San Miguel has become such a flourishing artist community, so let’s begin with how it all started.

Rudy: A little family history first. My father was born in 1896 in the north part of the Mexican state of Guanajuato in a little town called San Felipe Torres Mochas, where his father was the telegraph operator. After grade school, he started working as a cleanup boy in a lawyer’s office, and he got involved in the practice of that office and started learning the trade.

In 1910, when Mexico had its revolution, my father was 14 years old and participated on the side of the people who wanted a republic. His brother, Jose Luis, was one of the members of Congress who signed the 1917 Mexican Constitution that we still have today. But my uncle died quite young, and I guess this motivated my father to get involved in politics. He ran for office and, over the years, won various posts like mayor of Guanajuato and member of Congress.

Apprehending an Assassin in San Miguel de Allende

In 1928, he was present at a luncheon in Mexico City for the president-elect, Alvaro Obregon. A cartoonist came up and asked permission to show the president some cartoons that he had drawn while they were having lunch. Then he drew out a pistol and shot him. My father and General Mugica apprehended the killer, Leon Toral, a religious extremist who was later tried and executed. Rumors were that the Catholic Church had been behind that assassination.

san miguel de allende
Lázaro Cárdenas del Río, president of Mexico from 1934-1940, decreed the nationalization of foreign railways in 1937. Photo: Doralicia Carmona Dávila, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1939, my father was elected constitutional governor of the state of Guanajuato, which includes the city of San Miguel de Allende. A very honest, well-respected, admired man, he was connected to two groups: The Reds was more left wing and the Green Party, was more republican and liberal. The president of Mexico was General Lazaro Cardenas, the principal mover of social reform in the mid-twentieth century. And my father worked with him.

What Are You Doing in San Miguel de Allende?

Meg: So, your father was interested in reform and education before he became connected with the school? What was happening in the town of San Miguel de Allende before he became involved?

Rudy: Since the Revolution, San Miguel had been attracting a lot of very famous actors, actresses, singers, and composers. Among them was Jose Mojica, a Chicago opera singer who became a movie actor in the 1930s and moved to San Miguel de Allende.

Stirling Dickinson, who was from the Chicago area, was traveling as a youth through Mexico and on the train in Oaxaca recognized Jose Mojica. He said, “Mr Mojica, I know who you are; I’ve seen movies. What are you doing here?”

San Miguel de Allende
Left to Right: Enriquez Fernandez Martinez, Stirling Dickinson, Felipe Cossio Del Pomar. Photo: Rodolfo Fernández Martínez Harris

“Well, I’m traveling because I have been looking for a place to build a house for my mother, and I have chosen San Miguel de Allende for it, and I hope you can come and see the town.”

Trio of Artist, Actor and Exile Meet In San Miguel de Allende

Stirling had also met a Peruvian political exile in Mexico, whose name was Felipe Cossio del Pomar. The story is that del Pomar stopped in San Miguel de Allende at the train station, and I think they had about a two-hour wait, and he drove up in the mule cart for passengers from the train station to San Miguel. It was early in the morning and the colors were brilliant. He stayed and, with Stirling, formed the Universidad de Bellas Artes, the first art school in San Miguel in 1937. It was registered with the Department of Education both in Canada and the United States.

San miguel de allende

When Jose Mojica, Cossio del Pomar, and Stirling Dickinson started looking for a better building, they went to see the governor of Guanajuato. That was my father. My father called former president General Lazaro Cardenas, who was then head of the army. Lazaro Cardenas called the president, Manuel Avila Camacho, and they found a building that had once been a convent but, because of the separation of church and state, had been taken away from the church and given to the army. Now it was taken away from the army and given to a group of foreigners that wanted to start an art school.

San Miguel de Allende
San Miguel street scene circa 1930s. Photo: Rodolfo Fernández Martínez Harris.

Bringing Together Foreign Students and Mexican Artisans

Meg: Why did they choose to give the property to foreigners? Was it because they felt the foreigners were bringing something to the community, there was a positive partnership, or these foreigners were going to create something worthwhile?

The Real Story of Instituto Allende, Cultural Epicenter of San Miguel de Allende

Rudy: In the 1920s, President Alvaro Obregon opened the first Department of Education of Mexico, and chose an intellectual named Jose Vasconcelos to head it. Its motto was “Educate the People.” Felipe Cossio del Pomar and Jose Vasconcelos had the idea that they could do that through art. So, the project of the art school was not only to receive foreign students but to integrate Mexican craft artists into an academic field.

Enriquez Invests in Seven Hectares in San Miguel de Allende

Meg: I love that!

Rudy: My father knew about the art school in the late ‘30s, early ‘40s and when he retired in 1944 after being governor, this group went to see him. They said, “There’s a big spread of land in San Miguel, and we want to put the school there, but we don’t have enough money to do it, so we want you to participate.” And my father said, “Okay. That’s an interesting idea.”

The Rosewood Hotel
The Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende sits on land once owned by Enrique Fernández Martínez. The location makes for a superb place to see the sunset over San Miguel. Photo: Rosewood San Miguel de Allende

My father sold his property in Guanajuato, and, because he was very well-connected in the political and financial worlds, he was able to secure loans at low interest, and purchase this land spread that was 7 hectares and included where the Rosewood Hotel is now.

Meg: Did your father take these loans out himself or did the group take them out as an organization?

Rudy: He took them out himself because they knew that he had a good line of credit. As I said, he was an honest, respected person, so the bankers did not hesitate. Plus, they had the property for a guarantee, securing the loan.

Meg: The property was bought from the de la Canal Family?

Instituto Allende
Instituto Allende's Interior courtyard, Photo: lizahi8

Rudy: It was Roberto Lambarri de la Canal. He owned an abandoned old pecan orchard with many decrepit buildings. The main courtyard had to be completely renovated, which became a job for my mother.

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Love at First Sight

Meg: Ah! And how did your mother become part of this story? How did she meet your father?

Rudy: Well, that’s an interesting story.

Meg: Tell me.

Fernandez family
Left: Nell Harris & Enrique Fernández Martínez. Right: Nell Harris and her daughter Barbara Barlow. Photos: Rodolfo Fernández Martínez Harris

Rudy: My mother was from a little rural town in Arkansas. She came to Mexico with her mother – my grandmother – chasing her father, who had abandoned them. He was working for a transnational, English-American company in the lumber industry outside of Mexico City. My mother met the general director of the plant, an Englishman by the name of Donald Barlow. She married Barlow and had a baby girl, my sister Barbara. Then Mr Barlow became director of the English-American tobacco company in Guanajuato and they moved there. At that time, my father was governor of the state, and at one of the social events with the foreign community, he set eyes on my mother. History did the rest. Eventually, my mother divorced Mr Barlow and, years later, married my father.

Meg: At that time how was divorce perceived, socially?

Rudy: Oh, it was not seen as proper. It was one of the biggest sins in the Catholic religion. My mother was very badly treated, and my father also suffered, because being a politician married to a foreigner wasn’t the best in those times.

Read More: Before your trip, learn more about the culture in Mexico!

Advising the President

Once my father came back to San Miguel and started renovating the new location, he retired from the active life of politics. But still, the president of Mexico would come every year and stay in the Instituto Allende hotel. My father was a counselor to the president for three or four presidential terms, reporting directly to him, and telling him of the state of the nation. The president would ask, “Well, what do you recommend for Guanajuato?” “Well, I think this, that, or…” Up until his death, my father was active as an unofficial member of the cabinet.

Meg: I believe when President Kennedy was in office, he had a “kitchen cabinet.” That was the term for his informal cabinet. Close advisors who didn’t hold an official role, but were –

Rudy: Were active –behind the scenes, more or less. I grew up in that type of environment, seeing governors, high politicians, presidents of Mexico stay at the hotel that my family owned, have dinner and breakfast at my house. And that carried a lot of weight.

Meg: Of course, so, it’s a responsibility?

Mexican Muralist David Leonardo Chávez
A stunning work in Instituto Allende's entryway by Mexican muralist David Leonardo Chávez. Photo: Instituto Allende.

Cleaning House

Rudy: Yes. My father decided that the relationship with the Peruvian del Pomar person regarding the art school wasn’t going too well. Polmar had sold the school to a Mexican lawyer named Alfredo Campanella and left Mexico. Campanella did not run things very well. By then, the first group of Americans studying under the GI bill had arrived, a huge boost to the school’s revenues. But Campanella was pocketing the money. When Campanella hired David Alfaro Siqueiros to paint a mural at the school, the funds weren’t arriving to pay for the materials. The students revolted. Campanella went and worked his political ties in Mexico City, and declared that the school was a center for Communist education.

The Mexican government expelled all the foreign professors from Mexico, including Dickinson, James Pinto, Leonard Brooks, and their wives. My father cleared up the situation, and they were all authorized to come back to Mexico.

The Doors Finally Open to Instituto Allende

Meg: Let me just clarify. Your father bought out the Peruvian?

Rudy: Felipe Cossio del Pomar went back to Peru because his political situation got fixed. He helped a candidate to become president of Peru and was offered the post of Secretary of Education of Peru. Before the Instituto started, in the late 40s, my father bought him out and became sole proprietor. At that time, San Miguel had a population of around, 6,700 to 8,000.

San Miguel de Allende
One of the entrances to Instituto Allende, Photo: trippin_lizzie

Meg: And the Instituto finally opened its doors in 1950?

Rudy: Yes. Stirling was very influential in marketing the school. He wasn’t part owner; he was a director. He ran it very academically through councils – student councils, and teachers’ councils. Most of the teachers came just because they had heard of the Instituto, or of San Miguel, and they came, and they liked it.

How the G.I. Bill Saved San Miguel de Allende

Meg: I know Instituto Allende has a connection with American military veterans. Can you explain this connection?

Rudy: The G.I. Bill is a law that was passed in the United States in 1944, in order to benefit American soldiers who had fought in World War II, and provide them with a legal mechanism that would allow them to have financing for technical or university studies, along with a pension that helps their subsistence. Stirling Dickinson managed to join the G.I Bill thanks to his contacts and excellent promotional work, thus attracting several American war veterans to the school. This flow of former foreign soldiers not only represented an economic boom for the University School but also income for the local merchants of San Miguel, as money began to flow in the city, which had been dragging a depressed economy for more than a century.

GI Bill Veterans
The first group of GI Bill veterans participate in a parade celebrating the Independence of Mexico. Photo: Instituto Allende

Attracted by the possibility of obtaining academic credits for studies carried out in Mexico, an increasing number of American veterans, with the support of the G.I. Bill, found a place in San Miguel, either to live, or to return frequently, even bringing friends with him, thereby further strengthening the city's economy.

G.I. Bill Continues to Attract Veterans to San Miguel de Allende Today

Today, seventy years after its founding, the Instituto Allende continues to be on the list of schools that the G.I. Bill offers to its affiliates. Each semester American war veterans attend seeking to learn or improve their Spanish or take some of the many art courses the Institute offers. Currently, the Instituto Allende offers G.I.  Bill the Full Immersion Spanish course, which includes not only regular grammar and conversation classes but also educational games, discussion workshops on music and movies in Spanish, as well as lectures and field trips to historical and tourist places in Mexico, which makes learning the language a fun and interesting experience.

With just two semesters of classes in the Full Immersion program, beginning veterans are able to speak and understand Spanish, while those who already have some knowledge considerably improve their language comprehension, conversation, reading and writing skills.  For the more advanced, Full Immersion has the modality of Latin American Letters where the student improves their understanding and interpretation of literary texts, as well as their writing in the Spanish language.

San Miguel de Allende
Instituto Allende reminds students: "Any form of art is a form of power; it causes impact, it can influence changes: it can not only change us, but it makes us change." Photo: Instituto Allende

Another study option for GI Bill veterans at the Instituto Allende is the art workshops, which include sculpture, painting, ceramics, photography, traditional Mexican weaving, and jewelry. The veteran student can unleash their creativity and experience new sensations and personal feelings while learning and applying the various techniques of art.

Seeking Out Educated Teachers for San Miguel de Allende

Meg: How did the Instituto find its teachers?

Rudy: Fred Samuelson and Sylvia Samuelson came for a three-month holiday in Mexico. They arrived in December in San Miguel when Christmas festivities were going on and they felt enchanted with the city, so they stayed. They rented a little apartment up on the hill, and Fred would go out and walk their little dog, and one day he met Stirling Dickinson.

”Where did you study?” Stirling asked.

Fred said, “At Pratt Institute.”

So, Stirling offered him a job teaching painting. That’s how most of the professors came. When there was an archaeologist in town, the archaeology department opened. When there were several writers, the writers’ workshop would open.

The Best of the Best in Education

Meg: So, would the right word be it was kind of organic? Serendipitous?

Rudy: Yes. The magic of San Miguel drew amazing people. That first group of professors chose to live in an unknown place in a little remote city in Mexico, away from the main art scenes in New York, Chicago, and Paris. They came here just wanting to work and wanting to share that work. Every night, different families would host the rest of the faculty, and they would have critiques, and they would enrich themselves within this group.

Instituto Allende
Instituto Allende is itself a work of art, Photo: Ajalexwolf

In the early ‘40s, you could rent a home for $10.00 to $15.00, but you had to use an outhouse for the bathroom, and you would wash in the fountain of the courtyard of the house. But as students started coming, people started fixing rooms up to rent, and a little cluster of apartments owned by foreigners was established.

“Let me call Engelbreck,” someone would say—he had the first student apartment up on the hill.

Strained Relations Between America and Mexico

Meg: “Centers of influence,” is a business term, but what you’re describing is how communities, organizations, or places create the leaders and spread a movement out into the world.

Rudy: Yes, but there was trouble. In 1982, the United States' crackdown on drug trafficking was focused on Mexico. A DEA agent named Enrique Camarena was kidnapped and killed by a cartel leader named Caro Quintero. The U.S. State Department responded by issuing warnings about travel to Mexico. Students stopped coming and suddenly the school had to close. The faculty and workers all were on the payroll and they all had Social Security, and suddenly there was no more income. On a Friday, my mother decided to close the school.

Not Taking No For an Answer

Meg: Was your mother running the school at this point?

Rudy: Yes. My father died in 1968. My mother took charge. She would wake up at 5:00 in the morning and see about preparing breakfast for the students staying in the Instituto Allende Hotel. There were not too many grocery stores in town, and there was no food processing. We grew everything that was cooked. We raised lamb and chickens. Few places were as modern as there are now, and there were no luxury places.

Cathedral
View of the Cathedral from the grounds of Instituto Allende, Photo: Bertrand_Bise

With Stirling Dickinson as director, my mother was the financial administrator. These travel warnings in the ’80s hit hard. One Friday, my mother announced that she had to close the school. She promised severance pay for all the workers, but not in one lump sum. “Okay, we’ll be paying you monthly until we pay you everything,” she said. But the following Monday, a group of professors came to talk to her and said, “What are we going to do? This is our life, so, why don’t we just work here, and see what happens?” That’s when I came into the life of the school.

Setting Up a Financial Plan

Meg: How old were you?

Rudy: Twenty-eight. So, I come in and, with some help, set up a financial business plan. I determined how many courses we had, and what the income for the month was, and what department brought what amount of income. It was very rustic, simple math. I said, “– 22 percent of the income of this month came from the Spanish department; 17 percent came from the painting area…,” like that. Running the school, just keeping the doors open, amounted to so much, so I would apply the percentage of the income for each department and charge the operating expenses proportionally to each one.

Meg: But how did you know how to do this?

Rudy: I went to grade school here in town, where I was one of the favorite students, but my family moved me to Mexico City. It didn’t go well with me, leaving home that early in my life. Coming home for a weekend, I just broke down, and didn’t want to go back. I stayed, but I started having academic problems.

At that time, we didn’t know about the chemical imbalances of the brain. We just thought that you were lazy, or not doing what was expected. I was threatened that if I didn’t shape up, I would face consequences, namely being sent to a military school. So, I ended up in Virginia in a military school run by nuns.

Meg: What a combination.

Rudy: The military part was run by an abusive Navy veteran. I didn’t do well. I was only there for a semester. My mother heard about another school in San Antonio, Texas, so I went there. When I arrived at the San Antonio Academy, Colonel Bondurant said, “You’re not up to snuff with your language, so we’re going to put you back to sixth grade. If you do well, we’ll skip the seventh grade, and put you in the eighth grade.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair” and I started shaping up.

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It Takes One Dedicated Person to Change a Life

Meg: Do you attribute that to the environment, or to your kind of coming into yourself a little bit, or both?

Rudy: I attribute it to a math teacher who changed my life. I just couldn’t get it, and I kept asking him different ways to solve the same problem. He was kind enough and committed enough to explain and over-explain and explain until I got it. Because of him, I could set up those financial plans that have taken the school to today.

The school environment also helped. It was a process of self-discovery about what I could achieve. I started earning ranks – private first class, corporal, sergeant, and then staff sergeant.

I was an F student when I arrived, and I became an Honor Roll student by the end of that year. And there were military contests in which they would give you like 15 orders –like, “March straight, and then turn left, and then go right, and then turn around, and go back.” I won two years in a row. I was named as a person who stands at the front, right-hand side of the platoon, and takes the platoon to the objective. So, I set up my objective being that tall palm tree up on the hill, and then I lead because everybody will follow me.

I finished the sixth grade and went into the seventh grade, and I went to the Colonel, and said, “Colonel, do you remember our meeting? Have I done well enough?”

He says, “Yes.” I got moved into the eighth grade, and three weeks later, there was a mid-term exam in algebra class. It was a multiple-choice exam in which I would do my calculations on the side. When I finished, I had seven equations not solved. I said, “I can’t leave this,” so, I just kind of followed my intuition, filled them in; and got only 100 grades. After that, I knew that I was good at something.

Still for four years, three times a year I planned economically and academically on losing the school. That really affected my perception of myself. I thought at the time that it was my fault. But I’m very proud that I have, up to this point, kept my painting school operating. It’s been very difficult. I’ve had offers because I own the property. I don’t earn a salary because it’s a nonprofit organization and I don’t work for the school, but I get offers to sell the property for a lot of money.

Meg: I’m sure.

Dealing with Bad Times Like an Accordian

Rudy: Sometimes when I have these types of meetings, I go to the school library and just sit there surrounded by the work of all the students, all the books. I got a request yesterday for information about a student who was here in the ‘50s: Walter Yarwood, Canadian. His group is very important in Canada for a style of painting that features very wide strokes, a lot of colors and a lot of texture. He is in the National Gallery of Canada. Many students who have come to the Instituto are in national galleries, either in the United States or in Canada. So, this is my life. Even though I’m not here every day, the school is in my mind.

Meg: Of course. It’s part of your identity.

Instituto Allende
Students at Instituto Allende take pride in their creativity! Photos: Instituto Allende

Rudy: It’s part of my identity, and I have great plans. I see a revival of the school. I know how to deal with the bad times. I’m like an accordion. When it stretches, it stretches. Since 2015, we have stabilized financially and kept the school open. We still have degree programs. We have a very small Bachelor of Visual Arts, with 36 students, and a very successful program like a continuing education program, run by a group of volunteers with professors who also are volunteers. So, we are doing well.

"I Think I Want to Learn"

In 1984, the University of Guanajuato, which we are affiliated with, requested that all academic programs be reviewed and represented in the new educational plan for Mexico. I didn’t have a clue. Through someone I knew, I met Humberto Chavez,.

He said, “Mr. Fernandez”, “What do you want? Do you want me to do the job, or do you want to learn?”

I said, “What’s the difference?"

He said, “Well if I do the job, you will always depend on me or somebody like me. If you learn, you will have the background to make the necessary decisions.” I said, “I think I want to learn”.

Chavez traveled between Mexico City and here. Before he arrived, I would think, “Oh, here he comes again”. Then: “Oh, good, you’re back.” It was so difficult.

He often said, "Do you want to do it or not? You’re wasting your time”.

And I said, “Well, it’s hard, the entire academic lingo, all the developing of academic programs, and all of what is entailed in running the school.”

But, in the end, I’ve done everything. I started as head of the maintenance department and I became Executive Director of the school. I learned, and I’m good at it.

Check out the art produced by current students by visiting Instituto Allende's Facebook page!

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11 thoughts on “The Real Story of San Miguel de Allende and Who Put it On Map”

  1. What a wonderful, amazing, story of ingenuity, courage, entrepreneurship, connections, art, and the mutual love of a beautiful and magical place in Mexico called San Miguel de Allende! To have achieved 70 years of operations at Instituto Allende is amazing and a testament to the power of hard work, perseverance, adaptability, collaboration, the belief in a higher purpose, and loving what you do!

    Reply
  2. Full of inaccuracies about Cossío del Pomar and the origin of the school project, created totally by the Peruvian.

    Reply
  3. I was a student there in 1983, I briefly got to know Nells and listened to her many fascinating stories. I spent a New Years Eve with her playing cards in Mexico City. I knew her to be a smart, kind and beautiful woman. She talked about her life and her family and I feel blessed to have known such a impressive woman.

    Reply
  4. My time at the Instituto in the 1970s was an absolute highlight in my life. James Pinto was a fantastic painter and teacher. After receiving my M.F.A. there, I was given the opportunity to be a guest instructor.
    I have often wished that I had made San Miguel de Allende my permanent home.

    Reply
    • Dale, thanks for sharing your recollections and even your twinge of regret! I can well imagine living and learning there had a big impact and that would continue to call to you!

      Reply
  5. I too attended the Instituto, in 1970, with my mother and her fellow art teachers from Houston. Only the best experience of the many more to come in subsequent years. I return to SMA once or twice a year. To this day, I still have the sculpture piece from 50 years ago I made as a student.

    Reply
  6. I attended The Institutio in the summer of 1961. Had the most amazing experience in art classes. Took figure drawing, painting and Spanish. Went back to finish at Texas Tech. It was the best experience to expand my horizons. My girl friend and I traveled all over on the train and bus. The only way to go from Texas was by train. So safe then, I gained so much out of that experience.

    Reply
    • Maryneil thanks so much for sharing this lovely memory! Travel and art do indeed expand out horizons and I would say San Miguel and Instituto Allende are among the best places possible to do that!

      Reply
  7. My friends family and I lived at the instituto Allende in 1967. My friend mother studied sculpture there. We mer Rudy as a young man. As I remember he was a bullfighter. He was very handsome and very well mannered.. I’m not sure how a Doctor Dobarganes was related to him but he visited our apartment when one of the children was unwell. Such beautiful memories of my time there.

    Reply
    • What a wonderful memory Raven! Thank you for sharing it with us! The Instituto is an amazing place and it was a privilege to meet Rudy and hear his perspective on San Miguel.

      Reply

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