Pulitzer Prize–winning poet W. D. Snodgrass once said of his wintering in San Miguel de Allende: “I think it pays to get out of your mother country, the place where you formed your basic restraints and limitations.” Echoing that sentiment, and drawn by cheap living in a colonial town, hundreds of foreign writers and artists have settled in this central Mexican locale since the 1930s. So have thousands more who simply craved a sunny place to retire, where domestic help and nursing cost a fraction of what they do at home. Annual legions of tourists have followed. San Miguel is not unique, havens of US and Canadian retirees now dotting Mexico from Ensenada to Mérida, but it was probably the first such enclave and is certainly the best known.

San Miguel is therefore worth studying for what it suggests about the long-standing...

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