Saving the fallen women of San Miguel de Allende, one step at a time
Marta López and Santiago Guillardo Munez, her husband of 38 years, are on a crusade to save the fallen women of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Their not-so-secret weapon? Shoes.
Founded nearly 500 years ago as a stopover along central Mexico's silver route, my adopted hometown is famous for its UNESCO-protected colonial architecture, a burgeoning culinary scene, and an almost-weekly docket of fiestas. But this high-desert enclave, about a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City, does have a few drawbacks - including lots of broken, uneven sidewalks and hilly, cobblestoned streets that often trip up unsuspecting women who favor style over comfort.
Enter San Miguel Shoes, a family-run business whose hand-made products have become some of the city's most popular souvenirs.
Marta grew up in San Miguel, and the petite, former fourth-grade teacher had no trouble negotiating its treacherous streets in teetering high heels (a still-common sight among nimble young Mexican fashionistas). But when she and Santiago - a former accountant for a shoe company in nearby Leon - opened their first store here in 1981, she noticed that many of San Miguel's American and Canadian visitors were taking tumbles and experiencing foot and ankle pain during their stays. So Marta convinced Santiago they needed to come up with a sturdy yet attractive solution.
His answer was the "combat cocktail sandal," concocted of snug elastic straps that supported the entire foot and a corrugated, polyurethane sole that wouldn't slip on wet cobblestones. It was an immediate hit.
More than three decades and 400 styles later, the combat cocktail sandal is still número uno, available in dozens of colors and accounting for almost 15% of the 150,000 pairs of San Miguel Shoes sold each year from Australia to The Netherlands.
The pilgrims who make their way to the original store on Relox Street, where the elegant, impeccably dressed Marta is slowed by arthritis but still holds court every day, are now an evenly divided mix of gringas and Mexicanas. The latter prefer the company's glitzier, high-heeled styles, says Marta, but Americans and Canadians"of a certain age" remain her most loyal customers - and her most effective source of advertising.
"They tell all the friends who admire their shoes, 'go see Marta,'" she says.
Indeed, notes San Miguel tour guide and author Joseph Toone, "my ex-wife bought them by the barrel and every female visitor I've had from the North buys at least one pair." (Full disclosure: I own five pairs and am eyeing several more...a compelling number, considering that until we bought our part-time home here last winter, our one-suitcase-only lifestyle precluded anything more than black flats and a pair of hiking shoes.)
Marta, who is Toone's neighbor, "calls me, and most everyone, 'handsome/pretty,'" he adds. "She runs a tight ship and doesn't suffer fools...walking looks painful, but she is always smiling."
Shopping at the source in San Miguel certainly translates to bargains: the company's original sandal costs only 500 Mexican pesos a pair (about $29 US) while ankle boots and fancier models go up to 750 pesos (about $43).
Although Santiago claims some men have resorted to buying the company's shoes in large women's sizes, he says he has been too busy coming up with new designs and filling orders at the two San Miguel factories to worry about male shoppers searching for stylish assistance in navigating the town's streets.
But soon, Santiago adds, even San Miguel's "fallen men" will be able to get a leg up: a men's model is in the works, just in time for Christmas.