Rodolfo “Rudy” Fernandez
Rarely, in the modern world, does any school, much less an art school, revolutionize the
life of a place, but the Instituto Allende has done that. The Mexican town of San Miguel
de Allende, with its cobbled streets and stone buildings, is internationally known as a
cultural center, with roots in the Mexican Revolution. Rodolfo “Rudy” Fernandez, the
Instituto’s Director, also has deep roots in the place. I talked with him about the
exhilarating and sometimes torturous road the Instituto has taken and how closely that
history is linked with his family story.
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.
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.
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.
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, composers. Among them was Jose Mojica, a Chicago
opera singer who became a movie actor in the 1930s and moved to San Miguel de
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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 that these foreigners were going to create something worthwhile?
Rudy: In the 1920s, President Alvaro Obregon had 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
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.”
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 [Hectareas 17:44] 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
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?
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.
Meg: Ah! And how did your mother become part of this story? How did she meet
Rudy: Well, that’s an interesting story.
Meg: Tell me.
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.
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, 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?
Rudi: 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, through
General Beteta 29:05, cleared up the situation, and they were all authorized to come
back into Mexico.
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.
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.
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, and 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
”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 archeologist in town, the archeology department opened.
When there were several writers, the writers’ workshop would open.
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.
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 were established.
“Let me call Engelbreck,” someone would say—he had the first student apartment up
on the hill.
There were mainly two seasons. The winter season, January, February, and March
was the snowbirds coming to a warmer climate. The summer program ran June,
July, and August. The rest of the year, attendance was very low, although we had
formal programs, a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, BFA, and an MFA, Master of Fine
Arts degree. It was very unique, because all the courses were taught by this group of
teachers that for some reason arrived in San Miguel and started teaching.
The best of the best was here, and later on, those students who came and studied
went back to the United States, where art was becoming very important in
universities. Many universities started opening art faculties, and the people that
studied here were the ones that were heading those departments. They were talking
to their students about their experience in Mexico, and that’s how we got the
incoming foreign students.
Meg: “Centers of influence,” is a business term, but what you’re describing is how
communities, or 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 payroll, and they all had Social Security, and suddenly there was no more
income. On a Friday, my mother decided to close the school.
Meg: Was your mother running the school at this point?
Rudy: Yes. My father had 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 what there is now, and there were no
With Stirling Dickinson as director, my mother was the financial administrator. These
travel warnings in the 80’s 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.
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.
Meg: Do you attribute that to the environment, or to you 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
the 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.
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 color, 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.
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.
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.