An unconventional life

By Sam Decker
One night in 1948 at the Cucaracha, a San Miguel institution then located in the center of town, a young art student from Chicago with Striking blond hair got herself into trouble. Dotty Vidargas was most likely the only woman in the establishment wearing pants. This alone would have been enough to turn heads, but by declaring that her skill on horseback matched that of any picador in town, she caused such a commotion that a group of local men challenged her to participate in the bull­fight the following day. She accepted, and after receiving minimal instruction, she and her horse were shoved into the ring amidst a roaring crowd.
“They told me not to go to the middle of the ring, to let the bull come to me,” remembers Mrs. Vidargas, who has rid­den horses all her life. “Well of course, I did the opposite. I went straight into the middle of the ring.” Evidently she sur­vived. She received further training and went on to become a talented picador, earning the title Coneja, after the famous bullfighter, Conejo.

Like many others after her and a few before, Mrs. Vidargas was an artist who came to San Miguel intending only to stay for a short while and never left. What sets her apart is her remarkable story and the incredible impact she has had on the town. She and her husband designed, built and decorated many San Miguel houses. Today she owns the inte­rior design business, Casa Coloniales, and a real estate company, both located on Canal 36. “There are so many stories. There are just so many stories, I really don’t know where to begin,” reflects Mrs. Vidargas, as she sits behind her desk. Her hair is an elegant whirl of bright white, but her eyes are brighter. They retain the vitality of a young woman—a vitality that makes her otherwise unbelievable stories quite effortless to believe.It would be difficult to put it more aptly than Susan Cordelli, owner of Casa Schuck and Casa Cordelli, who has known Mrs. Vidargas since she was a child. “Dotty was this real brassy, ballsy American girl who came to San Miguel and fell in love.”
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Mrs. Vidargas was raised in Aster Place on the North Shore of Chicago, where her father owned two metallurgi­cal companies. She left Wellesley College in her sophomore year to join the army. Following her service, she was accepted into the American Academy of Art in Chicago. “That was what I want­ed to do. I wanted to paint,” she explains.Mrs. Vidargas, already an unconven­tional young woman, was reluctantly preparing to begin a conventional career in advertising. Then on the day of gradu­ation a good friend told her about San Miguel. He convinced her to go with him to study at the Escuela de Bellas Artes under the GI bill.

When her friend missed the train, Mrs. Vidargas set out alone.
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After a few snags at the border involving lost luggage, a marriage pro posal and a narrow escape, she was on her way to San Miguel on the Pullman train. After her two-day journey across a foreign country she felt exhausted and lonely, a feeling that was enhanced when the train left her literally alone with her luggage at 1:30am, almost three kilome­ters from town. She was able to catch one of the two or three cabs working at the time of her arrival in San Miguel. It was a warm June night in 1947.Ricardo Vidargas, her youngest son, animatedly recalls the story of his moth­er’s first night in a hotel on Correo, opposite the post office—a story that he has heard more times, and in greater detail, than anyone else. “This guy with a sarape and a hat opens the door, and in the dark all she could see were his eyes.
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The room was horrendous. No blankets and a hard mattress.”Of her first impressions of San Miguel, Mrs. Vidargas utters with polite restraint: “I was really not very happy with the whole thing.”Her situation improved when she moved to where the rest of the GIs were staying at the slightly less primitive Casa Arias on Mesones.Studying at Bellas Artes, then under the direction of Stirling Dickinson, an artist also from Chicago, she quickly joined the small crowd of expatriate artists associated with the school. David Alfaro Siqueiros, the great Mexican muralist, was painting the walls at the time.”We were crazy gringos,” says Mrs. Vidargas. “But at the same time we were all serious about our art and about learn­ing Spanish.”Bullfighting was only one expression of Mrs. Vidargas’ youthful defiance. “I was always a rebel, I was always an ath­lete and so forth. I was used to a lot of independence in the States. So when I got here I acted the same way. I was doing things that nice Mexican women never did. Men would stare. They weren’t used to American girls.”
Then she met a local man named Pepe Vidargas at a bowling match at the Fronton Club, which was located on Hidalgo and Insurgentes. When they were married in 1948, Mrs. Vidargas adopted San Miguel as her permanent home.”She gave up a style of life that she was used to in Chicago by moving to San Miguel,” observes Ricardo. “The love must have been great.”Mrs. Vidargas fondly remembers the simplicity of her early days in San Miguel. “In the beginning we didn’t have any telephones. We had a boy called a Mandadero who would take notes to everybody. That was the only way we could really communicate. And then when we got a few telephones there was an operator who always knew everything about everybody. I’d call her and she’d say, ‘Are you looking for Pepe?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes,’ and she’d say, ‘He’s at the Franton club.’ And lots of times she wouldn’t pick up and we’d have to send someone over and tell her to please answer the phone.”

Friday, February 8,2008, Atencion
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In the decades that followed, the couple nurtured four children and three businesses. In the early 1950’s they opened a dairy called Lecheria Victoria, where the Banamex now stands on the corner of Hidalgo and Canal.With the help of a dairy engineer from Wisconsin and some equipment from Sears Roebuck, they became the first people in San Miguel to pasteurize milk. They sold Olay butter, ice cream, frozen chickens and turkeys.”We were about thirty years ahead of our time, we really were,” says Mrs. Vidargas. “We used to have a man in a white jacket delivering milk in bottles.”As a child, Ricardo was mesmer­ized by the technology used at the store. “We would stop by and there would be all these electronics. The pas­teurizers were just these cans with a few lights, but that was good enough for us to think that it was a space ship or something.”In 1965, they opened an antique shop across the street. Mrs. Vidargas drew fom her art background to creat her own interior design work. Eventually they closed the dairy to give all their time to running the busi­ness that continues to exist as Casa Coloniales. “All the early foreigners that came here knew Dotty and worked with her because she was the person in town that did the building, and she was the one that had the resources for furni­ture.”Dotty Vidargas is still a mainstay in San Miguel. Not only does she head both her interior design and real estate businesses, but she is actively involved in a number of community organiza­tions. For years, she and a handful of others have been in the process of restoring Atotonilco, an international historical monument located near San Miguel. She is a member of Va For San Miguel, a group working to protect the town from the damage of irresponsible development, and among other things, she still retains her position as treasur­er of the Kennel Club.”I was supposed to be here for six months and now I’ve been here for 60 years,” says Mrs. Vidargas.