Of All the Towns in All the World: La Ultima Gringa’s Daughter

Of All the Towns in All the World: La Ultima Gringa’s Daughter

By Natalie Taylor


Georgeann Johnson’s mother, Betty Kempe, came down to explore San Miguel with her three daughters in 1957. Betty was a widow and she had heard about the city from a friend. San Miguel was different in those days—there were only about 100 ex-pats living here; the only hotels were at Instituto Allende and Hotel San Francisco. But there was a good school for the girls, Augusta Irving’s one-room schoolhouse where children were taught in English and Spanish. As a budding, non-conformist teenager Georgeann loved it all. It felt like and adventure and she was free to wander the city streets unconstrained. The move for her was a godsend because it liberated her from the restrictive high school back in Texas. 


Within two years of their stay here, her mother remarried and they went off to Europe where the girls were put in a boarding school in Switzerland. It was here that Georgeann fell in love with skiing and when it came time to choose a university in the US, she asked which had the best skiing. That is how she ended up at University of Colorado, majoring in French. When she graduated, she moved to San Francisco during the “summer of love” in 1967. This suited her style perfectly and she fell in with a hippie crowd living a free life, doing odd jobs—just enough to get by. After twelve years of this, she decided to get a teaching certificate and became a Montessori kindergarten teacher, and eventually the director. She never married.


In the meantime, her mother had returned to San Miguel, had bought the iconic Villa Santa Monica and took up residence there. Georgeann visited her frequently, keeping her connection to San Miguel alive. Then in 1991, she organized a women’s spirituality seminar in San Miguel in which 30 women participated. After that, she decided that San Miguel was the place that had what she needed, and she returned here for good. 


While here, Georgeann became involved with a group of women in a project to help rural women make a living. It began as an embroidery project and eventually the women were taught to hook rugs and sell them—it was the beginning of Rancheritas. From this sprang the idea of giving scholarships to girls so they could continue their education up to a university degree. In 1995 the two ideas came together as Mujeres en Cambio. 


Georgeann and her mother live in a house near the Lavaderos of El Chorro (Betty sold Villa Santa Monica in 1988). Georgeann kiddingly calls her mother “La Ultima Gringa,” because it’s exactly what Betty is. All those who were part of their initial ex-pat community are gone, but Betty lives on; she will be turning 100 years old tomorrow, July 9. Let us join her daughters in wishing Betty a most happy centennial birthday! And may Georgann have the fortune of inheriting her mother’s genes. 


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