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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

History and Culture in Guanajuato City, Mexico

Guanajuato City in central Mexico was named a "World Heritage City" in 1988. Its colorful personality is like vivid gemstones fused through centuries of geo-political heat and pressure.

Its name is from an early indigenous language, “Quanax huato," which means “hilly place of frogs." 

Frogs are not as common as they used to be, nor are the metals, including silver and gold (lead, copper, iron, tin, and mercury) that drew miners.

The first people known to live here were the Otomi and they called it Mo-o-mi, "the place of metals." Legend suggests that the area was so rich in minerals that, at one time, gold rocks could be picked up off the ground.

Layered with colorful tradition and violent history, Mexican culture has evolved over the last five hundred years creating a unique blend of Native American and European that we know as modern-day Mexican.

The resulting architecture, art, food and drink as well as religion, music and dance beautifully illustrate this blend.

In Pre-Columbian times, the central plateau of Meso-America held numerous nomadic tribes with areas devoted to agriculture. Toltecs and Aztecs knew metal-working and used gold, silver and copper to create ornamentation for their elite as well and ceremonial pieces, as well as practical tools. Other common materials included jade, feathers, stone and clay.

Aztec clay creations

An Invasion

After Hernan Cortez destroyed the Aztec nation around 1520, a rapid influx of Europeans to "New Spain" caused turmoil and tragedy. Silver was discovered in the mountains surrounding the Guanajuato River Valley in 1546. The news in Spain: "God has blessed us with riches."

illustration from:  The Silver Industry of Mexico

Four mines were started in the hills and Haciendas were built along the river with many acres devoted to metal working. Hacienda managers were sent to run the haciendas and to assure that the owners paid the proper taxes to the government. Priests were sent by the Catholic Church to make sure the hacienda gave the appropriate tithes. 

Ex-Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera 

Indigenous people were captured from surrounding areas and forced to work the mines. The oak forests that once covered the Sierra Guanajuato were cut down and burned as fuel. 

Because mercury, used to extract the silver from its native earthbound form is poisonous, and the mining shafts were dangerous, indigenous slaves had a short life-expectancy. The population declined rapidly.

Photograph from The Silver Industry in Mexico

By controlling the flow of water and its availability for irrigation, the Spanish hacienda managers controlled farming and indigents were forced into working for the crown. Since the heart of the town is at the bottom of a ravine between mountains, it is not surprising that flooding caused devastating damage to the settlement. Eventually, a tunnel was dug by miners to subvert the river underground. After this, the town developed over the river.

Spanish merchants grew rich from trading in silver. An underground market developed in Manila and merchants hid parts of the cargo, avoiding taxes and hoarding the extraneous trading.

Hacienda Business Counsel Room

Private Chapel brought from the cathedral in Jaen, Spain and reinstalled at Hacienda San Gabriel de Barrera

An Uprising

The Spanish-born upper class lived in opulence, but not all of them approved of the poor treatment of indigenous people. An exquisite history museum, the Alhóndiga de Granaditas in the heart of Guanajuato tells the story of those who rose up to speak out and fight for the workers.

Alhóndiga de Granaditas
The building itself is a monument to the struggle between insurgent natives and mestizos and the ruling class from Imperial Spain. Originally a Spanish-owned granary, it became a fortress where Spanish loyalists hid in fear of rebels.

Catholic Priest Miguel Hidalgo, (Father of the Mexican fight for Independence) joined with Ignacio AllendeJuan Aldama, and José Mariano Jiménez to oust Juan Antonio de Riaño y Bárcena, the ranking Spanish officer at the Alhóndiga.

Depiction of Miguel Hidalgo by José Chávez Morado

Juan José de los Reyes Martínez, "El Pípila," a strong local miner tied a large flat stone to his back to protect himself from rocks thrown down to kill him and spread petroleum on the wooden door and lit it using a torch. After the door burned, the insurgents stormed into the Alhóndiga. The people hiding there, many of them Spanish families from the outskirts of the city, were murdered.

Mural by José Chávez Morado

The four leaders of the fight (Hidalgo, Allende, Aldama and Jiménez,) determined to oust all the Spanish from Mexico, were later captured and beheaded. The four heads were displayed on metal forms shaped like birdcages from the corners of the Alhóndiga to discourage other independence movements. The heads remained there for ten years, until Mexico finally gained independence on September 28, 1821

Mexican Mix

Now, this town is rich with color and personality, gifted with fight and spirit. Now the battles are against drugs and government corruption. These demons continue to hinder the country, but the culture blossoms, wanting to thrive. The city is filled with students to keep the vibe young and with hard-working citizens who strive for a good life. The arts are alive. Beautiful city parks and fountains, quaint neighborhoods, and gardens invite tourists to enjoy a leisurely stroll. The food is outstanding.
Theater Juarez for the Performing Arts

City Monument

Neighborhood Plaza with Fountain Surrounded by Shops and Restaurants

Beautiful 3-Story Guest Home

Artist Diego Rivera grew up in Guanajuato and his childhood home is now a museum filled with his artwork and memories.

Fountain in Childhood home of Diego Rivera, Guanajuato
Flower Seller by Diego Rivera
"Flower Seller" painting of Diego Rivera, 1941

Underground Road System

The Guanajuato River has been redirected by tunnels under the city since the days of silver mining. And, since 1980, by continuing to tunnel under the city, a complete network of underground roads have been completed.
Entry to Underground Street System.

Some Good Old Stories

One of the most bizarre attractions in Guanajuato is the The Mummy Museum. The mummified bodies of ordinary citizens buried between 1850 and 1950 were disinterred for purposes of freeing up space and for collecting taxes. Bodies were preserved (mummified) by the natural elements in the ground, but if a family wanted a relative to remain buried, they came up with the tax money. Otherwise, the relative was dug and stored in a more efficient way--in a warehouse. Eventually, because folks were so curious about the bodies, and so many came to see them, officials began to charge for visits, Many took parts of the mummies as souvenirs or relics. Finally, the Museum was created for preserving the phenomenal. Visual artists in this region frequently include skeletons and mummies in their designs.

A glass case separates visitors from one of the mummy exhibits on display during a 2003 visit to the mummy museum in Guanajuato, Mexico. (Chicago Tribune/Terrence Antonio James)

Another must-see is the Don Quixote Museum. A vast art collection in a modest building (free to the public on Tuesdays) pays tribute to the literary character created by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra in Spain and published in 1605.

The city has its own monument to Don Quixote and his loyal Sancho Panza as well as an annual festival with music, theater and opera: International Cervantino Festival.

Sancho Panza & Don Quixote at plaza Teatro Cervantes

The Festival Cervantino is in October. Can't think of a better time or reason to go see Guanajuato.