It’s no wonder UNESCO labeled Guanajuato’s historical city center a World Heritage Site. This place is bleeding history, architecture and art. Top that off with a world-reknowned university and warm and friendly residents, Guanajuato is MUST see for anyone visiting Mexico. Forget the Americanized resorts of Cancun, Mazatlan and Cabo San Lucas, head for the hills. My journey through Mexico’s colonial history has been rewarding and exciting. Never once have I felt insecure or afraid. Despite the fears and warnings of the uninformed stateside, I ventured alone and with new friends through villages, cities and vast deserts. There’s nothing to be fearful of here save a few fearless drivers.
Our neighbors in Mexico eagerly welcome us with open arms. And as my memory drifts back to a tiny taco stand in La Paz, the echos of a man perhaps with a beer or two too many in his belly, but his jovial feeling toward the visitor notwithstanding, “You are my friend, Mr. American. My friend. Mexico is for you. I give you the key to my country. Mexico is for you.”
But digging somewhat deeper into Mexico’s rich and turbulent past is also a road few American’s have ventured. But hanging in Guanajuato I found myself surrounded by history. Unlike other parts of Mexico where ruins and artifacts lend an eye into pre-Hispanic Mexican history — civilizations and cities of Olmecs, Aztecs, Mixtecs, Mayas and Zapotecs –Guanajuato opens the door into Mexico’s recent history.
I learned that that in colonial Mexican times a person’s place in society was determined by skin color, parentage and birthplace. Penninsulares or gachupines, Spanish-born colonists. while small in number were at the top of the ladder and were considered nobility in what the Spanish crown labled Mexico — Nuevo Espana. Next down the ladder were criollos, born of Spanish parents in Nueva Espana. So by the early 1800’s many criollos had gained immense wealth through mining, agriculture or ranching. Fearing threats from British and French expansion in North America, King Carlos III (1759 – 88) tried to bring the colony under more strict control while funneling more wealth from Nueva Espana to the crown. He reformed the colonial administration and due to his paranoia of disloyalty, he expelled the Jesuits from the entire Spanish empire. This would provide to be a bad move because the Jesuits were responsible for much of the missionary work, education and agriculture. Plus, the majority of them were criollos.
What’s more, in 1804, the Spanish Crown delivered a fateful blow to the Catholic Church by decreeing most of the church’s assets to the crown. As such, the church had to call in many debts which hit the Criollos hard. This resulted in massive discontent. Just a few years later when France’s Napoloean Bonaparte occupied most of Spain and put his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne, there was no longer any direct Spanish control over Nueva Espana. Thus, rivalry between the penninsulares and criollos in the colonly escalated.
In 1810 a criollo based in Queretaro, not far from Guanajuato, planned a rebellion. News of these plans leaked to colonial authorities and the organizer’s house was raided. On September 16th, a member of the rebellion, Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest from the town of Delores (today called Delores de Hildago), called upon his parishioners and delivered his now famous call to rebellion – the Gritto de Dolores:
[ My children, a new dispensation comes to us this day. Are you ready to receive it? Will you be free? Will you make the efffort to recover from the hated Spaniards the lands stolen from your forefathers 300 years ago? We must act at once… Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government. ]
Initially, Hildago’s gang of rebels grew and took the cities of San Miguel, Celaya and Guanajuato. It was in Guanajuato where Spanish loyalists and troops barricaded themselves into the Alhondiga de Granaditas, a massive grain and seed warehouse, when Hildago and 20,000 rebels marched into Guanajuato. It looked as if the Spaniards would be able to hold out. But on September 28, 1810, Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez, a young miner known as El Pipila, tied a stone slab to his back protecting himself from Spanish bullets, made his way to the gates of the fortress and set them on fire. While the Sapniards choked on the smoke, the rebels moved in and took the Alhondiga, massacring most of those inside. This marked the first major rebellion victory in Mexico’s War of Independence.
The rebellion didn’t last too long and the Spanish took their revenge by executing and beheading its four leaders, Hildago, Adama, Allende and Jimenez and then displayed the heads in cages hung on the four outside corners of the Alhondiga from 1811 to 1821. Today the Alhondiga is a history museum and the cages used to display the heads of these heroes of the Mexican Independence are on display. Walking up the staircases of the Alhondigas I was greeted with dramatic murals painted by Chavez Morado of Guanajuato and Mexican history.
Another museum stop for me while staying in Guanajuato was a trip to the former home of Diego Rivera, a self-admitted Marxist. Many skteches, water colors and paintings grace the walls of his former residence as well as much of the original furnishings from his time in Guanajuato. I was also treated to an un-expected surpise of an exhibition of many of Francisco Toledo, the well respected artist from Oaxaca.
I could hang longer in Guanajuato. But Guatemala is calling. It’s impossible to uncover accurate information about road conditions going south. My plan is to head to San Miguel Allende then Valle de Bravo and onto Taxco. Once we’ve taken in the silver jewlry capital of the world in Taxco, we’ll move onto Oaxaca where I hope to join in the festivities of Dia de Los Muertos — the day of the dead.
Photos: (1) Alhondiga de Granaditas formerly a grain and corn storage complex, prison and now historical museum; (2 &3) images from Chavez Morado’s wonderful murals on the stairwells of the Alhondiga de Granaditas; (4) From the Hall of Heroes in the Alhondiga de Granaditas museum; not very visible is an enternal flame burning in the memory of those who fought for independence. (5) One of the cages that held the heads of the leaders of the rebellion including Miguel Hidalgo; (6) another image from Chavez’s murals this of the beheaded Hidalgo in his cage.