Friday, November 11, 2011


Yesterday we got a guide and went to Guanajuato (the largest city in the state that holds San Miguel de Allende.   I first went there almost twenty years ago and before he became president, I met Vicente Fox there (when he was governor).   The city is much larger than San Miguel and grew up initially as a mining town (you can still see the walls of a working mine - near the top of one of the hills that surrounds the city).

On our way out of San Miguel we encountered a pilgrimage that happens about this year which brings people to a ranch away from the city where there is a small church, where miracles happen.   People make the trek to this place annually either seeking miracles or expressing thanks.   They come by horse, foot and bicycle as well as car.  The walk is about a three day trek from San Miguel.

As you come into Guanajuato your are struck with three things.  First, there is an observation area from the top where you can see the beautiful colors of the buildings.  Second, the downtown area, which is very old, has a lot of streets that are pedestrian only.  Third, as you enter, from at least one part, you actually go under the city in a series of tunnels that were designed to divert traffic but also to handle water (originally).   When you come to see the sights - you park and walk.

There is a classic theater there which was completed near the end of the reign of Porfirio Díaz.    We sat in this magnificent smallish theater and discussed the relative merits of Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz.   Juarez was president from 1857-1872.  He is credited with a lot of things - but from my perspective his presidency evokes more founding traits than substantive results.  A lot of what he did was to redefine the nation.   Díaz was President from 1876-1911.   He ruled as a dictator but he also completed a lot of infrastructure during his presidency including public markets, roads, and transportation systems.   He was eventually deposed and spent the last four years of his life in France.   There are plenty of good histories about the evolution of the presidents of Mexico.   My favorite is a book by Enrique Krause.   What you are struck with is how uneven the histories become.   Many of the presidents of Mexico ended their terms violently.

One of our first stops, after the Teatro, was the Museum of Don Quixote.  The museum was funded by a publisher named Pedro Garfias who emigrated to Mexico from Spain.  He spent time in Spain in one of Franco's concentration camps (as a Spanish Jew) and at one point traded cigarettes for a copy of Cervantes' novel.   When I read Don Quixote, I was struck by the notion that it is hard to tell who is crazy in the book.   On the surface, Quixote is nuts - going on these quests.   But the book can be read on quite a different level where Quixote is the sane one.   Garfias read the book as an inspiration about the possibilities of life.  When he reached Mexico he became very successful but also began a collection of Quixote-ana in all sorts of media.   This is a first rate museum with hundreds of Quixote artifacts - paintings, weavings, sculpture, ceramics.

We also went up to the main building of the University of Guanajuato, which is one of the most prestigious public universities in Mexico.   It's main building is famed for its steps - which are many and steep.

We also visited two of the churches in the city - since this is a large city there is a bishop here.  From my view the smaller church next to the Teatro (San Diego de Alcala) is more impressive.

We then went up to the Aldondiga.   When Mexico began to separate from Spain four major figures started a movement.  They eventually amassed a group (mob) of about 25,000 people and went to Guanajuato.   They stormed the newly constructed (1809) grain exchange.   There are lots of heroic stories about this relatively short encounter - and lots of violence.   The mayor of the city first blockaded the city then decided to gather the 200 most prominent citizens in the Aldondiga along with 300 soldiers.  The building is built around a patio - so the rebels were able to lob stones into the center.   But for a while the soldiers were able to hold them off until (according to legend) one person strapped a large rock to his back and was able to avoid the soldier's shots and burned one of the main entrances.    During the siege the mayor peeked out and was shot in the eye.  The rebels eventually broke through the burned door and killed everyone inside.

Eventually the four main protagonists against Spanish rule were betrayed and captured and executed.  As a sign to the population they were beheaded and their skulls were placed in four containers (second photo) where they stayed for a decade.    When you enter this building all that history is omnipresent.  Like the GPO in Dublin, you can still see bullet holes in the outside masonry.   The building now houses a pretty good museum.  Yesterday there were a couple of groups of school children so you could get an idea of what it might have been like to be shut in with 500 people.

The city has a third attraction, which is out of downtown.  Like much of Mexico, the state of Guanajuato is in the desert.   For much of the city's history people were buried above ground in wooden caskets.  Some of those bodies were eventually exhumed when the descendants were not able to pay taxes necessary to maintain the cemeteries.  What they found is that, as opposed to those buried in the ground, the bodies above ground mummified.  The city has a museum of some of these remains.  The museum is eerie, tragic and a bit macabre.   In the middle of the museum there are some infants in this condition and a series of photos, that were common at one point, of mother's holding their dead infants all dressed up.

What struck me about the day is how all those things we saw tied together.   From the pilgrims in the morning to all the things we saw in Guanajuato they involved the possibilities of the human spirit - some elevated, some optimistic, some violent.

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