05 July 2008

Grain and Silver: A Day in Guanajuato

On Saturday, June 28, we made a trip to nearby Guanajuato, a city I have passed through before. In fact, I have two photographs from there on my office wall: one of Guanajuato’s colorful buildings spread across mountains and valleys, which render the view like a cubist painting, and one of the giant statue of Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez, el Pipila, a hero of the Mexican War for Independence from Spain. Our tour began at the monument and its panoramic view of the city. From there we walked down to the town center, across from the impressive Teatro Juarez building.

Our tour guide took us into the main church, whose ox-blood dome stands out from above. Like so many colonial churches, Templo de San Diego is lavishly beautiful, in the Mexican baroque style. The church doors are studded with grotesques, which apparently serve an atropaic function. As we went to leave, we paused for a bell ringer—a young man who used his whole body to pull the rope attached high in the tower.

Our next stop was a governmental building under restoration, the state congress building. After admiring the bureaucracy, we paused on Callejon de Besos, the Kissing Alley where a young man recited the tragic story of two young lovers who kissed across nigh-touching balconies above the narrow passage.

At the Hidalgo Market we had twenty minutes to shop before we would continue on to glance across at Alhóndiga de Granarias, the granary, so famous for its role in the war for independence. We stood across from the building, now a history and art museum, as our guide told in five minutes or less the story of a major battle in Mexico’s War for Independence. Here it was that on September 28, 1810, an Indian miner Juan Jose de los Reyes, el Pipila, set the massive gates to the granary ablaze trapping the Spaniards and loyalists inside. The Spaniards would take revenge by executing four of the leaders of the Revolution—including Miguel Hildalgo and Ignacio Allende—and hanging their decapitated heads outside the Alhóndiga for ten years, 1811-1821, as a grisly reminder (Foster 112).

Today, with a world food crisis, the relationship of that crisis with corn, grain staple of the Americas, and oil, Mexico’s chief export the role of the Granary in Mexico’s War for Independence seems to suggest other symbolic meanings.

The last stop of the tour was the house, now a museum, where Diego Rivera was born. In addition to restored furnishings from Rivera’s childhood, the museum houses interesting, if minor works by the Mexican artist well known for his murals and his marriage to the painter Frida Kahlo. Among the paintings on display are portraits, including a nude of Frida, studies of European paintings, and paintings illustrating the Maya Popul Vu. The illustrations of the Popul Vu were most interesting to me because they seemed studies of a pre-Columbian culture that is not a part of Rivera’s native region, but, of course, of his national culture. Juxtaposed with the paintings in European style, the Maya illustrations speak to the complex roots of Rivera’s style and subjects. Our time there was short, though, and a trip to the gift shop was so hurried, I found myself with $20 in postcards (which would not be the most foolish expense of the day.)

What we didn’t see on the arranged tour in Guanajuato was what I had hoped we would visit, the mummies for which Guanajuato is famous. The “mummies” are one hundred plus naturally preserved bodies, which were exhumed in the late nineteenth century to make more room in the cemetery. Everywhere in Mexico are signs of dia de los muertos—skulls and skeletons dressed in various costumes and posed in various activities, reminders that this is a culture who depict the dead with a certain irony and a certain pleasure, which collapses the boundaries between this life and what follows. As a writer, the mummies especially interested me, and I would have thought they would interest other writers.

Yet, even after I and others expressed the interest, we were discouraged from visiting the mummies. A guide told us that we didn’t want to see that—too macabre—but that we could go, if we wished, on our own by taxi and meet the group later for lunch. Of course, that would mean we would miss the Rivera museum, along with what I would have been quite happy to miss (i.e., a trip to a market where there were no more goods than in the one in San Miguel) or even the cursory nod at the Granary building, which we did not enter. It really didn’t seem an option. I believe that it wasn’t so much our interest (which had not been polled before the trip) or the macabre nature of the site, as the tour’s prearranged agenda, which included a long lunch, that prevented us from visiting the mummies or spending sufficient time at either the Granary or the Rivera home.

To add to the disappointment, the bulk of our afternoon was taken up with an expensive lunch, which we could have opted out of—although it would have been awkward and inconvenient, since we had to get back on the buses to go to the restaurant, some distance from the center and near the Valencia silver mine. While the food was good, it wasn’t so remarkable—e.g., characteristic of the region--as to write about, and we were never given a menu at the restaurant, so we had no idea how much we were spending when we ordered. It was, in my estimation, a poor value in both money and precious time. Of course, I am reminded that tourism is Mexico’s third largest source of foreign revenue, but I would have preferred to have spent those pesos in Mexico differently.

After the lunch check was paid, we could go visit the Valencia silver mine, go shopping again, or visit another colonial church, el Templo la Valencia, a beautiful church in the Churriguresque style, dedicated to San Cayetano. I made the fortunate choice of visiting the silver mine—particularly fortunate because it required little time so I was also able to visit the Templo, too, briefly.

Guanajuato is one of Mexico’s silver mining towns and so particularly desirable to the Spanish and later to others (60% of the mines are now owned by Canadians, we learned.) In A Brief History of Mexico, Foster explains, “Zacatecas became the third-largest city in New Spain early in the 17th century; only the capital and Puebla were larger. It would be joined by other silver cities, Guanajuato, Taxco and San Louis de Potosi among them, changing what had been considered by the Aztecs to be barbarian deserts into wealthy enclaves.” We visited one shaft set up with old drills and figures to replicate the workers, but the experience of being in the shaft, descending into the dank, close corridor—while aware we were only going a limited way, with a guide--was more telling than either the guide’s exposition or viewing mannequins bent over the drills. At the end of the shaft is an ofrenda to the patron saint of miners.

This day-trip tour might be satisfying for someone who wants a very quick walk through of the city, especially for shopping. For me, though, there was much wasted time in a limited time frame, and I felt like a tourist, rather than someone who has traveled extensively in Mexico. The tour didn’t give me a chance to connect with anything – not the monuments of the war for independence or even the Rivera museum, the two prominent stops on the tour. And, I never saw the mummies. But, I did get to glance at the city, the museum and the churches, and to notice a few things—a scroll of iron against the sky, a blue-tiled second story, the pock marks of bullets on the Granary walls. . . . and to know I need to return.

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