Monday, June 20, 2005

About Guanajuato

number thirty-seven

This is an installment in a nine-part series detailing our first big Mexican vacation. This installment provides back-up information on the history of the town of Guanajuato. 1,813 words.

[NL; partially composed in GTO]-The area now known as the Mexican state of Guanajuato was probably first settled by nomadic tribes wandering in from the state of Michoacán to its south. One of these tribes was the Purépecha people, who have been linguistically tied to tribes in South America. They were the creators of an artisan culture originally centered around Michoacán’s lake Pátzcuaro. Here they had engineered several pre-Aztec cities and trade communities, prompting certain sources to refer to their modest hold on the area as an empire. The Purépecha, later renamed the Tarascans by the Spanish, eventually became territorial enemies of the competitive Aztecs who were gaining a foothold to their southeast, causing them to seek friendly trade territories to their north and west. By the time they had ranged as far north as the lowlands west of Guanajuato’s rocky offshoot of the Sierra Madre, the area was already home to numerous indigenous tribes, possibly laboring under the yoke of Aztec production tariffs. One of these tribes, choosing to settle in Guanajuato’s river valley because of its frog population (or: some sources indicate that a particular mountain was thought to resemble a frog), had named the area Quanashuato (or Quanax-juato), which means “place of frogs” in Tarascan.

There is difficulty in distinguishing the contributions of individual tribes in this area because when the Spanish arrived here during their conquest, they categorically renamed the various indigenous peoples under an umbrella term: the Chichimecas. This was a Náhuatl word indicating that these long-time Aztec serfs were descended from dogs. This term was applied to any and all indigenous peoples in the Guanajuato area—including the northern Tarascans, the Guachichiles, the Guamares, the Pames, and the Otomíes—serving to obfuscate who did what in the region before its Spanish history.

By the time Spain had set its sights on the colonization of what is today northern México, military subjugation of Guanajuato had proven costly and illusive. Heads of southern territories began to offer treaties in an effort to settle peaceably with the stubborn tribes, as well as divert dwindling resources to unconquered areas. This worked, the Chichimecas were willing to share the land they had always shared, and soon Spain was free to build a small village in the valley of Guanajuato to provide ranch land for livestock. Discoveries of silver and gold in the mines surrounding the settlement of Guanajuato in the early 1550’s changed the sleepy settlement from a bucolic ranchland into a boomtown, fueling the Spanish colonial machine just in the nick of time.

Things really got rolling for Guanajuato at this point. Silver mines were thriving here and there all over the region, but flourishing in little Guanajuato, helping to keep Spanish colonialism afloat over the next two hundred years. During his time, Guanajuato delivered higher and higher amounts of wealth from its seemingly inexhaustible silver veins (the town’s mines are still alive and well today); providing, at times, forty percent of the whole world’s silver. The small town stretching along the shores of the valley’s river grew exponentially as people gravitated to this fount of wealth. Silver barons built hacienda estates and Guanajuato climbed the ladder from town to city to capital of its own eponymous territory. As the silver kept pouring in, Guanajuato became so important to Spain that these silver barons were elevated into the colonial nobility.

From the time the valley was discovered by the Aztecs until the early nineteenth century, the indigenous population had borne the horrors of a subjugated class. Captured, enslaved, laid claim to, these original Guanajuato Valley inhabitants suffered and skirmished but never got much of a toehold in colonial Spanish society. Franciscan monks acting as missionaries were the only champions of well-being for the poorer classes. Generations down the line, after it had become illegal to keep indigenous people as slaves, these lower classes became wage-slaves, working to pay off their debts to their landlord employers. As time passed, new social classes were born of mixed blood between the Mexican-born pure-Spanish overlords (the criollos), and pure-blood indigenous Indians. These new classes, the mestizos, can be regarded as the first generations of what we think of today as Méxicanos. These were another poor working class, less suppressed than the indigenous population, but otherwise refused the right to govern or, in some places, even own land.

These new generations grew under the spiritual tutelage of the Franciscan Catholic church. The Franciscans had long frustrated the process of keeping the common man down in early México, and by the late eighteenth century had succeeded in converting much of the country to Catholicism. During this time, there were certain changes taking place within the Franciscan order. There were movements to both modernize and reform the Franciscan way of life. Many of the people pushing for modernization were also pushing for civil equality for the Indians and mestizos. In the meantime, the New World was at the mercy of Spanish overlords who were finding themselves more and more estranged from the guidance of home. Spain had her attention diverted by the Napoleonic War, and the New World was going to have to solve its own problems. Liberal-minded people were suddenly becoming the vogue, and theories of equality were beginning to spread. In the United States a new revolution had reordered civil society from the bottom up, and the ripples caused here were impossible to ignore. In the state of Querétaro, a literary club was formed with the advertised aim of “intellectual discussion,” but in fact began sowing the seeds of Mexican revolution.

One of these new liberals was a well-read and progressive parish priest named Miguel Hidalgo. Hidalgo had been modernizing the area just northwest of Guanajuato from his church in the little town of Dolores. Learning that the Literary Club de Querétaro had been forced underground by the threatened criollo boot heel, he felt compelled to speed up the timetable of Mexican revolution. Calling his parishioners at dawn on the morning of September 16, 1810, Father Hidalgo delivered what is called the Grito de Dolores, the words of which have been forgotten, but the message of which remains clear: Take México! Viva la revolution! The amassed mob of mestizos and Indian peasants then marched on another mining tiown, San Miguel de Allende, which fell without much of a fight, and then headed south to Guanajuato. Hidalgo’s mob now consisted of nearly twenty thousand people, armed primarily with farming equipment and slings. The Spanish had holed themselves up in a newly finished, fort-like grain warehouse called the Alhóndiga, where the outlook for weathering a siege was pretty good. The Spanish, morbidly outnumbered, still had a small number of firearms and all the food storage in Guanajuato.

On September 28, after suffering setbacks due to Spanish gunfire, Hidalgo convinced a man (with the nickname Pípila) to strap a stone to his back for protection against the hail of bullets, and set fire to the entrance of the storage warehouse. He succeeded, and the proletariat army of Miguel Hidalgo flooded the Alhóndiga and slaughtered every last person in it.

The considerable wealth of Guanajuato, in food and silver, then came under the control of the rebels. Hidalgo created a foundry for making armaments in Guanajuato (he raided Spanish houses for bells to melt into cannonballs), and then headed south, attacking and taking the towns along the way to México City. Reaching the outskirts of the Capital, Hidalgo managed to take a few outlying neighborhoods, but neglected to march on the City itself, even though his army had reached upwards of fifty thousand men. This would prove to be a mistake. México, shocked that Guanajuato had fallen and it had very nearly suffered attack itself, managed to rally and send a giant army out to rebuff Hidalgo. But Hidalgo was retreating already. Skirmishes ensued, as advance patrols came in contact with Hidalgo’s receding army, and Hidalgo found it necessary to return to Guanajuato to rally his troops and gather his resources. Here the Mexican forces caught up with him in earnest and completely routed his army; retaking Guanajuato and forcing the rebels to flee north. Hidalgo was betrayed in Chihuahua by a former conspirator; excommunicated, tried, and shot. Then, in an effort to quell the remaining lust for revolution in the masses, his head was hung, along the heads of three of his generals, on the corners of the Alhóndiga, looking out over the compass points of Guanajuato.

This put the rebellion into a setback that lasted for about ten years. During this time, the Spanish wreaked vengeance on Guanajuato’s rebellious population through lotteries of death, where names would be randomly drawn and the winners killed. Eventually, the revolution was won, and the heads of the fathers of that revolution were taken down and buried under the monumento a la Independencia in México City. Then Guanajuato returned to an existence very much like the one it had before the war. Silver was taken out of the mountains, and people got rich. In 1905, after numerous floods over the years, a great flood inundated much of the city and killed hundreds. In 1960, Guanajuato built a dam, and paved the river bed to accommodate increasing traffic. During the rein of Benito Juárez, Guanajuato was briefly the capital of the country, the first time this honor had moved out of the Valley of México since before the days of the Aztecs. Guanajuato is the birthplace of Diego Rivera (though he only lived there until he was six), and the place where President Vicente Fox kicked off his political career. It is the scene of a yearly festival dedicated to Cervantes, it is known for its annual strawberry crop, and it is an object of pilgrimage for people seeking to walk the paths of México’s national identity.

Today, it is possible to imagine what Guanajuato must have been like a hundred years ago. Silver mines still dot the surrounding hillsides, sixteenth century churches still overlook about every block. The city is jammed into the very same ravine it has been in for almost four hundred and fifty years. The bus station is located a few kilometers outside of town in the only area where Guanajuato has managed to creep away from its mountainous perch. It is a beautiful city filled with history, culture, and art; populated by friendly people. Still, it is the roots of Mexican independence that remain the city’s most evident feature, demonstrated throughout its Spanish colonial design with national monuments and a people blended from indigenous and Spanish blood, categorically renamed Mexicans, who are also monuments to this revolution.

A nice overview of Guanajuato, including some photographs of the city.

The beginnings of a rich education in the History of Mexican independence.

More in-depth information on the indigenous people of the Guanajuato river valley.

Next: our vacation in Guanajuato.

Guanajuato panorama © the Author

Quiet Reading Room

This is a quiet reading room. Often, I find it is uncomfortable to digest long tubes of columned text directly off a computer screen. This journal is dedicated to the collection, percolation, and ultimate integration of my personal experiences. Subjects that I want to examine and then talk about--sometimes talk a lot about--€”are presented here. This central content can tend to thousands of words, maybe millions. I was afraid that readers were leaving the presentation boggled, spinning, googly-eyed. Or perhaps when confronted with twenty-four inches, or yards, of monitor sprawl they were just giving up. I am not even certain that I have necessarily solved this inevitable content problem of modern information enjoyment, but here is what I have done.

After long and highly scientific routines manipulating double-blind control- and test-subjects, peer reviewed journal publications, and hours and hours of hands-on experimentation, I have crafted this quiet reading room. There is no scientific way to control the length of the articles I write, but careful handling can somewhat soothe the contextual presentation. In other words: I have dropped the traditional speculation about lexicon, and attacked the question of the matrix itself instead. Brilliant. After years of diligence what I eventually crafted is this reading room.

The walls are contoured to relax instead of constrain; the paper is made to soften instead of reflect. The light is dimmed--just so--€”to prevent strain, angled to prevent umbra, and color-coded to soften harsh red lights and deepen wimpy light reds. There is nothing I can do to control aural environment, but my recommendation is that it should be kept quiet. About ambient sound: these entries are probably best read as far as possible from emergency vehicles, preferably from beneath the muffler of a vintage fire fighter pilot's scarf, puffy old duvet, or snow that is still falling.

My theory is that the wide web world is filled with potent and material opportunities that are just too difficult to digest for many people to take part. Enjoyment of this stuff is regulated to the routines of crawlers and robots at the peril of humankind's peaceful future survival. In an attempt to delay this likely outcome: welcome to this quiet reading room. It is for people like you to relax, kick back, and hate my content for better reasons than the dizzying vertiginous specter of its lousy dpi presentation.

Return to Previously

About Mr. Cavin