Guanajuato, Mexico: A City With An Old Soul
There is a stark, timeless beauty to Guanajuato, a colonial city of elegant architecture and civic design, cradled in the north-central highlands of Mexico, a place where the warm mountain light burnishes the cobbled streets and colorful stone facades in phantasms of light and shadow.
Founded in 1559 near Valenciano, one of the hemisphere’s richest silver veins, it would become New Spain’s second most important and richest city after Mexico City by the end of the 18th century. Much of that heritage — the elegant baroque churches, the palatial residences of the silver barons, and a maze of stone tunnels through which the Guanajuato River once flowed — remains intact. To honor this historic city, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site in 1988.
But Guanajuato is more than a living monument to a prosperous and turbulent past. Its large student population — over 20,000 at the University of Guanajuato, which is noted for its arts programs — and the annual International Cervantes Festival, held every October, has instilled a youthful vibrancy and cultural sophistication that continually infuses the city’s heritage with artistic innovation and redirection.
Nights To Remember
Recognized as the leading artistic event in Latin America, the Cervantes festival this year has attracted tens of thousands of visitors to watch world-class performances in music, dance, theater, and the visual arts. The lantern-lit streets are a hubbub of activity on our first night. The outdoor amphitheater at the historic Alhóndiga de Granaditas is jammed with people waiting to see a free performance by the university’s Folkloric Ballet.
Concert at the Cervantes Festival in Guanatuato, Mexico. The company performs a repertoire of original regional dances and music. One troupe wearing the masks of old men, representing Michoacán, hobbles about the stage, and then suddenly performs a series of calypso-like steps and half-turns while twirling their canes above them. A group of young men wearing red bandanas and white blouses, representing the state of Nayarit, clash their machetes like cymbals and send sparks flying.
But the highlight of the evening is a dazzling performance by a troupe of young female dancers wearing brightly colored ruffled skirts and ribbons of flowers in their hair. Their dresses swirl like froth, with skirts so wide that they can take the hems in their fingertips as they spin. The young boy, whom I’ve hoisted up on my shoulders so he could see, is tapping his right foot against my chest in perfect rhythm with their twirling bodies.
The next morning my friend Dick and I head over to the Plaza del Quijote to look at an outdoor photographic exhibit on the planets in our galaxy. The display is one of many events sponsored by the festival honoring the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei’s invention of the telescope 400 years ago.
Afterwards, we stop off at Desmond’s, a cozy Irish pub on Calle 28 de Septiembre, for a pint of Guinness before trekking uphill through a maze of alleyways or callejones. An outcrop on a crooked hillside street provides a sweeping panorama of the city and surrounding mountains.
The sunlight is filtering through a veil of clouds, casting a magical ballet of shadows across the church spires. Later in the day we visit a children’s tent at Pastitos Park to watch a puppet show in progress.
That evening we attend a musical recital called Universos Compartidos (Divided Universes) honoring Galileo’s telescopic view of the cosmos. The Templo de la Compañía de Jesuits (Church of the Jesuit Society) provides a perfect setting. As the sun sets, the lights glow dimly in the vaulted stone nave. The carved statues of saints, hidden in shadowy niches, stare sternly down on us as if to invoke the Inquisition once again. I wonder if they disapprove of a concert honoring a man whose scientific theories had been branded as heretical by the Catholic Church.
Guanajuato city’s folkloric ballet. Then, the director raises his baton, and the first movement, Libra by Karlheinz Stockhausen, begins. Beating drums, piercing flutes, and crashing cymbals echo off the high walls. It’s so jarring that I don’t know what to make of it — a musical rendition of the Big Bang theory or the Zodiac ring of constellations? I close my eyes and drift into a semi-conscious state on my own star trek across the infinity of space. It’s a transforming moment.
When I open my eyes, the musicians have circled around the audience seated in the pews. Is it purely coincidental or perhaps symbolic of the festival’s theme of combining art and science, music and astronomy? Then they bow and slowly walk down the side aisles to exit the church.
A Day With Don Quixote
On the tiny plaza of San Francisco stands a 17th-century, two-story Spanish Colonial building, which houses the world renowned collection of the Don Quixote Iconographic Museum. It was established in 1987 by Eulalio Ferrer, a Spanish Civil War expatriate who became a noted author, scholar, and publishing mogul in his adopted Mexican homeland.
The collection of over 850 oil and acrylic paintings, engravings, bronze sculptures, handcrafts and ceramic works commemorating Miguel Cervantes’ fictional hero, Don Quixote, is drawn largely from Ferrer’s personal collection. Many of the works are from the second half of the twentieth century by Spanish and Mexican artists whom he personally knew.
The novel, first published in 1605 while Cervantes was in prison and recognized as one of the most important works of literature, has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. “Quixote,” writes the Argentine essayist and poet Jorge Luis Borges, “was the first truly human character of a novel with whom we identify ourselves.”
Statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the Plaza Allende.The collection beautifully choreographs how artists have perceived and interpreted this central message. For instance, the painting, Don Quijote entre el bien y el mal (Don Quixote among good and evil) by the Mexican muralist Raúl Anguiano places Quixote in the modern world. Rather than battling monstrous windmills, the lordly knight stands larger than life with lance thrust forward against a phalanx of tanks, with shells bursting all around them, impaled in a sky of flames. Purchased in 1969, it was Ferrer’s first acquisition.
The museum has a fascinating exhibit on Ferrer’s life and how he forged a life-long bond with the novel. Like Cervantes and by association Quixote, he battled tyranny and intolerance. He had fought the monarchists and fascists during the Spanish Civil War and had been imprisoned in a Vichy French concentration camp at Argelès-sur-Mer, where he read Don Quixote of La Mancha. The novel became his “life savior.” In 1940, he was exiled to Veracruz, Mexico, along with 1,600 other Spanish Republican prisoners.
Cervantes and Ferrer led parallel lives of struggle and captivity, followed by redemption. They understood the importance of triumph out of defeat. Quixote became the sine qua non source of their existence.
On the way out, I stop at the front desk to ask an older attendant why the city became the site of this magnificent museum. “Guanajuato, he says, “is Quixote’s home outside Spain. It has the Center of Cervantino Studies (at the University), and its architecture, like this building, resembles that of colonial Spain, the period that Cervantes wrote about.”
A Street Musician
Dick and I walk outside. The sky is overcast. A grizzle-faced street musician, wearing a red ski cap and old fatigues, is playing Bob Dylan songs on his guitar, which he calls Los Lobos (The Wolves). His raspy voice crackles in the damp air.
Roberto Dylan, street musician.It begins to drizzle and like a country bard, he begins strumming the chords to “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall. I tell him he’s Roberto Dylan, and drop 10 pesos into his tin cup. He nods appreciatively.
We wander down the narrow street as the rain pummels the cobblestones. Still wet, we have some wonderful Italian coffee at an outdoor cafe in the Jardin de la Unión, the city’s principal gathering place.
The rain has stopped, and the little plaza is jammed with people sitting on the ornate cast-iron benches. Beds of scarlet red and violet blue geraniums shimmer in the autumn sunlight filtering through the thick hedge-like canopy of Indian laurel branches overhead. Some kids are playing in the fountain, and a teenage boy and girl on a nearby bench are laughing riotously.
A sandwich board in front of the Teatro Juárez displaying some paintings of Quixote catches my attention, and I walk over to look at them. I ask the artist, Laura Rangel Villaseñor, what is her interest in Don Quixote. “Quixote was a dreamer, she answers. “He was a man who struggled for others. The Mexican people need to dream again.”
Her English is quite good, and we talk some more. Laura, I learn, is from Silao, a nearby industrial city, and has lived in Guanajuato for 15 years, working as a painter and promoter of the arts.
“Cervantes was one of the great writers of his time, just as important as Shakespeare, she says. “You can identify with Quixote. He has a sense of being. He moves the corazón, the heart. That is why he is so important.”
“Interesting you should say that, I tell her. “Did you know that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day (April 23, 1616). “No, she says. “Maybe it was God’s will.”
A Youthful Quixote
I buy one of her paintings of a youthful Quixote dressed in a medieval Spanish cloak and broad-brim hat. He is floating inspace. His upraised right arm is touching a red heart, symbol of his resolve and love for humanity.
Dick and I say goodbye to Laura, and again wend our way through the crowded, hillside streets used by people for centuries. Despite its recent growth (now 85,000 residents), Guanajuato remains a walking city reminiscent of Old World Spain, and it resonates with a vibrant community spirit.
People gather on the squares, at the smaller plazuelas, and in the gardens to chat with friends, share food, listen to strolling musicians and troubadours, or simply to sit and watch the passing parade of life
The old colonial buildings, narrow winding streets, costumed performers, and church bells pealing every hour — all of it reminds me of some lost Old World medieval setting. In my imagination, I can see Don Quixote mounted on his horse Rocinante riding down the cobbled street to join us with his ever-faithful squire Sancho Panza trailing behind on an old burro.
But unlike the quixotic world of the noble knight, Guanajuato is real — a city with an old soul, a rich history, and a cultural vitality with few equals.
lives by the Mexican proverb: ‘It’s not important that life is long, but that it is well told.’ His writing has been published in the San Antonio Express-News, Coast To Coast, Sunset, VIA, Sierra, Austin American Statesman,Arizona Daily Star, Travel America, Desert Leaf Magazine, and Irish America.
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