Sunday, January 30, 2011

putting it together

"When you get to San Miguel, perfect for you, you will simply have your things shipped over. You will abandon the beach. That is my prediction. Don't get sidetracked in the city of Guanajuato. Good place to visit, but you don't wanna live there."

I heard Felipe's Delphic voice repeating that admonition as I walked the streets of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende.

It was an easy warning to heed.  Because I was not going to be seduced by either town.  At least, not on this trip.  Not with a mere two nights in Guanajuato and one night in San Miguel de Allende.

The purpose of the trip was to find a place to seek refuge from Melaque's hellish summers.  I am a bit tired of auditioning for a role in a Hieronymus Bosch triglyph.

But I also wanted to see a bit of the Mexico I know from my histiory stiudies.  Both towns are awash in their pasts.  Guanajuato was (and is) attractive to me for its history alone.

Certainly, other towns have a claim on being an historical barometer -- such as the obvious choice: Mexico City.  But Guanajuato is a bellwether of Mexico's largest post-conquest events.

And to understand the rest of this trip, we need to understand a bit of Guanajuato's (and Mexico's) history.

There are no monumental Indian sites near Guanajuato.  But the Indians were here.  Not to build cities.  They were here searching for the same prize that would attract the Spanish.

Cortés had barely cleaned his sword of Aztec blood before the Spanish discovered gold -- and then silver -- in the 1540s.  The Spanish preferred their precious metals in finished form.  But they were not adverse to digging it out of the ground.  As long as Indian slaves did the work.

Just as the rushes in California and the Klondike would prove, the odor of "get rich quick" attracted all forms of adventures -- some from Spain, some Spanish born in Mexico, some mixed race Mestizos.  And, of course, Indians forced to do the real work.

The work produced results.  Riches almost beyond belief.  Over the years, 300 successful mines were dug.  In the 1700s, one mine, La Valenciana, produced one-third of the world's supply of silver.  The owner of that mine went from no-account to Count of Valenciana, and one of the richest men in Mexico.

As a result, the Spanish crown became wealthier and wealthier because of its colonial jewel -- New Spain.

As so often happens, wealth led to hubris and hubris to paranoia.  King Carlos III, a liberal monarch who improved Mexico's trade policies, began to fear the Jesuits in Mexico and his other possessions. 

They were a powerful independent political force that advocated humane treatment for the Indians and a more Christian administration of law for all.  So, he booted them out in 1767.

The Indians had no power -- other than memory.  And they remembered.

There are always multiple reasons why colonists rise against their mother country.  And most of the classical reasons existed in Mexico in the early 19th century.  

A restrictive class system that prevented the advancement of anyone other than Spanish-born grandees.  High taxation that had already caused an earlier insurrection.  Admiration for the American and French revolutions.  Encouragement from the American government.

The powder keg was already there.  And, Napoleon Bonaparte, of all people, lit it.  After conquering Spain, Napoleon forced the Spanish king and his son to abdicate -- and put his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the Spanish throne.

 That was good enough for a group of Spanish conspirators to put their independence plans into motion.  Anti-monarchists and Borbón advocates joined together and declared Mexican independence in 1810.  Starting a war that would last for another 11 years.

The fighting began in Guanajuato.  When the Miguel Hidalgo, the warrior-priest, and his general, Ignacio Allende, began their march on Guanajuato, they thought they would be leading a well-disciplined armed force.

Instead, the army quickly attracted hordes of Indians who had more reason than anyone to resent the Spanish.  What started as a European-style armed resistance turned into a popular uprising.  (One of many where the Indians provided the muscle and received very little in return.)

What must have seemed like an armed mob descended on Guanajuato.  The Spanish army and the first families (with their loot) scurried into the newly-constructed Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- a fortress designed to store grain.

 It almost worked.  The Spanish held off the lightly-armed insurgents until one of those characters, who always shows up in patriotic narratives, offered his services -- and burned down the door of the granary.  The resulting massacre of the Spanish troops and civilians inside the building inflamed the Spanish.

Within the year, the Spanish had defeated the insurgents and executed the four primary leaders, including Hidalgo and Allende.  After shooting them, the Spanish decapitated all four and hung their heads on each corner of the Alhóndiga de Granaditas -- where they remained until Mexico won its independence a decade later.

But peace did not come to Guanajuato -- or Mexico.  Guanajuato's mines would not return to full operation for decades.

Most of the mines were managed by Spaniards.  And they were expelled at the end of the war.  In addition, a series of internal wars and invasions would keep Guanajuato from doing what it did best -- mine silver.

The Yucatan revolt.  The rebellion of Texas and two other northern provinces.  The Mexican-American War.  Power struggles between Liberals and Conservatives.  All of them kept miners out of mines and in uniforms.

One of Mexico's cherished myths centers around the election of the Liberal Indian Benito Juárez in 1858.  He had a vision of a different Mexico.  But the French had other ideas, and installed a young Habsburg princeling, Maximilian, as Mexico's second emperor in 1864.

But Juárez did not give up.  He set up a temporary capital in Guanajuato until the Conservatives and the French army drove him out.

Maximilian left his mark on Guanajuato with a victory spin through the country -- including a night in Guanajuato.  And he passed through on the way to his defeat and execution (on Juárez's orders) at the battle of the Cerro de las Campanas in 1867.

 But the mines would still not get back to full operation.  The Liberals and Conservatives disputed control of the central government until the proverbial man on the white horse arrived in 1876 -- José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori.  First, as president.  Then as dictator.

He brought order in the same way that it has too often come to Mexico -- through political repression.  But he gave Mexico one gift for which he should be remembered.  He brought the industrial revolution to Mexico.

For Guanajuato that meant new and better mines.  But, with the new apparatus came outsiders.  Americans, Canadians, and Europeans slowly took over the operation of the mines.

The revolution of 1910 put an end to all that.  When enough Mexicans had killed one another and the fighting died down, the mines were nationalized, the foreigners expelled, and Mexico, once again, had an authoritarian government.  A past it is now only beginning to doff during the past decade.

Guanajuato wears its history easily on its sleeve -- and its collar and cuffs.  Rather like Williamsburg, but without the Rockefellers.

In the next post, I will give you my impression of what all this means today.


Steve Cotton said...

Maybe the croc could pack his alligator bag and come along with me.

Al said...

You have whet my appetite. Can you recommend a history of Mexico?

Felipe Zapata said...

Steve, Steve, Steve, we can Google for Guanajuato history, amiguito. Let's get back to the personal.

teresa freeburn said...

hi steve,

what an awesome picture of gto. it's a city i would love to visit someday. thanks for the history lesson. very interesting. i really should learn more about a country i love like i do mexico. not much time for studying these days though so i am always happy to learn something new on your blog.

can't wait to see more pix.

teresa in lake stevens

Steve Cotton said...

"The personal"? I suspect my take on history is about as personal as it gets. But, I know you. You are just waiting for the mummies.

Steve Cotton said...

I like Henry Bamford Parkes's A History of Mexico. It is old. But, so am I.

Steve Cotton said...

See. I saved you some studying. More photographs are on the way.

I suspect, though, you may not appreciate the post on the mummies. But I am looking forward to your comments.

Felipe Zapata said...

Alas, Steve, you missed the Golden Age of Guanajuato's mummies. I first saw them in the early 1980s, and it was a wonderful, grim experience. They were all propped up there against the walls, help up by rigor mortis or whatever. You could reach right out and touch them. I went again about eight or so years ago, and everything had changed. Sanitized and organized. And behind glass. Pooh!