Saturday, February 12, 2011

morelia on the missouri

Every tale needs a hook.

Something to grab the reader's attention.  To keep wandering eyes on the story.

And when the hook cannot be found, writers are not above writing about the hook -- as a substitute for the real thing.*

That is exactly the problem I am having in writing about Morelia.  I like the place.  A lot.  My problem is finding Morelia's center.  Its soul.

And I think I know why.  I originally started this essay with the observation that Morelia is not Paris.  More like Kansas City of Oklahoma fame.  "They've gone about as far as they can go."

Today's Morelia is exactly what its founders set out to make it -- the political, religious, and social capital of the region.

In the early 1540s, Pátzcuaro wore that crown.  It was a functioning Indian town when the Spanish arrived.  (More of that anon.)  But the Viceroy had a different idea.  He wanted a Spanish town to be the capital, not an Indian "village."

So, he -- and a few favored buddies -- built a city in a beautiful location.  A bowl surrounded by mountains.  A Spanish city with a sweeping geometric street grid.  And, because it was the Viceroy's project, named after his home town in Spain -- Valladolid.

The Spanish were big on symbols.  And never subtle ones.

The outcome was predictable.  Like most proto-socialist Spanish crown projects, the viceroy prevailed.  Within 25 years, Valladolid was the Des Moines of the area.

That is why Morelia (renamed in honor of José María Morelos y Pavón -- another of the long list of independence insurgents who traded their lives in front of a firing squad in exchange for naming rights in Mexico) is now the capital of the state of Michoacán.

The central portion of Morelia still reflects its origins as a model colonial city.

Nothing could better symbolize the historic tension between the Catholic church and the government that was the driving force behind Morelia's creation.

At the very center of the city is a large plaza surrounded by classical style buildings that were once grand homes, but now house shops, stores, and government offices.

One half of the plaza is dedicated to the anti-clerical Lincoln on Mexico, Benito Juárez. 

The other half is dedicated to his equally anti-clerical ally, Melchor Ocampo, who drafted the legislation that stripped the church of its property and perogatives, effectively turning the Mexican government into the church administrators.

 That plaza faces the current State Government Palace.  That seems to be the appropriate setting for a plaza that honors the authoritarian power of the state.  Nothing evidences that power more than the fact that a series of Mexicans were publicly shot in the plaza.

But, to an American's eyes, the plaza presents an interesting bit of architectural irony.  The largest building on the plaza separates the beloved Juarez from his political operative.  That building is the catedral -- the most important religious symbol in the city.

When Pátzcuaro lost its cathedral status to Morelia in 1580, Morelia needed a new church to reflect its new political power.  It took over a hundred years to build, and, as a result, is a hodgepodge of architectural styles.

But it was not built as an architectural project.  It was meant to reflect the reality of the city's majesty -- where lives would be administered with Hispanic efficiency.

And that is the point of Morelia.  It was not built to sate culture vulture tourists.  Its buildings have a purpose.

Shop keepers sell.  Citizens pray.  Government officials pretend to rule.  On the surface, it all has an Iowan efficiency to it.

And because they have a purpose, Morelia's citizens do not have time to put on Octavio Paz's smile mask for outsiders.  This is their town.  If you want to know them, it will be on your dime and time.  Not theirs.

With one exception.  About four years ago, I met Jennifer Rose on line.  I am not certain if it was one of her blogs or on the Morelia message board.  But we seemed to have a common ground in our exchanges.  She even asked me to write a piece for stuff lawyers like.

At the time, Morelia was high on my list of places to retire.  Along with Guanajuato and Pátzcuaro.  Morelia never fell off of the list.  Melaque just happened.

Jennifer is not an expatriate.  At least, not in the sense that most of us use that word.  She came to Mexico from The States and watched four American presidents come and go -- and is now a Mexican citizen.  She knows Morelia.

She ratified most of my first impressions of the city.  Nice place to live -- especially in the surrounding hills -- if you are willing to take the time to know the place.  There certainly is enough post-conquest history to keep a new arrival out of trouble.

And it is cool enough in the summers, even though the residents often retreat to the surrounding mountains to escape the valley heat.

That was the reason for this trip, after all.  To find potential summer refuges.

I will most likely return this summer to see if it offers comfort from the Melaque heat.

If nothing else, I would like to spend time in its museums.

* -- I think I may have stolen this technique from Julian Bond.  In a speech at Portland State University in 1969, he started by pointing out that every speech is supposed tro start with two jokes.  After telling us that, he then told the jokes.  Jokes that cannot be repeated on this page.


tancho said...

Sad that you have so little time to really see the area and Morelia. Come back during the fair and enjoy the start of the rainy season.

Don Cuevas said...

Morelia is fine for a day trip or maybe an occasional overnight visit. We reserve going into Centro for special occasions, and we prefer to travel in by cab. The periférico isn't too bad, most of the time. You kinda get used to massive traffic blockages caused by student demonstrations or whatever. Pátzcuaro is much more peaceful and quiet, but we even hold it at arm's length. We live in a quiet rural area about 20 minutes away.

I'm relieved to read that you have the good sense not to drive to or in Mexico City.
Unlike some of our blogging buddies.

Don Cuevas

Cristina said...

Steve, I'm so sorry that you are here and that we haven't--finally--met. Actually, sorry doesn't really convey enough of how I feel. Had I known that you were coming, or that you were here, I would certainly have loved to spent some time with you. We've talked about doing this for years--did I do something to cause you to change your mind about meeting?

Steve Cotton said...

There will be future visits. This one was far too quick.

Cristina said...

We are moving to the DF on Wednesday, February 16.