Friday, November 20, 2020

on the road to ciudad guzmán

Yesterday was a big day for my son. He took his university admission examination.

Because the examination was held at the University of Guadalajara in Ciudad Guzmán, it also would give me an opportunity to explore a city I had seen only once (and that was briefly) last October (back to school). So, on Wednesday morning, Omar, Yoana, and I loaded up the car to head for Ciudad Guzmán.

I had looked for online hotel reservations the week before, but the only available rooms I could find were in a hotel that did not receive very good ratings. Its advantage was that it was located only a ten-minute walk from the university where the examination would be conducted. Omar said we could wait until we arrived.

As luck would have it, we ended up at the hotel I had found on-line. From the exterior, it looked fine.

But here is road trip tip number one. If you know the town where you will be staying, book on-line instead of at the desk. In this case, the same rooms had a tariff of 1000 pesos (Just under 50 US dollars) each. The on-line price was 382 pesos. 

And I quickly discovered why the reviews were mixed. Everything in Omar and Yoana's room worked perfectly. My room had no toilet paper, the overhead fan was broken, and one of the twin beds had only been partially made. For all of that, the hotel had a quaint charm. Outside it looked like one of those retro Los Angeles motels -- or something in north Miami.

Besides,  I was in town to see sights, not to live in my hotel room.

I did just that yesterday morning while Omar was in his examination. I doubt Ciudad Guzmán will ever be listed as one of Mexico's top five cities. The area we stayed is rather new and is filled with convenience stores, supermarkets, and used car dealers. It reminded me of Ankara -- as do a lot of Mexican cities of thos vintage. Functional, but not without a dash of charm. Street scenes like this are common.

I was looking for something a bit less contemporary.

I knew that prior to the arrival of the Spanish, the valley in which Ciudad Guzmán nestles was part of the Kingdom of Zapotlán -- one of the tribal kingdoms that would shift between the Kingdom of Colima and the much larger Purépecha Empire. That all came to an end when the Spanish forces of Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, one of the cruelest of the conquistadors, conquered the area in 1526. With that conquest, Zapotlán el Grande, as it was still known, took on a new history.

The city did not receive its current name until the Spanish had been evicted in the War of Independence and after the area became part of the battleground during the War of Reforms in the 1850s when the Conservatives and the Liberals (or federalists) took up arms to settle political questions.

One of the war's early victims was retired General Gordiano de Guzmán. A local boy who was a hero of the War of Independence and the American-Mexican War, his federalist views disturbed one of Mexico's historical scoundrels, President Antonio López de Santa Anna, of Alamo fame. President Santa Anna ordered his henchmen to assassinate General Guzmán. Which they did. Most likely, to the annoyance of Santa Anna, the citizens of Zapotlán el Grande renamed the city Ciudad Guzmán.

With all of that history, I knew there had to be a colonial town square that would be worth visiting. Somewhere between the hotel and the square, I could tell I had entered a different planning zone. My canary in the mine for those changes are Oxxo stores. In most neighborhoods they sport their circus red and yellow colors. In "preservation" areas, the colors are subdued.

And I was correct. About three blocks later, the rather claustrophobic street opened onto a classic colonial Spanish square with the joined powers of the state and the church standing shoulder-to-shoulder around the perimeter -- along with the usual commercial ventures.

Usually, the star architectural of colonial-era squares are the churches -- or, cathedrals, if the city is also fortunate enough to be the local see. And Ciudad Guzmán is.

Unfortunately, la Catedral de San José is not star material. Built between 1866 and 1900, it was once far more magnificent, with towering bell towers, than its present version. The culprit is earthquakes. There is a volcano that sits just outside of the city -- one of the same volcanoes that impress tourists driving along the tollway from Colima to Guadalajara. And earthquakes mean geological faults that, in turn, mean earthquakes.

Even though the cathedral is relatively young, its bell towers have Humpty-dumptied several times, killing people in the process and giving rise to the local myth that the cathedral is haunted. No mere hunchback for them.

The last toppling was the result of the Mexico City earthquake in 1985. The authorities decided enough people had died in town from falling cathedral masonry. Instead, the church has only stubs where tall towers once grew. It gives the cathedral the look of a run-down villa in Tuscany.

The cathedral's interior is well-suited for its purposes, and a bit gaudy to my Quakerish eyes. The church was being used for its intended purpose while I was there, so I did not get to explore the nooks and crannies that make most cathedrals worth spending time.

Instead, I went outside to look at the square. The most impressive feature is the Porfiriato gazebo. In most Mexicans cities, they are cast iron art nouvea constructions. This one is of monumental concrete in the neoclassical style.

Visitors who climb the stairs into the gazebo will be surprised by a mural on its dome that is rather jarring considering its classical surroundings. I could not find anything to confirm my immediate (and un-researched) conclusion that the mural was painted by another famous local boy, José Clemente Orozco. But, it certainly is in his style.

The choice of classical architecture for the gazebo may not have been the aberration it appears to be. A lot of institutions and cities have nicknames (such as, Emory University's claim to be the "Harvard of the South" or Merida's to be the "Paris of the West"). I have often suspected that some local wag made the suggestion knowing that everyone but the people in the city or institution would see that it was self-deprecatory.

Ciudad Guzmán is the self-proclaimed "Athens of Jalisco." And, even though some of you will be tempted to ask if that is the same thing as the old Mel Brooks joke about being "world-famous in Poland). this nickname happens to be apt.

The city has produced more than its fair share of composers, artists, writers, and intellectuals. This is just a sampling:
  • Priest-natural scientist-archaeologist, José María Arreola
  • Composer, concert pianist, and recording artist Consuelo Velázquez Torres 
  • One of the first short story writers to abandon realism, Juan José Arreola Zúñiga 
  • Classical violinist, composer, and populizer of mariachi music, Rubén Fuentes 
  • Novelist Guadalupe "Lupe" Marín
  • Actress Esmeralda Pimentel 
  • And the most famous of favorite sons José Clemente Orozco, who was one of the big-name artists who initiated the Mexican Mural Renaissance with his complex portrayals of symbolic and real machines that led to human suffering

The city has honored them all (and others) in its square.

With symbolic sculptures. For artists

For writers

For musicians

And with plaques. You can see one in situ in the photograph above.

It says something about a city that it is willing to honor its intellectuals with public displays of honor and affection.

I was just getting into the rhythms of the city when Omar called and informed me he had finished his examination. So, the three of us checked out of the hotel, and made a speedy two and a half-hour trip back to Barra de Navidad.

For a dozen years "Ciudad Guzmán" was only a name on a road sign as I sped past on my way to or from Guadalajara. I now have a reason to return.

To complete my unfinished journey through another piece of Mexican history.

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