Life and death in Guanajuato

Originally published in The News (Mexico City)

Cervantino Festival, Mummy Museum draw tourists to colonial city

For a city famous for death, Guanajuato is decidedly alive. Mummies and murderous legends aside, I felt its vitality when I followed musicians through the narrow cobblestone alleyways of the historic centre; when I was approached by costumed characters presenting me with flyers for upcoming theatre performances; and when I succumbed to people-watching in one of the outdoor cafes surrounding the main plaza, watching musicians break into song at the promise of a tip and street vendors animatedly bartering with potential customers.

Directionally impaired at the best of times, I was challenged over and over again by the city’s winding, poorly marked streets and alleys, set on top of a subterranean road system. But to get lost in Guanajuato is to discover a destination at every turn. Even a simple corner store is likely to be housed in a beautiful colonial building.

The city owes much of its physical beauty and cultural wealth to the silver mines discovered in Guanajuato State in the 1500s, which drew wealthy Spaniards to the area. Today, students are the youthful soul of the city, both foreigners studying Spanish in the city’s many language schools or locals attending the University of Guanajuato, considered one of the best in the country for performing arts.

“If you haven’t been to Guanajuato, you haven’t been to Mexico,” I was admonished more than once in my two-year stay in the country.

It’s an overstatement, but this unique city does embody much of the spirit of Mexico itself – a spirit that laughs at the spectre of death, one prone to finding any excuse for a celebration and to welcoming strangers into the fold.

The exuberance of the city explodes into joyful mayhem in October with the yearly arrival of the International Cervantino Festival. Cervantino performances spill over from Guanajuato’s many indoor venues into open-air performances in streets and plazas. Young and old, Mexicans and foreigners, drunk and sober, all combine into a potent mix of culture and party.

Mummy Museum embraces the macabre

Contrast this burst of life with the year-round favourite haunt of Guanajuato visitors, the Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum). Those curious for a glimpse of the macabre and Mexico’s obsession with death can get their fix at two permanent exhibits.

More corny than scary is the section devoted to the “Cult of Death.” Despite a sign cautioning impressionable people and those with cardiac problems to beware, the average elementary school haunted house is slightly more frightening. We filtered past displays such as spooky holograms, torture devices illuminated with strobe lights, and a skeleton displayed under green light in a partially opened coffin – since, according to the sign, the man died of radiation exposure and to let his remains hit daylight would cause it to crumble instantly.

The museum’s showcase exhibit is the naturally mummified corpses, first put on display in 1870. Disinterred from Guanajuato’s cemetery in order to make room for more bodies, the mummies are a product of the arid conditions and unusual soil composition of the area. They are displayed as tastefully as possible in glass-enclosed coffins, though their grotesque expressions convey that they may be resting in something less than peace. Our guide pointed out the contorted mummy of the man buried alive, one of a pregnant woman and another of a fetus, proclaimed the “world’s smallest mummy.”

Death has a life of its own

To dismiss the museum as morbid is to miss the point. Even death has its own over-the-top celebration in Mexico, November’s Day of the Dead holiday. This is the time of year when spirits of loved ones return, marked by families creating offerings of the deceased’s favourite foods, tequila or beer, even a poem ridiculing some of the departed one’s traits.

Stores boast skull-shaped candies, skeletal mariachi band figurines and sweet breads decorated with a skeleton motif.

“The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips,” wrote Mexico’s Nobel-prize winning poet Octavio Paz in his book of essays, Labyrinth of Solitude. “The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favourite toys and his most steadfast love.”

Second home of Don Quixote

If mummies can be one of the most vivid experiences of a trip to Guanajuato, it should be no surprise that even a fictional character has taken on life here. The image of Don Quixote crops up everywhere, from T-shirts to coffee cups to posters sold on the street. The reason is simple: The roots of the festival reach into the 1950s, when students from what is now the University of Guanajuato performed sketches from Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra’s works.

The city has embraced its identification with Cervantes and the Cervantino Festival to the point that one of its best museums is devoted to nothing but art related to Don Quixote. The building for the Museo Iconografico del Quijote (Quixote Iconographic Museum) was once an 18th-century private residence, now elegantly housing the impressive collection of art. The famous Don Quixote by Pablo Picasso is an odd gilt replica, but there is a lithograph by Salvador Dali and a sculpture by Mexican artist Sebastian, among many other originals, as well as commemorative coins, nuts-and-bolts figurines and tapestries representing the Man of La Mancha, sometimes with his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza.

After a trip to the museum, you’ll recognize the 15th-century-era outfits worn by the estudiantinas, groups of professional musicians decked out in leggings and black velvet cloaks with gold trim. The group gathers outside the San Diego church near the Jardin de la Union at around 8:30 p.m., inviting all within earshot to follow them on a pied piper-like concert, called a cajelloneada, through the serpentine alleys. The performers sing, dance, tell stories and jokes, and force the willing crowd to clap, dance and drink copious amounts of wine.

Guanajuato legends and history

Our cajelloneada ended at the site of one of Guanajuato’s most famous legends, the Romeo-and-Juliet-esque story of the Callejon del Beso (Alley of the Kiss). The narrowest of the narrow alleys, its most famous point is where two balconies stand less than a meter apart, allowing a person on one to lean over and kiss someone on the other.

Eight-year-old Juan led our group through the short passageway, relating the tragic legend of the daughter of a Spanish nobleman stabbed to death by her own father for sneaking such a kiss from her forbidden lover. Fact or fiction, the story draws a perpetual convoy of visitors to the alley, where elementary school children exchange the tale and a couple of mildly suggestive jokes for a modest fee.

From bloody legend to bloody history: Guanajuato is fiercely proud of its role in the 1810 War of Independence. Home-grown hero El Pipila – Juan Jose de los Reyes Martinez – was a miner who torched the Alhondiga de Granaditas grain storage building during the insurrection, killing the 300 Spaniards barricaded inside. He is commemorated with a mammoth, hideous statue overlooking the city.

Callejon de Calvario leads intrepid walkers up to the El Pipila statue, or local buses run frequently from the Plaza de la Paz. Forget the monument – the view from its base is incredible.

Here, this colourful, charismatic city spreads out before your eyes. In the distance, people gather at the Jardin de la Union. In the heart of this Catholic country, the baroque Basilica stands out at the centre of the city; penitents and sightseers alike mill in and out. The University of Guanajuato, just barely visible from the lookout, draws artistic souls into its halls. Streets and alleys move with the to and fro of workers, students, tourists, buyers, sellers.

Guanajuato in panorama seems to be channelling the spirit of Mexico, summed up by none other than Don Quixote: “Until death, all is life.”

The city is served by the Leon airport, located 40 km from Guanajuato. Hotel reservations are imperative during the Cervantino Festival. Mexican tourist office 1-800-482-9832.

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