Guanajuato is the kind of place where you spend most of your time hoping you can come back one day. The term Pueblo Mágico is somewhat overused in a Mexican context – you’d be hard pressed to find a reasonably attractive town of a certain size to which that classification hasn’t been applied – but the charms of this place are plentiful and immediately apparent: an undulating landscape of colourful roofs and baroque churches spread over several hills, from which a bird’s eye view swoops down to tight-knit labyinths of alleyways which put me in mind of Alfama in Lisbon or the Ribeiro in Porto, these twisting callejones opening suddenly upon laurel-lined colonial squares laid out in their own haphazard maze. Its effect was such that even though we have now left Mexico I still have the vague but somewhat vain hope that we will go back before we leave. Somehow.
We happen to be there during the Day of the Dead celebrations and there couldn’t really be a more appropriate place to visit. Many of the streets are carpeted in intricate tapestries in colours which surpass my vocabulary in any language, composed of various flora and foodstuffs depicting calaveras and other catrinas or commenting slyly but wittily on political events.
Although the notion that Death is more present or more acknowledged in everyday life in Mexico can be challenged on various fronts*, this is a city built on the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of silver miners. We descend to one of those mines and learn about the horrendous conditions endured (or not) by countless generations of mostly indigenous workers, and then we climb back up into the baroque ornateness of a church resplendent in the produce of all that toil. The whole of Guanajuato, it seems, was developed because the owners of the mines had nothing better to do with their money than build shrines to themselves. In the words of Walter Benjamin, there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
It wasn’t just indigenous workers who broke their backs digging up precious metals. A caption in the local museum alludes coyly to the ‘presence’ of African ‘workers’ who were brought in to complement the Nahuas, Michoacanos, Otomis, and Chichimecas commandeered from other parts of Mesoamerica. Nowadays there is a glut of workers for a far smaller pool of jobs in tourism and the culture industry, with something of an an oversupply of hotels. We are certainly well catered for. The owner of our rambling hillside guesthouse turns out to be a gringo, one who typifies a certain kind of voluble effusiveness particular to North Americans, a characteristic which I personally find very endearing. He is full of stories about how he and a small team of in-laws hewed the place out of raw rock. It is a genuinely staggering achievement, involving hauling hunks of stone up and down the hill and hacking out waterways where there were none. Talking to him I am reminded of Fitzcarraldo, or any number of mad semi-mythical geniuses who headed south, grabbed machetes and gouged out their visions in the tropics. The sprawling establishment has a lot in common with the local churches in that there is silver and steel everywhere, but the decorations do not depict angels or edenic scenes, instead they consist of rather macabre, twisted metal sculptures. It looks like a workshop where the stage set for the new Iron Maiden world tour is being welded and hammered together.Fittingly, my less-than-elaborate costume for the Day of the Dead itself is a Slayer t-shirt I buy for 100 pesos. Here you can see a photo of me in all my gothic grandeur.
Even more of a frightening sight are the mummies which have long been one of Guanajuato’s main tourist attrations. The corpses were perfectly preserved but a century or so of morbid gawping has worn them out a bit. It strikes me that so much of the histrionic shrieking and visceral iconography of heavy metal music are in part an unwitting parody of certain aspects of the Catholic Church. While most metal bands would probably describe themselves as nihilistic, they are actually for the most part deeply moralistic, albeit more id than superego, a celebration of all the sadistic and grisly elements that priests pretend not to enjoy. There are few passages as gothic and rich in potential death metal imagery as the description of the sermon on the eternal tortures that await the damned in hell in James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man’.
A clue to what lies behind all these representations of gore is on display throughout the city: many churches are covered with huge images of fetuses reminding anyone who needed reminding of the fervent desire of the medieval and neomedieval church to control women’s sexualities at all costs. The museum where the mummies are housed also houses a few preserved examples of desiccated embryos. It may be that the historic treatment of women by the church and the state has contributed to the development of a culture in which men feel free to seize and dispose of women’s bodies with impunity. After all, certain still-dominant elements of the church hierarchy do not regard women’s bodies as their own property, but rather as mere vessels for the next generation of male heirs and child-carriers. Just a few hundred miles south of here the Church is having women locked up for decades for the mortal sin of having a miscarriage.
It comes as something of a shock to discover several weeks after visiting Guanajuato that I had already, in a sense, visited the place before. Rewatching a documentary about Thomas Pynchon I learn that he fled here when running away from a journalist who had tracked him down in Mexico City after his first novel became an overnight success. Subsequently while rereading ‘About the Day’ I notice with a start that he even visited and described the mummies in some detail. It gives me an curious insight into how he composes his immensely complex and often encyclopedic novels, because while he was here in 1963, the novel didn’t emerge til 2006. He gives the impression that he writes down absolutely everything that he learns and experiences and it all goes into his books.
A far more bloodless place is only an hour away from Guanajuato on the bus: San Miguel de Allende. This is Mexicoland, the kind of place which someone like Bill Gates probably finds pleasant and safe to wander round in his polo shirt and chinos. It is awash with serious tourist money and the effect is somewhat bland, like a golf course whch just happens to be covered in colonial buildings. Nowadays the rich don’t build palaces, they acquire cultural capital instead. The streets are teeming with vapid art galleries selling tasteful but meaningless decoration. We are very glad that we reversed our original plan of staying here for five days and nipping over to Guanajuato for one. Está bien aburrido, guey! Guanajuato, por otro lado, es una maravilla macabra.
*On the last night in Guanajuato we met someone dressed as a ghoul, an American artist who has defeated death and now openly and joyously taunts it.
** All but three of the photos in this piece were taken by the author. Anyone who can guess which three stands to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the bathroom.
*** This is part of an ongoing occasional series of reflections inspired by cities I have been to recently. Other entries can be found tagged below under Cities.