Guanajuato: a Mexican City's tale of revolution, silver mining and some accidental mummies


Frozen in their final, ghoulish postures they stared, unseeing from behind glass cases. Some seemed to rest peacefully, oblivious to the rude interruption of their interment; others wore expressions of pure horror and despair, aghast at being placed in public view in such a state. They were old and young; clad in various stages of dress, some in full suits or dresses, others nothing at all. They should have been underground but a local law changed their eternal fate, placing them here, in Guanajuato's mummy museum, the final resting place for those who could not afford to pay their taxes.

I stepped off the bus into the bowels of the small Mexican city. The tunnel's darkness was punctuated by weak light pouring in from a small staircase heading up into the day. I ascended. Blinking in the bright, Mexican sunlight, I found myself standing in a leafy plaza bustling with activity. Young folks loitered peaceably on decorative wrought iron benches beneath impeccably manicured trees while the cobblestone, pedestrian-only walkways wound their way around the colourful, colonial architecture.

Guanajuato is, perhaps, not your typical Mexican city. Wedged neatly in a narrow valley in the heart of the country, the place has an air of colourful prosperity, its vibrancy stemming from a lively student population. Indeed, one needs a certain degree of energy to navigate the steep, winding alleys that whimsically navigate their way around the hodgepodge of colourful, sandstone buildings climbing the hillsides surrounding the heart of the city.  Conspicuously absent from the scene is the dull roar of traffic to which we have become so accustomed, the bulk of it having been diverted underground to the labyrinth of tunnels beneath.

Historically, the city's wealth has been extracted from the surrounding mountains where a plethora of silver and gold was discovered in the 16th century, a find that the colonizing Spaniards were quick to exploit, sending soldiers to set up forts in the area. Indeed, the Valenciana Mine fast became one of the richest producers of silver in history, accounting for 60 per cent of global production by the 18th century, making Guanajuato one of the richest cities in New Spain.  But as is often the case, as the rich got richer, malcontent was stirring among the commoners, and a revolution was in the works.

On the morning of September 16, 1810, in the neighbouring city of Dolores Hidalgo, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla rang the church bells, gathered his congregation and made his famous speech that began the revolt against the Spanish colonial government, thus beginning the Mexican War of Independence. Four days later, he and his small army of criollos, or lower class, locally born Spanish marched into Guanajuato and took their stand against the elite who cowered in the Alhondigas de Granaditas, a granary with few windows and thick walls. Gunfire kept the insurgents at bay.

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