The International Writers Magazine: Mexico

Nickolay Todorov

y The ride in the beat-up cargo van from Mexico City to Guanajuato took us along forgettable highways and an endless succession of toll booths. I was beginning to get seriously frazzled over my constant sliding up and down the empty seat rows of the van, which my friend Antonio had "borrowed" from his work.

When we began to climb a steep road that quickly became mountainous we found ourselves surrounded by precipitous hills with colonial houses perched over us. The asphalt suddenly turned to cobbled stones and the road plunged underground.
"The tunnels," Antonio said.

We dived into an extensive network of underground streets that offered the claustrophobic coziness of Parisian catacombs. They were chiseled into the rock of the hills, and allowed traffic to flow freely and orderly under the entire city. In fact, this grid of subterranean streets is as extensive for the size of Guanajuato as the New York subway system is for Manhattan. Now and then, an opening in the tunnels gave us a glimpse of the sky and the city above: two-hundred year old houses perched on top of each other, climbing up the hills. Here and there, steep staircases led from our level underground to the neighborhoods and the pedestrian alleys above.

Guanajuato is the capital of the state of Guanajuato, a landlocked area on the outskirts of the Sierra Madre Oriental range, a four-hour drive north from Mexico City. The city came into existence when silver veins were discovered under the hills on which it now stands. Silver mining exploded around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries and, with it, the riches of the city. By the beginning of the 19th century, the city boasted some ambitious citizens with plenty of cash. With their help, the small mining town became a true city and transformed itself into the cultural center of not only the state but of the entire Mexico. Architecture thrived and the city came to represent a blend of styles, from colonial to rococo to baroque. In the first half of the 20th century, artists from all over the country and from many places in Europe flocked to the city, filled its gardens, its palatial townhomes, its cantinas and restaurants to exchange ideas and show their art. Diego Rivera himself was born there. Today, his house is a museum.
We exited the tunnels on the other side of the city and found ourselves on a cobbled street so narrow that our van barely passed through without scraping the walls of the buildings. Grand staircases led up to the higher altitudes of the neighborhoods and the pedestrian streets. Shoulder-wide alleys sank in mysterious light. We made it to our hotel, Parador San Javier, which used to be a silver mine. From there, a big portion of the city could be explored on foot, even though taxis were ubiquitous and cheap.

Today, Guanajuato houses a spectacular university that looks very much like a Venetian Dodge palace built on a hill and boasts internationally-recognized programs in architecture and design. Because of the many European students, German, Dutch, English and French can be heard throughout the city. On our first night, the streets and the old houses around the center exploded with activity. College students dressed as Cervantes heroes lead processions through the dark alleys, singing and carrying candles. In fact, they were practicing for the annual Cervantino festival: artists from around the world converge on Guanajuato every spring for the biggest cultural event in Mexico; from rock concerts to flamenco recitals to poetry readings, the city buzzes with artistic ambition.

My third day in Guanajuato was certainly the most memorable: I finally got to see the mummies. When a friend of mine with an aptitude for exaggeration and an amusing use of English had told me about the mummies of Guanajuato, I had assumed that he had meant some sort of excavation. And yet, here I was, paying my ten pesos to enter "Museo de las Momias," an annex to the oldest local cemetery.

As soon as I stepped into the first display room, I knew I was in for a darker experience than the Disney ride I had expected.

Lined along the walls in glass sarcophaguses were corpses with recognizable features and leathery skin. Most of their hair was still in all of the appropriate parts; additionally, those who had been buried in polyester clothes still had pieces of them on. Small plaques announced the name of the deceased, when they were buried, and when they were exhumed. All the dates were from last century.

During the first quarter of the 20th century, the cemetery in Guanajuato, offering free burial space until then, ran out of room. The administrators sent out letters, asking the families of the dead for small rent. Some of those families never responded or the letters never reached them. As a result, some of the coffins had to be exhumed to create more space. It was then that the freaked grave diggers, expecting to handle skulls and bones, discovered that the bodies in the ground had turned to mummies.

There have been many theories about what exactly causes the dead bodies to stay preserved like this. Some say that it is the minerals in the water that the locals drink their entire lives. Others claim that it is something in the soil, maybe the same elements that created the abundant silver. I couldn't find anyone who could give me a scientifically proven answer, but the fact is that dead people mummify in Guanajuato, including some foreigners who came to live here in their thirties and forties, and including babies and toddlers. Chances are the ground under the cemeteries is filled with countless more of these mummies.

That night, as I we sat at a sidewalk restaurant under the big trees in front of Teatro Juarez, I listened to a twelve-member mariachi band give a festive rendition of La Lorona, the legend about the crying woman whose voice would bring death to those who listened. She too, I was told, originated in Guanajuato. A drunk Indian woman, toothless and ancient, danced with random strangers who kissed her on the cheek for good luck. Around me, people walked their children, laughed, ate and drank and listened to a dozen bands outplaying one another. Even though Guanajuato boasted such powerful ties with death, I thought, it once again had been distracted by its obsessive indulgence in life.
© Nckolay Todorov May 2006

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