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DESTINATION: MEXICO

Guanajuato's deep roots of revolution

Absorbing history in and around this colonial city, birthplace of independence.

October 26, 2003|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Guanajuato, Mexico — In a plaza of this enthralling colonial city, I came across a historical marker that gave me a chill. It said a patriot was executed here in 1810, shortly after Mexicans began their fight for independence from Spain. The bloodiest battle took place across the way in a blocky stone granary called the Alhondiga de Granaditas. A young Indian named Juan Martinez, known as El Pipila, set fire to the wooden doors, allowing Mexican rebels to burst inside and slaughter Spaniards who had taken refuge.

These days the Alhondiga is a museum, and a statue honoring El Pipila overlooks the city. Bent on learning more, I signed up for a tour of other sites that were key in the quest for independence, all in or near Guanajuato, including the spot where revolutionary priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla first called Mexicans to arms Sept. 16, 1810.

Guanajuato (GWAH-nah-HWAH-toe), founded in 1554 and given city status in 1741, is a museum in its own right. Cobblestone streets wind past historic buildings stacked on steep hillsides. The home where I stayed while attending language classes was more than 300 years old. Charming plazas invite one to rest and enjoy vistas of aged, softly colored buildings. Traffic is routed through a warren of dark, rock-faced tunnels that look like passages in a mine -- fitting because Guanajuato's rich silver lodes, discovered in the mid-1500s, made the city fabulously wealthy by the end of the 18th century.

These days it's the history that is rich, drawing visitors to a city of more than 100,000, the capital of a state of the same name. My tour started in Guanajuato's city center and moved on to the church in Dolores Hidalgo, about 40 miles northeast, where Father Hidalgo uttered his rousing speech, the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), which kicked off the Sept. 16 rebellion. The church faces a central square filled with trees and, on Sundays, children playing with toys hawked by vendors. Bystanders cluster around stands dispensing ice cream in such wild flavors as mole, chicharron (pork cracklings) and cerveza (beer). The Talavera-style ceramics for which the city is known add more local color throughout town.

From the church, Hidalgo and his followers marched to a jail and freed the prisoners. The jail is now a museum with exhibits devoted to Hidalgo and a lifelike re-creation of the liberation.

A pair of revolutionary heroes

Our van drove about 20 miles south to the sanctuary of Atotonilco, where Hidalgo obtained an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe for his banner and adopted her as patron of his cause.

In this elaborately painted 18th century church, I was intrigued by elderly women with huge crucifixes hanging from their necks and rope whips fastened at their waists. It seems the pious of Atotonilco flog themselves with these whips, which are sold at stands outside.

The tour ended about 10 miles southeast in San Miguel de Allende, the birthplace, in 1779, of independence hero Ignacio Allende. We listened to our guide tell the story of his life outside Allende's home, now a museum.

My interest whetted, I decided to see Hidalgo's birthplace too, in the southwestern part of the state. It would be an easy trip, less than 60 miles from Guanajuato, and a friend offered to drive.

The route took us across agricultural fields, past industrial sites and into the busy city of Irapuato. The last part of the road was lined with stands selling strawberries, Irapuato's key crop. The baskets of fresh berries were tempting, but instead I chose delicious crystallized berries in a strawberry-red box.

We continued past Abasolo, where Hidalgo was baptized, to a towering statue of the priest. It marked the turnoff to the hacienda where he was born on May 8, 1753.

Toasting history with tequila

This year was the 250th anniversary of that milestone, and we were in the right place for a toast. The hacienda is now home to the Corralejo tequila company.

Most people think tequila comes only from the state of Jalisco, where the town of Tequila is located. But the first tequila in Mexico was made at this hacienda when Hidalgo was a toddler.

The old buildings came back to life when Corralejo took over in 1996. The plant was inaugurated by Vicente Fox, then governor of the state of Guanajuato. When Fox won the presidential election in 2000, Corralejo shipped an enormous cask of tequila to the main plaza in Mexico City to provide free drinks for passersby. That cask is on display at the hacienda, marked prominently with Fox's name.

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