This article is from the October 1998 The Mexico File newsletter.
by David Simmonds
Guadalajara has given birth to several Mexican customs. Once I gave it considerable thought, all of these customs seem to be related by the fact that participation in these traditions is enhanced by the consumption of its most notorious gift to the country, tequila. Of course, I refer to the Mexican Hat Dance, mariachi music, the charreada, and goat stew (birria). I have a hunch that each of these originated on the same day at the same party, although no historical verification can be documented. Guadalajara today sports some 5 million Tapatíos — that’s what the residents are called — including a huge gringo population. I haven’t been able to get a conclusive number, but they number in the tens of thousands. And in my estimation, they have made a good decision. I don’t know if there is another city in the world of this size that feels like a town…the kind of town that works efficiently and one where you can walk the streets knowing you will reach your destination unmolested, physically and verbally.
After moving the original settlement three times, present-day Guadalajara began in 1542 in the heart of what is now the colonial center. To signify the importance of the city, the Spanish architects and city planners incorporated four impressive plazas in close proximity — to which a fifth has been added in recent years, albeit at the expense of many historical buildings that were razed for this purpose.
Its considerable distance from Mexico City has been a benefit to Guadalajara, allowing it to grow and develop fairly autonomously — producing a character and customs that have become truly Mexican. Many consider it to be the most traditional city in the country. And how did it get the name tapatíos for its inhabitants? My historical contact there told me that in the early days everyone would barter goods in threes. “I’ll give you three pigs for three wagon wheels,” known as tapatíos. Soon, the name was applied to the people. This was a wise move, given the option of trying to say “Guadalajarans” after imbibing in the native beverage. Just one too many “a’s” in that mouthful.
The name Guadalajara was brought from Spain, the location of the hometown of explorer Nu o de Guzmán. There is a wonderful, lyrical sound to the name that perfectly complements this city, where music is such an ingrained component of everyday life. Mariachi is the music most associated with Mexico. Although it is heard throughout the country, it originated in Guadalajara. What Dixieland jazz is to New Orleans, mariachi is to Guadalajara. You hear it everywhere, and like its U.S. counterpart, it defines the city and its spirit. It adds soul to a country that can present daily challenges unfamiliar to many of us norte os. As a visitor you become infected with the joy and serenity the music can bring, and a part of you will feel very much a Tapatío.
GO FOR INDEPENDENCE FESTIVALSeptember 16 is considered Mexico’s independence day. Although this date in 1810 was the genesis of the revolution, it was eleven years before independence was finally achieved. Guadalajara today, not content with one or two days of celebration, throws a month-long party. You should attend one of these, as I did this year.The Fiestas Patrias ‘98 started on August 24 and ran through the end of September. Occupying venues throughout the colonial center, the programs and activities were wonderfully varied. They included a wide range of events — an aerobics demonstration, the Ballet Folklorico de Jalisco, and, at 11:00 p.m. on September 15, the emotional grito ceremony when the entire country collectively shouts “Viva Mexico.” And, of course, there is the music.
Contributing to the spectacle is the good fortune of its falling in late summer. Yes, it is the rainy season, but the rains fall sometime between midnight and 6:00 a.m. It’s perfect — the dust is washed away and the air is cleared for a new day.
What is conspicuously missing are hordes of tourists. U.S. schools are back in session and the traditional “tourist season” is still a couple of months away. You will find no lines at the museums, no wait at the restaurants, no crowds at the mercado. And with the peso currently worth about a dime, there is no excuse not to go.
The 400-year-old, twin-towered cathedral of Guadalajara is surrounded on four sides by plazas, creating one of the most pleasing town centers in Mexico. Adding to the ambience are ten blocks of pedestrian-only streets, creating a main-street Disneyland aura that had me searching for Mickey and Goofy wherever a crowd was gathered.
To the south of the cathedral lies the Plaza de Armas, site of free concerts two days a week. Facing the plaza is the magnificent Palacio de Gobierno, where ex-president Hidalgo signed the proclamation ending slavery some 50 years prior to our Civil War. This act is the subject of the Orozco mural, a native of Guadalajara, painted on the interior staircase.
Another benefit to a visit to the Palacio is a stop at the information booth in the courtyard. This proved to be a much better source than the state tourist office located behind the nearby Teatro Degollado. Most days you’ll find at this booth an American woman named Lynn who has lived in Guadalajara for thirty years. She doesn’t mind sharing the names of her favorite restaurants, which are rarely the ones you will read about elsewhere.
In front of the cathedral is the Plaza de los Laureles, planted with Indian laurel trees. This is a good place to sit, people-watch, admire the church and imagine how it has changed over the past 400 years.
On the north side of the cathedral is the Rotundo de los Hombres Ilustres. This park was built in 1954 as a monument for 17 of Jalisco’s premier leaders of arts and science, each honored with a bronze statue. Under the rotunda in the center of the park lie the remains of six of them. What appears to be the smallest and most insignificant plaza proved to be my favorite.
The contiguous Presidencia Municipal (City Hall), which appears to be contemporaneous with the surrounding buildings, was actually built in 1952. Check out the mural at its interior stairway colorfully depicting the city founding.
The large, rectangular Plaza de la Liberación, behind the cathedral, is the site of many of the festival programs throughout the month. At the east end of the plaza is the Teatro Degollado, a grand building that is host to musical and stage programs as diverse as heavy-metal rock, poetry readings, and the Guadalajara Philharmonic.
The city’s most interesting museum, the Regional Museum of Guadalajara, borders a portion of the east side of the Plaza de la Liberación. Housed in a former seminary from the 1600’s, the first floor contains artifacts from pre-Columbian Mexico with outstanding examples from western Mexico, as well as the remains of a mammoth discovered in the early 1960’s. The upper floor is dedicated to modern Mexico, after the Spanish arrival. Most notable are the many rooms of paintings reminiscent of European style from that era. One entire room is devoted to Guadalajara native son, Jose de Ibarra, noted for his allegorical depictions.
Ironically, across the Plaza Liberación from the Regional Museum sits the new Museo de Cera, or wax museum. While the Regional Museum was notably empty of visitors on my recent visit, the wax museum consistently had a line snaking for half a block. It seems that a fascination with the bizarre (i.e., Bill & Monica) transcends borders, while things that “matter” go unnoticed. Little wonder they invented tequila.
Heading east from Plaza de la Liberación begins Plaza Tapatía, a pedestrian walkway stretching several hundred yards to Guadalajara’s most attractive older building, the Instituto Cultural de Caba as, which dates to 1810. Tapatía was opened in 1982, after the leveling of a good many colonial buildings. It has been fairly successful in its goal of providing a pleasant walkway lined with shops and restaurants and spouting several fountains for a visual and cooling effect. Many local families use this area, as well as visitors.
The Instituto Cultural de Caba as was originally a military building, but became an orphanage early on and remained so for 150 years until 1980. Today it is a collection of courts set in gardens. The main chapel is dominated by an Orozco mural (circa 1930’s) depicting a 40-foot-tall figure which combines Quetzalcóatl and the Christian God (called The Man of Fire). Orozco’s paintings are represented throughout the building, creating a very impressive exhibit.
Just down the steps from Tapatía, near Victor Contreras’ huge, metal sculpture of Quetzalcóatl, is the incomparable Mercado Libertad, often heralded as Latin America’s largest. Originally built in 1888, the market has been expanded several times. The final expansion took place in 1981 with the addition of a third floor and parking garage. The present site occupies the equivalent of four city blocks and contains 2,600 stalls selling just about everything. There are reportedly many empty stalls these days (it seemed true). Some say it was overbuilt, while others blame NAFTA and the availability of imported goods. Anyway, it’s plenty large enough to break a sweat as you walk in circles looking for an escape — despite the 66 exits leading to the street.
In truth, they sell pretty much the same stuff you see at markets throughout Mexico, just more of it. I went armed with a hand-drawn depiction from my wife, Felice, describing precisely the silver necklace she wanted for allowing me to leave home for this Mexico sojourn. She didn’t want the large silver balls or the small ones. She wanted the medium ones, all the same size, and it shouldn’t hang too low around the neck. “Got it?” she asked dubiously as I muttered an affirmation. I inspected approximately 100 silver sellers at the market and discovered that they all carried the same designs. But none matched the request. If you want something different, you need to go to a shop — the kind of shop with a price tag attached that you soon learn is non-negotiable. I found one the next day in Tlaquepaque with the correct necklace for roughly twice the price that I paid for a similar one (the balls were too big!) last year in Taxco. The price of marital harmony, although rising, is still a bargain.
Still, you need to go to the market, if not for the goods then for the fondas (food stalls). Located on the second floor, I would argue that it might have the best food available in a town of good restaurants. I skipped breakfast every morning just waiting for the market stalls to crank up the propane burners and set out the large clay bowls filled with everything from fideo to flautas to…yakemeshi. Yes, Asian food is now being served, and it is delicious. A large plate of stir-fry topped with five, plump shrimp runs about $1.50US. Another stall displayed a salad bar filled with freshly picked vegetables, presumably washed in purified water (I didn’t get sick).
The main point here is…don’t be dissuaded because it’s cheap and the poor people eat there. It’s not only a good cultural experience — it’s good eating.
SLEEP WITH HISTORY
As you probably know, when visiting a colonial city, try to find a hotel in an old building, near the historical attractions. In Guadalajara it is an easy choice, although there are several to choose from. The Hotel Francés was built in 1610 as an inn originally called El Meson de San Jose to provide short-term shelter for traders. In the years since, it has housed numerous political leaders, revolutionaries, writers and artists. After years of inattention, the hotel was restored in 1981 and declared a national monument by the governor. The bar in the enclosed inner-courtyard is a very popular, elegant gathering place for many well-heeled Tapatíos, as well as city visitors. Music and regional dance concerts are frequently held in the evening.
If you call for reservations, make sure you request a room on the south end of the hotel, preferably on the second or third floor (remembering that the first floor is what we call the second floor). I requested a room with a balcony overlooking the street and was given a room with 12-foot beamed ceilings and 8-foot windowed doors. The Palacio de Gobierno sits directly across the narrow street, draped in red, green and white bunting for the festival. It is one of my favorite rooms in all my Mexico travels. And although I usually shun TV on my trips, I’m an unrecovering news addict and they had CNN and HBO. If you don’t like street noises you might want to request an interior room, but having the street and sky view late at night when the rains start is an incomparable experience. Best of all, the room cost $28US, single or double.
When not taking fortification at the mercado fondas, take a fifteen minute walk up Avenida Alcalde to #831 and the little known La Banderillas. You will find a fountain and ceiling fans in an attractive dining room that serves primarily beef dinners with prices you won’t believe. I ordered a bacon-wrapped filet served with a germ-free green salad, rice, frijoles and fresh rolls preceded by fresh tortilla chips and delicious guacamole. A great dinner for $3US. That’s not a misprint, friends. Thirty pesos, and most items were even less. Try the grilled scallions as a side dish. Chase it all with a cold cerveza and you still haven’t spent five bucks.
The colonial center gives the impression of a medium size city, but Guadalajara is actually Mexico’s second largest, less populous than only the country’s capital. American-style shopping centers selling products found in Phoenix and Orlando are common sights. I counted six theaters where I considered seeing Saving Private Ryan in English. There are two universities, challenging golf courses, a baseball team, museum, a rich history and a world-class zoo. There are several gringo-dominated residential developments within and outside the city that would fit nicely in the Pennsylvania countryside. And the weather is…pretty near perfect. Factor in the low comparatively low cost of living, and it’s easy to understand the decision of the many Americans, Canadians and Europeans who have relocated to one of Mexico’s most livable cities, Guadalajara.