Friday, July 24, 2009

Guadalajara's Centro Historico - Part 1

Towers and dome of Guadalajara's Cathedral peep above blossoming jacaranda trees. The old colonial center of Guadalajara, called El Centro, is rich in history and architecture. Carole and I have visited this area several times over the last two years, but I have not until now published my photos of those trips. I guess that which is close and easily accessed is sometimes not valued as highly as that which is more difficult to reach. Anyone visiting the Lake Chapala area or Guadalajara itself should certainly take some time to visit El Centro.

Because there are so many places to visit in the area, I broke this posting into two parts. Part 1 focuses on the Cathedral, the Palacio Gobierno, and the Teatro Degollado. In Part 2, I will explore the eastern part of El Centro plaza down to Las Cabanas, the museum containing some of muralist Jose Clemente Orozco's masterpieces. In a previous post I covered the Museo Regional, a wonderful museum of history, anthropology, and paleontology across Avenida Hidalgo from the Cathedral. You may want to visit that post as a complement to this one.

Guadalajara Cathedral

Guadalajara's Cathedral is the anchor-point of the El Centro area. Also called Catedral de la Asuncion de Maria Santisima, the first simple adobe cathedral was built in 1541. This was about 10 years after Nuno Beltran de Guzman founded Guadalajara, naming it after the city of his birth in Spain. Beltran de Guzman was Spain's most horrendously bloody conquistador, the 16th Century's equivalent to Heinrich Himmler. Like Guadalajara itself, the Cathedral had several locations until the present magnificent building was begun in 1571. Above, the 60 foot towers of the Cathedral loom above Plaza de Armas, one of four plazas that radiate from the north, south, east, and west sides of the Cathedral.

Interior of the Cathedral. This is the area under the dome. For more pictures of the interior of the Cathedral, as well as some of the still-existing churches which were the Cathedral's predecessors, click here. Although I am not a Catholic, or even a religious person, I have always been fascinated by the magnificence of these colonial churches. They represent the height of Spanish power and glory in the 16th and 17th Centuries, which all started with its Conquest of Mexico.

Liberation Square, east of the Cathedral. This plaza is often used for fiestas, folk art displays and other activities, for which these white tents were erected. One of the popular activities we haven't yet tried is a ride around El Centro in one of these coaches.

Sculptors at work. One day we were walking in the plaza and encountered a large group of sculptors scattered around the plaza, all working on their creations. This was part of a contest to see who could make the best sculpture during the fiesta that was underway. Mexicans are devoted to their art, an aspect of their national personality you will find everywhere.

Palacio de Gobierno

Palacio de Gobierno is one of Guadalajara's most ornate buildings. Palacio de Gobierno, or Government Palace, is the administrative headquarters of Jalisco State. It faces Plaza de Armas, across from the Cathedral. It was begun in 1643 and completed in 1774. The style is Baroque with ornate Churrigueresque touches. The clock on the front of the building still bears a bullet hole from the gun of Mexican Revolutionary Pancho Villa.

Cathedral dome and steeples from the top of the courtyard of the Palacio. The Palacio was built, as usual in colonial Mexico, around a courtyard surrounded by arched passageways called portales.

Chairs await Mexican officials in the great meeting room. Every inch of this building speaks of history, power, and a deep levels of culture.

Father Hidalgo signs his proclamation freeing Mexico's indigenous people. This mural is found on the wall facing the chairs in the previous photo. It was in this building in 1810 that Father Miguel Hidalgo, a leader of the War of Independence from Spain, declared Mexico's indigenous population free. This was the beginning of the end of what was, in effect, slavery in Mexico. It took 52 more years before Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in the United States. In the mural, a hooded figure, bound at the wrists, reaches beseechingly for the document proclaiming Libertad--Liberty! As with the United States, it took another century after the proclamation before the more subtle forms of bondage were eliminated. That came with the 1910 Revolution.

Muralist Orozco took a dim view of the politics of his era. Jose Clemente Orozco was one of a group of great muralists in Mexico during the first half of the 20th Century. Orozco grew up during the violent struggles of the Mexican Revolution, and witnessed the rise of Communism and Nazism. The scene above, part of a larger mural in the well of the great stairway of the building, depicts the wildly disorganized struggle of all the political factions of his day. Looking closely, you will see some figures dressed as clowns, while others wear the Nazi swastika, the hammer and sickle, and a cross all at the same time. Although Orozco demonstrated a deep feeling for the oppressed, he apparently viewed most politicians of his day as clownish opportunists.

Some of Orozco's murals show startling levels of violence. This is another scene in the same mural shown previously. One must remember that the Mexican Revolution caused the deaths of more than 2 million people, and the revolution was less than a generation old when this was painted. The Spanish Civil War was raging, Fascism had won in Italy, Nazis were in power in Germany, and Stalin ruled Russia.

Political violence has a long history in Mexico. The statue above, found in the Palacio de Gobierno, portrays a famous incident in Mexican history. Benito Juarez became President of Mexico after drafting a modern liberal constitution. Wealthy elites and the Church lost power under the new constitution and this led to a conservative revolt known as the Reform War of 1858-61. Conservative-backed troops broke into Juarez's office, bent on killing him. They were stopped by a brave subordinate of Juarez who threw himself in front of the president and denounced the troops as assassins. Shamefaced, they withdrew. Juarez went on to win the Reform War and later to lead the successful resistance to the French who had been invited to invade by the losers of the Reform War. Benito Juarez was the first full-blooded Indian to serve as President of Mexico, and became one of the nation's greatest heroes. It would be another 150 years before the United States elected a non-white president.

Teatro Degollado

Teatro Degollado is one of the great performing arts venues in Guadalajara. The Degollado Theatre was built almost exactly on the site of the earliest Spanish settlement of present-day Guadalajara. The Indian inhabitants of the area had held a tianguis (open market) every 5 days on the site since ancient times. The cultural leaders of Guadalajara in the 19th Century yearned for a theatre, and submitted 16 proposals to various governors between 1838 and 1854. The construction was started in 1856, but was repeatedly halted because of the Reform War and the French invasion. The portico contains 16 Corinthian columns.

The facade above the portico. This beautiful marble relief facade depicts Apollo with the nine Muses, which are the patron deities of the arts. When the theatre first opened in 1856, it was called the Alarcon, after Mexican author Juan Ruiz de Alarcon. The name was changed to honor Jalisco Governor Santos Degollado who signed the decree authorizing the construction. The marble relief was carved by stone workers in Tlaquepaque, an area of Guadalajara known for its fine craftsmanship. The relief was designed by artist Agustin Yanez Roberto Montenegro.

A huge glass chandelier adorns the oval multi-story atrium. Delicate wrought-iron railings frame the chandelier at each floor in the picture above.

Stained glass lamp glows in the ceiling above the audience seats. Electric lighting was installed in 1897. Many structures around the Degollado were burned in a great fire in 1909, but the theatre itself was relatively untouched.

A horseshoe of box seats faces the stage. In addition to the ground floor audience seats, 4 stories of box seats rise majestically above. The very first performance in 1856 was the opera "Lucia di Lammermoor", with Angela Peralta in the lead role. Today the theatre hosts the Guadalajara Philharmonic, the University of Guadalajara Ballet Folklorico, and the ballet of the Municipality of Guadalajara, as well as countless concerts, operas, and recitals. Some of the great international artists who have performed include Anna Pavlova, Andres Segovia, Pablo Casals, Placido Domingo, Rudolf Nureyev, and Marcel Marceau.

Statue in the lobby expresses the 19th Century elegance of the Degollado. The theatre is one of the great prides of the City of Guadalajara. It has been rebuilt or refurbished numerous times over its 150 year history. In fact, it may be the only theatre that has had a total of 6 grand openings, including those in 1856, 1866, 1880, 1910, 1941, and 1964.

This concludes Part 1 of my two-part series on Guadalajara's El Centro. We love hearing from people, so if you'd like to respond, please leave a comment below, or send us an email directly.

Hasta luego! Jim


  1. Great blog post - Lovely photos, and informative, descriptive tour! I particularly enjoyed the Teatro Degollado as I wasn't able to see it when I was in El Centro. Hopefully on my next visit...

    There is so much art and history to absorb and appreciate throughout Mexico. Thank you for making the time to sharing your experiences!

  2. The El Centro is redundant.

    Either The Centro, or

    El Centro

    El and The mean the same thing.

    Loved the post.

  3. Jim,

    You have done a fabulous job. I am interested in the hiking around this area. Since I am new, I don't know where to start. I would appreciated your help in getting me going. Thank you,


  4. Paul, since you didn't leave an email, I'll just leave a response here and hope you check back. My email is I'd be glad to provide information about hiking in the Lake Chapala area.

    Welcome to town, Jim


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim