Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Guadalajara's El Centro - Part 2

One of Guadalajara's "Founding Fathers". The statue above shows an arrogant, confident Spanish conquistador who exemplifies the spirit and attitude of the early settlers of Guadalajara. I believe the statue is of Miguel Ibarra, a Basque who was one of conquistador Nuno Beltran de Guzman's lieutenants when he passed through the area in March 1530. Ibarra later became the first mayor of Guadalajara. The city, which was named after de Guzman's home town in Spain, actually had three other locations before the present one was selected. The first was in the State of Zacatecas and is now called Nochistlan, the second was Tonala (a current suburb of Guadalajara famous for folk art), and the third was northeast of present Guadalajara in a town now known as Tlacotan.

When Beltran de Guzman had first visited the area, the settled Indians lived in a small kingdom ruled by a gentle queen named Cihuapilli Tzapapotzinco. She surrendered peacefully, which was a good thing because de Guzman was known as Bloody de Guzman for a reason. His propensity for rape, pillage, slaughter and enslavement earned him the enmity of the nomadic Chichimec Indians, who happened to be fierce warriors in their own right. The Chichimec's name was actually a Spanish catch-all for a variety of hunter-gatherer peoples populating western and northern Mexico. Because of their nomadic lifestyle, they were much more difficult to conquer than people who grew crops and lived in cities. They were used to what is now called guerilla warfare, and plagued the Spanish and their silver caravans for at least a couple of hundred years.

In the early days of Guadalajara, the Chichimecs attacked the Spanish so continuously that the settlers repeatedly changed locations until they finally found a defensible spot in the current site of Guadalajara's El Centro. The city was founded by a relatively small group of Spanish settlers on February 14, 1542, on a plateau more than 5000 feet above sea level. By this time de Guzman was so thoroughly discredited, even in the eyes of the Spanish, that he was arrested and eventually died in prison in Spain. A relief sculpture of the founding event by sculptor Rafael Zamarriga can be seen on the back wall of the Degollado Theatre facing Plaza de Fundadores (Founders' Plaza)

Beatriz Hernandez played a role in the founding of Guadalajara. Portrayed with a flag above, she was one of the few Spanish women who accompanied the settlers in their wanderings from location to location. Presumably, most of the Spanish men took Indian wives. Only 63 survivors from the Spanish Iberian peninsula remained, including 13 from Andalusia, 6 from Estramadura, 8 Portuguese, 16 identified as "Spanish" and 9 as "mountain" (presumably the Pyrenees). Spain had only been unified as a kingdom for about 50 years, so the Spanish more readily identified themselves by their region than by the national name. Apparently many of the settlers were dissatisfied with the final site because they thought it offered little other than a defensible location. The leader, Cristobal de Onate, took out his sword at one point and stuck the blade in a tree to emphasize his determination that they should stay. The crowd was still restive and unhappy until Beatriz, apparently a woman with a powerful voice to match a powerful personality, stepped up and cried out "Here we stay, by hook or by crook!" The settlers were moved by this and decided to stay.

Stately 19th Century architecture adjoins that of the 16th, 17th, and 18th. As it turned out, the settlers had made a good decision because the land was ideal for farming and ranching and Guadalajara grew to be the capital of one of the richest provinces of Spain's Nueva Hispania and later of Mexico. The city became capital of Nueva Galicia (later Jalisco) and eventually the seat of the Catholic diocese. Guadalajara's economic importance grew not only from the agricultural bounty, but because of its location along the silver caravan route from Zacatecas. In addition, it became a strategic bridge between the ports on the Pacific Coast and those serving Europe on the Gulf of Mexico Coast. Local residents like to call Guadalajara "the Pearl of the West."

Water burbles from a carved stone fountain, green with moss. Fountains abound in the long corridor of interconnecting plazas between the Teatro Degollado and the Hospicio Cabanas. Some have an ancient patina like this one. Others evoke the 18th and 19th Centuries' fixation on Greek and Roman themes. Still others are very modernistic, even as they celebrate pre-hispanic legends.

Fountain of the Four Boys. Shown above is one of four young nude boys in playful poses, this one with a fish in his lap. The sculptor has used the fish's mouth as one the nozzles for the fountain. While Mexico has its share of monumental sculpture, generals and politicians and the like, there is also a playful aspect that pops up everywhere. The kid above looks like he's having a great time.

Anybody hungry yet? El Centro is not just about architecture and statues. The plazas are lined with delightful little restaurants built into the historic buildings, many of them with tables out front. We checked out some of the menus, and sampled a bit of the food here and there. There are selections for a variety of tastes and budgets. No one need perish from hunger pangs in this area.

Steel flame ascends from fountain in the plaza's Central Esplanade. This is a very modernist part of the plaza, both in the sculpture and the building in the background. Ironically, the theme of the sculpture is rooted in an ancient legend common to a variety of pre-hispanic civilizations including the Aztec, Mayan, and Toltec. Quetzelcoatl was an important god-figure to these cultures, represented by the plumed serpent found in many ruins. At one point in the mythology, he was burned, only to be reborn later. The steel flame represents the burning of Quetzelcoatl. He was portrayed in the myth as light-skinned with a beard, and he was supposed to return from the eastern sea. Ironically, the light-skinned, bearded Spanish under Cortes first landed on Mexico's east coast. Reports of this event, and the possibility of an encounter with an actual god, made Aztec ruler Moctezuma very cautious with these strangers. His caution led to his overthrow and death and the destruction of the Aztec empire.

Looking down the Central Esplanade from the Four Boys Fountain to Hospice Cabanas. This whole area is designed for walking, so you'd better bring the shoes for it. I am often amazed at the choice of shoes by Mexicans I see. The women often prefer the spikiest of heels, and the men tight-fitting shoes made for style rather than comfort. They must have feet made of rhinoceros leather. They seem to manage o.k., but I certainly couldn't do it. In the distance you can see the front of the Hospicio Cabanas, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Hospicio Cabanas

View from the inner courtyard of Hospicio Cabanas. After a series of disasters in the Guadalajara area left many people in misery and destitution, the Hospicio was founded by Bishop Fray Antionio Alcalde of Guadalajara in 1791. The purpose was to house a variety of social services including a workhouse, hospital, orphanage, and almshouse. In 1796, Bishop Juan Ruiz de Cabanas, Alcalde's successor, retained renowned architect Manual Tolsa to build the magnificent structure. In part, Tolsa used the famous Les Invalides in Paris, and El Escorial near Madrid, as his models. The construction process lasted almost 30 years until 1829, outlasting Bishop Ruiz de Cabanas who died in 1823. However, he was able to leave the structure his name.

Hospicio Cabanas has many rooms, built around 23 courtyards. Tolsa designed the building to accommodate the needs of children, the aged and the sick. The vast majority of the structure is on one floor, with covered walkways connecting the different sections. Two-thirds of the Hospicio's area are either open space or covered, but open-air. This made movement within the building easy for the residents. At various times in the mid-19th Century, Hospice Cabanas served as a military barracks and stables, but later resumed its function as a hospital. In 1980 the Cabanas Cultural Institute took over and the building became a center for the arts. The Hospicio has achieved World Heritage Site status in part because it is one of the earliest structures built specifically for the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged. Nothing else at the time either in the New World or in Europe compared to the Hospicio in its perfect design for its purposes and in its beauty.

Man of Fire is considered one of muralist Jose Clemente Orozco's masterpieces. After the chaos of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, followed by the Catholic Cristero insurgency in the mid-1920s against the revolutionary government, Mexico was desperately in need of national cohesion and unity. In the 1930s the muralist movement exemplified by Orozco, Diego Rivera, Zulce, and others emerged as a major factor in pulling the nation together. Various levels of the Mexican government commissioned these talented muralists to decorate public buildings all over Mexico. In addition to his work at the Palacio Gobierno, the State of Jalisco commissioned Orozco for the murals at the Hospicio. The Man of Fire, seen above, represents artists as a transcendent figures, rising above the chaos, violence and intrigue of the time. Fittingly, the Man of Fire is the central figure in the area of Orozco's work at the Hospicio, covering the interior of the central dome.

Orozco's view of the church/state relationship in Mexico's history. A grim-faced figure of secular Spanish authority clutches the cross closely, significantly resting his crown at the top. The Spanish authorities used the Church as both an ideological justification for their brutal conquest, and as a mechanism of social control over the Indian populations. Most of the time, the Church hierarchy was glad to go along, although there were sometimes conflicts when the brutality became too spectacular to ignore, such as the reign of terror by Beltran de Guzman.

Speaking of reigns of terror. The panel above gives Orozco's view of the Conquest and the centuries of repression that followed. Faceless knights cleave about them with bloody swords and ride over the bodies of crushed Indians, while flames roar in the background. That pretty much covers how the Indians must have seen it.

Orozco focused on larger themes too, such as the rise and dominance of technology. Above, a steel wheel, shimmering brilliantly, rolls over crushed and buried human and animal figures. I was particularly interested in these panels, because they rise above the conflict of Left versus Right, common artistic themes of the muralists of Orozco's day. Here he addresses even more basic issues of humanity versus technology. Film maker/actor Charlie Chaplin, an Orozco contemporary, captured a similar vision in his film "Modern Times" with the little hobo caught up in vast impersonal machinery.

Sinister clowns. Many of the political figures in Orozco's work appear clownish, but are chilling nonetheless. These figures stand, as if on a reviewing dias, as abstract multitudes march by carrying banners. This mural calls to mind Nazi Nuremburg rallies, and Soviet masses marching by the Kremlin. Orozco is warning us against blindly responding to calls for "patriotism" issued by those who very likely have ulterior motives and personal agendas. My home country, the United States, has had some bitter experience with this in recent years.

Nazi Gauleiter, Soviet Commissar, or Capitalist boss? Orozco portrayed the true meaning of the brutal regimes of his time in this mural panel. A figure, whip clenched in his hand, stands over what appears to be a factory production line, surrounded by barbed wire. Significantly, the head of the figure is covered by the arch, so that the true identity of the oppressor could be any number of possibilities: capitalist, fascist, or communist. Viewing this, I was reminded of Orozco-contemporary George Orwell's vision of the future as a hob-nailed boot stomping on a human face forever.

While Orozco's work might seem depressing, it does reflect the reality of the mid-20th Century in which he lived, and much of history since. Artists are not meant to paint only pretty pictures. Also keep in mind that, although the lower panels are filled with all this violence, intrigue, and chicanery, towering over them is the transcendent figure of the Man of Fire, a figure of hope.

On that note, Part 2 of my Guadalajara El Centro posting is completed. Once again, if you are ever in a position to visit this wonderful area, I strongly urge you to build in some time for it. You'll be very glad you did.

Hasta luego! Jim

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