Monday, October 3, 2016

Taxco Part 2: Plaza Borda

Plaza Borda bustles with activity, particularly the area in front of Parroquia Santa Prisca. At any one time, Santa Prisca may conduct a Mass, wedding, or funeral. Adding to the hubbub, vendors sell food, sombreros, balloons and shoe shines; shoppers look for bargains; endless streams of taxis load or unload passengers; folk dancers cavort on a stage; local folks stroll about, while tourists like myself gawk and take photos. I usually find Mexican plazas to be a lot of fun, but Plaza Borda is a 3-ring circus without the tent. Best of all, it is located right around the corner from Hotel Los Arcos, where we stayed during our visit to Taxco (see Part 1). In this part of my Taxco series, I'll show you some of the stunning architecture surrounding the plaza as well as some of the activities which occur within it.

The plaza is named after José de la Borda, the rich miner who built Parroquia Santa Prisca. This elegant, life-size statue of Borda is located in one corner of Plaza Borda. Other statues and portraits of him can be found throughout Taxco. Borda was a French/Spaniard who was born in 1700 and lived until 1778, a ripe old age in those days. His father was a French army officer and his mother a Spaniard. Borda was preceded in New Spain (Mexico) by his brother Francisco, who had founded a mine near Taxco. At age 17, José joined him to participate in what was, at the time, New Spain's biggest mining bonanza. After gaining some experience in the business, José de la Borda founded his own mine in 1734, a venture which proved very successful. When his brother died a few years later, Borda inherited his property, making him one of New Spain's richest men. The mining magnate decided to use some of his great wealth to build a magnificent church in Taxco.

Santa Prisca dominates Plaza Borda and its tall steeples can be seen throughout Taxco. The King of Spain gave José de la Borda permission to build the church, but said that the miner must mortgage his property to ensure its completion. Apparently the Spanish monarch was tired of boastful dreamers whose failed projects required the Crown or the Church to step in and clean up the mess. Trusting in the bottomless capacity of his mines, and in his own good luck, Borda signed the agreement to build this incredibly ornate church. In the end, it nearly bankrupted him, but his good luck held. With his Taxco mines playing out, and his loans coming due, he decided to take a chance on mining in Zacatecas, far to the north. Borda struck it rich again with a silver mine aptly named "La Esperanza" (The Hope). This bonanza made him the wealthiest man in New Spain at that time, and possibly in the world. Borda completed Santa Prisca and several other major architectural projects before he died. He succumbed to the cumulative, poisonous effects of mercury, a key element used in processing silver. In a later posting, we'll take a detailed look at this architectural gem.

A sombrero vendor scans the crowd for a prospective buyer. I am always amused by the creative way that these folks transport their wares. Since the straw hats are light, they can wear a considerable number of them at one time. The root of the Spanish word sombrero is sombra, which means "shade or shadow". He was one of many different vendors who roamed the plaza and nearby streets, hoping for a sale. Regardless of the weight of the hats, street vending is a difficult form of employment.

A couple of elderly residents relax in the brief early morning period before the plaza gets busy. The plaza contains one of the ubiquitous kioscos (bandstands) found throughout Mexico. Early colonial paintings and drawings rarely show kioscos in plazas. In colonial times, these were places to bring goods for sale, to slaughter and butcher animals, and to draw water from public wells or fountains. They also functioned as execution sites for criminals, rebels, and heretics--sometimes en masse. In the 19th century the function of plazas began to change, particularly after the conclusion of the War of Independence in 1821. Plazas became places of leisure and entertainment. In the mid-to-late 19th century, kioscos began to appear. This trend accelerated during the French intervention of 1862-67, when Napoleon II installed Austrian Archduke Maximilian and his wife Charlotte as Mexico's rulers. Culturally and architecturally sophisticated, the royal couple encouraged Mexican communities to re-make their plazas into parks. The royal couple curried favor by making gifts of kioscos throughout the county. The transformation of plazas continued even after Maximilian was overthrown and executed. French culture and architecture remained popular in Mexico, particularly during the rule of the dictator Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911).

Large metal stars hang from the branches of a tree that shades the plaza. These lamps help illuminate the plaza at night. The light shines out through the holes artistically cut in the rays of the star. Similar creations are hammered out in metal-working shops all over Mexico. During the day, the huge tree's thick branches provide shade for a large part of the plaza. It may have been only a sapling when Borda completed Santa Prisca in 1758, but it's a giant now.

A balloon-selling clown shows off his wears. As balloon sellers generally are, this fellow was popular with kids of all ages, including those with grey hair and spectacles. When I asked for a photo, he struck this pose. This clown doesn't just sell balloons, but twists them into various interesting shapes, upon request.

The Parroquia Restaurant and Bar's umbrellas are arrayed in ranks like soldiers. The Parroquia Restaurant and Bar, has been in business since 1984. It stands on the opposite side of the plaza from Parroquia Santa Prisca, hence the name. In order to take advantage of the views, many of Taxco's restaurants and bars set up balconies and terraces on their top floors and roofs. Although the temperature here is mild, the sun can be quite intense, making the umbrellas a welcome addition. 

Closeup of the Parroquia Restaurant and Bar. A roof-top table, or one in the window, provides a bird's eye view of all the activity in the plaza. The building's ground floor houses a jewelry shop selling all sorts of decorative silver objects. 

Down in the street, a family pauses while looking for an opening in the chaotic traffic. All of them wear helmets and long pants, two very good ideas when using a vehicle like this. All too many young Mexicans avail themselves of neither. I have seen family groups like this with as many as five riders on a single scooter. This often includes small babies strapped to their parents' chests. After all, what could possibly go wrong? 

Casa Borda, the cultural center, occupies most of one side of the plaza. Juan de la Borda built this mansion as his home in 1759, shortly after completing Santa Prisca. Today, it functions as a cultural center for art exhibits and performances of music and dance. It has two stories in front, but five in the rear, due to the drop of the terrain.

Folklorico dancers perform on a stage in front of Casa Borda.  Folkloricos are traditional dances by performers in regional costumes. They were performed several times during our visit and drew large, enthusiastic crowds. Some folklorico dances date back as far as pre-hispanic times. In a later posting in this series, I will show you some of the dancers dressed in their beautiful costumes.

A local cop strides across the plaza, intent on clearing up a traffic snarl. The police of Taxco seem friendly and helpful and we didn't have any untoward experiences with them. The lot of a cop in Mexico is often not a happy one. They are usually underpaid and undertrained and thus become tempted into corrupt behavior. In addition, the job can be very risky, especially when dealing with narco-trafficantes. A taxi driver I know used to be a Jalisco State police officer. I asked him why he gave up policing. His reply? "Too risky."

A Volkswagon taxi heads up into the plaza to deliver a passenger. There are hordes of these white VWs roaming the narrow streets. The two vans behind the VW are collectivos, a sort of mini-public bus. Their rates are a fraction of the cost of a taxi. On the other hand, the collectivos make multiple stops and can take longer to reach your destination. 

A passenger negotiates a fare while a jovial pedestrian strolls by.  It is always advisable to settle the fare before getting in the cab. We were warned against taxistas who sometimes overcharge unsuspecting tourists. However, even with an overcharge, the fares are still cheap. 

A pedestrian street, called an andador, branches off from the plaza to the west. The steeples of Santa Prisca can be seen in the background. Walking along an andador feels like strolling through a different century. 

Same andador, opposite direction. I discovered a small fountain at the point where the andador divided, with one route going up hill while the other headed down. Just behind the fountain, at the dividing point, is another of the ubiquitous platerias (silver shops).

A plateria owner relaxes outside his shop, waiting for a customer. This shop faces directly on the plaza, across the street from Casa Borda. Taxco continued to be a major silver ore producer until the 1810-1821 War of Independence. During the war, the mines were destroyed by their owners so they wouldn't fall into the hands of the insurgents. For the next 200 years, Taxco had little to do with the silver business. Then, American archaeologist William Spratling moved to Mexico to study its culture. When the road between Mexico City and Taxco finally opened up in the 1920s, Spratling settled in the old silver town. US Ambassador Dwight Morrow encouraged him to develop silversmithing in Taxco and Spratling took him up on it. The archaeologist designed jewelry based on pre-hispanic objects he had recovered in various ruins. He brought in a goldsmith from Iguala to teach jewelry-making and many trainees later opened their own stores. Spratling's dream was achieved. Unfortunately, he was killed in an auto accident in 1967, just outside Taxco. However, William Spratling's work has outlived him by almost 50 years. Taxco is now world-famous for the quality of its silversmithing. 

This completes Part 2 of my Taxco series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim 

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