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Visit Guanajuato

History and Culture Guanajuato

A Rich History

Guanajuato is a city of narrow streets and tiny plazas, slotted into Mexico's Northern Central Highlands in the mountainous state of the same name. But, this city should not be simply dismissed due to its size, quite the opposite, for it is home to silver mines which, at their peak, were producing two thirds of the world's silver and in 1810 it was also the site of the very first battle of the Mexican War of Independence. In 1988 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Sight. It has a tantalising and voluminous history, a lot of which is still evident in the city today, just waiting for you to discover it! So take a break from your Spanish language studies and immerse yourself in the history and culture of this fascinating city.

Pre-Colonial Times and the Arrival of the Spanish


Before Spain began its conquest of the Americas, Guanajuato was home to numerous different indigenous tribes at various different points during its history. The Otomi ethnic group, populous in the Central Highlands of Mexico, made Guanajuato their home, only to be replaced by the Chichimeca people and P'urhépecha tribes, who are responsible for giving the city its name, literally meaning 'rich in frogs' in their indiginous tongue. There was also an Aztec presence for some time, as they came in search of the minerals the area was (correctly) thought to be rich in.

It was the rumour of these very riches that later on was to attract the Spaniards to this region, and specifically the city of Guanajuato, during their rapid conquest of the Americas. Following success in nearby Zacatecas, the Spaniards moved on to the Guanajuato area in the 1540's and couldn't quite beleive their eyes and their luck upon seeing the terrain. They were sure, and they were right, that the mountainous region was composed of a treasure trove of natural resources, ready to be uncovered and to make the Spaniards as rich as fools. In a nutshell, this is essentially what happened, and the area was converted almost overnight into a bountiful resource of gold, silver, iron and a host of other valuable minerals. Four years later the city of Guanajuata itself, officially founded in 1554, got in on the act, the main vein discovered being the silver mine of San Barnabe, which was tapped until as late as 1928. The principal mines in the city included Valenciana, Cata, Rayas and Bocamina de San Ramón.

The mines oozed wealth out into the hands of the filthy rich silver colonial barons, making them, of course, very happy, as well as the Spanish monarchy and the town in general prospered. However, things did not stay so rosy for long....

El Grito de Independencia

Whilst on the surface, all in Guanajuato may seem to have been well, unrest was growing as local barons and Spanish nobles became rich because of the industry of the mines, yet the people of Guanajuato saw practically nothing of this wealth. To make matters worse, Carlos IIIKing Carlos III of Spain decided to slash the amount of money going to local Colonial barons and divert that money into his own pocket. He also created much unease and hostility by taking the action in 1767 of removing all the Jesuits from the Spanish colonies and replacing them instead with Franciscan Missionaries. This action sparked a discontent that crossed classes as many people were loyal to the Jesuits.

This unrest amongst the Criollos (Mexican born Spanisrds) against the rich Spanish colonists led to the start of meetings of 'literary societies' where members of the Criollo class, such as lawyers and business men, would meet up and outline plans for a rebellion. With Spain at this time suffering due to the invasion of Napoleon Bonaparte, there was confusion in the colonies and the opportunity for action was undoubtedly there to be seized!

Enter Miguel Hidalgo, Guanajuato's rebel leader, and his 'Grito de Independencia' (Cry for Independence). He raised an insurgent army in 1810 and they succeeded in seizing the city's famous Alhóndiga and eventually the whole city. Victory was not long lasting as the Spanish, in the end, retook the city and initiated their infamous 'Lottery of Death' where the names of the city's inhabitants were drawn at random and the 'winners' had the prize of being tortured and hanged. Hidalgo himself, and also the movements other key leader, José María Morelos Pavón, met untimely and unfortunate ends a few years later, but the struggle for independence continued, for the large part by means of Guerrilla warfare, and finally, in 1821, in the midst of Spanish economical and political problems, the Córdoba Treaty which guaranteed Mexican independance, was signed.

Modern Day Guanajuato


Following the removal of the Spanish influence, Mexican barons were now able to access 100% of the profits flowing from the mines. This led to a spurt in the growth of the city and the appearance of many of the theatres, mansions and churches that decorate this pretty city today. Much has been invested in Guanajuato and it now boasts an impressive underground road network, where the city's river used to flow before it was diverted. In recent years the city has prospered and prides itself on having a low unemployment rate, high export rates and a thriving tourist industry.

Guanajuato has a culture,evident to any visitor, that is as rich as its history and any time spent there will reveal its love for celebrations, craftsmanship and traditional dances. Once a year the Festival Cervantino, in honour of the famous Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, is held in the city of Guanajuato and involves a variety of concerts, wrkshops, plays and exhibitions. The narrow streets are also no stranger to a party at any time of the year, as they fill up sporatically for street parties organised by the cities University students, for a night of fun and frolicking.

If you are considering coming to study at a Spanish school in Mexico then Guanajuato could be the perfect spot for you. Seeped in history and with plenty to do and see, this is a city that defnitely should not be overlooked.