The Big Sister
Visitors to Mexico invariably flock to its capital Mexico City, often forsaking all others. They come to this mega-polis of some 22 million souls to savor Mexico fully. Truly, there is much to see, experience, and taste and to marvel at. Even the birth of this city is really fascinating.
Back in the 14th century, the Aztec and the Mexica tribes united and set up their capital called Tenochtitlan, very close to where modern Mexico City now stands. In time, Tenochtitlan became the capital of the entire Aztec empire. However, in the early 16th century, the invading conquistadores of Hernan Cortes defeated the Aztecs and razed the city to the ground. A Spanish colonial city rose in its place and the Mexicans were subjugated and enslaved for the next 300 years till a revolution freed them from Spanish rule in 1820.
Mexico City is the people’s connection to their rich heritage and therefore, is truly loved. Much of the city is wrapped in its past. The museums are full of Aztec artifacts, the city’s architecture is dominated by Spanish colonial style and murals by artists such as Diego Rivera spread around the city focus mainly on the turbulent history of Mexico.
The Kid Sister
From the past, move to Mexico of the present. Leave the capital behind and drive some 340 miles to the smaller and quieter kid sister city of Guadalajara in Jalisco state. For too long Guadalajara has played second fiddle to Mexico City, overshadowed by the older one. Today, she appears deceptively laid back and peaceful but her founding was turbulent. Repeated attacks by native Mexicans forced the Spaniards to relocate the city many times over nine years till things settled down in 1540. The name Guadalajara was bestowed on the city to honor the Spaniard Nuño de Guzman, whose Spanish hometown bore the same name.
But let me ask you, what is the first thing that occurs to you when you think of Mexico? Mariachi bands? Sombrero Hats? Tequila Sunsets? The Mexican Hat Dance, the Rodeos called the Charreria, or even Narco gangs? Believe me, not one of these Mexican trademarks originated in Mexico City! You guessed right! They all originated in Guadalajara, the kid sister!
Interestingly, while the Mexicans lost their independence in Mexico City, the spark of rebellion that set them free was lit here in Guadalajara. In 1810 a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla delivered a stirring speech here extorting the Mexicans to fight for freedom and thus lit the flame of liberty! His speech is famous to this day as the “Cry of Dolores”.
So, let us explore this kid sister, to understand what it is to be Mexican and to appreciate all that she has to offer to her citizen and to visitors alike. Here are some starters!
Tapatio is a hot sauce made in California by a Mexican immigrant from Guadalajara. It is so popular that Tapatio has become a nickname for all citizen of Guadalajara. Another theory is that the name is of old Mexican-Indian origin. My favorite is the sauce theory. Now, who can resist a name that says Salsa Picante or Spicy Sauce?
The fermented and distilled juice of the Agave cactus is world-famous as Tequila. Starting as a rough and fiery drink for the working man, it is now refined, bottled and aggressively marketed by Mexico. The town of Tequila, birthplace of this drink is just 35 miles away.
The Hat and the Dance
Made in Guadalajara and now famous round the world is the Mexican Sombrero, the answer to the Texan Ten gallon hat! Derived from the Spanish word "sombra" meaning shadow, the wide brimmed high pointed hat provides just that for the wearer!
The Jarabe Tapatío, often referred to as the Mexican hat dance, is the national dance of Mexico. During the 19th century, it originated as a courtship dance in Guadalajara,
No festival in Mexico is complete without a Mariachi band. Typically, it is a strolling group of musicians like trumpeters, guitarists and violinists who are paid by an aspiring swain to serenade his lady love!
Around the City
Attractive as its rich heritage, the city is also visually very beautiful. Whether touring by day or night, the visitor is in for a feast of the eyes. Here are some sights to visit and enjoy.
Start at the public square. The Municipal office or the Palacio Municipal sits in the heart of the city, facing a public square with steps rising to a podium with a fountains playing in its center. It is a popular gathering point for the citizens and visitors.
Only a stone’s throw away is the magnificent Cathedral. The interior is serene, with pleasing curves. The sanctum is lighted from high windows and is beautifully painted. The cathedral’s official name is Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady.
As the sun sets, visit Lake Chapala close by. Watch an enchanting sun set on the lake as sea birds fly home. Chapala is the largest fresh water lake in Mexico and its shores are dotted with villas of the rich and famous.
Nightfall should not deter you from exploring. The city is mysterious and beautiful at night and many illuminated sights will reward the night crawler.
Start at the Matute Remus Road Bridge that crosses over from the heart of the city to the suburbs. A cable stayed bridge; it is beautifully illuminated at night by flood lights of ever changing colors.
Then visit the roundabout traffic circle on Avenue Lopez Mateos. Stop here for the amazing metal sculpture by Jorge de la Peña called the Stampeding Horses.
Return to the City Center to admire the majesty of the Cathedral of Guadalajara illuminated by flood lights that bring out its rugged and powerful exterior.
Striking a Balance
The diversity you see around the city is striking. While churches abound and the citizen are devout Catholics they celebrate the Mexican Day of the Dead, a custom handed down from their pre Christian past.
The influence of Narco Dollars in public life and in the hidden economy is strong. Yet, next to the largest fountains in Guadalajara stands the guardian of the city, a statue of Minerva. The Greek goddess of wisdom, art and defense wears a helmet and holds a spear as she guards the city. Sculpted in the 1950s by Joaquin Arias Mendez, it symbolizes the city’s dedication to education and knowledge. As an admirer of Guadalajara, I hope that the city's wisdom will eventually triumph over its narcotic connection.
For me, Guadalajara beats Mexico City. There is something endearing about its essential Mexican-ness, its contradictions of being modern and old world at the same time and its caring people that makes the city my favorite. Watch out big sister, the kid sister may soon upstage you!