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Arriving in Guanajuato, you catch a brief glimpse of the city before the bus dives subterranean. The underbelly of the city is a network of tunnels, relics of the mining days when Guanajuato was the greatest producer of silver in the world. The bus stops, you push and are pushed off with the twenty somethings arriving from all over México. Emerging from the tunnel into the main plaza, the Jardín de la Unión, is a spectacle in itself; great colonial buildings, cathedrals, and theaters overlook the streets that are conspicuously absent of cars. In fact, only a handful of one-way streets are passible by car while the rest of the traffic is diverted into the tunnels. This leaves walkways and open plazas which are the perfect setting for the spectacle you have actually come for, the International Cervantino Festival.
I stumbled upon Cervantino Festival and Guanajuato in 2007, ironically while I was reading Don Quijote de La Mancha. The city is largely a tribute to the book’s author Miguel Cervantes, hence ‘Cervantino Festival,’ and by all appearances, Don Quijote is the city’s unofficial patron saint. This singular image of the crazed knight and his loyal squire riding the countryside punctuates the city and the festival perfectly; there’s a madness and an errant purpose to the celebration. In the forty years since the festival has been officially recognized, it has grown into what is considered the most important arts and cultural festival in Latin America, and one of the five best festivals of its kind in the world, according to the European Festivals Association. How else, if not for Quixotic ideals of grandeur, could a small street theater group performing Cervantes’ short works, called Entremeses, develop into the modern Mexican bonanza that Cervantino is today? The festival is more than just a chance to party. In the Mexican celebratory tradition, it is an affirmation of life, and Cervantino is a portrait of a modern México: Vibrantly artistic, culturally rich, and embracing it’s history while excited about it’s future. This year I was returning for the fortieth annual Cervantino, with my lovely girlfriend, for this most Mexican of celebrations.
We arrived in Guanajuato several days prior to Cervantino to get a good grip on the city before the festivities. Yet it was clear the city was already gearing up for the party with crammed buses of young people hailing from all parts of the country and the world. ‘Soy de Guadalajara,’ ‘Soy de Monterey,’ ‘Soy de Aguascalientes,’ ‘Soy de Shanghai,’ ‘Hi, I’m from Wisconsin.’ The performances on the docket were equally diverse with this year’s invitees of honor hailing from Poland, Austria, and Switzerland. Yet every continent was thoroughly well represented with acts from Argentina, Columbia, Togo, Mali, China, Russia, Portugal, Spain, United States, you name it. Cervantino is a people’s party and tickets for any of the official shows rarely exceed twelve dollars. There are also plenty of free shows, street theatre, roving music trains, and espectaculous de la calle, (literally translated, spectaculars of the street.)
You certainly won’t want to lose out on Guanajuato through the haze of Cervantino. Artistic and historical roots run deep as it was the birthplace of the painter/muralist Diego Rivera and was pivotal in its role for Mexican Independence. Guanajuato’s preoccupation with Don Quijote and Miguel Cervantes also contributes to the completely original character of the city. Anyone with even a passing interest must visit the Don Quijote Iconography Museum to see the splendid works of art inspired by the mad knight and his squire’s errant adventures. Moving on to the Diego Rivera Museum you walk through the artist’s childhood home getting a glimpse into the early life and works of the most important contemporary artist in México’s history. Just down the street you find the Alhóndiga, a menacing square building which marks the site of the first victory of México’s war for independence. However, the building also served a more grim purpose when, after the Spanish retook the city, it was the site of the infamous ‘Lottery of Death,’ and displayed the heads of independence leaders at each of the four corners. The inside is currently a museum dedicated to the Mexican war for Independence and home of the impressive staircase murals by José Chávez Morado, which depict the history of Guanajuato. Finally, for those who want to get outside, you can hike the rocky bluffs to the Southwest above the colorful buildings in the valley. With moderate temperatures, amazing walkability, beautiful architecture, vivid history, and a fun friendly vibe, Guanajuato is a wonderful place to visit any time of year for any purpose.
After a few days exploring the city and gearing up for the festival, we attended the opening performance, which was a Polish dance and music group doing ‘Chopin Rock’ at the Alhóndiga. In addition to being an important historical site, the Alhóndiga takes center stage (if not geographically) for Cervantino performances. Classical piano by an elderly gentlemen complete with tuxedo tails led into modern interpretations of Chopin by a spry, long haired pianist who used beads and scarves in the piano wires to alter the sounds for a unique effect. Finally, a full band took stage and rocked Chopin for the crowd and for the modern ballet that took place before them. The tempo progressively amped up and the ballet came to a terrific finale. When the stage finally went dark the music picked up again and acted as the soundtrack for an impressive fireworks display. It was a Wednesday night, I was psyched, and it was only the beginning of the three week festival.
In the street is the best place to begin and end a night in Guanajuato over Cervantino. The climate is perfectly mild when hanging out in the shade, and three o’clock is an ideal time to sip a cup of coffee on the patio of a cafe. Coffee transitions to wine, wine transitions to light Mexican beers, and your attention is drawn more and more to what’s going on all around. The night starts to get underway and at some point you are swept away with the rising tide of people in the squares and music in the streets. A favorite gathering place is at the steps of the cathedral in the Jardín de la Unión, where costumed musicians lead classic Mexican folk songs. As the crowd swells around them they take their music to the streets leading the callejoneada, or if you will, the ‘Guanajuato party train.’ And you just got to get on board because the party ain’t gonna wait for you.
There’s much to chose from at this early hour, from live music in the bars, young rock musicians in the smaller squares, street performers, and of course the singing musicians leading their followers through the calles y callejones (streets and alleyways). Not to mention the hundreds of official shows taking place. These shows range from street theatre to children’s puppetry, modern rock to classical music, modern dance to traditional ballet, Mexican artists, and international flavors. Cervantino has something for everyone. Among the performances we saw, each one exceptional, was a Malian singer who had everyone on their feet at the Ahóndiga, Ballet Folklorico from Sinaloa México, Cuerpo Mutable which was a modern dance group from México City, big band Argentinian tango and flamenco, and so many more that I won’t continue to exhaust in list form. The performances were professional and original, and every one of them rousing and memorable.
After the pre-party and the evening performances, the after party begins. If you’re there on a weekend as we were, then you’ll want to get tickets to the tunnel show, where a city underground is opened up for a techno and electronic dance party. I’m not a natural fan of this type of music, but it’s hard not to get swept up amidst the friendly and grooving revelers in the packed tunnel. We were led to the tunnel by some rather intoxicated kids from Aguascalientes, we drank Coronas with student from México City, and then were pulled to the front of the stage by a Fulbright Scholar from Kansas City. On our way out we met up with a crew from Monterey who lead on to Los Lobos bar where we got a case of beer, clambered upstairs, and were subsequently lectured on the difference between Scottish and German bagpipes by a traveling musician. Who knew there were distinctly German bagpipes and that they even predate Scottish bagpipes?
As the night wore on it was off to other Guanajuato staples starting with the creatively named El Bar (The Bar), for some latin pop and dance tunes. As no night is complete without some salsa, we finished at the late night favorite, Las Damas, which was as much a toe stomping and bumping match as it was a dance club. But the music was live and spirits were high as everyone jostled to the beat and sang out loud to the songs they knew. When the salsa pop anthem, ‘Yo No Se Mañana,’ came on, it was a full sing along not unlike the treatment Americans give ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, but admittedly a bit more in tune. As all good nights in Guanajuato end as they began, on the street, we made our post dancing quest for tacos del pastor. If the vertical spinning grill with layers of pork topped with a pineapple reminds you of a gyro grill, then you’re probably on the right track, as this was inspired by Lebanese immigrants to México in the late 1800’s; think Selma Hayak and Carlos Slim. At five in the morning, eating these delicious tacos, I find myself particularly grateful for Lebanese immigrants to México. We stumbled home certain that the party would keep jumping until dawn and beyond, and we left it to those with a little more grit to finish the night off for us.
Over my years of traveling in México I have become hopelessly in love with the people and the culture. This is not to say that México does not lack for problems. Drug violence is a daily reality for many people while many others still struggle with basic necessities. The disparity between the rich and the poor is staggering, and the recently elected president is a member of the PRI party, whose previous reign lasted 70 years until 2000, and is largely responsible the chronic corruption and dramatic income gap that plagues México. On this point however, one could argue that much of the PRI’s success in the last election was due to a lack of competent or sane alternatives. Guanajuato is neither an excuse nor an exception to what happens throughout the country. Cut from the same cloth, it simply stands as an example of the multifaceted Mexican experience. And Cervantino is an example of a México comfortable with its history and excited about its future. There are indeed increasing opportunities for young people and there is a pervasive sense of pride and optimism as I travel throughout the country.
It’s difficult, no it’s actually impossible to draw broad conclusions from one experience or one place about a country and its people. Still, the Cervantino Festival could only take place in México, and if it doesn’t explain, then it at least illustrates a vivacious, artistically excited, and culturally mature country defining its own future. As I learn more about México’s history and traditions I am continually struck with how unique and impassioned are the people. And as I hear the soulful sounds of singers and guitars filtering through the streets and alleys of Guanajuato on an October night, I think to myself, ‘Only in México.’