I stayed In a small, dignified and comfortable hotel in the Morelia’s Centro Historico, housed in an old two story casa focused around a planted courtyard, with slightly worn furniture and perhaps only one other guest. The fellow at the front desk helped me park in their nearby garage, whose narrow entry threatens my low grade driving skills.
He tells me there will be a breakfast available the following morning and when I do a search the next day after 8 AM, hoping for a coffee, I find only an empty dining room that looks out over rooftops and the Cathedral. Not a soul around.
I am in the tropics: there is no dawn or dusk, night turns to day suddenly and back to night quickly in the evening.
The streets are busy with pedestrians, mini buses running diesel engines that do their part to increase airborne particulate matter and egg on global warming, tidy shops, professional offices, graffiti and posters here and there. Nearer the cathedral, stores selling all manner of religious items: a shrink wrapped Jesus and the Virgin Mary, innumerable saints, votive candles, amulets, small, flat bronze representations of various body parts, to be applied with a note to a saint’s statue in prayers for healing. Calendars noting the myriad of saints’ days.
Morelia was founded in 1541 (20 years before Shakespeare was born) by the Spanish in a spot where the Purepecha and Matlatzincas had lived since the 12th century and early colonizers had already settled for 25 years. Its cathedral was built in the 1600s. The town is on the Altiplano at 6,300 feet, about 4 hours West of Mexico City and its climate is mild all year long. It’s historical core, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reflects 17th century Spanish urban design, with several fountained squares, a gridded street pattern and 2 – 4 story masonry buildings, some with elaborately carved facades giving the streets a sense of enclosure.
There are a number of Spanish era colonial towns on the altiplano North of Mexico City – American artists began frequenting San Miguel de Allende in the ‘30s and it is now a redoubt of that country. Zacetecas and Guanajuato date from the same period and were founded as mining towns – the Spanish enslaved locals to mine silver and gold that was shipped home to fund their empire. Quereteraro was founded at about the same time, and has a beautiful old center and is now a sizable industrial hub (The Altiplano is the manufacturing heartland of the country, with several auto manufacturing plants and countless parts suppliers.).
I had dinner with friends who I had done business with a few years ago. Brothers Luis and Rodmiro run a software development firm and have lived in Morelia since their family moved here from Mexico City when they were teenagers. They filled in gaps in my knowledge of Mexican history, the development of the toll roads, the current President AMLO, a left wing populist whose policies seem mostly to be about perception than action, communism’s role in the country’s revolution, and the “Cristeros”.
The Cristeros were conservative Catholics who rebelled after the revolution that ended in 1920 and had fully secularized the country. Their European counterparts – say in Spain or France – would be Monarchists too, but Mexico’s experience of royalty, with Emperor Maxmillian (a Hapsburg) installed by the French in 1864 (they had invaded the country over unpaid debts), was short. Maxmillian only lasted a couple of years before he was assassinated. He had been a king in search of a kingdom and was excited by the idea of helping this newly independent country mature.
The Cristero movement was predominantly rural and its protests against the full secularization of the state after the revolution descended into straight out battles with federal troops, which were remarkably well fought, given that the Cristeros had leaders with no military experience and were formerly, priests, ranch hands and even a pharmacist. One of the issues was education: the state made it clear that it was completely taking over schooling and would ban church-run educational institutions. Cristeros were known for attacking public school teachers and mutilating them, hacking off an ear or nose. The Ku Klux Klan, which was as anti Catholic as it was anti black, offered the Mexican government $10 MM ($271 MM today- I am not sure how they would have raised this money) to help suppress the church. Luis and Rod’s grandmother remembered the Cristeros and, as a young woman, had to hide with others when the Cristeros came to town, lest she and the other women in the community be kidnapped. In 1992, Pope John Paul II canonized 25 martyrs from the period.