*This is part 8 of a 13-part series. Read part 7 here.*
Some of the best pictures are never taken.
An elderly woman in a blue nightgown hobbles onto a antique balcony that crumbles with age. From her hands pours forth bread crumbs that fall off the ledge like an arced waterfall as fifty pigeons, their white wings fusing with the ochre background, dive to the cobblestone floor to feast. She watches contently, turns around, and heads back inside.
Not too far away, I am sitting on a small stool sipping rooibos tea. It’s 9 in the morning and I’ve fallen in love with Guanajuato.
It’s easy enough to do, I mean the place is known for small alleyways, romantic tales, and romantic tales in small alleyways. It holds the International Cervantino Festival as well as the International Film Festival and is flush with artists, writers, and musicians.
The Film festival my travel partner S. and I stumble upon unknowingly as we hitch into the city. Huge crowds gather in front of the Juarez Theater and on street corners those who specialize in staying still (like the man pictured above) stay painted and still for many hours.
This stillness, however, is but an homage to the masters of stillness — the dead. Those artists stay far from the glitzy flashes of downtown. They reside up a steep hill in the Tepetapa neighborhood. Pack some water.
They are housed beneath the municipal cemetery — a sprawling complex of tombs on top of tombs decorated with flowers and plaques where families stroll solemnly to pay their respects. A spiraling staircase takes one from above ground into this subterranean museum, the largest collection of naturally mummified humans in the Western Hemisphere.
Welcome to El Museo de las Momias. This modernized casa for the dead was built in 1970. There are 111 mummies, 59 of which are on display and 20 of which are children.
It’s an old Catholic tradition to dress young girls as angels and boys as saints so they can impress at the Pearly Gates. Their tattered clothes, clawing hands, and terrified expressions make for an unsettling experience for someone raised in a culture of eternal youth and sanitized death.
The youngest mummy, a fetus of 24 weeks, crouches behind glass a few inches from her mother. Children with their mothers walk on by. It seems like a family affair, strolling through the glass cases with their mangled and brittle forms, skin peeling off and bones unraveling. It deals with death in a respectful and amoral way: it’s just open bodies, here we are. Like it or not.
“Their faces are chuckling, like they died watching sports bloopers” opines my travel partner S. as we meander around. I let out a muffled laugh, that kind of dark humor that makes for soft chuckles at funerals, the kind that shields you by carrying a torch into very dark places.
The torch in the dark place was required in the late 19th century when curious folks had to walk into a cloistered attic to be with these natural mummies. They had been there since the 1870s.
This was around the same time that Porfirio Diaz, Mexico’s President/Dictator for nearly 30 years, was re-opening the mines with the aid of foreign investment — an “aid” that’s also a poison as Eduardo Galeano shows. Most of these naturally mummified bodies were miners or farmers, exhumed because their families couldn’t afford death. Literally the burial tax was too much so their bodies were dug up and put in an attic.
The miners provide an important link with Guanajuato’s past. Although nowadays its name translates as “hilly place of frogs,” that wasn’t always the case. The earliest recorded name was “mo-o-ti” or “place of metals,” a much older and more relevant name. The Aztecs came here long ago to capture gold to inlay religious jewelry, but when the 1540s came everything changed.
Spanish Conquistadors traipsed in, looked at the gold and called in the soldiers. Time to capitalize — a fitting term because this process spurned the birth of Capitalism. Alongside the soldiers came slaves and merchants to extract metals and sell them.
Mines cropped up, silver replaced gold as the most precious metal, and La Valenciana – an incredibly fertile hole — supplied 2/3rds of the worlds production at its height. Opulence abounds but the price of opulence was carried on the backs of thousands of miners who spent their lives in dark tunnels for little pay. Some were slaves, some were “indentured servants,” but semantics is no savoir for those who can’t feed themselves.
Many were fed up with not being fed so they attacked the Caja Real — where the Spanish Crown’s profits were kept — and foreshadowed the birth of Mexican Independence. Two hundred years later, citizens of that independent Mexico and travelers from abroad stare at these mangled forms who did so much for them, even if they remain unknown.
Outside, the souvenir stands sell postcards.