Last updateFri, 24 May 2019 4pm

It took some time — and six attempts — for Guadalajara to find itself a sound settlement

In conversations with North American visitors during Ajijic’s annual Chili Cook-off, several of the questions asked by visitors were surprisingly, refreshingly probing. 

One of these kept coming to settlers’ minds. And, of course the key one: How did Guadalajara come to be Guadalajara?  

Fittingly, that question was to be tackled by this newspaper (March 13, 1971), or more exactly by the highly-thought-of Mexican historian Luis Perez Verdin in his much-applauded “Histioria Particular del Estado de Jalisco,” back in 1910. It was translated into English in 1971 by Robert Thurston, founder and editor of what was then known as the “Colony Reporter.” But the city’s peripatetic past has to be considered. That’s because the settlement moved itself seven times before it finally truly settled beside the San Juan de Dios River and was known as Compostela. 

And the newspaper, now known as the Guadalajara Reporter had as it readers primarily those living in the city of Guadalajara.  (Most of the paper’s audience was first found found in the “foreign colony” of Guadalajara, a circumstance that was off and on, approaching the edge of change.) Here, Perez Verdin’s original translation has been fittingly smoothed to fit its later, English-speaking, audience.

One often wonders on reading the old histories of Guadalajara just when it was that the town/city began to take on the pleasing aspect that it bears today (meaning 1971). That clearly wasn’t a certainly in the early 1800s, according to Perez Verdia.

The town of 35,000 inhabitants remained much more colonial in its nature than Mexico City at that time, perhaps because of its remoteness from the capital. After a good 260 years of continuous importance as a trade center, in 1802 there were still few houses of more than one story, most of them with two or three patios, enormous bare rooms and large corrals in the back for domestic animals.

“Builders of the day were more interested in soundness of construction than symmetry,” writes Perez Verdin, “with the result that no two doors of the same building were of the same height.  The only adornment was a churrigueresque cut stone or two on the facade and a stone ‘Ave Maria’ at the top.

The city’s streets were well laid out but lacked paving or curbs of any kind. And the irregularity of the high windows and their crude, wooden grills gave them a “sad and disagreeable” aspect. (Perez Verdia was showing that he was a tough assessor of architecture.)

The principal plaza, however, was covered with flagstones and surrounded by large ash trees, and a large fountain played at the center. There were numerous smaller fountains about the city and these were usually covered with grass. “The bare streets,” the historian wrote, “cast a melancholy air over the city that revealed the slight movement that these offered. 

“There was no public lighting in the streets, and the absolute darkness of the nights was broken only by an occasional pitch torch with which some venturous soul lit the lonely way.  Few people went out after dark except for the direst necessity. When night fell, doors and shutters were closed, and except on very special occasions the citizens were in bed at a very early hour. There was very little else to do in the still primitive town. Books were so expensive that most people had none.” 

Perez Verdia tells us that there were only three or four private libraries. Anyway, the lighting was poor and only a few – except the menfolk and school boys – knew how to read.

The historian gives us a detailed description of the interior of the dwellings and it reflects the harshness of the stark life of the time.

While almost everyone in the middle class, he says, had a silver dinner service — and a gold snuff box in the living room as a status symbol – that was it for the fineries. There were no carpets or rugs on the dusty brick floors and only in most luxurious homes were there woven reed mats.

An uncomfortable sofa upholstered in bright silk and usually covered with a cotton duster also occupied the center of the typical living room. Small tables and chairs were placed in corners.  A crucifix on the wall was mandatory and sometimes there was a silver brazier and a fire for lighting cigars. “There usually was a bad picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe and three or four illuminated ‘Maria Estuardos,’ plus a mirror with an ornate white gilt frame.” 

The dinning room was simply that. A large room was home for a long table of fine unpainted wood, and pine benches running down the two sides of native “equipal” chairs at either end ... for the host and hostess.  

The only light (or air, for that matter) that entered the high-ceilinged windowless bedrooms came through the transom above the entrance door, writes Perez Verdia. He reports that a customary adornment on bedroom walls was a large “cromo” of the “Eye of Providence” with the phrase “God Sees Me” in commanding letters. 

This is a first of a series.

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