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Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Mexico: The Pied Pipers of Guanajuato

Written by Jennifer Anthony
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mexicoNight falls over Guanajuato muting its vibrant stucco homes and coaxing a soft, warm wind through the narrow streets. Rooftop dogs begin the twilight bark-and-howl, catching up on the day’s gossip. Church bells ring out, and the sudden twinkle of yellow streetlights illuminates the town nestled into the valley below me.


I pick my way down the steps from San Gabriel Hill, where the statue of El Pípila looms over the town, reminding its inhabitants of Juan José de los Reyes Martínez’s role in Mexico’s fight for independence. Remarkably, I haven’t tripped yet, although I have covered just about every inch of the town’s cobblestone streets. A shopping bag thumps against the backs of my legs, bulging with the blanket I bought from a vendor at Pípila’s feet and a reprint of an Octavio Ocampo painting from the stalls just outside the mummy museum.


My plan is to sidle over to El Jardín Union; settle into one of the center square’s outdoor cafes, and tuck into an Alfonso Trece, the local moniker for kahlua and cream. But as I approach the center square I hear singing getting louder and louder, joined by bursts of laughter. When I round the corner, I see a crowd of people gathered at the steps of a church, watching the student minstrel group from the Universidad de Guanajuato perform.


The Estudiantina first debuted in 1963 and has since gathered several nights a week at the Teatro Juarez. They lead revelers on a callejoneada, or walking tour of the city’s narrow cobblestone streets, playing music and telling jokes along the way.


When I mosey over to the outskirts of the audience, I realize how lucky I am that I have stumbled into the event. No sooner do I arrive than the musicians are tucking their instruments under their arms and leading people into the maze of streets I have just left. I feel a little conspicuous, as everyone but me is holding some sort of drink while I heft a bag of souvenirs. But the crowd is too intent on following the minstrels to notice or care.


Like Pied Pipers, the student minstrels head up the Ruta Callejoneada, with the happy crowd trailing behind. Each musician wears a black velvet vest with bright yellow piping over a shiny black and red striped shirt. Most of them wield guitars or banjos, but a cellist is also among them, picking up his massive instrument and carting it through the streets à la Woody Allen in Take the Money and Run.


Some of the musicians fall back to double as traffic cops, guiding the group along and alerting us to potential ankle hazards. When they have squeezed us into a plaza large enough to hold everyone, they line up once again and burst into song, belting out the lyrics to Caminos de Guanajuato, a song that pays tribute to several cities and towns of the State.



In between songs, the musicians tell stories and jokes that test my command of the language. I sometimes resort to waiting for a pause and laughing along with the people around me, most of whom seem to understand every word. When the walking resumes, I grab hold of my bags and follow along in a bit of a beatific stupor.


Guanajuato is a university town – young and vibrant, and though it seems an odd description for a whole town – kind. I have asked for directions on numerous occasions, and the first response I often get is “Como no?” (Why not?) The response is a knee-jerk reaction, and yet, sincere.


As I march along with the tight pack of strangers, there is a collective happiness that is also sincere. I clap along with the music, a wide smile across my face, oblivious as to where we’re going, happy to just drift.


musiciansOur final stop is at El Callejon de Besos – the Alleyway of the Kiss. A boy stands before the crowd and delivers an innocent explanation of the legend behind the alleyway. Another young man hidden behind him extends his arms on either side of the boy like they are his own, and adds to the story with NC-17 gestures and hand signals. The boy’s memorized speech is delivered at a phenomenal rate. I have to turn to my guidebook later to understand the story. It is there in that narrow street just over two feet wide, where two lovers, forbidden marriage by their families reputedly arranged to meet in the houses across from one another and kiss. Nowadays, legend has it that couples who kiss on the third stair will be guaranteed seven years of happiness.  There is no mention of how much luck would be granted to the people who tip the young boy before slipping through the narrow street.


After we pass through El Callejon de Besos, the crowd disperses in all different directions, many without paying more than a warm smile for a couple hours of entertainment.


I end up on an unfamiliar street and without the crowd surrounding me, it is suddenly a little chilly. Using one of the enormous churches as a compass, I head in what I think is the direction to my hotel, knowing that if I get lost all I have do is ask for help. And why not? Someone will be sure to help me.

©Jennifer Anthony

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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