On our frequent forays into the woods, we hike and chat, discuss current events and learn about the world, one story at a time.
This week, we were joined by a hiker who grew up in Mexico. She’s a talented story teller with colorful memories of the richly beautiful country she left behind. One of 12 children raised in a busy and generous household, she tells of parents who shared everything they had with whoever came to their door.
Over the years, she and her husband have delighted their children and grandchildren with trips to Mexico to visit all the relatives and to play tourist in their former homeland. One family house, for example, is in a village twelve blocks square, centered by a traditional plaza. It is a place where everyone knows your name and you cannot go anywhere without being hailed for a quick chat to catch up on all the years you were gone.
During one trip, she and the family revisited a castle, one of only two ever built and used by royalty in North America. In her childhood memory, the castle had deteriorated to a single structurally sound side. It was built on the site of an old silver mine, she recalls, where the owner once paved a roadway with silver coins for his daughter to travel to her wedding. At one time, it had been the home of Emperor Maximilian and his Consort Carlota, when Mexico was temporarily invaded by France during the Napoleonic era. (In one skirmish, outnumbered Mexican forces defeated the French invaders in the Battle of Puebla on May 5, l862. This one victory is celebrated mostly in the United States as Cinco de Mayo.) Today Chapultepec Castle has been restored to its 19th century splendor.
Maximilian himself was actually Austrian, appointed by Napoleon III to rule Mexico in l864. Three years later, the political winds changed but Maximillian refused to flee to Europe and was subsequently executed by firing squad. Since then, the castle has alternated between disrepair and use as a Presidential Palace, a Natural History Museum, observatory. It is now a popular tourist attraction.
On another occasion, they decided to take the children to see the mummies of Guanajuato. Mummies in Mexico? Yes, there is a museum for more than 100 mummies. And theirs is a rather sad history.
It began with a cholera epidemic in the 1830’s and people buried in a local cemetery. The dry and cool weather naturally dehydrated the bodies and some 2% became mummified. Some 30 years later, a tax was levied on families who wished to keep these remains in the cemetery. Most had either disappeared or could not afford the tax and the remains were disinterred. The mummies were stored in a nearby warehouse. When curious tourists began to visit, the caretakers thought to charge a few pesos. (Disinterring the dead was finally outlawed in l958.) Since then, a museum was created in l969 and the mummies have become part of popular culture. (See the Pixar movie,Coco.)
Guanajuato is also considered “the most beautiful city in Mexico,” with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. Like Mexico City, it offers art and architecture in a culturally rich setting.