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Taking a look at Guadalajara two centuries ago when conservatism, piety and care preserved safety and social order

While descriptions of Guadalajara at its founding are many, few have been left by on-the-scene observers. Even fewer are free of excusable, but distracting, boosterism prompted by the pride that pioneers legitimately possess concerning simply surviving the rigors of a rough and unexplored land.

However, several accurate and detailed descriptions of Guadalajara survive from the early 1800s. That period possesses special interest because it catches the capital of a huge area simply called Jalisco ­in mid-career, so to speak: Nearly three centuries after it had been founded and nearly two centuries before change came plunging along and turned it into a “big city.”

Guadalajara was a town of 35,000 at the beginning of the 1800s, claims an account by Jalisciense historian Luis Perez Verdia. This was probably an “augmented” count; and certainly must have included all Indians, black slaves, meztizos, criollos (Spaniards born in the New World), “true Spaniards,” and every child and infant as far as the eye could see or conscience stretch. A good many of these were slaves according to many accounts. Slave markets operated in Mexico as late as 1817 and the royal census of 1793 showed that blacks made up 12-15 percent of the New Spain viceroyalty’s 5.2 million inhabitants. What we know today is Mexico was still a rather spottily settled and explored Spanish colony at that time. A good many citizens of New Spain had no exact idea where Guadalajara was located — somewhere northwest of Mexico City, in Indian territory. The so-called Royal Highway was nothing more than a primitive, rocky trail in this part of the country. In the rainy season it was closed much of the time in many places and during the dry season it was a magnet for highwaymen.

Emphatically colonial town

One wonders, when reading such histories of Guadalajara, just when it was that the place began to take on the pleasing aspect that made it so admired in its tranquility and gentle beauty, attracting international attention, especially in the past five decades. Certainly, it was a different town at the beginning of the 19th century. It emphatically was much more colonial than Mexico City at that time, undoubtedly because of its remoteness from the capital — and everywhere else. Its relative geographic and political remoteness bred provincialism. An essentially medieval and clerical society, Guadalajara was a pious town in which Catholic Church authority generally dominated military or civil power.

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Parental Respect

All those families that could afford them kept horses (the principal mode of transportation for the middle class and wealthy), mules (for freight), burros, cows, pigs, goats, sheep and poultry. All these animals had been imported to the new world and some of them, as the 1700s ended, were still expensive to purchase. Because there was extensive game to be found in the countryside, beef was still considered a delicacy by some Tapatios, though the city was surrounded by great ranches. In more traditional households, youngsters kneeled and kissed their papa’s hand before going off to bed at night. No son, not even a man in is 50s, dared smoke, sit or wear his hat in his father’s presence without asking permission.

Street vendors

Saint’s days and other religious holidays were formalized and communal occasions of celebration that took a good bit of planning, expense and time, and stirred great personal and civic excitement. The cries of peripatetic street vendors began each day, usually with the shout of the carbonero, a dark-visaged man selling charcoal, followed by the greaseman, singing “Manteca (lard) for sale.” Throughout the day vendors passed through the narrow streets, many of which were dirt ­— mud in the rainy season — calling out their wares, including kitchen ware, tortillas, fruits and vegetables, freshly killed game; and their services, such as knife sharpening and minor blacksmithing.

Homes were stark

Houses of the middle class and the wealthy had large rooms that tended to appear quite stark, according to the historian’s description. Nearly every middle class household possessed a silver dinner service — a gold snuff box in the living room was an especially prized status symbol — that was about all the expensive frills to be found. There were no carpets or rugs on the dusty brick floors, says Perez Verdia, and only in the most luxurious homes were there even woven reed mats. A poorly woven upholstered sofa of bright silk, customarily covered with a cotton dust slip, usually occupied the center of such living rooms. Small tables and chairs were placed in corners. A mandatory crucifix adorned the wall, and there was usually a silver brazier with a modest fire for lighting cigars — everyone seemed to smoke.

“There was usually a bad picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe (in the houses of mestizos) and three or four illuminated prints by Maria Estuardo, plus a mirror with a wide, ornate, gilt frame.”

Dining rooms in these homes were just that, and no more. The large room was furnished with a long table of unpainted wood placed in the middle. There were pine benches on both sides and native equipal leather chairs at either end for the host and hostess.

In the bedroom, the only light — or air — which entered the high-ceilinged windowless chamber was that which came through the transom above the door. Nineteenth century Tapatios did not, however, escape entirely into privacy when they retired for the night. Perez Verdia tells us that a customary bedroom adornment was a chromo of the Eye of Providence with the words “God Sees me,” in commanding letters. Furniture here consisted of a simple wooden bed, a cedar or mahogany ropero (wardrobe), a wooden folding screen, a few chairs and various religious images, including another crucifix, on white-washed walls.

Conservative part of Mexico

Jalisco, or Guadalajara, or Nueva Galicia — the region was called all three — from the time of the first Spanish settlers seems to have been considered a conservative, devoutly Catholic part of Mexico. And it certainly was at the end of the 1700s. Life was considered primitive by the standards of Mexico City — a city which doted on foreign fashions, not only in clothing and decoration, but also in reading material and social and political ideas — and was quite circumscribed. New ideas, sought by those few who wished, for instance, to subscribe to a late-arriving Mexico City newspaper, would cause a flurry of conversation and debate that could last for months.

But most such ideas would continue to be considered foreign, perhaps heretical, and unacceptable. Religious authorities, including the simplest friar, were considered superior beings, Perez Verdia relates, and the agents of the Spanish King infallible.

Dangerous, turbulent times

Guadalajara, then, was a thriving, if rustic, trading center where civilization’s amenities were few, and the King’s and the Church’s representatives determined both social and personal behavior. Parents were revered, schooling was strict — as were the Church and civil officials. Women were not permitted to learn to read or write, for such things could easily lead them to “sin.”

Life still possessed something of a frontier aura that was distinguished by a closeness and a parochialism, — a wariness concerning the strange and the new — that the generally devout townspeople cherished. Such characteristics, in their judgement, had served their forebears well during dangerous, turbulent and uncertain times.

Circumspection, care, piety and routine had preserved Guadalajara through difficult years when it was only an unknown outpost set down in a vast ocean of wilderness and unfriendly Indians. As the 1700s faded, it was still a relatively small settlement cut off nearly half the year from the rest of the world. Epidemics, rebellions, bandits, Indian raiding parties, floods, droughts and earthquakes all made life uncertain to Tapatios of the time. They were about to face the upheavals of Miguel Hidalgo’s bloody War of Independence (1810) — which lingered on — the Independence form Spain (1822) and the political turmoil that followed.