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Mexico’s colorful ‘City of Roses’ had a dark beginning

Guadalajara is a jump back in time to colonial Mexico. Photo: Mexico Tourism Board

By Bob Schulman

GUADALAJARA, Mexico — It’s hard to believe this beautiful city, known for its colonial splendor and world-class arts and crafts, was founded by a man of sheer evil. “If the devil had spawned a child,” said Spanish Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, “it would have been Nuño Beltran de Guzman.”

Guzman’s bio reads like a primer on late medieval palace intrigue. For starters,

he was the son of a High Constable in the Inquisition and also a buddy of Spain’s King Charles V. In the mid-1520s the Spanish regent sent Guzman to Mexico, supposedly to rule an eastern province – but actually to keep an eye on Hernan Cortes, who’d led the Spanish conquest of that country’s Aztec rulers a few years earlier.

The plot thickens

Now, King Charles didn’t trust Cortes, and Cortes didn’t trust Guzman. So Cortes got rid of him by sending Guzman off to plant the flag of Spain hundreds of miles away in western Mexico.

Churches and fountains dot Guadalajara’s historic district. Photo: Bob Schulman

Having earlier gained a reputation for cruelty in eastern Mexico, Guzman did much the same in the west, slaughtering thousands of the people who lived around there and sending others to Caribbean plantations to work as slaves. Soon to find out why Guzman was known as “the butcher” were villagers in a region stretching down the coast from Sinaloa to Nayarit, Jalisco, Colima and Michoacan (the home states of such modern-day beach resorts as Mazatlan, the Riviera Nayarit, Puerto Vallarta and Manzanillo, among others).

Historians note Guzman took some time off from massacring local folks along the coast to found the inland town of Guadalajara, which he named after the city in Spain where he was born.

Mexico’s No. 2 village

History is fuzzy about what the village of Guadalajara looked like when it sprouted up in the early 1530s. There were likely several farms around the area, and perhaps – keeping in mind who the founder was – a couple of slave markets. It’s a safe bet there was a church there, too. And probably a row of posh mansions where the owners of the farms and the slave markets hung their sombreros.

Murals by famous local painter Jose Clemente Orozco. Photo: Mexico Tourism Board

It’s also a safe bet that no one thought the village would someday become Mexico’s second largest metropolis, home to nearly 6 million people. Nicknamed “The City of Roses,” Guadalajara today stretches out as far as you can see along the Atemajac Valley including its crown jewel: an historic district covering a whole square mile.

A walking tour of the district takes you on a jump back in time past restored government palaces (some featuring the eye-popping murals of the region’s famous painter Jose Clemente Orozco), block-long museums, a richly decorated cathedral dating back to 1618, swanky mansions of the same era, the ornate Degollado Theater and dozens of parks, plazas, fountains, monuments – and of course lots of rose gardens – among other landmarks that draw millions of visitors a year to the city.

Tours in calandria carriages enhance the colonial ambiance of the city. Photo: Bob Schulman

Better still, tourists can enjoy all this by trotting back in time in old-fashioned horse-drawn carriages (called calandrias). While cantering around, don’t miss some of the more recent additions to the district such as a square packed with dozens of mariachi bands – not surprisingly named Mariachi Square –

auditioning for local gigs. And leave plenty of time to check out Guadalajara’s arts and crafts mecca edging the city at the village of Tlaquepaque (pronounced teh-lah-key-pah-key).

Here, in row after row of wall-to-wall shops, perhaps 200 in all, you can find everything from… well, if a gorgeous work of art can be made by hand, chances are you’ll find it in Tlaquepaque.

One of the hundreds of arts and crafts shops in Tlaquepaque. Photo: Bob Schulman

Guzman meets his maker

Guzman was so brutal that the top chronicler of the era called him “the most depraved man to ever set foot in New Spain (Mexico).” His biographer accused him of “cruelty of the highest order, ambition without limit and great immorality.” Bernal Diaz de Castillo, one of the original conquistadores, said of Guzman: “In all the provinces of new Spain there is no other man more foul and evil.”

With charges like these drifting back to the Spanish court, and at the urging of heavyweight bishops such as de Quiroga and Juan de Zumarraga, King Charles finally got fed up with his man in Mexico. Guzman was arrested in 1536, held in prison for a couple of years, put on trial – where de Quiroga was one of the judges – and then shipped back to Spain in chains.

A broken man, he died in prison in 1550 – ironically, the same year the Spanish crown signed a charter officially declaring Guadalajara a city.

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