Haciendas are a window into a golden age

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

In San Miguel there are more than 40 exhaciendas (former haciendas, or farms). Some of them have been restored and turned into luxurious hotels, restaurants, spas or private residences, whereas others are in ruins. The remains of these former estates invoke not only the past of the Villa of San Miguel el Grande or Guanajuato but of the whole country during the 19th century. The nonprofit organization Associación de Haciendas y Patromonio Arquitectónico y Cultural de México (Association of Haciendas and Architectural and Cultural Heritage of Mexico) invites tourists to look beyond the historic center and stroll through the lands, stables, buildings and ruins of formerly glorious haciendas in order to be transported to the past.

The haciendas

Sugar, livestock, meat, grains, wine and precious metals such as gold and silver are just some of the products of the haciendas of Mexico. The haciendas were big companies that were part of the Mexican economic system initiated by the conquistadors in the 16th century. According to information provided by Flora Dionicio, Santiago González and archeologist Susana Meave, who are on the Association’s board, the haciendas were made up of a casco (big house) where the owner of the company lived with his family and smaller, modest houses for the administrator and foremen who had the owner’s confidence. The great complexes also had a chapel where religious services were offered to the inhabitants of the hacienda. The trojes (grain storage facilities) and the eras (milling facilities) were also part of the hacienda complex, as well as wide gardens, pastures and stables.

There were two kinds of haciendas: those called “of benefit,” specializing in mining operations, and those geared toward agriculture and livestock, where most of the essential goods were produced. As time passed by, the haciendas of benefit disappeared due to the lack of production and due to demands for housing. The land was distributed and in some cases was developed into entire cities, such as Guanajuato.

Rise and fall of the former farms

The haciendas of Guanajuato had their heyday in the 18th century and were so important that the state was known as the “barn of New Spain.” During that time the current state was the second most populated area in the country, after the Valley of Mexico. The golden age of the haciendas lasted until the early 20th century, when they were perceived as centers for the exploitation of the natives. According to the Secretary of International Affairs, in 1910, under the leadership of Francisco I. Madero, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata —whose motto was “Land and Liberty”—and Venustiano Carranza, the Mexican Revolution began. This armed insurrection was waged against large landowners and President Porfirio Diaz’s prolonged dictatorship. Diaz was not only the promoter of Mexico’s large economic growth, but also fomented the spread of social inequality for more than 30 years. At the end of the Revolution, the Constitution of 1917 was established and agrarian reform was approved. The land, including the haciendas, was distributed among the dispossessed Mexicans.

The Association of Haciendas

According to Dionicio, the objective of the association is the preservation and promotion of the architectural and cultural heritage of the haciendas of San Miguel. The association has catalogued the 42 extant haciendas near the city. Thanks to this register provided by INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History) the members of the Association have been able to contact the owners of the buildings, and currently 20 of the 42 hacienda owners have been included in the project and are participating actively. Dionicio said that during the studies and preservation of the buildings they have faced many obstacles, from economic and legal hurdles to the disinterest of the owners or inhabitants and some authorities. She said that currently several projects and activities are in process to restore the buildings that have been damaged or partially destroyed.

New use for old buildings

“Unfortunately, it is not possible to rebuild or paint all the haciendas, nor is possible to turn all of them into hotels, museums, hot springs or centers for ecotourism,” said Dionicio. The association proposes as a new use merely the pleasure of seeing the haciendas and enjoying strolling through each space, or sitting in the middle of a garden surrounded by arcades and columns, so visitors can imagine and be transported to the past and understand what the haciendas were like in their golden age. Dionicio also commented that “the new use that we are proposing is the idea of sleeping (even if it is in a bunk bed, as in a hostel) inside of a big room with floors made of bricks and high walls and ceilings lit with candles.” According to the proposal the association is looking to bring visitors to the haciendas, where they will be able to sleep and have dinner, brunch or breakfast on a beautiful terrace and take many photos.

Hacienda tours

In Guanajuato there are more than 400 haciendas. The association has designed five routes that include 20 haciendas located in San Miguel and others located in nearby municipalities. The idea is to allow visitors to experience the greatest number of haciendas so that they can compare their similarities and differences while having an interesting and informative trip. During the strolls visitors could talk with the owners of the haciendas, if they are available, to see the animals occupying the same spaces as in the past, to appreciate the hydraulic systems and hear a brief, personalized explanation. Currently the association has begun some tours through the haciendas and for the moment is not working with tour operators. For more information call Santiago González at 415-113-2900 or email pasanty_60@yahoo.com.mx


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