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History at Risk, The Forgotten Relics Outside the Protected Zone



By Karla Ortiz

The UNESCO designated San Miguel de Allende’s Historic Center a World Heritage Site in 2008 in order to protect structures in the Historic Center dating back centuries. But ironically, says Luis Felipe Palacios, city chronicler, just outside that protected zone reside hundreds of federally acknowledged yet unprotected historic sites at risk of being destroyed or simply falling into ruin.

According to Palacios, San Miguel has around 300 buildings and relics that deserve to be rescued and protected, yet the majority of them are found outside the historical protection zone and are at the mercy of private owners.

“There are various buildings outside the [UNESCO] Heritage area that are unfortunately condemned, particularly the native architecture of historic houses. We can see them in the alleyways of Las Cuevitas or in El Valle del Maíz, the owners of which have been the very ones who have destroyed the chapels that were there,” Palacios says.

In previous interviews, David Jimenez Guillén, Guanajuato’s representative of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History), known as INAH, has told Atención that preserving the historical heritage of buildings and Mexican culture for future generations is not only the job of the authorities but also of the people in the communities in which these relics are located.

So, where can we find these hidden jewels? One of them, says Palacios, is in Atascadero. “In the 1960s, San Miguel was very different. Outside the protected area, along Salida a Querétaro, or Pedro Vargas, toward the area of el Atascadero, there were no streets,” he said. “It was a series of steps, and when it rained one could see how the water came down like a waterfall. The people who lived there just had to get a slab to block the water and store it in their houses. In those days, all houses had a small vegetable garden, and it was specifically because there was water to irrigate the plants.”

Other houses in old San Miguel had tanneries, Palacios said. “These houses had an upper level that was the ‘noble part.’ The lower level was the commercial part. One of these houses was located in a portion of what today is Hotel La Puertecita. Remains of what were the tanneries of the Aldama family have been discovered, but today they are trapped in the back part of the hotel that has a private owner.” There are many other vestiges of old San Miguel to be found in this area, such as stone pools at the side of this same hotel that were part of the Rancho Hotel El Atascadero, one of the oldest hotels in the city. It was built by former army pilot Forunato Maycotte.

The heritage areas and the buffer zones declared by UNESCO cover 68 square blocks of the Historic Center.

“Outside these parameters there exist around 250 buildings catalogued by INAH as historical monuments. There are churches, chapels, haciendas, calvaries, and some bridges that ought to be preserved. INAH periodically pays a visit to see what state they are in,” said Ángel Gastelum Cadena, director of Patrimonio Cultural y Planeación Sustentible (Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Planning). He also mentioned that there is a federal program called FOREMOBA that exists specifically for rural or urban communities to preserve and maintain historical monuments.

“The abandoned chapels that are not within the community can be saved through this program. In some cases, the majority of them are located on private property, but there are also many owners who allow these relics to be open to the community,” he said. “In those cases, they sign an agreement with the community and the municipality, but when it’s the opposite case, one can only hope that the building is not destroyed. If the plan is to intervene, permission has to be obtained from INAH and from the municipal government.”

Under no circumstances, said Gastelum Cadena, is permission granted to demolish. “Prior to any intervention, it is important to speak to the owners and to let them know that within their property there is a chapel or a church catalogued by INAH as a monument,” he said.

Some historic chapels are mentioned on maps. For example, where Cruz del Pueblo is located, there used to be a shrine, built in 1900. There are also various indigenous chapels in rural communities, many of which were made of stone with an identical structure in their atria. Also, where these chapels are found, there are also calvaries where the stations of the cross would be enacted; the stations are also marked nearby. Close to the Centro there are also the Pilancones where people used to gather water for personal use or as drinking fountains; one in San Antonio, which in those days was outside the city, has been preserved.

“All these relics must be preserved because San Miguel caught the world’s attention for being a Colonial jewel. But if we now degrade [the city] by creating nightclubs and restaurants, we will change everything and destroy the beauty that attracted visitors. But it is also true that we cannot prevent the owners of houses or vacant lots from selling their properties or destroying them; after all, they belong to them,” said Palacios.

A clear example of relics trapped within a private property is the case of Capilla de Piedra, a construction that has been on many residents’ minds, whether for its visually obstructive construction or because of the accidental gas explosion that took place inside one of its condominiums or because within the complex stands one of so many of the city’s chapels.

“It is well-known that there is a chapel there. The owners have already agreed to restore it and to open it to the public so that people can visit it when it’s restored and ready,” said Gastelum.

Towns and cities all over the whole world are facing the same problems. The question is how to resolve the situation without affecting the influx of tourism or the site’s cultural heritage. “We need to go and get to know places like Bruges, Venice, or Switzerland, places that continue to have tourists and yet have not affected the architecture of their buildings. They are cities that have promoted the use of bicycles and have stopped investing in the destruction of roads in order to build highways,” Palacios said.

In the meantime, Gestelum told Atención: “Let’s hope that the people and the administration become aware of the importance of Mexican history as it relates to the Colonial chapels and that they dedicate more money for their restoration, as there are so many—just in San Miguel there are more than 300 chapels. [And let’s hope] that the owners agree to the restoration and that people visit them since they are of the community. It is important and essential for their preservation.”


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