Traveling in Morelia, Michoacán
As a young man, I spent many years traveling. While enjoying my undergraduate study, I was unquestionably ready to be done with academia when I left in the early 2000s. While many of my friends were already considering their future career prospects and graduate study, adventure and exploration was what I felt lacking in my middle class life up to that point. Like most young men, I begged for ventures pledged by the uninterrupted horizon. Anywhere and everywhere seemed like a superior destination to digging roots in California.
I hit the road with my uncle, a big rig truck driver, and traversed the country a few times. It was a decision that staggered my more professional comrades who thought giving up months of my life to sit in a dirty truck, dropping off frozen vegetables in distant, barely inhabitable towns was the very thing one goes to college to avoid. But the road was calling, and like every cliché written by young men traveling since Kerouac, I had to answer the call.
Following my trucking adventure, I spent time on the East Coast and then left the US entirely for Korea and Scotland. Some years later, it became apparent that I needed further schooling to enter the careers that entranced me, and I attended graduate school. As often happens, I fell into an occupation, got married, and eventually had a child. My wanderlust had to take a back seat to adult responsibility.
So when my wife and I decided to travel to her hometown of Morelia, Mexico this last December, I was more than ready to go. I was excited to re-experience the sensation of walking through a city and culture not my own, enjoying the daily clatter of its inhabitants and appreciating the history and politics accessible to a foreigner. I knew traveling with a toddler would complicate my erstwhile flair for trekking, but I was up to experiencing Mexico with a different set of priorities. In the months preceding our departure, I continuously reflected on just how different this journey would be from my previous outings as I carried a family in tow.
I can say this with certainty: traveling with a toddler is no easy task. Our daughter is generally well tempered, but the new locales and changing patterns were not something she appreciated. I would likely wait until having children who can talk before making a trip of this nature again.
Having said that, we did accomplish a great deal as a family that would have impressed my younger, more adventurous self.
About Morelia, Michoacán
The Mexican Tourism Board has this to say about the region:
The colonial city of Morelia is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and from its breathtaking architecture, it’s clear to see why. Besides being the capital of the State of Michoacan – and the state’s largest and most populated city, at that – it is also the seat of government institutions and the most prestigious higher education institute in the region: the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo (Michoacanan University of Saint Nicolas of Hidalgo). Like the rest of the state, Morelia has an enormous amount to offer its visitors, from the colonial spectacle of its buildings and elegant, vibrant streets, to a delicious regional cuisine.
Morelia is often called the most Spanish city in Mexico, and its striking beauty is immediate. The city is littered with cathedrals and buildings dating back hundreds of years to the earliest conquests of the Americas. Morelia acted as a religious capitol for New Spain throughout much of its post-Spanish history, giving the city an ancient European feel.
The city played an important role in the fight for Mexican independence in the 1800s and the Mexican Revolution a century later. The History Channel put it succinctly:
Around 1810, the independence movement began in Mexico. Mexican priest and revolutionary Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla captured the Michoacán capital of Morelia, where he was appointed governor and declared the end of slavery.
Like most of Mexico in the 19th century, Michoacán was plagued by political instability. Taking office after the death of President Benito Juárez, Porfirio Díaz initiated a long period of liberal authoritarian rule known as Porfiriato. Although Díaz brought peace to the country, his policies favored the landed gentry over the indigenous populations and the working class.
The Mexican Revolution of 1910 again turned the state into a battleground. Several revolutionary leaders fought for land reform in Michoacán, supported by thousands of landless peasants who clamored for more rights and the fair distribution of land. Michoacán had limited involvement in major revolutionary activity, however attacks by insurgent mobs, country-wide banditry, drought and devastating epidemics ravaged the state during this time.
A number of museums have been established in old Spanish administrative buildings to honor this history. The Museum of Michoacán had an impressive collection of ancient, medieval and modern art related to the region.
The city is very walkable, allowing my family to see most major sites by foot. My daughter enjoys being pushed around in her stroller and thus she remained content as we explored all the history the city had to offer. One of the highlights of the trip was dropping into the Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolás de Hidalgo, the oldest university in the Americas.
The university houses one of the oldest libraries in the New World, with a collection of texts going back to the Spanish conquest.
As it was Christmas during our trip, the city and its surrounding suburbs were full of life and excitement. Like many towns in Mexico, the population explodes during the winter months when migrants living and working in the US return home to see family and friends. My father-in-law’s family is from a town just outside Morelia called Atapaneo. Even this small town had a large square at its center packed with vendors and stalls every night to celebrate the holiday and the return of the city’s inhabitants. When winter ends, the town becomes still as a large portion of its population returns to work north of the border.
Finding New Music
When I was younger and hipper, I tried to integrate myself into any local music scene when traveling to new locations. Having a toddler in tow pretty much put an end to late night pub hopping in seedy parts of town looking for tunes. Other than the traditional Mariachi and Banda acts playing at restaurants on the street during the festivities, my musical exploration was limited to the music videos I watched in the hotel while my daughter napped.
One of the best acts I discovered was a band called Little Jesus. Their song Norte captures the paradoxical feelings many Mexicans have about their homeland and their adoptive state to the North. As my wife explained, the phrase Norte (or north) communicates a varied number of experiences, hopes, fears and aspirations for those living in Morelia. The melancholy lyrics paint a foreboding and complicated relationship with the country’s northern neighbor.
|Cuando el norte se vuelve el sur|
Todos vemos la misma luz
Nunca fuimos como nos pensaban
Caminamos sin cansarnos
Hasta que el calor te apaga
Tú tendras que dormir
Cuando el día acaba de empezar
No hay nada
Peor que ver la mañana
Obligando a la luna a escapar
|When the north becomes south|
We all see the same light
We never went as we thought
We walked tirelessly
Until the heat off you
You’ll have to sleep
When the day has just begun
There is nothing
Worse than seeing the morning
Forcing the moon to escape
As Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released while we were in Mexico, we viewed the film at one of Morelia’s luxurious theaters. It can be easy to forget, passing between Morelia’s ancient center and its run-down fringes, that Mexico has a middle and upper class not unlike the one found in the US (although smaller in scale). In the last twenty years, there has been a massive explosion in real estate throughout Michoacán. What were once large farm estates are being transformed into new housing developments. My grandfather-in-law, a man content to ride his donkey around his hometown, made a sizable fortune buying up previously unwanted tracts of land along highways and selling them to developers years later. As noted, with large portions of the region’s population working in the US, a flow of money back to Michoacán has supported these new developments. Mexicans are slowly building the American dream back in their home country, undeterred by the political and economic instability. Taking a stroll through the neighborhood sitting atop the hills above Morelia (called El Altozano) made me feel like I had left Mexico entirely and been dropped into Beverley Hills.
It was in this neighborhood that we watched Star Wars in a theater that puts any in America to shame. In major urban areas across the country, theaters are being built to deliver what is called a 4D viewing experience. This type of thing is not up my alley, but was quite popular with my family. As Jean-Luc Nguyen detailed, watching a film in 4D is a bit like the Star Tours experience at Disneyland, with moving chairs and scents/fog/wind released to coordinate with key moments in the film.
Political and Social Difficulties
Morelia and Michoacán have their fair share of problems. As Vice noted:
The state of Michoacan in western Mexico is both the home of the recognized Morelia Film Festival and the monarch butterfly reserve, but also one of the largest producers and exporters of methamphetamine to the United States.
The state is also known as the birthplace of the Mexican drug war, which — now in its ninth year — has arguably become an international example of policy failure, as drugs continue to flow north to the United States.
Michoacan is a key state for understanding the drug trade in Mexico, and plays an important role as home to the Lazaro Cardenas port, Mexico’s most important, and a strategic transfer point for drug trafficking.
The excellent documentary Cartel Land (now available on Netflix) focuses almost exclusively on this specific region and the struggle communities face living under narco cartel rule. I generally compartmentalize instability when traveling to any location, but having my family in tow forced me to think about my surroundings far more critically than in previous outings. However, I did not experience even a faint sense of danger while in Morelia, although the heavily armed federales patrolling the streets with machine guns were a persistent reminder that all is not well in Mexico.
Just outside the cathedral in Morelia, a large protest has been occupying the city’s public square for months. Called the Normalistas (after the college the students attended), a group of student teachers were arrested by the Mexican government. USA Today reported:
For weeks, Díaz and other students who are going to school to become teachers in rural Mexico occupied the historic center of this colonial town — along with a bevy of farm animals, a tractor and a foosball table — to protest attempts to modernize their courses.
“The social struggle, along with basic education … we learn both,” says Díaz, 22.
New President Enrique Peña Nieto says one of his priorities will be the overhauling of Mexico’s education system to promote skills needed for the 21st century. But to do so he must confront the rural outposts of the Normal schools, the colleges where professors have for decades been training aspiring teachers in activist politics, Marxism and social justice.
In many areas of rural Mexico, these college students known as “normalistas” have taken to the streets and hijacked buses in sometimes violent protests against any changes to the education system. Some protests have been going for months.
The protesters and their supporters in the square say they were targeted for challenging the state, but many of the citizens we spoke with had a different take on the events.
Chatting up cab drivers always gives you a look at the commercial sentiment of a city. When I was in Cairo during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, it was the cab drivers that expressed their frustration with the lack of tourist dollars flowing into the city and provided prophetic calls for the military to remove the group from power. All the cabbies in Morelia I broached the topic with had negative things to say about the protests and the effect it was having on tourism in the city’s center. According to these drivers, the protesters were arrested for breaking into ordinary citizens’ cars and shops to steal goods they could use in their revolutionary actions. As a result, the protesters had not endeared themselves to a majority of the working population. There were a number of robberies and break ins, but the protesters said they were few and far between and by unaffiliated members of their movement.
The Jewel of Mexico
I fell for Morelia over the course of the two weeks we visited. It feels like no Mexican city and should be on any traveler’s bucket list. I didn’t even mention the food, but the region has a slew of worthwhile dishes any foodie would appreciate (just peruse the cuisine detailed in Chris Crowley’s piece to get your mouth watering). While traveling with a toddler had its challenges, being able to continue to see the world while our daughter is still young was encouraging. I know that when we return in another 5 years, the experience will be easier on us as parents, but also rewarding for her development.
It’s a common trope in travel writing to recommend a location in spite of political and economic turmoil present, but it’s absolutely the case for Morelia. Yes, Mexico has many problems, and you have to keep your wits about you, but this is a city with an incredibly rich history and ample outings to meet any traveler’s demands. The chance of being pulled into battles between the cartels and the state is minimal, and the overall cost of your trip would be but a fraction of the expenses paid to see any European city.
Featured image from wikicommons; other photos taken by the author.