Land Over Water
Mid-December was the time in Mazatlan when the locals told you that the cold weather was not “seasonal.” The longer the cold persisted, however, the more incredulous that claim became. From the corridor just outside of my hotel room, the little cove secluded by the silhouette of the nearby isles shone in the peculiar maroon sunset.  The ospreys hovered over in the fading blue patch of the sky. The clouds made the ocean unappealing.  The beach vendors appeared disoriented.  Their favorite customers, the tourists from the United States and Canada, submerged themselves in Jacuzzis and margaritas. The better part of valor was to explore the land. >>> ALL PHOTOS
“The U.S. is going down,” our guide opined on the subject of the American real estate market as he extolled the virtues of a building boom in Mazatlan which was expanding more than in-filling the already sprawling town. “My childhood friend is developing the biggest mega-resort yet which will be called the New Mazatlan,” he pointed to a pile of construction materials barely visible in the distance as we drove out of town. The veneer of such tourism-generated modernity faded soon, giving way to the third-world misshaped and mismatched one-story shops and houses that lined the dirt sidewalks. 
We were now on a narrow road in the land that was once inhabited by the Tahues who gave this “place of deer” its name in their Nahuatl language, Mazatlan. The distinct colors with which the Tahues painted themselves alerted the first Europeans who came here with the conquistadors that there were gold and silver mines in the nearby Sierra Madre. The “Indians” were promptly “subdued” by force and missionaries in the 16th Century. The loot went to the Spanish Crown, while “the Pope promised the would-be miners from Europe that all their sins would be forgiven if they made the long trip and did the hard work,” our guide said.
Our destination was La Vinata de Los Osuna, advertised by its owners, as “a factory that produces an Agave drink that is better that the finest Tequila and you will be able to learn the whole process of making it.” Because the state of Jalisco where the town of Tequila is located has copyrighted the famous drink’s name, Los Osuna had to be satisfied with the name “Distilado 100% Agave Azul” for its similar product. There are over thirty species of Agave in Mexico and a variety of mescals, or spirits, are produced by distilling them. In fact, at one time there were over 100 tequila factories in the Mazatlan area, but almost all have been “closed by the Mexican government,” our guide said. “Los Osuna has reopened, as a working factory and as a tourist attraction.”
Unfortunately, on this day, Fernando who was in charge of the factory had to leave “to attend to the more urgent affairs of Royal Villas Resort” in the town which was also owned by the Osuna family, the owners of the factory. As a result, to the embarrassment of our guide, we could only see some idle machinery. Many of the rooms were closed. We were reduced to just reading the signs on the doors: “Bottling Room,” “Lowering Alcohol Process,” “Elaboration.”  The distillery, however, is located on charming grounds and the salesmen offered as much tequila to taste as you could drink. 
Oddly, mingling with the tipsy tourists here were the young developmentally disabled students of Escuela de Educacion Especial Cam 38. They had been brought here for a picnic although it appeared more as an inappropriate field trip.  I tried to make friends with a few of the kids.  When we boarded our respective buses, I saw them wave, I waved too. “No! La otra, la otra,” a young boy shouted. He meant that he was waving to the two young blonde girls on our bus, not to me.
The sandal-maker in the village of La Noria, however, waved to me -as a friendly gesture that I could take his picture. We had stopped in his shop to see the “local craft.” He made about 13 sandals –huaraches– a day and got paid the equivalent of 13 dollars for them.  A sign behind him explained his contentment with the meager pay. In translation, it read: “if you lose money, you have lost a little; if you lose a friend, you have lost a lot; if you lose faith in God, you have lost everything.” 
I looked for the sandal-maker’s God in the village’s church of San Antonio. The primary altar was that of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Our guide gave us this version of the story behind the locals’ veneration of this Virgin. “Around December 12, 1531, a peasant named Juan Diego saw a vision of the Virgin in the hills near Mexico City. She asked him to build a church at that site. When Juan Diego spoke to the Friar about this, the Friar did not believe him. The next day the Virgin appeared again with her demand, and Juan Diego told her of the Friar’s response. The Virgin told Juan Diego to gather flowers as proof. Even though it was winter and no flowers bloomed, Juan Diego found Castillian roses there, gathered them in his ayate (cape) and offered them to the Friar. In this process, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared painted on his ayate.” 
As historians would tell, “this was taken as a sign from heaven and the church was built and special devotions instituted to the Virgin of Guadalupe, as she was named. This devotion grew to be so important that in 1754 a papal bull was issued proclaiming the Virgin of Guadalupe as the Patroness and Protector of New Spain. In 1810 she was adopted as the symbol of Mexican Independence.”
December 12 is celebrated as the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Castilian roses at the altar in the La Noria church still looked fresh, as they had been put there just the day before.  We had spent the waning hours of the Feast Day in Mazatlan’s Catholic Cathedral, Basilica de la Immaculada Concepcion. A litter of paper and plastic on the sidewalks outside marked the presence of the large crowd that had come to the event. Kids were still licking ice cream cones and biting into grilled corn. Men were getting their shoes shined at the many shoeshine vendors that lined one side of the plaza. 
What I found unique about this late 19th Century Cathedral was that the Star of David was imprinted on each of its 28 stained glass windows. “That was to thank the Jewish families of Mazatlan for their contribution for the completion of the Cathedral when the money ran out,” our guide explained.  There was a notable migration of Jews to Mexico after the 1881-84 Russian pogroms. I found no record that they built any durable temple or synagogue in Mazatlan. Their earlier predecessors, the Conversos, who had come with Cortes to escape the Inquisition in Spain, publicly had claimed to be Catholic.
The favorite church of the elite of Mazatlan is its oldest, the little Chapel of San Jose, built in 1740, located a few blocks away on Bell Street -so called because for over 30 years they could not hoist the imported bell up to the top of the church and simply left it on the street. “Everyone wants to get married here and the wait is very long,” our guide said, adding, “I was married here.” We ran into two of his friends in the nearby Machado Plaza. One was standing in line to see a classic film screened at the cine club. The other was a woman spreading the books she had brought to sell at the weekly fair in the Plaza. She dusted every book tenderly before putting it on the table. “Look at her,” our guide said, “she looks German. Many in Mazatlan have German blood in them.”
Behind the woman loomed the Juarez Building that once housed the German Club where in the late 1800s the Mazatlan aristocracy met. The German legacy here extends eclectically to the Pacifico Brewery, the love of Tambora music, and a part of the seaside boulevard Malecon -named after the engineer who built it, Jorge Claussen.
The Germans, however, were not the only ones who came to Mazatlan. The mid 19th century revolutions in Europe also encouraged Italians to go west, especially during the California Gold Rush. More than a few stayed in Mazatlan, which was a stop on the way. The other side of the Machado Plaza is anchored by a two-story building that two brothers from Italy, Angel and Luis Canobbio, constructed in 1846. They ran a general store downstairs and lived above. The scions of a Polish family that came here around the same time own the big department store of today, Coppel.
The Plaza itself is named after Don Nepomuceno Machado, a Philippine businessman who donated the land for it in 1838. He was the most prosperous of the early businessmen in Mazatlan, and showed it by moving around town on a plank carried by four slaves. Machado was also a beneficiary of the aforesaid revolutions in Europe which made Spain, the ruler of The Philippines for over three centuries, open that country to international trade leading to the rise of the Philipino ilustrado elite.
The cosmopolitan nature of the community thus being created in Mazatlan was evident in that unlike other Mexican cities, their main Plaza lacked a church. Instead, it sported a grand theater. The Teatro Rubio opera house was built in 1872. It became the focus of international attention five years later when a diva, Angela Peralta came to sing Aida, the opera that she had virtually made her own in an 1873 performance in Europe under Verdi’s baton. She brought with her an entourage of 76 musicians, befitting her own long name -“María Los Angeles Manuela Tranquilina Cirila Efrena Peralta y Castera,” my guide said in one breath, “I have practiced it many times.” Tragically, within days Peralta and virtually the full company died of yellow fever. They never performed in Mazatlan, although Peralta tried the theater for rehearsal. She also arranged to marry one Julian Montiel y Duarte on her deathbed. Their love affair -while she was married to another man- had scandalized Mexico City, even as it established Peralta as a true prima donna.
The elite of Mazatlan quickly turned against Peralta, blaming her for the yellow fever epidemic that suddenly became their dominant concern. She had “a wretched burial. Not a single farewell speech, no cortege of honor through the city streets. Not even a single glance through a window to bid farewell,” it has been said. Her memory, however, has since been rehabilitated. In 1943, the Rubio was renamed the Angela Peralta Theater. It has been restored to its original elegance.  When I walked in, the workers were cleaning its cubicles that were enclosed by red velvet curtains which had gold ropes and tassels. 
That evening, we were seated for dinner under a floor to ceiling painting glorifying Angela Peralta’s historic arrival in Mazatlan.  This was in a restaurant around the corner from the theater, itself named after two other famous performers from Mazatlan, Pedro and Lola. The owner is Alfredo Gomez Rubio, a leader in the volunteer society of entrepreneurs, architects, and engineers, called the Center Historical Project, working with city agencies to revive an area of 180 blocks with 479 buildings.
This restaurant is where you could run into the likes of Don Antonio Haas, about whom it is said “the entire old downtown was revitalized due to the collective spirit behind Haas’ determination.” Haas’s incentive was “to rescue the historical heritage legacy of his ancestors,” one of whom was no other than Don Nepomuceno Machado. Haas is now a legend himself. A journalist, bohemian, teacher, essayist, and pianist, Haas is more often mentioned as the first Mexican to graduate from Harvard -in economics. He usually writes in English. He considers the architecture of the Mazatlan that is being revived as “exclusive,” and calls it “tropic-neoclassical.”
When we went to the Angela Peralta that evening, I saw a bronze bust of Haas in the front courtyard dedicated on his 80th birthday as a tribute for his service as the president of the Friends of the Angela Peralta Theater Committee. The performance that night was part of the annual Sinaloa Culture Festival. Called Gala Navidena, it appropriately celebrated the season with familiar songs elaborately performed by a full Sinfonietta Mazatlan, six soloists, and the Angela Peralta Chorus. Afterward, in the vestibule they treated us with Christmas cookies and soft drinks which is a tradition here.
Across the Peralta, I enjoyed an equally memorable performance. This was in an art gallery. The young woman who ran the place, upon learning that we were going to the Gala Navidena, told us about the tradition of Posadas in town which is an enactment of seeking lodging by Joseph and the pregnant Mary at Christmas time. She explained that for nine evenings leading to Christmas (representing the couple’s nine days journey to Bethlehem), neighbors call on different houses with peregrinos (small statues of St. Joseph leading a donkey, on which the Virgin Mary is riding side-saddle) requesting lodging in a simple chant. They will ask at three different houses. Two will respond by chanting that there is no room, but the third one will allow them in. That is the house that is supposed to be the posada (inn) for that night. The gallery woman then chanted for us the peregrinos’ pleas and the responses from the houses. Her voice was not bad.
Then Came the Gringos
The Plaza Machado was central to the life of Mazatlan until the 1950s. Then it was replaced with Playa Olas Altas. Named for its high waves, this stretch of beach became popular in part because of American movie stars. “I learned my English by watching American movies,” our guide said in his near fluent and idiomatic English. “One day as a boy of 14, I saw this big American man in front of Copa de Leche, the restaurant in Olas Altas.  I asked him what his name was. He said ‘Marion.’ I said ‘but that is a girl’s name.’ He said, ‘Look at me. Do you think I am a girl?’ ” The guide laughed, “That is how I met John Wayne whose name was not ‘Marianne.’ John Wayne invited me in for a meal at the Copa. He liked Mexican women and married a couple of them.” This guide was old enough to remember the American stars of the time who were fond of Mazatlan. He had sold a silver coin to Robert Mitcham and chatted with John Derek.
Olas Altas also became a favorite of the Mexican upper class and politicians. In the atrium of the old Hotel Belmar -where John Wayne and Errol Flynn used to stay and which now could use some spiffing up- our guide told us the story of how the governor of the state of Sinaloa was assassinated there while giving a speech to a large crowd of local notables. “This was in 1944 and then for a long time, until recently, politicians considered this place cursed.” The assassin was the leader of the hit squad organized by large landowners to fight Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas’s program of land reform.
Next stop for the gentry was Hotel Playa Mazatlan, although in the beginning, 1955, they thought the idea of “a building right on the beach, so close to the ocean that the waves and the sand could easily destroy it,” simply crazy, calling its California developer, Ulysses Solomon George, “El Gringo Loco”. George, it turns out, was a visionary. His opening in the south eventually led to the draining of a long stretch of swamp that became Zona Dorada, a Golden Zone built specifically for the tourists, “very accommodating.” “Everyone speaks English and there are more bars and nightclubs than you could ever want.”
Playa Mazatlan has kept its distinction. “Colonial-style architecture with rustic Mexican details,” it is billed as “home to the weekly Fiesta Mexicana, a dinner-show running since 1966 which features folk entertainment, live music, dancing, Mexican buffet and tropical drinks.” We avoided that kitsch on the off evening when we went to dinner there. Around us the seemingly endless rows of tables -all set- were all empty. Some one hundred yards away, however, a band with a vocalist, played old favorites and Mexican songs. Locals occupied a long table. Some got up and danced. One man in his forties came to our table and asked a young woman in our party to dance. She declined. He asked the woman facing her, again unsuccessfully. I watched him go back to his table. His deliberate gait belied no dejection. A few minutes later, he came back with the same request. He was rejected again. Someone noted that the line of protocol between the locals and tourists was becoming increasingly blurred in Mazatlan.
On the way to our hotel we drove through “the El Cid Residential Area.” Here, Mazatlan’s most famous real estate owners, the Berdegue family, were playing their “best card,” as the brochure said. “Secure and private, the residential area’s perimeter is fully fenced, with guarded posts and electronic-access gateways 24 hours a day.” With Christmas lighting on the brand new single-family homes, the neighborhood looked an awful lot like southern California >>> ALL PHOTOS
Biographical Note: Keyvan Tabari is an international lawyer in San Francisco. He holds a PhD and a JD, and has taught at Colby College, the University of Colorado, and the University of Tehran.