This article is from the May 2005 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Mazatlan -- A  Different Mexican Town --A Different Mexican History
A little bit of Europe tucked around Mazatlan’s Machado Square

by Stuart Wasserman 

Stuart Wasserman is a writer/photographer who lives in Portland, Oregon. 

At 9:30 a.m. Mazatlan’s Plaza Machado is coming alive. A slim middle aged Mexican man is bringing out the wooden tables and chairs from the Altazor Restaurant and coffee bar, a cool university run enterprise and bookstore that offers great breakfasts at great prices set on a European-sized square. 

A sassy middle-aged Mexican-American woman named Gracia runs the place during the day. She was a schoolgirl  in Tucson, but she came back to Mexico as a young adult to take care of her father. Tending tables on the plaza, she sometimes greets you in Spanish,  sometimes in English. Soon a small group of Americans will gather there for morning chess, a little flirting, and cups of rich mountain coffee from Veracruz. 

Students carrying tubas and trombones walk across the plaza heading toward the stately 19th-century-building on the northeast corner of the plaza that houses both Mazatlan’s 19th century ornate Opera House and the city’s municipal arts collegio. Students stage performances throughout the year. The ornate theater is filled during other times of the year with national and international cultural acts from Europe and Latin America. 

Around the edges of the square, restaurants and bars like Pedro y Lola and the Pacific Cafe are popping up, as well as a handful of expanding art galleries like NidArt located down the block from the Opera House. Downtown Mazatlan is being gentrified and much of it is being guided by the helping hand of a forward thinking volunteer organization of engineers, architects and entrepreneurs called the Center Historical Project or Centro Proyecto Historico. 

As a veteran Mexico traveler who first visited Mazatlan in 1973, it is not hard to like the renaissance going on around this tiny square, the Plaza Machaco (or as it is affectionately called, the Plazuela Machado) – a square built by Europeans, something many residents of Mazatlan are very proud of. 

Mazatlan has a history that’s very different from the rest of Mexico. It was a small seaport town in the 1830’s and 1840’s. The population in 1820 totaled about 2,000 inhabitants. But soon that would change due to this port town’s location as the last stop before San Francisco for ships westward bound from New York. In those days ships had to sail around the tip of  South America to reach the San Francisco gold fields. These ships were laden with men mostly from Italy, Germany and Ireland. Revolutions in Europe kept them flowing to New York, and the California gold rush enticed them West. 

Some stayed in Mazatlan, tired of the long journey northward by ship. Others returned to the semitropical seaport town they had visited once the gold rush had sputtered out. 

The Mazatlan we know today dates from that era. Mazatlan was booming in the 1850’s and sported five opera houses, one of them just for the German population. 

Mazatlan grew up around the Plaza Machado, a central plaza without a church – a rarity in Mexico. Most Mexican cities were built after the conquistadors quelled the local Indian population. Padres soon followed and built a church on a central square.

The oldest building on Mazatlan’s Plaza Machado spans the width of a block and has an impressive row of arches. It is called the Portales de Canobbio, a two story structure built in 1846 by an Italian Canobbio family. They lived upstairs and ran a general store below. 

Alfredo Gomez Rubio,  president of the Centro Proyecto Historico, calls the Canobbio House “Mazatlan’s first building of commerce.” The building was a combination feed, supply and hardware store. Today it houses the Museo Casa Machado, which features a 19th century collection of French and Austrian furniture, home decorations and antiques brought over by Mazatlan’s soon to be wealthier families. 

Today Mazaltecos joke with each other about their mixed heritage, often taking pride in their green eyes and other lighter European skin traits. 

Mazatlan’s French heritage stems from the Frenchmen who served in the army of Maximilian in the mid-1860’s. Mazatlan’s residents take great pride in the 1864 battle in which residents firing cannons repelled an attack from the French Battleship La Cordierre and sent the ship packing. 

The battle took place along the beach front not too far from Machado Square. Each year as part of the city’s Carnival celebration, the 1864 battle is recreated. Fireworks are shot off from a ship at sea and a response is given from the very hillside where the rusty cannons still stand. 

A fireworks display takes place as part of Mazatlan’s Carnaval celebration on the Saturday before Fat Tuesday and can be seen all along the Avenida Olas Altas. 

If you want to see remnants of Mazatlan’s French heritage, visit the Hotel Playa Mazatlan located in the golden zone. Many of the wait staff come from a town up in the mountains call Macias. Ask any waiter or bartender and they will confirm this. Many Frenchman fled to the hills when the call for withdrawal came from Paris. It may not have been the tropical winds and beautiful Indian maidens that made them stay, but rather their disenchantment at having to face scurvy and another long grueling boat ride across the Atlantic Ocean. Instead many escaped to the hills and took up life in the countryside. The French ships sailed without them. 

The architecture of the centro district around the Plaza Machado has a French accent. According to  Don Antonio Haas, a well respected elder in town and the first Mexican national to attend Harvard,  the architecture of the area could be described as Neoclassical – or what he calls aptly  “neo-tropical.”  To me it brought back memories of the designs around the French Quarter of New Orleans. Mazatlan has a stunning gothic-like Cathedral called the Immaculada Concepcion de Maria. 

Don Antonio is credited with saving the French inspired opera house through his writings and oration.  Now Mazatlan’s new generation of movers and shakers have turned to the U.S. for help in the preservation of the 50 square block area around the square that on March 12, 2001, was declared a National Monument by the federal government, including 479 buildings of historical interest and value. 

Alfredo Gomez Rubio spent the fall of 2002 in Washington D.C. at the Main Street Institute, an organization that is responsible for the makeover and revitalization of more than 400 town centers in the U.S. and Canada. There Rubio attended classes on the art of community building, working with the media, and fundraising. In January of last year, Rubio helped establish a formal  association with a board of directors and a host of hardworking volunteer committees.

When I landed in town my cab driver pointed me to Rubio’s restaurant on the square – Pedro y Lola. This romantic restaurant is named after two widely popular singers of the 1940’s and 1950’s, Pedro Infante and Lola Beltran. Infante also starred in many classic Mexican movies. Rubio is hands on at his restaurant. One night, as his local and foreign patrons enjoyed the warm ambiance of the square,  Rubio hustled out to the curb to quiet a young driver who was booming rap music from the giant speakers tucked in his trunk. “This has to become a classier place,” he grumbled. 

Alfredo Gomez Rubio is a man in his forties with “77 Sunset Strip” good looks.  He is bilingual and often speaks excitedly with his hands in motion. 

Last February, the energetic director of Mazatlan’s Centro Proyecto Historico drove with his family the 600 miles from Mazatlan to Phoenix just to catch a Rolling Stones concert. 

Rubio’s  brother Manuel, who works as a banker in Switzerland, is also involved in spurring renovation.   The Rubios are a fifth generation family who reside in the same family house that their great-great-grandfather built five blocks from the old town plaza. 

These older families own real estate on the square and they watched over the course of several decades as development moved on to a different area of town. Now they are attempting to bring people back by saving the most beautiful architecture in Mazatlan. Still, movement is slow and it is not without controversy. 

“It’s hard to get Mazaltecos to agree on anything,” says political scientist Arturo Santamaria Gomez, a professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Sinaloa. “Here in our city we have  two different professional associations of architects, two different associations of hotel owners and five different professional associations of lawyers.” 

During the 1960’s new ultra modern hotels were built to the north along Mazatlan’s virgin beaches. The visionary leading that trend  was an American, Ulysses S. George, a plastering contractor from Los Angeles who worked on the construction of the Griffith Park Observatory. He had first come down to Mazatlan to fish, liked the place, and in 1953 began building the first hotel across from Deer Island, one of three small islands that grace Mazatlan’s waterscape. That man’s grandson is Donn Vient, and he runs the hotel today. “Everybody thought my grandfather was crazy, muy muy loco,” he said. But Vient adds  with pride, “all the hoteliers followed him out here.” Modern home construction began in the area behind the Golden Zone hotels. The move began to drain tourism away from old town. Soon the classy hotels like the Belmar on Old Town’s Olas Altas beach fell into disrepair. The Belmar drew visits from Hollywood stars of the 1930s and 1940s like Clark Gable, Errol Flynn and Ava Gardner. In the 1950’s John Wayne took a personal suite there. He visited when shooting several of his westerns in the state of Durango, located on the high plains to the east. 

Today, the Belmar is a good choice for budget-conscious travelers who want a  waterfront room at $35 a night. La Siesta, two blocks away, features western facing rooms at the same price. The La Siesta houses the corner restaurant, The Shrimp Bucket, still a classic restaurant for seafood in Mazatlan. 

Down the street from the Belmar, the new kid on the block, the high-rise Hotel Posada Freeman, reopened two years ago and offers much fancier rooms. 

The Freeman originally built in 1950 had been a classic Mazatlan gathering spot. On Friday and Saturday nights its 10th floor El Palomar dance hall was the place to hear to the latest tunes out of New York. When it was built, the Freeman was the tallest building in the entire northwest of the country. It’s a great place to catch sweeping views of the downtown centro district and the Pacific Ocean.

While many of Mazatlan’s preservationists were happy to see  the grand old hotel come back to life they were unhappy with some modern additions. Herein lies a controversy that historic districts across America face  The new Freeman Hotel is affiliated with the Best Western Hotel chain which has a standard of signage – in this case one with a large fluorescent look. The Best Western sign now sits atop the Freeman building and some preservationists object to this desecration of a building that now sits in the 50 square block National Monument area. The building did not have that kind of lighting when it opened, so why should it now? The common view among Mexicans is that someone got paid off.   Somebody got paid off!  Although that may be possibly true, I for one enjoyed the light cast from the bright sign that allowed me to stay in the warm ocean waters long after sunset and still see my way safely about the beach. As a newcomer in town wandering the street after a couple of strong tequila drinks,  the Hotel Posada Freeman sign allowed me to get my bearings quickly when I needed to. 

The Centro Proyecto Historico is working hard to keep another U.S. import off the walls of old town Mazatlan – graffiti. A new sign in the square reads, “El graffiti no es arte – es un deleto. No Manches!  Mi Mazatlan es mi casa.” 

Although Mazatlan’s Centro Proyecto Historico is new, local citizens like Elaine Kemp have been struggling for a long time to bring pride back to the historic neighborhood. Kemp, a  Mexican woman who was born in Los Angeles but left as a young girl, is the editor and founder of Viejo Mazatlan.This well-designed monthly newspaper is free. Written in Spanish but also translated into English, every article is about historical aspects of old town, the Plaza Machado Square, and the people who once lived there. 

Mazatlan’s old town is a work in progress. Every Saturday night, arts and crafts people set up booths on the square and give it a Berkeley bohemian feel. On Sundays, a festival ambiance takes over with vendors selling cotton candy and balloons while families with children parade around the square.  Nightly, couples cuddle and nest on nearby benches. There are plenty of buildings not far away that sit vacant where you can see trees growing up in the center of old houses long ago abandoned. However, the streets are well lit and one can feel safe walking  from the plaza down to Olas Altas beach where on any given evening an American ex-pat community gathers to “llevelo un Pacifico” at the Puerto Viejo, a small beach bar, carp about the Bush administration, and watch the sometimes glorious sunsets spread rich and various colors across the Mexican sky.