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All the world's a stage”: Creating Guanajuato, Mexico’s Tourism Image

Claudia Asch


Cette étude analyse l'image touristique et le projet touristique des municipalités et des offices de tourisme de l'État de Guanajuato, au Mexique. La «ville de Cervantès dans les Amériques" (un titre décerné par l'UNESCO en 2005 pour honorer la tradition théâtrale de Cervantès joue dans Guanajuato) semble vouloir assoir une image de tranquillité et d'espace, alors que la réalité est bien différente: l’image projetée de la ville de Guanajuato est loin de refléter la vie animée des places et jardins, des ruelles étroites coloniales. Force est de constater que la ville n’a pas encore su tirer profit de sa reconnaissance en tant que site du patrimoine mondial. Les slogans évoluent au gré des fonctionnaires qui organisent en charge de ce secteur. Par le biais d'entrevues avec des fonctionnaires du tourisme et une sélection de matériaux recueillis tourisme, l’auteure montre comment la ville passe par différentes phases marketing sans avoir établie une image cohérente de la destination.

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1Guanajuato is a medium-sized city in central-northern Mexico, roughly 5 hours north of Mexico City. Its historic center and the adjacent mines became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1988. It is one of twenty-nine such sites in Mexico.

Figure 1. World Heritage sites in Mexico and the location of Guanajuato

Figure 1. World Heritage sites in Mexico and the location of Guanajuato

Credits: Based on Arbingast et al., 1975. Used by permission of University of Texas Libraries.

2In 2005, its population was 70, 798 (INEGI, 2005). It is also the state’s capital and boasts a sizeable student population that attends the University of Guanajuato. Mining, the city’s main economic driver in the seventeenth and eighteenth century is today negligible and the city relies on jobs in the public administration sector, as well as tourism. Much like other Mexican cities, it has struggled with unchecked growth on its outskirts, putting pressure on the city’s canyon topography.

3In this paper, I first sketch out a brief historical overview of Guanajuato to provide context, and next, I draw on personal interviews with tourism officials and some examples of promotional materials, juxtaposed with photographs of street scenes to argue that Guanajuato has made a full transition from an industrial site of production to a site of leisure consumption by specifically emphasizing the city’s new theatrical legacy and promoting its plazas as stages or mis-en-scène. Particularly the illusion of empty streets and plazas creates a stage-like character. This representation of space is important because “all encounters with the city take place through perceptions and images” (Kavaratzis 2004, pg. 66). Therefore, the importance of the specific selection of images in “official” promotional literature should not be underestimated. Finally, I argue that Guanajuato is simultaneously selling “existing aspects of the place,” trying to “replace lost sources of wealth” and attempting “place branding” (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2008, pg. 160). Not surprisingly, this mix of strategies has not produced a coherent image. I conclude that meanwhile, the designation as a World Heritage site has not yet been fully exploited for promotional purposes; greater emphasis on this “brand” is imminent.

1. A brief history of Guanajuato

4 The foundation of Guanajuato is always described as haphazard. The discovery of silver and other precious medals drove the city’s development, beginning with its rst settlements sometime between 1548 and 1550, though the historical record is inconclusive (Lara Váldez, 1999). The city lies at approximately 2,030 meters above sea level, and today, extends 13.6 square kilometers or 1,360 hectares (Cabrejos Moreno, 2006). The area’s canyon topography and ubiquity of water facilitated further prospecting after the rst silver deposits were discovered (Cabrejos Moreno 2006, pg. 189), (Lara Valdéz and González, 2003). Most of the initial settlements were located in the hillsides, but few vestiges from the sixteenth century remain (Lara Váldez, 1999). Mining camps formed and particularly the mining camp of Santa Fe on Cuarto Hill developed rapidly and eventually “gave rise to the process of urbanization that led to the formation of the administrative and religious ’political quarter’ of the city along 2.8 kilometers of the riverbed” (Cabrejos Moreno 2006, pg. 189). Unlike other colonial cities, then, Guanajuato was born more of necessity than as a planned community, which explains its adaptation to the canyon topography of the region (Díaz Berrio, 1972). In 1619, King Phillip III named Guanajuato “Villa de Santa Fé Real y Minas de Guanajuato” (Castro Rivas et al., 1999). By the early seventeenth century, the population numbered 3,117 (ibid, pg. 28). Furthermore, the entire economic output of the area was based on mining and ore smelting; “this industry was based on a slavery-feudal mode of production, with a social make-up of Spanish conquistadors and conquered indigenous people, who were subjugated under diverse levels of slavery” (Cabrejos Moreno, 2006, pg. 190). The city developed in a bi-polar fashion, with the extractive labor activities and worker’s quarters situated in the hills and on the hilltops, while the lower parts of the canyon saw the slow growth of neighborhoods, churches, and administrative facilities (Cabrejos Moreno, 2006).

5Guanajuato gained city status in 1741, but did not ocially assume this title until 1746. It is still unclear why the title wasn’t assumed until 1746, although historians suggest it may have been a matter of taxation, population, or rivalry with surrounding communities (Lara Váldez, 1999). Due to the uneven topography of the city, ooding was very common. Floods in 1750 and 1760 severely impacted the city’s architecture and record keeping (Lara Váldez, 1999). After another devastating ood in 1780, many buildings were raised or those deemed too low razed and rebuilt on higher ground (Lara Váldez, 1999), and “between 1796 and 1803 [the city council] ‘boxed up’ the river by canalizing it with stone and mortar walls” (Cabrejos Moreno, 2006, pg. 195). Thus, very little vestiges of the sixteenth century remain.

6With the discovery of the principal mining vein, the Valenciana in 1768, the population of the city and the mines exploded. By 1792, the city and the district boasted a total population of 55,012, of which 24,160 were categorized as “Spanish” (Brading, 1972, pg. 462). However, Guanajuato’s growth did not happen in isolation. The entire region, called the Bajío, was quite industrialized by the eighteenth century,

Querétaro and San Miguel el Grande (today San Miguel de Allende) were New Spain’s leading centers for the manufacture of woolen textiles; Celaya and Salamanca wove cotton; Léon made leather goods” (Brading, 1971, pg. 224).

7The bonanza generated by Valenciana made Guanajuato’s production soar, as historian David Brading explains,

at the close of the eighteenth century, Guanajuato was the leading producer of silver in the world. Its annual output of over 5 million pesos amounted to one-sixth of All-American bullion, gold and silver combined, and equaled the entire production of either viceroyalty of Buenos Aires or Peru (1971, pg. 261).

8Clearly, the discovery of the Valenciana mine was pivotal for the ascendancy and growing importance of Guanajuato for the remainder of the eighteenth century. In 1792, 47 percent of Guanajuato’s residents worked in some aspect of the mining industry (Brading, 1972). But the nineteenth and early twentieth century were tumultuous, nationally, and locally, and the city’s population declined, as did its silver production. Guanajuato, as the state capital, was a major battleground during the Independence movement of the early nineteenth century. Ironically, perhaps, Guanajuato is considered mainly a colonial town, and has been promoted as such from the 1920s onward (Saragoza, 2001) while really, only few buildings from the colonial period remain (Lara Váldez, 1999).

9 With the founding of the University of Guanjuato in 1945, the city recovered and began to rely on the tertiary sector, or services, as a major source of income, carried by the state and municipal government bureaucracies. The university has greatly contributed to the city’s cultural offerings, particularly, with the introduction of the “Entremeses,” the performance of Cervantes plays as a means to popularize his plays as well as give the young actors at the university an opportunity to perform (Cabrejos Moreno, 2006). These performances were the precursor to the International Cervantes Festival (FIC by its Spanish initials), held annually each October since 1972, which further capitalizes on Guanajuato’s image of the city of Cervantes in the New World. The Juárez Theater (built in 1903), the Principal Theater (rebuilt in the 1950s), and the Cervantes Theater (converted into a theater in 1979) are the “traditional” venues for FIC events, but many performances are also staged outside, such as on the Plaza San Roque. The Plaza is also a mainstay of the “Estudiantinas,” the performances of sixteenth century inspired musical groups, with performers dressed in traditional Spanish period outfits. Originally, many of the performers were students, but today, professional groups dominate and compete for listeners in the streets of Guanajuato. The groups mix songs and legends as they lead groups through the streets of the city, adding to the image of the city as transplanted from the old to the new world, and hence, a home for Cervantes.

Photos 1a and 1b. show Plaza San Roque, the first image taken in 1997, the second in 2007.

Photos 1a and 1b. show Plaza San Roque, the first image taken in 1997, the second in 2007.

Plaza San Roque, 1997 (INAH Catálogo de Inmuebles, 1997).

10With the growth of the Cervantes Festival, rapid investment in tourism began. Even in the 1960s and 1970s, mining was in sharp decline, and by the 2000s, there was virtually no active mining that remained (Ferry, 2005). Thus, Guanajuato experienced the same phenomenon as most industrialized cities in the “developed” world, such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, Manchester, or Birmingham (Ward, 1998, Law, 2002). Place marketing led by local authorities, became commonplace in mid-1970s Britain and the US (Fretter, 1993, Holcomb, 1993). In contrast with cities such as Birmingham and Cleveland, Guanajuato has not really attempted to attract new industries but instead, has focused on the development of tourism. Many former miners, for example, have turned to tourism as their source of income, mainly as tour guides. Even though the mines are part of Guanajuato’s World Heritage, they have failed to attract many visitors, and creating greater interest has been part of the tourism promotion agenda (Ayala Ortega, 2007). Guanajuato’s economic importance in the seventeenth and eighteenth century contributed to its World Heritage designation. Today, most of the haciendas, where silver was processed, are either in ruins or used as hotels or wedding locations. Transitioning to a post-industrial economy, Guanajuato has mainly focused on cultural offerings in the development of its attractions, though the state also hosts a yearly rally and ecological tourism is only beginning to be exploited.

2. Promoting Guanajuato

11In July 2006, I interviewed María del Refugio Ruíz Velasco Negrete, then Undersecretary of Tourism Development for the state of Guanajuato. In the past, tourism had had existed as its own, independent ministry, but in 2005, then governor Juan Carlos Romero Hicks decided to merge tourism into the Ministry of Economic Development. Since then, it has existed as the Ministry of Tourism Development. Ms. Ruíz Velasco Negrete had had extensive experience in tourism, working in Acapulco for years, before transferring to Guanajuato. She emphasized the need to educate the local population about the importance of tourism and presenting a good image to visitors, and she felt that one way of doing that was to encourage local neighborhoods to participate in a statewide competition, which recognizes the upkeep, cleanliness, and restoration efforts made by the locals in the form of monetary prizes (Velasco Negrete, 2006). These annual prizes, instated in 1998, in turn, are invested into the upkeep of the square, neighborhood, or local church. In 2000 and again in 2004, the San Fernando Square and its neighborhood association was recognized for its work to preserve and maintain the square, which, over the last ten years has been increasingly put under pressure from local restaurants to allow more tables and chairs in public spaces. In fact, the Municipal Tourism Council uses the slogan “Buen comer” – “Eat well” to promote San Fernando specifically as the culinary destination in Guanajuato (Orozco Ruíz, 2007). Arguably, the concerns of the businesspeople of San Fernando have become more important, due to their participation in the Municipal Tourism Council.

Photo 2. San Fernando Square in a city brochure commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of World Heritage designation, 2001

Photo 2. San Fernando Square in a city brochure commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of World Heritage designation, 2001

Credits: Dirección Municipal de Cultura, Guanajuato

12In 2003, the Mexiamora Square neighborhood won first place and 75,000 pesos (roughly $ 5,500) for best-preserved neighborhood. Again, the photo showw an empty and clean space, not a lively neighborhood, where school kids play football during their daily recess.

Photo 3a. A deserted Mexiamora Square

Photo 3a. A deserted Mexiamora Square

Credits: Guanajuato – Ciudad Romance, 2006

Photo 3b. A different impression of Mexiamora Square, 2007

Photo 3b. A different impression of Mexiamora Square, 2007

Credits: Author

13In 2006, Guanajuato’s whole historic center won first place and 150,000 pesos (roughly $ 11,000), and again, examples of empty streets are used to highlight the improved look of the space. Ms. Velasco Negrete felt quite confident that this contest in particular enabled local residents to feel that “they can contribute and do not leave everything to the government” (Velasco Negrete, 2006). She also insisted that cleanliness was not “just meant for tourism.” However, clearly, the by-product of this competition is a contribution to the theatrical, stage-like atmosphere. She was firmly committed to furthering Guanajuato’s image as a center of cultural tourism.

14Like other post-industrial cities, Guanajuato has used various slogans to promote its image, such as “Guanajuato, free your emotions” (this slogan, in fact, applied state-wide) and “Door to Mexico.” Furthermore, the Tourism Secretariat, before it became part of the Ministry of Economic Development, produced a video about the city, using the slogan, “Ciudad Romance,” “City of Romance.” The video emphasizes the variety of tourism offers, but particularly highlights the cleanliness and safety of the city. Much of the imagery depicting well- known city icons is presented, yet again, without people. Among the supposedly empty spaces are Baratillo Square, the Plaza de la Paz (Peace Square), and San Fernando Square. The Municipal Tourism Council has also produced a CD-ROM called “Guanajuato – Ciudad Patrimonio Cultural de la Humanidad” – “Cultural World Heritage City” with images as well as short films, however, the main purpose seems to be to promote the different hotels and restaurants the city has to offer. Thus, the Council is “meeting the needs of local businesses” (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2008: 160).

Figure 4a. Empty Plaza de la Paz

Figure 4a. Empty Plaza de la Paz

To contrast this “official” image, Figure 4b shows a typical street scene in Guanajuato.

Credits: Guanajuato – Ciudad Romance, 2006.

Figure 4b. A typical afternoon by the Plaza de la Paz (Peace Square), August 2007

Figure 4b. A typical afternoon by the Plaza de la Paz (Peace Square), August 2007

Credits: Author

15Finally, in 2007, the Municipal Tourism Council was considering using the slogan “City of Festivals,” underlining how important particularly the Cervantes festival is to the city’s economy. Furthermore, there was talk of “poaching” Guadalajara’s Festival of Magic – perhaps the strongest indicator of the level of commitment to festivals (Lourdes Orozco, 2007). In addition to the Cervantes Festival, the city hosts an Organ festival (every May), an international short film festival (every July), and a hot air balloon festival (every November). Additionally, the city is also host to several religious and traditional festivals that draw mainly national visitors. The Cervantes Festival is much like the Edinburgh festival, an attempt at ‘events branding’ (Kavaratzis 2004: 70).

16In 2007, I interviewed Salvador Ayala Ortega, Director of Promotion and Diffusion for the Ministry of Tourism Development. With the arrival of a new governor in late 2006, the structure of the office had changed drastically, with a greater emphasis on public-private initiatives, particularly to improve and encourage more effective promotion. Ayala Ortega was extremely sanguine about the “dynamism” that the “Consejo de Turismo Municpal,” the “Municipal Tourism Council” would bring to promotion. Public-private initiatives, of course, are also a common feature of the post-industrial city (Ward, 1998). Equally sanguine was the Council’s Director, Juan Carlos Santoscoy Zamora. Like his colleagues, he was most preoccupied with the shortness of tourist stays in Guanajuato. The average length of stay has stagnated at 1.6 days – only people who stay in a hotel are considered in this statistical measurement (Santoscoy Zamora, 2007). The minimum goal then, is to extend visits to at least two days, and thus, increase the number of events and activities, to retain the visitor (Ayala Ortega, 2007, Orozco Ruíz, 2007). Ayala Ortega did not think there could be such a thing as “festival” fatigue, as I suggested. “As long as we continue to diversify our festival offerings, that will bring people back. The architecture is always the same and people do not want to visit the same church twice, so it is important to offer them different festivals that speak to different clientele” (Ayala Ortega, 2007). Thus, Guanajuato’s place marketing efforts are focused on “adapting the ‘product’ (that is, the place) to be more desirable to the ‘market’” (Holcomb, 1993, pg. 134).

17As a Council, the municipality, the state, as well as private initiative pay into a fund designated to pay for promotional campaigns. As María de Lourdes Orozo Ruíz, coordinator of promotion and tie-ups for the Municipal Tourism Council explained, “the state government doubles any funds that are received from the municipality and the private initiative.” She estimated that about $ 5 million pesos ($ 364, 685) were in the fund in late August 2007 (Orozco Ruíz, 2007). Only a year later, that figure had risen to $ 504, 286 (Correo de Guanajuato, 2008).

18The importance of the Cervantes Festival for the local economy cannot be underestimated. In 2008, hotel occupancy brought in 56, 330, 672 Mexican pesos, or roughly $ 4.1 million. It was estimated that the overall earnings would be at least $ 8 million (Correo de Guanajuato, 2008). Year on year, the Festival has become more economically important for the city. In fact, for local businesses, it has absolutely become the focus point of the year: for many, these three weeks provide the financial padding to survive the rest of the year. For Ayala Ortega, Guanajuato “has no choice but to do tourism, without tourism, there is nothing here. It is easy to “do” tourism, it is gratifying and non-contaminating” (Ayala Ortega, 2007). Whether or not tourism is non-contaminating is debatable, certainly, Guanajuato has major difficulties dealing with traffic, and routinely, the city comes to a standstill during the Cervantes festival, when there are simply too many cars trying to enter the city simultaneously. Furthermore, the majority of tourism related jobs are low-skill in nature and offer little room for social upward mobility.

Figure 5. A typical street scene during the Cervantes Festival, 2007

Figure 5. A typical street scene during the Cervantes Festival, 2007

Note on the left is a city worker (in orange) who is cleaning the street. Furthermore, in 2006, tourism accounted for 8.4 percent of the local economy (Velasco Negrete, 2006) – far less of a market share than one might expect.

Credits: Author

19The World Heritage designation is bound to get more publicity, as the National Association of Mexican World Heritage Cities (ANCMPM, the Spanish acronmyn) has been gaining in visibility and influence. Initially, the organization, formed in 1996, was mainly a means of exchanging ideas and experiences for the World Heritage cities, then it began to lobby the Mexican government for restoration projects, and finally, its latest efforts (beginning in 2006), have focused on joint-promotion (ANCMPM, 2008). In Guanajuato, the organization helped to gather funding for the overhaul of the Plaza de la Paz. Its “Ciutat” magazine, published four times a year since 2006, highlights one city per issue – and again, like other promotional materials for Guanajuato, offers glimpses of “empty” spaces. Furthermore, the NGO has also produced a hardcover, coffee table book, which again favors empty space photography. Now, the association is focusing on branding “Heritage Cities” (Ciudades Patrimonio) as part of an integrated marketing scheme, and especially, promoting circuits to link up World Heritage cities that are within a few hours of each other (for example, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Morelia, and Querétaro). There is no provision, however, to include the citizens of these cities, nor has there been any debate about the “Heritage Cities” brand.

20Municipal Tourism Council director Juan Carlos Santoscoy Zamora was very optimistic about the abilities of the association to promote the Heritage Cities, and felt that World Heritage gives Guanajuato “a different plus, a sense of pride…and puts us on a different playing field than other cities” (Santoscoy Zamora, 2007). He further felt that having San Miguel join as a World Heritage city would also be “convenient for tourists” (Santoscoy Zamora, 2007). It remains to be seen whether or not Guanajuato benefits from San Miguel, which traditionally attracts far more international visitors.


21Guanajuato’s transition from mining center to a largely post-industrial economy has focused on becoming a hub of cultural tourism. The city’s promotional materials emphasize the stage-like setting of the city though ironically, without an audience to watch any performances – or without giving an impression of the city’s atmosphere, which is typically incredibly busy and full of people. Certainly, the number of different slogans employed by the city (and state) over the last few years does not suggest that there exists “one voice” to disseminate the city’s image, which Andrew David Fretter, a local UK Economic Development expert, insisted is needed for the effectiveness and cohesiveness of the message (Fretter, 1993: 172). Kavaratzis and Ashworth (2008) also highlight the need for a cohesive message and furthermore, participatory engagement of all stakeholders to help in the “branding” process. This participatory planning has a patchy history in Guanajuato and currently, it seems that mainly businesspeople have gained access to the promotion process.

22Finally, this mix of selling “existing aspects of the place,” trying to “replace lost sources of wealth” and attempting “place branding” simultaneously (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2008: 160) is clearly making it difficult to produce a coherent message beyond the mis-en-scène. The ANCMPM is yet another stakeholder, further adding to the complication of brand creation. Perhaps, however, because the association represents all ten World Heritage cities, it will be able to create a brand that is less vulnerable to municipal or state government turnover. That will make a more inclusive debate of that brand among the inhabitants of all cities all the more necessary, though it is unlikely to occur. Additionally, “focusing the marketing effort on attracting visitors is not only dangerously limiting the effectiveness of marketing but also the place’s character itself” (Kavaratzis and Ashworth 2008, pg. 162). Certainly, the efforts of ANCMPM on behalf of all World Heritage cities could lead to an unintended homogeneity of these unique places. Thus, Guanajuato needs to carefully consider how it wants to continue its place branding, how it can avoid that public and private elites (businesses) dominate the creation and consolidation of this brand, and perhaps most importantly, develop multiple brands that speak to the diversity of the city, and help it evade tourism as its only means for further development and wealth creation. For the moment, Guanajuato’s the spotlight remains on its stage-like quality.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. World Heritage sites in Mexico and the location of Guanajuato
Crédits Credits: Based on Arbingast et al., 1975. Used by permission of University of Texas Libraries.
Fichier image/jpeg, 80k
Titre Photos 1a and 1b. show Plaza San Roque, the first image taken in 1997, the second in 2007.
Crédits Plaza San Roque, 1997 (INAH Catálogo de Inmuebles, 1997).
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Crédits Credits: Author
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Photo 2. San Fernando Square in a city brochure commemorating the thirteenth anniversary of World Heritage designation, 2001
Crédits Credits: Dirección Municipal de Cultura, Guanajuato
Fichier image/jpeg, 60k
Titre Photo 3a. A deserted Mexiamora Square
Crédits Credits: Guanajuato – Ciudad Romance, 2006
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k
Titre Photo 3b. A different impression of Mexiamora Square, 2007
Crédits Credits: Author
Fichier image/jpeg, 84k
Titre Figure 4a. Empty Plaza de la Paz
Légende To contrast this “official” image, Figure 4b shows a typical street scene in Guanajuato.
Crédits Credits: Guanajuato – Ciudad Romance, 2006.
Fichier image/jpeg, 56k
Titre Figure 4b. A typical afternoon by the Plaza de la Paz (Peace Square), August 2007
Crédits Credits: Author
Fichier image/jpeg, 76k
Titre Figure 5. A typical street scene during the Cervantes Festival, 2007
Légende Note on the left is a city worker (in orange) who is cleaning the street. Furthermore, in 2006, tourism accounted for 8.4 percent of the local economy (Velasco Negrete, 2006) – far less of a market share than one might expect.
Crédits Credits: Author
Fichier image/jpeg, 88k
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Claudia Asch, « All the world's a stage”: Creating Guanajuato, Mexico’s Tourism Image »Études caribéennes [En ligne], 13-14 | Décembre 2009, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2009, consulté le 31 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Claudia Asch

Department of Geography 144 Eggers Hall Syracuse University, PhD Candidate Geography,

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