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Guanajuato History

Credit: Emattil | Fotolia

Guanajuato’s first settlers were the Otomi some time between 500 and 200 BCE. The city then was called Mo-o-ti, which meant “place of metals.” Mining in the area has a long history, beginning in the pre-Hispanic era with the Aztecs, who visited Guanajuato looking for metals to make ornamental objects for their political and religious elites.

The Spanish discovered gold in the area in 1540 and sent soldiers to build forts to protect their mining activities in 1548. Spanish viceroy Don Antonio de Mendoza named the outpost Real de Minas de Guanajuato.

By the 18th century, Guanajuato was the world’s largest producer of silver and the richest city in Mexico. Production at the La Valenciana silver mine, the largest at that time, impacted the world economy and made the Valenciana family one of the richest and most powerful families in Spain. The mine produced roughly 16 percent of Mexico’s silver and about 80 percent of the state of Guanajuato’s silver.

After gaining independence from Spain in the early 1800s, the city of Guanajuato continued to prosper and was made the capital of the new state of Guanajuato in 1824. Fighting continued, however, between liberal and conservative forces, which had very different political and economic visions for the city.

The ideological war took a toll on mining activities until the 1870s when president Porfirio Diaz encouraged foreign investment in the mining industry. The resurgence in mining funded the construction of impressive Baroque buildings like the Teatro Juárez, Hidalgo Market, the Alhonndiga de Granaditas and the churches La Compañia and La Valencia, both considered to be masterpieces of the Mexican Churrigueresque-style.

Runoff from the steep hills surrounding Guanajuato historically has contributed to major flooding in the city. In 1760 and 1780, two major floods nearly wiped Guanajuato off the map. Construction of large ditches and tunnels to divert overflow during the rainy season helped alleviate the problem, but flooding was not completely brought under control until a dam was built in the 1960s.

Named a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1988, Guanajuato today is a thriving city of about 175,000 people known for its universities, dramatic setting, colorful buildings, narrow streets and rich silver mining history.

Today, about 1,500 miners in Guanajuato continue to work in the silver mines.  Canadian mining companies with contracts from the Mexican government operate the mines.