Jose Alfredo Jimenez and my Camino de Guanajuato at Festival Cervantino
If there’s a mariachi band, I’m lip-syncing the Jose Alfredo Jimenez (José Alfredo Jiménez) covers. In my USA life I’m a closet Jose Alfredo Jimenez fan because right now, you’re wondering, who’s that? Think of Jimenez as the Bob Dylan of the Spanish-speaking world, a prolific Mexican folk songwriter whose songs, such as the famous, ‘Camino de Guanajuato’ are covered by mariachi bands and the Spanish-speaking world’s biggest names. While he died young from cirrhosis of the liver (by all accounts due to drinking), in only 47 years (1926-1973), Jimenez penned some 1000 songs in the Ranchera style, on bar napkins and with no musical training as the story goes. His ranchera music is tightly woven into Mexico’s musical heritage and for many, its identity and continues to be revered by fans around the world. To boot, he even appeared in movies.
Spontaneous Trip to Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato
While I like a wide range of genres and artists, both in English and Spanish, there are artists for whom I’ll always carry nostalgia, this includes José Alfredo Jiménez. I first heard his songs as a child, both at home in the USA and in Mexico visiting family, but the year I lived in Mexico after college solidified my lifelong love affair. Many years pass and I’m visiting my cousin in Querétaro, Mexico. I made a last-minute decision to attend the last weekend of Festival Cervantino in Guanuajuato, a few hours by bus from Querétaro. I hadn’t been in 18 years. My cousin and I agreed I should stay until Monday. While most wouldn’t sacrifice a precious vacation day, I looked forward to being able to catch the last show, buy the poster I always spend the weekend contemplating and be a tourist outside the festival walls.
My First Time Experiencing a Last-Festival-Day
Tables fold up, remaining festivalgoers make their way home and there’s no chance to catch a headliner, signs a festival is nearing its end. On Sunday, after a satisfying festival weekend, I said goodbye to my fest best, a woman I had approached at the bus station on Friday to share a taxi into town. I changed into warmer clothes and stalled a bit under the pretense I was waiting for my camera and phone batteries to charge. I missed my friend and Festival Cervantino wasn’t going to be the same without her.
Exploring Guanajuato City
I made it to the Museo Iconográfico de Quijote before it closed. Traveling exhilaration soared through my blood by the time I left the museum. I forgot I was feeling lonely and hesitant. I was off. Outside the museum I listened to a band play in the small plaza and checked out the church, Templo de San Francisco and a series of statues accessorizing the streets and plazuelas. I stumbled upon children joyfully screaming on a carnival ride, ate a pineapple tamale and another with guayaba and even helped a stranger choose between two t-shirts. Starwars, no question.
The Concert Poster
I was making my way to the Explanada de la Alhóndiga de Granaditas, a building famous for its role in Mexico’s independence. Connected to the Alhóndiga are permanent cement steps. Each year during Festival Cervantino, an outdoor stage is set up in front of the steps creating a contained outdoor theater. Many festivalgoers watch the shows from the side street. The streets were now slightly less roaring. I imagined that the mellow vibe was how it must feel Monday through Thursday during the three-week long festival. I was able to pull over to take a photo without fearing my wallet was already across town. I was struck by the quantity of street performers I hadn’t noticed the previous nights. On my way to the concert area, I passed by a courtyard. I knew this courtyard. I walked in and bought that concert poster I had been contemplating all weekend.
Sharing A Love for José Alfredo Jiménez with the World at Festival Cervantino
Until the Festival Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico my obsession with one of Mexico’s most famous songwriters had remained a private affair. I’ve never been able to share my passion for Jimenez’s music with my non-latino friends and family. On the last Saturday of the festival, I attended a callejoneada with a group of new friends. A callejoneada is a traditional night parade performed by various groups through the famous windy and curvy streets of Guanajuato. It’s a rowdy and spirited walking serenade. I sang three or four Jiménez songs with my friends and another 100 participants attending the callejoneada.
The José Alfredo Jiménez Brass Ring
While the callejoneada was a memorable experience, I grabbed the José Alfredo Jiménez brass ring the following day. I arrived 20 minutes into the closing ceremony having no idea who was performing. Feeling like a Walking Dead zombie making my way up the street holding a can of Paloma (a tequila-based cocktail) and my purse (with my small concert poster sticking out) up to my neck, I started hearing “La Media Vuelta”, one of my favorite José Alfredo Jiménez songs. For the first time in my life, I was belting out Jiménez lyrics along with thousands of other fans. To my delight, the performance was a tribute to the late ranchera artist, performed by a flamenco-trio from Spain backed by a mariachi band. A flamenco-mariachi fusion!
The Stars Align
I discovered a pocket to squeeze into along a row of stores on the outside of the street. I felt like an inflatable bop bag in a human blender. Admittedly, I was slightly miserable but I was going to stick this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity out. The next song was “Si Nos Dejan”, another one on my short-list favorites. As I continued to sing along, the stars aligned. The crowd settled, I was comfortably standing, made friends, enjoyed my cocktail in a can and heard the Jiménez song I most identify with, “El Rey.” (This was performed on The Voice in 2012 for those who watch). Teary eyed I remember thinking don’t forget this moment. Three years later (with a little help from Facebook reminders) I haven’t.
Camino de Guanajuato
As the unforgettable evening proceeded and people started leaving to prepare for their journey home, I was able to reach the top step of the stairs giving me a view of the whole affair. Fittingly the ensemble closed with “Camino De Guanajuato” (we were in Guanajuato (City) and Jiménez is from Dolores Hidalgo, a town a few hours away in the same state, also named Guanajuato). As we sung along to the closing song, fireworks filled the sky above the theatre and the Alhóndiga. Face soaked with tears I watched the event clear out to preserve the experience.
Visiting Dolores Hidalgo, the Home Town of José Alfredo Jiménez
The next day, I made a pilgrimage from Guanajuato to Dolores Hidalgo, a small town famous for its role in Mexico’s independence and also the birthplace of one of its most famous residents, Jiménez. The gorgeous bus ride through the hills of Guanajuato took much longer than I’d expected and I only had time to check out the plaza and visit the Monumento de los Héreos de la Independencia. The José Alfredo Jiménez mausoleum in the town cemetery (Panteón Municipal) located about a mile from the town center was restored in 1998 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his death. His tomb is decorated with an enormous sombrero and a colorful sarape, both symbols of Ranchera music. This is top of the list for the next visit to the area.
José Alfredo Jiménez songs to get you started
Following are some of my favorite songs: ‘La Media Vuelta’, ‘Si Nos Dejan’, ‘El Rey’, ‘Camino de Guanajuato’, ‘Amanecí en Tus Brazos.’ While Jiménez wasn’t musically trained and didn’t play an instrument, he was evidently quite musical and had a beautiful voice. Check out his recordings and also the many covers of his songs by famous artists, such as Alejandro Fernández and his father, Vicente Fernández, Los Tigres del Norte, Lola Beltrán, Julio Iglesias, Maná, Luis Miguel, Chavela Vargas, Joaquín Sabina among others.
I stayed up writing this post while listening to Jiménez and Dylan until 3:30 in the morning and celebrating one of life’s greatest loves, music.