By Estela Gonzalez
A Jewel or a Ruin? Mazatlán Faces the Ravages of Time in Style
It is often said that returning to your childhood haunts can have you lost in a place you do not recognize. You seek out the palaces of yore but find modest houses; some may have toppled under the weight of neglect. Conversely, a shining monument may now stand in a formerly abandoned lot you used to play in. Mazatlán seems especially suited to that two-way transformational act. Always a jewel, sometimes a ruin: it faces the ravages of time with resilience, creativity, and style.
I believe this is tied to Mazatlán’s unique status as the only Mexican tourist destination with “sun and beach” and a historic center. Its hotel strip offers kilometers of first-rate beach entertainment, while the downtown boasts 180 blocks of neoclassic mansions and plazas housing cafés, restaurants, and bars, where Mazatlecos share their joie de vivre with tourists.
It has not always been that way. Over the years Mazatlán has experienced an ebb and flow of fortunes, alternating between glory and misery. My personal experience has attuned me to seeing these transformations. Growing up in Guadalajara, my large family would spend vacations here, my father’s hometown, enjoying the dunes, the waves and seaside walks, the sight of ships from Asia, Europe, and the Americas; the evening skies ablaze, the lighthouse, the stories of past and present relatives. My last visit as a youth included a Christmas party at a seaside mansion where I and my cousins stole sips from the unsuspecting adults’ glasses. On the beach, the Castillo fireworks wheel spun and spilled light for hours.
Then, after a hiatus of decades, I have returned to find many historic homes turned to rubble; previously expansive beaches thinned to a narrow strip, others under water. For a while, I wondered how this town that takes pride in its architectural and natural beauty could let its heritage decay. But I should not despair: Mazatlán has busily spearheaded the rebirth of its historic center. In it, the Angela Peralta Theater is a shining example of this creative energy.
The site of many struggles, the theater is a symbol of its community’s history and values. In the mid-nineteenth century, as a fishing hamlet transformed itself into the main shipping port in Mexico, its entrepreneurs built mansions inspired by Roman architecture, stone fortresses with secret gardens and fountains in their center. And among them, the theater vied with the cathedral to become its cultural epicenter, a meeting place for society, a symbol of sophistication.
But the theater paid a high price for that hard-won splendor. As construction neared completion in 1870, its developer, Manuel Rubio, died in a shipwreck while traveling to Paris to acquire furnishings. A couple of years later, the municipality denied his widow the tax break it had promised Mr. Rubio, leading her to bankruptcy. Doña Vicenta Unzueta had to sell the originally named Rubio Theater at a loss, but it survived to host the soprano, Angela Peralta, in 1883. The town congregated at the port to receive the famed Mexican Nightingale with the national anthem. In their enthusiasm, dignitaries unhitched the horses and personally pulled the Diva’s carriage to her lodgings. This triumphal arrival, however, was the visit’s last joyous moment, as the ship had brought to Mazatlán not only the troupe but yellow fever. Less than a week into their stay half the artists had perished, including the soprano. The performance never took place.
Manuel Rubio’s shipwreck, doña Vicenta Unzueta’s bankruptcy, and the Nightingale’s death may be seen as omens, but the theater thrived, offering first-rate operas, ballets, and zarzuelas. Then hard times came with the 1910 Revolution, as reflected on the marquee’s pro wrestling and boxing matches, carnival bashes, and burlesque. In 1943, Teatro Rubio was turned into a movie theater and renamed Cine Angela Peralta. But the Diva’s name did not immediately protect the theater from global economic forces.
Those forces came with wealthy Northerners seeking recreation, giving way to two iconic seaside hotels—the Belmar built in 1921, the Freeman in 1950. But they were relatively small and offered entertainment more suited to locals: gala balls with large orchestras playing danzón and bolero, rather than the rock and roll, and later disco music that was the rage elsewhere. Tourists balked at walking across the street with beach towels and children in tow. Thus in 1960, the first beach hotel was built north of Punta Camarón, the aptly named Hotel Playa Mazatlán. This was the beginning of the Zona Dorada, the long strip of hotels built directly on the dunes north of town.
While Mazatlán’s beaches glittered, its center stumbled. There, to improve the traffic flow, some streets were widened by shaving off neoclassic mansions’ façades. More and louder traffic chased many residents away. The storied Teatro Angela Peralta went from a run-down cinema to a factory for the open-air taxis called pulmonías (Spanish for “pneumonia”) and carnival floats—two of Mazatlán’s quintessential transportation forms. And in 1975, cyclone Olivia blew the theater’s roof off, turning it into a meeting place for petty criminals; in a decade a tree grew on the stage taller than the building, and vines climbed its balconies.
Things got so bad that more than one mayor considered demolishing the theater, and the entire downtown area. But Mazatlán would rebuild, turning into the jewel it now is.
In 1987, a group of local intellectuals named Amigos del Teatro Angela Peralta persuaded the mayor and governor to purchase the property from its Spanish owners and rebuild it. To raise funds, they offered a series of Cultural Festivals. The first of these
…took place under an open sky, at the foot of the great Ficus. A rustic stage was built to accommodate a piano, a pianist, and the soprano Gilda Cruz Romo. While she offered us a recital of Mexican romantic songs—lieder tropical—a full moon climbed behind the dilapidated wall and soared like a silver dove among the branches of the Ficus until, at the recital’s end, it reached the clear, starry sky and glowed on the theater’s every inch. Gilda sang well that night, but the moon stole the show—Antonio Haas
A coalition of private and public organizations pushed the federal government to designate the theater and downtown as historic monuments and national treasures. They restored the theater, created galleries and conservatories for dance and music, and painting and sculpture schools. Students and their parents attracted cafés and restaurants, and many rebuilt homes and moved into them. Many buildings are now repaired and painted in traditional colors, the sidewalks adorned with trees and flowers, the streets artistically lit, music everywhere.
These private/public collaborations have turned buildings into spaces where Mazatlecos interact with each other and with tourists. I see the emphasis on locals’ quality of life while welcoming tourists as one of this transformation’s greatest achievements.
I also see some lovingly kept façades that are just that—a peek through exquisite windows often reveals empty lots and open sky. Trees have colonized many buildings beyond the Angela Peralta. Unchecked, their roots break walls and tiles, their limbs soar through roofs. The city is perhaps greener than before, with many gardens bursting beyond the walls that used to keep them secret.
What’s more—some ruins enjoy a second life as enterprising restauranteurs leave them largely untouched and design bars, cafés, or restaurants around the wild vegetation, adding just enough modern furniture and artistic lighting. I have sat at one of these fashionable establishments, admiring windows framed by the roots of an enormous tree and, on the other side, a working kitchen suited for a hobbit, producing a cuisine that fuses Mazatleco with international flavors.
I also saw, as my wife and I stood in line to buy artisanal ice cream, a ten-year-old girl wearing shorts over her leotard, her hair combed into a neat chignon, her feet in the fifth position, rehearsing tendus as she waited for her treat. I celebrate ballet students like her, and the countless youths enjoying arts education, some of whom might dream of becoming the next Angela Peralta. I rejoice in their families’ enjoyment of the plazas, restaurants, and homes. Sharing, without relinquishing, the space with foreigners.
Could Mazatlecos apply this collaborative, light-footed model to the conservation of beaches, mangroves, and lagoons around their city?
By Estela Gonzalez
Estela González’s novel Arribada, slated to appear in April 2022 with Cynren Press, was a finalist for Feminist Press’s Louise Meriwether award in 2019. Estela writes in English and Spanish about the liminal lives of LGBT individuals, sea turtles, monarch butterflies, and those whose cultures are seen as less. Her work appears in magazines and anthologies such as Ariadna, Barcelona Review, Coal Hill Review La colmena, Revista Cronopio, Feminine Rising, Flash Frontier, Flyway, Letralia, Revista Literaria Luvina, Revista de Literatura Mexicana Contemporánea, Solstice Selects, and Under the Volcano / Bajo el volcán.
Estela divides her time between Mazatlán and Vermont, where she teaches Latin American literature and culture. She is now finishing a collection of stories titled The Age of Aquarius, as well as a new novel on Mazatlán’s haunted houses.
You may now pre-order her novel ARRIBADA with Cynren Press.