At the center of Mexico is a place considered to be the soul of the country – This place is called Michoacan. Michoacan is not only the avocado producing capitol of the world, but is home to the migrating Monarch Butterflies and it is also the door to the Meseta Purépecha, where the hands of the indigenous people produce an array of multicolor arts and crafts; including the guitar.
The Meseta Purépecha which means the Plateau of the Purépecha is a forested area where mountains and valleys abound between Morelia and Zamora and at the heart of the Meseta Purépecha is Paracho, located 87 miles west of Morelia - the state’s capitol. The picturesque Paracho is 7300 feet above sea level and is the guitar-building meca of Mexico. Its cool and rainy climate may not make this the ideal place to build guitars, but the indigenous people of Paracho have been crafting Guitars, since the 19th century.
These signature guitars have made this remote and rustic place a world-famous location where visitors can see how the craft of hand-made musical instruments has been passed on from one generation to the next by local artisans. Visible as well is how modern day influences have affected their lives, their economy and their future.
More than half of Paracho’s population is involved in producing guitars and have become very skillful with their simple or primitive tools. Over the years, they have used manual tools and techniques learned from the past to produce the hand-made “quality” instruments that musician’s worldwide seek.
Throughout Mexico, festivals are held throughout the year to celebrate anything from the summer solstice to the patron saint’s feast day for any given town. And Paracho is no exception. There is a week dedicated to the guitar, which draws thousands of people each year. La Feria de la Guitarra or the Festival of the Guitar is held every 2nd week in August, featuring a wide range of activities throughout the week, which include
Daily parades, nightly concerts, workshops and competitions. Every night of the seven-day festival classical, mariachi and Purépecha music flows through the streets adding to the colors, flowers and energy of the market, festival and the people of Paracho.
There is no clear or concrete data showing how far back in history the guitar or its creation exists in Paracho…one story is that it began when crafts and skills were taught and assigned by Tata Vasco, Michoacan first bishop and one is - that in just the last 100 years, guitar making has been a lucrative craft. The construction of the guitar and its wooden counterparts has been a craft passed on from great grandfather, grandfather, to father and grandchild, but some fear its disappearance.
The complete history of Paracho is one difficult to find written or documented until recent years.
The center for the investigation and the development of the guitar, better known as the CIDEG was built with a guitar museum within it, which welcomes visitors from all over the world. On display is a variety of string instruments, which showcases the evolution of the guitar from its origin through modern day.
The CIDEG’s auditorium seats 200 people for its guitar concerts that draws musicians of all calibers to play well-known music such as Mozart and Bach classics to modern day tunes.
Established musicians from around the world are brought by the festival’s committee to perform at these nightly concerts. Musicians from Spain, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, United States and Europe travel at the end of the summer to participate in Paracho’s tribute to the guitar.
High caliber international guitarreros bring special musical interests to their audiences demonstrating his classical talent.
In the multipurpose CIDEG, the space that was once expected to be used for teaching the art of making a guitar by hand has become the CIDEG’s Guitar School focusing NOW on the art of playing.
The repurposing of the CIDEG came when they realized that there was a need to have their children actually learn to play an instrument that their people had built for hundreds of years.
At the CIDEG, the children are now taught the fundamentals of music. Professionals are brought in to lecture on all aspects of the guitar from history, music interpretation, and styles of music.
As in every small town and community in Mexico it is “La Plaza” that is at its center –geographically and symbolically. People gather at the plaza to meet, to talk and to get informed of the going-ons of the town.
During the festival of the guitar - it is there that the main stage is temporarily up-righted. It is the source of information for the event’s daily schedule and it is the venue where the popular concerts, pageants, giveaways, and dance performances are held.
Along with the musical exhibition, there is a luthier’s contest, which differentiates and applauds the craftsmanship on the various guitar styles. The categories in which guitars are judged are concert, popular, as well as guitars used for learning how to play the instrument. A panel of professional musicians and recognized luthiers evaluate the guitars submitted, based on the various woods used in the designs.
Up and down Paracho’s main street, there are small factories and storefronts dedicated to the production of guitars and or guitar parts. Other shops far and few between produce harps, cellos, bass’, rock guitars, and other instruments made of wood all hand-made.
Like in any industry, guitar production in Paracho is not quite without its problems and controversy. In the past, Paracho luthiers never worried about who they would sell their guitars to since more than 90 percent of the guitars produced were automatically sold throughout Mexico.
However, things have changed in the last decade. Since Mexico joined the international free trade agreement, it opened more importation and exportation from other countries that also produce the guitar.
One of the problems that Paracho merchants face is that they have few or no contacts in the United States, which would help to market, distribute and sell their guitar. They do not have a way to export to other countries and many of the local luthiers are either very poor or do not have the right resources to compete in a global economy.
In an era of free trade, countries find a way to import into Mexico, but it has not been that easy for Mexico’s quality products to make their way outside of its borders.
Along with the participation from Paracho’s own residents and their neighboring towns, in recent years, their national tourism has flourished and they have seen a sizeable increase in their international tourists as well.
What is part of Paracho’s draw is that for the most part it has remained untouched for a hundred years – offering a magical step back in time. Musicians, guitar aficionados and tourists alike will find colorful houses, numerous guitar workshops, the local guitar museum and locals who will share their history, their art and their life without reservation.
Traveling to Mexico may be a new experience for some, but even the experienced traveler may have missed this town, which is located off the beaten path in Michoacan. With well-paved roads and a variety of interesting tourist attractions throughout the state there should be no reservation of making your way to the luscious green mountains where Paracho sits centrally within the Meseta Purepecha.
The signature guitars made by hand by the lauderos in this small town in central Mexico have become world-famous. The experience of a people shared with its visitors is a sight not to be missed. It captures the essence of a craft past on from their ancestors which is the soul of Paracho.
The guitar - an art form, a trade, a way of life for many Parachoans for ever so long. A craft that was established in a small indigenous town by a missionary has struggled to survive, but now is finding leaders in its midst that wish to document its history, organize its craftsmen and legitimize their brand for the world to know. All in all Paracho, luthiers have dealt with the growing pains and have made the guitar the heart of Paracho and its people.
The Meseta Purépecha is a wonderful example of what makes up the natural beauty of the state of Michoacan, which attracts thousands of visitors a year, but one may be surprised to find that there is a crafty people residing in Paracho ready to build the perfect guitar.
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