Travis Whitehead: COMMENTARY: Saltillo a vibrant and engaging place

Feb. 18—SALTILLO — It's Sunday morning and parishioners move through the crisp air toward the cathedral.

Footsteps whisper from the cantera stone as they approach the priest outside the carved wooden doors of the "Catedral de Santiago" on Plaza de Armas. Pigeons erupt from the towers, a woman sells flowered pins at the gateway in the iron fence, a man devours tamales.

"Clang. Clang, clang, clang." The bell's voice, warm and bucolic, sails across the fresh morning, and the columns and sculpted saints extend the security of their age.

I first began visiting Saltillo in 2001, as it seemed to be a fine place to start my explorations of the deeper country within. The cathedral, a fine example of Mexican baroque, is only one of many features of Saltillo's portrait, which is a collaborative work composed by many through its long history.

I had become familiar through many testimonials of this unique compositions and its individual features: Museum of the Birds, El Sarape de Saltillo, and the silver industry.

But Saltillo had a surprise waiting for my discovery. Upon my visit signs directing visitors to Museo del Desierto intrigued me, and that new facility which opened in 1999 immediately became one of my favorite features of Saltillo.

The city of Saltillo was founded in 1577 by a group of Spaniards and Portuguese under the leadership of Captain Alberto del Canto, followed a year later by Francisco de Urdinola. When they arrived, they found more than 200 nomadic tribes, including the Coahuiltecos, Tobos, Guachichiles, Irritilas and Laguneros.

Captain Del Canto founded the Spanish Town of Santiago de Saltillo, separated only by a street from the Indian town of San Esteban de la Nueva Tlaxcala, a settlement of Tlaxcaltecan Indians who had been sent there by the Viceroyal government. Starting in 1597, and for about 200 years, the Europeans and Tlaxcaltecans shared the same territory, and to this day the influence of both cultures is evident in various aspects of Saltillo life.

Saltillo, now the capital of the Mexican state of Coahuila, was in earlier times the capital of the state of Coahuila y Tejas before the Texas Revolution.

Each time I visit Saltillo, I ask the cab driver to drop me off at Plaza de Armas in front of the cathedral, which also has a fine history complementing the story of the city.

The cathedral's facade has three tiers, or layers.

The first tier features garlanded Solomonic Baroque columns that reach upward in a spiral and are also believed to resemble those at Solomon's Jerusalem Temple, hence the name.

The second tier features squared estipites formed of several sections which look like stacked columns. This is a feature introduced into Mexico by Jeronimo de Balbas from an area in southern Spain called Andalusia. Balbas worked on the retablo, a gold-covered altarpiece, at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City in the 1700s. He also brought the ultra-Baroque style of architecture known as Churrigueresque to Mexico, and one of its notable features is the estipite which has been used throughout Mexico.

The Cathedral of Santiago in Saltillo is considered a fine example of Mexican Baroque, but I discover a little later it is actually a collage of many styles. Although Saltillo was founded in 1577, construction on the church did not begin until 1745 after the city had become a busy agricultural and commercial center. Its Neoclassical-style belfry was added in 1893, and people continue adding memories to the old church.

The cathedral keeps giving me memories too, and this morning my mind files a mental video of the soft panorama playing before me. A mother in a black dress and a boy in gray quilted jacket stop as a man hands them face masks, and then they walk together toward the church. A girl in a pink hoodie and black backpack walks with her hand in her mother's arm, a young man stops to cross himself, and man in a black jacket holds the hands of two girls.

Behind me in the Plaza de Armas, streams of water capture sunlight before spilling into the fountain. A man in shorts sits on an ornate iron bench checking his phone, another smokes a cigarette, and a young couple enjoys a quiet moment in each other's arms.

I've spent a lot of time here, and the memories come back. I remember Salvador Medina and his card, "If you don't know Salvador Medina, you don't know Saltillo." In the early 2000s, he spent his free time in Plaza de Armas giving tours in exchange for donations to help people in need. He mentioned them often and one day he confirmed this narrative when we went to a brickyard where workers lived in horrible conditions. He gave them some clothes that day, and their familiarity with his generosity indicated he'd been helping them for quite some time.

I spent a lot of time with Salvador in the 2000s. I knew if I just sat in the plaza I would soon hear a voice asking, "Where is Whitehead?" And there he'd be. We'd relax there for a while and talk about Saltillo. Often he'd take me to the top of the bell towers to look over the city. From this vantage point I could observe more closely the indigenous motifs in the domes.

He also helped students at the local university with their English, and through him I had occasion to meet a lovely young girl named Lupita. I was sitting in a paleteria one afternoon on the plaza when I heard a voice call out, "Whitehouse!" and turned to see her impish eyes peaking over a tabletop and of course Salvador by her side.

I was immediately captivated by her beauty and her playful, vivacious personality and quick wit. We built a strong friendship which continues to this day. I attended her graduation at the local university, and she eventually made it to Boston where she earned her master's degree and now has a lucrative career and a vibrant social life in New England.

This morning in Plaza de Armas all the people I knew during my early years in Saltillo are long gone, their timelines taking them to new places and new lives. Where is Salvador? Lupita hasn't spoken to him in years. I wonder what happened to him. It would be nice to see him again. Perhaps on another visit I'll run into him again.

The movement and the vitality of Saltillo and the rest of Mexico brings me to new people and offers new memories to discover. I have another contact here now, Diego who works in the hotel and travel industry who quickly took issue with the hotel I'd checked into the night before on Plaza Acuna. Apparently, it has a reputation for bedbugs and prostitutes, and he was able to direct me to more appropriate accommodations at Hotel San Jorge.

Thanks to him I was able to have a secure and pleasant room in which to sleep. This morning I am here in Plaza de Armas with hope and energy for this fine day. There is singing now in the cathedral, and I look forward to creating a new memory as I visit two of my favorite haunts, Taqueria El Pastor and Museo del Desierto — Museum of the Desert.


Valley Morning Star reporter Travis M. Whitehead is sharing his insight on the Mexican city of Saltillo in a three-part series of commentaries exploring his travels there.