PARACHO—The Guitar Capital of Mexico
By Ralph F. Graves
Few will argue that Mexico would be quite the same without its guitars: Mariachis with their lively ranchero renderings, strolling folk singers ready to burst into song at the drop of a few pesos, even local Romeos serenading their favorite senoritas-all rely on the guitar to enhance their performances. And, very likely, the guitar they rely upon was made in the Michoacan village of Paracho.
Surrounded by pine-clad mountains, Paracho lies in the heart of Tarascan Indian country. Long before the Spanish Conquest, the Tarascans were noted for their skills in crafting wood, copper and pottery; and even then Paracho was an important center for the manufacturing of drums, flutes, whistles and other instruments they traded to the Aztecs. The very name Paracho means, in the Tarascan language, “home of the instrument makers.”
The modern craft of guitar making here had its origins in the vocational schools founded by the 16th century bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, who had designated different crafts for the various Tarascan villages. Paracho was assigned guitars, with the classic Spanish-type guitar serving as a model.
For generations the training and skills acquired in the colonial schools were handed down from father to son, along with the rudimentary tools used in the manufacturing process. Today, Paracho produces not only the familiar 6 and 7-string guitars, but violins, cellos, bass guitars, and the small, high-pitched guitars called requintos. Well over three-quarters of all the guitars produced in Mexico are made here, with something like 60% of the population engaged in some aspect of their manufacture and sale.
Paracho’s main street demonstrates the predominance of this industry. Varied displays of guitars and other stringed instruments of all sizes beckon from the windows of retail stores, while numerous small workshops lining both sides of the street proudly display samples of their wares.
One such place is the shop of Luis Silva, the Aguila Real (the Royal Eagle). Luis, now in semi-retirement, leaves the day- to-day operations to his sons, Juan and Francisco. As one enters the shop, finished guitars hang from the ceiling. Wood shavings carpet the floor. Shells of future instruments are fined up, bound in heavy twine to hold them together while the glue sets. Others, in various stages of production, are carefully hung against the walls.
At the workbench, the Silva brothers are busily shaping, sanding and gluing the wood that will become the famed Paracho guitars. The Silvas proudly specialize in the finer instruments—those used by professional and concert guitarists.
“Fine guitars take as long as a month to complete, as opposed to just a few days for a guitarra corriente,” explains Francisco. “But of course that does not include the aging and treating of the woods, which by itself can take as long as five months. Different types of wood are used for various parts of the guitar, and each type has an effect on the quailty.”
Although the forests surrounding Paracho yield an ample supply of oak, cedar, magnolia and rosewood—all of which are used in various parts of the finished instruments—the Silvas import some of their wood from as far away as Brazil and Australia. Francisco Silva explains that other factors, as well, are responsible for the overall quality and tone of the finished product.
For instance, the thickness of the wood used in the body will affect the vibration and depth of tone. The methods used in gluing, even the number of coats of varnish, determine the instrument’s ability to retain its tone, regardless of changes in weather and humidity.
Yet with the growing popularity in Mexico of rock groups and their electronic instruments, one would imagine that the acoustical guitar business might be on the wane.
“Not so,” says Juan Silva. “The acoustic guitar is still the single most popular instrument in all Mexico. Almost anyone can learn to play it, and you can take it anywhere. You don’t have to worry about finding an electrical outlet, or carrying along a lot of speakers, or learning how to adjust the electronic equipment. Besides, I do not know of anyone who doesn’t love to hear a well-played acoustic guitar.”
The state government has invested many millions of pesos in the local industry; yet guitar-making in Paracho remains essentially a family affair. For those interested in seeing work in progress, a polite inquiry at any of the small shops should elicit a friendly welcome.
An ideal time to visit Paracho is during the Annual Guitar Fair in August, when the village is filled with musicians, tourists, dealers and retailers—all shopping for the treasured Paracho guitars. The village is easily accessible from Uruapan, lying 35 kilometers north of the city, via Highway 37. It can also be reached from Morelia or Guadalajara by taking Highway 15 to the town of Carapan, and turning south on Highway 37 for about forty kilometers. The nearest overnight accommodations are in the city of Uruapan.