Mexico's Cervantino International Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary After a virtual edition in 2020, and hybrid version last year, the Cervantino International Festival is back in person and celebrating 50 years.

Festival Cervantino, Latin America's biggest cultural event, returns with new energy

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For half a century, Mexico Cervantino International Festival has been held in the colonial city of Guanajuato. Music journalist Betto Arcos was there to celebrate the 50th anniversary, along with tens of thousands of other people who flooded into the city to see performing artists from all over the world.

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CARMINHO: (Singing in non-English language).

BETTO ARCOS, BYLINE: It's a Saturday night at the Teatro Juarez in Guanajuato. Portuguese singer Carminho is performing her second fado called "O Comeco" - "The Beginning." This is the first time she performs at the Cervantino Festival, and the audience is mesmerized. After the show, I meet Carminho backstage. And she tells me the streets of Guanajuato have a lot of energy, like an erupting volcano.

CARMINHO: And when I came to the stage, I received the same intensity from the audience and was great. It was great. Unforgettable.

ARCOS: Carminho is one of more than 3,000 artists from 34 countries performing at the Cervantino Festival. On Sunday morning, I meet Mariana Aymerich, director of the festival, in the lavish foyer of the neoclassic Teatro Juarez, built in the late 1800s. In the background, you can hear the University of Guanajuato Symphony Orchestra rehearsing Mahler's "Symphony No. 8." Aymerich says this is a special festival held in a special place.

MARIANA AYMERICH: (Through interpreter) It's a festival where people can come to enjoy theater, dance, music, films, literature, gastronomy, street theater, circus and so on. They can come with the whole family to enjoy 19 days, to feel, to dance and to reflect with all the artists that are here with us.

ARCOS: The seeds of the festival were planted in 1952 by Enrique Ruelas, a law school student whose true vocation was theater. The following year, Ruelas began to stage three short one-act plays he called "Entremeses Cervantinos," written by Spain's Miguel de Cervantes, author of "Don Quixote." The Cervantino festival started in 1972, funded in its entirety by Mexico's federal government. Angela Gonzalez is director of the Ruelas Foundation. Gonzalez says Mexico's then-president, Luis Echeverria, wanted to create a performing arts festival and knew about the Cervantes plays through his friend, actress Dolores del Rio.

ANGELA GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) Dolores del Rio, who came to the opening of the first festival representing the president, had seen the plays during one of her visits to Guanajuato. It was her idea, after seeing the plays and being dazzled by the staging, that she proposes the city of Guanajuato as the home of the Cervantino Festival.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, speaking in non-English language).

ARCOS: Sunday night at San Roque square, more than 200 people came to see three-one act plays written by Cervantes in 1615. The third play, called "El Retablo de las Maravillas" - "The Marvelous Puppet Show" - is a farce exploring a theme that's still alive today, the racial and ethnic prejudice prevalent in society during the time of Cervantes.

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COREYAH: (Singing in non-English language).

ARCOS: At the festival's biggest outdoor venue, Coreyah, a psychedelic Korean folk band, is performing in front of more than 4,000 people. Theirs is a blend of traditional Korean music, American rock and world rhythms. Every year, the organizers of the Cervantino Festival invite a country and a state of Mexico. Korea is the invited country this year. As for the invited state, it's Mexico City. I ran into one of the big performing groups invited by the festival at the Plaza del Baratillo, a picturesque square in the heart of the city. They're part of an at-risk arts program called Barrio Adentro, deep in the barrio, created by the INJUVE, the National Institute of Youth. More than 40 performers, including an opera singer and a small orchestra, are doing a flashmob of the square.

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ARCOS: Recently, the state of Guanajuato has seen a lot of narco-related violence. You can see all kinds of police and military personnel across the city. Festival director Mariana Aymerich says the capital city of Guanajuato is armored.

AYMERICH: (Through interpreter) We have no security problems. You can breathe the festival in the streets. You can breathe trust. People are very happy to walk around with no problems. Nothing has happened, and nothing will happen. We're working a lot with the security forces so this environment continues.

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ARCOS: For 50 years, the Cervantino Festival has been a cultural reference, nurturing a wide public and every kind of artist. Angela Gonzalez, director of the Ruelas Foundation, says the festival has brought to Mexico all the great performers from around the world.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) It's been like a volcano in permanent eruption. There's no comparison what the festival has accomplished, at least in Latin America, as a space for a wide range of aesthetic experiences, a place of learning and a space of freedom.

ARCOS: For NPR News, I'm Betto Arcos in Guanajuato, Mexico.

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