José Antonio Villa-Señor y Sanchez, born in Mexico in about 1700, is one of the earliest Mexican geographers. He studied at the College of San Idelfonso in Mexico City, and was later employed in the collection of taxes, becoming comptroller of revenue from mercury (a chemical essential to the refining of silver ores).
He was subsequently appointed cosmographer of New Spain. In this capacity in 1742, he was commissioned by the Viceroy, Pedro de Cebrián y Agustín, Count of Fuenclara, to write a descriptive history and geography to comply with a royal edict from King Philip V of Spain. His works included Teatro Mexicano; Descripción general de los Reinos y Provincias de la Nueva España (1746), Observación del Cometa, que apareció en el hemisferio de México en Febrero y Marzo (1742) and several maps, including one of the Jesuit province of New Spain, from Honduras to California (1754). He died in about 1760.
More than 200 years later, the planners of Ciudad Satélite, an urban development in the northern part of Mexico City, named a street in the Circuito Geógrafos area after him.
Villa-Señor’s descriptions help to paint a wonderful picture of what New Spain was like in the middle of the 18th century. For instance, he describes the city of Guadalajara as having eight plazas; fourteen churches, monasteries and convents; two colleges and a university; two hospitals and a dozen government buildings or public facilities, making it a fine, surprisingly spacious and prosperous city.
Villa-Señor y Sanchez provides us with our earliest description of the marshy areas at the south-east corner of Lake Chapala, which at that time had several small islands. This is the area that was deliberately drained in the early years of the 20th century. The former islands are now visible only as small hills protruding above flat, intensively cultivated farmland.
[This post is an edited extract from Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of traveller’s tales]
Lake Chapala’s remaining wetlands were recently (4 February 2009) granted Ramsar Protection Status.
To read more about the issues facing Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest natural lake, see chapters 6, 7 and 19 of Geo-Mexico: the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico.
For more background to Lake Chapala’s issues, read Tony Burton’s series on MexConnect or use that site’s search function.