Mexcaltitán, a magical island town in Nayarit

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Nov 102014
 

A short distance north of San Blas, in Nayarit, is a small island called Mexcaltitán. With barely four thousand inhabitants, it would scarcely be expected to have any real link to Mexico City, the world’s greatest metropolis of some twenty million people. But it does, and the link is to be found in the amazing story of the founding in 1325 of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, the city which was later conquered and sacked by the Spanish and rebuilt as Mexico City.

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

The island and village of Mexcaltián, Nayarit

Historians have long wondered about the origins of the Mexica people, or Aztecs as they later became known. There is virtually no evidence of them before they founded the highly organized city of Tenochtitlan in 1325. Clearly such a civilization cannot just have sprung up overnight. So, where did they come from? Mexica (Aztec) legend tells of a long pilgrimage, lasting hundreds of years, from Aztlán, the cradle of their civilization, a pilgrimage during which they looked for a sign to tell them where to found their new capital and ceremonial center. The sign they were looking for was an eagle, perched on a cactus. Today, this unlikely combination, with the eagle now devouring a serpent, is a national symbol and appears on the national flag.

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

Map showing location of Marismas Nacionales

In recent years more and more evidence suggests that Aztlán may be far from mythical and that Mexcaltitán, the island in Nayarit, could be its original site. Ancient codices (pre-Columbian hand-painted manuscripts) prove that the Aztecs’ search for a new place to live was ordained by Huitzilopochtli, their chief god. It began in about AD1111 when they departed from an island in the middle of a lake. Their two hundred year journey took them through present-day Nayarit, Durango, Zacatecas, Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato and Querétaro, and they may well have rested awhile on encountering familiar-looking islands in the middle of lakes such as Chapala and Pátzcuaro.

One of Huitzilopochtli’s alternative names was Mexitli and the current spelling of Mexcaltitán could be interpreted as “Home of Mexitli”, or thus, “Home of Huitzilopochtli”. In fairness, it should be pointed out that if the original spelling was Metzcaltitán (and “tz” often became transliterated to “x” down the centuries), then the meaning would become “Place next to the home of the Moon”.

Whatever the etymology of the name, early codices such as the Boturini Codex show the early Aztecs setting out from an Aztlán surrounded by water, in small canoes. The Mendoza Codex, depicting life in Tenochtitlan, has illustrations of similar canoes and, in both codices, the canoes and method of propulsion by punting show remarkable similarity to the present-day canoes of Mexcaltitán. Visitors to the island still have to undertake a canoe or panga ride to reach the village and it is an intriguing thought that the Mexica/Aztecs were doing exactly the same over eight hundred and fifty years ago.

Further evidence comes from an old map of New Spain. Drawn by Ortelius in 1579, it shows Aztlán to be exactly where Mexcaltitán is to be found today, though perhaps at the time this was largely conjecture.

The street plan of Mexcaltitán, best appreciated from the air, is equally fascinating. Two parallel streets cross the oval-shaped island from north to south, and two from east to west, with the modern plaza in the middle, where they intersect. The only other street runs around the island in a circle, parallel to and not far from the water’s edge. This street may have been the coastline of the island years ago and may even have been fortified against the invading waters of the rising lake each rainy season. Today, as then, for several months in summer the streets become canals, bounded by the high sidewalks each side and Mexcaltitán becomes Mexico’s mini-Venice as all travel has to be by canoe.

This street pattern has cosmic significance. It divides the village into four quarters or sectors each representing a cardinal point, reflecting the Mexica conception of the world. The center can be identified with the Sun, the giver of all life. The Spanish, as was their custom, built their church there, and today the central plaza with its bandstand is the obvious focal point of the community. Small shops, a billiards hall, a modern, well-laid out museum, and an administrative office complete the central area of the village.

 

Mexcaltitán pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager

Mexcaltitán (pen and ink drawing by Michael Eager from chapter 26 of Western Mexico, A Traveler’s Treasury). All rights reserved.

Low houses, of adobe, brick and cement, line the dirt streets and extend right down to the water’s edge, in some cases even over the water’s edge into the surrounding lake, on stilts. Land on the island is at a premium and, with an ever-growing population, saturation point is very near.

A century ago, the locals turned on some foreigners who came to hunt female egrets, valued for their plumes back in the days when feathers adorned fashionable ladies’ hats. Today, provided only photos are taken, all visitors are welcomed! The villagers celebrate one of the most unusual and distinctive fiestas in all of Latin America. On 29 June each year they organize a regatta which consists of a single race between just two canoes, though naturally hundreds of other pangas are filled with spectators. One of the competing canoes carries the statue of Saint Peter from the local church, the other carries Saint Paul.

Elaborate preparations precede the race. The village streets are festooned with paper streamers and the two canoes are lavishly decorated by rival families carrying on an age-old tradition. The Ortíz family is responsible for St. Peter’s canoe, the Galindo family for St. Paul’s. The statues of the two saints are taken from the church and carried in procession to the boats. A pair of punters has previously been chosen from among the young men of the village for each boat. The punters have been suitably fortified for the contest with local delicacies such as steamed fish, shrimp empanadas, and the local specialty, tlaxtihuile, a kind of shrimp broth. Each boat, in addition to the punters and the statue of the saint, carries a priest to ensure fair play. The race starts from the middle of the eight kilometer long lake after a short religious service in which the priests bless the lake and pray for abundant shrimp and fish during the coming year. Then surrounding spectator canoes, some with musical bands, and others shooting off fireworks, move aside and the race begins.

Nowadays, St. Peter and St. Paul take it in turns to win, most considerate in view of the violence which years ago marred the post-race celebrations when the race was fought competitively. The ceremonial regatta safely over, land based festivities continue well into the night.

A canoe ride around the island takes about 30 minutes and provides numerous photo opportunities as well as many surprises including a close-up view of the island’s only soccer pitch—in the middle of the lake, under half a meter of water. The local children are, perhaps not surprisingly, expert “water soccer” players, a fun sport to watch.

Even if you’re not interested in the island’s past and are unable to see it on fiesta day, your trip to Mexcaltitán will be memorable. This extraordinary island and its village have to be seen to be believed.

The island is reached from the Tepic-Mazatlán highway, Highway 15. There are two alternatives. The northern route is signposted 73 kilometers north of Tepic; it starts with 26 kilometers of paved road crossing swampy paddy fields, followed by 16 kilometers of well-graded dirt road to Ticha, the landing-stage for boats to the island. The drive is through a naturalist’s paradise, teeming with wildlife. The equally scenic southern route begins 57 kilometers from Tepic and is via Santiago Ixcuintla (basic hotels only; don’t miss visiting the center for Huichol Indian culture and crafts) and Sentispac. It leads to the La Batanga landing-stage, and is fully paved.

Note:

This post is based on chapter 26 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

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The Magic Town of Tzintzuntzan in Michoacán

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Jul 262014
 

Tzintzuntzan, designated a Magic Town in 2012, has two sixteenth century churches, equally ancient olive trees, a craft market specializing in straw goods and ornaments, plus an archaeological site which was the capital of the not inconsiderable Tarascan Empire.

The Tarascan Empire

The Tarascan Empire, contemporaneous with that of the Aztecs, stretched westwards as far as the shores of Lake Chapala, with sporadic contacts into the Sayula lake area, and to the east as far as present-day Zitácuaro. The Tarascans spoke Purépecha, and today the local indigenous people prefer to be called Purépecha. The term “Tarascan” is more properly reserved for their ancestors and their pre-Columbian empire.

“Tzintzuntzan” is an onomatopoeic Purépecha rendering of the sound made by a hummingbird. The ceremonial center was still fully active when the Spanish arrived. Tarascan buildings were constructed mainly of wood. Only the basements were normally built of stone and today, therefore, it is only these basements or yácatas that remain. Some of the cut stones which cover the rubble-filled interiors of the yácatas are ornamented with rock carvings.

The scale of earth-moving involved in constructing the temples is remarkable. The entire 425-meter-long platform is man-made. On it were built five yácatas, on the tops of which would have been wooden and thatch structures serving as shrines. The semi-circular shape of these yácatas suggests that they were built to honor the god of the wind, Ik. The Tarascan ceremonial centre commands a magnificent view over the lake, whose waters would have been lapping at the platform’s base during some rainy seasons. The area behind the yácatas, next to the village soccer pitch blazes with color during the wildflower seasons of late spring and early autumn. The archaeological site has a small, modern museum.

The Tarascans had a mixed economy, collecting fruits and forest products, fishing and undertaking agriculture, complete with terracing and irrigation. Some archaeologists have argued that many of the pre-Columbian peoples, dependent on the natural world for their immediate survival, were very ecologically-conscious. However, in this area, evidence from rates of lake sedimentation now suggests that maybe they weren’t quite so environmentally-aware after all. It seems that erosion rates were already on the rise by the time the Spanish arrived, suggesting that native agriculture was almost certainly not sustainable. Following the introduction of European diseases, the decline in population (and agricultural workforce) prompted a further increase in erosion rates as soil conservation methods could not be maintained. Erosion and sedimentation were exacerbated by the nineteenth and twentieth century deforestation of surrounding hills.

Spanish churches

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

Tzintzuntzan monastery and church. Artist: Mark Eager. All rights reserved.

The Spanish destroyed the Tarascan temples, carting off many of the stones to build Catholic churches in their new village. Observant visitors to the beautifully-proportioned patio of the former monastery beside the main church will spot petroglyphs on some of the walls there which betray the stones’ earlier placement in the yácatas. This building, decorated with fine old colored frescoes depicting Franciscan lore, and with parts of its original wooden roof still intact, houses the office of the parish notary and is not always open to the public.

There are other peculiarities here, too, which say much for the realities of sixteenth century Spanish monastic life. When the monastery of Tzintzuntzan was built, two churches were constructed, one for the monks’ private use and the other for the lay Third Order. These two churches, only a few steps apart, are about as different as can be, given that they are of similar age. The monks’ church, beautifully restored following an arson attack, is light and airy; the Third Order church is dark, gloomy and oppressing. Both, in their own way, are awe-inspiring. To one side of the Third Order church is a complete-immersion font, shaded by two tall trees.

Ancient olive trees

In the large atrium in front of the monastery are a sixteenth century cross and the bent and twisted tree trunks of some of the oldest olive trees in Mexico, brought by special request from Spain for the express purpose of providing the monks with one of their accustomed foods. They are thought to be more than four hundred and fifty years old.

Handicraft market

Tzintzuntzan’s handicraft market is a cornucopia of straw work in every conceivable color, design and size, which make ideal Christmas decorations or gifts. Also on sale are elaborately carved wooden beams, and examples of the many different local pottery styles including the Ocumicho devil-figures and strange green pineapples as well as finely detailed, hand-embroidered scenes of village life.

How to get there:

Tzintzuntzan is about twenty minutes drive from Pátzcuaro.

Source:

This post is based on chapter 32 of my “Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury” (link is to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature), also available as either a Kindle edition or Kobo ebook.

Raymond Craib’s “Cartographic Mexico, a history of state fixations and fugitive landscapes”

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Jul 192014
 

This book by Raymond Craib (Duke University Press, 2004) is one-of-a-kind. Craib combines archival analysis of mainly 19th century documents with perceptive comments on the relationships between history and geography in Mexico from the mid-19th century until about 1930.

craib-coverIn “Cartographic Mexico, a history of state fixations and fugitive landscapes”, Craib emphasizes the significance of map-making in post-Independence Mexico as a means towards furthering nationalism and as a development tool. He traces the changing motives of map-makers, focusing especially on the key area of Veracruz-Puebla which served as Mexico’s main gateway to Europe for centuries.

Craib considers why certain place names acquired more prominence than others, and examines a case study of a mining area where the granting of water rights hinged on precisely where a particular river flowed, and which tributary had which name, a case where cartographic ‘proof’ proved to be impossible and where a pragmatic solution was required.

This is an important study, with meticulous footnotes and bibliography.

“Cartographic Mexico, a history of state fixations and fugitive landscapes” is available via amazon.com

(Note: This short review was first posted on sombrerobooks.com)

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The Magic Town of Tacámbaro in Michoácan

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Jul 052014
 

The interesting, but unpretentious, town of Tacámbaro in Michoacán was awarded Magic Town status in 2012. The town has a population of around 26,000 and is located at an elevation of 1650 meters above mean sea level on the edge of Mexico’s tierra caliente. Its full formal name is Tacámbaro de Codallos, so-named to honor a Venezuelan who defended federalism in the early years of Mexico’s Independence.

tacambaro

Among the tourist highlights of this Magic Town, set in the midst of stunning mountain scenery, are:

  • The town center. Despite a serious town center fire a few years ago, there is plenty to see here, including an old chapel around the corner from the main church.
  • The Hotel-Restaurant El Molino (The Mill) located near the entrance to the town. The main restaurant building is a converted, museum-piece nineteenth century flour mill, complete with grinding wheels. Simply and artistically decorated and furnished, this hotel-restaurant has an excellent fixed-price mid-day meal (comida) with subtle sauces and a varied menu.

Though not normally open to the public, a few minutes outside Tacámbaro, is the private hacienda-studio of master printer Juan Pascoe. Pascoe produces superb quality, limited collectible editions, using one of the oldest printing presses still in operation anywhere in the world: an R. Hoe Washington handpress dating back to 1838.

Historical links to Belgium

One of the more curious incidents in local Tacámbaro history is the so-called “Pardon of the Belgians” in 1865.

Belgian forces on the side of Maximilian, under Major Tydgat, were under siege in Tacámbaro on April 11, 1865. They chose to take several Republican families hostage, including the wife and three children of Nicolás de Régules, the Liberal general who was in charge of the Juarist (Republican) forces attacking the city. When Republican lieutenants realized that the hostages included the family of their general, they first requested orders for their troops to change course and avoid attacking the city, but the general answered, “Men, to your posts! Everyone has to do his duty. The Fatherland comes first!”

Later in the ensuing fighting, in a last ditch effort to prevent defeat, the Belgians produced the family of de Régules and placed them directly in the line of fire. Even that did not stop de Régules who ordered his troops to keep fighting and to take as many prisoners alive as possible. After the battle was over, de Régules had taken more than 300 prisoners, but had not taken revenge for the killing of his family. What a noble act!

The events in Tacámbaro are commemorated by monuments in two Belgian cities: Beverlo and Audenarde.

How to get there:

Tacámbaro is about an hour’s drive from the city of Morelia, the capital of Michoacán state. Follow the Morelia-Pátzcuaro highway westwards, exiting at Tiripetío (“place of gold”), where a former Augustinian college of higher studies, one of the earliest in the Americas, founded in 1537, has been restored and now houses an invaluable historical archive. From Tiripetío, follow signs for Villa Madero, and then Tacámbaro.

New York Public LIbrary online historical maps of Mexico

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Jul 022014
 

A few months back, the New York Public Library (NYPL) announced that it was placing high resolution scans of more than 20,000 cartographic works online. The NYPL also asserted that it believed that “these maps have no known US copyright restrictions” and that it “is distributing these images under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.”

The maps can be viewed and downloaded via the New York Public Library’s Digital Collections page, and the NYPL Map Warper.

Naturally, this piqued Geo-Mexico’s interest, and we spent several enjoyable hours browsing the various maps included in this online treasure-trove that have some relation to Mexico. A search for “Mexico” yielded 36 maps, though this number included many that depict New Mexico.

seller

This 1679 map “Mexico, or, New Spain” (above) comes from “Atlas minimus, or, A book of geography : shewing all the empires, monarchies, kingdomes, regions, dominions, principalities and countries, in the whole world”, by John Seller.

Far more detailed, and a more recognizable shape emerged by 1713, with the publication of Mexico, or, New Spain : divided into the audiance of Guadalayara, Mexico, and Guatimala, Florida, from “System of geography with new maps”.

Carey's 1814 map.

Carey’s 1814 map.

This 1814 map “Mexico of New Spain” (above) is part of “Carey’s general atlas, improved and enlarged : being a collection of maps of the world and quarters, their principal empires, kingdoms, &c.”

From the mid-nineteenth century, the maps become very much like modern-day atlas maps. For example, this 1876 map, “Mexico; Mexico to Vera-Cruz; The Isthmus of Tehuantepecfrom the “New illustrated atlas of Dutchess County, New York. / Compiled & drawn from personal examinations, surveys etc. under the personal supervision of O.W. Gray & Son and F.A. Davis, and published under the superintendence of H. L. Kochersperger”.

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Jun 022014
 

This engaging book analyses the historical geography of the port of San Blas, on Mexico’s west coast, and its hinterland which includes the small city of Tepic, the state capital of Nayarit. This area held immense importance during colonial times, was one of the main gateways for trade and influence peddling during the nineteenth century, before lapsing into relative obscurity at the end of the that century, and into the twentieth century. The tourism industry has sparked a mini-revival but none of the many grandiose plans for this coast have even been brought fully to fruition.

richter-coverThe Camino Real in Richter’s title is actually a branch from the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (The Inland Royal Road, the spine of the colonial road system in New Spain). During colonial times, this linked the inland city of Guadalajara to Tepic and thence San Blas, though the modern highways uniting these places no longer follow the same route.

Robert Richter has known this area personally for decades, and his intimate knowledge of the local geography shines through. The book combines his own personal experiences with intensive historical research, both in the library and on the ground. Richter’s objective is to pin down the precise route of the Camino Real, and then find every remaining vestige of it that he can on the ground.

In reading the story of San Blas and the Camino Real, readers are treated to a dazzling array of insights into what made this area tick for so long before subsiding into something of a backwater. This branch of the Camino Real, from Guadalajara to San Blas, played a key role in the history of Western Mexico, and saw everything from pirates and adventurers to soldiers, priests and smugglers.

As Richter points out, “The Matanchen Bay-San Blas region grew in geographic and strategic importance to become the most important Pacific seaport between Guayaquil, Ecuador, and San Francisco, California, in the 1830s, a major international way station for both legal and contraband trade between an ungovernable Mexico and the rest of the world.”

This growth continued and, “In the 1850s, the cultural, economic, and political events roiling all along the Camino Real from San Blas to Guadalajara, especially in the mild sierra valley surrounding the city of Tepic, spawned a new regional identity, and eventually, a new political entity—the Mexican state of Nayarit.”

Richter tells his story with passion and it is impossible not to be drawn into the narrative and share his excitement as he sets out to find “missing” sections of the Camino Real, accompanied by a motley crew of secondary characters. To what extend does he succeed? Sorry, no spoilers here!

Inevitably, the past merges with the present and the future. What began as a seemingly straightforward historical geography becomes at turns a travelogue, journal of fieldwork and short essay about the sustainability of economic development along this coast. Richter is clearly not against change, but argues strongly that local tourist development in the future must take account and respect the region’s ecology, its history and its culture.

As the back cover blurb aptly states, “To explore Nayarit’s wild and gorgeous geography, trying to site the ancient Camino Real, is to stumble over another road running toward the state’s future economic development as part of the Mexican Riviera.”

This book should be of interest to geographers everywhere. It serves to prove that historical geography need not be dull and stuffy but can be made relevant, exciting and even entertaining, at the same time as it offers us valuable insights into possible futures.

One minor plea: please add an index when the second edition of this book is prepared!

Search for the Camino Real, a history of San Bad and the road to get there” is one of several books by Richter centered on the fading coastal village culture of Nayarit and the Mexican Riviera. His adventure novel, “Something like a Dream” (Oak Tree Press, 2014) is an especially entertaining read, with a lively plot and well-described settings ranging from the tourist resort of Puerto Vallarta to Nayarit fishing villages and tiny Huichol Indian settlements high in the Western Sierra Madre.

Map of the beaches of Colima, Jalisco and Nayarit, Mexico shows the location of all the key places mentioned in Richter’s books.

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The Magic Town of Jiquilpan in Michoacán

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Apr 102014
 

For a small Mexican town of somewhat nondescript architecture, Jiquilpan de Juárez, in Michoacán, has considerable claim to fame, well deserving of its Magic Town status. Jiquilpan is the birthplace of two Mexican Presidents, who played pivotal roles in national affairs, and several distinguished artists. Its unprepossessing exterior appearance offers no hint of the important works of art—including sculptures and a singular mural—which are to be discovered in the town.

The first former President associated with the town is Anastacio Bustamante, who had the distinction of being President three times 1830-32, 1837-39, 1839-41). In the interim between his first two governments, Mexico was forced to cede a large part of its territory, including Texas, to the USA. Bustamante, considered one of the more honest nineteenth century politicians, seized power for the first time in 1830, overthrowing Vicente Guerrero. He was in turn overthrown by Santa Anna in 1832, and fled to England. On resuming office in 1837, after the rather unsavory incidents which robbed Mexico of Texas, Bustamante immediately faced the “Pastry War” crisis.

The Pastry War began when Mexico refused to pay compensation for damages to a pastry shop, owned by a Frenchman in Mexico City. The shop had allegedly been looted during riots in 1828. Ten years later, the French government used this pretext, and other losses which had occurred at the same time to other French property, to demand 600,000 dollars in damages from the Mexican government of Bustamante. The French also sought a preferential trading agreement with Mexico. Bustamante considered the claim for looted pastries to be preposterous and refused either to pay, or to consider the trade agreement. Outraged, the French brought up a fleet from the Caribbean island of Martinique and blockaded Veracruz. Seven months later, the French added a further 200,000 dollars to their demand to cover the costs of the blockade. Bustamante finally gave in and paid in full, whereupon the French fleet sailed off.

The second former President associated with  Jiquilpan is Lázaro Cárdenas, born in the town on the 21st May, 1895. As national President (1934–40), he presided over a massive agrarian reform program and in 1938 nationalized the railways and the oil industry. He was the last President to be held in sufficient esteem to occupy important ministerial posts including Defense Secretary after the end of his term as President.

jiquilpan-sm2On Jiquilpan’s main street, appropriately named Avenida Lázaro Cárdenas, are the library and the town museum. During Lázaro Cárdenas’ presidency, a nineteenth century church in Jiquilpan was converted to a library and embellished with two impressive works of art. The new door of the library, in which are sculpted the heads of 22 of the most outstanding figures of the early twentieth century, was designed by Guillermo Ruiz. It is a beautiful tribute to the greatest thinkers and scientists of the time (Edison, Marti, etc.).

The murals decorating the interior of the library were painted by an even more prominent figure in the history of Mexican art: José Clemente Orozco, one of the famous “Big Three” of Mexican Muralism, alongside Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Orozco painted, literally singlehandedly (having lost his left hand in a childhood accident) a series of sketchy black-and-white murals depicting political parties and revolutionary Mexico on either side of the former nave and an unusual and striking full-color, nationalistic mural known as “A Mexican Allegory”.

The modern Jiquilpan museum, east of the town center beyond the very friendly Hotel Palmira, includes a collection of archaeological pieces unearthed from a nearby shaft tomb. In addition to the archaeological pieces, the museum houses the Centre for Studies of the Mexican Revolution. Even non-Spanish speakers can gain insights into the turbulent and complex times that comprise the Mexican Revolution by looking at the extensive photographic exhibition on the museum’s first floor. The exhibition details the life and works not only of Lázaro Cárdenas but also of other key figures in twentieth century Mexican politics including General Francisco Múgica, who was in the group which proposed for inclusion in the Constitution of 1917 (still current today) Article 27, which encompassed agrarian reform and land redistribution, and Article 123 which dealt with the rights of workers, including an eight-hour day and guaranteed minimum wages. The museum in Jiquilpan is a fitting tribute to these much revered politicians.

Moving away from politics and towards the arts, Jiquilpan was the birthplace of artist Feliciano Béjar, who passed away in 2007, and received national acclaim for his inspiring sculptures, painting and weaving. Rafael Méndez, arguably the world’s greatest ever trumpet virtuoso, was born into a musical family in Jiquilpan and later moved to the USA. His legendary technique and tone have never been equaled. Jiquilpan hosted an international trumpet festival named for him in 2011.

Elsewhere in Jiquilpan are a statue of Christ on the Cross, said to date from the times of Emperor Charles V (now in San Francisco church), and a fountain sculpted by Francisco Eduardo Tresguerras, Mexico’s most famous nineteenth century sculptor and architect. This fountain was originally on the El Cabezón hacienda, owned by the Cañedo family, in Jalisco, but the family later gave it to Lázaro Cárdenas to beautify his native town. Known as “The Fisherman’s Fountain” (Pila de los Pescadores), it is a few blocks from the main plaza. Another, newer fountain on the plaza, “La Aguadora” (The Water Carrier), commemorates the first anniversary of the nationalization of the oil industry.

The ancient hieroglyph for Jiquilpan, from pre-Columbian times, is a horizontal line of earth with two indigo plants above it, linking the town to the color blue. One of Jiquilpan’s most famous poets, Ramón Martínez Ocaranza, also linked his birthplace to the color blue, christening it, “the city of jacarandas”, a tag that quickly caught on and is still used today. Anyone who drives through the town during jacaranda season (February–March) will certainly agree that the tall trees  with their lavender-blue blossoms bordering the main avenues are a magnificent sight.

Note: This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 6 of my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (Sombrero Books, 2013)

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Jan 162014
 

“Holiday in Mexico” is a collection of essays relating to the history of tourism in Mexico. The dozen authors involved are primarily academic historians, but also include a journalist. While the writing style is somewhat varied, this in no way detracts from the overall high quality of the contributions.

As Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood, the book’s editors, point out in their introduction, Mexico’s dilemma as regards tourism has always been to “reconcile market demand with a desire for national sovereignty” (p. 1). Tourism may stimulate the economy but can also have adverse environmental, social, and cultural consequences. Tourism promoters have always sought to “package” Mexico in a way that will attract tourists. The tourism sector’s portrayals of Mexico are inevitably subjective and seek to influence the perceptions of potential visitors.

The book’s 14 chapters (including the introduction) span 3 time periods:

  • 1840s-1911
  • 1920-50
  • 1960-present

and examine three main themes:

  • how Mexicans promoted and imagined their country and culture
  • the political lenses through which Mexicans and tourists have interacted with each other
  • the advantages and disadvantages of tourism

1840s to 1911

Two chapters look at the early history of tourism in Mexico. Andrea Boardman links the early days of American tourism in Mexico to the US soldiers who entered Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Among other achievements, American soldiers climbed Mexico’s highest peak, El Pico de Orizaba, though they were certainly not the first foreign nationals to do so. The accounts written by soldiers helped the American public appreciate that Mexico was worth exploring. Visiting Mexico became easier once the major railway lines had been completed at the end of the nineteenth century.

Christina Bueno offers a detailed look at the contested reconstruction of Teotihuacan, the earliest major archaeological site to be opened for tourism, its “restoration” timed to coincide with the celebrations for Mexico’s centenary of independence. Cultural and historical tourism have remained important aspects of tourism in Mexico ever since. Such tourism simultaneously stresses the significance of indigenous culture while portraying the nation as “modern” and “forward looking”.

1920-60

Five chapters of “Holiday in Mexico” look at the formative period of tourism development in Mexico that began shortly after the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910.

cover of holiday in mexicoAndrew Grant Wood shows how business leaders in the port of Veracruz were able to reposition the city, changing its image from an insalubrious and unsafe city into a haven for cultural activities, music and dance, centered on annual Carnival celebrations.

Dina Berger looks at tourism, diplomacy and Mexico-USA relations. Mexico’s active promotion of its national progress (such as modern highways), democracy and friendliness coincided with a period when the USA pursued its Good Neighbor policy and Panamericanism (such as the construction of the Pan American Highway).

Eric Schantz’s essay focuses on postwar tourism in Baja California’s border zone, and considers the impacts of gaming, racing, prostitution and the growing tourism entertainment industry. Many of those crossing the border to partake in these activities were, strictly speaking, “visitors” rather than “tourists”, since they remained less than 24 hours, but they had a massive influence on the economy of some border cities.

In the next chapter, “Fun in Acapulco? The Politics of Development on the Mexican Rivera,” Andrew Sackett weaves a carefully-crafted narrative that encompasses Acapulco cliff divers, Hollywood movie stars, state intervention, poor ejido farmers being dispossessed of their land, and the capriciousness of resort developers. This is possibly the strongest chapter in the book from a geographical perspective, though Sackett overstates the significance of a 1946 map of the city, since all maps are perceptual statements and necessarily simplify the landscape and select the most appropriate points of reference for their intended audience.

Lisa Pinley Covert then looks at how San Miguel de Allende’s tourist industry developed from a combination of local, national and international factors and players. In this case (unlike Acapulco) local efforts were preeminent in establishing the city’s reputation as a center for cultural tourism. Interestingly, no distinction is drawn in this chapter between the impacts of “tourists” and the impacts of the longer-term, non-tourist foreign residents that now comprise a distinctive segment of the city’s population.

1960-present

The final five chapters have greater contemporary relevance. Jeffrey Pilcher gives an engrossing account of how culinary tourism emerged, of how restauranteurs created “authentic” Mexican cuisine, a kind of “gentrification” of Mexican food. This account supports the view that cultural imperialism has not led to the food homogenization of North America, but, on the contrary, has led to varied, glocalized responses including innovatory regional and local cuisine.

M. Bianet Castellanos looks at the lesser-known face of mass tourism in the centrally-planned FONATUR resort of Cancún: the many service workers who migrated from nearby indigenous communities, and their perceptions of the resort and its tourist industry.

Adopting a national viewpoint, Mary K. Coffey examines how federal government policies in the past decade or so have sought to promote Mexico’s artistic and folk art culture as a powerful magnet for tourism. To remain competitive on the world stage, and counteract the impacts of events elsewhere (such as 9/11), Mexico’s tourism sector needs to continually reinvent itself. This is an excellent example of how changing policies and rhetoric can help keep Mexico in the world tourist spotlight.

In looking at Los Cabos, another centrally-planned resort, Alex M. Saragoza emphasizes how it was designed specifically to appeal to wealthy US tourists, hence its emphasis on golf courses, and its grandiose plans (now scaled-back) for the “Escalera Náutica”, a network of marina resorts.

The final essay, by travel writer Barbara Kastelein, looks at some of the forces behind the development of tourism in three contrasting locales: Acapulco, Oaxaca and Amecameca, considering some of the broader aspects including race, gender, and class dynamics.

The geographical coverage of “Holiday in Mexico” is quite broad but certainly not comprehensive. The use of case studies allows the authors to explore the many subtexts in depth, but it may be that some of the insights arrived at fail to hold up when a regional or national scale is considered.

The book certainly provides plenty of ideas worth further discussion, along with thoughtful analysis of different stakeholders, different types of tourism and their relative merits. The authors do not shy away from looking at the impacts of the massive socioeconomic gaps between tourists and their Mexican hosts, or of the corruption that has unfortunately accompanied many tourism developments in Mexico.

If I have one minor reservation about this book, it is that it is overly US-centric. The history of tourism in Mexico deserves a more nuanced approach, one in which the role of European and Latin American tourists is also closely examined. This clearly opens up many possibilities for future research.

Dina Berger and Andrew Grant Wood (eds). 2010 “Holiday in Mexico: Critical reflections on tourism and tourist encounters.” Duke University Press.

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Example of a sixteenth century map

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Dec 072013
 

In the mid-sixteenth century, the Spanish Court was determined to acquire accurate information about everything being encountered in New Spain. This led to a series of censuses and accounts, including the Relaciones geográficas (Geographic Accounts).

The basis for the Geographic Accounts was a 50-question survey, sent to New Spain in 1577. The authorities in each administrative center were instructed to call a meeting of the “Spaniards and other natives in the district”, to find out everything they could about the area’s geography, people and history.

Of the 191 known responses to the 1577 questionnaire, 167 have survived in archives to the present day. Most of the original responses are housed in Spain, in either the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville or the Real Academia de la Historia in Madrid, while a further 43 responses form part of the Benson Latin American Collection in the University of Texas library in Austin. (The library’s webpage about the Relaciones geográficas has several links to images of sample pages and maps).

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas

Map of Zempoala area from the Relaciones Geográficas (1577)

The accounts contain a wealth of information about population, relief, flora, fauna, economic activities and lifestyles. Some also include maps of the areas being described. However these early maps do not follow modern conventions in terms of having a uniform scale across the area being shown, or an orientation that is consistent in terms of compass directions. They are pictorial maps, where the scale varies across the map, and where areas are delimited, or places are linked, without apparent regard for direction.

One such map (see image above) depicts the area around Zempoala (Hidalgo). This is analyzed by Barbara E. Mundy, Associate Professor of Art History at Fordham University, in an online article, Mapping Babel: A Sixteenth-Century Indigenous Map from Mexico, published in The Appendix, a “journal of narrative and experimental history”. In the article, Mundy provides a detailed, step-by-step account of the map, with lots of additional related images and information.

Detail of map, showing Tepemayalco

Detail of map, showing Tepemaxalco

Mundy’s analysis reveals several “acts of translation” that have been made by the indigenous artist(s) presumed to be responsible for drawing the map.

For example, the artist(s) made the Spanish paper provided for the map more closely resemble its indigenous counterpart (bark paper), by joining sheets together to create the size they wanted for the map. In addition, unlike modern maps where the viewer is essentially static, with the map details arranged around them, indigenous maps demand changes of perspective, mobile viewers, who have to reorientate themselves depending where they are on the map in order to see things clearly.

Many of the images are a translation, perhaps of similar European images. For instance, like most towns on the map, Tepemaxalco is shown with “a conventional sign for a Christian chapel: a small building drawn in perspective with one side marked by a shadowing grey wash, topped with belfry and cross.”

The map also links the pictograph for each place name to its name written in alphabetic script. “The pictograph for Tepemaxalco (see image) registers some of its Nahuatl components: tepetl, ‘hill,’ maitl, ‘hand,’ xalli, ‘sand’ and co, ‘place of.’ Below, the name is written in alphabetic script, probably introduced by the Franciscans who evangelized this region.”

The dominant pictogram on this map is that for Zempoala (written “Cenpoballa” on the map). Mundy offers an interesting interpretation of this pictograph, which we hope to examine further in a future post.

Further reading

Barbara E Mundy. 2001. The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas.

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Nov 142013
 

About 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Guadalajara as the crow flies is a wild and inhospitable arm of the Western Sierra Madre called the Sierra of Bolaños, a rugged northern extension of Jalisco most easily reached by light aircraft. The one way trip by road requires driving more than 320 kilometers (200 miles) from Guadalajara, half the distance being inside the adjacent state of Zacatecas. The Bolaños region has for centuries been an important silver mining area, and British capital and engineers left an indelible mark on the towns there.

Bolaños, the setting.

Bolaños, the setting. Credit: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

The once-grand colonial mining town of Bolaños fits snugly between the river and the rocky cliffs into which the first mine shafts were sunk. Its numerous old stone buildings, often with ornately carved doorways and windows, make it a fascinating place to wander around. With judicious restoration, Bolaños could undoubtedly find its way onto anyone’s list of Mexico’s top mining towns to visit. The town’s hanging bridge (puente colgante) links Bolaños, on the edge of mestizo territory, with the Huichol Indian villages in the mountains on the far side of the river. Huichol artwork, including colorful beadwork, is on sale in several stores in the town and it is common to see traditionally-dressed Huichol Indians in the streets.

Map of Jalisco state

Map of Jalisco. Copyright 2010 Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Mineral riches

Relatively little is known of the pre-Columbian history of the Sierra of Bolaños but the area was probably only sparsely peopled, perhaps by Tepecano Indians. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, Spanish adventurers had founded the town of Chimaltitán which later served as their base for both subduing the natives militarily and converting them to Christianity. They later founded the towns of Bolaños, a short distance to the north, and San Martín de Bolaños to the south.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Spanish were in complete control and the Bolaños mines were producing between 2 and 3 million pesos worth of silver per year, or about 25% of the silver production in the whole of New Spain—a very considerable amount, bearing in mind that each peso was then worth about a dollar.

By the 1760s, 16,000 people lived here. Overlooking an attractive small park in Bolaños is the rococo Guadalupe Chapel (the church of San José), a gift to the town from Antonio de Vivanco, owner of several mines. In 1789, de Vivanco became Marquis Vivanco, Viscount of Bolaños.The prosperity of these times is reflected in the sumptuous architecture of the buildings in Bolaños that date from this period. Two particularly fine examples are the Casa de la Condesa, and Antonio de Vivanco’s former home, with its unusual frescoes, both on the street which parallels the river. Bolaños even boasted a two-story Royal Mint, with a lovely facade. Built on one side of the main plaza in the 1750s, this partially restored gem has an Austrian Hapsburg two-headed eagle carved in the stone above its main door. This royal crest may have inspired the local Huichol Indians to use two and even four-headed eagles (a head for each cardinal direction) in their handicrafts.

Main plaza in Bolaños

Main plaza in Bolaños. Photo: Tony Burton; all rights reserved

But the boom times of the 1750s were not to last for ever. Following a series of floods (the most serious of which occurred in 1757 and 1781), land disputes, the ever-increasing quantities of costly mercury required for smelting, and disagreements over mining rights, Bolaños’s first boom period came to an abrupt end. By 1798 the town was virtually abandoned. Its largest church, begun in 1778, still stands half-finished; today, this is probably the only place in the world where you can play basketball under floodlights in the shell of an ancient church!

A new company and British miners

British influence in Mexico quickly gained momentum following Mexico’s Independence in 1821. On 27 September 1821, Agustín de Iturbide entered Mexico City in triumph. Most gachupines (Spanish-born residents of Mexico) had fled with whatever assets they could muster back to Spain. The rest were expelled in 1829. Iturbide desperately needed funds, to pay his 80,000-strong army and to set up an administration but, after eleven years of war and chaotic politics, the nation was fatigued and the Treasury empty.

In order to stimulate the Mexican economy, Iturbide needed to revive the mines, many of which had been abandoned during the Independence War. However, the mines had drainage problems and needed large investments of capital. Mexico’s need, coupled with the aspirations and greed of England’s capitalists, proved to be an unstoppable combination. Between 1820 and 1824, no fewer than seven different mining corporations relying on U.K. capital were formed in Mexico. One of these was the Venture Company of the Mines of Bolaños.

The Bolaños Company commissioned a full inspection of their mines. This concluded that, given “modern technology”, a fortune in silver was awaiting exploration, with a potential profit of over a million dollars. The firm’s investors were happy to pour money into bringing British machinery and the ingenuity of expert tin miners from Cornwall to back up their intentions.

In the early days, it was difficult and even dangerous to travel to the mines. No fewer than 15 of the 45 Cornish miners who accompanied the first shipment of machinery for Bolaños in 1825, died through accidents or disease before taking up their posts.

Mine owners had their own agenda. Most insisted that their miners worked completely naked in an effort to thwart any attempted pilfering of ore. Miners grew ever more ingenious in trying to circumvent the rules. They were discovered concealing silver ore in their hair, hollowed-out hammer handles, their mouths and ears, and even, on one occasion, inside the disemboweled body of an overseer killed in an accident!

Despite all the problems the British were determined to succeed. They built a reservoir above the village of Tepec and then a five kilometer long canal, much of it underground, to bring water to the town of Bolaños. On the east side of the small church in Tepec, a camposanto (cemetery) was built specifically for the English miners and their descendants since they were not Catholics and should not therefore be buried in the town’s main graveyard.

To assist in drainage, the British assembled two massive hydraulic wheels, one 12 meters, and the other 14 meters in diameter. Their most important contribution, though, was to import a 32-ton steam engine from the U.K. It took 106 days for this engine to be hauled over the mountains from Veracruz. Locals say that the reason the San José church now has only small bells is because the large ones were melted down to make wheel rims to help move the steam engine.

Bolaños grew into a town of more than 30,000 people, with seven major mines in production, employing thousands of workers. However, despite the mammoth injection of British capital and technology, the company failed to extract enough silver to obtain any return on its investment. In 1842, amidst political rumblings after several accidents and a fire which cost the lives of more than 150 miners, and with the Mexican government delaying payments for silver bars “bought” by the Mint, the company was wound up and Bolaños once again echoed to the sounds of bird-song rather than of hammer, chisel and steam engine.

The town’s population declined to fewer than 5000. It became a ghost town, another casualty of the ever-changing fortunes of mining centers around the world. Various attempts to revive the mines in the late nineteenth century by North American interests came to nothing. At the end of the last century, a U.S.-Mexico joint venture mined successfully for some years but finally went out of production in about 1998. Today, Bolaños is still a small town, a mere shadow of its former self, though one offering a few small hotels and ample opportunities for adventure, eco- and cultural tourism.

Twenty kilometers south of Bolaños, down the valley and past Chimaltitán, is San Martín de Bolaños. The El Pilón mine, near San Martín, opened in the 1980s, is the only mine currently operating in the valley. By 2007, it had produced over 30 million ounces of silver, as well as some ancillary gold.

A visit to this remote corner of Jalisco provokes deep feelings of admiration for the courage and audacity of all those who chose to settle here, including the nineteenth century British immigrants who left a Europe torn by upheaval, in search of fame and fortune in Mexico.

This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 23 of my Western Mexico: A Traveler’s Treasury (4th edition, 2013)

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