Monday, June 21, 2010

Zacatlán Odyssey Part 5: Cuacuila and its Revolutionary general

Keeping an eye on things. This little girl, Idalia Lopez Diaz, couldn't resist peeping through the old wooden door to see what the newly arrived strangers were doing. Idalia was a sweetheart. When we visited Cuacuila, her tiny village in the remote northern mountains of Puebla State, she followed us everywhere, like a beautiful little elf. Mary Carmen, our guide when we visited the Zacatlán area (see Parts 1-4), has known Idalia since she was a tiny baby in her mother's arms.

Cuacuila lies along a narrow ridge, high in the rugged mountains outside Zacatlán. In the photo above, the pueblo sits in a saddle created by the pointed peak in the upper center and the ridge to its right. Caucuila (pronounced "kwa-kwi-la") can only be reached by traveling for several hours on narrow, bumpy, dirt roads. Even these roads are a relatively new addition, having been built in the 1920s, after the Mexican Revolution. Prior to then, movement from place to place was only by ancient footpaths. Note the cleared fields on the steep sides of the mountains. Level land is scarce and the indigenous people use every arable inch to grow maize or pasture their animals.

View from the Cuacuila plaza. The ridge along which the pueblo is built is only about 60 meters (200 feet) wide, dropping off steeply on both sides into deep canyons below. Even the humblest dwellings have "million dollar views." As you can see, the mountains roll away into the distance, ridge after rugged ridge. It occurred to me during our visit that country like this might produce an isolation that could help indigenous people preserve and protect their culture from outside influences.

Looking down into Cuacuila's plaza. We arrived at mid-day and the town was almost empty. Most of the adults were in their fields, but Idalia and an older woman met us in the narrow, flagstone-paved street. Behind the woman and child are the open plaza, the white-steepled church, and the public offices under the arched portales on the left. Idalia's companion carried a basket that drew our curiosity.

Doing it the old-fashioned way. The basket held a spinning device and cotton for making thread. While visiting these remote villages, I often found people using truly ancient technologies in their day-to-day lives. By keeping these old technologies not only alive but in regular use, they lessen their dependence on factory-made products and processes. This, in turn, means less dependence on the money economy. While these people might be technically "poor" because of their limited funds, they do not live in poverty. They can extract from the country around them many natural products, some of them growing wild. Using ancient technologies, they transform these products into clothing, food, tools, personal decoration, and even toys. Not only the spinning tool, but the woman's skirt, blouse, rebozo, and basket were probably all hand-made. All of this produces a sense of proud independence.

Turkey taking a stroll through town. Everywhere we went, we encountered turkeys roaming about. This one appears to be wearing a hobble between its legs, perhaps to discourage it from wandering too far. The turkeys provide an excellent source of protein, and seem to pretty much fend for themselves. They also seem to have achieved peaceful coexistence with the pueblo's dogs. Turkeys were domesticated by indigenous Mexicans about 800 BC.

In her element. Mary Carmen has become widely known throughout the pueblos through her efforts to promote the ancient culture and traditions. During our visit, we happened upon a large group of people who had gathered to repair Cuacuila's church, typical of the many communal efforts found among indigenous people. People immediately flocked around to greet Mary Carmen and listen to what she might have to say. In the photo above, she is talking to a woman about a burn the woman had suffered on her wrist. While their main focus was on Mary Carmen, I could tell that Christopher and I were under the villager's discreet observation. Gringos are rare enough in the city of Zacatlán. In a pueblo like Cuacuila, gringos are probably almost as rare as visiting penguins.

Sr. Alejandro Cortés asks a favor. Sr. Alejandro, a local campesino, or farmer, grows corn and beans on his land just outside of Cuacuila. While Christopher and I waited for Mary Carmen to rejoin us, Sr. Alejandro approached us to ask if we would take his picture, offering to pay us for the privilege. We assured him that we would be glad to oblige with no payment necessary, but we were baffled about how to get it to him. Mary Carmen immediately offered to act as intermediary, although this would involve a long return trip on bad roads sometime in the future. However, that is typical of Mary Carmen. The children in the photo may be his nietos (grandchildren) but I have not been able to confirm it.

The lair of a general of the Revolution. The ranch house above sits at the edge of the pueblo with stunning views on both sides of the ridge. During and after the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, it belonged to General Gabriel Barrios Cabrera. He was one of four brothers who grew up in Cuacuila. His father, José Maria, may have come from Sonora and is known to have fought against the French invasion of the 1860s. His mother was Nahua, and the boys grew up with Nahuatl as their first language. Two of the brothers were killed in the Revolution, but General Barrios and his brother Demetrio survived and became caciques (important political bosses) in the aftermath. Their influence grew out of their military success in leading the 46th Battalion, which was made up of Nahuatl-speaking people from the area. The aftermath of the Revolution was chaotic, and national presidents needed the support of locally powerful military figures like the Barrios Cabrera brothers in order to maintain power and implement their policies.

Behind Gen. Barrios' ranch house, a beautiful stepped garden. Maintained by the people of the pueblo, the garden had a lovely staircase leading from level to level. The Sierra Puebla area surrounding Cuacuila may be remote, but it is strategically important, lying as it does within a day's horse ride from the vital corridor between Mexico City and the port of Vera Cruz. Historically it has been the refuge of political activists fleeing persecution, while also providing a source of military recruitment. Indigenous soldiers from the area fought in Mexico's many internal struggles and in wars against foreign invaders such as the French and the US, who often followed the Vera Cruz to Mexico City corridor. Using their battalion of experienced, locally-recruited soldiers, the Barrios Cabrera brothers could control the Sierra Norte de Puebla from Cuacuila, and wield immense influence in the area, enabling them to bring in roads, schools, telephone lines, irrigation channels, and more. These were the sorts of things that faraway Mexico City politicians often promised but all to often failed to deliver.

Idalia offers a gift. Mary Carmen and the little girl walked hand in hand to the top of the garden stairs. Idalia disappeared for a moment and then came back with a bouquet of roses which she shyly offered to Mary Carmen. I couldn't have asked for a better photographic opportunity. Idalia was almost magical in her sweet simplicity.

A temporary sanctuary for an antique statue. While examining the dusty and jumbled interior of Gen. Barrios' house, we found a small chapel set up by the community for use while the church was undergoing repairs. The statue, dating from approximately 1895, is of San José (St. Joseph), known in the Nahuatl language as Xanto Hueycatzintli. The Barrios Cabrera brothers maintained their influence as long as the post-Revolutionary chaos continued. When things settled down in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the need for a battalion of soldiers in the area came into question, and when the battalion was disbanded, the influence of the brothers waned.

Sra. Ortencia Ortega Barrios invited us up to see more traces of Gen. Barrios' history. She is seen standing on a ramshackle balcony leading into a crumbling stone building on the edge of the plaza. Gen. Barrios owned and lived in the large two-story building during the Revolution, before he moved to the ranch house. While Mary Carmen was Tourism Director, she wanted to turn the old building into a museum, but lacked the resources.

Evidence of a taste for good music. Gen. Barrios brought this old piano up to Cuacuila at a time when there were still no proper roads. To get it over the mountains, he used burros on the narrow paths. Unfortunately, the piano arrived badly out of tune. The general sent for Mary Carmen's grandfather, Sr. Alberto Olvera Hernández (founder of the family clock business--see Part 1). Sr. Alberto, apparently a man of many skills beyond clock-making, tuned the piano to the general's satisfaction, and received a drum as compensation.

More musical remains. Hanging from the rafters in another room were the remains of many different instruments, including what appear to be a tuba and french horns. Gen. Barrios assembled the instruments in an attempt to form a full orchestra, but apparently the local people did not appreciate his musical tastes. After the general died, the instruments were thrown in the barranca (deep canyon) at the edge of town, giving them their present, rather battered appearance. About 5 years ago, Sra. Ortencia persuaded local officials to help her rescue the instruments and they now hang from the ceiling creating a rather forlorn sense of thwarted musical ambition. In addition to the instruments, the old house contains a turn-of-the 19th Century telephone, an ancient typewriter, and many other dusty artifacts of a bygone era.

Another kind of ambition. After examining Gen. Barrios' ranch house, we met a group of workers including Sr. Mario López Cabrera, pictured above. It turned out that they were rebuilding Sr. Mario's house, the small wooden structure upon which he is leaning.

This was no slip-shod project. The carefully laid-out foundation seen above impressed me. Although the tools and materials were very low-tech, the work seemed to be proceeding very skillfully. Sr. Mario explained that the new house would be built around the existing house, which would then be removed when they got to the interior work. It seemed to me a novel approach, but they appeared to know what they were doing.

A very old method of construction. Above, adobe bricks dry in a shed. Adobe is made from clay, pebbles, straw, and water. It is one of the oldest building materials known to man, and has been used for thousands of years throughout the world. After the clay has been mixed with water and pebbles, straw is often added as a binder. The mixture is poured into the simple wooden mold shown in the lower right of the picture. The drying process can take weeks, but the materials are virtually free, except for the labor. While one might think they are less durable than more modern materials, some adobe structures still exist after thousands of years. Modern architects can only dream of results as good.

Another local building technique. This wooden cottage was built right over edge of the barranca. Lacking any other solid place to anchor the corner of the cantilevered structure, the builder simply carved a notch in this tree, and set the corner there. I'm not sure what the builder intends to happen when the tree eventually falls down into the ravine.

A Mona Lisa smile. One of the workers asked us if we would like to meet his grandmother. Sra. Dolores Vázquez turned out to be a feisty 106 years old. I hope to look as good and have such a twinkle in my eye if I manage achieve her age. Throughout our visit, we were treated with great courtesy and friendliness by the residents of Cuacuila. I have no doubt that Mary Carmen's presence was the key to this wonderful reception. Photo by Mary Carmen Olvera Trejo

This concludes Part 5 of my Zacatlán Odyssey. In the next part, we'll visit a valley with fantastically shaped rock formations, and check out an unusual trout farm operated by 7 brothers. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. Thank you so much, Jim, for the meticulous, respectful and loving manner in which you have documented your journey to Zacatlan in order to share it with us. I have enjoyed each step of your journey with you. Your pictures are remarkable, and your narrative is both professional and personal at the same time. Bravo.

  2. Jim, this is a fascinating chronicle, and a great tonic for the beginning of my work day. The photo of Sra. Dolores Vázquez is priceless; you definitely captured the twinkle in her eyes. Thanks to you, Mary Carmen and the people whose lives you describe and picture.

  3. Hi Jim, Thanks for the wonderful walk through parts of Zacatlan I haven't gotten to you. I have also benefited from Mary Carmen's wonderful ability to engage everyone she meets. I spent 5 days taking photos mostly at the Apple Festival in 2010 and didn't have a chance to get to the places you been. Thanks for sharing your experiences. Laura

  4. I love these pictures My daughter married someone from Cuacuila Puebla.So, my daughter is now living there. Being the only american I am sure she sticks out like a sore thumb. Thanks for letting me feel a little closer to her, her new family and husband. I means the world to be, very beautiful place

  5. Yo tuve la dicha de conoser coacuila es muy hermoso la vista excelente las personas súper amables un paraíso para las personas que nos gustan la vida natural tenia ganas de nunca volver


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim