Sunday, September 30, 2012

Sierra del Tigre Adventures Part 1: A visit to the mountain town of Concepción de Buenas Aires

A quiet winter day at the Plaza. The plaza of Concepción de Buenas Aires and the streets around it are rustic, but immaculate. Over several years, I have on numerous occasions passed through this small town, usually while on the way to somewhere else. On a couple of occasions, however, I took some time and looked around. The little mountain community turned out to be yet another of Mexico's seemingly endless supply of hidden jewels. Concepción de Buenas Aires is located in the Sierra del Tigre, a range of rugged mountains to the south of Lake Chapala, about 90 minutes by car from our home in Ajijic on Lake Chapala's North Shore.  The town can be reached by turning southwest off the highway connecting the South Shore town of Tuxcueca with Mazamitla, a popular mountain resort. The turnoff is about half way to Mazamitla, shortly before reaching Manzanilla de la Paz. The two-lane blacktop road passes small ranches and farms set in the lush green fields of a high-country plateau called El Llano de San Sebastian. Fat cattle graze while the occasional Mexican cowboy trots past with a string of beautiful horses. I recently decided to create a three-part series about the town and the area around it, including Las Cascadas Paraíso (Paradise Waterfalls) and the ruins of Hacienda Toluqulla. This first part will focus on the town itself. To locate Concepción de Buenas Aires on a Google map, click here.

El Templo de la Inmaculada Concepción

The banner-bedecked steeple of the Templo shows evidence of a recent fiesta. Construction began in 1864, so the Templo is relatively new, like the town itself. The steeple was built in the Neo-Classical style popular in the 19th Century. The dark, cloudy weather in this shot indicates that it was taken in a different season than the bright and brilliant winter scene of my plaza photo. You may notice these seasonal disparities throughout this series since the photos were taken during several different visits.

The main nave of the Templo is beautifully hung with blue and white draperies. The windows near the ceiling on either side give this room an unusually light and airy feeling. During my research for this posting, I discovered that on June 7, 2012, TV Azteca News reported the discovery by  parishioners of an image of La Virgen de la Concepción Inmaculada which had suddenly appeared on the wall behind the altar (center of the photo). The Virgin is the patron saint of both the Templo and the town itself. Since the image was apparently not visible at the time I visited, I unfortunately did not get an opportunity to see if I could photograph it. Jalisco is one of the most traditional of all Mexican states. The Catholic faith is particularly intense in backcountry towns like Concepción de Buenas Aires.

My photographer's eye was attracted by this exuberant scene. An absolute bee-swarm of cherubs framed this statue of the Virgin. Cherubs were popular decorative elements in 19th Century art and architecture.

San Isidro Labrador seemed especially appropriate for this working-class town. San Isidro the Laborer (or the Farmer) is the patron saint of farm workers. He is particularly revered for his goodness toward the poor and animals. Isidro, born 1070 AD, was a laborer on the estate of wealthy Spanish landowner Juan de Vargas. His fellow workers claimed that he was absent a lot and not doing his share. When the landowner investigated, he found Isidro at prayer while an angel took care of his plowing. On another occasion, Isidro brought Juan de Vargas' dead daughter back to life. All this seems to have gotten the wealthy man's attention, because he ultimately made Isidro the manager of his properties. Oddly, the farmer-saint married a woman, Maria Torribia, who also became a saint and is known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza. After a miracle saved their child, the couple decided on chastity and from then on lived in separate houses. Isidro died in 1130 AD. Four hundred years later, Spanish King Phillip II (the one who launched the Armada against England) was cured of a deadly disease when he touched some relics of the deceased saint.

La Plaza

A small but lovely kiosco fills the center of the Plaza. Several walkways radiate from the kiosco, passing through lush gardens. Concepción de Buenas Aires is also known as Pueblo Nuevo (New Town) because it was not built until the mid-19th Century. The area on which it was constructed, called El Llano de los Conejos (The Plain of Rabbits), consisted of rolling farmland and woods until the 1860s. The area was originally part of the vast lands awarded in the 1540s to Captain Alonso de Avalos, one of the Hernán Cortéz' conquistador officers. He was also awarded the lands along the South Shore of Lake Chapala about which I have already written in my posting on Hacienda San Francisco de Assisi. In the early 1600s the land passed into the hands of a Spaniard known as Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari, and remained in his family for the next 200 years.

Rafael Urzúa Arias is memorialized by this statue in the Plaza. Urzúa, born in 1905 in Concepción de Buenas Aires, was a famous Mexican architect whose life spanned the 20th Century. His work is noted for its freshness, naturalness, and playfulness, and he is ranked with Luis Barrigan as one of Mexico's great 20th Century architects. The statue was erected in 1988, three years before Urzúa's death in 1991. 

Back in the early 1860s, Benito Echuari, a descendant of Don Joaquin Fermin Echuari, was approached by Father Ignacio Romo, a parish priest based in the town of Teocuitatlán. In those days, parish priests had to cover far-flung areas, requiring them to travel for many days over primitive roads. Father Ignacio's parish extended from the Hacienda Huejotitán, near Jocotopec on the west end of Lake Chapala, to the Hacienda Toluquilla in the Llano de San Sebastian. The priest proposed to Benito Echuari, who owned Hacienda Toluquilla, that he should set aside some of his land for a town which would have its own church, as well as a market and school. So, Concepción de Buenas Aires came about--at least in part--because of a priest's saddle-sores!

Independence War leader Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla has his own statue. While Hidalgo is revered as the first great leader of the War of Independence from Spain, and as emancipator of the slaves and indigenous people, his actual role lasted only about a year until he was defeated, captured, and executed by the Spanish who displayed his head as a trophy in Guanajuato. Father Hidalgo is an excellent example of the old saying that you can kill the man, but not the idea.

One hundred fifty years later, Benito Echuari and his son Pablo thought Father Ignacio had an excellent idea. I suspect that their enthusiasm had less to do with saving souls than with the prospect of a great increase in economic activity which would benefit Hacienda Toluquilla. They set aside El Llano de los Conejos, along with an area called Lomas de San Sebastian (Hills of San Sebastian), and recruited about two dozen settlers of Spanish descent called criollos. They even allowed the use of stone from their hacienda's aqueduct to be used in the construction of the new church. With the blessing of Guadalajara's Bishop Pedro Loza y Pardavé, the town was formally founded in 1869. The community grew quickly and only 19 years later, in 1888, it became the chief town of the new municipalidad (equivalent to a US county) called Concepción de Buenas Aires.

The portales along one side of the plaza stand empty on a winter morning. Mexican businesses in small towns don't generally get going until mid-morning, but often stay open until late in the evening. We arrived on this visit about 9 AM and the Plaza and streets around it were eerily empty, almost like a movie set. Although Concepción de Buenas Aires is not old by Mexican standards, it feels old, kind of like a 19th Century town frozen in amber.

Farmacia Maria Isabel is one of numerous small businesses facing the Plaza. The shop sign just beyond, with the head of a cow, announces a carneceria, or butcher shop. This shot was taken in mid-afternoon when activity had picked up some. Even so, things are slow and fairly quiet most days in this off-the-beaten-track mountain town. There always seems to be time for locals to chat on a bench or lounge against one of the columns supporting the portales.

Just beyond the carneceria is the Restaurant Las Espuelas. The name means "The Spurs". This is definitely a cowboy joint with old photos of Pancho Villa covering the walls. Many small town plazas lack any kind of sit-down restaurant, perhaps because there is often little extra money for dining out and local people tend to eat at home. However, Las Espuelas was a genuine, full-service restaurant and the traditional Mexican fare was tasty and inexpensive.

Two of our party found dessert down the block from Las Espuelas. While many Mexican plazas may lack a restaurant, there will nearly always be an ice cream parlor. Above, Phil (a Canadian) and Mike (an American) salute me with their newly-aquired ice cream cones. They were part of a hiking expedition to explore a nearby canyon reported to possess a large waterfall. The local folks observed us with friendly curiosity.

Street scenes

Big cowboy, small horse. Judging from the type of shovel he has strapped under his leg, this fellow has just returned from digging some fence post holes. I have become used to scenes like this, even in the more urbanized areas near where I live. When I emerged from my house in Ajijic this morning, there were three loose horses grazing along the sidewalk across the street. Even as I sit writing this, I can hear cattle lowing in the distance. It is one of the many charms of life in Mexico.

The new and the old. As we strolled the streets of Concepción de Buenas Aires, we came upon this scene. I thought the burro tethered next to modern farm machinery was a good metaphor for Mexico today: the old ways existing side-by-side with the new. Mexico has 3 million burros, one of the largest populations in the world. They arrived in the Americas on Columbus' second voyage in 1495, and in Mexico in 1528. However, they have been used in Europe and the Middle East since biblical times.

Tianguis Day falls on Tuesdays. On one visit, we encountered a crowded local tianguis, or street market, near the Plaza. Tianguis is a Nahuatl word, from the language of the Aztecs. In his book "The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico", Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo described the great tianguis of Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capital (now Mexico City). Except for details like clothing, and some of the goods on sale, the scene wouldn't have been much different from this.

Weighing it the old fashioned way. A scale like this would have been completely familiar to anyone attending a similar tianguis in the newly founded Concepción de Buenas Aires of 1869. Even though digital scales can often be found in Mexican stores, many people see no reason to change from the old ways. If a scale like this still works, why spend money on a fancy new one?

Speaking of ancient technology. Mike and Anna, a young Dutch hiker, examine a classic specimen of automobilius wrectus, possibly with an eye toward a purchase...or not. This car was so battered and disreputable, it was almost a cliche. When I first moved down to Mexico, I expected the roads to be filled with this kind of clunker. I was surprised to find many shiny, up-to-date models, even in small towns. It was not clear what the asking price for this one might be. Any takers?

A friendly townsman invited us to tour his house. We were preparing to get in our car when Mike, a friendly sort of guy, began to joke with a young boy standing in a nearby doorway. A moment later, the boy's father strolled up the street, introduced himself, and invited us in to see his place. Since the vast forests of the Sierra del Tigre are very near by, wood is heavily used in construction of homes and other buildings. This gentleman beautifully decorated the interior of his home with pine panels and wood furniture, some of which you can see here.

A private collection of ancient artifacts. The homeowner constructed a coffee table out of a huge gnarly stump, and used it to display a variety of small objects he had collected in the area over the years. It is not at all an unusual experience to be invited into the homes of Mexicans we meet, even when we are complete strangers to them.

Concepcion de Buenas Aires made it to the Oscars! As we strolled about the streets, we passed the "Bar Melis", a small, rustic cantina. It was closed, but I noticed this plaque next to the door. The sign says "In this place was filmed part of the movie 'De Tripas Corazon', nominated for an Oscar in '97, by director and writer Antonio Urutia". I later Googled this information and, sure enough, Urutia's short film got a nomination that year, but alas did not win the famed gold statue. Concepción de Buenas Aires is certainly a scenic and evocative town and I could well understand its choice as a film set.

I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 of my Sierra del Tigre series. Next week, in Part 2, we will visit Las Cascadas Paraíso, a huge waterfall pouring down into a deep canyon. I always appreciate and encourage feedback. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Independencia 2012: Mexico kicks off its fiesta season

A handsome young Charro rides in Ajijic's Independencia parade. Despite legs far too short to reach the stirrups, this tyke confidently and skillfully guided his mount among cavorting horses and a noisy crowd. The village of Ajijic where we live may be small, but it always puts on entertaining fiestas. This one celebrated the anniversary of Mexico's War of Independence from Spain, which began in 1810. A fiesta like Independencia provides great "people watching" opportunities, and I took full advantage of them at the Sunday, September 16 climax of this year's celebration. The activities I showcase here were actually part of a 9 day fiesta which also typically includes the Globos (a hot air balloon launch), a Charreada (Mexican rodeo) and other events. Mexicans are very patriotic but are also great lovers of parties. Put these two together and you get one hell of a blow-out.

Marcos Castellanos was a local hero of the Independence War. The portrait above is part of a long wall mural painted in 2010 by Ajijic artist Bruno Mariscal to celebrate the Bicentennial of Independencia. Like many leaders during the early stages of the war, Marcos Castellanos was a parish priest, disaffected by Spanish rule. Unlike many of those other leaders, he managed to survive the war. Castellanos had sided with the insurgents as early as 1810, but his moment of glory didn't come until two years later. In 1812, local fishermen and farmers rose up against trained Royal troops and repeatedly defeated them with little more than sticks, hoes, and rocks. The Spanish, thoroughly alarmed, mounted a major campaign against them. With Castellanos in command, the insurgents retreated to the tiny Lake Chapala island called Mezcala, located about 32 km (20 mi) east of Ajijic. The island is about 2 km (1.24 mi) off shore from the village of the same name. Mezcala Island is small, only 548 m (600 yds) long and 91 m (100 yds) wide. Here, for an incredible 4 years, 1000 Mezcala insurgents withstood a siege by 8000 Royal troops.  

A small spectator perches on her dad's shoulders under a huge wall mural. The mural above her, showing some of Ajijic's early inhabitants, was painted on the side of Ajijic's city hall by local artist Javier Zaragoza. The faces of the figures in the mural are those of the artist's friends and prominent local people. Meanwhile, back at Mezcala, the Spanish made numerous efforts to dislodge the insurgents, but everything the Royalists attempted ended in ignominious defeat. The defenders even captured one of the Spanish officers who had laid waste to the lakeside town of Tizapan and massacred its inhabitants. He was taken to the scene of his crime and promptly executed. The insurgents left a note pinned to his chest declaring "Here he murdered. Here he died."

A security man keeps a sharp eye on things. Although he was one of the few security people I saw at the event, everything remained peaceful. There have been some incidents of narcotrafficante violence in the Lake Chapala area over the last several years, but they have had surprisingly little impact on day-to-day life. Marcos Castellanos held out until 1814 but finally surrendered due to sickness and malnutrition among the island's defenders. He negotiated the surrender with the Spanish commander, Brig. General Jose de la Cruz, who agreed to allow the insurgents to return to their homes unmolested, provided them with help in rebuilding their villages, and gave them seed and farm animals. Fed up with the long struggle, the Spanish clearly wanted no repetition of the Siege of Mezcala. For a look at Mezcala Island and its Independence War ruins, click here.

An honor guard of young girls marched near the front of the parade. Groups of children from many local schools participated in the parade, as they do every year. In fact, the air of early September echos with the sound of rolling drums and marching feet as the children diligently practice for the big day. You can see by their expressions that most of the kids take this responsibility very seriously, although the young girl on the left couldn't help a smile after she saw me with my camera.

Their turn in the parade finished, these young boys relaxed in the plaza. As I wandered around the plaza, looking for good shots, these guys waved me over, eager to get their pictures taken. Their red sweaters are emblazoned with their school emblems.  Kids will be kids, but foreigners here often remark upon how well-behaved Mexican children are. I think the answer may lie in the close family networks. Even if parents are not around, there are always the grandparents and numerous uncles and aunts to keep an eye on the young ones. The older children are expected to help out with their younger siblings and it is not unusual to see a teenage boy walking along the street carrying his baby sister in his arms. How often are you likely to see that north of the border?

The drum corps prepares for action. For all the marching and drums and flags, Mexico is not a very militaristic country. Although its long history contains plenty of internal strife, there are few if any instances of Mexico invading its neighbors. To the contrary, since it became an independent nation in 1821, Mexico has been invaded three times by the United States (1846-48, 1914, 1917), and once by the French (1862-67). The US invasion of 1846 resulted in the loss of half of Mexico's territory, and was denounced as shameful by a young congressman named Abraham Linclon. In addition to invasions, there is a long history of US tampering in Mexican internal affairs, including complicity in the murder of President Francisco Madero. All of this explains a lot about Mexico's prickly reaction to any perceived transgressions against her sovereignty. In the immortal words of Pofirio Diaz, the dictator overthrown by Madero, "Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States."

Hi Mom! In the midst of a solomn group of marchers, a girl waves gaily to her family. Virtually every school kid must wear the approved clothing of his/her school, such as the white shirt, blue sweater, and plaid pants/skirts seen above. The effect of this is to reduce invidious differences between students whose parents may be able to afford expensive "designer" outfits, and those who can't. The flip side is that all the parents must purchase the approved clothing and this can be a real struggle for many low-income Mexican families who can sometimes barely afford to put food on their tables. Affluent foreigners in the Lake Chapala community sometimes help out families they know by paying for school clothes and books for the kids. Other help comes from charities established by the foreign community.

After the kids came the Charros. This pair led the mounted part of the parade, carrying the rawhide banners of their Charro association. The presence of the foreign community has helped develop a fairly sophisticated infrastructure in the small lakeside pueblos. There is widespread use of cell phones, computers and internet cafes. However, rural Mexico is still all around us. Most Charros are not well-to-do owners of expensively-bred horses. I doubt that any had a dressage horse performing in the Olympics, for example. Some Charros own small ranchos, while others simply work as cowboys. They are the "real deal", and exhibit excellent horsemanship.

A Charro parade is never complete without a marching band. A number of bands like this one participated. They are essentially neighborhood folks who get together to practice when they can. At events like this there may be two or three such bands, all playing different songs at once, and all slightly off key. Once your ears get used to it, the effect is hilarious and quite entertaining.

Other entertaining features of a Charro parade include dancing horses. This high-stepper was dancing to the music provided by the band you can see behind in the distance. A still photo cannot begin to do justice to this spectacle. Under the direction of their riders, the horses dance forward and back and sometimes sideways, their metal shoes clashing dramatically on the cobblestones. Charro horses are highly trained and pampered by their owners. Often they will sport intricately braided manes and tails, as well as elaborate saddles.

Gettin' 'em started early. Local children with access to horses learn to ride at a very early age. Their fathers love to bring them along to Charro events. As you can see, the horse is not the only one dressed up for the parade. The little boy's dad wears a classic Charro outfit, with gold embroidery decorating his jacket and extending down the sides of his tight-fitting pants. He also wears the famous wide-brimmed sombrero, with embroidery around the rim. The Charro has become one of Mexico's best known symbols, based on a tradition reaching back to the 17th Century. Along with mariachi bands and tequila, Charros originated here in the State of Jalisco, arguably the "heart" of Old Mexico.

Silver spurs are a prized piece of the Charro outfit. They are more than decorative, since they are used to guide the horse. The star-shaped spikes are called the rowel, and jingle pleasingly when the Charro is on foot. Spurs go back at least to the Roman Legions of Julius Caesar.  Some have been found in ancient Roman military campsites in Great Britain. Spurs were a sign of rank in the Middle Ages, and when a squire was raised to the position of knight, he was said to have "earned his spurs". The large rowels of Mexican spurs are a tradition brought over from Medieval Spain.

This silver mounted saddle horn caught my eye. The Charro obligingly quieted his mount so I could get a nice shot. Some Americans may be surprised to learn that the first true cowboys were Mexican vaqueros (literally "cow worker"). The earliest versions of saddles were developed around 4000 BC by the Chinese. Saddles really gained importance when the stirrup was invented by a Central Asian people called the Sarmations. The stirrup gave a rider the stability needed to use the horse as a fighting platform. The saddle, as we know it today, originated in Mexico and was developed by combining the features of two different models imported from colonial-era Spain called La Estradiota and La Jineta. A saddle horn is not just decorative, but also has an important practical function. When a Mexican vaquero or American cowboy ropes a steer, he quickly loops the lasso around the horn so that the horse can help bring the steer under control.

La Princesa poses during a break in the festivities. I encountered this lovely young woman in the Centro Cultural adjacent to the plaza. Every year, Ajijic elects a queen and two princesses who add some grace and style to the various fiesta parades. She appeared a bit pooped from all the waving and smiling, but she gamely jumped up and posed when I asked for a photo.

The Ajijic Plaza was packed by the end of the parade. On the second floor balcony of the Centro Cultural, I was joined by Norm Tihor, a Canadian who lives in Ajijic full time and creates beautiful photographic art. The two of us ordered coffee from the second floor restaurant and enjoyed the swirling show below as we sat at our table, leisurely snapping shots as opportunities arose.

Panchita Villa rides again! Wandering around the plaza again, I spotted a Mexican family on a bench. Several generations were present, including this abuela (grandmother). She held the colorful sombrero in her lap. I approached and asked for a photo and she started to put the hat on her little nieto (grandson), thinking I wanted a photo of him. I had all the kid shots I needed by then, so I stopped her and indicated that my deep desire was a photo of her, topped by the sombrero. She laugh heartily, and then, when she was ready for the photo, gave me this demure, Mona Lisa smile.

Another little princesa and her proud dad. I was trying to get a shot of the little girl's be-ribboned hair, done up in the red, white, and green national colors. Her dad noticed me and immediately turned around so I could get a better shot. I thought this photo captured the warm family feeling of the event.

A patriotic banner dangles in a blossoming tabachine tree. The triangular banner displays Mexico's coat of arms: an eagle sitting on a nopal cactus while eating a snake. This comes from the Aztec origin myth. During their long wanderings, the Mexica (Aztec) tribe received a prophesy that they would encounter an eagle in this posture when they had arrived at their final destination. According to legend, they stopped at an island in a large lake and saw just such an eagle and on that spot founded their capital city, Tenochitlán (today's Mexico City). Below the emblem is a portrait of Miguel Hidalgo. In US terms, Hidalgo combines the attributes of George Washington (Father of his Nation) and Abraham Lincoln (Emancipator of the Slaves).

This completes my posting on Ajijic's 2012 Independencia Fiesta. I hope you have enjoyed seeing the fiesta as much as I did attending it. I encourage feedback and if you'd like to 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 I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Tastoanes of Tonalá

Masked dancers called Tastoanes gather in front of Tonalá's Palacio Municipal. On July 25 of this year, Carole and I visited the Guadalajara suburb called Tonalá to participate in the the annual Fiesta de los Tastoanes. During our five years in Mexico, we have seen a number of indigenous dance troupes, many of them wearing hand-crafted masks. However, the Tastoanes are in a league of their own. The fantastic masks portray grotesque monsters and the dancers are vigorous and acrobatic. The whole affair is conducted in a spirit of great fun. For anyone who is intrigued with Mexico's indigenous culture, and who plans a July visit to the Guadalajara area, this fiesta is a must. As a bonus, Tonalá is the source of many of the wonderful crafts showcased in Tlaquepaque and other parts of Gualalajara. Every Thursday and Sunday, the local craftspeople display their wares at massive street fairs in Tonalá where prices are generally much lower than at the boutiques of Tlaquepaque or elsewhere.

The Prelude

A statue of a Tonalateca warrior kneels in a dramatic pose in the center of Tonalá's plaza. Tonalá (Nahuatl for "The Place Where the Sun Rises") is located on the eastern side of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. The city was originally founded by Zapotecs, an ethnic group concentrated mainly in faraway Oaxaca, but with widely scattered outliers. The Zapotecs intermarried with other groups and were eventually conquered by the Toltecs, who imposed their own religious and military practices. Tonalá figured in the famous Salt War of 1480-1510 AD, when the Purépecha (also known as Tarascans) invaded on their way to seize the valuable salt beds near Colima. Tonalá's king raised an army and fiercely resisted the invaders, eventually defeating them. The warrior shown above exemplifies this fighting spirit. For a map of Tonalá showing its relationship to Guadalajara, click here.

The dance area was laid out in front of the Palacio Municipal. When we arrived, the area was packed 6 or 8 people deep and photography seemed problematic. I have learned over time that an elevated position is often best for an event like this, and I noticed the 2nd floor balconies of the Palacio, seen above. Other expats we met were sure the local authorities wouldn't let is up there, but I've long since learned to ask for what I want. The worst that can happen is that they say "no". Sure enough, an official gave me a welcoming smile and graciously conducted us up to a balcony with a great view of the action. Tonalá gave a rather different welcome to the Spanish, when they arrived on the scene in 1530. Queen Cihualpilli then ruled the area and, no doubt, had already heard about the ferocious temperament of Conquistador Nuño de Guzmán. She bowed to the inevitable and provided him with supplies. However, when de Guzmán demanded that the native people show obeisance to the Spanish King, they were outraged and showered the Spanish with arrows. This was the same warrior spirit that had overcome the Purépecha only 20 years before.

Tastoan masks decorate the staircase leading to our 2nd floor balcony. The 6 masks in the middle are connected to a fountain. The subjects of Queen Cihualpilli formed their battle lines on a hill near the present-day Centro Historico and fought the Spanish with everything they had. De Guzmán's soldiers, covered with steel armor and possessing firearms and horses, eventually won the battle. However, the Tonaltecans were no pushovers and the Spanish suffered severe casualties. De Guzmán subsequently chose Tonalá as one of several successive sites for Guadalajara and it held that distinction during the 18 months between August 8 1533 and February 1535. By 1621, Tonalá had become one of several key sites used by the Augustinian friars for propagating the faith. In 1873, Tonalá was recognized as the chief city of its own municipalidad (equivalent to a US county). In the 20th Century, Metropolitan Guadalajara expanded to swallow up surrounding towns like Tonalá. Presently the overall municipal population of is 408,000, with the population of Tonalá itself (374,000) making up most of that total..

Members of the large crowd chat as they await the beginning of the dance. The city government had set up bleachers that ran the whole length of the Palacio and they were packed. Everywhere we've visited, Mexicans love fiestas and spectacles.

La Danza de los Tastoanes

The dance finally began, led off by 3 young men dressed as clownish kings. Mexican events rarely begin at the time advertised, so we found the best vantage points on the balcony and made ourselves comfortable. Finally, things seemed to be under way at one end of the long rectangle making up the dance area. The dancers began to file in, and I could see the long blonde manes of the mask wearers approach through the press of the crowd. I was very glad that I had pushed for a better angle. The ring of people surrounding the dance area was at this point so thick that photography would have been impossible at ground level.

A Tastoan strides about in his full barbaric regalia. In addition to a mask with a huge blonde mane, he wore an animal skin, as did many of the other dancers. So what is this all about? The explanation is a bit complicated because it involves the melding of two different traditions. The point of connection between the traditions is St. James, one of the original 12 Apostles. He is known in Spain as Santiago Matamoros and his Feast Day is July 25.

Dancers gather around a fallen Tastoan. The Tastoanes began to fill the dance area below my balcony perch. Above, a group of them dance around one who lies face down, having been "killed" in a ritual sword fight. St. James the Apostle had evangelized in Spain during Roman times and his body was returned there and buried in the town of Compostela after he was martyred in Palestine in the middle of the 1st Century AD. In the following centuries, his tomb became a pilgrimage site and Compostela was designated a Holy City. At the beginning of the 8th Century AD, the Muslim Moors from North Africa invaded Spain and established their first Caliphate. For the next 700 years, in a struggle known as  La Reconquista, Spanish Christians fought to defeat and expel them. The final campaign of this long holy war was waged by King Ferdinand of Aragon and his wife Queen Isabella of Castille, the same two who funded Columbus' explorations. The Spanish Christians adopted James, or Santiago, as their patron saint for the crusade against the Moors. This is how one of the chief apostles of the so-called Prince of Peace was dubbed Matamoros (The Moor Slayer), and why he is often portrayed brandishing a sword. About this time, Spanish Christians began to celebrate Santiago's Feast Day using costumed dancers who reenacted the defeat of the Moors by the Christians.

A prematurely graying Tastoan pauses to catch his breath. On his extravagantly curving yellow nose perches a dragonfly. His lips and teeth form a magnificent snarl. The creators of the masks go to great lengths to make them uniquely--and hilariously--hideous. The long struggle against the Moors had two effects on Spain. First, it produced the most experienced and best organized, equipped, and trained soldiers in Europe. Second, the ideological nature of the war produced a fanatical brand of Catholicism that viewed dark-skinned heathens as souls to be saved, by force if necessary. With Columbus' discovery of the New World, both of these powerful forces were unleashed on the inhabitants of the Americas and Santiago Matamoros became the patron saint of the Conquest.

A statue of Santiago Matamoros, brandishing his usual sword, is carried on a palanquin. Santiago wears a somewhat anachronistic cowboy hat, as do other dancers who represent the Spanish, like the man in the foreground. The saint is carried by Tastoanes, symbolizing his dominance after the defeat of the indigenous warriors of Tonalá in 1530. According to legend, the slain warriors were transformed into hideous monsters, perhaps as punishment for opposing Conquistador Nuño de Guzman. The Danza de los Tastoanes thus originated as a morality play where "good" triumphed over "evil" similar to the dances held in Spain on the Feast Day of Santiago. This, of course, overlooked de Guzman's brutal role as the Heinrich Himmler of the Conquest. In the end, his depredations were so atrocious that even the colonial Spanish couldn't stomach them and de Guzman was sent back to Spain in chains and died in prison.

This fellow looks a bit like the alien warrior of the sci-fi movie "Predator". Many of the dancers, in addition to their masks, wore traditional clothes such as this serape over a tunic and pants made of rough cotton. On his feet he wore leather sandals. As with many Catholic rituals imported by the Spanish conquerors, local people have gradually transformed the dance into something quite different from the original. While Santiago is still respected, many people now feel that the Tastoanes represent indigenous pride in the heroic, if unsuccessful, defense of Tonalá against the Spanish. Mexico is filled with rituals. street names, and monuments dedicated to such heroic but failed efforts against various invaders.

The Tastoanes in action. It was hard to know just where to focus, because there was so much happening all at once. Individual dancers whirled and leaped, and groups of various sizes spun about one another. Rather than being centrally directed, the dance seemed to be a collection of spontaneous outbursts, exciting but a bit confusing. Notice the dancer on the left. He holds a "sword" in his right hand made from a stick with a leather hilt. Many dancers carried similar swords and used them to stage mock battles among themselves.

I thought this was quite a handsome fellow. He wears a cowhide tunic, and his mask is topped by what appear to be two cow ears. What I at first thought were his eyebrows appear to be the legs of a large spider perched on the top of his long, red nose. The magnificent locks of hair worn by the dancers are usually made either from hemp or horse tails. The dancers' masks are sometimes made from ceramics, but more usually from a combination of leather and paper maché, to reduce weight. They are painted with acrylics which give them their vivid colors. Snakes and insects are often incorporated into the designs, as are the horns, hide, and other parts of actual animals.

A dancer whirls and lashes out with his wooden sword. One of the most dramatic aspects of the costumes was the mane. The dancers took full advantage of this by ducking and turning their heads so that the long hair would swirl and fly about.

Two Tastoanes face off in a mock battle. Sometimes these battles would result in the "death" of one of the dancers. It seemed symbolic to me that the Tastoanes so often fought each other rather than a Spaniard. The Spanish Conquest would never have succeeded without its deliberate "divide and conquer" strategy, implemented by Conquistador Hernán Cortéz from the moment of his landing on the mainland of Mexico in 1519.

When not dancing themselves, Tastoanes stood about and watched the show. When we visited Tonalá, the day was warm and a bit sticky. I can only imagine how hot it must have been for dancers such as these two. The masks are heavy and the costumes had to be stifling, even when standing still. Jumping and twirling about while conducting mock battles must have left them panting and sweating torrents. This might explain why the action of individual dancers seemed to go in bursts rather than continuously, although collectively the action was fairly continuous.

The Aftermath

Centerpiece on the grille at a Birreria. Immediately next to the dance area were numerous small booths selling a wide variety of traditional Mexican food. A birrieria is a place that sells birria, or goat stew. The proprietors of small sidewalk restaurants like this seem to use every part of the goat but the bleat. The meat is cut up and placed in a pot with a spicy, tomato-based sauce and other ingredients. Despite the rather disturbing appearance of the head, the dish is really quite good. Even though the Tastoanes were still performing, by this time it was mid-day and Carole and I went looking for lunch. We had recently dined on birria, so we kept looking .

Great aromas and a the owner's friendly smile drew us to this place. The proprietress stands next to several pots filled with interesting choices. Her young son munches while shyly peeping at us from the back of the booth.We settled on sopes, which can be roughly described as tiny Mexican pizzas. You have several meat or vegetable choices, which are then placed on top of doughy disks about the size of a tea saucer. Three or four of these will fill almost anyone right up to the eyebrows.

Carole and friend at Tonalá's Museum of Tastoan Masks. This was one of a variety of beautifully crafted masks on display, including some from other countries. Try as I might, I couldn't persuade Carole to wear it for a photo. I would strongly recommend a visit to the mask museum for anyone who can't attend the actual dance. Although there were many wonderful masks in the museum, I chose to show only this one because I had so many good shots of masks worn by live dancers. To show museum masks seemed like "gilding the lily". The museum is located on Ramon Corona between Constitución and Cuauhtémoc streets, only a couple of blocks north of the main plaza.

This completes my posting on the Tastonanes of Tonalá. I hope you have enjoyed it. If you have any feedback, I would be delighted to hear it. You can leave any messages in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim