Sunday, August 7, 2011

Exploring Jalisco's old haciendas: Part 1

Hacienda bell tower in Zapotitán de Hidalgo. The small farming community of Zapotitán de Hidalgo lies just off Highway 15, a few miles to the northwest of the city of Jocotopec, which itself lies on the western tip of Lake Chapala. Anyone who travels this way from Lake Chapala to Guadalajara will pass by the turnoff to the town soon after turning north on Highway 15 on the western outskirts of Jocotopec. If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am fascinated by the old Mexican haciendas dotting the countryside, especially in Jalisco State where  Carole and I live. Many are in ruins. Some have structures, like the one above, that are now used by local people for other purposes. Still others are in full operation as farming/business operations just as they always have been under various owners leading back to the original conquistadors. During the spring and summer of this year, we explored several of these old sites. This is the first of a series of 3 postings that will detail the results of those visits.

The bell tower is part of one of the main hacienda structures. The exact function of this building is unclear. The bell tower and the series of arches, now bricked up, originally led me to believe it was the old hacienda church. However, there is another church in the village, the construction of which appears to be as old or older than this bulding. I have since come to the belief that this may have been the home of the haciendado, or owner of the operation. The bell tower could well have been used to signal the beginning of work, or to warn of the approach of bandits or other dangers. The arches may have been windows, or perhaps portales supported by columns along a covered walkway. The size of the building and the gracefulness of the bell tower and arches indicate to me that this was an important structure on the property. Tony Burton, author of "Western Mexico, A Traveller's Treasury", says that the Zapotitán hacienda dates from the mid-19th Century. Tony's book is an invaluable guide for locating old haciendas and much more.

Stately columns guard the entrance to a recently-planted field. The tops of the old Classical-style columns are truncated. Originally, they may have been connected by an arch. Many of the old hacienda structures have been destroyed or so altered that only by looking for details like this can you begin to imagine what the original hacienda may have looked like. Foreigners often misunderstand what is meant by the term "hacienda", thinking the word just refers to an old mansion. The word in Spanish means "place where something is done or made." They were full-blown economic operations, often fully self-sufficent, particularly in the early days. They were not all farms, and a hacienda could be built around a mine or other rural business (see my posting: Marfil's old haciendas). If it was a farm, the owners generally grew cash crops such as wheat, sugar cane, agave. Other haciendas raised livestock such as cattle, horses, or sheep. Mexican haciendas operated much like plantations of the US's pre-Civil War South. From the earliest times of the Conquest until the Revolution of 1910-1917, haciendados possessed major economic and political power in Mexico. Their owners formed the core of the old conservative elite. They achieved the height of their power and influence during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1910). 

High, thick walls surrunded some of the property. The archway above leads out from the courtyard where I took the photo and into the village plaza where the local tianguis, or open market, was then underway. Many old haciendas have fortresslike aspects. The thickness of these walls was impressive and led me to conclude that they were prompted by raids of indigenous tribesmen or bandits. All is peaceful in modern Zapotitán, which is inhabited by about 3000 people, 2/3 of them adults. There are about 20 indigenous people (as opposed to mestizo or mixed) living here, and 5 of them still speak an indigenous language. The local people are mostly farmers, raising corn, sorghum, strawberries, chile, garbanzo beans, and agave. It is unclear what happened to Hacienda Zapotitán de Hidalgo but most likely it was broken up during or after the Revolution of 1910-1917, and the land distributed to the hacienda's former workers. The hacienda system in many cases was little better than the slave system of American's Old South. After the 1810 War of Independence, slavery was formally abolished in Mexico, but haciendados found other ways to bind their workers to the soil. One popular method was the hacienda store. Workers had little opportunity to travel to town to purchase goods, so they bought them on credit from the haciendado's store. Since the workers seldom knew how to read or write, the only ones who really knew the amounts owed were the haciendado or his agents. If the workers tried to leave, they could be arrested for abandoning their "debts." If they became too ill to work or died, their children became responsible for the debts, and so the system continued seamlessly through the 19th and into the 20th Centuries. 

Templo de Zapotitán de Hidalgo. This old church is the one whose presence on the plaza led me to believe that the first structure I showed was the haciendado's house. For a look inside the Templo, click here. The building's flying buttresses show a Gothic style. This style was popular in the late medieval Spain through the 16th Century, and was imported to Nueva Galicia (the Jalisco area) from there. Notice the streamers above the door, leftovers from a recent fiesta. A great many of the small towns in Jalisco grew up out of the ruins of the haciendas. The old buildings often became public offices, small tiendas (stores), or were divided up into living spaces. The former hacienda workers became the town residents and life went on--but without its feudal superstructure. 

Old-style stonework lends another clue. Many of the walls of early Mexican buildings were constructed with jumbles of uncut stones mixed with pebbles, as you can see above. The fiesta streamers are in the colors of the Mexican flag, demonstrating once again the close historical relationship between church and state. The Revolution brought about a strict separation that, when enforced, resulted in the eruption of the Cristero War of 1926-29. Raging all through the Jalisco area, the war was named for the battle cry of the rebels "Viva Cristo Rey" (Long live Christ the King). After the war, many unemployed Cristeros devolved into banditry. This may have resulted in considerable clanging of the bell in the tower of the Zapotitán haciendado's house. In the book by B. Traven on which the famous Humphrey Bogart movie "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" was based, the bandit characters were former Cristeros.

Bell tower of Templo Zapotitán de Hidalgo. As we drove down a cobblestoned country lane heading toward our next hacienda visit, I looked back and couldn't resist a final, evocative photo of Zapotitán. Somewhere there must be a detailed history of old places like this, but for now speculation and educated guesses will have to do.

Hacienda Huejotitán

Welcome to Huejotitán!  About a mile up the country lane from Zapotitán de Hidalgo you come to Huejotitán, site of another former hacienda. The little park and mural above graces a fork in the road leading into town. We had barely stopped to get our bearings when a local man greeted us cheerfully and  encouraged us to view the mural's history of the area. Before we visit the old hacienda buildings, we should take a look at how the local artist, Eduardo Xilonzochitl,  saw that history. His name is of Nahuatl origin, the language of the Aztecs. He may be indigenous, or perhaps just adopted the name for artistic purposes. For a map showing Huejotitán's location, click here.

Early Spanish colonists plan their hacienda. On the right stands a group of three Spaniards who, by their dress, appear to be of the colonial elite. They seem to be making a land deal. The man on the right hands a bag of gold and points to the roll of paper, probably a deed, held by the person on the left. The man in the middle records the transaction. The four indigenous men in the foreground were of great interest to me. The two kneeling men are obviously craftsmen. Another man hovers over them apparently giving directions. The fourth man stands, holding what appear to be the 16th Century equivalent of blueprints. These last two wear distinctive hats that seem to give them a higher status than the craftsmen, and the standing man with the plans also wears an intricate necklace. A great deal of the "Spanish" colonial architecture and sculpture was actually created by indigenous craftsmen using traditional skills dating back thousands of years. People like this built the great temples and palaces of the Mesoamerican empires. The higher-status indigenous men may be nobles from one of the kingdoms conquered by Hernán Cortéz and his successors. Many of these nobles continued to occupy a privileged position under Spanish rule. The relative handful of Spanish conquerors could not have controlled millions of indigenous people without the help of the indigenous nobility. The people in this area when the Spanish arrived were Cocos. However, the conquistadors arrived with large numbers of Nahautl-speaking Otomi warriors and luggage-bearers from around present-day Querétaro. These people then became the dominant indigenous group. 

A local religious procession of the later colonial period. Notice the Virgin of Guadalupe emblem in the upper right. She is the special protector of campesinos and indigenous people. In the distance, a cross-like structure has been built of corn stalks, attended by two of the men. Since the corn god was one of the most important figures in indigenous pantheon, this subtly reminds us that the Catholicism of Mexico is often a thin veneer over deep layers of traditional religious practices. The Virgin of Guadalupe herself was first sighted in a ruined temple dedicated to an indigenous goddess, and many aspects of her clothing and other related symbols are connected to ancient Mesoamerican religious beliefs. For this reason she was very controversial among the early Spanish religious authorities. They suspected that the devotion of the indigenous people was actually a way of covertly worshiping the old goddess. However, the authorities relented when they realized her usefulness in converting the the masses of indigenous people.

Hacienda scene from the 19th Century. A woman fills her clay pots at a well pump, while two men chat in the background. The man on the left may be the haciendado or one of his administrators giving instructions to the campesino with the oxen. Then again, he may just be just passing the time of day. I suppose it is not unusual that the only one in the scene doing any actual work is the woman. The author B. Traven wrote another novel called "The Carreta" (Spanish for a two-wheeled ox cart). The story was set on just such a hacienda, with a main character who hauled freight with just such a carreta. In the end, he had to give up his cherished carreta and go to work for the haciendado to whom his sick father owed debts incurred at the hacienda store.

Hacienda Huejotitán. The graceful old dwelling and grounds now house an orphanage. Because of a sign discouraging uninvited visitors, we did not go inside, but were able to get some nice shots anyway. The village of Huejotitán nestles at the base of Cerro Viejo (Old Peak).  At 2960m (9711 ft), it is the highest mountain in the immediate area around Lake Chapala. The one-story house has arched portales along the side and a dramatic entrance leading into a large courtyard garden. Huge trees, ancient and knarled, grow in the middle of a plaza onto which the house faces.

An archway leads to more arches. While we refrained from entering the house or its patio garden, I did manage to take a few discreet photos in areas not being used by the orphans. These contained fascinating remnants of past glories. Huejotitán's population of 1011 is even smaller than Zapotitán de Hidalgo. A bit over 1/2 are males, and about 1/3 are children. 7 of the local citizens speak an indigenous language, most probably Nahuatl, as well as Spanish. A substantial number of people here are poor, and about 10% live in homes with no floor. Of the 1011 residents, almost 100 are illiterate. The people of Huejotitán engage in the same farming pursuits as their neighbors in Zapotitán de Hidalgo.

In Mexico, as usual, color is everywhere. I scaled a tall wall to find a perch from which I could photograph some of the arches and other ruins seen in the previous photo, but from a different angle. A local woman walking by in the plaza glanced at us, and seemed amused at our antics.

Nearby, we found the shell of an old brick building with an interesting window.  In addition to the nicely crafted arch over the door, the building has a rather stylish looking round window, with another matching it in the back. Once again, we were left baffled as to the use of this building, or of the arches seen in the previous two photos. Perhaps on another visit we will take the time to meet the orphanage staff and ask for a tour. According to Tony Burton, the staff is friendly, but we had a great deal of ground to cover so we moved on.


Abundance of water is always an issue to farmers. The aqueduct above is near the little community of San Juan de los Arcos (St. John of the Arches). I am not clear when this aqueduct was built, but it was at least in the 19th Century, and maybe earlier. The technology involved is not fundamentally different than that used when Appius Claudius built the first Roman aqueduct in 312 BC. Although the Spanish or Mexicans who built this one inherited their technology from the Romans, aqueducts actually go much further back in history. The Assyrians used them in the 7th Century BC, and the very earliest ones are on the Indian subcontinent.

Another aqueduct at Teuchitlán. This one leads into the lake on the outskirts of Teuchitlan. At the time I took this photo, lirio, also known as water hiacynth, choked the areas along the shore. There is a wonderful restaurant right next to this aqueduct, a great place to take a break from a hacienda ramble.

Lirio flowers are pretty, but the plant is a real pest. It is not a native species, but was introduced in the 19th Century by haciendados as a decorative plant for their garden ponds. Having no natural enemies, and a very high propagation rate, the plants can take over huge areas of lakes such as this one and Lake Chapala if they are not regularly cleaned out.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Jalisco's old haciendas. Next time we will visit a hacienda where we met the family and were greeted with extraordinary warmth and courtesy. I hope you enjoyed this posting. 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 reply.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. So many great photographs and rich history. I absolutely love the old haciendas and hope to one day go to as many as possible. I really enjoy veiwing the ones that are abandoned and try to imagine them as they once were. Or even imagine owning it and restoring it to its formal glory.

    You are quite right about Catholicism in Mexico, it is unique.

    The mention of the Lirio flower turned on a light bulb in my head that the soap called Lirio that they make in Mexico is most likely from the scent of this flower.

    I'm looking forward to reading part II.

  2. We've seen a couple of these places, and it is terific to hear more about their history. I think we'll visit these and similar towns with a greater understanding of the buildings and ruins we see, thanks to these posts!

  3. Just had to tell you how much we love your blog and pictures. Your narrative is so informative and your commentary very knowledgeable. My husband and I had always planned to retire in Mexico but have changed our plans because of the current atmosphere there. Maybe someday.......please keep up with your blog so that we may live through you vicariously!

  4. My wife grew up across from Templo de Zapotitan.
    We still have the family home there.
    My past relatives lived in the hacienda and supplied gold and supplies for the revolution.
    We love to return for visits with relatives and friends.
    The people are very friendly to visitors with respect of their culture and history.
    No problems there!

  5. just in zapotitan de hidalgo talking to locals, including my mother who was born there in the 1930s, the church is not the original church. We were walking through the ruins of the old church. She also pointed to the exact spot she was baptized and recalled the details of the old church. She also showed me where the prisoners were held. Of course, these spots were in ruins, but one could see the vestiges. The old church which is way down the street of the new church. You can still see painting and decorations on the walls of the old church. Ruins and materials from the old church were used to construct portions of the new church. My mom has memories as a girl of sorting through the rubble and working together with other children of the village in this endeavor.

  6. Absolutely great information and I have gained much knowledge of your part 1 series. I was just there this past October 2016 and I have visited, Jocotepec, Huejotitan, Zapotitan de Hidalgo, Lake Chapala,and near by little towns... I can't wait to visit the Hacienda of Huejotitan from the inside as well. Thanks, for your time in doing this.


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