Saturday, August 20, 2011

Exploring Jalisco's old haciendas: Part 2, San Isidro Mazatepec

An elegant entrance passage connects the town plaza with a cool, quiet courtyard. Carole and I, along with our friends Maya and Charlotte, visited the small town of San Isidro Mazatepec in search of the ex-hacienda of that same name. We not only found it, but were warmly welcomed by its current owner and her family. After 4 years exploring Mexico, I am still astonished by the friendliness and hospitality of the people we meet. This has been our consistent experience whether they are well-to-do hacienda owners or simple back-country farmers. The town of San Isidro Mazatepec is located about one hour's drive northwest of Lake Chapala. To locate it on a Google map, click here.

Mazatepec is a Nahuatl word meaning "place of the deer", a name given by the original Coca inhabitants. Deer were apparently abundant in the area centuries ago. Discoveries in the area of a variety of stone and fired-clay domestic implements indicate a long period of indigenous settlement before the Spanish arrival. The first conquistador who passed through the area was Nuño Guzman de Beltran in the 1530's. His cruelty and rapacious greed were so extraordinary that they shocked even his contemporaries, who were no slouches themselves in these matters. He founded nearby Guadalajara, but he left such a trail of destruction behind him that it ultimately resulted in his deportation to Spain in 1537, where he died in prisonThe 16th Century Franciscan friars who evangelized throughout colonial Mexico usually assigned a patron saint to local indigenous villages, in this case San Isidro. Hence, the name of the colonial hacienda that later became the nucleus of the town. 

The Plaza of San Isidro Mazatepec

The Plaza of San Isidro Mazatepec used to be the center of the hacienda complex. In the center is the obligatory kiosco, or bandstand, a 19th Century addition. Along one side of the plaza sits the lovely Iglesia de San Isidro. The original church was built in the 17th Century as part of the hacienda. Colonial haciendas were self-contained operations that included everything the haciendados needed, in this case a church. The building you see above was erected in 1893, to replace the old church. Since we visited, the church and many of the buildings around the plaza have been repainted a light shade of green. I personally prefer the previous color you see in the photo above, but who can account for taste?

The lands around Mazatepec were originally conceded by the Spanish Crown to Nuño Guzman de Beltran, but after his disgrace they passed into the hands of others. In 1550 they came into the possession of Diego Lopez, a gentleman from Seville, Spain. Later, in January of 1615, the ownership of the hacienda was transferred to a Señor Porres Baranda de Estrada by order of Alonso Pérez Merchán, who was governor and captain of the forces in the area. Apparently the Porres Baranda family owned the property for a very long time, passing it down to the eldest son--or occasionally the eldest daughter--in each generation. 

The home of the haciendados occupied the northeast corner of the plaza. The current home is just the eastern, or right side of the corner seen above. The section to the left side is now owned by others. The covered porch behind the arched portales is comfortable and shady and contains rustic chairs and tables. When I first spotted this corner, I thought it might contain a museum or other public facility, or possibly a B&B as is the case for many others of Mexico's old colonial structures. However, after looking it over, I realized that it was a private home and I retreated to avoid any possible offense to the owners. 

Under the encomienda system set up by the conquistadors with Crown approval, the indigenous people in an area became, for all practical purposes, the slaves of the haciendados. In theory, this system involved an exchange: protection from hostile tribes by the Spanish owner in return for required labor. Of course, nobody bothered to ask the indigenous people if they agreed to such an exchange. Those that resisted faced extreme punishment including death. By the end of the 17th Century, 500 of such "protected workers" labored to produce the wheat that was the primary product of Hacienda San Isidro Mazatepec at that time. 

View of the hacienda warehouse from the plaza's kiosco. Only the bottom of this two-story building is currently occupied. The second story is a hollow shell with empty windows facing the plaza like gaping eye sockets of a skull. Other than the church, this is the tallest building of those surrounding the plaza. The warehouse was the point where bushels of wheat were collected before shipment. In addition to wheat, the hacienda also produced maiz (corn), papas (potatoes), and naranjas (oranges). The plaza area was very quiet the morning we visited, and the local people looked us over with veiled curiosity. Apparently, few Gringos visit this small town. However, a brand-new four-lane highway now passes just south of San Isidro Mazatepec, part of the new route that bypasses the congestion of southern Guadalajara. More tourists could end up here, which may account for the new paint job on the plaza's buildings.

In 1700, a new owner acquired the hacienda. On April 24 of that year, the Governor Don Francisco de Niezu of Nueva Galicia (including Jalisco and parts of surrounding states) authorized the transfer of the property to Señor Gaspar Carrillo de Baeza. In May of 1706, Gaspar Carrillo concluded another deal that included 128 "indios segadores y pasajeros" (indigenous harvesters and passengers) purchased at the price of 2 reales for the harvesters and 1 for the passengers. "Passengers" may mean dependents. The indigenous workers and their families were brought to the hacienda from villages around the area. 

El Punto Café now occupies the bottom floor of the old hacienda warehouse. At first, I was baffled by the name, which I initially read as "Punt". I could find no such word in my Spanish dictionary. Then I realized the red circle made it read "Punto", which in Spanish means "point, spot, or place". Puzzle solved! El Punto was closed when we came by so I never learned whether it was a restaurant, bar, or coffee house, and whether any of the old architectural elements had been incorporated in El Punto's decor. Perhaps I will on another visit.

During the later 18th and the 19th Centuries, the hacienda was owned by the family of Señor Fernando Fernandez de Somellera. This family retained ownership until the property was purchased by the Cobián family at the beginning of the 20th Century. Señor Cobián's sons José and Joaquin actively bought and sold ranches in the area, expanding the hacienda's size and economic importance to such a degree that the railroad heading west from Guadalajara was diverted so that the hacienda could have its own station

Iglesia San Isidro Mazatepec

The interior of the church is startlingly modern in appearance. While wandering through the church I encountered a man who appeared to be the caretaker. He was very kind about allowing me to photograph the interior (this is forbidden in some churches) and explaining a little of what I saw. He indicated that, while much of the church interior had been rebuilt, the 4 pillars you see above had been retained and are the oldest architectural elements. 

There had been a chapel on the hacienda from its earliest days. Teaching Catholicism to the indigenous workers had been one of the requirements of the encomiendo system. While the Franciscans who evangelized the indigenous people may have seen it as saving their souls, such teachings also provided the ideological underpinning for the social and economic system imposed upon them. Iglesia San Isidro was under the curate of Tlajomulco, which in turn came under the Bishop of Guadalajara.

San Isidro, the patron saint of Mazatepec.  Although not a Catholic, or even a believer in religion, I have developed a fascination with the art and architecture of the old Spanish churches. There is a deep feeling in the portraits and statues. The statuary is often very realistic, sometimes including a startling amount of gore when it involves the crucifixion of Jesus or the martyrdom of a saint. I was baffled at first when I discovered that there were actually at least 3 San Isidros. 

Isidore of Chios was a Roman naval officer who was martyred in 251 AD when he confessed to his ship captain that he had become a Christian. Isidore of Seville was a bishop during the Dark Ages (560-636 AD) who managed to convert the king of the barbarian Visigoths. I finally solved the problem when I matched up the official May 15 Feast Day for Mazatepec's patron saint with Isidore the Laborer who lived in Spain from 1070-1130 AD. San Isidro (St. Isidore) is the patron saint of farmers, peasants, and day laborers, which seems to fit well with a farming hacienda. He was associated with a number of miracles, including the enlistment of angels to do his plowing so he could pray. His patron discovered this when he came to investigate whether Isidro was doing his share of the farm work after his fellow workers tried to get him in trouble. I was amazed to find that he was married to yet another saint, Maria Tobia, known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, famed for ending droughts. After their son was miraculously saved from drowning in a well, they pledged celibacy and lived in separate houses. Isidro was canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622

Mailing yourself to heaven? While exploring the inside of the church, I discovered this rather odd-looking bank of what appeared to be postal boxes. Not so, said my new friend the caretaker. They are small family crypts where the ashes are kept. I stood for some time, bemused, not having ever seen anything quite like it. Actually, it probably makes a lot of sense. Why use up valuable land for burials? However, it occurred to me that the limited number of boxes probably means that only the well-to-do, or at least well-connected, would find a final resting place in this corner of the church. There is, in fact, a panteon (cemetery) at the edge of town.

A more traditional corner of the Iglesia San Isidro. I often find the side chapels of a colonial church to be the most interesting parts, and sometimes the most elaborately decorated. This chapel is to the left of the church's main entrance. The style is Neo-Classic, popular in the 19th Century.

The old Hacienda house

The porch and front entrance of the former home of the haciendados. Above, you can clearly see the graceful, column-supported arches called portales. The rust colored objects protruding from the wall above the portales are drain pipes. These are necessary for the proper runoff of rain from the traditional flat-roofed Mexican homes. The cool shade of the porch seemed especially inviting on a warm day. After my initial retreat, upon discovering that this wasn't a public building, we suddenly found ourselves invited inside. Our friend is Maya a very gregarious person. While wandering the plaza she encountered a handsome young man named Carlos Alfonso Gonzalez Sanchez. Maya is partial to handsome young men. Carlos turned out to be the son of the owner of the old hacienda house, and immediately invited Maya to visit his mother's home. When Maya mentioned she was with friends, Carlos insisted that we all come inside.

Hacienda San Isidro Mazatepec reached the summit of its economic and political power in the early 20th Century under the Cobián family. The property grew to 2760 hectares (a hectare is 10,000 square meters), one of the largest haciendas in the area. During this time, cattle became a big part of the operation, and large pastures for raising them were maintained. Apparently the Cobiáns left the running of the operation to a professional hacienda administrator. Like many absentee-haciendados, the family probably preferred life in a luxurious Guadalajara mansion, supplemented by travel in Europe. They only visited the property for brief vacations or when some business required it. 

A walkway lined with portales, facing the interior courtyard. After passing through the elegant entrance seen in the first photo of this posting, we found ourselves on an interior porch or veranda, looking through another set of portales into a large courtyard. The climate in this part of Mexico is so mild that much of life is conducted outdoors. People sit and socialize in the comfortable shade of a veranda like this, or bask in the warm sun as it bathes a large patio with light. Even during one of the summer rainstorms, this would be a nice place to sit and read a book. Decorating the long walkway inside the portales were plants, family photos, and odd sculptures like the skinny giraffe on the left. After introducing us to the owner of the house, his mother, Carlos soon disappeared to prepare for his participation in a charreada (Mexican rodeo). We will meet him again before this posting is over.

Other parts of the operation included a mill to produce brown sugar for rum, a tavern on the plaza that sold tequila, and a company store. The workers purchased tortillas, milk, and other necessities on credit from the store and paid whatever the hacienda owners demanded since there were few other options for shopping. The owners and their agents actually encouraged these debts because they bound the workers to the hacienda. The old encomienda system, along with outright slavery, had been abolished during the 1810-1821 War of Independence. The haciendados invented the company store as a method of ensuring a stable workforce through the creation of debt-slavery. Few workers were literate. Who but the haciendados or their agents could understand the books they kept, or could say what was really owed? Legally, a man could not leave the hacienda while owing it money and a man's children were responsible for his debts if he died. The haciendas could not have functioned as they did without a captive workforce. The company store was a perfect solution, for the haciendados at least.  

A broad, shady courtyard spread out just beyond the portales. From this point you are looking back toward the portales seen in the previous photo. An inviting set of wrought-iron patio furniture seemed like a perfect place to while away an afternoon. Around the sides of the courtyard were numerous rooms for visiting family members or guests. All faced onto this courtyard.

In contrast to the elegant lifestyle of the Cobián family and their administrators, the hacienda workers lived in tiny, dirt-floored, adobe huts. If the workers complained about their circumstances, the owner would tell them that they were free to leave and find work elsewhere. But, of course, they could not. Those with debts were bound to pay them off. Those few without debts were still largely stymied. Very likely, they had been born and grew up on the hacienda, as had their parents, grandparents, and so on. With little or no education, they were ignorant of the world or how to do anything but hacienda work. In addition, a worker who left without the approval of the haciendado might experience great difficulty in finding a job on neighboring properties. The haciendados knew how to stick together. For a campesino, it was much better to keep one's mouth shut, tip one's hat to the haciendado, and forget one's troubles with a few shots of tequila in the hacienda tavern. Put in on the tab, please.

Before leaving us, Carlos introduced us to his family. Carlos' mother, Ma. Nahum Gonzalez Rodriguez, is seated on the left, wearing a green blouse. Although she spoke no English, her warmth and courtesy easily crossed the language barrier. Moments after we arrived, a large party of family members suddenly arrived from Houston. We wondered if we might be intruding but everyone quickly made us feel welcome. Above, leaning on the chair behind the family matriarch, is her son Luis Miguel Sanchez Gonzalez. In the pink blouse next to him, is his sister Maria Luisa Sanchez Gonzalez. Next on the right and seated, is her husband, Oscar Alberto Mata Jiménez. I am especially indebted to Oscar for helping me with all of these rather complicated Mexican names. My apologies to anyone whose name I get wrong. Oscar and my wife Carole are examining Tony Burton's book, Western Mexico, A Traveler's Treasury, from which we located ex-Hacienda San Isidro Mazatepec. Seated, to the right of Carole, is our friend Maya. At the extreme left, also seated, is our other good friend Charlotte. The table and chairs are the famous equipale-style Mexican furniture, made from rough-cut leather and pieces of hand-carved wood. Hernán Cortéz' conquistadors remarked upon it when they first visited the Aztec capital.

Oscar and his wife Luisa. Oscar spoke excellent English and smoothly stepped in as the unofficial translator. While grateful for his help, we also tried to practice some of our slowly improving Spanish. Oscar was very kind and worked hard to make us feel welcome and answer our many questions about the old hacienda. He told us a story about the unfairness involved in hacienda's old company store. His mother-in-law mentioned a legend about buried treasure somewhere on the hacienda property, hidden to protect it from bandits or revolutionaries. When someone accidentally dropped a few pesos on the floor, I immediately claimed that it must be part of the tesoro (treasure), which drew a big laugh and further broke the ice.

Although the Cobián family managed to hang on to the hacienda through the shooting part Mexican Revolution, in 1931 a reckoning came for 500 years of exploitation under the encomienda system and the later debt-slavery scam. The hacienda was broken up and much of the land distributed to the families living there. The debt-slavery system was abolished and people could work where they wanted. Eventually the Cobián family passed from the scene and later in the 20th Century, the Gonzalez Rodriguez family came into possession of parts of the old hacienda, including the main house and the old administrator's house. The family are clearly very well-off and, judging from reactions I saw in the street, they are considered by others to be leading members of the community. However it is also clear that they are not the arrogant old haciendado elite. Those days, hopefully, are gone forever.

Sras. Nahum and Luisa chat with Charlotte on the verenda. Past them on the left are a group of family photos, many of them wedding shots. The warm, rust-colored tiles on the floor are very popular in Mexican homes. The family suggested that if we returned, we could stay in some of the many rooms that surround the patio. We all felt like honored guests, yet only a short time before we had been complete strangers. We were moved by such warmth and hospitality. Carole joked later that if we'd stayed much longer, they might have adopted us. 

Carlos' sister, dressed gorgeously in her charra outfit. This was one of the many family photos on the veranda wall. Nahum Sanchez Gonzalez was not home at the time we visited. Apparently she shares Carlos' interest in charreadas. Women used to be banned from participating in such events, but they have broken through the old barriers. There is now a special event for women's teams who perform highly skilled choreography with their horses. Such teams are called Escaramuza Charra, and there is a National Championship for them.

The Hacienda Administrator's house

The hacienda administrator's house is on the south side of the plaza, facing the church. This old mansion, now just a shell, is owned by Carlos. Oscar gave us a tour and it appears that Carlos has been doing a bit of work on the place. The lintel over the main door and the window frames are of elaborately cut stone. Clearly, the person who stayed here was a man of some importance on the hacienda.

During the last two decades of the 19th Century and the first of the 20th, Mexico's hacienda system reached its peak. This was the period of the Porfiriato, so-called because of the dictatorship of Portifio Diaz. Originally a reformer of the Liberal Party under Benito Juarez, Diaz turned conservative after achieving power in 1876. His political base was comprised of the new industrialists, foreign corporations, and the old hacienda elite. All three groups grew immensely wealthy as Diaz crushed labor strikes, brutally suppressed uprisings by the campesinos, and put down any other political opposition that surfaced. Debt laws that virtually enslaved the hacienda workers were strengthened and strictly enforced under the Diaz regime.

Front door lintel of the administrator's house. It is not clear from my research whether this building was used as a home or an office. At least one source indicates that the administrator may have used this as an office and lived in the main house, since the haciendados were so seldom present. This would have been an impressive entrance for either an office or a home.

Ironically, even as the power and wealth of their haciendas increased, fewer and fewer haciendados actually ran them or even lived on them. Instead, they hired professional administrators such as those that ran Hacienda San Isidro Mazatepec while it was owned by the Cobián family. These men (and they were always men in the Mexico of that day) were part of the growing technically-skilled middled class, and were important figures in the hacienda world. 

Railing along the ruined back porch. The rear of this property is now a stable for the family's horses. The elegance of this old stone railing harks back to an earlier era. Little details like this always fascinate me. They leave me wondering what sorts of activities may have occurred on this porch and what important figures of the time may have trod the steps.

Because of their expertise and professionalism, the hacienda administrators could move around, working for one family or another, according to how they viewed their own interests. They could demand great authority in running the hacienda's day to day operations, and keep it as long as they produced the profits that paid for the haciendados' opulent city homes and leisurely vacations in Europe. They could also demand fine accommodations for themselves on the hacienda such as the once-luxurious administrator's house at San Isidro Mazatepec. They could even live in the main house itself, as long as they made it available during the owners' infrequent visits.

A secret tunnel. This doorway, at the base of the porch stairs, leads to a blocked tunnel. The family thinks this may have been a secret passageway between the administrator's house and the main house across the plaza. Its purpose is still a mystery. Was it for a quick escape should bandits attack? Does it lead, beyond the blocked area, to a secret cache that might hold treasure?

Problems the administrators faced included raids by bandits. Some bandits were former soldiers from the innumerable wars that raged through Mexico during the 66 years between the beginning of the War of Independence in 1810 through Diaz' rise to power in 1876. Demobilized soldiers often find it difficult to settle down. Others were campesinos, who turned to banditry to make a living after being dispossessed by haciendados who had illegally seized their lands. The Revolutionary General Pancho Villa himself got his start as a bandit leader after a haciendado casually raped his sister. He hunted down and killed the culprit, then rode off to join a bandit gang in the mountains of Chihuahua. When the Revolution started in 1910, the haciendas had to deal with marauding armies from all sides. Then, from 1926-1929, there was the Cristero War, a Catholic revolt against reforms implemented by the Revolutionary government. The war was especially intense in this area of Jalisco State. True to form, after that war ended, many former Cristeros turned to banditry. Haciendas like San Isidro Mazatepec, often isolated by poor roads and long distances, had to depend on their own resources for defense and protection of valuables.

Preparing for the charreada. It seemed Carlos was not the only one getting prettied up for the charreada that afternoon. From the back porch, I spotted a couple of workers washing this magnificent animal. I don't know a lot about horses, but this one was unmistakably special. Apparently Carlos would be putting him through his paces later at the big event.

Oscar seemed to have a special affection for this horse. He spoke quietly as he stroked this beauty. I was curious about Oscar and his family and asked him why they live in Houston rather than Mexico. "It is for the children," he answered. "Things up north move much more quickly, and that is good for them." I considered this for a few moments, then responded. "I moved down here for just the opposite reason. Things move much more slowly here, and I like that."

The streets of the pueblo 

You encounter lots of horses and their riders in small Mexican towns. If the cars would disappear, it would be easy to believe you have stepped into the 19th Century. Even in Ajijic, with its heavy presence of foreigners and 1st world infrastructure, I have gotten used to the clop, clop, clop of horsemen riding by under my window on the old cobblestone streets. Although he was an older man with white hair, the rider on the golden horse above sat erect and handled his animal with the perfect ease and confidence of a lifelong horseman.

Regal disdain. I am a dog lover from way back. While strolling the streets we passed this noble-looking hound sitting in the back of a thoroughly beat-up pickup truck. From his expression and posture, he could have been sitting on a throne. I approached him with soft words, but he gave a deep rumble in the back of his throat. The message was clear: "Don't even think about putting your hand inside this truck!" I backed off, but managed to get a quick photo anyway.

Dressed in his 19th Century charro finery, Carlos talks on his 21st Century cell phone. After completing his preparations for the charreada, Carlos reappeared at last to walk us out to the plaza as we  left. I always enjoy how Mexico operates simultaneously on several different time scales. One finds modern technology utilized in ancient settings. Centuries-old traditions like the charreada continue to exist and thrive in the Space Age. As we left ex-Hacienda San Isidro Mazatepec, I reflected upon how wonderfully we had been treated by this family and hoped we would have the opportunity to see them again and perhaps return their hospitality.

This completes Part 2 of my series on Jalisco's old haciendas. I hope you have enjoyed this look into a different world and a different time. I always enjoy reader responses. 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 include your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim 


  1. How fortunate to be able to visit this family! It's so interesting to see present day contrasted with the history - Thanks!

  2. Thanks for posting this. On my last trip to GDL I really wanted to visit San Isidro. The name Mazatepec evokes history and culture, but I never got the chance to go. Thanks for posting this! At least I was able to see a little bit more of the treasures in the Tlajomulco region so close to Guadalajara and the post was very informative.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this! My boyfriend and I are heading down to Puerto Vallarta in October, and I really want to explore Jalisco. How easy is it to get a tour of these haciendas? It's been my dream to see one! :)

  4. Dear Joules,
    It is often difficult to gain admittance or even to find some of these sites. Your best best would be to visit this website for some haciendas that are now hotels or event centers:

    I hope you are able to access this response. I usually advise people to leave their email address so that I can respond directly.

    Good luck during your visit, Jim Cook

  5. Can someone help to get the number to the cemetery of San Isidro mazatepec jalisco


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