Sunday, January 29, 2012

Etzatlán Adventure Part 4: Ex-Hacienda San Sebastian

The Casa Grande of ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian just north of Etzatlán. The long porch, bounded by 14 arched portales, ends at the hacienda's white chapel with its lovely bell tower. Etzatlán lies in the heart the old hacienda country to the west of Guadalajara. To locate the hacienda on a Google map, click here. The turnoff from Highway 4 is a short distance west of Etzatlán, just before you come to Lake Magdalena, the small lake seen in Part 3 of this series. The property is now called Los Dos Hermanos, a rancho owned by a pair of brothers as the name implies. They are gradually restoring the Casa Grande (literally the "Big House"). I never met them during my two visits to the property, but they don't seem to mind the occasional visitor and their workmen were quite friendly on both my visits.

La Casa Grande

View of the Casa Grande from in front of the chapel. The old well in the foreground once produced water for the hacendado (hacienda owner) and his family. The Casa Grande sits on a slight rise, providing a vista of the valley to the east. I first learned of San Sebastian from "Quilocho and the Dancing Stars", a book about Quilocho Retolaza and the ballet stars he assisted in defending their gold claim in the mountains overlooking Ajijic. (See "La Rusa's Gold Mine".) In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution, Quilocho returned from his service in Pancho Villa's army and became a professional hacienda administrator. One place he worked was a hacienda near Ahualulco, a town a few miles east of Etzatlán. While there, he briefly courted the daughter of the owner of Hacienda de San Sebastian. Several nights a week, Quilocho would ride over from the hacienda he administered about 10 miles away. Sitting on his horse outside a barred window of San Sebastian's Casa Grande, he would respectfully converse with his intended bride. She remained inside, behind the bars, with an older female relative hovering in the background as a chaperone. Such were the traditional courtship practices of the very conservative society that populated Mexico's old haciendas.

La Casa Grande's main entrance. Two beautifully-carved double doorways, called "la finca grande" give admittance to a large foyer inside. While the long porch running the length of the Casa Grande might have been used to enjoy the view, the main focus of the house is the central courtyard behind la finca grande. In this, Hacienda de San Sebastian followed the pattern found in most of Mexico's haciendas, according to Carlos E. Parra Ron, Etzatlán's official historian. The Casa Grande is part of a cluster of structures called the casco (helmet). The name fits because the casco contains the nerve center of the whole operation. In addition to the Casa Grande's living areas, a casco would typically include the Capilla (chapel), the administrative offices, the Tienda de Raya (company store), the stables, and the huerta (the owner's personal garden/orchard). Nearby would be some small dwellings for the household staff, called peones acasillados because their housing was considered part of their pay.

A large moth appeared on the wooden doorway as we prepared to enter the Casa Grande. The wingspan was almost 6 inches and the color matched the wood so well that it looked like an intentional decoration until we realized it was alive. During the 16th-18th Centuries, haciendas were the basic economic and political units of Nueva Hispaña, and they continued in that role in the new nation of Mexico during the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Prior to the Revolution, there were at least 470 haciendas in my home state of Jalisco. Today only about 120 have intact structures, but many of these now function as hotels, public buildings, orphanages, etc. A few still operate as large farms or ranches. The rest are in ruins.

Fountain in the center of the courtyard. The sculpture rising from the bowl of the fountain represents a cornstalk, with ripe ears protruding on all sides. Since pre-hispanic times, Mexico's most important food crop has been maiz (corn). Lush gardens surround the fountain, and most of the Casa Grande's rooms open onto this central area with access between them not by interior hallways, but by the exterior walkways around three sides of the courtyard. Behind the fourth wall, outside the Casa Grande, was the huerta.

An airy walkway along the east side of the courtyard. Just as the exterior porch is bounded by arched portales, so are the walkways. In all there are 27 such portales throughout the Casa Grande. Despite their beauty, haciendas like San Sebastian had a dark side. The hacendados ruled them like feudal barons. According to Sr. Carlos "their vanity made them believe they were demi-gods...they were little interested in the misery they created, and those who suffered the consequences were the poor people." There was a vast gap in wealth and social standing between the hacendado and his family and the peones who worked for them. Patios with flower gardens and artistic sculptures might be enjoyed by the owner, but the workers lived in squalid, one-room, dirt-floored huts. San Sebastian's records show that 400 peones worked there in 1903. For them, a day's work paid only .37 centavos from which they had to support not only themselves but their families. Most were not lucky enough to be peones acasillados with free huts, so they might well have to pay rent to the hacendado for the privilege of living in their hovels. Such was the structure which underlay the hacienda owner's sumptuous life.

The Casa Grande's dining room was filled with expensive furniture. In the early days, the furniture would have been made by the hacienda's own carpenters. As the wealth of owners grew, they began to import the latest furnishings from Europe. In rooms like this, they entertained their neighbors from other haciendas, as well as socially acceptable travelers who stopped overnight as they journeyed along the old Camino Real (Royal Road) between Guadalajara and the Pacific Coast port of San Blas. This lifestyle would have been impossible had the workers been free to seek better pay and working conditions. The hacendados solved this problem through a clever device created to bind their workers to the hacienda. The Tienda de Raya, or company store, was located within the casco under the hacendado's close supervision. It had a two-fold aim. The overt purpose was profit for the owner from selling basic food stuffs and other necessities to the workers. The markets of the town which sold similar but cheaper goods were a considerable distance away, so the markup could be high. The covert aim was to create debt among the low-paid workers. Encouraged to buy on credit, they often never saw any actual money for their hard work. The hacendado's records always seemed to show them in debt and whether the records were accurate or not, who was to say? The workers were generally illiterate and challenging the hacendado could be a risky business. If the worker tried to leave without clearing the debt, he would be brought back by the rurales (rural police) for severe punishment. At the end of a hard day, it was better to shrug one's shoulders and order another glass of tequila from the Tienda de Raya. Put it on the tab, por favor?

La Capilla

The Capilla was always closely adjacent to the casa grande of a hacienda. The society of Nueva Hispaña and 19th Century Mexico was deeply religious, particularly among the hacendado class. Above, the Capilla is attached to the north end of the Casa Grande, and is dedicated to San Sebastian Martir (St. Sebastian the Martyr). It can be entered either from a door opening onto the porch or from the yard. Unfortunately, both times I visited the doors were locked so I never got to see the inside. According to Sr. Carlos' book, the Capilla is entered through a huge old wooden door, with iron fixtures, including a door knocker and a lock, that are all equally antique. The wooden pulpit and choir area are also original. There is an attached sacristy where the priest could don his vestments. Above it all towers a campanario (bell tower) to call the faithful to worship.

Hacienda San Sebastian's capilla is an elegant little building. The front yard is shaded by trees and adorned with flower gardens. Through the centuries, the occasional priest or bishop stood up for the indigenous people and poor mestizos. However, the church as an institution was closely allied with the ruling classes. In fact, among the vast,  pre-Revolution holdings of the Church in Mexico were many haciendas. The physical proximity of the chapel to the boss' house is a graphic example of the political and social relationship between the two elites. If workers and the poor could be focused on the purported rewards and punishments of the next life, it would be easier to get them to stoically accept the hardships and inequities of this one.

The garden entrance to the Capilla. The framing of this doorway is in the neo-classical style popular in the mid-18th Century. While San Sebastian is close enough to Etzatlán that a priest could ride out to conduct services, if a hacienda was too remote, the priest might live in the Casa Grande. Although not directly an employee of the hacendado, such a priest would be unlikely go out of his way to offend his host by, for example, protesting the conditions of the workers. The hacendado would no doubt be on good terms with the local curate or bishop and could make it hot for such a wayward priest. There was also the example of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo who, in 1811, was decapitated and his head hung from the walls of the Alhondigas in Guanajuato after he roused the poor to revolt against their oppressors at the beginning of the War of Independence. Significantly, prior to his execution, he was excommunicated by the Church.

The bell tower surmounting the Capilla served a double purpose. The bells of the campanario called the faithful to worship, but they also summoned the workers to their tasks in the morning. Later in the day, the bells alerted the hacienda's women to load mules with the food they had prepared for their men out in the fields. At the end of a long day, the bells again sounded, calling the men home. The large bell in the center was nicknamed La Gordera, after the men responsible for yanking the bell cord, called los gorderos. One of these men was known for ringing it before the mid-day food was fully loaded, causing the mule train to set off prematurely and the men in the fields to go hungry that day. Although he usually tried to blame the women for being tardy, he was still remembered bitterly by former peones 80 years after the hacienda was disbanded.

A beautiful palomino horse, saddled and ready, waits for its rider to return. Any self-respecting hacendado kept fine horses in his stable. Jalisco, and much of the rest of rural Mexico, has deep roots in the horse culture. Although some horses are kept by the wealthy for show, they are also considered to be vital working animals by ordinary rural Mexicans . A driver who ventures down any country road will soon encounter Mexican vaqueros herding cattle, or simply traveling from one place to another. Common sounds outside the window of my room where I write this blog include the clop, clop, clop of hooves on the cobble stone streets. One of Mexico's most cherished symbols is the Charro, mounted on a steed like the one above, and wearing his huge embroidered sombrero and silver disks down the side of his skin-tight pants. The old haciendas of Jalisco are where the Charro tradition originated, along with tequila and the mariachi band.

La Casa de Campo

La Casa de Campo, seen from the garden of the Capilla. La Casa de Campo (the Field House), was separate from the casco, but was also an important structure on a hacienda. Here the hacendado met with the peones to direct them on the coming day's work or get their reports from the fields at day's end. This was also where tools and equipment were stored. I was charmed to find beautifully arched portales gracing the front of such a utilitarian building. When I peeked inside, I found large tractors and the other mechanized farm equipment that greatly reduced the need for the hundreds of workers that used to assemble here. Since this hacienda's founding in the 17th Century, its economic focus has changed from time to time. However, maiz (corn) has been important throughout San Sebastian's history. Ground by hand in stone metates, it produced tortillas for the hacienda's workers, provided feed for the animals, and was sold in the markets of Etzatlán and elsewhere. According to Sr. Carlos' book, "Hacienda de San Sebastian", the most important crops in 1905 were--in order of value--maiz, beans such as guasano and frijol, barley, wheat, and potatoes.

Livestock was also important to the hacienda. Cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep were raised. Wool from sheep was an important source for revenue, according to the 1905 records. In this same pasture, I also encountered a goat. Cabrito, or baby goat, is a favorite dish in this part of the country. Early records also show that Hacienda de San Sebastian was well known for distilling and selling tequila as far back as the 17th Century. The drink gets its name from the small city of Tequila on the north side of the nearby Tequila Volcano. Only the liquor from the Blue Agave which is grown here, and fermented, distilled and bottled in this area can be called "tequila." The use of Blue Agave to produce an intoxicating drink goes far back into pre-hispanic times. The indigenous people originally drank pulque from fermented but undistilled Blue Agave. This ancient, mildly-intoxicating drink is still consumed in many rural areas, although beer has largely supplanted it in many places.

The setting of the hacienda is one of great beauty. San Sebastian lies in a lush valley, surrounded by the volcanic mountains seen in the background behind the Casa de Campo. In the foreground, the ever-present bougainvillea arches over a garden wall. The original 17th Century builder of the hacienda is unknown, but the Pachecho family, headed by Manuel Pacheco Calderón, became the owners in the mid-18th Century. He was from Santander, Spain, and the property he bought included 1000 hectares (2.47 thousand acres) of fertile land. At its peak, in the early 20th Century, the hacienda possessed almost 65,000 acres.

Plaza, pond, and workers' houses

A small plaza with a kiosco stands next to the Casa Grande. The plaza is at the south end of the Casa Grande, the opposite end from the Capilla. Here, the pre-Revolution peones would celebrate the many fiestas associated with saints days. Today, their still-poor-but-free campesino counterparts follow some of those same old traditions. In 1865, a hard-driving pair of brothers arrived in the area from Asturias, Spain. They were determined to make their fortune in the still-new nation of Mexico, and they succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Their names were Manuel Fernández del Valle, and his brother Justo. They married two of the daughters of Francisco Martínez Negrete, an important Mexican businessman. The brothers were low on capital, but these marriages allowed access to the funds they needed to start their empire, which ultimately included Hacienda de San Sebastian.

A stream was dammed to create a large pond with a ready water supply. The adobe ruins of an unknown structure stand watch over the hacienda's major water source. While we were there, a local boy and his girlfriend fished the pond with a hand-thrown net. The del Valle brothers bought textile factories, invested in railroads, bought mines, and started the Bank of Jalisco. They were among the founders of the Guadalajara Chamber of Commerce. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold. By 1914, they had acquired Hacienda de San Sebastian at a price of $350,000 pesos, an amount equivalent to several million of todays pesos. At the time, the primary focus of hacienda was livestock, but it was still producing quantities of maiz, frijol, and mezcal.

Homes of the old peones acasillados are now occupied by their campesino descendents. The adobe structures are small, but tidy with glass windows and flower gardens. In front of one, the pinto horse of the occupant grazed contentedly. The Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) was a disaster for the hacendado class. Their peones rose up in vengeance for 400 years of oppression, often killing the hacienda owners. Their casas grandes were looted and 70% of Jalisco's haciendas were left in ruins. Lands were confiscated and distributed to the farm workers and their families. The surviving hacendados were often left with only a few of the casco buildings, if they retained anything at all. 

Three young vaqueros decided to give us a show. We were photographing the pond when I spotted them mounting up so they could deliberately ride through the middle of our shots. We were delighted at their casual expertise, and they obviously enjoyed the novelty of our presence. The property, called ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian after it was stripped of most of its lands, saw its casco buildings deteriorate as they passed through various hands. In 1994, Miguel and Silvestre Ramos Meza acquired the old casco buildings and enough land to create Rancho Dos Hermanos. Over the last 17 years they have slowly refurbished the Casa Grande and some of the other casco buildings, as well as the Casa de Campo. They are developing a functioning farm with the help of the workers living in what is now called simply San Sebastian. Ninety-eight people still live in the old peones' houses. They are evenly divided by sex and slightly less than half are children. The median amount of education among them is 6 years, but Rancho Dos Hermanos is rebuilding a ruined school, using community labor. Things are looking up.

This completes Part 4 of my series on Etzatlán. In Part 5, I will take you on a short tour of Etzatlán's small but excellent museum containing artifacts found in ancient tombs, including some found on the property of ex-Hacienda de San Sebastian. I hope you enjoyed this look at a beautiful old Mexican hacienda. Feel free to leave your thoughts 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


  1. Just discovered your blog, and I am inspired by your vivid photography and descriptions. My husband and I are headed to Lake Chapala this week to find a house and begin our retirement, and your blog is opening up unlimited possibilities for Mexican adventures. By the way, we are Dan and Joy Cook--hopefully our paths will cross!

  2. Hello. I have sent you a couple of messages but not heard back. I work for Oxford University Press. We would like to use one of your photos in a textbook. Could you please contact me at
    Thank you,
    Sandy Cooke


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