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

1 comment:

  1. Hello! I am planning to visit Ajijic this year (2013) for Independence Day festivities.

    It has been almost 10 years since my last visit! I used to live on Calle Hidalgo, just by the Plaza.

    Would you happen to know what day they usually begin?

    Thank you!!


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