Thursday, January 30, 2014

San Blas Part 1: A sleepy fishing town with endless beaches

An empty hammock waits for someone to loll away a balmy afternoon at Playa Mantanchen. The playas (beaches) around San Blas were almost empty when we visited, even though it was the January high season. Playa Matanchen is just south of San Blas on Mexico's Pacific Coast. It curves in a great, unbroken arc of warm, white sand around Bahia Mantanchen. As I stood in the shade of this palm-roofed palapa I could see Aticama, directly across the bahia. That is where we stayed in Aticama Bed and Breakfast, a small, rustic hotel run by a couple of laid-back expats from the US. This posting is the start of a new series focusing on San Blas and its many interesting attractions. In Part 1, I will give you a look at the little fishing town itself, and the area immediately around it. In future posts, we will explore some of its history as a famous colonial-era port, and I'll take you for a stroll along some of its beautiful beaches. We'll also take a boat cruise through a crocodile infested lagoon and visit Mexicaltitán, reputed to be the legendary Aztlán, the starting point of the great Aztec migration that ended when they founded Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) in 1325 AD. For a Google map showing San Blas and the surrounding area, click here.

The Overview

View of San Blas, looking north from the old Spanish fort on a bluff overlooking the town. In the distance you can see a bend of the estuary that empties into Bahia Matanchen at San Blas. Before we visited San Blas, our experience of the Mexican state of Nayarit consisted solely of driving through its rugged mountains. We were surprised at how much rich, flat, farm land we found. In addition to bananas and coconuts, beans and corn, the farmers of Nayarit grow mangos, coffee, tobacco, and sugar cane. Fishing is also important, especially around San Blas, where shrimping is a major occupation.

Looking like gulls with their wings extended, shrimp boats hover near the harbor entrance. A local fisherman complained to us that many of these boats come from elsewhere and have hurt local fishermen by voraciously scooping up the local shrimp. Not only do they devastate the shrimp population but, in the process, they destroy a lot of other sea life. Coconut palm groves line the shore, providing food, palm fronds for palapa shelters, and shade from the sun.

Just off shore to the west is a shrine holy to both Catholics and Huicholes. The statue atop Piedra Blanca (White Rock) is the Virgin Mary, somewhat of a newcomer. Since many centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, the indigenous Huichol people have believed that the rock represents Tatei Haramara, the Goddess of the Sea and Queen of the Five Colored Corn. Five is an important symbolic number for the Huicholes. They also call the rock Washiewe and, to them, it represents the western-most of the four cardinal points of the earth. It is the only one of the four associated with salt water. The other three points are located in San Luis Potosi (east), Mesa del Nayar (north), and Lake Chapala (south). The Huicholes regularly conduct religious rituals on Isla de los Alacranes (Scorpion Island) in Lake Chapala, near where I live. Each of the four points is centered on a rock and is associated with a separate deity. I photographed Piedra Blanca/Tatei Haramara/Washiewe from the Spanish fort, several miles away, using the extreme limit of my telephoto zoom.

The "New" and "Old" churches stand next to each other at the Plaza. Behind them you can see the estuary near its mouth at Bahia Matanchen. During colonial times, sailing ships from the Far East used to cruise up this channel. San Blas continued as a port (although much diminished in importance) during the 19th Century after the Mexican Republic was founded. On March 12, 1768, the ship La Purisima, carrying Fray Junipero Serra, departed from here to found San Diego, the first of the 21 famous Franciscan missions in California. Today, the channel is used only by small fishing boats, tourist launches, and sailboats.

La Plaza Principal

The Plaza Principal at San Blas is lovely and well-maintained. Its many trees offer cool shade and there are numerous attractive wrought-iron benches on which to while away an afternoon. The Plaza is typical of those found throughout Mexico. It is centered on a kiosko and one of its two sides is dominated by two adjacent churches, while the other contains local government building, called La Presidencia. We found considerable activity in and around the Plaza at every time of the day we visited. In the mornings there were vendors hawking vegetables and people enjoying coffee at a small shop fronting the plaza. In the afternoons, activity picked up as people hurried about on various kinds of business. In the evenings, the streets had few cars, but were thronged by bicyclists and skateboarders, while the benches were filled with people enjoying ice cream from a corner store. We occasionally encountered expats who were locals, but saw few foreign tourists.

The "Old Church" is located on Calle Sinaloa at the northwest corner of the Plaza. Oddly, despite an extensive literature and internet search, I cannot find an actual name for either this church or the so-called "New Church,"which stands next to it. If anyone can supply the names, I would appreciate it. In any case, the Old Church, made of adobe and stone, was begun in 1808 and finally finished in 1878. Unfortunately, it is no longer in use, and we could not go inside. In spite of its somewhat decrepit state, the Old Church has an interesting connection with the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

In 1882, Longfellow wrote the poem "The Bells of San Blas," based on a magazine drawing. The bells had once been part of Templo de Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a church built on the high bluff called San Basilio, just behind the Spanish fort. The Templo had been constructed in 1788 and was in use until 1872, although its roof had collapsed in 1816. In 1878, the bells were finally installed in the Old Church's campanario (the belfry above) after they had hung from a rustic frame for many years. Longfellow saw a Harper's Magazine story about the old bells, accompanied by a drawing showing the pitiful state to which they had been reduced. The story was ironically entitled "The Tower of San Blas." The poet was moved to write a melancholy tribute to the bells, speaking of the greatness over which they had once tolled, and how they were now silent among the ruins of the past. This was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's last work. He died twelve days later. To read "The Bells of San Blas," click here.

The steeples of the "New Church" rise high above the Old Church. A mother and her young son strolled quietly through my shot as the daughter tagged along behind. The New Church was begun in 1957, but the steeples were not completed until 2011. The building is attractive enough, but I am much more drawn to those with rough old stones, streaked with time and encrusted with obscure symbols from past centuries. The blue canopied stalls behind the palm trees are used by artisans plying their wares.

The central kiosko of the Plaza Principal, with the Old Church in the background. A child hangs onto the railing leading up the steps as palm trees gently sway in the background. Mexican kioskos are both ubiquitous and unique. They follow a very similar design. There are usually six to eight sides to the base, with one or more sets of stairs leading to a platform. Kioskos are usually open-sided, with the roof supported by columns rising from each corner of the base. Often the railings are of intricate wrought iron design. They are generally--but not always-- roofed with clay tiles. Some, like this one, are simple in construction and use. Others are more complex. I remember one that had the tourist office built into the base, an extraordinarily good idea but not generally duplicated elsewhere. The one in San Cristobal de las Casas is two storied, with a bar/restaurant on the first level, and a platform for the marimba band on the second. Virtually every Mexican plaza, whether in a mighty city or a humble pueblo, contains a kiosko as its centerpiece. One glaring example to the contrary is Mexico City's vast and famous Zócalo, which is simply a huge but starkly empty paved square.

People in the town get around on a variety of vehicles. Four-wheeled ATVs were common, but motorcycles even more so. I saw more motorcycles in San Blas than in any other place we have visited. Under the blue umbrella behind the ATV is a tricycle-powered vendor's cart, yet another method of transportation. The red and white building in the background is the Mercado Municipal (City Market) containing stalls for sellers of vegetables and fruit, and displays of fresh cut meat. Also prominent are stalls selling the fresh fish pulled each day from Bahia Mantanchen and the Pacific Ocean beyond.

La Presidencia Municipal is the chief government building in the Plaza Principal. It houses a number of municipal offices. A municipality in Mexico is roughly equivalent to a county government in the United States. A municipality will contain a chief city which usually carries the same name, but it also includes the surrounding farmland and smaller towns and pueblos. La Presidencia, like the rest of the Plaza, is attractive and well-maintained. The large banner across the front proclaims to an on-going public health campaign.

A large mural of a Huichol man contemplating Tatei Haramara covers a wall in the Presidencia. Nayarit honors its indigenous heritage in a number of ways, including this mural which greets visitors in the entrance hall of the Presidencia. The Huichol, who call themselves Wixáritari ("the people"), hail from the mountains of the Sierra Madre Occidental which covers parts of Nayarit, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Durango states. They are a very ancient tribe whose sacred fireplaces have yielded carbon traces dating back 15,000 years. The Huichol are fiercely protective of their culture and both men and women typically wear traditional clothing on a day-to-day basis. They make and sell beautiful bead-studded handicrafts and colorfully embroidered clothes with representations of sacred animals.

A statue of Independence War hero Jose Maria Mercado stands in front of La Presidencia. Father Mercado was one of the priests who took up arms when Father Migual Hidalgo y Costilla issued his famous "grito" (cry) for revolt against Spanish rule in November 1810. Father Mercado led a rebel army that took Tepic (now the capital of Nayarit). He then marched on San Blas, an important Spanish naval base at the time. Although the Spanish were well armed, there were only a few hundred royalists in San Blas and the local population supported the insurgents. The Spanish surrendered and Mercado sent 42 cannon to Hidago's army. However, Hidalgo was defeated at Calderón Bridge in 1811 and the Spanish then sent an expedition against San Blas. Father Mercado and his Compaña Fija de San Blas were outnumbered and outgunned. Most of his subordinate leaders were captured and executed, but Mercado himself died mysteriously. His body was found at the bottom of an oceanside cliff and no one knows the real story of his demise.

The Centro area

Booths lined the streets surrounding the Plaza. This day was apparently their tianguis (street market) day. Clothing, shoes, kitchenware, and nicknacks of various kinds filled these stalls. It seemed that anywhere a person could set up an impromptu stand, there was merchandise for sale. Most of the goods seemed to be marketed to the local population, rather than having a tourist orientation.

An elderly woman sits behind a table overflowing with fresh, whole fish. The one with the long tail hanging over the edge is probably a dorado (mahi mahi). An old table and chair, a cooler, and an old-fashioned balance scale were all this woman needed to do business.

San Blas residents barter over fresh fruits and vegetables. Two customers consider quality and prices offered at the rustic, curbside booth. Across the street is the official Mercado Municipal. The sign at the top of the photo advertises a carniceria (butcher shop). To its right and left are signs for Coca Cola. The US soft drink company not only sells under its own name but also owns popular Mexican companies like Ciel, which markets bottled water, an important product in Mexico where tap water is generally considered unsafe.

"Billy Bob's" is a popular local bar catering to both Americans and Mexicans. My eye was caught by the huge, artificial Long Horn skull. Actor Lee Marvin "discovered" San Blas in the 1950s and for a while it was a popular deep sea fishing destination for the Hollywood set. We found evidence of earlier waves of expats in various eating and drinking places. However, other sites along the coast have become more famous and popular over the years. San Blas has reverted to the sleepy fishing town it has been since the 19th Century. Expats in residence seem to like it that way.

Viejano's Bar sign shows a balding, elderly surfer sharing a board with a buxom blonde. Viejano's (Old Guy's) bar is very rustic and seems to have been one of the watering holes for the wave of hippies and surfers who arrived in the 1960s and 70s. Notice the tongue-in-cheek sign over the door, advising hippies to use the side door. In a later posting, I'll show you Stoner's Surf Camp, a collection of palm frond huts on tall stilts set into the deep beach sand at Playa Borrego (Sheep Beach). It used to (and may still) be a focal point for the surfing set.

Mangrove lagoons

San Blas is surrounded on three sides by thick mangrove swamps and placid lagoons. This area is teeming with wildlife, including Great White Egrets such as the one perched on the mangrove hummock in the upper left. Almost 300 species of birds have been identified in the area, and it has been a magnet for birders. Less welcome are swarms of mosquitos, although they are not bad in the winter months. Year-round, however, the je-jenes (also known as "no-see-um's") plague visitors and locals alike. They are most active in the late afternoons and evenings. Carole got chomped several dozen times by the almost invisible little critters. She finds it a bit annoying that they don't seem to have a taste for me. I came away without a single bite. A goodly supply of strong insect repellent is recommended, along with well-maintained screens on your hotel windows.

The ridged back of a crocodile betrays the presence of another hungry resident of the lagoon. The single road into San Blas passes through the mangroves and is paralleled by lagoons. I noticed a break in the thick stands of mangrove where I could get some photos. A Mexican motorcyclist was already there and he waved off to the right, exclaiming "cocodrilos!" I looked closely and in the distance I saw several floating objects that could easily have been mistaken for logs. With my telephoto, I picked out the tell-tale ridges on the croc's back. The Mexican exclaimed "cocodrilo!" again, a little more insistently this time. Almost, it seemed, with a warning tone.

A River Crocodile snoozes on the lagoon shore in the warm morning sun. As I fiddled with my camera, I happened to focus my eyes just in front and below me and almost dropped my new Nikon. Not 2 meters (6 ft) away I saw this formidable-looking fellow. The sign next to me on the edge of the water warned that these crocs can move muy rapido (very quickly). Fortunately, this one seemed more interested in continuing his nap than in lunching on me. I did notice, however, that his eyes were open and focused in my direction. This species of croc reaches adulthood when about 2 meters long, a little shorter than this fellow. They have been known to reach a snout-to-tail length of 7 meters (21 ft)! In a future posting, I will take you on a boat tour through the mangrove swamps and visit a local crocodrilario, where crocs are raised from the egg stage before being released into the swamps.

This completes Part 1 of my San Blas series. I always appreciate feedback and questions and if you have any, please either leave them in the Comments section below (it may say "no comments" if there are none yet) 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, January 11, 2014

A visit to Hacienda El Plan de Corona, Part 2: The 2nd story, the capilla, & the back veranda.

View of the hacienda's casa grande, including the window of the 2nd story master bedroom. Most of the hacienda is built on one level, but the hacendado's bedroom is on the 2nd floor, along with an interior balcony that overlooks the central courtyard. Last week, in Part 1 of this 2-part series, we saw the exterior of the casa grande, and various ground floor rooms. This week we'll take a look at the 2nd floor, the capilla (chapel) and the back veranda, along with various period paintings and photographs. This historic old building dates back at least to the middle of the 19th Century, and was the site where, in 1866, one of the heroes of the Franco-Mexican War died of his wounds after a nearby battle. Hacienda El Plan de Corona has belonged to the Corona family for all of that time, and its current owner was our host and guide. You met him if you have viewed Part 1.

The Second Floor Staircase and Balcony

After passing through the entrance zaguán, you turn left up the grand staircase to the 2nd floor.  On the way up, the walls are decorated with old religious paintings and 19th Century scenes of Guadalajara.

A painting of the Archangel Michael hangs at the top of the first set of stairs. Because of the rather delicate features and limbs of this figure, my first guess was a female angel. However, a couple of different people knowledgeable about religious paintings told me they believe it may be the Archangel Michael. The figure, wearing a helmet and carrying a flag in one hand and what may be a sword in  the other, certainly fits the Archangel's role as the leader of God's armies against Satan. Michael was revered by various military-oriented religious orders. He also has the distinction of appearing in Jewish and Islamic teachings as well as those of the Christians. The style of the painting leads me to believe that it is probably from the 17th or early 18th Centuries. It is only one of many religiously themed paintings and objects present in the hacienda.

Old chandelier hangs in the landing of the grand staircase. The light is now provided by incandescent electric bulbs, but in the old days it would have come from flickering candles. By the look of it, the chandelier may have been created on the hacienda by some blacksmith and/or carpenter of an earlier time. When you reach the top of the stairs, you face down a long balcony that overlooks the central courtyard and beyond it, the fields and pastures of the hacienda.

View from far end of the 2nd floor balcony. Hanging from the rafter is an elaborate bird-cage, with nothing wearing feathers in residence at the time we visited. Looking over the roof of the casa grande, you can see a group of palm trees in the near distance. These were imported by one of the previous hacendados. Such palms are typical of those found near casa grandes on many old Mexican haciendas. We have learned to look for them as a sign that we are approaching a site. In the far distance you can seen the range of mountains that borders this valley.

Unlike many we have visited, Hacienda El Plan de Corona still raises crops and livestock. In the foreground, a small herd of cattle grazes. In the background, fields of sugar cane stretch off into the distance. The Tradicion Charro got its start in Jalisco State on haciendas like this one. Charros are Mexican cowboys who have become experts in the riding and roping of horses and cattle. Topped with broad sombreros, charros wear elegant outfits, bordered with silver and embroidery, when they perform in the charreadas (Mexican rodeos). From the 16th through the early 18th Century, vast herds of wild cattle roamed the prairies of Jalisco, descendants of those originally brought over by the Conquistadores. By the middle of the 18th Century, the herds had been decimated by over-harvesting and the cultivation of wheat and corn became the staple of Jalisco's hacienda economy. In the latter half of the 19th Century, cash crops like sugar cane came into vogue, largely because the new railroad system could transport the processed sugar quickly and easily to distant markets. The scene above nicely encapsulates the long economic history of the Guadalajara area's haciendas.

The Corona family brand can be found on the tile floors and in the iron work of the casa grande. Each hacienda had its own brand. A symbol like this would be scorched into the hide of the livestock so that individual animals could be identified by their owners. I found this brand on a tile just outside the hacendado's master bedroom. Most of the basic elements of US and Canadian cowboy culture originated with hacienda cattle workers (vaqueros) of Mexico. The vaqueros conducted big cattle drives, crossing hundreds of miles of Mexico, for 200 years before the first American cowboy strapped on his spurs. North-of-the-border cowboys adopted the techniques, equipment, clothing, and even the terminology that their Mexican counterparts had developed and perfected centuries before.

The Hacendado's Bedroom

Near the top of the staircase, a door leads into the spacious master bedroom. An elaborately carved headboard stands behind the bed, with a religious figure spreading its arms. The throw rug on the tiled floor is a tanned cow hide.

In the corner, an painted angel cavorts on the door of an elaborately decorated armoire. Notice the blue and red tiles that have been used to border the floor of the room. The exterior of this 2nd story room can be seen in the first photo of this posting, above the main entrance of the casa grande.

The bathroom of the master bedroom is covered with painted tiles. This room has obviously been modernized for the convenience of the current owners. In the 19th Century, indoor plumbing would have been unusual, even in the casa grande of a wealthy family like the Coronas.

French doors open onto a wrought iron balcony overlooking the casa grande's entrance. The broad canopies of a pair of large trees shade the window from the glaring sun. From this balcony, the hacendado could observe the activities of his peones working around the front of his hacienda.  It also provided a dramatic stage from which to address them as a group on special occasions. Notice the old brass bell hanging from the upper right of the balcony.

The date on the balcony bell is 1810, the beginning of the War of Independence. The bell's date is significant, as is the placement of the bell on the balcony. Each September 15, at 11 PM in the evening, important figures emerge onto balconies all over Mexico to repeat the famous grito (cry) of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Castillo. Hidalgo rang the bell in the church at Dolores Hidalgo to signal the start of the revolt against Spain. At Mexico City's Palacio National, the President of Mexico reads the grito and rings the bell. At Hacienda El Plan de Corona, it is the hacendado. Mexico had layer upon layer of such traditions growing out of its 500 year history since Cortez landed. Of course, the indigenous people of Mexico celebrate traditions thousands of years older than that.

La Capilla (the chapel)

Viewed from the 2nd story interior balcony, the blue dome of La Capilla peeks through the trees. Such domes are as common in small hacienda chapels as they are in great Cathedrals. This chapel is entered from one of the covered walkways that surround the inner courtyard of the casa grande. The chapel of a hacienda was often the only church available for a considerable distance. The capilla became the religious focal point not only of the hacienda itself but for the whole area. Even after the Revolution broke up many of the haciendas, leaving the casas grandes and other buildings in ruins, their capillas were often carefully maintained by the local people as their community church. When we are out hunting for haciendas, one of our first stops upon entering a small pueblo will be the local church to see if it is an old hacienda's capilla. 

Altar area of the capilla. The interior of this capilla is quite small, with seating for only a couple of dozen people or so. The cross is bracketed by two of the many manifestations of the Virgin. On the left is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the dark-skinned version who is the patron of Mexico. She is particularly revered by the poor and indigenous people. In the ceiling above the cross you can see part of the interior of the dome.

Cherubs clutching garlands of flowers flutter about the interior of the capilla dome. As you will remember from the previous posting, cherubs were a favorite theme of the 19th Century artists who decorated Mexican haciendas. A set of the chubby little figures also appears on the wall at one end of the grand dining room, and a statue of a cherub sits on its sideboard.

To the right of the crucifix is another statue of the Virgin. I again consulted my experts on religious symbolism, who raised several possibilities about which version of the Virgin this may represent. The most definitive came from Richard Perry, who publishes the website Arts of Colonial Mexico. According to Richard, "this statue may be a devotion to a Virgin that is specific to the hacienda, but the imagery is that of La Purisima, or the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, with a sun like a halo of 12 stars and the half moon beneath her feet (she may also have held the Christ Child at one time). The crown on her head signifies the Queen of Heaven, a common complementary attribute."

The Back Veranda

Beautiful wrought iron grille decorates the gate leading to the back veranda.  The imagery above the gate seems to be a mariposa (butterfly). Notice the hacienda's brand on the upper part of the gate door. This brand also appears on the iron grilles on the windows along the exterior wall on the front of the casa grande. Although this gate appears to be relatively new, blacksmiths worked on haciendas from the earliest days of the colonial period. They passed their skills down and today you can find craftsmen working iron into artistic shapes in little shops all over Mexico.

The current owner uses the back veranda as a party area. Notice the ox yokes hanging from the pillars and the other antique decorations. There are a number of interesting paintings, photos, and other objects on the walls and pillars. The center pillar contains a cow skull, not unlike the one I brought back from hiking one day. Carole's response to my fascinating, if grimy, artifact was "Get that filthy thing out of my house!" Sometimes wives just don't understand.

A painting on the wall shows a dramatic charge by a squadron of Mexican lancers. Following on the road (upper left) is another mounted group which appears to be pulling artillery caissons. The long aqueduct in the upper left (still in existence today) shows that this scene was played out near El Plan de Corona, and was part of the Battle of Coronilla in December of 1866. The battle was fought against a mixture of French army troops and Mexican turncoats who supported Maximilian, the Austrian Archduke whom the French had imposed as Emperor over Mexico. The forces of Gen. Ramon Corona, owner of this hacienda at the time, won the battle.

A horse hitched to an elegant coach waits patiently for its passengers. The location appears to be a street in Guadalajara. The date in the lower right corner shows that the photo was taken in 1886. Gen. Corona probably owned this coach, or one very much like it. This would have been a standard form of transportation for wealthy hacendados of that era.

A giant pair of bull horns hangs near the ceiling of the veranda. This bull must have been immense. We all stood transfixed as we viewed the horns, measuring at least 1.5 m (5 ft) from tip to tip.

General Francisco (Pancho) Villa holds an earnest conversation with a young officer. This photo hangs behind the bar, along with several others of Villa and of General Emiliano Zapata along with other scenes from the Revolution. It is hard to tell what this interaction is about. The officer may be listening intently to Villa's battle instructions. On the other hand, Villa may be giving him a severe reprimand. Villa could be harsh and unpredictable. The candid and unposed photo is one I had never before seen. Although Sr. Corona had decorated his bar with photos of Villa and Zapata, he expressed a strong opinion that both were bandits and thieves. Sr. Corona's family still displays a photo of Porfirio Diaz in the casa grande's living room. Diaz was Mexico's dictator for 35 years before he was overthrown by Zapata, Villa, and the other revolutionaries. Of course, both of the Generals firmly believed in the redistribution of hacienda lands illegally seized from poor campesinos and the indigenous villages. As it is sometimes said, "where you stand depends upon where you sit."

Another unposed photo of Villa. He is draped, head down, over the fender of his car, following his 1923 assassination in Parral, Chichihuahua. After losing the battle of Celaya to General Álvaro Obregón in April, 1915, Villa steadily lost support. He finally made a deal with his enemies allowing him to retire to a 25,000 acre hacienda. In 1923, while riding through Parral in his open Dodge car, Villa and his bodyguards and companions were killed by a hail of bullets from seven assassins. Various theories have been proposed about who was responsible, but it was probably done on the orders of Plutarco Elías Calles, then a candidate for President of Mexico. Calles had heard reports that Villa was planning to run against him in the upcoming election. The Mexican President at the time was Álvaro Obregón, Villa's old opponent at Celaya. It is unlikely that Calles would have launched such a plot unless Obregón, his sponsor, assented.

Burning cane and whirlwinds

As we were leaving the hacienda, we unexpectedly witnessed part of the sugar cane process. We had noticed ash drifting through the air while we were on the 2nd floor balcony, but couldn't figure out what was causing it. After we piled into the tourist office van to return to Acatlán, I looked out the window and saw the cane fields in flames. After the cane ripens and dries on the stalk, the fields are set alight to burn off the dry leaves, making the crop easier to harvest. The fire spread with amazing rapidity and, in the process, the billowing heat created a windstorm.

The wild wind currents formed small tornado funnels. The funnels were full of smoke, dust, and cane debris. I asked the driver to stop so we could observe and photograph the phenomenon. The funnel grew bigger and bigger as it violently twisted. We also noticed that it was starting to approach our vehicle. The driver backed up several times to get out of the way, but it kept coming.

The twister actually brushed the front of the car before it moved off across the dirt road. You can see the violence of the wind and the mass of debris it carried. I'm not sure how dangerous it really was, but I wouldn't have wanted to walk through the middle of it. I was reminded of the Revolution, which started as a series of political brush fires, and rapidly grew together into a major conflagration. The long firestorm of violence spewed out all sorts of unexpected gales which eventually swept away the old world of the great haciendas.

This completes my two part series on Hacienda El Plan de Corona. I hope you have found it enjoyable and interesting. If so you may want to leave a comment or ask a question. To do so, please either email me directly, or use the Comments section below. If no one has left a comment before you, just click on "No Comments" and it will take you to the screen where you can leave yours.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, January 5, 2014

A visit to Hacienda El Plan de Corona, Part 1

The casa grande (big house) of Hacienda El Plan de Corona. The property is named after the Corona family, who have owned it for at least 5 generations. El Plan de Corona is located outside Acatlán de Juarez (click here for map) about 1 hour southwest of Guadalajara. We found the hacienda through the Oficina de Turismo (Tourist Office). In mid-December 2013, they guided us to three different haciendas in the Acatlán vicinity and I selected this one to show on our blog. The visit to Acatlán occurred during one of the regular monthly expeditions I organize for a group of friends that Carole has informally dubbed Cazadores de Haciendas (Hacienda Hunters). The Corona family has been prominent for more than 170 years and General Ramon Corona was a hero of the 1862-1867 struggle to expel the French, who had invaded Mexico and placed Austrian Arch-Duke Maximilian on the throne as Emperor. Notice the Corona family crest on the wall to the left of the main door, under the balcony window.

The Corona family crest. The crest was painted on the wall in 2001, according to the date on the banner at the top. I am not sure why there is no beginning date. Unfortunately, my information about this hacienda only goes back to the middle of the 19th Century, which may, or may not, be the period when it was founded. It does not appear on a list of haciendas existing in the Guadalajara area between 1675-1820, so it may have been founded during the post-Independence War period.  My interest in these old country estates dates back to the spring of 2009 when Carole and I stumbled across Hacienda San Francisco at the western edge of Tizapan el Alto on the South Shore of Lake Chapala. On an irregular basis, I began to lead a series of expeditions during which we found, examined, and photographed more than 40 old haciendas within a 2-hour drive of Lake Chapala. Click here to see a small selection of my previous visits. Recently, our hacienda hunts have been conducted on a regular, once-a-month basis. We can generally find from 4 to 6 sites during a full day's search. Even having found 40+ sites to date, we have barely scratched the surface. At the start of the Revolution in 1910, there were 470 haciendas operating in Jalisco State alone.

The current hacendado (hacienda owner). The tourist office staff had previously contacted the current owner and gotten permission for our group to visit and photograph it. Without their assistance (which was free of charge) it is unlikely that we would ever have known about the hacienda, much less gained entrance. Sr. Corona met us at the entrance of the casa grande and gave us a tour of the house.  He is personable, easy-going, and kept up a running commentary on the house and its history. Unfortunately, all of it was in Spanish and none of the tourist office people accompanying us spoke enough English to translate. Further, none of my friends who are native Spanish speakers had been able to come along. Although I read Spanish pretty well, my ability to understand spoken Spanish is still weak. However, among our group of expat retirees, there were several who are a bit stronger with spoken Spanish than I. Although I am sure I missed many details, as a group we were able to get at least general idea of the history of the hacienda and the Corona family.

The remains of an old carreta (two-wheeled ox cart) stand near the casa grande entrance. Note the iron wheels. They indicate that this carreta was originally built in the last half of the 19th Century when iron for wheels like these became more generally available. Carts like this were used to haul products and people right up into the 20th Century. They were the Mexican equivalent of the "buckboard" wagons so familiar to fans of American cowboy movies. The carretas were generally pulled by a pair of oxen. Although it was slow going on the rough roads of the period, a carreta could carry a reasonably heavy load.

A beautiful kiosko (bandstand) stands in front of the Casa Grande. Kioskos like this began to appear in Mexico during the second half of the 19th Century. Many of those now standing in the plazas of Mexican cities were gifts of Empress Carlotta, the wife of the usurper Maximilian. It is doubtful Carlotta gave General Ramon Corona this one, because Corona was leading Republican forces against Maximilian and the French. Hacienda El Plan de Corona is unusual in several respects. The first is that it has been held within the same family for more than 170 years, and after the Revolution many haciendas were broken up. Second, that the buildings we saw were in excellent condition. Most of the sites we have visited are at least partially in ruins, and in some only a few walls still stand. Third, I was surprised to find that El Plan de Corona still raises sugarcane and livestock. Only a handful of the sites we have found are still run as farms or ranches. Usually the buildings that aren't in ruins have been converted to some other purpose, such as a hotel, public building, orphanage, or housing for poor families. Mexico is gradually waking up to the wonderful architectural heritage mouldering in its midst. In Jalisco, a few halting steps have been taken to preserve or even restore some of the historic  structures. I fear, however, that gradual decay into complete ruins will be the fate of many old haciendas. By extensively photographing these sites, I am hoping to help in a small way to preserve an important piece of Mexico's history.

Wooden wheels from an older carreta stand in front of the windows of the grand dining room. These wheels are of a style much older than the iron ones we saw before. They are typical of what was rolling along Mexico's rough dirt roads from the 16th through the 19th Centuries.  Most of the casa grande is a one-story structure, built around a central courtyard. While there are many differences among individual haciendas, there are also a number of common themes. The tall windows seen above are typical of the style found in haciendas throughout Mexico, as is the cobblestone patio in front. Other typical features include one or more interior courtyards, usually with fountains. The courtyards are nearly always surrounded on two or more sides by portales (arches supported by pillars) behind which are covered walkways. Other common elements include a garden with lines of tall palms near the main entrance. Behind the main door will be a zaguán (entrance corridor) leading to the courtyard, with rooms opening off either side. Almost always there will be a capilla (chapel) attached or closely adjacent to the casa grande. Either the capilla or the casa grande will have a campanario (bell tower).  The bells were used to call the peones (hacienda workers) both to worship and to work. Among the farm buildings there will often be a tall brick chimney used for sugar cane or tequila processing. Another typical building will be one with thick walls, often fortified with turrets and gun slits. Here, produce and livestock would be stored, but the fortifications also made it a good stronghold during a bandit raid. I, and my fellow Cazadores de Haciendas, have learned to look for these common features as evidence that we have found yet another hacienda.

The Zaguán Mural

A mural covers one wall of the zaguán leading in from the main door. General Ramon Corona stands with a sword in one hand, but another stretched out in friendship. Also depicted (center) is the Battle of Cerrito Coronilla, fought near the hacienda on December 18, 1866, and won by Ramon Corona's forces. There are several other historical figures shown including Mexican President Benito Juarez (top center). Shown at the top right, Col. Miguel Brizuela was a hero who died at the hacienda shortly after the battle from wounds he had received. The figure on horseback under Col. Brizuela is none other than Porfirio Diaz, another hero of the war against the French. He would later rule Mexico as a dictator for 35 years. Col. Eulogio Parra was the on-site commander of the Mexican forces. He was faced by 700 men led by a French commander named Sayan. The French officer's troops included a mixture of French regulars and Mexican Conservatives who had chosen to fight for Maximilian.

French forces (left) fight Republican soldiers (right) under the slopes of Cerrito Coronilla. The hill that can be seen in the background is Cerrito Coronilla. In the foreground the French and Mexican Republicans struggle in a wild melee.  Parra's Republican army won a complete victory, killing Sayan along with 150 French and Conservative soldiers, and taking 312 prisoners. In Col. Parra's battle report, he mentions 101 French prisoners, including 10 officers. The rest of the prisoners--Mexican Conservatives--are referred to as "traitors." This indicates that they were probably shot. A couple of years earlier, the French had begun shooting Republican prisoners and the Republican leader, Benito Juarez, reluctantly responded in kind. Given the relatively small number of troops involved, and in the context of contemporary wars like the recently-ended American Civil War, this battle seems hardly more than a skirmish. However, like a pebble that starts a landslide, it had a real impact. Shortly after the Republican victory, the French pulled out of Guadalajara, and then out of Jalisco State. A few months later, they quit Mexico entirely and sailed for France. Maximilian's Mexican "Empire" quickly began to collapse. The final battle was won by Republicans at Querétaro in 1867. General Ramon Corona was the man selected to accept Maximilian's sword in the surrender. Maximilian, who had issued the decree requiring the execution of Republican prisoners, soon found himself in front of a Republican firing squad. Today, there is a small monument at Cerrito Coronilla dedicated to the victory. The dramatic mural shows the pride the Corona family still feels about the role its forebears played.

The Hacendado's Office

The hacendado's office is right across zaguán from the mural. This is the center of the operation. Here the owner can meet with important visitors and conduct business. Of course, the day-to-day operations of many haciendas were run by professional administrators, called mayordomos. As early as the 18th Century, many owners were in residence at their haciendas only part-time. Often they preferred the comforts of mansions in Guadalajara to the more rustic life in the country. In addition, many of the haciendas comprised only a part of a hacendado's holdings. Sometimes a man would own several haciendas, and additionally would operate businesses in the city, and have mining interests in Zacatecas or elsewhere. Often, when crop or livestock prices were low, the profits from these other concerns kept a hacienda operating. This was particularly true in the 17th and 18th Centuries before railroads made the movement of agricultural products much easier and the goods far more profitable.

Family momentos from years past fill the office walls. The tile floor in front of the highly polished wood desk is partially covered by rug made from a speckled white cowhide. The comfortable furniture, by the look of it was probably imported. Family photos, some from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, cover the walls. A room like this would be used for important business, perhaps to negotiate a land deal with a neighboring owner or to discuss possible marriage partners for his children (and sometimes these were closely connected issues). When an important political figure passed through the area, this is where he would be received.

The office chandelier is made up of deer antlers. Hunting trips to the wooded mountains surrounding the area no doubt were the source of these antlers. A similar chandelier hangs in the main living room. In earlier times, candles rather than electric lights would have provided the illumination. In pre-Revolution days, a hacendado might also use this room to consult with his mayordomo about the appropriate punishment for a peon who had attempted to run away without paying off debts accumulated at the tienda de raya (company store). A system of debt slavery created through the tienda de raya was a key mechanism by which hacienda owners ensured a steady labor supply and a docile workforce. Debts accumulated by a peon were passed on to his sons when he died or became incapacitated.

The hacienda's family and staff assemble for a photo. The clothing and hairstyles indicate that the photo was taken in the early 20th Century, possibly around the time of the Revolution. The family sits or reclines in front, while the trusted peones stand in the rear, wearing their wide-brimmed sombreros. I believe Sr. Corona's grandfather may be the man on the far right. The figure in the photo strongly resembles one in a painting you will see later.

The Central Courtyard

A fountain decorates the middle of the central courtyard. Courtyards such as this are the focal points of many casas grandes, as well as many other colonial and post-colonial buildings. The various rooms all open onto the courtyard. Passing from one room to another is facilitated by the covered walkways behind the arched portales. Above the portales behind the fountain is a 2nd story balcony that overlooks the couryard and leads to the master bedroom. The zaguán passageway with the wall mural is visible at the upper right.

A Greco-Roman statue stands on a pedestal in the courtyard garden. Such statues were very popular 19th Century decorations. I have seen similar figures in a number of different haciendas. The statue is not ancient, but only a copy or perhaps an artist's conception of what such a statue should look like.

View of the central courtyard from the 2nd story balcony. The courtyard and its walkways form a cool and restful retreat from the problems of the outside world. Buildings constructed in this style are focused inward, rather than outward. These architectural arrangements were not all about restful contemplation.The thick exterior walls have gun ports along their tops which overlook the outside of the building. In a few minutes, the casa grande could be transformed into a fortress, if necessary. To the hacendados, faced with the recurrent threat of bandit raids, the expression "a man's home is his castle" was not just a turn of phrase.

The Portales

A second zaguán faces the first across the courtyard. Standing at this point, you can look all the way through to the front yard outside the main entrance. This zaguán is typical in having doors on either side that lead into the rooms that face onto the courtyards. By turning right or left at the end of the zaguán, you can walk down one of the covered walkways that line three sides of the courtyard.

This covered walkway is reached by turning right at the end of the entrance zaguán. These corridors are not just open-air hallways. The Acatlán area, like much of the rest of Mexico, has a mild climate which allows an outdoor lifestyle. Covered areas like this protect the casa grande's occupants from rain showers and the heat of the mid-day sun. They are used for the leisure activities of the hacendado's family and guests, and they also form handy working areas for the household staff.

Both the grand dining room and the main living room can be entered from this walkway. Chuck, one of my fellow Cazadores de Haciendas, approaches from the opposite end of the corridor. The central courtyard is to the left. The first door to the right is the entrance to the dining room. The second door opens into the living room.

The Grand Dining Room

The grand dining room can seat at least 25 people. The little flags on the table are leftovers from a recent visit by the President of Mexico. The windows on the right overlook the old carretas we saw in earlier photos of the front of the casa grande. The painting partially visible on the left wall is a copy of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. The Corona family is deeply religious. In this, they are similar to most hacienda owners, current and past. In fact, a capilla (chapel) has been connected to the casa grande of almost every hacienda we have visited. We will take a look at the capilla of Hacienda El Plan de Corona in next week's posting.

Cavorting cherubs are another 19th Century touch. Scenes like this are typical architectural features of buildings from that era. Another typical feature is the direct application of the painted art to the wall, rather than onto a separate framed canvas. The walls of several other haciendas in the area are similarly covered.

Beautiful china and silver service are displayed in a cabinet at one end of the room. The bell at the left stands ready to summon servants to attend to the needs of the diners. Luxury items like these could not be produced on even the most self-sufficient hacienda. They would have been expensive imports, treasured by the family.

Silver candlesticks stand on a sideboard, ready to softly illuminate an evening meal. Finely crafted lace decorates the top of the sideboard. Still another cherub sits on a pedestal at the end of the table. There was a vast difference in the standards of living between the hacendado and that of the peones who worked on his property. It should never be forgotten that the wealth created by the work of the peones was what underpinned the hacendado's gracious lifestyle. A typical peon lived in a one-room, dirt-floored abobe hut, which--if he was lucky--was provided as part of his pay. In this region at the time of the Revolution, a long day's work would entitle him to 37 centavos, a tiny amount even for that time. On that amount, the peon would have to support his typically large family. The only goods readily available to satisfy his needs were sold at inflated prices at the tienda de raya. It is easy to see why so many slipped into debt. Since illiteracy among peones was usually well above 90%, and it was the hacendado or his administrator who kept the tienda de raya's accounts, who was to say what was really owed? A lot of the violence directed at hacienda owners during the Revolution can be traced to this pervasive and nearly air-tight system.

The Living Room

After a sumptuous repast, the hacendado, his family, and their guests would relax here. The floor is beautifully tiled with a blue and red rectangle accenting the center. It is surrounded by the warm rust-colored tiles found elsewhere in the casa grande. In earlier times, the heavy wooden furniture would have been made by the hacienda's own carpenters. In addition to carpenters, haciendas typically employed blacksmiths, leatherworkers, barrel-makers, and other craftsmen. There are two factors that distinguish a hacienda from a rancho: size, and self-sufficiency.  

Meet the Coronas, all 170 years of them. This large painting hangs on the wall of the living room. The man on the right was our host and guide. Next (moving left) you see his father, grand-father, great-grandfather, and finally General Ramon Corona, the great-great grandfather of the clan. Sr. Corona (the current one) told us about a dream he had one night in which he and his four predecessors gathered in the living room to toast one another. When he awoke, he called an artist and commissioned the work above. The artist used old photographs, including some we saw on the walls around us, as models for the painting. I believe that the man in the middle is the same one seen on the far right of the family photo we saw in the hacendado's office.

An old stand-up telephone rests on a lace covered side table. As far as I could tell, the phone is connected and still functional. Notice the small Mona Lisa in the center of the dial, another nod to da Vinci.

A photo of President Porfirio Diaz hangs prominently on the living room wall. As a social and economic class, the hacendados profited mightily under Diaz' 35-year dictatorship, called El Porfirato. Diaz threw open Mexico's doors to foreign investments. One of the most important of these was a network of railroads criss-crossing the nation. Instead of laboriously hauling his products by ox-drawn carretas to the markets of Guadalajara--a journey that could take a couple of days--a hacendado could transport them there in a couple of hours, and in much greater quantities. Markets more distant than Guadalajara, and even more profitable, could also easily be reached. Instead of focusing on relatively low-profit crops like corn and wheat, haciendas like El Plan de Corona began to plant high-value cash crops like sugar cane. In other areas of Mexico, hacienda owners planted agave for tequila, or sisal to make twine for Hiram McCormick's new harvesting combines. Mexican agricultural products began to enter the international market. Diaz also transformed the Rurales, originally a small, ragtag, rural police, into a highly efficient mounted force. The Rurales, often employing summary executions, reduced the banditry that had plagued many areas of Mexico for most of the 19th Century. In addition to chasing bandits, the Rurales also became enforcers of the debt-slavery system by catching and returning peones who had fled their unpaid tienda de raya debts. Haciendas like El Plan de Corona found the Porfirato to be a Golden Age of stability and prosperity. It is no wonder that Porfirio Diaz' portrait hangs in a place of honor.

This completes Part 1 of my two-part series on Hacienda El Plan de Corona. Next week we'll take a look at other parts of the casa grande, as well as the capilla (chapel) that stands next to it. I always appreciate feedback and questions. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so either by clicking on the Comments link below (it may say "no comments" if there are none before you) or email me directly.

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Hasta luego, Jim