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.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. The pictures and information about the Corona family and the hacienda is are a treasure! My daughters are descendents of Ramon Corona (he is their 3rd great grandfather) and I have been assembling a genealogy for them. Can you please provide a link to your additional page and pictures? Perhaps someday, my girls will be fortunate to travel and visit as you did. Can you furnish any contact information?

  2. Hello
    What is your daughter's name? My husband is also descendant of general Ramon Corona
    He was his great grandfather

  3. Alguien conoce a don Fernando corona??

  4. Loved reading about Ramon Corona, he is my great great uncle. My grandmother's name was Eduvijes Corona. I was in Ajijic recently and met other Corona Family members that still live there.


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