Thursday, August 28, 2014

San Luis Potosí Part 1: Silver city on the frontier of the great northern deserts

Edificio Ipiña occupies the whole block forming the west side of the Plaza de los Fundadores. The building was named after Don Encarnación Ipiña who commissioned it in an attempt to recreate the famous Rue Rivoli of Paris.  Carole and I visited San Luis Potosí in August of 2013, after we had stopped briefly at Aguascalientes on the way. The city is located 138 km (86 mi) to the east of Aguascalientes in the central western part of the huge state of San Luis Potosí. Even after five intensive days of exploring the city and a bit of the area around it, we only managed to scratch the surface of all that is there. San Luis Potosí is on the main route between Laredo, Texas and the foreign communities around Lake Chapala, south of Guadalajara. Many of the expats traveling to and from Lake Chapala have chosen the bypass road around the San Luis to avoid passing through it. Few have stopped to savour what San Luis has to offer. Those who passed it by have missed much as a result. In this posting, and the series that will follow, we'll take a look at this clean, well-organised, and beautifully preserved colonial city. For a Google map of the city San Luis Potosí, click here.

Plaza de los Fundadores

Map of the Centro Historico showing the large number of plazas and parks. Plaza de los Fundadores (Founder's Plaza) is the small grey rectangle just left of center on the corner of Calles Ignacio Aldama and Alvaro Obregon. It will be the focus of Part 1. As you can see, there are six other plazas and public  gardens in the area, many interconnected by pedestrian-only streets. The streets on the map are just the major ones in the area. Many others are not shown. Most of the cities we have visited in Mexico have only one central plaza. San Luis Potosí is unusual in having many major plazas, each containing architecturally-significant churches and public and private buildings. These are of a variety of styles from the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries. The streets connecting these plazas and gardens are themselves lined with beautifully preserved architecture. The anadores (walking streets) enabled us to enjoy all of this without having to dodge noisy, smelly traffic. (Map is from the website of the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí)

View of the Plaza de los Fundadores and the San Luis skyline from our hotel window. The red-brick building stretching across the left-center is the headquarters of the University. It has been the site of a school since the Jesuits founded their college in 1624. To put that in context, San Luis Potosí had a school of higher learning while the Pilgrims were still huddling in primitive huts on Cape Cod, having landed at Plymouth Rock only three years before. The city spreads out over a gently rolling high desert landscape at the base of rugged peaks. At the time of San Luis' founding in 1592, these mountains were full of gold and silver deposits, but the mines have mostly been exhausted. San Luis Potosí's elevation is 1,850 m (6,070 ft) and it contains a population of about 736,000 people. Temperatures are generally mild, ranging from a low of 5.5C (41.9F) in January to a high of 28.3C (82.9F) in April. There is usually little or no humidity. August, when we visited, is an especially pleasant time of year.

A woman walks past a voluminous display of balloons. Two things are ubiquitous in Mexican plazas: ice cream parlors and balloon vendors. Because his wares are filled with air or helium, a single vendor can move a display like this fairly easily. The building on the right in the background is Banorte, a national bank chain. ATMs have hit Mexico big time and, at certain times of the day, there are long lines of customers waiting to access their money. In spite of such electronic banking, Mexico is still largely a cash economy. While 88% of US adults possess a bank account, only 27% of Mexican adults have one.

Another view from our hotel window, this time over the Edificio Ipiñia. As you can see, the structure fills most of the city block, covering an area of 110 x 55 m (361 x 180 ft). In 1592, there was a small spring at this side, which encouraged the founding conquistadors to settle here. In the 19th Century, a tannery occupied part of the block. Encarnación Ipiña acquired most of the property but, in the end, could obtain only 70% of the block. The other parcels are now ground-level parking lots. Señor Ipiña gave the job of construction to his son-in-law, the engineer Octavian Ipiña Cabrera. Don Ipiña also attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade the owners of other blocks along the street to imitate his plan, which was to recreate the luxurious Rue Rivoli of Paris. Finally finished in 1913, Edificio Ipiñia's carefully planned layout made it unique in Mexico. Shops offering pricey goods lined the ground floor behind the long rows of portales (arches) along the south and east sides. The second floor contained business offices and luxury apartments. The Engineer Ipiña Cabrera installed his family in one of these but, in 1914, they had to flee to Mexico City to avoid the Revolution. In the meantime, revolutionary Gen. Matias Ramos used the building as a fortress and barracks for his troops. When Ipiña Cabrera finally returned, he found the place stripped even of its carpets. After the Revolution, the building recovered, but it never again achieved its initial glory.

The early morning slant of the sun leaves a deep shadow over Calle Venustiano Carranza. This street runs along the south side of Plaza de los Fundadores, and extends, from the point above, east toward Plaza de Armas. Narrow streets, overhanging balconies and old gaslights (now electrified) typify this part of San Luis. In 1590, the ferocious 50-year Chichimec War finally ended with a peaceful, negotiated settlement. Two years later, a mixed party of Spanish soldiers, priests, and indigenous mercenaries arrived in the area of what is now San Luis Potosí. They were commanded by a very able mestizo soldier, Captain Miguel Caldera. His indigenous troops came from Tlaxcala, one of Hernán Cortés' earliest allies against the Mexica (Aztec) Empire. Also present were Franciscan evangelists, bent on converting the Guachichiles, one of the fiercest of the Chichamec tribes. Within a very shot time, the Spanish discovered gold and silver in the nearby mountains.

Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí

The headquarters of the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi (UASLP).  This building fills the north side of Founder's Plaza, along with the attached Jesuit Temple and Chapel. The original Jesuit school opened in 1624 and was named Colegio Guadalupano Josefino. The Colegio taught Humanities, Philosophy, Theology, and Law. In 1630, Medicine was added. In 1767, the Jesuit Order was expelled from all Spanish possessions, but the school continued as a Roman Catholic institution. In 1923, following the Mexican Revolution, San Luis Potosí Governor Rafael Nieto signed a decree which took over the Colegio and created the UASLP, a public university.

The leafy courtyard of the university building was almost empty of students when we visited. The few that were present were engaged in setting up large speakers for an evening musical event. That left us free to wander about and enjoy the old colonial building. The new Spanish pueblo of San Luis Potosí got the first part of its name from Louis IX, King of France (1214-1270 AD). In Spanish he is called San Luis Rey. Louis was a pious man, widely viewed as a good and just king. He went on two Crusades and died on the second of them. Twenty-seven years after his death, he was sainted. "Potosí", the second part of the name, reflected the new mining community's desire to be compared to the rich mines of Potosí, Boliva. The town's site was picked because of plentiful water, something the mining areas themselves lacked.

Carole strolls the arcade surrounding one of the two courtyards inside the building.  Notice the massive pillars supporting the overhead structure. When the school was opened in 1624, it was endowed with lands and money by the wealthy miner Juan de Zevala. The building seen above was originally constructed in the second half of the 17th Century, but various changes were made in the 19th Century. The term "autonomous" in the university's name means that, although the school receives funding from the government, it is free to set up and change its own programs.

The second floor arcade looks out on the leafy branches of the courtyard's trees. The place was suffused with a feeling of ancient serenity. However, when classes are in session and boisterous students roam the arcades and courtyards, I suspect that this feeling may diminish a bit.

Templo de la Compañía

Capilla de Loreto (left) and Templo de la Compañia (right) occupy the northwestern corner. The university stands on their right. Both churches were built by the Jesuits as parts of the educational complex. They can be entered through their external doors, seen above, or through an internal door that connects them. Originally the property belonged to the Franciscans, but they ceded it to the Jesuits who then built their Templo in 1654 and completed the Capilla in 1724.

The interior of the Templo de la Compañia shows strong Neo-classical influence. The original structure was built in the Baroque style popular in the 17th Century but, during the 18th Century, many churches were remodelled along Neo-classical lines. The "Compañia" referred to in the Templo's name is the Company of Jesus or the Jesuit Order. It was founded by Ignatius Loyola, a soldier who had a battlefield revelation after he was wounded. He set up his Order along military lines and the members referred to themselves as "Soldiers of God".  Discipline was tight, education was stressed, and expectations were high. This made the Jesuits a formidable religious order.

On the left wall of the nave, next to the door leading to the Capilla, stands San Nicolas. He was a 4th Century bishop in the Greek city of Myra. He gained the name "Nicolas the Wonderworker" from the many miracles attributed to him. San Nicolas was believed to leave coins in shoes left out for this purpose. This is the origin of the Santa Claus story and the stockings attached to the mantlepiece. Nicolas is the patron saint of sailors, merchants, archers, repentant thieves, children, pawnbrokers, and students. The last of these may be why his statue stands in a Templo (chapel) attached to a school.

The main altar of the Templo is strongly Neo-classic with one exception. On the lower right of the photo is one of the famed "Cane Christs" made in the 16th Century by the indigenous craftsmen of Michoacan. The material used was a paste made from maize (corn) and the images are usually very lifelike and powerful. During the colonial era, they were shipped to churches all over New Spain, including this one.

A sleeping man is the central figure in this astonishing painting on the Templo's wall. I haven't quite put together the meaning of all the symbolic elements. In the painting, a man dressed as a 19th Century gentleman dozes in his chair, a bottle and glass by his elbow. To his left, an angel whispers in his ear. Her wing partially protects him from the skeleton hovering over his right shoulder, probably representing Death or evil forces. Under his chair lies an open sack with coins spilling out. In front of it is a pistol. If anyone out there can enlighten me on meaning of this picture, please do so!

Interior of the dome. I always enjoy the mandala-like effect of the domes of Mexican churches. In 1767, Spanish King Charles III expelled the Jesuit Order from Spain and all its possessions. In this he was following the lead of France, Portugal, and other European monarchies. This drastic action was taken for political and economic reasons, rather than religious. The Jesuits had become politically powerful and were viewed by Europe's Catholic monarchs as a dangerously independent force answering only to the Pope. The Order was also extremely wealthy, with extensive holdings, including La Parada, one of the most important haciendas near San Luis Potosí. Monarchs who were centralising their own power were jealous of perceived outside interference. Many of those who surrounded Charles III cast covetous eyes on Jesuit properties. When the king's order came down, the Jesuits had to give up everything and leave New Spain. This included their Colegio in San Luis Potosí and the two churches next to it.

In the choir loft at the rear of the church stands a beautifully carved pipe organ. I grew up in a Presbyterian family, although I am not today a religious person. The choir in our church was placed at the front of the sanctuary and to the side of the minister. I have visited many Catholic churches in Mexico and have found the placement of choir lofts at the rear and above the congregation to be a very curious arrangement. Looking into it further, I found there are some specific reasons for it. While the Catholic choir is certainly intended to be heard, the church leadership does not want to distract the faithful by placing it fully on view. A typical solution is to place the choir above and behind the pews on the main floor. In addition, the choir are members of the congregation and should be able to participate in the Mass. Therefore, it was decided that they should face forward toward the altar as the rest of the congregation does. Finally, the altar area, or sanctuary, is reserved for the "Ministers of the Mass" such as priests, bishops, and acolytes and is not seen as an appropriate place for either the choir or the congregation during Mass.

The Templo de la Compañía is connected to the Capilla de Loreto by this impressive doorway. To the left of the door is the statue of San Nicolas. When the Jesuits left New Spain, their properties were either taken over by other religious orders or were seized by the colonial government and sold off. Many a Spanish hacendado greatly increased his holdings through acquiring former Jesuit haciendas like La Parada. It probably made little difference to the peones working there. The Jesuits exploited their haciendas like any of the other hacendados. However, in addition to being ruthlessly worked, if you were a peon on a Jesuit hacienda and failed to attend Mass, you might be whipped.

La Capilla de Loreto

A two level Baroque retablo stands behind the altar at the head of the small chapel. Capilla de Loreto was built between 1709 and 1724 under the direction of the Jesuit Fathers Francisco González, Cristóbal Cordero, and Ignacio Mayorga. One of the primary purposes of this chapel was to house a facsimile of the Santa Casa (Holy House). The original is located within a Basilica in Loreto, Italy. According to legend, the Santa Casa in Italy was the actual structure from Nazareth where Jesus was conceived and grew up. After the crucifixion, the house became a meeting place for the faithful and eventually a shrine for pilgrims. Emperor Constantine (272-337 AD), the first Christian Roman Emperor, built a Basilica over it. Then came the Age of the Crusades. Hostility between Christians and Muslims reached fever pitch and twice, in 1090 AD and 1263 AD, the Basilica was destroyed.  Somehow, the Santa Casa within it survived.

The upper part of the elaborately-carved retablo contains a painting of the Virgin Mary. Her picture is framed by four estípite columns. Covered with intricate floral designs, these are typical of the last phase of the Baroque style. Behind the image of Mary, you can see a simple structure that represents the Santa Casa. In 1263 AD, after the second destruction of the Basilica, the house stood defenceless. In 1291, it mysteriously disappeared from Nazareth and began a migration during which it reappeared in Croatia, and then in Italy, first in Recanti and finally Loreto. According to legend, it was transported each time by angels.

A simple crucifix in the center of the retablo is set in an elaborately decorated niche. The work that went into carving the details of this area alone must have been extraordinary.  After the Santa Casa's mysterious arrival in Loreto, a Basilica was again built over it. Modern scholars, including Catholics, have expressed considerable doubt about this whole story. In fact, there is no mention in any records of such a house in Nazareth, nor of its heavenly migrations, until the 15th Century AD. This was well after the Basilica in Loreto had been built. Still, it was a good story, and pilgrims came from near and far to visit Loreto's Santa Casa. Apparently, no one at the time wanted to look into the matter very closely.

The Capilla has a dome with an unusual shape. The corners of its supports contain beautiful paintings of biblical figures. When the Jesuits of San Luis Potosí built their Capilla de Loreto at the beginning of the 18th Century, they provided it with an exact replica--right down to the measurements--of the Santa Casa in Italy. Mexico has several other Capillas de Loreto, also containing replicas, but the one in San Luis Potosí is acknowledged to be the finest of the group. However, the Capilla today no longer contains its Santa Casa. The last record of its presence is from 1840. What became of it is not mentioned in any of the literature I researched, only that it was no longer there as of that date. Perhaps the angels came for it again.

Spiraling Solomonic columns frame the outside doorway of the Capilla. Carved stone birds flutter among the foliage. The figs and grapes on the column symbolise the Eucharist. The inclusion of the columns was not just a Baroque fancy. The Capilla itself was designed by the Jesuits to imitate certain aspects of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. Thus, a replica of one holy place was built to surround a replica of another.

The belfry and roof of the Capilla. Notice the line of drains, built to look like long-barrelled cannon. Given the flat roots typical of colonial buildings, such drains were necessary to remove excess rainwater.

In the street beside the Capilla, I encountered this corn seller. He offered fresh corn on the cob, boiled in the washtub mounted on his bicycle-driven cart. He was a friendly guy who posed with a smile even though I wasn't really a customer. Little operations like this can be found in large and small communities all over Mexico.

This completes Part 1 of my San Luis Potosí series. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, please feel free to leave a comment below in the Comments section. If you are part of my blog announcement list, you can just 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. Hi Jim - nice photos. Thanks for sharing your journey. My wife and I live in San Luis Potosi now but we are in the states for a period so we are not there. Wish I had been there and known you were coming to the city. Maybe next time. Tommy Beard tab321-at-yahoo-dot-com

  2. Beautiful!!! I am from San Luis Potosi and I am very happy enjoying your pictures of the buildings and streets of Down Town the Capital City. You have become an expert in Mexicna Hiostory of everyplace you visit, GOOD FOR YOU!!! Now I hope you could visit other cities in the State of SLP: Real de Catorce (Zona Altiplano), Rioverde (Zona Media) and Xilitka (Zona Huasteca). Luzma Grande


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