Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Zamora Part 1: Michoacan's often-overlooked treasure

Zamora's plaza offers inviting benches under shady trees near lovely old fountains. The fountain in the background is one of several in the plaza. For a long time, Carole and I had discussed visiting the small city of Zamora de Hidalgo, located in northwestern Michoacan. We had even made tentative plans on several occasions, but something always intervened. Finally, in June of 2015, we set off in our trusty-but-aging Toyota Corolla. In this first posting of my Zamora series, I will focus on the Plaza de Armas and the primarily 19th Century structures that surround it. In subsequent postings I will show some of the other major sites of interest, as well as take you for a look at the Purépecha villages in the surrounding mountains and to lovely Lago de Camécuaro.

Plaza Zamora

A view through the trees toward the kiosco of'Plaza de ArmasLike much of Zamora's architecture, the plaza was built during the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Dias, known as the Porfiriato. Construction began on the plaza in 1885 and it was completed in 1895. The City of Zamora lies in a lush valley only about a 2 hour drive east from our home in Ajijic. It could easily be visited as a day-trip, but you probably need at least 2-4 days to really appreciate the town and the area around it, . There are several ways to reach Zamora from Lake Chapala, but the easiest and quickest is go north on the Chapala-Guadalajara Carretera to the Ocotlán turnoff. Once at Ocotlán, head east on the 15D Autopista toward Morelia. Exit toward the south at Ecuandereo onto Highway 37. It's about a 30 minute drive from there to Zamora. The roads are excellent all the way. To view a Google map of the area, click here.

Cast-iron lyre decorates the railing of the plaza's kiosco.  Cast-iron decoration like this is very typical of the Porfiriato, and is still popular in Mexican plazas. In 1500 BC, long before the Porfiriato, people began to settle in this fertile valley. Over almost 3000 years, waves of migration brought tribes known as the Pirinda, Nahua, Huetamo, Colima, and finally the Purépecha. This last group arrived in the 14th century AD. They founded what the Spaniards called the Tarascan Empire, which covered the area of what is now the State of Michoacan and parts of several surrounding states. The Purépecha called the valley Tziróndaro, which means "swamp place". The description fits, since the valley is a flat, well-watered alluvial plain surrounded by volcanic mountains.

A skull-like face peers out from the jaws of a jaguar in a large painting displayed in the plaza. Jaguars, skulls, and faces peering out from a monster's jaws have been common themes in Mexican art going far back into pre-hispanic history. The Tziróndaro Valley served the Purépecha not only aa a fertile source of maiz (corn),but also as a buffer zone against the Mexica (Aztec) Empire to the east, as well as the wild Chichimec nomads from the north. During the Salitre War of 1480-1510, the Tziróndiro served as a good forward base for the Tarascan ruler Tangaxuan II. He sent an army across the Coast Range to seize the valuable salt beds near Sayula. The 30-year campaign failed and the Purépecha were ultimately expelled. Less than 10 years after this defeat, in 1519, the Spanish under Hernán Cortéz landed on the Gulf Coast. With their arrival, everything began to change. Epidemics of European diseases ravaged the Purépecha population, even before the Spanish physically arrived in Michoacan. In 1529, a conquistador named Nuño Beltran de Guzman invaded the Tarascan Empire, executed Tangaxuan II, and killed or enslaved a significant part of the population. Most of the survivors fled into the mountains. This left the Tzirondaro Valley largely depopulated

Arched portales line the north side of the plaza. The covered walkway not only protects shoppers from sun and rain, it also serves as a place for small street vendors to spread out their wares. In 1573, Spanish King Phillip II issued his Law of the Indies. Among other things it specified the architectural requirements for Spanish colonial possessions. The King decreed that every town should be built around a plaza bordered by a church, a government building, and commercial areas. Part of the design required covered walkways around the borders of the plaza, similar to the one seen above. When Zamora was founded in 1574, the pattern was followed closely. In that year, Viceroy Martin Enrique de Almanza sent 40 Spanish families to settle in the Valle de Tziróndaro. The settlers came mainly from the city of Zamora in Spain, so they named the new pueblo after their home town. Spanish officials chose this valley for much the same reasons the Tarascans had. Although depopulated by epidemics and Guzman's depredations, its land was rich and it occupied a strategic position as a buffer against marauding Chichimecs.

The plaza's fountains are surrounded by lush gardens. In the center background, you can see the Presidencia (city hall) and, to the left, the Mercado (market). Viceroy Almanza's move to settle the valley was not a casual afterthought. At the time, epidemics were again raging and the various indigenous populations were dying off at a tremendous rate. Spanish conquistadors were not inclined to do hands-on farm work themselves, and relying on native labor was becoming unfeasible. Spanish farms in many areas had been abandoned. Even obtaining maiz (corn) from indigenous villages was becoming problematic due to the epidemics. Wheat prices in Mexico City were skyrocketing and famine loomed as a real possibility. When the Viceroy decided to bring farmers directly over from Spain and set them to work in the most promising areas, Valle de Tziróndaro was high on his list.

Carole studies a map as we try to orient ourselves. Her Tilley hat, and mine, sometimes cause us to be mistaken for Canadians, among whom the virtually indestructible headgear is wildly popular. One of our first tasks when arriving at a new location is to gather whatever maps and other tourist information are available. This supplements our usually extensive pre-trip research. Often our hotel will provide a map of the area and possibly even a concierge service. To make the most of our time, we sketch out a calendar in advance and fill it with the places / activities that make the most sense for each particular day. Some things, like walking tours, are best done in the morning when it is cool. Others, like museums, are best for the afternoon when it may be hot outside. We try to alternate days spent walking around town with days in our car, exploring the countryside. Often we leave our last full day unscheduled, saving it for things we only find out about during the course of the visit, or that were not open when we originally scheduled them. We also keep an eye out for interesting places to stop along the way to and from the city we will visit. Always, we try to fit in some "down time" so the adventure is not just a frantic rush from place to place. Aside from a hotel, one of the very best places to find local information is the Oficina de Turismo (Tourist Office), often located in or near the local presidencia (city hall).

La Presidencia

Zamora's Presidencia faces the plaza, sharing a corner with the Catedral.  Zamora's Presidencia is a building that has been largely remodeled but whose old portales were retained to help maintain the colonial character of the plaza. A tourist office is a place you'd think would be easy to find. For reasons that have never been clear to me, such offices are often in obscure locations. Usually the best person to ask is the nearest policeman, often found hanging out around the entrance of the building. We have found local cops to be almost invariably polite. They will often personally lead you to your destination, which is what happened in this case. Once located, the tourist staff loaded me up with all the maps and pamphlets I could carry. These were all in Spanish, of course, but a map is a map and my Spanish reading fluency is good enough to handle the literature, even if my spoken Spanish is still limited.

Wooden rafters support the ceiling of the walkway that surrounds the Presidencia's courtyard. Rafters like these are common in Michoacan because of the great forests that blanket its mountains. Zamora grew slowly between the 16th century and the last part of the 19th. In 1580, the settlers built a rustic parish church next to the plaza. By 1681, the old church had become decrepit, so residents constructed a new one. In 1740, Zamora had grown enough to incorporate the independent village of Tecos within its boundaries. However, by 1790, the town still had only 8000 inhabitants. During the late colonial period, local haciendas became prosperous growing wheat for Guadalajara, Vallodolid (present-day Morelia), and even for far-away Mexico City. The land they planted was often obtained through means that, shall we say, were of questionable legitimacy.

"Death is nothing when you die for your country." This was among several posters that lined the walls of the Presidencia. Artist Francisco Mora produced this classic Mexican catrina defiantly shaking his fist while surrounded by other skeletons and skulls. Mexico's history contains many tragic and violent episodes. Its colonial period ended in the decade-long cataclysm known as the War of Independence (1810-1821).  In the late fall of 1810, the rebel army led by Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla stopped briefly in Zamora to regroup, while on its way to capture Guadalajara. The people greeted Hidalgo with such enthusiasm that he granted them the much-coveted status of Villa (city), and gave them the name "Zamora the Illustrious." At this point the town's population was still only about 8000 people, the same level as in 1790, so perhaps the title contained a bit of hyperbole. However, Zamorans still remember the event with pride.

A giant fist rises from the soil, representing the power of Mexico's campesinos (farm workers). The fist is menaced by the bayonets of an oppressor as a peon, spreading his maiz, looks on. The artist is Arturo Garcia Bustos and the caption reads " I serve the nation because of its great, legitimate, and inviolable sovereignty." Such peones, along with the miners and artisans from the towns, formed the great majority of Hidalgo's army. Following his defeat and execution in 1811, they scattered to form innumerable insurgent bands that roamed the countryside for the next 10 years. Spanish Brigadier José de la Cruz expelled the rebels from Zamora and took control of the city, but the insurgents retreated into the mountains of Michoacan. The guerrilla war around Zamora, as well as all over the country, was characterized by insurgent raids on outlying villages and haciendas and Spanish reprisal expeditions. After an exhausting and destructive decade of stalemate, insurgent leader Vicente Guerrero and a turn-coat Spanish general named Agustin de Ituribe joined forces. They ended the war and severed ties with Spain, at last achieving the goal of independence. However, a great many issues were left unsettled when the war ended and this led to nearly 50 years of political turmoil, warfare, and foreign invasions.

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, framed by the Presidencia's portales. The neoclassic church was built by the famous architect Eduardo Tresguerras between 1832-1838. The church occupies part of the north side of Plaza de Armas. Following the achievement of national independence, Zamora tried for a little independence of its own. The city's leadership had long felt more economically tied to Guadalajara than to Vallodolid, the capital of Michoacan. During the decades of turmoil that followed independence, they attempted to form their own separate state, with Zamora as its capital. However, this came to nothing and Zamora continued as part of Michoacan.

La Catedral de la Concepción Inmaculada

The old Cathedral was a parish church until Pope Pius IX created the Diocese of Zamora. A Roman Catholic diocese is an administrative district under the supervision of a bishop. A cathedral is the "seat" of the bishop. When the Diocese of Zamora was created in 1863, Catholic officials intended to use the old parish church as the provisional cathedral until a grand new cathedral could be built. This project took quite a bit longer than anyone anticipated, largely due to the Revolution of 1910-20 and the Cristero War of 1926-29. The new Cathedral, known as the Guadalupe Sanctuary, was not inaugurated until 2008. I won't got into detail here about the old cathedral since I intend to devote Part 2 of this series to it. The painting you see under the tree, and the jaguar painting previously seen, are parts of a group of artworks displayed around the plaza that day.

The painting displays two important aspects of Zamora: strawberries and the new cathedral. While wheat was the major cash crop of the Valle de Tziróndaro from colonial times through the early 20th century, strawberries now dominate. The fertile valley abounds in the berries and they have an international market. More than half of all strawberries grown in Mexico originate in Michoacan, and Zamora is the center of this production. The Tziróndaro Valley devotes the most acreage, employs the most workers and produces the highest volume of strawberries in the State. The church in the painting is the Diocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the new Cathedral. I will devote a later posting to this remarkable neo-gothic building, whose spires are the loftiest in Mexico.

This little train was a magnet to the kids in the plaza. The train and its small passengers are passing in front of the main entrance of the old cathedral. The late 19th Century was a period of explosive growth in Zamora, in good part because of the arrival of the railroad. However, The 46 years between the end of the War of Independence in 1821 and the 1867 defeat of the French occupation were a period of turmoil and political upset in Zamora, as well as the rest of Mexico. First, a series of civil wars raged between federalists and centralists over the nation's form of government. Then, between 1846-48, the US invaded Mexico and seized almost 1/2 of its territory. This was followed by the Reform War in the 1850s between the Liberals and Conservatives over proposals to modernize the society and curb the economic and political power of the Church. When the Conservatives were defeated by Benito Juarez, they asked French Emperor Louis Napoleon to intervene and install a European as Emperor of Mexico. Ferdinand Maximilian, brother to the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, accepted Napoleon's invitation and the French invaded in 1862. The occupation lasted five years, but the French were eventually defeated in a series of battles. One of the first of these crucial Mexican victories occurred at Zamora. In 1867 the French departed and later that year Juarez defeated and executed Maximilian. This victory began a period of peace and stability that lasted until 1910, with only the occasional, easily-suppressed revolt.

El Mercado de Morelos

The Mercado de Morelos faces the east side of the Catedral.  In 1872, Juarez died of natural causes, while still serving as President. Four years later, Porfirio Diaz--a hero in the fight against the French--was elected President. For the next 35 years, known as the Porfiriato, Diaz continued in power, ruling either directly or through proxies. His goals were to stabilize, modernize, and industrialize the nation. Zamora, now a city of 12,000, felt the effects almost immediately.  In 1879 a priest and benefactor named Father José Antonio Plancarte y Labastida launched a tram system to connect Zamora with its close neighbor, the city of Jacona. The railroad arrived in 1889, connecting Zamora with Guadalajara, Mexico City, and the world beyond. Products from the Valle de Tziróndaro could now be quickly and easily shipped all over Mexico and even sold internationally. This provided a huge boost to the economy and connected what had been a rather sleepy town to the broad world beyond. In 1898, city streets were lit by electricity. Also in that year, the first stone was laid for the new cathedral. The city government began to construct the Mercado in 1907, finishing it in 1913. Its purpose was to replace the previous open, messy, and disorganized market area with a modern building to display and sell Zamora's products. In 1910, the city's population reached 15,000. Late that same year, the Mexican Revolution exploded. Chaos and instability returned with a vengeance.

All manner of products are sold in the Mercado's booths. These include the food and clothing seen here as well as countless other items. Among the best known of the Mercado's products are chongos, a form of candy made from milk. The Mercado's architectural style is eclectic with a strong neo-classical influence. It was built using glass and steel, faced with cantera stone. The structure was the first in Zamora to be supported by a steel frame connected with rivets. Even though the Mercado is enclosed, the high, arched roof gives the building an expansive, open feeling. Like much of the architecture of the Porfiriato, it copied European styles of construction popular in late 19th and early 20th century. Porfirio Diaz' single minded pursuit of his goals resulted in rapid economic growth. However, nearly all of its benefits went to the people on the top: industrialists, merchants, hacienda owners, foreign corporations, and especially Diaz and his cronies. The standard of living of the vast majority of people either stagnated or dropped. Miners and other industrial workers struck to protest pitifully small wages and terrible working conditions. The strikes were brutally crushed. Peones in the countryside were reduced to debt-slavery through the haciendas' system of tiendas de raya (company stores). Those who tried to escape were usually captured by Diaz' vastly expanded rurales (rural police). Fugitive peones often faced severe beatings when they were returned to the haciendas. Diaz employed a sophisticated secret police apparatus to ferret out political dissent. Those causing trouble were offered the choice between silver or lead: accept a payoff to keep quiet or a take bullet. Along with all these methods, Diaz regularly rigged elections to maintain the illusion of democracy. After 35 years of tight control, the lid blew off the kettle and the explosion was shattering.

Colorful gowns await the inspection of families shopping for their daughter's quinceañera.  Quince means fifteen in Spanish, the age when a girl emerges from childhood to become a woman. The fiesta celebrating a girl's quinceañera is joyful, but also very formal and the girl's friends dress in vividly-colored and frilly gowns like those above to help her celebrate it. The chaos unleashed by the Revolution often left city leaders with little to celebrate. In 1913, the year the Mercado officially opened, Zamora was looted by the combatants. In 1914, Revolutionary troops confiscated the newly completed Episcopal Palace of the Diocese. Also in that year, construction was halted on the new Cathedral, and the property was taken over by the federal government. It was not recovered by the Church until 1988. Between 1901-1921, intermittent fighting in and around Zamora reduced its population to 13,863 inhabitants.

Exquisitely-tooled cowboy boots were on sale at one booth, and for a startlingly low price. The tag on the snakeskin boots in the center asks for $750 pesos. At current exchange rates, this amounts to only $44.70 USD. Although the Revolution officially ended in 1921, upheavals continued. In 1926, President Elias Calles decided to enforce the anti-clerical provisions of the Constitution of 1917. He had various reasons, but one of them was the growing opposition to land reform among conservative Catholics. His enforcement of the Constitution resulted in a 3-year uprising known as the Cristero War. Zamora became a major center of this conflict. Organizations of landless peones, known as agraristas, pressed the government to fulfill its promises for land redistribution. Haciendas owned vast tracts of land, some of it acquired under very questionable circumstances. While there was some justification to Catholic claims of religious persecution by the Revolutionary government, there was also a financial angle to it. Some of the properties subject to the new land reform laws were owned by religious organizations, and others by individual Catholic priests or other religious officials. Even when there was no direct ownership by religious organizations or officials, many of these people were blood relatives of hacienda owners whose property was targeted for redistribution. Catholic activists claimed religious persecution, and the landless peones and indigenous villagers demanded economic justice. The conflict was very bloody and both sides committed atrocities. The Church authorities in Rome, fearing the complete destruction of the Church in Mexico, negotiated a settlement with the Revolutionary government. In 1929, the fighting finally ended.

I asked this pretty pair if I could take their photo and they rewarded me with pleased smiles. Mexico is rapidly changing and kids like these are its future. A few years after the end of the Cristero War, President Lazaro Cardenas was elected. He re-stabilized the country, pushed through land reform, and nationalized the foreign-owned oil industry. The economic picture in Zamora, and in Mexico generally, immediately began to improve. Highway 15 was pushed through to Zamora. The city was at last connected by a modern highway to Michoacan's capital Morelia (formerly called Vallodolid), Mexico City, and Guadalajara. By 1940, Zamora had once again reached 15,000 residents, a level it had not attained since the beginning of the Revolution in 1910. Local entrepreneurs built modern hotels. The Rio Douro was channeled so that flooding in the city was reduced and more water became available for agriculture. In 1953, the city was officially renamed "Zamora de Hidalgo" to commemorate the Independence War hero. In 1988, the Guadalupe Sanctuary was finally returned to the Church, and construction resumed. In 2008, the Sanctuary became the new Cathedral, 110 years after the first stone was laid.

This completes Part 1 of my series on Zamora. Carole and I enjoyed visiting this often-overlooked little treasure and we encourage you to visit too. A quick tip: most of the best hotels and restaurants appear to be located in the narrow strip of the city that connects it to its sister-city of Jacona. We advise looking there for your accommodations if you plan to stay overnight. We hope you enjoyed this posting and, if so, you'll leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. It's a joy to read your post. Keep up the good work!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


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