Friday, June 27, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 5: Templo San Antonio, an architectural jewel

Templo San Antonio is almost jewel-like in appearance. Begun by the Franciscans, the church later came under the control of the Augustinian Order. I considered combining this set of photos with those other sites but decided to let Templo San Antonio stand alone because it is so spectacular in architecture and in its interior decoration. When Carole and I stopped by here on our way back from the Railroad Museum, we were dazzled.  The church has been described as architecturally indefinable because it mixes the styles of Gothic, Neoclassical, Baroque, Moorish, and Russian. Another writer called it a perfect expression of the Porfirato, the 35-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz (1876-1911). That was Mexico's "Gilded Age," when lavish constructions like this could be financed out of the pockets of the wealthy elite.

The Temple's exterior

View of the Templo looking north along Calle General Ignacio Zaragoza. This area used to be full of orchards and was at the very edge of the city when it was originally laid out in the 17th Century. In the later years of the Porfirato, the city expanded and this site was chosen for the new church. The work on the Templo began October 22, 1895 and it received its official blessing in 1908, only two years before the start of the Revolution. The years of construction were the glory years of the Porfirato. In 2008, the church and the surrounding neighbourhood were refurbished for the 100th anniversary of its original opening. When we visited, the street was very attractive, with a border of potted plants and trees and a broad brick sidewalk.

Bronze statue of a man reading a newspaper. As we strolled along Calle Zaragoza, we encountered this fellow. Statues like this, seated on public benches, are popular in Mexico. It's all part of the country's quirky sense of humor. Often, I have seen a man sharing a bench with such a statue, apparently unaware that he was mimicking the activity portrayed by the artist. The style of wrought-iron furniture seen above is also universally popular. It can be found in the parks and plazas of the biggest cities and the smallest towns. Usually, the coat-of-arms of the municipality is displayed on the backrest of the bench.

Three towers decorate the roof of the Templo. The tallest tower is in the center and contains a clock which--surprisingly--shows the correct time. The exterior of the church was built with yellow cantera, which nicely picks up the glow of the morning sun. The stone was quarried in Cienega Grande, also located in the State of Aguascalientes. The electric lamps extending out from the onion-dome are among many which brilliantly illuminate the church at night. The small cupola on the very top contains a lantern. The only bells are those which hang in the central tower. They were imported from the United States. The Franciscans originally entrusted this project to the architect José Noriega, but he showed a lack of interest. They then turned to a young man named Refugio Reyes Rivas (1862-1945). This involved a considerable leap of faith because the new man was self-taught, held no formal degrees in architecture, and this was his first big project.

The huge dome was considered unsupportable and some authorities predicted disaster. The dome is reminiscent of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and is massive and immensely heavy. The engineer Camilo Pani predicted a collapse as soon as the scaffolding was removed. Young Refugio Reyes was confident in his calculations and methods of construction, He had good reason. Between the ages of 14 and 19 he had worked for the railroad in Zacatecas. The rail officials thought he was a promising young fellow and taught him how to calculate the strength of materials, a very important factor in building railroad bridges. It was also important for building churches, as it turned out. In the end, when the supports were removed, the building stood firm and the dome was unscathed. Lining the railing below the dome you can see a series of decorative stone urns. My architectural expert, Russel Versaci, tells me that these are called finials.

The Interier of the Templo

While the exterior is dramatic, the interior is truly spectacular. It seems that every inch of available space is covered with paintings, carvings, or other decorative arts. There is a sense of lushness here that definitely recalls the Gilded Age. Lining the walls on both sides of the nave are a series of large portraits of San Antonio (St. Anthony) painted by Candelario Rivas, one of Mexico's great religious muralists. They show San Antonio performing various of his many miracles. Each painting is contained within a circular frame, itself highly decorated.

San Antonio and the Miracle of the Mule. St. Anthony of Padua (1195 AD-1231 AD) was known as the Saint of Miracles because he is said to have performed so many. He was particularly compassionate toward heretics and greatly desired to convert them. The story goes that one heretic set him a test, saying he would convert if St. Anthony could get the man's mule to bow before the Eucharist. The heretic tried to rig the test, however, by starving the mule for three days and then tempting it with a bucket of food to distract it from the saint. The mule ignored the food and went to bow before St. Anthony who is shown holding the sacrament. The frame of the painting contains  leafy floral decorations and, at the top, a small face peers out. This is typical of the Baroque style.

San Antonio and the Christ Child behind the altar. The tall columns surrounding San Antonio are topped by Corinthian capitals and show a definite Neoclassical style. Anthony of Padua was born Fernando Martins de Bulhóes  in Lisbon, Portugal. His family was wealthy and sent him to study in the Cathedral school. That led to further studies with the Augustinians. However, Anthony found himself attracted to the simple life and evangelism of the Franciscans, an Order that had only just been established. He joined them and devoted himself to study and reflection. After he distinguished himself through his preaching, Anthony came to the attention of St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order. Francis assigned him the job of teaching promising new friars. His wonderful voice and deep understanding of the scriptures led to many speaking assignments over his brief life. After he died at 35, his tongue was preserved as a relic to commemorate his preaching gifts.

Above the altar is a stained glass window depicting the Crucifixion. Jesus is surrounded by a sunburst. Gathered about him are legions of angels and saints painted in postures of adoration. The cornices around the altar area are another example of Neoclassicism. During the first year of the Templo's construction, a funding crisis occurred. Into the breach stepped Antonio Morfin Vargas, a landowner and industrialist. His factories produced tobacco and cigarettes and he managed the profitable Hacienda La Cantera. All this made Morfin Vargas a very wealthy man. He picked up the $200,000 peso cost of the project, a very considerable sum in those days. A pious man, he felt his financing of Templo San Antonio was a way to give thanks for his good fortune. And, of course, he would have seen it as an excellent way to cement his place in Aguascalientes' society.

The interior of the dome shows the same intense level of decoration. The huge chandelier hanging from the dome seems a bit dwarfed by its surroundings. The Templo was officially blessed in a ceremony held December 8, 1908. During the ceremony, an odd and uncomfortable situation suddenly arose. The pews were packed with politicians, including the current and several former governors, the mayor of Aguascalientes and several members of the national legislature. All of them were members of the ruling Liberal Party. More than thirty years before, Benito Juarez and the Liberals had stripped the Mexican Church of much of its lands. This deeply angered Catholic officials who, at the time, controlled as much as half of the arable land in the nation. That same Party still ruled the nation under Porfirio Diaz. Although the Juarez era's anti-clericalism had been dropped, the lands had not been returned. Some in the Church felt they still had a rather large bone to pick with the Liberals. The politicians trapped in the pews cringed as the priest lashed out at Juarez and his Party for seizing those lucrative Church properties. Everyone pretended not to hear, but there must have been a lot of squirming in those seats.

Not only the walls, but the ceiling of the nave are covered by paintings and ornamentation. Light is provided by windows above the cornices and in back of the organ as well as from the large, multi-level chandeliers suspended from above. After the Blessing Ceremony, the Templo was celebrated in the press as a great achievement. Morfin Vargas was extolled for his role in bankrolling it. The unschooled Refugio Reyes was immediately established as a major figure for Aguascalientes' architectural future. However, even before the completion of Templo San Antonio, Refugio Reyes did not lack for work. As he was supervising work at the Templo, Reyes was also constructing another building for the Franciscans. Additionally, in 1902 he began work on Aguascalientes' Church of the Immaculate Conception. It was a work that broke with Catholic architectural tradition by not using a design where one nave crossed another with a dome in the center of the cross. Reyes seems to have been something of an iconoclast.

Detail from the ceiling of the nave.  Other work by Refugio Reyes includes the National Bank of Aguascalientes in 1905, and the Bank of Zacatecas in 1906. Also in 1906, he completed the towers of Aguascalientes' Sanctuary of Guadalupe and took steps to reinforce the Sanctuary, which had threatened to tip over on its side. In 1910 he built the Hotel Paris which is now the site of Aguascalientes' State Congress. These are only a few among the long list of the works through which this self-taught master left his mark upon Aguascalientes.

The loft in the rear of the nave contains the pipe organ. The ceiling above the organ is also packed with floral designs and religious scenes. The arches, except for the crosses contained in the series of small squares, show a Moorish influence. We left the Templo San Antonio somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. Anyone visiting Aguascalientes should make it a point to visit this remarkable church, created by an even more remarkable man.

This completes Part 5 of my Aguascalientes series. I hope you have enjoyed visiting this jewel of a church. If you would like to leave a comment, please use the Comments section below or send me an email. If you see "no comments" below, it just means no one before you has commented. Click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

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Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 4: The Railroad Museum

An early 20th Century steam engine is displayed at Aguascaliente's Railroad Museum. The engine's nickname was "La Burrita" (the Little Burro). One of the many pleasant surprises during our short stay at Aguascalientes was a morning stroll from the Plaza de la Patria up Calle Francisco Madero to the Railroad Museum. Carole, who is not especially enamoured of mechanical things, was a bit dubious but willing to give it a go. The museum turned out to be a fascinating slice of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It will surely delight railroad aficionados, but there is plenty here to interest even the casual visitor. The museum is located at Parque Tres Centurias, about 10 blocks east of Plaza de la Patria. There was no charge when we visited.  For a Google map showing how to get there, click here.

Bronze statue of Cornelio Cerecero Terán, El Mechanista Elegante (The Elegant Engineer).  He was the last engineer who operated La Burrita which, in turn, was the railroad's last engine powered by steam. La Burrita traveled the rails until 1964 and was much in demand because of her power and reliability. Corneilio Cerecero Terán was famous not only because of his association with La Burrita, but because he was considered exceedingly handsome and well dressed, hence the nickname El Elegante. He is also remembered as a poet. I find it charmingly typical of Mexico that a rough-and-ready railroad engineer would write poetry in his spare time. In the great days of steam railroads, engineers were considered the elite of the working class. They were well-paid and they operated the largest and most complicated machinery of the time, outside of steam ships. The industry itself had transformed Mexico (and a good deal of the rest of the world) and was vital for the transportation of goods and people. Just as a youngster of today might dream of becoming a jet pilot or astronaut, young boys of that day dreamed of riding the rails at the helm of a great steam engine like La Burrita.

A line of boxcars stands beside the old platform. Some of the cars have been transformed into offices for the museum staff. This whole area used to be Aguascalientes' railroad station. The rail sidings, engines and various kinds of cars, baggage buildings, and the passenger station are now all part of the museum. In 1880, President Porfirio Diaz authorised the Bostonian Company to begin construction of a railroad between Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez. The first rails were laid in September 1880 and the line was finished in March of 1882. The first station in the State of Aguascalientes was established at the Hacienda Chicalote, about 14 km (8.7 mi) outside the City of Aguascalientes. The second station was built about 20 m (65.6 ft) from the museum's Passenger Station and was simply a shack built of laminated pasteboard. The land on which it was constructed was, at the time, part of Hacienda Ojocaliente. The old hacienda has since been swallowed up by the city.

The plush traveling car owned by the dictator Porfirio Díaz stands beside the baggage building. Rich and powerful people of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries traveled in cars like this. Owning such a car would be the equivalent to owning a private jet today. They were divided into sumptuous lounges, offices, and bedrooms so that their occupants could travel in the style they felt they deserved. For some reason the Diaz car was not open the day we visited, so I had to content myself with peeking in the windows. The glass reflections prevented any good photos of the interior.

Massive couplings connect one car with another. Looking at this, I recalled the movie "Unstoppable" with Denzel Washington and Chris Pine. During the film, the Chris Pine character accidentally gets his foot caught in just such a coupling and barely manages to avoid being run over by the train.  I enjoy trying to figure out how things work, so I puttered around examining the cars while Carole drifted through the rest of the area. In addition to the Railroad Museum, the Parque Tres Centurias contains large, shady gardens full of flowers and fountains. It is called the Three Centuries Park because elements of it reflect the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries.

A colorful caboose sits on a siding. These cars were for the crew and were attached at the end of a train. This one contained sleeping bunks, a pot-belly stove, cupboards for food, and space for off-duty crew to relax.

A hand car stands ready to go with the push of a lever. These little human-powered cars were used by track repair crews and other workers to cover short distances. Pushing down on the seesaw-like lever powers the car. One man could operate the car, but it would be much easier with two men, alternately pushing up and down on either end of the lever. A car just like this played a central role in the 1959 Gary Cooper movie "They Came to Cordura."

A statue of Julio Cerecero Terán stands holding a signal lantern while throwing a rail switch. Julio was El Elegante's brother and served as a member of his crew. A typical steam train had a crew of four, not including people like dining car staff, porters, and concessionaires. In addition to the engineer, they included the fireman who was responsible for operating the boiler that produced the steam. The conductor was in overall charge of the train and, in addition, handled passengers. The brakeman released the handbrakes on the cars, assisted the other crew and the passengers, and monitored the engine and cars. It appears from this statue that Julio may have been a brakeman.

La Burrita

La Burrita and El Mechanista Elegante stand frozen in time. Steam train engines were the technological marvels of their time. In the 21st Century, it is hard to comprehend a machine like this. Today everything seems to be driven by computers of various sizes and controlled by wireless signals sent through the ether, The steam engine above is completely mechanical and is driven by steam, a two hundred-year-old technology. While the stations would have been connected by telegraph, and eventually telephones, there was nothing electronic about this great beast of a machine. It represents the peak and, ironically, the endpoint of steam train technology.

Plaque fastened to the side of La Burrita's boiler.  She was manufactured in Schenectady, NY in December 1937 by the American Locomotive Company. There were only 12 like her in all of Mexico. Her main route was between Aguascalientes and Irapuato to the south.

The "business end" of the locomotive contains a bell and a cowcatcher.  Stencilled on the front, above the cowcatcher, are the words Seguridad Ante Todo (Safety Before All). The engine stands at least 4 meters (12+ ft) tall and everything about it seems massive. The number on the circular plate of the boiler is 2708 and it became a famous as La Burrita's designation. The brass bell mounted on the top of the boiler assisted, along with the whistle, in signalling and as a warning device.  The protruding cowcatcher at the bottom got its name as a device for protecting the front of the train from cattle that may have wandered onto the tracks, as well as other obstructions.

A cowcatcher, as used during the Revolution. This iconic photo from the Revolution shows four soldiers wearing broad sombreros. They are sitting on the cowcatcher, rifles at the ready. Next to them stands a mechanista, one of Cerecero Terán's predecessors. While this is a posed photograph, it is likely that in some cases soldiers rode in just this position to guard against obstructions or sabotage of the tracks. The soldiers were identified in the photo as followers of General Emiliano Zapata, known as Zapatistas. They carry a variety of weapons. The German Mauser on the left was probably captured from the Federal Army which used them extensively. The Winchester (far right ) was very common early in the war and may have been brought from home when the soldier signed up. Another revolutionary, General Pancho Villa, pioneered the large scale use of the Mexican train system to move troops. Since Aguascalientes was the hub of the national rail network in north-central Mexico, it became a key transit point--and strategic target--for various armies.

La Burrita's huge wheels drove her along the tracks. She was classified as a Hudson 4-6-4. This designation refers to the arrangement and size of the wheels. In front are two axels with 4 small wheels. They are followed by three more axels, seen above, with six big wheels. The big wheels are are attached to the levers which actually drive the train. Behind the big wheels are two more axels with four small wheels. Thus, 4-6-4. The system for designating trains like this was developed by Fredrick Methvan Whyte in the early 20th Century. The 4-6-4 arrangement was introduced in 1911 and continued to be manufactured until the 1940s. A engine using the 4-6-4 arrangement held the world speed record for steam trains in 1936, achieving a blazing 124.5 mph.

A brass train whistle juts forward from the top of the boiler. The whistle is attached to the steam dome, which provides dry steam to the cylinders for locomotion. Whistles were developed very early in steam train history as safety and signalling devices. In 1832, a stationmaster in England suggested some form of audible device after a train collided with a cart crossing the tracks. A local musical instrument maker was commissioned to construct what became known as a "steam trumpet." The whistles were blown as a warning when approaching crossings, and to provide various messages to railroad workers, a little like morse code. The size and construction of various whistles affected their sound, leading to nicknames such as "banshee" and "hooter." They were originally operated by pull cords or levers and could emit different sounds according to the style of the person operating them. Particular engineers could be identified by the way they blew their whistles. Sadly, all that originality disappeared when electronic methods of operation were introduced.

The cab of the engine was the point from which the train was controlled. The engineer and the fireman were stationed here throughout the journey. Early engines were followed by an open car full of wood and later coal. This fuel would be shovelled by the fireman into the mouth of the blazing compartment that heated the water and produced the steam. Later steam engines were fired by fuel oil that was piped into the fire compartment. No doubt the firemen were greatly relieved to avoid all that shovelling. Under the 2708 designation, you can see the notation "211 tons," the weight of the engine.

The Station

The Old Warehouse was where baggage and cargo were assembled for loading. Notice the old push-style baggage carts lined up next to the loading dock. This was one of the very first buildings of Aguascalientes to be built with cement. Although the city had been a way-station for travellers and silver caravans since the 16th Century, railroads put Aguascalientes on the map as never before. It was a natural hub for lines going north to Juarez (and from there into the US), south to Mexico City, east to the ports of Vera Cruz and Tampico on the Gulf, and west to Durango and the Pacific coast ports. Even today, the city enjoys a competitive advantage from its central position, although rail transport doesn't enjoy the monopoly it did in the face of competition from air transport and long-distance trucking.

Covered baggage carts line the edge of the Parque Tres Centurias' gardens. This version is covered against the weather and can be sealed against thieves. Apparently they were meant for baggage that needed to be held for later shipment. Interestingly, after reviewing scores of Google images of old railway carts, I could find none that resembled these.

This Passenger Station was begun in 1910 and finished in 1911. Built in California colonial style, it was the work of G. M. Buzzo, an Italian and cost 130 thousand pesos at the time. The structure was typical of railroad architecture of that era in that it was constructed using prefabricated materials. Notice the decorative designs just under the second story cornice. The front of the station is 52 m (170 ft) long, while the platform is 182 m (597 ft). The building has been beautifully restored, considering its age and the amount of traffic it saw.

The lobby of the Passenger Station contains comfortable benches and an elegant stairway. Displayed around the lobby are old photos and other objects from the glory days, including a collection of steam whistles of various kinds. The offices of the railroad officials were on the second floor. The overall impression is of spaciousness and a functional elegance.

The blackboard sign above announces Arrivals and Departures of Trains. Listed are the numbers of the trains and their routes. On the right, the times of arrivals (llega) and departures (sale) would have been chalked in after "H" for hora (hour). On April 18, 1915, General Pancho Villa arrived at the station with his army, following his defeat by General Álvaro Obregon at the Battle of Celaya. Villa had been badly beaten and was in a hurry to get back to his home base near Chihuahua. However, the army trains got tangled with the civilian ones. Villa was infuriated and summoned Central District Railway Superintendent Catarino Arreola Rochin. The General demanded that the Superintendent straighten out the mess within 24 hours or face the consequences. Maybe it just couldn't be done in that time, or perhaps the Superintendent was sympathetic to Villa's enemies. In any case, it wasn't done. Arreola Rochin was summoned once again before Villa and summarily executed by firing squad. One suspects that, given this incentive, the tangle was rapidly sorted out.

A mural in the Passenger Station shows railroad workers labouring under a Masonic Eye. The triangle with an eye and a half-circle sunburst under it is known as the Masonic Eye, but the symbolism goes back to the Middle Ages. The Masonic Lodges played an important political role in 19th Century Mexico, so it is not surprising that their symbol shows up here. Generally this painting can be interpreted to mean that the Eye of Providence (or of God) watches over the work of the railroad. The people in the painting are engaged in a variety of tasks. They carry loads, operate machinery, and study blueprints. This symbolises the fact that the railroad was a group project that required the skills of many and was not the product of any one person, however high up the scale he may have been.

Statue of a Mexican hero. Jesús Garcia Corona (1883-1907) was a brakeman on the rail line between the mining town of Nacozari, Sonora and Douglas, Arizona.  On November 7, 1907 he was resting at the Nacozari stop when he noticed that some hay piled on the roof of a rail car had been ignited by sparks from the engine's smokestack. This was alarming enough, but Garcia knew that the car was loaded with dynamite. Without a second thought, he leaped into the engine cab and put the train into reverse. He made it six miles out of town before the dynamite exploded. It destroyed the train and killed Garcia but the town and its population were saved. To honour his sacrifice, the town was renamed Nacozari de Garcia, the American Red Cross posthumously gave him the Hero of Humanity award, and a famous song was written about him.  R.I.P. Jesús.

This completes Part 4 of my Aguascalientes series. Even if you aren't a railroad buff, I hope you enjoyed the photos and stories above. If you have any comments, please either leave them in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If it says "no comments" below, it means that no one has yet commented. Just click on that and it will open the Comments page.

If you leave a question on the Comments page, PLEASE include your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Aguascalientes Part 3: The stunning murals of the Palacio Gobierno

Mural portraying Quetzalcoatl, the famous pre-hispanic Plumed Serpent. Quetzalcoatl was one of the most important gods of ancient Mesoamerica. Symbols depicting him go back as far as the Olmecs of 900 BC. To the Aztecs, he was associated with the wind, Venus, and the dawn. He was also the god of knowledge thought to have taught humans how to use corn. The Plumed Serpent was revered especially by merchants, priests, and craftsmen. In modern times, Quetzalcoatl has come to symbolise Mexico's deep pre-hispanic roots. In my last posting, I showed the marvellous architecture of the Palacio Gobierno. This time I will focus on the stunning murals that cover the walls of the first and second floor arcades surrounding the Palacio's two large courtyards. The murals were painted in 1961 and portray Aguascalientes' role in the political and social history of Mexico. The artist, Oswaldo Barra Cunningham (1922-1999), was a Colombian and student of the great Mexican muralist, Diego Rivera. Like Rivera's work, Barra's is richly colored and thickly peopled with historical figures. Some of the mural's non-historical bystanders wear the faces of Barra's friends and acquaintances.

Conquest and colonial exploitation

Armored conquistadores blaze away at fleeing native people. When Nuño Beltrán de Guzman marched through this area in the early 1540s, he slaughtered or enslaved whatever indigenous people he encountered. In the earliest stages of this invasion, the native people were terrified of the Spanish horses and guns. However, these were not the civilised, city-dwelling, indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico whom the Spanish conquered in only a few years. The inhabitants of north-central Mexico's semi-desert highland plateau were fierce, hardy, and independent. These were the fearsome Chichimecs whose warriors had plagued the Aztecs and other civilised pre-hispanic cultures for centuries. They would not easily accept the steel Spanish boot on their necks. Incessant Chichimec attacks forced the Spanish to move the location of Guadalajara at least 4 times before it was settled in its current location. On the upper right, a priest extends a protective hand over the back of a native. Here, Barra demonstrates the ambiguous role of the Church in the conquest. On the one hand, there were notable examples of priests who attempted to protect the indigenous people from the worst abuses. On the other hand, the Church itself materially benefitted from the exploitation and forced labor of the native populations.

A Chichimec woman and her son prepare weapons. While his mother crafts arrowheads, the boy tests out a new bow.  Note the Spanish helmet and steel glove next to the boy, no doubt captured in battle. The armadillo and the fiercely glaring mountain lion symbolise the struggle. They represent an armored but clumsy Spaniard confronted by a lithe and powerful native warrior. The murals are filled with many such vignettes, each telling a story of its own. Mexico's great age of murals grew out of the 1910 Revolution and its aftermath. The country's new leaders wanted to educate the largely illiterate population about the history of Mexico and the values of the Revolution. To help this process, they recruited great artists like Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, David Alfaro Siqueiros and others to paint large murals inside public buildings all over Mexico.

Chichimec raiders truss a captured Spanish girl over the back of a horse. After silver was discovered in the ravines around Zacatecas, large-scale mining began. Caravans of heavily laden pack animals traveled south, carrying the silver to Guadalajara and on to Mexico City. Similar caravans carried supplies north to the mines at Zacatecas. During the 50 years of war between the Chichimecs and the Spanish, these caravans made tempting targets. Spanish civilians traveling with the caravans included women and girls. They were sometimes seized by the Chichimecs as slaves or, if they were lucky, as wives for the warriors. The Spanish established a string of settlements between the mines and Guadalajara to act as rest stops and military posts. Aguascalientes was founded as one of these.

Scene from the Battle of the Nopales. As  a Chichimec girl escapes with a captured Spanish horse, a semi-concealed warrior prepares to fire at her pursuers. Spanish reports described the warriors, both men and women, as fighting in the nude. The men were armed with bows, spears, and clubs, but carried no shields. During the 50-year Chichimec War, the indigenous people quickly recognised the value of horses in warfare. The broad, open plains of their territory were ideal cavalry country. However, they fought on foot too, particularly in the earlier stages. When not mounted, they attacked in open array, led by archers who were followed by spearmen and others carrying obsidian-edged clubs. Their nomadic lifestyle made them very difficult to conquer. The Spanish war technology and firepower used so effectively against the cities and fixed settlements of the Aztecs were of little use against opponents like these. In the end, the colonial authorities turned to the Church to negotiate a settlement acceptable to the Chichimecs. The long war officially ended in 1600.

Indigenous miners clamber up rickety ladders carrying heavy loads of silver ore. They are supervised by a narrow-eyed man wielding a whip. After the war ended, the evangelising friars persuaded the nomads to settle in villages around rustic adobe churches. In some cases, the settlers were former indigenous soldiers from other areas, brought in to fight the Chichimecs. The mine owners began to recruit from the villages, often as forced labor under the encomienda system. When the encomienda system was abolished during the indigenous population crash of the 17th Century, wage labor was employed to lure workers to the area. The hours were long and the work and treatment were brutal. Tools were primitive and accidents frequent. A miner would enter the dark tunnels before sunrise and emerge only after dark. Once he began at the mines, a typical indigenous worker's life was short and he often never saw daylight again.

The fruits of the miners' hard labor are delivered. A blonde angel hands the ore to a group of elegantly clad Spaniards, while others dance or drink in the background. Seen here, and in the previous photo are the extreme ends of the social spectrum in colonial society. The Spaniards shown are probably peninsulares, also known as gachupines. They were residents of New Spain but were born in Old Spain. Next down the scale were the criollos, Spaniards born in New World. They could amass wealth through mines, commerce, or hacienda ownership but the top--and very lucrative--official positions were all occupied by peninsulares. Next, came the mestizos, who were of mixed Spanish and indigenous blood. Legend has it that the very first of these was the illegitimate child of Hernán Cortéz and his indigenous mistress known as La Malinche. The overwhelming majority of Mexicans today are mestizos. Below the mestizos were the native people, who in many cases were little better than slaves but did have limited protection through laws and sympathetic priests. Finally, there were the Africans--outright slaves--imported during the indigenous population crash of the 16th and 17th Centuries.

Independence, turmoil, and more oppression

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José Pavon Morelos were early Independence War leaders. They were both priests who became generals leading large but undisciplined and ill-equipped armies against Royalist troops. Morelos is seen wielding the sword in the center and Hidalgo is behind him with a bald head fringed by long white hair. Hidalgo launched the war on September 15, 1810 from the steps of his church in Dolores, Guanajato. His famous grito (cry) for freedom drew immediate support. He declared an end to slavery and established the Virgin of Guadalupe--patron of the poor--as the symbol of the revolt. These two acts made him a hero to the indigenous people. After defeating all forces sent against him during the first few months of the war, Hidalgo was defeated at Puente Calderón and later captured and executed. Morelos had studied under Hidalgo at a religious school in Valladolid (now Morelia). He took up the torch and was successful in southern Mexico until he, too, was captured and executed. Both men were excommunicated by the Church whose hierarchy stood firmly with the Royalists. In the foreground you see the largely-indigenous soldiers. Often armed with little more than machetes, axes and pitchforks, their greatest weapon was an intense hatred arising from 300 years of Spanish oppression. However, this sword cut both ways. Their animosity led to atrocities against civilians including Spanish women and children. Their criollo allies drew back, appalled and fearful that they might be next. In truth, many of the criollos who supported the insurgents did not so much want to change society as to oust the peninsulares and take control themselves.

The blonde whore of wealth and power lounges in the midst of her ardent admirers. The War for Independence was stalemated until 1821when a key Royalist commander named Agustin de Iturbe changed sides. Together, he and insurgent commander Vicente Guerrero declared Mexico's independence. Spain had little choice but to withdraw. Iturbe was an opportunist, however, like so many others in Mexico's turbulent history. He made himself Emperor of Mexico but only occupied that post for eight months before the outraged insurgents ousted him and declared a republic. From then until 1867, Mexico experienced one revolt or foreign invasion after another. The opportunists had a field day. Chief among these was Antonio López de Santa Ana, who can be seen decked out in gold braid in the upper left. He was a politician/general who saw himself as the Napoleon of the West. He is remembered in the US as the victor in the Battle of the Alamo, and in Mexico as the man who lost half of its territory. The instability produced weakness which led to two catastrophic foreign invasions. The first was by the United States. Many in the US, including Congressmen Abraham Lincoln, recognised the war as naked aggression. US forces seized Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California. The US had previously annexed Texas, which had been seized by US settlers who defied Mexico's ban on slavery. Internal instability continued with the Reform War between Conservatives and Liberals. When the Conservatives lost to the forces of the Liberal Benito Juarez (upper right, just under the flames), they encouraged the French to invade. Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was installed by the French as Mexico's second Emperor (see the man with the flowing blonde beard in the upper center). When Benito Juarez finally drove the French out--with the material assistance of President Abraham Lincoln--he began the first period of sustained, stable, and honest government since the beginning of the War of Independence. No opportunist, Juarez is honored everywhere in Mexico as a true patriot.

A haughty hacendado supervises the whipping of a peon. From the earliest days, most haciendas were self-enclosed worlds, remote from outside control or authority. The hacendados (owners) lived like feudal lords and dispensed "justice" as they saw fit. The peon (hacienda worker) above may have tried to escape debts run up in the tienda de raya (company store). The tienda de raya had two functions. First, it was a lucrative profit center, since other, cheaper sources of daily necessities were often far away. On some haciendas, the peones were paid with tokens that could only be used in the company store. Second, the debts incurred at the store became a key mechanism for controlling the labor supply. By law, peones could not leave the hacienda with debts outstanding. The peones were almost all illiterate and the hacendado or his mayordomo (administratorkept the books. Who was to say when a debt was really paid off? Punishments for running away, or even disrespect, could be severe.

A woman sells tacos, while another woman and her daughter sell flowers. Life was hard in pre-Revolution Mexico, as it had always been since the Conquest and as it still is in many areas today. The scene above could have been found in any pueblo of the 1800s. I saw an almost identical cast of characters when I visited the street market in my town of Ajijic just today. While there is still considerable poverty in Mexico, the opportunities available to ordinary people are vastly greater than before the Revolution. There are also much greater legal protections for workers and the dignity and self-respect they enjoy today far exceed anything known before the Revolution.

A street musician strums his guitar while sleekly dressed people lounge just beyond the railing. Street musicians have been a feature of Mexican life for centuries and are still ubiquitous in Mexico. They perform for whatever people are willing to give them. I always tip the musicians for their delightful music and because I know it is a hard way to make a living. The scene above shows how closely the wealthy and the poor have always lived to one another, while still being separated by the powerful economic and social barriers represented by the stone railing.

The Porfirato

Again, the privileged elite dote on a Reubenesque female figure representing corruption. She holds the scales of justice on which a top-hatted man has placed a bag of gold. While a disapproving Juarez looks on (upper left), sycophants swarm around a moustachioed and medal-bedecked Porfirio Diaz. During the Reform War and the later French Occupation, General Diaz had won numerous victories. Following the departure of the French and the re-establishment of the Republic, he turned out to be another of Mexico's many opportunists. After leading an unsuccessful revolt against Juarez, Diaz was exiled for a time. However, after Juarez died in office, Diaz re-emerged politically. In May 1877, he was elected President of Mexico. Diaz held that post, either directly or through proxies for 35 years. During this period, known as the Porfirato, he maintained power through rigged elections, secret police repression, and the bribing or assassination of opponents. The last was referred to as a choice between silver or lead. Notice the turmoil behind the top hats. One banner proclaims "Huelga!" (strike). Throughout the Porfirato there were revolts by campesinos and strikes by workers, usually put down with great brutality.

A campesino clutches his harvested corn as a hand reaches out to claim the hacendado's share. Many hacendados did not plant all of their own land but rented some of it out to share-croppers. Under the Porfirato, Mexico rapidly modernised. Foreign corporations, welcomed by Diaz, stitched networks of railroads across the nation. Because of the difficulty of getting products to broader markets, many haciendas had long been status symbols rather than serious economic concerns. Suddenly, products that used to take weeks or months to deliver could be transported in days or hours. Cash crops such as agave for tequila, sisal for hemp string, and sugar cane became immensely profitable. Available arable land became scarce. Hacendados all over Mexico began seizing property belonging to indigenous villages or small landholders. Diaz officials averted their gaze from corrupt legal manoeuvres or even seizures at the point of a gun. Many hacendados became multi-millionaires living in plush mansions while the rural mestizo population became landless. The indigenous villages were a special target. They had employed a communal land system since centuries before the Conquest. One unfortunate effect of  Juarez' earlier reforms was to delegitimise the communal system, forcing individual ownership, thus making the land that much easier to steal.

Women and children line up to purchase the corn their husbands and fathers raised. The maize is doled out grudgingly by a hacienda employee who keeps his pistol close. Some people (see upper right) began the work of educating the illiterate masses, as a first step to reform. As you can see above, many were too busy staying alive to pay much attention.

One man hangs, while another's ears are cut off. Notice that the hanged man's feet are tied to a bag of tierra (earth) to ensure he strangles. During the Porfirato, land ownership by small operators and indigenous villagers was increasingly being strangled. The hacendados and factory owners were under no illusion that educating hacienda and factory workers would do anything but cause unrest. The owners saw ignorance and docility as the best policy and sometimes took strong action to enforce it. There is no question that Mexico became a much wealthier and more developed country under Diaz. Transportation and communications improved with the new railroad, telegraph, and telephone systems. Ports such as Vera Cruz were modernised to handle mining and cash crop exports and the imports of foreign goods. Foreign investors scrambled to take advantage of the Mexican bonanza. Hacienda owners smiled as their profits continued to skyrocket. Owners of the new factories--both foreign and Mexican--gloried in their ability to pay rock bottom wages while the government repressed worker attempts to organise. With the fire of public anger steadily building underneath, and Diaz' rigid lid clamped tight on the political kettle, pressure began to build toward an inevitable--and huge--explosion.

The winners in Mexico's new capitalist economy enjoy their good fortune. What they don't seem to notice is how much of the winnings are raked away by the out-of-view figure of the croupier, who represents the foreign bankers. This scene demonstrates both the profligacy of the nouveau riche and their fecklessness in allowing the nation's wealth to be increasingly dominated by foreign interests. They were caricatured in the late 19th Century by a political cartoonist named José Guadalupe Posada. He portrayed Mexico's nouveau riche as catrinas--skeletons elegantly dressed in the latest French finery. Posada was born and raised in Aguascalientes and his work is displayed in a local museum that I will show in a later posting. Catrina figures, and endless variations on their theme, are still wildly popular throughout Mexico. While the wealthy partied, the steam in that kettle began to whistle.


Mexican generals assassinate revolutionary leaders Francisco Madero and José Piño Suarez. Madero is on the far left holding his Plan of San Luis Potosí and shaking the clawed hand of one of the treacherous officers. Piño Suarez stands behind him to the right. General Victoriano Huerta points a gun at the heads of Madero and Piño Suarez as other officers brandish knives. Francisco Madero ran against Diaz in the 1910 presidential election, while Piño Suarez ran for Governor of Yucatan. Both were arrested but escaped to the US. On November 20, 1910, they issued their Plan of San Luis Potosí. This called for widely popular land, labor, and election reforms. Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, Venustiano Carranza, and many others answered the call. Diaz was quickly defeated and the old dictator resigned and sailed for France in May, 1911. Ironically, he would be the only top figure during the Revolution to die peacefully in bed. Madero and Piño Suarez were elected President and Vice President of Mexico. Though popular, Madero proved weak and a poor judge of character. He was an upper-class hacendado and, like many of the crillos during the Independence War, he wasn't really interested in the fundamental changes demanded by the workers and campesinos. Madero made the disastrous mistake of trusting Diaz' former generals. A group of them, led by Victoriano Huerta, conspired with US Ambassador Lane Wilson to stage a coup and set up a military dictatorship. During the coup, Madero and Piño Suarez were murdered in what became known as the Ten Tragic Days. Villa and Carranza joined with Zapata against Huerta. Zaparta was already in revolt because of Madero's failure to follow through on land reform.

Pancho Villa (left) and Emiliano Zapata (right) sit in front of their soldiers. Villa and Zapata possessed many similarities. Both grew up as poor country boys. Zapata lived on a small rancho and was an expert horse trainer. Even prior to Madero's 1910 proclamation, Zapata had begun to lead armed revolts against illegal land seizures in his native Morelos State. Villa grew up as a share-cropping campesino in Chihuahua far to the north. After a local hacendado raped his sister, Villa killed the man and rode off to the mountains to become a bandit. Both were close to the people and strongly supported land reform and an end to the hacienda system. Both were natural leaders beloved by their soldiers and, although lacking formal training, displayed great military ability. On the other hand, their personalities were quite different. Villa was ebullient and outgoing, while Zapata was intense and introspective. Of the two, Zapata had the most comprehensive and well-thought-out program of social reform called the Plan of Ayala, which he implemented even while the fighting continued. Villa seems to have been more of a "throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks" kind of guy. There is no doubt that they were the two foremost social revolutionaries in the struggle. They only met a few times and both came to tragic ends. Most in Mexico still consider them heroes.

Revolutionary leaders gathered in Aguascalientes in October 1914 to draft a constitution.  The fight to overthrow the usurper Huerta was the last time the leaders of the Revoluiton would all be on the same side. Zapata surged up from the south and Villa, under the command of Carranza, drove south. However, friction was already growing between Villa on the one side, and Carranza and his chief supporter Álvaro Obregon on the other. Defying Carranza's orders, Villa seized the vital silver-production center of Zacatecas. This broke the back of Huerta's resistance and, in July 1914, Huerta fled the country. He later died in a US jail. The revolutionaries agreed to meet in Aguascalientes to hammer out a constitution. They gathered at the Morelos Theatre, just off Plaza de la Patria. Although each sent delegations, none of the top leaders personally attended except Álvaro Obregon. Jealousy and distrust among them were increasing.

In an apocryphal scene, Zapata, Villa, and other leaders sign a Mexican flag. One of the most powerful convention speakers was Paulino Martinez, a member of Zapata's delegation. He demanded that the convention address "the social question," urging "land, liberty, and justice" rather than "presidential armchairs for those of ambition, wealth, and authority." He objected to "privileges for a particular group without political equality, collective welfare, and land for all." The revolutionary leaders attending included many who were, indeed, men of ambition. They recognised that they could only realise those ambitions by listening to the demands of the workers and campesinos who made up the bulk of their armies. Competing proposals for land reform and worker rights were soon developed by Carranza and Villa (Zapata was already implementing his Plan of Ayala). However, the failure of any of the Big Three to attend crippled the effectiveness of the convention. Through their delegations, Villa and Zapata agreed to support General Eulalio Gutiérrez Ortiz as interim President, but Carranza and Obregon refused. The third stage of the revolution was about to begin. Before its echoes faded, all four of these leaders would be dead from assassins' bullets.

Children surround a teacher who holds up Article 3 of the 1917 Constitution. Among other things, this article provides that elementary education shall be compulsory, that all education provided by the State shall be free, and that religious instruction in public schools is forbidden. That was truly revolutionary in Mexico. From the earliest colonial times, education had been denominated by the Catholic Church. Curbing the overwhelming social and economic control by the Church over national life had been the aim of reformers back to the days of Benito Juarez and his Reform Laws.

Scientists, philosophers and educators oversee the education of young children. Interestingly, what the children are viewing on the TV is Centeotl, the Aztec corn god. However much modern ideas spread in Mexico, ancient ways persist. The education provisions of the Constitution, and the policies they set in motion, arguably caused as much of a social earthquake as the breakup of the haciendas and distribution of their lands to the landless. The government sent thousands of low-paid teachers out into the hinterlands and initiated a policy of "each one teach one." This campaign began to dramatically reduce the illiteracy rate, at least at the basic level. As with land reform, there was bitter and sometimes violent resistance. Both the Church and the hacendados viewed the education campaign as a mechanism for undermining their traditional control over the rural population. Resistance to rural education was bitter and sometimes violent. As late as 1939, rural teachers were being murdered by Catholic fanatics.

Workers release doves of peace. The reforms of the Revolution didn't just distribute land and educate the illiterate. Maximum hours and minimum wages were set for workers, along with other reforms and protections. The right to organise was officially recognised and worker organisations proliferated. These not only enabled a united voice when dealing with employers, they provided a vehicle for worker and campesino political power. Mexico wasn't a "workers' paradise" after the Revolution, and certainly isn't today. Corruption is a problem and laws protecting workers are sometimes ignored. An expanding population has meant that the lands distributed in the 1920s-30s are no longer capable of supporting all those who might want to farm. The North American Free Trade Agreement has resulted in the dumping of tax-subsidised US agricultural surpluses, particularly corn, on the Mexican market. This has caused millions of small farmers to lose their land. Ironically, many have had to cross Mexico's northern border to work for the very agribusinesses that did the dumping. Still, with all of this, it would be hard to find any Mexican willing to go back to pre-Revolution times with no rights, no dignity, and little hope for change.

This completes Part 3 of my Aguascalientes series. I hope you enjoyed these wonderful murals and the story they tell. Anyone who wants to respond should either leave their comment in the Comments section below or email me directly. If it says "no comments" at the bottom of the page, that means no one has yet commented. Just click on that and it will take you to the Comments page.

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Hasta luego, Jim