Sunday, September 20, 2015

The Globos Fiesta of 2015

A colorful hot air balloon rises majestically against backdrop of Ajijic's mountains. The Globos Fiesta is one of the most popular events during Ajijic's annual Independencia celebration. Globos are balloons, and the ones launched during the fiesta are made of tissue paper and powered by hot air. While they don't carry passengers, they are most definitely exciting. This is not only because of their vivid colors and the fascinating variety of their shapes. The globos also have a reputation for catching fire that would give heart papitations to a north-of-the-border fire marshal. The Globos Fiesta is usually held on the Saturday afternoon of the weekend before September 15, Mexico's Independence Day.

The field of action

The bleachers of the local futbol (soccer) field were jammed with spectators. Unless you arrive early, there is little chance of finding a seat up there. However, many groups set up canopies and chairs around the perimeter of the field, and individuals often bring their own folding seats. The field itself is covered by hundreds of wandering spectators. The various teams prepping, inflating, and launching their globos are usually surrounded by scores of gawkers. In addition to spectators and team members, innumerable vendors roam about, selling cotton candy, toys, food, artisan wares, etc. Music blasts from loud speakers and the whole event is typically Mexican: colorful, noisy, and a little crazy.

Prepping the globo. The first step is to carefully unfold and spread out the globo. Even though some are quite large, they are still fairly fragile and must be handled gently. A fire is burning in the dark can in the center of the photo in order to generate the hot air needed for the initial inflation.

One team member fans hot air up into the opening while another ignites the flame inside. This is one of the most tricky moments. The globo's fragile skin could be torn by an overeager handler or a gust of wind blowing it against something sharp. It could also catch fire by coming in contact with the little stove on the ground, or during the delicate operation necessary to light its internal fire.

Success! The globo is up, up, and away! The large balloon rose gently as the the crowd cheered. It was one of the more successful entries and achieved an altitude of several thousand feet. Through the air hole in the bottom, you can see the blazing internal flame.

Some of the mechanics of getting them launched

This entry required a step ladder to prep it. The globos, as you will soon see, come in every imaginable shape and size. Some are only as big as an oversized beach ball. Others can be as tall as a house and require scaffolding to set up and launch. Although all are made of paper and powered by hot air, the resemblance among balloons ends there. Some are round, some square, others are multi-pointed stars, or long cylinders, or are shaped like animals or other objects.

A team effort. A large group was required to launch this globo. This photo gives you an idea of how big some of the balloons are, particularly when scaled against the people who are working on them. This one was only half-inflated.

Where'd it go? The Naranja Mechanica team squints into the sunlight, trying to keep their entry in sight. Some balloons are constructed and launched by individuals or family groups. In other cases local businesses field teams. An auto mechanic's shop fielded this team, complete with its own t-shirts. Sometimes a single team will construct multiple globos. A friend mentioned that someone he knew had brought 35 balloons to the event. I can believe it, because the Globos Fiesta always continues through the afternoon and into the evening. Throughout, at any one time, there are usually 5-10 globos in the air, while another 5-10 are under preparation or launching.

A view from the ground. I took this shot to show some of the basic elements of a typical design. The hole in the bottom keeps air flowing in to feed the flame. The fire itself is usually produced by lighting an oily rag in a small wire container suspended inside the balloon. In order to maintain the globo's stability in buffeting air currents, a water-filled plastic soda bottle has been suspended several feet below the balloon. This performs the same function as the tail on a kite. If the globo oscillates too much from side to side, the flame may come in contact with the skin, with disastrous results.

Globos come in all shapes, sizes, and themes

This weird looking figure is a popular character in Mexican children's cartoon shows. The balloon is probably about 15 feet tall and 4 feet wide. I have noticed that cylindrical shaped globos often don't fare well because they are especially prone to oscillations. However, this one did just fine.

On a stairway to heaven. Perhaps the shape of this one helped ensure its smooth launch and flawless performance as it rose through the clouds. Whatever works.

Love conquers all. Another globo with a theme that its creators felt couldn't lose. They were right. The heart flew on and on until we lost sight of it in the clouds.

And now for something completely different... A bright green rana (frog) rises graceflully into the sky. The crew had a difficult time getting the rana inflated, probably due to the multiple chambers that had to be filled. It was also very clumsy to launch. Once in the air, however, the happy creature soared aloft.

The Rise and Fall of "Just Chillin's" Globo

Just Chillin's penguin mascot was the theme for their entry. Just Chillin' is a wildly popular new restaurant located on the Carretera in west Ajijic. All the expats who eat there regularly were rooting for this entry. It was quite large, and had the problematic cylinder shape. I kept my fingers crossed.

Oh no! Disaster strikes! Sure enough, the penguin's shape caused it to oscillate soon after launch. Everyone held their breath. Then, black smoke appeared, the first sign of demise. As the oscillations increased, flames appeared and began consuming the side of the globo. The huge crowd groaned in sympathy as the ground crew watched helplessly.

The penguin disintegrates and begins to drop. Once a sizable portion of the walls of a balloon are consumed, the warm air inside dissipates and the balloon begins to drop, trailed by debris.

The flaming wreck of Just Chillin's entry plummets to the ground. Remember, the field below was swarming with people. Everyone scattered to avoid the crash. Any visiting fire marshals from up north probably had to be revived with smelling salts. Probably 40-50% of the launches go this way. Some of them get only a few feet off the ground before flaming out. I have many photos of such disasters, but I only chose one as a representative sample. Most land on the field, but others end up on rooftops, on the nearby highway, in the trees, or dangling from power lines. However, I have never seen any serious damage as a result and everyone treats it as great fun.

Some that made it...

A spectacular star-burst globo is hung with a sign while others float in the distance. The sign is titled "Miasthenia Gravis" and apparently the globo was intended to promote awareness about a muscle disease that generally affects women under 40 and men over 60.  If you look closely you can see three other globos in the photo. The most distant is only a white speck among the clouds in the upper right.

This completes my posting on the Globo Fiesta. If you ever visit Lake Chapala during the week of Independencia, this is one event you don't want to miss! I hope you enjoyed this posting. After last week's very serious analysis of the socio-economic basis of the War of Independence, I thought people might be ready for a bit of simple fun. If you have any questions of comments, please leave them in the Comments section below or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Monday, September 14, 2015

Mexican Independence Day--what's it all about?

A pennant with Mexico's national colors and symbol hangs in Ajijic's plaza. September 16 is annually celebrated in Mexico as Independencia - the date the War for Independence from Spain began. I decided that this year, rather than blogging about it after the fact, I would do an advance posting to help outsiders understand it. The Independence war was a long, bitter, and very bloody 10-year struggle to end 300 years of Spanish domination. It was also a very complex affair, in its causes, in the nature of the struggle itself, and in its results. In comparison, the American Revolution was a rather gentlemanly affair. Canada never really had a revolution or a war for independence. These differing experiences, and the complexity of Independencia, partially explain why so many people from North America's two other nations haven't much idea of what Mexico's 16th of September celebration is all about. Obviously, given the limitations of the blog format, I can't do more than an overview, but I hope that this posting will help foreigners, especially those who live in Mexico, to understand this colorful fiesta.

The roots of insurrection

The roots of Independencia go all the way back to the era of the Conquista. The painting above is a detail from Diego Rivera's great mural in the Palacio Nacional in Mexico City. From virtually the day Hernán Cortéz and his conquistadores landed, they began enslaving the local people. In some cases, the Church attempted to protect the indigenous people or at least moderate the more brutal conditions. However, most of the time Spanish religious officials were complicit in the exploitation and Rivera portrays this in his mural.

If the natives couldn't be persuaded to provide free labor through religious proselytization, there was always the whip. After all, convents and cathedrals had to be built, one way or another. Forced labor in hacienda fields and on church edifices were not the only demands on the native people. Indigenous communities were also forced to pay mandatory tithes to the church as well as tribute to the secular authorities  Over the centuries, resentment boiled over into periodic revolts. However, although sometimes violent, these uprisings tended to be localized reactions to especially egregious abuses and rarely threatened the foundations of Spanish rule.

A newly imported African slave is branded in preparation for sale. Another Rivera detail alludes to the large-scale importation of African slaves as a result of the indigenous population crash. The crash was caused by European diseases, abuse, and Spanish massacres. In many areas, as much as 90% of the native population died off between the start of the Conquista in 1519 and the beginning of the 18th Century. The importation of Africans created a social class that ranked even below the indigenous.

The lack of Spanish women in the early years led the Spanish men to seek out indigenous women. Cortez himself took La Malinche, his Mayan translator, as a concubine and fathered children by her. While some of these unions may have been voluntary, others occurred when female war captives were shared out, or were random rapes. Over time, these couplings resulted in the creation of new social classes.

Mixed Spanish and indigenous were called mestizos. Mulattos resulted from unions between indigenous and Africans or, less often, African and Spanish. Each of these groups had a different social status. For example, the Africans arrived in the New World as slaves--the social rock bottom. While the Spanish had enslaved some of the native people, most were not, and some retained special status due to their linkage to the old nobility of the Aztec or other native kingdoms. On the other hand, all native people were subject to tribute, while mestizos were not. Again, mestizos were not the social equals of someone with two parents of Spanish lineage.

The Spanish divided themselves into nobles and commoners, as in the Old Country. Over time, a whole new class distinction developed. Spaniards born in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain) were called peninsulares and stood at the top of the social scale. Criollos were Spaniards born in Nueva España (Mexico). They had a lower status and fewer rights than peninsulares. This distinction would have an important impact on Independencia as the criollos increasingly objected to the "glass ceiling" blocking them from lucrative political positions in colonial society.

An old mine cart, full of silver ore, on display in Guanajuato. During Nueva España's first couple of centuries, silver mining and smelting dominated the economy. The Spanish Crown demanded its Quinta (Royal Fifth) of all production, and most of the rest of the silver was shipped to Spain to pay for colonial imports. This caused a chronic shortage of currency and the consequent reliance on credit. The credit was extended by Spanish merchants who, through it, came to monopolize many sectors of the economy.

The merchants were widely hated both as creditors, and because they were seen as greedy peninsulares who were often the only source of desirable imported products. The Crown restricted Nueva España's production of many of these items in order to protect business interests in Spain--to which many peninsulares were closely connected.

In addition, the Crown kept a monopoly on the sale of mercury, a key element in the silver smelting process. Periodic shortages of mercury caused mine shutdowns and mass unemployment, which severely disrupted the economies of important mining towns, such as Zacatecas, Guanajuato, and San Luis Potosí. The resulting economic dislocations spread, in widening circles, throughout Nueva España. In the period leading up to Independencia, the supply of mercury was especially short because of British blockades during the on-going Napoleonic Wars.

In addition to short-term bouts of unemployment due to scarce mercury, the mine worker's overall economic situation gradually worsened as the 18th century wore on. This provided yet another source of friction. During the population crash of the 16th and 17th centuries, mine owners had had to offer incentives to get the labor they needed. One of these was called the partido, which was a share of ore a miner could keep for himself, in addition to his pay. The mine owners, who were often peninsulares, began to abolish the partido as the population recovered in the 18th Century and labor shortages eased. The miner workers saw this not only as a cut in compensation, but also as a loss of status.

The wife of a wealthy Spaniard does her part to help the poor. The painting is part of a mural in Guanajuato depicting conditions leading up to Independencia. The population crash, and subsequent recovery, also affected agricultural workers. Grain cultivation required a large workforce but, during the crash, agricultural labor was also scarce. In order to recruit workers from the indigenous villages, hacendados (hacienda owners) offered a regular ration of maiz (corn) in addition to pay. This was important because, while grain prices rose during the 18th century, farm worker pay did not. The maiz ration somewhat insulated hacienda workers from food inflation. However, as the population recovered, hacendados--like the mine owners--felt less need to extend such benefits and began to abolish the maiz ration. This caused widespread outrage, as well as increased hunger.

In addition, the population increase meant that indigenous villages had to feed more people from their existing stock of communal land. At the same time, the increase in the available workforce caused the hacendados to shift from livestock to the more profitable grain crops. Eager to increase production, they began to cast covetous eyes upon indigenous lands. Illegal seizures of native fields increased. On the other hand, indigenous villagers sometimes forcibly occupied hacienda lands that they believed had been stolen from them in the past. These conflicts often ended in the colonial courts but sometimes resulted in violent confrontations.

In addition to these pressures, a series of great droughts caused crop failures four times in the century between 1710 and 1810. The fourth one (1808-1810) occurred just before the outbreak of Independencia. The crop failures caused famine, which in turn caused migrations to the cities in search of food, which then resulted in great epidemics. Thousands died. Further, huge numbers of mules and oxen starved during the grain shortages. Mines were powered by these animals, and all freight transportation and field plowing also depended upon them. The economic dislocations were far-reaching. Merchants and hacienda owners often hoarded grain during these episodes, seeking to exploit the crises. Such practices led to food riots in the cities.

Thus, slavery and oppression, social class tensions, a lack of circulating currency, conflicts between debtors and creditors, the impact of population changes on labor conditions and land use, and food hoarding by the elites during agricultural crises all converged to fracture Nueva España's colonial society.

The insurgent leaders

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was the first great leader of the revolt against Spain. He is portrayed enscribing Libertad (Liberty) on a banner, while the bound hands of a faceless man eagerly reach for it. One of Hidalgo's earliest decrees was to end slavery and tribute and to demand the return of lands stolen from the indigenous people. The underclasses, known as the castes, flocked to his cause although none of this was achieved until long after his death. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla was born a criollo in 1753, the son of a middle-class hacienda administrator in the province of  Guanajuato. While living on the hacienda, he learned Nahuatl, Otomi, and Purépecha, the languages of his father's workers. This skill would prove crucial during Independencia. His father was affluent enough to pay for a good education and, at age 15, he was sent to Valladolid (today Morelia) in Michoacan to attend a Jesuit college.

When the Jesuits were summarily expelled from Spanish territories in 1767, protests broke out all over the country and Hidalgo was no doubt influenced by them. Since his Jesuit school was closed, he switched to the prestigious Colegio San Nicolás. After graduating, Hidalgo earned advanced degrees at the Royal and Pontifical University in Mexico City. In addition to Spanish, Latin, and 3 indigenous languages, he also learned French and Italian. At the University, the young man became familiar with the ideas of Europe's Enlightenment, another crucial step in his preparation.

After he became a priest, Hidalgo returned to Colegio San Nicolás to teach and became the dean of the school in 1790. However, his liberal ideas, along with mismanagement of funds, caused his removal. He was then assigned to a succession of parishes. This was occasioned not only by his ideas but his lifestyle. He fathered 5 children out of wedlock by two different women, liked dancing and gambling, and seemed a bit like an 18th Century hippie.

However, Hidalgo was sympathetic to the indigenous people and started various projects to help them become economically self-sufficient. Some of these projects violated the Spanish monopolies and he was angered when ordered to stop. In 1808, Hidalgo was the priest in Dolores, Guanajuato. When the crop failure occurred, famine hit his parish hard and his parishioners faced starvation. Hidalgo protested vigorously when the local Spanish merchants held grain off the market to push prices higher. Then, whispers circulated about a group in Querétaro who sought to oust the Spanish. Hidalgo quickly joined them..

Statue of the dashing young Ignacio Allende in San Miguel de Allende. Ignacio Allende y Unzaga was born in 1769, the son of a wealthy criollo trader in San Miguel el Grande, as the town was called before it was renamed for Allende after Indpendencia. He grew up in the sumptuous house which still faces the main plaza in San Miguel, across from the Cathedral. In 1802, Allende joined the Viceroy's army as a cavalry officer in the regiment stationed in his hometown. He rose to the rank of captain, but, at the same time, became involved in the Independencia conspiracy. In 1806 he was nearly arrested for it, but his social and political connections apparently shielded him. In spite of his close call, he began secretly meeting with Miguel Hidalgo and others in the city of Querétaro.

Up to this point, the conspiracy did not amount to much more than theoretical discussions among small, loosely connected groups. They were scattered around the country and largely made up of middle-class criollos. True, there was widespread discontent among mestizos and other castes for reasons I have already stated, but they were largely unrepresented among the various groups of conspirators. There had been strikes among miners, food riots in the cities, and violent clashes between hacendados and indigenous villagers. However these were episodic, localized, and were easily suppressed. No central issue connected the various groups among the castes with each other, or with the criollos.

Then, in 1808, everything changed. In that year Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, treacherously turned on his ally, the King of Spain. Napoleon deposed the weak King Charles IV, occupied the country, and installed Joseph Bonaparte, the Emperor's brother, as the new King. Suddenly, the entire legitimacy of Nueva España's Viceregal government was called into question. To whom was loyalty owed? Napoleon's brother? Charles IV? His son Ferdinand, who now claimed the throne? Or was it at last time to break away and form a new country? The crisis of legitimacy caused confusion and disarray in Mexico City and provided the opportunity for the conspirators to act.

Still, a fundamental question remained. Was this to be a coup d'etat by the criollos, with the object of removing the hated "glass ceiling," but leaving all other social arrangements intact? Or was it to be a true social revolution involving the masses seething with discontent? From 1808 to the late summer of 1810, the conspirators worked feverishly to prepare their revolt but left this fundamental question unanswered.

La Corregidora was as formidable a person as she appears in the portrait above. Doña Maria Josefa Ortiz gained her nickname "La Corregidora" through her marriage to Miguel Dominguez. He was the Corregidor (Magistrate) of Querétaro, an important city along the route between Mexico City and the silver towns of western and northern Nueva España. Like Hidalgo and Allende, she was a criollo, born in Vallodolid in 1769. Her father, a captain in the Viceregal Army, had been killed in action during her infancy. Ortiz was raised by her older sister after their mother died. Educated at the Colegio de las Vizcaines, she married Miguel Dominguez, a rising figure in Nueva España's society. The couple moved to Querétaro after the Viceroy appointed Dominguez to be its Corregidor.

La Corregidora soon developed sympathy with the plight of the castes and may, as well, have resented the limitations placed on her husband's career by their status as criollos. She began meeting with Hidalgo, Allende, and others to discuss the ideas of the Enlightenment and the possibilities for change in Nueva España. Her husband was aware of her activities but limited his own involvement because of his official position. Following the usurpation by Joseph Bonaparte, the disarray among the top ranks of Nueva España's leadership created a political vacuum. The conspiracy went into high gear.

The leaders in Querétaro secretly began to gather and store weapons. Hidalgo dispatched couriers to his many contacts among the leaders of mine workers, mule caravan drivers, hacienda workers, and local priests. All were directed to be ready when the call was given. Similarly, Allende contacted his friends among young criollo Army officers who might be sympathetic. He made preparations to seize command of his own cavalry regiment at the critical moment. The date was set for December 8, 1810.

Then, disaster struck. An informer tipped off the authorities, who happened to include the Corregidor, Miguel Dominguez. Fearing the exposure of his wife's involvement, and of his own guilty knowledge of the plot, Dominguez locked her in her bedroom so she couldn't warn her fellow conspirators and become further implicated. La Corregidora responded with typical resourcefulness. After tapping on her floor to alert her maid, she whispered instructions through the keyhole of the locked door. The maid quickly alerted a messenger. Whipping his horse into a lather, the man raced through the night to the town of Dolores to warn Hidalgo and Allende. Faced with a decision to flee or fight, they decided to launch the revolt two months early. The die was cast.

Launching the revolt

The church where Father Miguel Hidalgo called for revolt. Nuestra Señora de Dolores (Our Lady of Sorrows church) still stands, dominating the main plaza in Dolores Hidalgo. When he addressed the crowd, Hidalgo stood on the top step, just to the left of the great wooden door seen above. His name was added to that of the town after independence was won.

When La Corregidora's warning arrived in the late evening of September 15, 1810, Hidalgo acted quickly. First, he ordered Ignacio Allende to take a party of armed men and free 80 prisoners held in the local jail These included a number of pro-independence prisoners and thus their still-tiny force began to grow. Next, he dispatched messengers to mobilize sympathetic local leaders in the the mining towns, haciendas, mule driving groups, and pueblo churches all over central and western Mexico.

All this would take time, of course, and the Spanish authorities had already begun arresting identified conspirators. Doubtless Hidalgo's and Allende's names were high on the list. They needed to start building an army immediately, using whatever was at hand. For many criollos with property and careers at stake, theoretical discussions were one thing, risking everything was quite another. There was no time to form an army made up primarily of that very ambivalent group. Circumstances forced a choice between a criollo political coup d'etat from the top, or a social revolution from the bottom. In politics, war, and life in general, timing is everything.

Hidalgo decided to focus his appeal on the indigenous villagers, the hacienda peones, the impoverished mine workers, and the debtor classes of the cities. To rouse them, he aimed the revolt squarely against the gachupines, as the hated Spanish-born peninsulares were widely and derisively called. Since the largest group of potential supporters were the landless peones and the indigenous villagers, he would need to promise them land. In addition, Hidalgo was a priest of the Church, as well as a revolutionary. He clearly understood the usefulness of claiming God's support when launching a great armed struggle. Hidalgo also knew that the rural people he so vitally needed were fervently religious. A crusade for liberty and land, based on a religious appeal, would pull it all together.

The bell that Hidalgo rang to summon the people of Dolores rests in a museum near the church. This is the Mexican equivalent of the famous Liberty Bell in the US. Even today, life in Mexican pueblos is governed by the sound of church bells. Sometimes they call residents to mass, sometimes they notify of a death, and sometimes they signal an emergency. Hearing the bell rung at an unusual hour of the evening, people quickly assembled in the broad plaza in front of the church.

Standing on the top step, flanked by Allende and the other leaders, Hidalgo appealed to the crowd in what, ever afterward, has been known as his grito (a loud cry or shout). What he actually said is unknown, and is much disputed among historians. It is likely that the grito went something like this:

"My children: a new dispensation comes to us today. Will you receive it? Will you free yourselves? Will you recover the lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers by the hated Spaniards? We must act at once... Will you defend your religion and your rights as true patriots? Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the gachupines!"

In 1825, four years after Independencia was won, September 16 became a Mexican national holiday. Each year, in the nation's largest cities and smallest pueblos, this scene is re-enacted at 11 PM on September 15, the eve of Independencia. Whether it is the President of Mexico addressing hundreds of thousands massed in the famous Zocalo Plaza, or a local official of a tiny mountain town speaking to a few dozen, the scene is the same. The bell hanging over the balcony of the official building is rung and the presiding official issues a version of the grito. The crowd answers with lusty shouts of Viva! and sings the national anthem. It is a very moving ceremony.

The Virgen de Guadalupe became the patron of Independencia. She is to be found everywhere in Mexico, often framed by Mexican flags, or decorated in the Mexican national colors of red, white, and green. Once again, Hidalgo and his compatriots reacted to their circumstances. There had been no time to create a flag for the Independencia movement and its army. Shortly after they began their famous march from Dolores, they stopped at the little town of Atotonilco, a few miles outside San Miguel. There, at the Sanctuary of Jesus Nazareno, Hidalgo spotted a large banner with the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe. He grabbed a long spear and hoisted the image in front of his army. Above is the actual banner used. It is currently on display in a Dolores museum.

Throughout history, flags have been very important, particularly in military operations. In the confused environment of a battlefield, with smoke and dust billowing about, soldiers needed some way to identify their own lines and those of the enemy. Everyone took heart when they could see their own flag. As late as World War II, the raising of the US flag on top of Iwo Jima's volcano had an electrifying effect on the troops watching below.

According to the legend, the Virgen de Guadalupe was encountered in the mid-16th century on the site of a ruined temple to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The person who reported it was a recently converted Aztec man who had taken the Christian name of Juan Diego. The event was especially significant because it was the very first time the Virgin had been encountered in the New World, and it was by an indigenous person! She is usually portrayed as dark-skinned and this, along with the story of the encounter and of various miracles attributed to her, soon had the native people flocking to convert. She became the patron of Nueva España's poor and downtrodden people, especially the indigenous. This is why Hidalgo's choice of that particular banner was so crucial.

He could not have picked a more powerful symbol to use in his grito or for his flag. By choosing this emblem, by denouncing the gachupines, and by calling for the return of "lands stolen three hundred years ago from your forefathers," Hidalgo electrified the Mexican underclasses. The first stage of Independencia would be a mass uprising, an attempt at full-scale social revolution.

The wildfire of insurrection

The word of the revolt spread like a wildfire. This painting is a detail from a mural in Guanajuato. It captures the fanatical zeal with which the oppressed castes flocked to Hidalgo's call, and the reckless bravery they exhibited in battle against Spanish troops and militia. Also evident is how poorly armed and equipped they were. Most carried machetes or other farm tools as weapons. The miners might be armed with pickaxes or other tools of their trade. A number brought slings with which they could accurately propel rocks for a surprising distance. Except for small detachments of militia that had joined the revolt, or the cavalry that Allende brought from San Miguel, very few of Hidalgo's men had guns. Only a handful knew how to properly use the ones captured along the way.

Hidalgo quickly assembled 600 men in Dolores, and began a march through the Bajio area of present- day Guanajuato State. Everywhere along their route more recruits poured in from haciendas, pueblos, and indigenous villages. Their army seemed to grow by the hour. At its peak, it totaled between 80,000 and 100,000 men. However, it was actually less of an army than it was a people in arms, a huge mob with little discipline and no sense of tactics. In spite of these deficiencies, Hidalgo's army had enormous fervor and energy to match its colossal size. It seemed irresistible and, at first, overwhelmed all opposition it encountered.

While happy about their successes, Allende and the other criollo leaders were increasingly uneasy about the tendency of their troops to massacre hacienda owners in the countryside and merchants in the towns, after looting their stores. It seems that they took Hidalgo's words to heart when he said in his grito: "death to the gachupines!" Sometimes those killed included criollos, particularly if they had a reputation for abusing those under them. To the criollos helping lead the revolt, this was getting a bit close to home. Hidalgo seemed unwilling to restrain the excesses of his men, or perhaps he simply knew that with such an army it was impossible. There was too little capacity for control and too much pent-up anger. It would be well for those who sit at the top of any society to remember that the more tightly they clamp the lid over the discontent boiling under them, the more devastating the explosion will be when the it finally blows off.

It should be noted that similar revolts occurred over much of Mexico, as soon as word reached other parts of the conspiratorial network. This was particularly so in western and northern Mexico's silver towns, where the mine workers rose up and, with their criollo allies, seized control of Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and many smaller mining towns such as Etzatlán in present-day western Jalisco. If they could hold these towns, it would be a huge blow to the Spanish authorities. The loss of the silver revenues would seriously cramp royalist operations, while the rebels could use the silver to finance theirs. However, the Spanish still controlled Guanajuato, one of the key silver towns near Dolores. It became the rebels' first major target.

Guanajuato's fortress-like Alhóndiga de Granaditas was actually a granary. Today it is a museum dedicated to the battle that occurred here and to an extensive pre-hispanic collection. Most cities in Nueva España contained an alhondiga to store wheat and corn brought in from haciendas and indigenous villages. Grain was purchased at government-set prices and stored for resale in buildings like this. Construction on Guanajuato's Alhóndiga de Granaditas was completed in November 1809, less than a year before the revolt.

The Spanish authorities in Guanajuato decided to stand their ground rather than flee Hidalgo's approaching army. Because of its large size, thick stone walls, generally small windows, and the store of food already present in the building, the Spanish authorities picked this site as their fortress. It was a sound military decision.

The royalist troops and all of the wealthy peninsulares and their families took refuge inside and prepared to withstand a siege. They brought along all the recently mined silver and their valuable personal belongings to keep them from rebel hands. Let the rabble sack the city and even burn it! They would still be safe. Only heavy artillery could knock down their walls and they knew Hidalgo's forces had virtually none. The Alhóndiga de Granaditas should have saved the Spanish. However, they didn't count on the bravery and ingenuity of one man.

El Pipla, with his paving-stone armor and his torch, defeated the Alhóndiga's defenders. The painting above is a detail from a mural in Guanajuato. There is also a giant statue of him on the crest of a ridge overlooking the city. Like most people who become heroes, El Pipila was an ordinary man who emerged suddenly during extraordinary times. His real name was Juan José de los Reyes Martinez Amaro. He was a mine worker from Guanajuato who, like many other miners, joined the revolt. El Pipila was the nickname his coworkers gave him.

When the rebel army marched into the city, the royalists were already safely ensconced in their granary fortress. For two days, a firefight raged between the well-armed Spanish inside and the few among the rebels who possessed guns. Several attempts to rush the stronghold came to naught. Spanish guns bristled at every window, and the heavy, iron-studded, wooden doors stood against every attempt to force them. Rebel casualties mounted. Something had to be done.

Then, El Pipla stepped forward with an amazing proposal. He planned to crawl across the open plaza through the intense royalist gunfire to the wall of the Alhóndiga. Once there, El Pipila proposed to set the building's cellar door afire. If it worked, the rebel forces could pour inside and seize the fortress. The miner set out with a large, flat piece of paving stone strapped on his back as a bullet shield. He carried a torch in one hand and a pot of flammable tar in the other. It is likely that few thought he would make it, but he did. Smearing the door with the tar, he set it alight. When it collapsed in embers, the rebels made their rush. Soon, with nowhere to go, the defenders surrendered. However, there was no safety in surrender.

Wealthy peninsulares cower in terror before the fury of those they had long oppressed. Their blood up, and furious at the casualties they had sustained, Hidalgo's ragged forces massacred the surrendering Spanish. They killed soldiers and civilians alike, including women, and children. While it does not appear that Hidalgo ordered the massacre, he was the responsible commander and it deeply stained his reputation.

Many criollos recoiled in horror, both within his army and among potential supporters. Allende and other key leaders gritted their teeth and remained loyal but, after all, what choice had they at this point? Many other criollos slipped back into neutrality and some swung their support to the royalist cause. Hidalgo desperately needed experienced criollo officers to train and discipline his army. so the massacre produced disastrous results in the longer term.

In fact, the deliberate killing of gachupines, particularly wealthy merchants, continued throughout this stage of the revolt. Hidago's forces eventually took Guadalajara and arrested the merchants and other royalist officials who had not already fled. During the two months he held the city, several hundred were summarily executed. Beginning on December 12, the feast day of the Virgen de Guadalupe, groups of prisoners were taken from their cells each night, 20 to 30 at a time. They were transported to the ravines just outside the city where they were killed with knives and machetes and their bodies dumped.

While all this is horrifying, it is also true that the Spanish had seized and held Nueva España through 300 years of torture, massacre, enslavement and theft. In fact, during the Independence War's 10-year duration, royalist forces committed innumerable acts of violence against rebel prisoners and unarmed civilians, including many summary executions. There were bloody hands on both sides.

Like so many of Mexico's heroic figures, Hidalgo did not die in his sleep. He led the rebel army toward Mexico City and fought a battle at Monte de las Cruces near the capital. Allende urged him to attack the city, but he refused for reasons that are unclear. Possibly, Hidalgo shrank from the scale of the likely massacre had he succeeded. Also, entrenched in the capital were the strongest Spanish forces in the country and the rebels had suffered heavy losses at Monte de las Cruces. Whatever  his reasons, Hidalgo retreated to Guadalajara. There, he issued a decree ending slavery, eliminating indigenous tribute payments, and demanding the return of native lands seized by Spaniards. These acts forever endeared him to the underclasses. Hidalgo's anti-slavery decree pre-dated Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation by more than 50 years.

In the mean time, the Spanish had at last overcome their disarray. General Calleja, one of their more effective officers, marched down from San Luis Potosí to challenge Hidalgo and his army. With only 6,000 men, Calleja's army was laughably small compared to Hidalgo's 80,000+. However, they were trained, disciplined troops, and possessed field artillery. The two armies clashed at Calderón Bridge, northeast of Guadalajara. At first, it looked like Hidalgo's forces would once again be victorious. However, Calleja's troops stood fast and a lucky shot by his artillery blew up Hidalgo's ammunition supply. The massive explosion panicked Hidalgo's undisciplined army and they fled the field.

The rebel leaders attempted to regroup, but it was over. They could do nothing but flee, hoping to reach the United States. Because of the catastrophic defeat, and the massacres that preceded it, the criollo leaders removed Hidalgo as head of the army and replaced him with Allende. In Coahuila, Hidalgo and other top leaders were betrayed and captured. Taken to Chihuahua, the rebel leaders were tried, executed by firing squad, and then decapitated. The heads of Hidalgo, Allende, and two other key leaders were sent to the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato and hung in iron cages on the four corners of the building. The social revolutionary phase of Independencia was over.

One of the revolt's surviving leaders was José María Morelos y Pavon. He carried on the fight from bases in Michoacan and Oaxaca. Morelos had observed the flaws of a huge, undisciplined army and his was a smaller, much better trained force. However, although talented, Morelos was a former priest and mule driver rather than a trained general. He made a series of strategic mistakes which prevented ultimate success and was himself finally defeated, captured, and executed in 1815. The war then devolved into a guerrilla insurgency. Sometimes these roving, independent bands were indistinguishable from bandits. A stalemate ensued for the next six years. The Spanish held the cities and towns of any size. The guerrillas dominated the countryside.  Finally, exhaustion on both sides, along with continuing disarray in Spain, led to an agreement between Spanish General Agustín de Iturbide and rebel leader Vicente Guerrero. In 1821, they joined forces and ended the war. Independencia had at last succeeded.

NOTE: To learn about the heroic four-year siege of Lake Chapala's Mezcala Island during the independence struggle, click here.

This completes my posting on Mexico's Independencia. I hope you have enjoyed it and have, perhaps, learned something you didn't know already. If you'd like to ask a question or leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Tepalo Canyon to the Indigenous Ceremonial Grounds

Tepalo Falls after a heavy rain. During a recent hike, my friend Chuck (the handsome guy on the left) and I paused at the base of the largest of several waterfalls in Tepalo Canyon. It only contains water during the summer or early fall of each year. The rest of the year its dry rock face is used by adventurous expats and Mexicans to practice their rappelling skills. Tepalo Canyon is one of a large number of arroyos that cut deeply into the Sierra El Tecuan, a long east-to-west ridge that overlooks the North Shore of Lake Chapala.  For a look at this mountain range, click on this Google map. (The map incorrectly labels it "Sierra de San Juan Cosalá). The highest point on this ridge is Cerro Chupinaya, topping out at just under 8,000 ft, a popular hike for those in good physical condition.

Gearing up at the trailhead. From left to right are Larry, Steve, Ridge, Lynn, Jim B, and Louise. Larry's dog Levi stands in front, impatient to hit the trail. These are all experienced and well-equipped hikers. All but one wear a broad-brimmed hat to ward off the intense sun. Everyone carries a hiking stick to help with balance on the steep, rocky trails. Some choose expensive, collapsible models with moulded hand-grips. Others just use old broom-sticks with rubber tips on the ends. Lug-soled hiking shoes or boots are also essential equipment. An increasing number of hikers are using a "camel-back" pack containing a water bladder with a tube that extends over the shoulder. Wearing one of these, a hiker can easily take a sip of water even while in motion, thus eliminating the need to remove a pack and dig out a water bottle. My camel-back can contain up to 3 liters, but I only put in that much for a long hike.

The first of the Tepalo Canyon's falls pours over an old dam. The dam may have created a water reservoir for the pueblo of Ajijic in some bygone time. The trail passes the falls only about 100 yards from the trailhead. Over the years, rocks and sediment have filled up the space behind the dam so that the ground is now level with its top.

Due to recent rains, we needed to cross the stream many times as we ascended the canyon. Fortunately, none of the crossings were more than a few inches deep. Most could be traversed with a little careful boulder-hopping. I had no fears of wet feet because my boots are lined with water-resistant Gortex.

A young Huichol girl stands on a ledge at the Hidden Canyon falls. Hidden Canyon is a short box canyon that branches off the main arroyo and ends at a nearly vertical waterfall. This is the second large falls encountered along the Tepalo trail. Huicholes are a very ancient tribe that has tenaciously clung to its culture, language and traditions. Their homeland lies in the rugged mountains and canyons where Jalisco, Nayarit and Zacatecas States meet. A small population Huicholes lives in the area of Lake Chapala and sells their beautiful handicrafts at street markets. They call themselves Wixárika and speak a language of the Uto-Aztecan family. The girl above was one of a group of Huichol teenagers that we encountered on our hike.

The kids began to climb the nearly vertical and very slippery rock face of the falls. I was quite astonished at their agility. Most experienced hikers would be reluctant to climb this face even when it is bone dry.

Up they went, soaked to the skin. Notice the girl at the top. She is dressed in a full, ankle-length skirt and is shod in sandals! That water has to be cold.

The climbers turn and gesture in triumph as a friend photographs their progress. Of course, getting down from a climb is always more problematic that going up. That's when most people get hurt. Fortunately, they all made it down without incident.

Our party of hikers moves toward the base of the main falls. Although the climb here at first seems daunting, there are a series of natural steps in the rock face that make the ascent relatively easy. The route circles around to the right side of the falls and moves up through a series of switchbacks.

The main falls are joined by a second cascade from a separate canyon. Two arroyos meet at the head of the Tepalo Canyon's main falls. While the stream coming down from this one has less force than the one pouring over the main channel, you can see that the rock faces are wet all the way across. This indicates that during or after a heavy rain, a lot more water drops over these ledges than you see now. The relative trickle you see above is the result of several dry days.

Jim B, Levi, and Larry take a breather on top of the main falls. Behind them, the circle with three dots indicate that this is part of an ejido. Such land is held in common by local people who are members of the ejido organization and cannot be sold to outsiders except with the consent of the organization.. Ejidos were created after the 1910 Revolution as a mechanism for returning land to campesinos and indigenous people which had been usurped by hacienda owners in previous centuries. The tradition of owning land in common harks back to pre-hispanic times.

Matty and I enjoy a moment together at the head of the main falls. Matty is Chuck's dog. She adores hiking and hikers and is so affectionate that I call her "The Bandit of Love". During a hike, Matty will move from one person to another, pleading with her large, soft eyes for pets and hugs. The main falls drop steeply over the cliff just a few feet in front of me.

A sad reminder. Small, laminated photos of this young man were tacked on trees and stumps all along the way. The Spanish wording translates as follows: "A son is an Angel that God has sent us in order for us to understand life and also to remember that sometimes there were angels. I love you a lot son, Papa." The young man named Angel recently committed suicide.

Ridge and Jim B move along a lush jungly trail. Because we expected the rain to have accelerated the growth of underbrush, we all came armed with clippers, hand-saws, and machetes. Although the trail is fairly clear at this point, much of the rest was heavily overgrown, sometimes to the point of near impassibility. 

An orange ribbon marks the way. There are almost no written signs or trail directions anywhere in these mountains. The only exception is the Tepalo trail from the trailhead up to the main falls. Even those signs are very recent. As a consequence, expat hikers use colored ribbons like the one above to informally mark important trail intersections. Without them, it would often be difficult for hikers to find their way, even for those experienced in these mountains.

Low clouds roll over the high ridges, heading in our direction. We fully expected to get drenched somewhere along the hike. Fortunately, we never got more than a few sprinkles. Hiking in the clouds is a pleasantly cool and moist experience, although what you gain in comfort you lose in visibility.

Ridge slashes his way through thick brush. Sometimes even well-traveled trails will completely disappear under the rapidly growing foliage. Consequently, most of the "regulars" carry a pair of garden shears in their packs during this season. These won't be sufficient for trails blocked by fallen trees, but they work very well against the vines, creepers, and small branches that tangle your feet or knock your hat off.

An old blue blouse serves as a scarecrow in a milpa filled with new stalks of maíz. Members of the ejido are allowed to clear and plant crops on the common land. Often, as in this case, the small plot of land is deep in the mountains and accessible only by foot or horseback. Use of the land is permitted as long as the ejido member continues to work it. If he leaves it fallow more than two years, it reverts to the commons and then becomes available to others. Milpas are generally small, and cultivated by hand or, occasionally, with a horse-drawn plow. I sometimes encounter people planting their maíz (corn) by opening a series of small holes in the soil with a coa (digging stick) and dropping in a few kernels of maiz in each. This ancient method dates back to Neolithic times--as much as 8000 years ago! Milpas are sometimes sown with maízfrijol (beans), and calabasa (squash), all at the same time. The maíz stalk provides a support for the frijol vine, while the frijol returns nitrogen to the soil that is needed by the maíz. The calabasa is planted between the rows and its leaves serve to keep the weeds down. This mode of planting is also very ancient. Once the crops are harvested, horses or cattle may be turned loose in the field to graze on the stubble and fertilize the soil with their droppings. These methods may be low-tech, but they are also very low in cost and provide food and a small income to many poor families.

Finally free of the tangled vegetation, we moved out onto a broad grassy plateau. Billowy clouds flow across the Sierra El Tecuan in the distance. This plateau has been used for religious ceremonies for many years by a coalition of local indigenous tribes. For a few days every August, hundreds of families will camp up here to celebrate their traditions. For a Google satellite view of this place, click here. If you zoom out, you can see its location in relation to Ajijic.

View from the Ceremonial Grounds' plateau. You are looking southwest across Lake Chapala, which is about 12 miles wide at this point. The settled area in the center is the western outskirts of Ajijic. Out of view to the right is the town of Jocotopec, at the western tip of the Lake. Jocotopec is another of the many ancient pueblos dotting the lakeshore. Most of these pre-date the arrival of the Spanish by many centuries.

A hand-carved hole in a stone formation in the camping area of the Ceremonial Grounds. The hole was filled with rainwater when we visited. It is not clear to me what its function might be. Some possibilities include fire pit or small watering trough.

Clouds continued to pour down the arroyos toward us as we watched. In the foreground is an open-sided structure that is used as a cook-house during the annual event. Inside is a sign in Spanish that welcomes visitors but warns against disrespecting the traditions that are observed here. 

Levi takes it easy beside the framework of a temescal. A temescal is a sweat lodge used to purify the body and soul during the ceremonies. Reed mats called petates are placed over the framework to enclose the heat. The rocks in the center are heated in a separate fire and then brought inside the temescal where they are sprinkled with cold water to produce clouds of steam. The heat not only causes intense perspiration, but can bring about an hallucinatory state. 

Sierra El Tecuan, looking west.  A trail extends along the top of the ridge almost the entire 20 miles between Chapala to the east and Jocotopec in the west. The ridge itself ranges between 7500 and 8000 feet along its length. Many additional trails follow the various arroyos up toward the main ridge, or climb up the "finger" ridges that lead up to each of the peaks seen above. Some of these trails have been in use since human beings first arrived in this area.

This completes my posting on the hike between the Tepalo Canyon and the Indigenous Ceremonial Grounds. I hope you enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any comments or questions in the Comments section below. Alternatively, you can email me directly.

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

Hasta luego, Jim