Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Original Villages | Álvaro Obregón: San Sebastián Axotla & the March of the Salamanders

River Towns

In some of our more recent ambles through the original indigenous villages of Mexico City, we have explored a group of villages in the southwestern part of the City linked by a network of small rivers that once flowed from the mountains, to the west and south, eastward into Lake Texcoco.

We followed the former course of Río Churubusco from the village of San Diego Churubusco, on what was once the lakeshore, west to Xoco (HO-ko). It initially sat at the junction of two of that river's tributaries, Río Mixcoac, coming from the west, and the Río Magdalena, coming from the south. A mile farther west, we visited the village of Mixcoac (MISH-quack), alongside the river bearing its name. Traveling south, along the Río Magdalena, we visited the villages of San Ángel and Chimalistac.

The rivers are now mostly covered by highways and streets which, not coincidentally, serve as boundaries between present-day delegaciones or boroughs. The Río Churubuso-Río Mixcoac highway runs east to west, between Delegación Benito Juárez to its north and Delegación Coyoacán to its south. South of this highway, Avenida Universidad runs south, separating Coyoacán from Delegación Álvaro Obregón to the west. Universidad and some parallel streets cover Río Magdalena.

However, a small piece of riverine history has been protected from urban obliteration. Along the east side of Universidad, some blocks south of its intersection with Churubusco, there is a narrow sliver of park. It harbors a part of the Río Magdalena which remains open to the sky and to the view of passersby if they bother to venture a few yards in from the busy street.

Río Magdalena

North of this small sliver of park, the river enters Los Viveros de Coyoacán, the Coyoacán Nurseries, actually a large arboretum used to grow trees for urban reforestation. North of the Viveros, the river is again hidden underground.

Pueblo Axotla

Across Universidad from Los Viveros, is another virtually hidden piece of history, el Pueblo Axotla. Like Xoco, its neighbor, which lies kiddy-corner across Ave. Universidad and Churubusco, Axotla (Ah-SHOW-tla) sits behind a wall of modern commercial buildings. But when we turn off the avenue onto Calle Hidalgo, we see at once that we have entered a traditional barrio. On the day of our visit, we also see colorfull announcements that today, January 20, is the day for celebrating la fiesta patronal—the day of the pueblo's patron saint, San Sebastián Mártir.

"Long live San Sebastián Axotla"
Papel picada, cut paper (actually plastic)
announces the celebration of the pueblo's patron saint,
and of the pueblo, itself.

Gateway to the atrio, atrium, a plaza-like space, in front of the church

Church of San Sebastián Mártir
of the Pueblo of Axotla,

Built by the Franciscans in the 16th century.

We have run into San Sebastián, St. Sebastian the Martyr, before. He is the saint of San Sebastián Atzacoalco, one of the four original indigenous quarters of San Juan Tenochtitlan, the "Indian" sector the Spanish established around their central core when they turned the Mexica capital into Mexico City. He is also the patron saint of nearby Xoco and Chimalistac. Our hunch is that St. Sebastian was popular with the Franciscans who founded these churches because he was an early (third century) Christian martyr who died in defense of his new faith, thus serving as an example to the newly converted "indios".

16th century stone cross
from the Franciscans

Parade of the Axolotes

A few people are hanging out in the atrio. An empty stage sits to one side. Nothing is happening. So we ask those waiting, "¿Qué pasa con la fiesta?" "Is anything happening with the fiesta?"

They point to the church and say there is an anuncio on the wall listing the events of the fiesta. 

Anuncio, typical listing of fiesta events,
from Thursday (jueves), through Monday (lunes)

As we are reading the announcement, we suddenly hear the sound of drums coming from the street behind the church. As it is about noon, the sign tells us they are announcing el Desfile de los Axolotes, the parade of the Axolotes We have no idea what an axolote is, but we hurry alongside the church to catch up with the parade.

Drummers lead the parade

Half a dozen jovenes, youths, including a señorita, set the rhythm with various size drums. This is in place of the usual brass banda.

Behind the drummers walk groups of elementary school children, each identified by a sign, 3rd, 4th, 6th... 

There are also adults, mostly young, walking or riding bicycles and supporting large papier mache sculptures of strange, lizard-like creatures with feathers where their ears should be. They remind us of the alebrijes, fantastic, often dragon-like creatures, made of papier mache or other materials that are a form of popular folk art in Mexico, actually invented by a Mexico City artist, Pedro Linares, in the 1930s. We love them and have a small collection at home. 

We find out, later (from Wikipedia), that these creatures are axolotls (ah-show-LOW-tls) (Ambystoma mexicanum), a kind of amphibian similar to salamanders, also known as the Mexican walking fish. Axolotls (a Nahuatl name) are unusual among amphibians in that they reach adulthood without undergoing metamorphosis. Instead of developing lungs and taking to land, the adults remain aquatic and gilled. The "feathers" are their external gills. 

Photo: Wikipedia

Axolotls were common in the canals of Lake Xochimilco until the late 1990s, but by 2013, none could be found. So now they exist only in captivity in aquariums. Axotla means the place of the axolotl. Apparently, once upon a time, they were common in the Río Magdalena.  

Skeleton of a rather fearsome fish,
carried atop a bike.


Mariposa, butterfly


Everybody loves a good parade — and having their picture taken 
(at least the young do).

Appreciative onlooker
Señora del pueblo
Returning to the atrio, we sit down to rest from our chase to keep up with the much younger parade participants. Checking the schedule of events, we see that the next activity, at 16:00 (4PM) is la procesión de San Sebastián por las calles del pueblo, the procession of St. Sebastian through the streets of the pueblo. As it is now about 1PM, we decide to head back to our base in Coyoacán and return to Axotla at 4.

La Procesión de San Sebastián 

Arriving back about twenty minutes before the appointed hour, we again find the atrio pretty much empty. A family selling tacos from a table at one side is getting pretty good business from those who are gradually assembling. 

A joven puts finishing touches
on the church's entrance
An adulto mayor
helps hang decorations

An older caballero, gentleman, who was there earlier,
continues to watch and wait.

St. Sebastian
is brought out of the church
and placed on his anda,
the platform
on which he will be carried
through the streets.
The priest appears,
to see that all is ready

Other saints are brought out from the church,
including, of course, the Virgin and Holy Child,
followed by St. Joseph.

One of a dozen or so parishioners

The priest blesses one and all, saints and parishioners
(and this photographer).

And we head off.

The small procession lacks any visiting saints from other pueblos that are typical participants in such rituals. We know the closest pueblo is San Sebastián Xoco, so it is obviously occupied with its own celebration. There is also no banda or other musical accompaniment. A middle-aged man leads the group in singing hymns. He has a good voice, carrying the voices of the pilgrims along in tune. It is a very modest procession.

We pass through typically narrow callejas, stopping every so often in front of a home whose occupants have set up a small altar in front. The priest blesses the pictures or small statues of saints on the altar and their caretakers, and we move on.

San Sebastián and his householder

After a number of such stops and more walking though the pueblo's callejas, the procession returns to the church. 

Again, consulting the anuncio, we see that not much is scheduled for Saturday: a couple of masses, some musical groups, and another parade of the axolotes. The most notable event is placing the portada, an arch made of either real or plastic flowers, around the door of the church. We wonder which it will be here. Smaller, more modest barrios such as Axotla, often use plastic, as real flowers are expensive. We love the real ones; they are very colorful, very Mexican works of art and devotion. We wonder whether to return. The event is scheduled for 5PM. The facade of the church will be in the shade, so it won't be good for photos.

We note that on Sunday, midday, there will be both Aztec and Chinelo dancers, so perhaps we will return then.

Sunday Celebration: Floral Arches, Drumming, Dancing and Cultural Reconciliation

Sunday morning is sunny and mild, so we decide to pay another visit to Axotla. Arriving by taxi on Avenida Universidad, we can hear drums coming from the direction of the church. There are also the explosions of cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers, a ubiquitous accompaniment to fiestas. As we walk into the barrio along Calle Hidalgo, the sound of drums gets louder, until it becomes almost deafening.
Entering the church atrio, we see that the portada is in place. Happily, it is made of fresh flowers, mostly chrysanthemums. The atrio is full of people. Sunday is definitely the high point of the fiesta.

Portada of real flowers
"Long live St. Sebastian"

Virtually all the flowers are mums

The drums accompany two groups of Aztec dancers, one in front of the church, the other beside it. While these dancers may seem anomalous in 21st century Mexico City, they actually have a long and continuous history going back to the early days after the Spanish Conquest.

The dances originally arose in such places as Querétaro, to the northwest of Mexico City, and Tlaxcala, to the east. Indigenous ritual dances were adapted to Spanish Catholic symbolism and included in church fiestas. Formal dance groups were formed in collaboration with Catholic confraternities, which are lay groups supporting church events. Membership was limited—handed down along family lines. For most of their history they were called concheros, after the lute-like stringed instruments they played, made from armadillo shells. They traditionally wore simple white tunics


It was not until the 19th century that people moving into Mexico City from the countryside brought conchero dancing to the capital. After the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917)—with its repression of public religious displays and its glorification of the indigenous past in an attempt to forge a shared national identity—some of the dance groups became more focused on their indigenous heritage and set aside the religious components of their dances.

These groups adopted the name Azteca to make their indigenous roots explicit. As the name Aztec is one that was applied to indigenous Mexicans by foreign anthropologists, other groups proudly declare that they are Mexica (Meh-SHE-kah), the original name of the residents of Tenochtitlan. Both Azteca and Mexica dancers wear costumes modeled on those portrayed in original Aztec codices compiled by the Spanish. (Wikipedia)

Deer dancer,
who performs
an ancient hunting dance.
None of these guys are jovenes

The next generation in training
Yes, females also participate

As we are preparing to leave, we chance upon the leadership of Pueblo Axotla.

Señor Ricardo Ramírez
and compañero,
members of the mayordomoría,
the fiesta organizing committee
Parish priest,
in more informal dress ... and mood.


Tradition and Community: Decline and Revitalization

Reflecting on what we have experienced on this fiesta weekend, in this, another of the original pueblos of the Valley of Mexico, we sense the fragility of long-standing traditions manifested in the late afternoon procession of a few, mostly elderly parishioners, rather like the worn mural of a tree with deep roots painted on the wall at the entrance to the atrio.

There is also the exuberant vitality of the children in Friday's midday March of the Axolotes, commemorating exotic creatures that symbolize this pueblo, but which arethemselves, victims of modernity's lack of care for what the past has to offer. 

And there are those truly marvelous alebrijes, expressions of the ever-present, irrepressible creativity of the Mexican pueblo, the people. And there are the young adults drumming and carrying the alebrijes, their cheerful contribution to the pueblo´s celebration of its ongoing convivencia, communal life.

One doesn't have to be young to play

So, in Pueblo Axotla, as in other pueblos originarios, original villages, some of the culture of Tenochtitlan and its tributary villages lives on and has made peace with the Spiritual Conquest through creative adaptations.

"Long live San Sebastián Axotla"
papel picada floats against the (sometimes) crystalline Mexican blue sky.

Delegación Álvaro Obregón
is the long, orange area on the west side of Mexico City.

Axotla lies on its northeast side, at the intersection where
Delegación Benito Juárez (yellow) and
Delegación Coyoacn (purple) meet Álvaro Obregón.
This was the intersection of Río Mixcoac and Río Magdalena,
forming Río Churubusco

Pueblo Axotla (blue star) sits in the northeast corner of Delegación Álvaro Obregón .
Pueblo Xoco is just to its northeast, across Río Churubusco (highway, marked in black).

The eastern border of Álvaro Obregón is Avenida Universidad (yellow line),
essentially the path of Río Magdalena. 

Southwest of Axotla, near Avenida Universidad/Río Magdalena,
are the original pueblos of
Chimalistac (tan triangular shape)
and San Ángel (red)

Delegación Coyoacán, with its many original pueblos, is to the east
See also:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Lions in the Desert: The Carmelite Order, The Conquest of the Spirit & The Spiritual Conquest

As we wrote when we began our explorations of the Original Villages of Mexico City, after Cortés, with his Spanish soldiers and indigenous allies, had conquered Tenochtitlan, he had not only to transform that city, he also had to transform a geographically extensive civilization and culture that filled the Valley of Anahuac (now the Valley of Mexico) and stretched far beyond. This meant implementing a program of radical reconstruction of the culture, of the peoples' customary ways of being and their organizing beliefs. It required the "conversion" of el pueblo, the people, to Spanish Catholicism. This was the "Spiritual Conquest".

Carmelites in Mexico City

To accomplish this huge task, Cortés first relied on Franciscan monks. They were soon joined by Domincans, Augustinans and members of other religious orders. Among the later arrivals were the Discalced or Barefoot Carmelites.

We have visited and written about the Carmelites' first convent, the Convent and Church of San Ángel, begun in 1597 and now located in the colonia of the same name in Delegación Álvaro Obregón. We have also visited their Church and Convent of San Joaquín, now in Delegación Miguel Hidalgo, built a hundred years later, in 1689, more modest in size than San Ángel but remarkable for its medieval architectural simplicity.

A third Carmelite convent still stands within Mexico City. But, unlike San Ángel and San Joaquín, it does not sit in the midst of urban modernity and congestion. Instead, it sits in a "desert". But this "desert" is not arid and barren. It is a lush, shady forest of towering conifers in mountains that rise as high as as 3,800 meters, 12,400 feet in altitude, 5,000 feet above the Valley, on the west side of the city, in the Delegación Cuajimalpa. Comprising some 4,600 acres, it is now a national park, Desierto de los Leones, Desert of the Lions.

Convent in the Desert of the Lions

 Desierto de los Leones

Convento del Desierto de Nuestra Señora del Carmen de los Montes de Santa Fe, Convent of the Desert of Our Lady of Carmen of the Mountains of the Holy Faith is now officially called Ex-Convento del Desierto de los Leones, Ex-convent of the Desert of the Lions. Built by the Carmelites shortly after San Ángel, at the beginning of the 17th century, it sits at an altitude of 9,700 feet, nearly 3,000 feet above the Valley floor.

As for why the forest came to be called Desierto de los Leones, there are two stories, one romantic, the other pragmatic. The first is that there were mountain lions in the woods, making it a place of risk. The other is that a Spanish family named León had been granted the land by the king, and they donated it to the Carmelites, perhaps to gain holy indulgences for their sins and thus save themselves from having to pay for them after death with time in Purgatory.  

Convento del Desierto de Nuestra Señora del Carmen
de los Montes de Santa Fe

What does it mean that this Carmelite convent in an evergreen forest is "in the desert". And why was it built so far from the colonial city that sat in the middle of Lake Texcoco and the original indigenous villages that surrrounded the Lakes? Those villages were the objects of the Spiritual Conquest, the work, the vocation, of the religious orders, including the Carmelites. San Ángel and San Joaquín were established in two key villages, Tenanitla and Tlacopan on the west shore of the Lake, in order to carry out the conversion of los indios.

The convent still remains quite apart from the vastly larger modern city that now occupies the entire Valley floor and is determinedly climbing the mountain slopes. Reachable only by car along one of two narrow roads winding up the mountains, it still sits in the midst of a tranquil world far apart from the bullicio, hubbub, of contemporary Mexico City.

Answering these questions requires us to go back in time three hundred years before the Carmelites arrived in Nueva España and from Spain to the other end of the Mediterranean, to the time of the Crusades and the Holy Land.

The Carmelites: From the Prophet Elijah to the Holy Land Crusades to Nueva España

The Carmelite religious order originated in the early 13th century, during the era of the Crusades (11th to 13th centuries). The Order was formed by lay European pilgrims on Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land. They chose Mount Carmel because it was the site of various miraculous acts of the prophet Elijah. Carmelite tradition holds that a community of Jewish hermits continued to live at the site from the time of Elijah (9th century BCE) until the founding of their order there 2,000 years later. There are historical records of a group of ascetic Essenes living on the mountain in the second and first centuries BCE.

Carmelite monks followed this ascetic tradition, leading strict, self-disciplined lives as recluses, hermits, their lives devoted to solitary prayer, perpetual silence and penitential mortification of the body to overcome temptation to sin and develop a humility of spirit.

Grotto of Elijah, on
Mount Carmel in the Holy Land

In the latter part of the 13th century, members of the order were forced to returned to Europe because of numeous conflicts between Crusader States that had been created in the eastern Mediterranean and resurgent Muslim forces that culminated in the formation of the Ottoman Empire at the end of that century.

Over the next three hundred years, a combination of the prevailing political and social conditions in Europe—the Hundred Years' War and the Black Plague, with their untold numbers of deaths and economic devastation, and the rise of the Renaissance and Humanism—adversely affected the Order. There was a general decline in religious fervor. The strict ascetic Rule governing the order was "mitigated" several times. Consequently, the Carmelites bore less and less resemblance to the first hermits of Mount Carmel.

Counter-Reformation and Carmelite Renewal 

In the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church was challenged by the Protestant Reformation. As part of the Counter-Reformation there were many initiatives to purify and renew the Catholic Church. Among those feeling the call to reform and renewal was a Spanish nun, later to become St. Teresa of Ávila, who sought to return the Carmelites to their Primitive Rule. In 1562, with a group of fellow nuns, she established a small convent in the city of Ávila, Spain. The Rule of the order contained exacting prescriptions for a life of continual prayer, with strict enclosure within the convent, sustained by the asceticism of solitude, manual labor, perpetual abstinence, fasting and charity.

A monk, who was to become St. John of the Cross, established the first men's convent of Discalced Carmelite friars in Duruelo, Spain in 1568. Nearly thirty years later, in 1597, members of the order arrived in Nueva España and began construction of their first convent, San Ángel.

Zurbarán St. John of the Cross.jpg
St. John of the Cross,
Founder of the Discalced Carmelites

Painting by Francisco Zubarán, 1656

Convent in a Desert of Mountains

Just ten years later, the Carmelites began construction of their convent "in the desert". While the mountains around the Valley of Mexico were an environment radically different from Mt. Carmel in the Holy Land, they provided the characteristic of a desert essential to the Carmelite discipline. As a wilderness set apart from human community, they provided the isolation essential to an eremitical life of solitude and prayer, "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife" (Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Thomas Gray).

While the mission of the Carmelites in the New World of Nueva España, like that of all the other religious orders, was the conversion and education of los indios, which was an intensely communal and interactive process, the Convent of the Desert gave them a retreat from that world where they could return to and be nourished by the roots of their four-hundred-year-old spiritual heritage and practice. It made possible the combination of fullfilling a vocation in the world of people and eremitical withdrawal to solitude, silence and self-purification.

Gated path leads through the forest
to a chapel for prayer

Chapel of the Secrets
Monks could pray aloud together here, 

but had to face the walls to avoid eye contact.

Construction of the convent began in January of 1606. It was designed by Friar Andrés de San Miguel, who also designed the Convent of San Ángel, and whose own interesting story of salvation from a ship wreak we came upon in our research on that convent. By 1722, because of the wet climate of the mountains, the original Desierto convent had greatly deteriorated, so it was demolished and a new convent, the one still standing, was built in its place.

Only four monks lived in the Convent year-round. Other brothers would come from San Ángel, and other convents the order built throughout Nueva España and spend time in spiritual retreat. Over time, a dozen hemitages, small, single-room quarters, were built in the woods around the grounds to which monks could retreat for fasting, solitary prayer and meditation. These were used primarily during the holy seasons of Advent and Lent, forty-day periods modeled on Jesus' forty days in the wilderness before he began his preaching mission.

Gateway to a hermitage

Hospedería patio
Guests' patio
Rooms around the patio were for secular guests, well-to-do Spanish men.
They were not allowed to enter the convent proper.
No women were allowed.
Neither were indios, indigenous, or mestizos, mixed-blood persons.

Convent garden,
where vegetables and fruits would have been grown.

Convent garden

Modern-day Urban Retreat

Some time after Independence from Spain was won in 1821, the convent was abandoned. In 1876, the forest around it was declared the first forest preserve in Mexico, primarily to protect the springs and streams that provide drinking water to Mexico City. In 1917, at the end of the Mexican Revolution, President Venustiano Carranza declared it the first National Park. 

The Desert of the Lions is no longer a retreat for ascetic religious self-discipline. But it does provide secular respite for city residents and other Mexicans, with hiking and biking trails and cool, shady, quiet places to relax. Restaurantes campestres, open-air restaurants, provide traditional Mexican meals under the towering, cathedral-like evergreen trees. There are also tables and barbecue pits for family picnics.

is the long, narrow, magenta-colored delegación
on the west side of Mexico City

Ex-Convento Desierto de los Leones
is in the dark green, forested area
of the National Park Desierto de los Leones
Two narrow roads (white lines)
wind from lower urban areas to the Convent