Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Original Villages | Coyoacán's Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, Part I: Small Church with a Big History

Indigenous Coyoacán 

Es fácil traducir esta página en español: vaya a la columna a la derecha. En la parte más alta hay una ventana etiquetada "Translate". Desplace la flecha abajo hasta encuentra "Spanish". Click en ese y inmediatamente todo el texto estará traducido en español por Google. Con certeza, habrá errores, pero creemos qué el sentido se quede bastante claro.
When we wrote our initial post about Delegacion/Alcaldía Coyoacán, we began with a tour of its well-known, tourist-popular Center, officially la Villa Coyoacán and neighboring barrios. Originally, this was an indigenous urban center that had been in existence for at nearly two hundred years when Hernán Cortés, his Spanish troops and indigenous allies arrived in 1519 in the Valley called Anahuac. At that time, it was controlled by the Mexica (aka Azteca) of the island city of Tenochtitlán.

However, Coyoacán had been established by the Tepaneca. Like the Mexica, the Tepaneca were a Nahuatl-speaking people who had entered the north of the Valley around the year 1000 CE,  some three hundred years before the Mexica. By 1350, they had taken over the territory down the west side of Lake Texcoco as far as its southwest corner, where they built a village they likely named Coyoacán, Place of the Coyotes. The Tepaneca altepetl (city-state) was centered in Azcapotzalco, farther north along the southwest bay of Lake Texcoco.

Then, in 1428, the Mexica defeated Azcapotzalco and took control of its territories, including Coyoacán. As a major center in the southwest of the Valley, Coyoacán was crucial to the Mexica's political and economic control of that area and of the trade routes going south over the mountains, which they then also used for the military expansion of their empire.

Southwest Bay of Lake Texcoco.

(spelled here Coyohuacan)
lay near the west shore at 
the south end of the bay of Lake Texcoco,
near the channel from Lake Xochimilco
(bottom center of map).

In the early 1400s, when the Mexica of Tenochtitlán
won control of the Valley from the Tepaneca
they built a causeway to Coyoacán,
via the island village of Huitzilopochco. 

Hernán Cortés Transforms Coyoacán from an Indigenous Altepetl to a Spanish Village

In August 1521, Hernán Cortés and his forces defeated the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, bringing the so-called Aztec Empire to a sudden end. While Cortés awaited the razing of Tenochtitlán and the building of the Spanish Ciudad de México atop its ruins, he took over this center of Coyoacán as his temporary headquarters. 

He chose Coyoacán as his base because its leaders and residents, being Tepaneca, had allied with him in his attack on Tenochtitlán, giving him free access to the entrance to the causeway that ran from there to the capital city, hence providing him with a strategic pathway for his assault of the island city.

Cortés named the town la Villa Coyoacán. Declaring it a Villa had specific political purposes under Spanish law. When Cortés landed on the mainland in February 1519, he immediately had his soldiers declare the establishment of la Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, intending thereby to officially create a Spanish village according to Spanish law, with rights to elect its own leaders and to make direct appeals to the king. The "residents" of this Villa then elected Cortés the equivalent of mayor.

This was Cortés's way of claiming independence from the Governor of Cuba, who had charged him with an exploration of the mainland coast, not to land and attempt to conquer it. Thereafter, he bypassed the governor of Cuba and communicated directly with King Charles, reporting his victories and seeking the king's official approval and support. Declaring Coyoacán a Villa was a reinforcement of his claim to independence from the governor of Cuba and his right to act on behalf of the king in governing the newly conquered people and their territory.

During the three years that Cortés was based in Coyoacán, awaiting the construction of Spanish government buildings in the former Tenochtitlán, he had constructed an ayuntamiento (city hall) and residences for himself and his soldiers in la Villa. Thus he began the transformation of Coyoacán from an indigenous village into a Spanish villa whose colonial architecture and ambiance make it so picturesque and popular today.

History of La Capilla de la Concepción de Nuestra Señora, the Chapel of the Conception of Our Lady

The Construction of the First Christian Church in Nueva España, 

Being a devout Catholic and seeking to transform the defeated indigenous into believers in the True Catholic (Universal) Faith, Cortés also had a chapel built dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Concepción. It was located just east of the center of the Villa. As such, it was the first Catholic Christian Church built in Mexico and evidently is the oldest continually existing church in the continental Americas.

Panama, called Darien by the Spanish, had been explored by them beginning in 1510, but Panama City was not founded until 1519. Apparently, a chapel was built sometime in the following decade, but later abandoned. The oldest existing church in Panama City is its cathedral, begun in the late17th century and completed over a hundred years later. The original chapel of la Concepción was remodeled in the late 17th or early 18th century and given a Baroque facade and gold retablo (reredos) behind the altar. It is familiarly referred to as La Conchita, "the Little Shell"

Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, 
"La Conchita", "The Little Shell".

The facade is in Baroque style, from the late 17th century.
Both the shape of the top of the doorway
  (archo mixtilíneo, arch of mixed lines),
and the diamond-patterned wall are mudéjar,
i.e., Muslim, designs adopted by the Spanish.
The chapel was completely restored between 2011 and 2015.

La Conchita Located Atop the Earliest Settlement in Coyoacán

As it happened, during the recent renovation of la Capilla de la Concepción Inmaculada (2011-2015), archeologists discovered that it had been constructed atop the site of the earliest settlement that was to become Coyoacán. Under and around the current plaza in front of La Conchita, they found remains of an initial settlement dating from around the year 200 CE. It was likely built by the first people to establish agriculturally-supported settlements in the Valley, the Otomí, who had domesticated the cultivation of corn in the Balsas River Valley, just over the mountains to the east (now in the State of Puebla). Hunter-gatherer tribes had been in the Valley since at least 9,000 years ago.

Some four hundred and fifty years later, in the 7th century CE, this settlement was considerably enlarged. Archaeologists have found evidence that it was taken over by the Tolteca, who had, earlier in the same century, taken over the village they called Culhuacán, The Place of the Old Ones, on the peninsula separating Lake Xochimilco, to the south, from Lake Texcoco to the north. At the same time, the Tolteca were developing the city of Tula, north of the Valley (now in the State of Hidalgo), which became the dominant power center in the area for five hundred years, until the middle of the 12th century. Within a few years, the Tolteca of Culhuacán crossed the narrow channel connecting the two lakes and took over the settlement in Concepcion, giving them control of the strategic waterway. They built a temple on the site that is now that of La Conchita.

Subsequently, in the 12th century CE, the site was abandoned for reasons the archaeologists haven't deciphered. This abandonment seems curious, as the Tolteca of Culhuacán remained a dominant power until near the end of the 14th century. It is even more intriguing that the major Tolteca city of Tula was also abandoned around the middle of the 12th century.

In any case, apparently not until two hundred years later, in the 14th century, was the area taken over by the Tepaneca. They built a new urban center just to the west of the first settlement, where the present Villa Coyoacán stands. They likely gave it the name Coyoacán. When the Mexica defeated the Tepanecas in 1428, they took control of this relatively new Coyoacán and expanded it even further.
Based on an article, Evidencias arqueologícas en el Centro de Coyoacán, Archeological Evidence in the Center of Coyoacán, by Juan Cervantes Rodado, María de la Luz Cabrera and Alejandro Meraz Moreno, in the magazine Arqueología mexicana, issue of Sept-Oct 2014, pp. 43-48.
So La Conchita is doubly important, as the 1,800-year-old site of the first settlement that was to become Coyoacán and as the earliest Christian church in Mexico, if not in all of the Americas.

Early Years of "La Conchita"

In 1519, Cortés had brought with him from Cuba a Dominican friar, Bartolomé de Olmedo, whom he placed in charge of the chapel. In 1524, a group of twelve Franciscan friars or monks arrived in Nueva España to evangelize, i.e., convert the indigenous to Catholicism, the so-called Spiritual Conquest. (Of an earlier group of three who arrived in 1523, only one survived, Fray Pedro de Gante Peter of Ghent, Flanders.) These friars were given charge of la Capilla. In 1529, Dominican friars arrived in Coyoacán and established the convent and church of San Juan Bautista, St. John the Baptist, in the center of la Villa. (See our initial Coyoacán post).

Coyoacán after the Spanish Conquest
(here spelled Coyohuacán)
and surrounding settlements with original indigenous names,
with convents and churches established by Franciscans and Dominicans.

El Convento de la Concepción de Nuestra Señora
is marked, with its plaza, just to the right of center.
San Juan Bautista is just to its west (left).

The dashed blue line to the east shows the location of the shore of Lake Texcoco in the 16th century.

Original indigenous settlements and roadways (in red) are overlaid on streets of modern Coyoacán, (in white).
From La evangelización del área coyoacanense en el siglo XVI,
The Evangelization of the Area of Coyoacán in the 16th Century, by Jaime Abundis
from Arqueología mexicana, Sept-Oct 2014 issue.

The Franciscans and Dominicans worked in concord in the center of Coyoacán until the Franciscans left in 1534 or 1535. They did so because indigenous leaders of Coyoacán demanded from the Audiencia — a royal commission established by King Charles to rule Nueva España in order to remove control from Cortés — that some of the land that had been taken by Cortés from them be returned.

The Franciscans chose not to oppose this demand and moved to nearby Huichilopochco (now called Churubusco) where they established a new church and convent dedicated to la Asunción de Nuestra Señora, the Assumption of Our Lady (upon her earthly death, that of the Virgin Mary directly into Heaven, where she was crowned Queen of Heaven). (On the map above, Huichilopochco is outlined in blue dashes, indicating it was an island. La Asunción is marked near its northwest shore.)

We have not yet been able to find out what happened to la Capilla de la Concepción after the Franciscans left. We know it was rebuilt in its present form during the Baroque period in the late 17th century. In any case, it is now a chapel under the direction of the Church of San Juan Bautista, itself a parish church.

La Conchita Rescued From the Edge of Collapse and Restored to Its Full, Original Beauty

When we arrived in Coyoacán in 2011 and began exploring the historic area, we found La Conchita in a state of great disrepair. A large fissure ran down the middle of its elaborate Baroque facade as if the building were about to split in two. Wooden braces supported the doorway. It seemed to be abandoned.

 La Conchita's facade in fall of 2011.
Note the fissure above the door and those running up each side,
through the floral-shaped windows.

Large fissure runs up the middle of the facade.

Archetypical symbols of the Sun and Moon,
shared by both indigenous religions and Christian Catholicism.
They represent complementary active, "masculine" powers
and receptive, nurturing "female" powers of creation
and the eternal cycle between light and dark
in all their forms.

In Catholicism, the sun is the prime symbol for the Divine Power,
God, the Father and Creator.
The Moon is a symbol for the Virgin Mary, "Our Lady",
Mother of Jesus, the Christ (Anointed Savior of humankind) and Son of God.

The wall pattern of diamonds is mudéjar, i.e., of Muslim origins.
The pillar is a specifically Baroque style.
(See our post: Mexican Baroque Art:
Representing Divine Ecstasy, Evoking Awe

However, most fortunately, later that year a major renovation of the chapel was undertaken by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) — the government institution responsible for the preservation and maintenance of Mexico's thousands of indigenous and Spanish colonial sites. For four years, La Conchita was hidden behind a wall of plywood.

During the restoration work, in May 2013, about 150 skeletons were found below the floor of the sanctuary. Many were of Spaniards given Christian burials, but at lower levels, skeletons of indigenous were found, along with a Toltec altar, documenting that the Toltecas had, indeed, lived there for five centuries. As is often the case with the original Catholic churches built in Nueva Espana, La Conchita had been built atop an indigenous temple site.

Burials discovered below the floor of La Conchita.
From. El Barrio de La Conchita
post on blog of Sergio Rojas
July 24, 2013

Restored Jewel

Finally, in 2015, the plywood walls were removed to reveal the chapel now standing in beautifully restored condition. However, when we paid a visit, it was closed. There was a guard, but he had no information when or if it was ever open.

Restored facade of
Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, 
"La Conchita", "The Little Shell".

So this fall of 2018, we were excited to see on Facebook an announcement of a celebration of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on her feast day, December 8, at La Conchita, la Capilla de la Concepción. No schedule of events was posted on the announcement, so we just decided to show up as early as we could that Saturday morning and see what would come to pass.

Few people are around the plaza in front of the chapel when we arrive, but we are delighted to see that the front door is open. Going in, we find a baptism in progress, in front of a gleamingly restored golden Baroque retablo (reredos), in an otherwise unadorned sanctuary.

Our Lady
of the Immaculate Conception

Franciscan friars,
one of a group of small paintings that fill the retablo.

Leaving the sanctuary and wondering what might happen next, we notice an announcement of fiesta events conveniently posted on the door of the chapel. It is now past 10 AM. Dances by two groups, one by "Moors", the other by "Concheros" are listed as having taken place at 9 AM. Apparently, we missed them.

While we are most happy to finally have had the opportunity to see the restored sanctuary, there are no more events listed until a 1:00 Mass. We are wondering whether to leave and return in the afternoon when, suddenly, a small procession appears, walking toward the chapel up one of the sidewalks that cross the arboleada (tree-filled) plaza.

This tells us that there is definitely going to be a fiesta of some form. It turns out to be quite unusual and well worth our staying. To experience the fiesta, see Part II of our posts on La Conchita.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Original Villages: Coyoacán's Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, Part II: "La Conchita" Celebrates Its Rebirth

Es fácil traducir esta página en español: vaya a la columna a la derecha. En la parte más alta hay una ventana etiquetada "Translate". Desplace la flecha abajo hasta encuentra "Spanish". Click en ese y inmediatamente todo el texto estará traducido en español por Google. Con certeza, habrá errores, pero creemos qué el sentido se quede bastante claro.
On December 8, we go to Coyoacán's Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, popularly called "La Conchita", "the Little Shell", hopeful to experience the Fiesta of its patron saint, the Virgin Mary and its restoration to its original beauty. (See our initial post on this unique chapel: Coyoacán's Chapel of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, Part I: Small Church with a Big History.)

Happily, when we arrive, although there are few people in the atrio (atrium) and adjacent plaza, the chapel is open and we get our first look inside the church that, when we moved to Coyocán in 2011, had been in such disrepair and had been closed for four years for restoration by the National Insititute of Anthropology and History.

However, arriving after 10 AM on Saturday morning and witnessing a baptism in the small but now pristine sanctuary, we then discover an announcement showing that two fiesta events, dances of the Moors and of indigenous-style concheros, dance troupes that frequently perform at fiestas, were scheduled to occur an hour earlier and the next event would not be until 1 PM, a Mass.

We are disappointed and wonder if it would be worth returning at 2 for a "quema de castillo en movimiento" (castillos are towers of fireworks that are usually burned in the dark of night, so we wonder what this one of "movement" will be in the mid-afternoon). There will also be a "brinco de chinelos", a "jumping" of Moorish-style dancers at 5. Following this, there will be a procession of the patron saint through the streets of the barrio beginning at 6. Such processions are usually good opportunities for taking photos, not only of the participants but also of bystanders watching. However, by 6 PM on this pre-winter day, the sun will be setting, making any photography challenging, at best. 

Schedule of fiesta events

But as we are debating what to do, we are surprised to see a small procession coming up one of the sidewalks crossing the tree-filled plaza. The procession of a patron saint through the streets of her or his pueblo is a central act of all saints´ fiestas, but this one was not on the schedule. In any case, it appears that there is more to this fiesta than what is listed on the announcement, so we decide to stay and see what may happen. Our decision leads to a day of remarkable experiences.

Fiesta Procession

The procession is led, of course, by a statue of the Virgin Mary in her advocación, her particular state or manifestation representing her own God-determined immaculate conception, i.e. that she, herself, unlike all other human beings, was born free of sin in order to later be able to immaculately conceive Jesus, the Christ, the Anointed Son of God, incarnated as a human being. In that sense, the statue presents an image of Mary that God the Father envisaged in Heaven before her earthly birth (celebrated in September).

Procession of
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Behind her come some parishioners and two comparsas, dance troupes that perform at fiestas.

Concheros del Santo Niño de Atocha

The first group in the procession, behind the Virgin, are concheros, indigenous-style dancers such as we have seen at many fiestas. (See our post: Traditional Indigenous Dancers: Concheros and Danzates Aztecas)

Concheros del Santo Niño de Atocha.
We have not previously encountered this particular advocación (representation) 

of the Child Jesus.
We will have to do some research later, at home.

Concheros del Santo Niño de Atocha.
Especially notable is the mask (top center) of the major indigenous god Quetzalcoatl, 

the Plumed Serpent

Later. via Wikipedia en español, we learn that el Santo Niño de Atocha is a figure of the Child Jesus at about age 12, credited with having saved Christian captives of the Muslim Moors in the Barrio Atocha of Madrid in the 13th century. A copy of the sculpture of el Santo Niño, dressed as a pilgrim going to Santiago (St. James) Compostela, the largest pilgrimage site in Spain, was brought in the mid-16th century to what is now the State of Zacatecas, Mexico. There, he has been credited with many miracles, making himself the destination of numberless pilgrimages to el Santuario de los Plateros (silversmiths) near the city of Fresnillo, Zacatecas.

Dance of the Moors of San Bartolomé Atlatlauca

The next group in the procession is something quite different from any comparsa we have ever seen before. They are the Dancers of the Moors of San Bartolomé Atlatlauca. 

Banner announces the
Dance of the Moors 
of San Bartolomé Atlatlauca.

We have seen dances of the Moors and Christians, both in the State of Michoacán and here, in Mexico City. The basic dance was brought by friars to Nueva España to dramatize the message that Christianity was superior to any other "pagan" religion. Each region that reenacts the dance-drama does so in widely varying costumes and choreography. But, we have never seen such fantastic tocados (headdresses) as those worn by these "Moors" (Muslims). They are completely original in style. They appear to be huge half-moons. Their masks are also different from any we have seen, starkly white and black. We are enchanted and overjoyed that we had not left precipitously.

We note that, although these are "pagan" Muslims, incorporated in their attire are Christian symbols: the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven on the shirt of one, San Bartolomé, the pueblo's patron saint, on the tocado of one and the shirt of another. The Virgin of Guadalupe appears on the shirt of a fourth. The Spiritual Conquest of Christianity over indigenous "paganism" has already happened. This is just a dramatization of that transformation.

The Spanish Christian warriors' attire is less dramatic, but also colorful and unusual: satin skirts over pants and a type of decorated "cowboy" hat.

San Bartolomé, the patron saint of the comparsa's pueblo, is portrayed on one warrior's shirt.

There are also some strange and even comic members of the troupe. We have no idea of their roles, as they do not engage in the battle that ensues between the Moors and the Christians.


This character would seem to be some form of the devil.

We have never heard of the Pueblo San Bartolomé Atlatlauca, so, later, speaking with one of the dancers, we learn that their pueblo is south of the city of Toluca, capital of the State of Mexico, and a couple of hours drive west of Mexico City. They have traveled a fair distance to participate in the fiesta.

The Rituals Begin

Concheros of El Santo Niño de Atocha enter the sanctuary to venerate
Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

The Christians of the Danzantes de Moros de San Bartolomé Atlatlauca
also enter the sanctuary to make their veneration to the Virgin.

So, too, do the Moors enter the sanctuary.
The image on the chest of one is the Virgin Mary as Queen of Heaven.

The Christians prepare for their battle with the Moors.
They all ride delightful miniature horses.

The simple musical accompaniment
is a flute and drum.

The Moors "warm up" for the battle.

The battle between the two religions and their respective cultures begins.
(Note that the Christian warrior wears a shawl depicting Mexico's
Virgin of Guadalupe, while the Moor curiously wears the flag of Mexico!)

Here, the Moor's cape is embroidered with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe,
the great unifying figure between the indigenous peoples and the Spanish.
The Christian wears an image of Our Lady the Queen of Heaven.

As is typical in danzas,
children play an active role.

Here, the Moor wears an image of
his legendary adversary,
Santiago Matamoros,
St. James, the Moor-killer.

Finally, inevitably, the Moors are defeated by the Christians.

Party Time

After the Christians have defeated the Moors, a brass banda appears and begins to play.

Cohetes, rocket-style firecrackers essential to every fiesta, are shot off.

Quema de Castillo and a Palo Cebo

The "quema de castillo en movimiento" is set off.
Fireworks power a papier-maché figure so that it climbs a pole.
This is an enactment of another common fiesta ritual,
the actual climbing by young men of a palo cebo (baited pole),
a greased pole, to obtain prizes at the top.

Climbing a palo cebo, a greased pole
at the Fiesta of San Mateo Churubusco.
Here a cooperative effort is permitted.

The top prize here is a bicycle!
The competition has its origins in fiestas in medieval Europe.

The quema ends
with the unfurling of a banner
displaying Our Lady
of the Immaculate Conception

Dance of the MojigangasTíteres Gigantes

Next, two títeres gigantes, giant puppets, 
also known as mojigangas (possibly of Moorish/Arabic origin)
from European medieval festivals, dance to the music of the band.

Their dance ends with a kiss.
The puppets are also a medieval European tradition.


Finally, it is the time for the chinelos, the "disguised ones" to "brincar" and "girar", do their jumping and spinning dance.

This comparsa of chinelos is from the Pueblo San Bartolomé,
in the Delegación/Alcaldía Magdalena Contreras
on the far west side of the city.

Quite a number of children are participants.
The tradition, like all other comparsas, is handed down through families.

Brincar, jumping


Just People

Los mayordomos,
the "overseers" or chairmen in charge of organizing the fiesta.

Well done!
La Capilla de Nuestra Señora de la Concepción
is alive and full of ánimo (life force).