Sunday, May 12, 2019

Original Villages | Delegación/Alcaldía Milpa Alta: Countryside in the City

Countryside in the City

One of our goals, our "bucket list", that has emerged as we developed Mexico City Ambles and started visiting original indigenous pueblos in the spring of 2016, was to get to all sixteen of the delegaciones (boroughs), now called alcaldías (mayoralties). We readily got to the majority, which are accessible by the Metro or via taxis along main highways and avenues. By the beginning of this year, we had made it to fiestas in about sixty pueblos in twelve of the delegaciones.

We had visited each of the other four once, but not to attend a fiesta in a specific pueblo. These four are on the periphery of the city: Atzcapotzalco in the northwest, Cuajimalpa and Magdalena Contreras in the mountains in the west and Milpa Alta in the southeast — all are a challenge to get to from our central location in Coyoacán.

Finally, this spring, during Carnaval season, we got the opportunity to attend a celebration in Milpa Alta, in Pueblo San Antonio Tecómitl, but before we present our experience there, we need to introduce the delegación/alacaldía.

Delegación Milpa Alta (light yellow) is in the southeast corner of Mexico City.
It is just south of Xochimilco (pink),
and east of Tlalpan (mustard yellow)

Milpa Alta and Its Pueblos.
As is clear from this Google Earth shot, the pueblos are all located
in the northern part of the delegación/alcaldía, a sloping piedmont region.

The dark green to the south are the evergreen forests on the steep slopes
of the Chichinautzin range of volcanoes. 
Note the many small cinder cone volcanoes dotting the landscape.

Welcome to Milpa Alta
Photo: Facebook page of San Bartolomé Xicomulco

There are thirteen pueblos in the Milpa Alta (meaning High Field; residents elide the two "a"s into one, pronouncing it as a single word, Milpalta). In area, it is the second largest delegación/alcaldía — taking up the entire southeastern section of Mexico City. All the pueblos are indigenous; they existed before the Spanish Conquest. The area around them is sloping, open countryside, filled with fields of nopal cactus. South of the pueblos, the land rises sharply to towering volcanoes of the Chichinautzin range. It contains six volcanoes over 10,500 ft. (3,200 meters) in altitude, rising 3,000 feet (915 meters) above the Valley floor. (See our post Encountering Mexico City's Many Volcanoes: Giants on All Sides.) 

Arriving in Milpa Alta, you cannot believe that you are still in Mexico City, but must be somewhere in the rural "províncias", the countryside in some state far away, not only in space but also in time, from the Spanish colonial Zócalo and the globally post-modern Paseo de la Reforma, the central plaza and major boulevard in the city's center.

Nopal fields spread out next to Pueblo San Bartolomé Xicomulco

The low volcano at far left is Teuhtli
where the delegaciones/alcaldías of Milpa Alta, Xochimilco (to the northwest) and Tláhuac (to the northeast) all meet. 
It has great symbolic significance for the three as the center of their historically rural world. 
What remains of Lake Chalco is in the distant center. 
Photo from Facebook page Xicomulco, which shares many beautiful photos of the Milpa Alta countryside.

History of Milpa Alta

The original settlers of the area are believed to have been Nahuatl-speaking Tolteca farmers linked to the altepetl (city-state with other subject villages) of Culhuacán on the Iztapalapa Peninsula.

Probably in the 12th century CE, other Nahuatl-speaking people from Xochimilco (itself founded as an altepetl  in 919 CE) and Nahuatl-speaking hunter-gatherer tribes — possibly from the eastern part of the Valley and collectively called chichimecas (barbarians) by the settled agrarian people of the Valley — imposed themselves on the Tolteca population. Some of them founded the pueblo of Malacachtépec Momoxco (possibly meaning "place of altars surrounded by mountains") and a number of other villages. 

Near the end of the 13th century, the Tolteca of Culhuacan, with the help of their then subjects, the Mexica, conquered Xochimilco, Malacachtépec Momoxco and the other pueblos of the area, only to be conquered themselves in the latter part of the 14th century by the Tepaneca of Aztcapotzalco, on the southwest side of Lake Texcoco. The Tepaneca did this with the support of their new client, the Mexica altepetl of Tenochtitlan, established in 1325 on an island in the lake. In 1428 the Mexica, in turn, conquered Aztcapotzalco and took control of the western and south-central parts of the Valley, including Xochimilco and Malacachtépec Momoxco. This was the beginning of the so-called Azteca Empíre.

Malacachtépec Momoxco and the surrounding pueblos were conquered by the Spanish in 1529. The Franciscans immediately established a visita (visited church, i.e., without a resident priest) in Malacachtépec Momoxco, dedicated to the Virgin of the Assumption. They renamed the pueblo La Asunción de Milpa Alta. A  church building was constructed between 1585 y 1630 and still stands in the center of what is now called Villa Milpa Alta.

Church of the Assumption,
Villa Milpa Alta

Unfortunately, like many other old churches in the City, the church was damaged
in the earthquake of Sept. 2017 and closed at the time we visited.
Hopefully, it will be restored. 
In the meantime, church services are being held
in a tent in the beautiful atrio (atrium).

Following the Spanish model of provinces divided into municipalities, La Asunción de Milpa Alta and its neighboring pueblos were made part of the municipality of Xochimilco, called sujetos under the political control of the cabacera (head town) of Xochimilco, where there was a Franciscan convent, San Bernardino de Siena, built in 1535. After independence in 1821, the municipality of Xochimilco, including Milpa Alta, was made part of the new state of Mexico. 

In the mid-nineteenth century, Milpa Alta and its pueblos were transferred from Xochimilco and made part of the municipality of Tlalpan. At the same time, both municipalities, along with others such as Coyoacán, were transferred by the federal government from the state of Mexico and incorporated as municipalities within the much expanded Federal District. (See our post: How Mexico City Grew From an Island Into a Metropolis.)

At the time of the Mexican Revolution (1910-|1919), much of the land was part of a great, Spanish-owned hacienda growing corn, based in Chalco, to the northeast, at the end of what had been Lake Chalco (now in the state of Mexico), and the people worked as peones, (farm workers) on the hacienda.

During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1919), the region was an important bastion of the Liberation Army of the South, led by Emiliano Zapata. (See our page: Mexican Revolution: Its Protagonists and Antagonists.) After the Revolution, the hacienda was broken up and the land was returned to the indigenous pueblos as ejido (communally held) land.

Because of the hilly terrain, the primary crop grown was maguey (agave, a succulent) from which pulque beer was made from its miel, honey, i.e. sap, as well as fiber and other products. When the post-revolutionary federal government cracked down on the production of pulque, the campesinos (rural farmers) slowly turned to growing nopal (from its Nahuatl name) cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) whose pads are a major Mexican vegetable. Now Milpa Alta, still predominantly a rural area, grows 78% of the nopal consumed in the country. Some 7,500 hectares (over 18,500 acres) are planted with the crop, producing 450 thousand metric tons of nopal each year.

In 1927, Milpa Alta was separated from Tlalpan and made one of the delegaciones (boroughs) of the Federal District. In 2016, along with the others, it became one of sixteen alcaldías (mayoralties) of Mexico City, when the City officially replaced the Federal District as a politically self-governing entity of the nation, virtually equal to the thirty-one states.

Continuing Nahua Identity

With more than 3,000 speakers of Nahuatl, representing 4% of the population, Milpa Alta is the delegación with the highest proportion of speakers of indigenous languages ​​in Mexico City. Up until the mid-20th century, the majority of the population spoke Nahuatl. Traditional customs remain strong, with mayordomos (chief caretakers) and cofradías (religious brotherhoods) organizing religious fiestas. The majority of agricultural land is ejido, communally owned and worked. There are active endeavors in some of the pueblos to recover the speaking of Nahuatl.

The thirteen residential areas of Milpa Alta (one "villa" — village with traditionally higher status — and twelve pueblos) each identify their origin with one or another of the Nahua tribes that populated the region in pre-Hispanic times.

Nine villages located in the heart of Milpa Alta and on the northern slope of the Chichinauhtzin recognize themselves as descendants of the founders of Malacachtépec-Momoxco. These are (with translations of their Nahuatl names from Toponimias de los pueblos de Milpa Alta, [Toponomy (history of place names) of the Pueblos of Milpa Alta] from the online magazine Nosotros, (Us), Aug. 14, 2017):
  • Villa Milpa Alta, (formerly Malacachtépec-Momoxco)
  • Pueblo San Jerónimo Miacatlán, (Place of Reed Beds)
  • Pueblo San Agustín Ohtenco (Place Next to the Path)
  • Pueblo San Juan Tepenáhuac (Hill Near the Water)
  • Pueblo San Francisco Tecoxpa (Place of Yellow Stones)
  • Pueblo Santa Ana Tlacotenco (Place of Rough Ground)
  • Pueblo San Lorenzo Tlacoyucan, (Place Where the Reeds Sink)
  • Pueblo San Pedro Atocpan (Place on the Plains)
  • Pueblo San Pablo Oztotepec (Hill of Caves)
Two pueblos are located on the western edge of the delegación, adjacent to Delegación Xochimilco, on the slope of the Cuauhtzin volcano. They are descendants of the Xochimilca people.  They are:
  • Pueblos San Bartolomé Xicomulco (Navel of the Mountainside) and 
  • San Salvador Cuauhtenco (Place of the Woodcutters)
Finally, in the northeast are two pueblos:
  • Pueblo San Antonio Tecómitl (Place Where There Are Stones for Heating Corn )and 
  • San Nicolas Teteñco.
Historically, they have been related to the nearby Pueblos San Juan Ixtayopan, San Andrés Míxquic and San Pedro Tláhuac, in Delegación Tláhuac. Like the pueblos in Tláhuac, these pueblos have traditionally farmed the chinampas, man-made islands, in what was Lake Chalco.

By pure chance, it is San Antonio Tecómtl, that we get to visit first. (Wikipedia en español)

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