Nov 052011

A Review by James Tipton:

Lake Chapala through the Ages: an anthology of travellers’ tales

Edited with Historical Notes by Tony Burton

Sombrero Books, B.C., Canada. 215 pages  $24.95 (Canadian)

Tony Burton’s passion is Mexico, and particularly Western Mexico. Most readers of Mexico Connect find his many articles on Mexico to be both fascinating and useful, articles with titles like “Guayabitos — the Family Vacation Spot,” or the four-part series, “Can Mexico’s Largest Lake Be Saved,” or “Butterflies by the Million: The Monarchs of Michocán.” Burton currently puts together “Did You Know? Facts About Mexico,” a monthly Mexconnect feature, offering answers to such questions as: “Did you know blacks outnumbered Spaniards in Mexico until after 1810?” or “Did you know the oldest winery in the Americas is in Parras de la Fuente” or “Did you know the birth control pill came from Mexican yams?” [Note: all of these articles are accessible in the e-zine archives.]

This man has a knack for searching out and then writing well about interesting places, people and events. Because I like to read what Tony Burton writes, Lake Chapala through the ages is one of those books I would buy sight unseen.

Many readers own his book Western Mexico—A Traveller’s Treasury (now in its third edition in English with a new edition well under way), which has taken us to off-the-beaten-path destinations. A geographer, Burton has also created the definitive street maps of the Lake Chapala area, maps that have been copied by others but which are original with Burton: Lake Chapala Maps — 2008. Obviously Burton is no stranger to our shores here at Lake Chapala.

Lake Chapala through the ages is “a collection of extracts from more than fifty original sources.” In the Introduction, Burton tells us his book “includes extracts from every published book that could be located which makes more than a passing mention of Lake Chapala, and which was written (originally) prior to 1910. Most are first hand accounts.”

Burton selected 1910 as the cut-off because “that marks the end of Chapala’s first tourist boom.” “Later that year the Mexican Revolution erupted. Mexico, including the Lake Chapala region, was thrown into chaos for more than a decade.”

Lake Chapala through the ages presents, then, historical accounts, beginning in 1530 when the first conquistador wrote about seeing the lake — and also the town: ”The scout, going over the mountains found himself in a village called Chapala and in other places whose names were not known at that time….” Lake Chapala through the ages ends with a piece about “Holy week and the elite of Mexican society 1909-1910,” in which we discover:

“Chapala, the most frequented settlement of the lake of the same name, serves as a meeting place during Holy Week for the elite of Mexican society. Elegant villas line the edge of the lake, surrounded by colorful gardens, created at great expense on the rocky soil of the beach. One of the prettiest, “El Manglar”, belongs to Mr. Elizaga, the brother-in-law of ex-President Díaz, who gives, in this enchanting setting, splendid Mexican fiestas, where nothing is lacking: cock fights, balls and joyous dinners.”

In addition to the excerpts, Burton himself provides many historical notes. We learn that Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec capital in August of 1521, but only two years later, in 1523, two “well-placed brothers, cousins of Hernán Cortés,” were given the encomienda (the right to collect tributes and labor from Indians)” for a vast area that included the shores of Lake Chapala. The Spanish subjugation of the Indians in this area was “a relatively peaceful process, which enabled many indigenous customs to survive largely unchanged into much more recent times.”

Most of the early accounts were written by Franciscan friars. The Franciscans “saw the New World as an opportunity, not only to convert the pagan masses of native Indians to Christianity, but also to put their idealistic ideas of utopia society into practice, and demonstrate that natives and Europeans could live in peaceful and productive co-existence.”

Some of the excerpts are about those early relationships with the Indians: “Converting the barbarians” (mid-16th century),” but others are about geographical details — “Gathering geographic knowledge” (1579-1585) or “Lake Chapala… as large as an ocean?” (1600c). Still others are about a new paradise, filled with abundance, and with fascinating new fruits and vegetables: “Some roots that are called xicamas grow there, shaped like, and almost the same color as, round turnips, without any roots hairs, so thick that each one weighs at least thee pounds…. It is a very delicious fresh fruit, marvelous medicine for thirst, especially in hot weather and in hot lands.” (from “Visits to the Lake Chapala friaries” 1585-1586).

We discover, through Burton’s notes, that Domingo Lázaro de Arregui (Fishing and farming” 1621) made the earliest known historical reference to the making and consumption of tequila: roasting the roots and bases of agave plants then “by pressing these parts, thus roasted, they extract a must from which they distill a wine clearer than water and stronger than rum.”

In earlier censuses taken by the Spaniards (“Early censuses 1768 and 1791-1793”) we discover that Chapala had 123 Spaniards, 451 Indians, 37 mulattos and 671 castes, figures that were particularly interesting to me because the castes (those of more mixed parentage than mestizos or mulattos) now significantly outnumber the Spaniards and Indians combined.

Throughout Lake Chapala through the ages, Burton selects highly varied material that does not bore us with the weight of history and ponderous prose but instead actually delights us and even makes us long for more. Many passages are actually charming, and the historical notes provided by Burton are themselves illuminating and pleasurable.

In his notes to “Mezcala Island — scene of rebellion” (1824), Burton tells us the Italian author, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami, was an “incurable romantic and inveterate roamer,” who among other accomplishments discovered the northern source of the Mississippi River. Beltrami describes his visit to Mezcala Island, which by 1824 was being used as a penitentiary, where the convicts, Beltrami notes, “are less harshly treated than in the penitentiaries of our World [Europe], the dictator of civilization.” Shortly after he visits “Oxotopec, ten milles from Axixis,” Beltrami, with his youthful eye, records that it is “the largest village of all those around the lake,” but that “it has nothing worth noting except for the pretty niece of the curate….”

Even as we move toward more recent times, when there are attempts to accurately determine the dimensions of Lake Chapala, we still high imaginative descriptions of Lake Chapala. Felix Leopold Oswald in “A fanciful sketch of Lake Chapala” (1867-1877) announces Lake Chapala is “ten times as large as all the lakes of Northern Italy taken together, and four times larger than the entire canton of Geneva, — contains different islands whose surface area exceeds that of the Isle of Wight, and one island with two secondary lakes as big as Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine!” [The Isle of Wight, incidentally, is 23 x 13 miles, almost as large as Lake Chapala. Loch Lomond, Scotland’s largest lake, is 24 x 5 miles.]

By the early 1900s, tourism comes into sharper focus. One early and popular traveller’s guide, Lake Chapala, a travellers’ handbook (1909) by Thomas Philip Terry lists rooms available in Chapala, e.g. Hotel Arzopala, “facing the lake,” at $2.50 to $5 American Plan. In his note to this excerpt, Burton tells us that D. H. Lawrence, because of this handbook, was convinced to visit the lake; and of course Lawrence ultimately moved to Chapala in the mid-twenties and this is where he wrote The Plumed Serpent.

Those of us who live here, full time or part time, or who simply visit here have been relieved that the lirio, the noxious water hyacinth, seems at least for the time being to be well under control. I, like others, thought that the lirio problem originated only a few decades ago, but Burton tells us that it was introduced around the turn of the last century, and that by 1907, articles were being published about “the invasion of the terrible aquatic lirio,” which in some places “has completely blocked some docks, and in others it has appeared in such large masses that the Indians have been forced to suppress their trips, damaging trade, scared that they will be caught up in the wave of green.”

And so, there is something for everybody in Tony Burton’s, Lake Chapala through the ages. Whether you are fascinated by the early history of the place where you now live or visit (or would like to visit), or whether you interested in early accounts of the natural history of the region, or of the lake itself, or whether you are fascinated by those votive objects found on the bottom of the lake, or whether you simply want to connect yourself more deeply to the place you now call home (or that is “home” in your imagination), this book is for you.

I think Lake Chapala through the ages is terrific. Buy it!

Nov 012011

LAKE CHAPALA THROUGH THE AGES —An Anthology of Travelers’ Tales
By Tony Burton. 200 pages. Reviewed by Thomas Hally (El Ojo del Lago, April 2009)

Tony Burton, an award-winning travel writer and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, takes us with him on a spectacular journey on and around Lake Chapala.

The tales begin immediately after the Spanish Conquistadors had begun to take possession of the land referred to as New Spain, and end at the first ten-year mark of the 20th century, the final phase of the first Lakeside tourist boom and the onset of the Mexican Revolution.

Burton’s work is divided into five parts, with each part covering significant scenes, events and characters in the history of Lake Chapala during colonial and independent Mexico. The author advises us to remember his character analyses of each of the narrators of the 55 tales while reading through the sketches. The extracts are taken from every known published work that mentions Lake Chapala.

The narrators provide a vivid description of Lakeside, giving leading roles to the Indians, the Spanish rulers and priests, the scientists, the geographers and the eccentrics, who either came to the region or were born here. Special attention is given to the conditions at Lake Chapala itself: the various hot springs, the size of the lake, the flora and the abundant fish and avian population. Whitefish is frequently recommended as a delectable and healthy food and with corn, chile and frijoles, was a mainstay in the diet of the villagers.

Hernán Cortés made an appearance at Lake Chapala shortly after the Spanish arrived in the New World and appointed his nephews to oversee the region. The first Franciscan missionaries arrived on the north shore and Ajijic had built its friary by 1531. Jocotepec was the first village to be settled in 1529, and by 1548 Chapala also had a Franciscan mission.

The Franciscans were genuinely utopian in their outlook, caring not only for the souls of the newly conquered and converted Chapala Indians, but they also attended to their physical needs. They introduced crops and agricultural techniques as well as domestic animals into the region, and strived to put Indian and Spaniard on a relatively equal social status.

But the Spanish masters were harsh indeed, paying little attention to the friars and, in the first 100 years after the Conquest, the indigenous population was drastically reduced, with the number of Amerindians in New Spain dropping from a reputed 4 million or possibly as high as 30 million souls to a scant 1.6 million survivors. The Spanish rulers were constantly asserting their power, and the natives were the perennial victims of European diseases and brutality.

Tony Burton devotes several short chapters to the Island of Mezcala in Lake Chapala where a famous insurgency took place between the years 1812 and 1816. The uprising was led by a Creole priest, Marcos Castellanos, a curate from the parish in Ajijic.

Castellanos led a band of Indians as they fought the Royalists.  He was involved in combat until he was 75. In 1816, an honorable surrender was agreed upon and no reprisals were meted out to the Indians or to Castellanos. This marks one of the few times that the masters of the New World south of the Río Bravo (Rio Grande) actually kept a promise to the indigenous inhabitants.

Burton emphasizes the importance of Mezcala Island and the insurgents, and states that the historical events surrounding the history of the island should be a focal point of the Mexican Bi-Centennial Independence Celebration in 2010.

There is a chronicle written by George Francis Lyon, an author and adventurer who accompanied Captain William E. Parry on his quest to find the Northwest Passage. He was the first native English speaker to write about the lake, shortly after Mexican Independence; Joel Poinsett is briefly referred to. How many of us knew that the poinsettia plant popular during the Holiday Season is named after this horticulturalist and first United States Minister to Mexico?  In Spanish, it is called flor de noche buena.

Mary Blair Rice, who later changed her name to Blair Niles, first visited Mexico with her husband, Charles William Beebe, in the winter of 1903-1904 to take notes on the various species of birds they observed. Blair Niles would later have a distinguished career as a writer and novelist as well as being one of the principle founders of the Society of Women Geographers. The lady novelist/geographer left a legacy of books with variegated and controversial themes such as homosexuality and condemned prisoners. She had a noteworthy impact on 20th century feminism.

The narrators relate tales of nature, geography, lake and irrigation projects, rulers, visitors, villagers and even a brief mention of love forlorn. The intelligence and industriousness and, in some cases, the laziness and slowness of the Chapalan Indians is on the book’s agenda as well. Told is the short biography of the man who originally proposed draining a sizeable portion of the east end of Lake Chapala to help with the year-round agriculture: Ignacio Castellanos.

The local villagers saw through Castellanos’ plan and rejected it as self serving and pernicious. Castellanos, one of the wealthiest landowners in Ocotlán, wanted lifetime royalties paid to him if he were to finance the project.
The first English-language guide book, Appelton’s Guide to Mexico, published in 1886, advised tourists “to carry soap and matches.” Anecdotes throughout the pages of Tony Burton’s anthology tell stories such as those of José Francisco Velarde, El Burro de Oro, or “The Golden Ass,” and oddball Septimus Crowe. Velarde was a fabulously wealthy and equally foolish supporter of the Emperor Maximilian and the French Intervention in Mexico. He supposedly owned territory as large as a small state, a personal army, a harem and curious works of art purchased from around the globe.

His demise came in 1867, shortly after the execution of Maximilian in Queretaro, when Velarde was captured in Zamora and put to death by a firing squad. The order to eliminate Velarde was carried out, even though he had offered the government soldiers one million dollars if they would miss.

By 1888 the age of steamboats like Libertad was coming to an end on Lake Chapala and the era of the railways was fast approaching. Abandoned was Filipino-Mexican Longinus Banda’s plan to use steam boats to help train mariners, thus eventually providing Mexico with a national navy. Ernst von Hesse Wartegg, an Austrian-born naturalist and geographer, gave 100% of the credit to “Americanization” and the railroads for opening Mexico to tourism. Interestingly, in his narration, he also claimed to have sighted small alligators in Lake Chapala.

Mexico? Si señor! is a book written by Thomas L. Rogers for the ultimate benefit of the Central Railway system. Described as “upbeat and positive,” it provides American and European tourists with the reassurance that knowledge of Spanish is not essential but “…a little knowledge of Spanish is a very valuable thing in Mexico…,” and notes that prices are low south of the boarder.

Dream of a Throne, written by 26-year old Charles Embree, an American, was the first novel written in any language that was set in its entirety at Lakeside. And many of us are familiar with Callejón Mister Crow, a short street in Chapala named after a wealthy eccentric named Septimus Crowe.

As Chapala’s fame as a resort town grew, so did the power of Mexico’s dictator President, General Porfirio Díaz. President of Mexico from 1876 to 1880 and again from 1884 to 1911, he spent Easter Week 1904 in Chapala with in-laws, and would henceforth return yearly during the end of the Lenten Season to Chapala. El Porfiriato, as his long term in office is called, was ending when the Mexican Revolution started in 1910. He had balanced the national budget, done wonders for Mexico’s agricultural production and respected individual liberties; yet he was, nevertheless, a dictator.  Prone to nepotism, favoritism and the rigging of elections, he had corrupt advisors known as los científicos, but who were, in fact, lawyers and not scientists.  These scoundrels grew more and more powerful and wealthy as El Porfiriato dragged on. Porfirio Díaz and his family abandoned Mexico for Paris in 1911. The end of El Porfiriato coincided with the close of Chapala´s first tourist boom. Tourism was revived after the Revolution.

Tony Burton’s magnificent anthology gives the reader a brief but thorough look at Lake Chapala between the years 1530 to 1910. Nowhere will the lover of the delightful region we casually call “Lakeside” get such a colorful and detailed account of what the lake, the land and its people were like.