LAKE CHAPALA THROUGH THE AGES
—An Anthology of Travelers’ Tales
By Tony Burton
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.