Friday, September 12, 2014

When you say it, it's like magic: Tepotzotlán

Mural inside the town hall (ayuntamiento) of Tepotzotlan shows its Spanish and indigenous roots.
Big chair in the town square.
 Cindy keeps a list of places she wants to visit in Mexico, and there is usually a church involved. This time the church was just a 20-minute cab ride north from us in a town called Tepotzotlan (tay-po-tso-TLAHN).

I find it highly ironic that a young lady of Presbyterian upbringing should find Roman Catholic churches so attractive. But then the Protestants stripped their churches of the excessive adornment common in the 15th century. So it's somewhat new to her.

This particular church was built at the end of the 17th century to honor a co-founder of the Jesuit order of priests, St. Francis Xavier.  This church and this town were a major Jesuit training center in the New World.

The church did turn out to be stunning, but the town itself was charming. It is one of Mexico's so called Magic Towns (pueblos mágicos) and it deserved the designation. A lot of it has been preserved.

In most of these magic towns you get a good feel for how the indigenous culture and Spanish culture mixed while maintaining their separate identities. In the Spanish style town hall, the walls are decorated with murals showing indigenous heroes and historical figures.

Place names

Tepotzotlan means "among humpbacks" in Nahuatl, the Aztecs' language, and refers to the hills that surround the town.

Most of the place names of places in Mexico are from indigenous languages. They remind you that the Spanish conquistadors mixed with the local population rather than exterminating them or isolating them on reservations, as happened in North America and some places in Latin America, notably Argentina.

The baroque facade of San Francisco Xavier, from

Statue of San Francisco Xavier in one of the five gilded altarpieces.
The inside of the church has five massive, gilded altarpieces. My immediate exclamation was, "Holy Crap," which seemed appropriate on another level as well. The altarpiece at left has St. Francis at the center.

The Catholic Church in Mexico has been respected and reviled. For centuries it was just one more rich landowner that thrived on the backs of Indian labor. Priests have been both enslavers and defenders of the poor.

Today, the most devoted Roman Catholics tend to come from the lower economic classes.

The ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe.
Attached to the church is the stunning Museum of the Vice Royalty of New Spain.

The displays include fantastic maps that show the Pacific and Gulf trade routes to Mexico in the 16th century, indigenous groups and languages of Mexico, the locations of mining and commercial centers through the centuries, everday objects whose history and use are explained, indigenous art and crafts, and many portraits that date back several centuries.

The displays and curation are first rate, but you need to know Spanish. Nothing is in English.

The building itself dates to the 16th century and was painstakingly restored in the 1960s.

It is in some ways a shrine to St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order. A series of some two dozen paintings showing important moments in his life adorn the museum walls.

In the museum courtyard.

Murals in the museum depicting local scenes.

One of the many merchants offering goodsl along the streets of Tepotzotlan.
Cindy liked the town's landscaping.
Me and the Jesuits

I was taken by surprise by how much I was affected by visiting this center that was so important to the Jesuits. It touched a sensitive spot in my own past.

The Jesuits have a long history in my family. Two great uncles, my father, all four of my brothers and three nephews attended the Jesuit high school in Cleveland, named for the order's founder, St. Ignatius. Several also attended the Jesuit university, John Carroll.

I think it would be fair to say that we have respect, a grudging respect, for their methods of teaching intellectual discipline. The Jesuits taught fear of God through fear of man; those who failed in their earthly tasks of reading and memorization were subjected to punishments that were in themselves memorable. You need only read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to get a sense of what Jesuit schooling could be like.

Jesuit schools have tended to produce more than their share of notable revolutionaries, saints, poets, scientists and philosophers. They were the shock troops of the Counter Reformation in England in the 16th century and used tactics that remind us of the religious terrorists of today. The Jesuits also gave us the Berrigan brothers, the current Pope Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teilhard de Chardin, Fidel Castro....the list is long.

But I digress. Wandering around one of these magic towns takes your mind to unexpected places.

Playing pattycake in the town hall.

Monarch butterfly reserve in Michoacán
Getting acclimated to Mexico City
Balloon launch over the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán
Guanajuato: another magical place in Mexico
Coaxtla and Xochitécatl: stunning murals and pyramids
Zacatecas: Silver mines and the mystery of the Quemada
Tenochtitlán and Xochimilco: Mexico City before the Conquest
The Virgin of Guadalupe on a pancake grill and other mysteries

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