Sunday, May 6, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 10: Franciscan chapels of the colonial era

Carole starts up the long staircase leading to the Capilla del Cristo del Buen Vecino. The Chapel of the Christ of the Good Neighbor stands at the top of a hill behind the Convento Franciscano de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (see Part 5 of this series). Much of the available information about this chapel is contradictory, including the century of its construction. I have photos of two different signs at the site, one citing the 17th century, the other the 18th. The origin of the name is another problem. Some sources state that the "Good Neighbor" reference was adopted during the Cristero War (1926-29) between the Revolutionary government and Catholic reactionaries. Others claim the name comes from the chapel's close proximity to the Franciscan Convent. There is even a story about a neighbor of the church who suffered from a tapeworm. When it was removed, the tapeworm appeared in the image of the crucified Christ. This miracle is supposed to have stopped Tlaxcala's great typhus epidemic of 1750. Whatever the truth of all this conflicting information, the chapel is worth a visit, particularly for the view from the top of the hill, assuming you are up to the climb. In this posting, we'll also take a look at the Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino, another of Tlaxcala's numerous Franciscan chapels.

A fountain is embedded in the wall next to an old cemetery. The fountain is at the top of the second of several flights of stairs leading up to the chapel. The chapel and its cemetery were built by Fray José Nava y Mora, a Franciscan friar. After he died, his family took responsibility for the maintenance of the property. The short stairway to the left leads to the small cemetery.

In Mexico, tombs traditionally extend above ground. The cemetery was originally intended for burials of Nava y Mora's Franciscan brethren. However, it contains the remains of at least one woman, according to the plaque on the grave on the far right.

The woman buried here was born in the 19th century and buried in the 20th. The plaque reads "Maria Ch. de Yturriaga, 1868-1935".  She may be one of Nava y Mora's descendants, and thus could claim the right to burial here. On the other hand, the interment took place after the Cristero War (which the Catholics lost), so that may have resulted in a relaxation of the rules.

Tlaxcala spreads out below the hill on which the chapel stands. Most of the city, including the Centro Historico, lies in a bowl created by the high, surrounding hills like the ones you can see in the distance. The Convento Franciscano is located among the trees in the lower right quadrant of the photo.

The Neo-Classic style of the nave became popular beginning in the 18th century. That might point to an 18th century building date, except that the interiors of 17th century Baroque churches were often redecorated in the Neo-Classic style. The nave does contain some Baroque features, including the retablos (carved wooden altar pieces) on the side walls.

Retablo and pulpit on the right side wall of the nave. The carved wood around the painting is covered with gold leaf. The subject of the painting is the Virgin Mary in one of her many incarnations. It is not clear whether this Baroque retablo is part of an original 17th century interior or, alternatively, was brought from a 17th century site and installed in an 18th century chapel. Church decorations were sometimes moved to other sites and reused.

The figure of Christ, reclining in his sepulcher, decorates the left side wall. This figure is also reputed to have a miraculous history, but I have been unable to determine any of the details. The chapel is often closed to the public, so we were fortunate to find it open when we visited.

A gargoyle wearing a "What, me worry?" expression sits on a roof cornice. The roof is part of a home next to the chapel. Could it be the original home of the man with the tapeworm? Who knows? I photographed several other gargoyles on the roof, but this one was my favorite.

Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino

Capilla de San Nicolás de Tolentino is only a couple of blocks from Plaza de la Constitution. Built in the 16th century, it has a single tower. The chapel's simple exterior is typical of early Franciscan buildings. Many such structures include a main entrance facing west. In front of the chapel is a small plaza where I stood while taking this photo. Every Friday, neighbors gather in the plaza for a market in which many organic products are sold.

Carole enters the main door of the chapel. The whole structure exudes a serene antiquity that I always find appealing, even though I am not at all religious. San Nicolás de Tolentino (1246-1305) is the patron saint of this colonia (neighborhood). Although this is a Franciscan chapel, Nicolás belonged to the Augustinian Order. His humble lifestyle was probably what appealed to the Franciscans when they dedicated the chapel to him. Nicolás was born in Italy, became a monk at age 18, and was ordained as a priest at 25. Noted for his quiet and gentle manner, Nicolás served  the poor and the dregs of society in the Italian town of Tolentino.

The small campanario (belfry) contains a single bell, rung by a pull cord. Again, this ancient method appeals to me. I am not much moved by chimes broadcast over a loudspeaker. Nicolás was highly respected and acted as a peacemaker during the intense civil strife between the supporters of the Pope and those of the Holy Roman Emperor. During the course of his work with the poor, Nicolás is reputed to have performed healing miracles while handing out bread. Calls to make him a saint began soon after his death and Pope Eugene IV canonized him in 1446.

The exterior of the chapel was constructed using local stone called xalnene. Xalnene is a porous volcanic sandstone quarried in the area around Tlaxcala. Since ancient times, people have used it both for construction. The porous nature of xalnene also led to its use in filtering and purifying water.

The interior is also very spare and austere. Carole and I were the only visitors to the chapel at the time. The stone walls are very thick, which is typical of buildings of this period. One result is a pleasingly cool interior, even on warm days.

This completes Part 10 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 9: Mercado Sabatino, the place where you can buy (almost) anything

A flower customer examines her choices. Flowers are only one of the many items for sale here, including a variety of live animals. After we visited the Museo de Artes y Tradicionales Populares (see previous posting), we noticed the street market a short distance away. The Mercado Sabatino (Saturday Market) occupies a large area stretching along the malecón bordering the Rio Zahuapan. Open-air mercados are another of our favorite places. We like the bustling atmosphere, the variety of colorful products, the always-friendly vendors, the people-watching, and--for me--the splendid photographic opportunities.

One of the mercado's many entrances. Mercado Sabatino is a maze of stalls and merchandise displays set along narrow, crowded aisles. Each section of the mercado sells a similar kind of product. All the fruit and vegetable stalls are grouped together, as are those for clothing, meats and fish, leather goods, etc. Unless you have a good sense of direction, you can easily get lost in the maze of aisles and walkways. However, finding your way out can be fun, too, as you discover products and scenes along the way that are bound to intrigue and delight you. Close to major holidays, the mercado's aisles become almost impassable. This is particularly true during the Christmas-New Years period, according to local news sources. They describe a "strong influx of people" who wage a "titanic struggle to acquire the best vegetables and fruits." It's probably wise to avoid the Saturday Market on those occasions.

A shopper considers a cucumber. Foreigners who buy fresh vegetables in markets like this are often astonished at the quality and taste of their purchases. They are generally superior, as well as less expensive, than anything you will find in one of Mexico's U.S.-style supermarkets. Compared to the US, the prices are much cheaper. For example, the sign over the cucumbers above reads 2 kilograms for 25 pesos (4.4 lbs for $1.33 USD). According to the US Department of Agriculture, as of April 18, 2018, the average US price for 4.4 pounds of fresh, unpeeled cucumbers is $5.72 (USD). Similar price differences hold true for other fruits and vegetables.

A family business. In this stall, the family was selling corn kernels, which have been removed from the cob in a process called "shelling". They were such friendly folks that I asked to take a photo, a request that was immediately granted. In my travels all over Mexico over the last ten years, I have found that Mexicans are some of the warmest and most hospitable people in the world. This holds true for people from all walks of life.

Blue corn is one of many varieties found in Mexico. These blue kernals are called maiz azul and are grown in Mexico and the Southwestern US. They are ground into a dough called called masa, which sometimes becomes the main ingredient of tlacoyo, an ancient food dating to pre-hispanic times. This very popular dish is made by stuffing the masa with various fillings like pinto or fava beans, mushrooms, and cheese. Tlacoyo is cooked on a flat griddle called a comal, which used to be made of clay and heated over a wood fire. Nowadays, most comales are metal and heated by propane, but the process for preparing tlacoyos and the shape and use of the implements for cooking them has not significantly changed over the last 500 years or more. In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors wrote about the tlacoyos they saw cooking in outdoor markets similar to Tlaxcala's Mercado Sabatino.

Stacks of dried fish stand in front of bins of beans.  I haven't been able precisely identify the fish, but it may be cod which has been salted and dried in a process called desiccation. The fish will keep for several months, if stored in a dry place.

Two women sell an assortment of goods. Their stall displays clothing, shoes, and a child's doll. They were deep in conversation as I passed, and didn't notice me when I took this candid shot with my zoom lens. While the primary purpose of the mercado's activity is economic, there is a definite social aspect as people meet and greet their friends among the customers and other vendors.

Heaps of used clothing filled a number of tables in this section. The customers, who were primarily women, crowded around the piles and sifted through them until they found something interesting. Recycling is an economic necessity, since many Mexicans can't afford new, store-bought goods. Selling clothing you no longer need is also another way to make money.

Trucker hats with creative designs. Sadly, the classic Mexican sombrero has been replaced in most areas by north-of-the-border trucker hats. You have to go pretty far out into the countryside to find anyone who still wears the old-style broad-brimmed sombrero. Instead, trucker caps and Texas-style cowboy hats are the favored headgear.

Sign of the times. A shoe vendor, bathed in the pink shadow of his overhead tarp, texts on his cell-phone. The cell-phone craze has certainly reached Tlaxcala and other cities, but it has penetrated even the remotest areas of Mexico. The vendor wears an Old Navy t-shirt displaying a large American flag. He may have lived for a while in the US and then returned, or he may just like the design. Even if they don't have family connections to the US, many Mexicans wear t-shirts with English messages on them. Carole and I are sometimes startled to see buxom young Mexican girls wearing t-shirts with logos like "Hot Stuff! Come and Get It!" emblazoned across the chest. We don't know whether the girls understand the English, but we're pretty sure their mom's don't.

Goats crowd around a water pan. At first, we didn't realize that there was a live animal section in the Saturday Market. Then, as we wandered the crowded aisles, Carole tugged my sleeve and discreetly pointed at a woman carrying a large shopping bag slung from straps over her shoulder. Peeking out of the top of the bag was a live baby goat. For a second, I thought it might be some sort of pet, but then I realized that the little creature was probably destined for the family dinner table. Cabrito (baby goat) is a favorite meal in Mexico.

Live chickens strut about their cage, waiting for a purchaser. The rooster was keeping an eye out for rivals who might try to lure off his small harem. Not all chickens were kept in cages. Some were simply tethered by one leg to a leash attached to a stake in the ground.

A calf eyes me warily as I take its photo. The calf appears to be a Holstein, one of several dairy breeds. Most cattle raised in Tlaxcala are either dairy cows or fighting bulls. Over the centuries, more than 1000 haciendas grew up in Tlaxcala, and raising cattle was one of their primary activities. Only about 200 haciendas remain today and many are in ruins, or have become hotels/restaurants. However, some still raise cattle, often bulls used for fighting. The city of Tlaxcala still has one of the finest bull rings in the country, architecturally speaking.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... Piglets snooze in the back of a pick-up truck. When I first noticed these little guys, I thought it might be a stack of carcasses. Then I noticed them softly stirring, snuffling, and snoring. I found myself tiptoeing around, speaking in whispers, so as not to disturb their blissful slumber.

This completes Part 9 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, that you will leave any thoughts or questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Friday, April 20, 2018

Tlaxcala Part 8: The Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions

A weaver operates a 16th century-style loom at the Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares. In this posting, we return to Tlaxcala from our visit to the ancient ruins of Cantona. The museum contains more than 3000 pieces of popular art dating from colonial times to the modern era, as well as some reproductions of pre-hispanic craftsmanship. All this is displayed in the old Governor's Office, built in 1950 and turned into a museum in 1986. In this posting are just a few samples of the multitude of fascinating items on display. The Museo de Artes y Tradiciones Populares has become one of the biggest attractions in the city of Tlaxcala. To locate it on a Google map, click here.


Large, beautifully decorated tibors are displayed near the museum's entrance. Tibors are vases traditionally used for storage. After glazing with a white background, they are painted in the talavera style, using a variety of colors and naturalistic designs.

A couple of tibors stand next to bowls painted in a similar style. While Tlaxcala is not one of the major pottery centers in Mexico, what is produced here is of high quality. Much of comes from small, outlying towns which specialize in particular types of ceramics. In addition to talavera, which originated in the 16th century, some local potters also use pre-hispanic styles, employing ancient methods rather than potter's wheels.

A pitcher and matching wash basin hark back to an earlier age. It was not that long ago when even wealthy homes had no running water. In those days, a set like this would have stood near a dressing table in a bedroom.

Ancient and modern musical instruments

Reproduction of an Aztec-style drum called a teponaztli. The instrument is a horizontal slit-drum made from a hollow, hard-wood log. Slits are cut in the top of the log in the shape of an H. The tongues thus created are struck with rubber-headed mallets or deer antlers. Teponaztli were usually covered with relief carvings on their sides and ends. Human or animal faces were often part of the decoration. In order to increase the volume, either the bottom or one end of the log is left open. The teponazoani (drummer) played his instrument as an accompaniment for dances, poetry, and celebrations. Teponaztli were also used by military leaders as communication devices during battles. The instrument was considered so sacred that the blood of sacrifice victims was sometimes poured into it.

Reproduction of an upright skin-drum called a huehuetl. These drums, made from hollow tree trunks, are played with either mallets or using the hands directly. While the top of the huehuetl is covered with skin of an ocelot, the bottom is open and stands on three legs. The Tarascan Empire, the Aztecs' great rival, also used this kind of drum. It was especially popular for warrior gatherings. Notice the Jaguar Warrior carved and painted on the side. Teponaztli and huehuetl are often played together. The two drums were believed to embody the spirits of two different gods who had each been banished to earth

Also displayed were a variety of traditional stringed instruments. Stringed instruments did not exist in Mesoamerica until the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. At the bottom are two guitars and a mandolin, with a pair of lap harps above them. All are made from cedar and come from the town of Calpulalpan on Tlaxcala's western border with the State of Mexico.

Indigenous costumes

Dance costume of an indigenous dancer featuring an elaborate, feathered headdress. The headdress, called a penacho, was made with the feathers of a variety of birds. While the headdress approximates an original, ancient penacho, the rest of the costume is clearly influenced by styles and materials introduced by the Spanish.

Costume of a Spaniard, as seen through indigenous eyes. Note the crossed ribbons on the chest, which resemble the straps associated with a military uniform of the colonial or early national period. In the mannequin's right hand is a gold-colored whip. The native craftsperson uses the outlandish hat to poke fun, but also makes a rather sinister statement about Spaniards with the rest of the costume.

Costume from the Dance of the Moors and Christians. This ancient dance celebrates the victory of the Spanish Christians over the Moors in 1492, marking the end of the 700-year-long struggle known as La Reconquista (the Reconquest). That same year, Christopher Columbus hung around the Christian army camp outside Granada, waiting for the Moors to surrender. He desperately wanted to gain an audience with King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella so he could propose his Atlantic voyage. The Spanish later incorporated many of the practices and strategies developed during of La Reconquista in their conquest of the New World.

Religious statues from the 18th century

Religious statues carved in the 18th century for display in colonial churches. On the left is San Pedro Apóstol (the Apostle Peter), one of the original twelve apostles as well as the first pope. In the center is San Miguel Arcángel, el Niño (Archangel Michael as a child). San Miguel was the general of God's armies in the struggle against Satan. On the right is San Antonio de Padua (1195-1231 AD). He was a Portuguese Augustinian friar who later became a Franciscan because he was attracted to their simplicity and poverty. His great knowledge of Christian doctrine and ability as a preacher led the Church to designate him as one of a handful of Doctors of the Church.

Virgen de Guadalupe, guarded by angels on either side.  The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron of Mexico, and particularly of the poor and indigenous people. She was the first apparition of the Virgin Mary to be encountered in the New World. However, she was not widely accepted as a legitimate figure of veneration for nearly a century. She first appeared to an indigenous man named Juan Diego in the ruins of a temple to Tonantzin, the Aztec Earth Mother. Juan Diego reported to Catholic authorities that she was dark-skinned, and she spoke Nahuatl, the language of the recently conquered Aztecs. All this led to an intense dispute between the Franciscans on one side and the Dominicans and Augustinians on the other. The Franciscans thought it was all a scam to allow the natives to continue "devil worship". The other Orders adopted a more practical stance, noting that hordes of new converts appeared wherever she was venerated. In the end, practicality won.


The museum doesn't just display finished works of popular art. This foot-pedal loom, built in the fashion of those brought over by the Spanish after the Conquest, is fully functional and capable of producing beautiful textile designs. Tlaxcala has a long history of textile production, dating far back into pre-hispanic times. Before Spanish looms, the indigenous people used simple, but effective back-strap looms. Devices were held in place by a strap around the back of the weaver, with the other end of the loom attached to a stationary vertical object like a tree. Such looms are still used in Mexico.

Finished product of a foot-pedal loom. I was impressed by the close weave of this lovely piece of textile art. Pre-hispanic Tlaxcalan weavers favored cotton, but it had to be imported from the coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and thus was expensive. So, fibers from other plants such as maguey, yucca, and sisal were also employed. However, these fibers are much rougher than cotton and therefore less comfortable in the tilmas (cloaks) used by pre-hispanic people. When the Spanish arrived, they introduced wool and silk, to which native weavers readily adapted. 

Textile piece showing birds and other animals, produced by an Otomi weaver. The Otomis are an indigenous group who have maintained much of their pre-hispanic culture. Their homeland is in the states of Hidalgo and Querétaro, north of Mexico City. Indigenous weavers often use scenes from the natural world, as well as abstract designs such as the diamond and zig zag patterns seen previously. 

Another textile using indigenous themes. This long, narrow piece of Otomi textile contains a deer, a bird, and what may be a coyote, as well as stars and plants. 

Indigenous Masks

Mask-making is another craft with deep pre-hispanic roots. In the photo above you can see the different stages of mask production, as well as some of the tools used in the process. Such masks are used in the innumerable indigenous dances still held all over Mexico. The ones above are of pink-skinned and bearded Spaniards. Such masks were often used in dances during which native people subtly mocked their unsuspecting overlords. 

The gold tooth on this mask is meant to portray a person of wealth. Notice the eyeholes in the eyebrows, which allow the dancer to see while wearing the mask. 

Miscellaneous craftsmanship

Necklace of red beads and Mexican coins. The coins were minted before the currency was changed in appearance and valuation in the 1994. While they are no longer in circulation, some of the old coins are beautifully designed and make striking jewelry.

Items made from twigs, straw, and natural fiber. Two of the pieces above are made in the form of chapels, while others are formed into whisk brooms and a sash.

These canes were made by two artisans from the town of San Estaban Tizatlán Jamie García Padilla and Raymundo Paredes Sánchez carved and painted a variety of designs on the canes. Three of the handles end in snake heads.

Stone mortars and pestles carved in the shapes of burros and a bird. Devices like this have a long history, going back as far as 35,000 years in some parts of the world. In Mexico, they are called molcajetes. Similar food grinding devices have been found in Mesoamerican sites many thousands of years old. They were used for grinding ingredients such as seeds and other plant material for food and medicinal purposes. Despite their antiquity, the mortar and pestle are still basic tools found in many modern kitchens. 

This beautiful leather saddle highlights Tlaxcala's ranch culture. Ranching came early in Mexico, starting in the 16th century when the Spanish imported cattle into colonial New Spain. Vast herds were driven hundreds of miles to provide meat and leather for the silver mines and the burgeoning cities that serviced them. All of the basic tools and practices of the cowboy culture had been perfected by Mexican vaqueros at least 200 years before the first American cowboy pulled on his spurs. 

This completes Part 8 of my Tlaxcala series. I hope you have enjoyed it and, if so, you will leave any thoughts and questions in the Comments section below. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim