Patzcuaro, a town perched in the Mexican highlands with a large indigenous population, has the reputation of being a magical place. The town, and the nearby lake that has the same name, is particularly well known for the Day of the Dead ceremony (Día de los Muertos) held each year at the end of October to the beginning of November. My guide, Jaime Hernández Balderas, describes it as a time when the people “receive their departed ones in the graveyards and offer them what they use to like when they were with us—food, music, drinks. It is a moment to please them and be with them”.
It’s just one of many ceremonies although it attracts the most attention of tourists. There’s Semana Santa (the week leading up to Easter), Dia de Nuestra Señora de Salud (the festival to celebrate Patzcuaro’s Patron Saint) and Navidad (Christmas). In fact, “all year round we have something to celebrate,” says Jaime. “They are mainly religious fiestas: baptism ceremonies, wedding receptions, saints’ days. If there is not a saint to celebrate then we create one!”
There is a statue of a Spanish bishop named Don Vasco de Quiroga in Patzcuaro’s main square. The bishop came here in 1536 to convert the Indian population to Christianity and teach them the Spanish way of life. The bishop, so I read, is still very revered and I hired Jaime to take me around the lake and show me the bishop’s influence.
It seems the bishop was well ahead of his time, having been greatly influenced by Thomas More’s book Utopia about an ideal society. The bishop decided to establish one in the Patzcuaro area where property would be communal and everyone would be educated and receive medical care. It was “everything for everybody”, says Jaime.
The bishop was also sensitive to traditional beliefs and customs. When he had the cathedral built in Patzcuaro, instead of situating it on the main square as was the Spanish tradition, he had it built on the ruins of a pyramid that had been destroyed when the city was conquered, using the pyramid’s stones. Those ruins are still evident today.
The bishop promoted Mary, mother of Jesus, as a sympathetic figure that performed miracles. Mary was given various apparitions, one being Our Lady of Health, and could be dressed by the Indian population according to their traditions, another practice that continues today. In fact, providing Mary with clothes is so prestigious that the honour is regularly rotated, says Jaime
Similarly, there is a shrine with two dolls, each said to be baby Jesus. They are called the twins. Locals say they’ve seen the dolls out at night, says Jaime, dressed in white and with their feet covered with mud and straw, performing miracles. The twins are famous and people from all over bring them offerings, particularly toys.
The bishop encouraged trades that would provide goods and services for the many festivities of the Catholic calendar. So one village would make candlesticks, another candles, one would grow flowers, and so on: masks, pottery, statutes, baskets, shawls, mescal. This continues today.
A village is in charge of providing the huge, thick breads that are given out as invitations to celebrations, says Jaime. Another has really great brass bands, although hiring them is expensive, usually requiring a donation from a relative working in the US. The bishop was keen on music and there is a village that makes guitars and another violins.
Santa Clara de Cobre, perhaps the most visited of the lake towns, is known for its copper. The village of Quiroga makes deep fried pork rind (el rey de las carnitas) and this is such as treat that almost all Mexican tour buses stop there, says Jaime.
As we went around the lake, Jaime always asked the caretaker’s permission to enter his or her church or community compound. The caretaker’s role is very honourable and the position rotates weekly, which is another occasion to celebrate with food, music and flowers. We were able to watch the women in the Hospital Pueblo de Santa Fe de la Laguna community prepare fish soup, tortillas and bread that would be eaten at such an event that evening.
The community of Santa Fe de la Laguana is charming and still very traditional, says Jaime, retaining their language and obeying the bishop’s ordinances. It was the first community that the bishop built, an experiment of sorts, and the local people want to preserve it. In the main square there is a statue of the bishop as well as a mural about the rising up of the indigenous people to demand their rights. The crucifix in the church here was carved from stone and is a very important piece of religious art.
We visited other churches, one founded by the Franciscans that has a plaza large enough to hold thousands of people. One church was filled with ribbons and flowers left from the three-day Lord of the Rescue fiesta. There were so many flowers that their perfume was almost overpowering. Jaime says there would have been dancing and fireworks too and that there is also a village responsible for producing fireworks.
At one community, a ritual takes place on February 1 that is based on an ancient tradition. It’s called the “lighting of the new fire”, the beginning of the new year, and when the stars are aligned a specially built pyramid is set on fire. “It’s a wonderful three-day occasion,” says Jaime.
On February 2 at a church where Mary is depicted holding a candle stick and carrying baby Jesus to the masses, a special ceremony is held known as la Candelaria, reenacting when baby Jesus was presented to the church.
We stop at the home of the “best of the best” mask makers and I am shown masks and costumes used for the reenactment of the “journey of the shepherd to see baby Jesus”. It is celebrated with three days of dancing. There are 52 different dances in this region alone, I’m told, and each requires a different mask.
The church used masks to teach lessons. The devil mask would usually incorporate something scary like a snake, which represents sin. The owl, symbolizing wisdom, would be shown eating the snake: With wisdom you can defeat temptation.
We visit two potters, one in Tzintzuntzan who Jaime says is “the best in the whole state because of his creations”; the other known for his more traditional designs. We go to a market where green pottery and Christmas decorations are sold.
And to a workshop where an artist carved a dove out of reeds in a matter of minutes.
Outside of Tzintzuntzan we visit a pyramid that is being reconstructed, a huge undertaking but an obvious source of pride. There is a small museum on the site.
We saw much more that day and Jaime’s knowledge of the area and the people is extraordinary. We started the day in Patzcuaro itself, visiting Bishop Quiroga’s statue, the cathedral that he built, the Basilica de Nuestra Señora de la Salud where he is buried, the university he founded (now Museo de Artes Populares), and the former Dominican nunnery (Casa de Los Once Patios} where crafts from around the lake are now sold.
I reached Patzcuaro on a first class bus from Mexico City’s West Station. It was a day trip on the toll highway that took 5 hours (including a brief stop in Morelia) and cost $472 pesos (about US $32). I stayed at the exceptional Hotel Casa Encantada (that had recommended Jaime and can arrange a tour with him) and each evening had dinner at an outdoor restaurant in one of the town’s two squares, watching the locals have a grand time.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses™ 2015