Monday, February 21, 2011

searching for pátzcuaro

Don Vasco succeeded beyond his fondest dreams.

He wanted to create a P'urhépecha society where the Indians could support themselves.  If he could walk the morning streets of Pátzcuaro these days, his Jesuit lawyer heart would swell.

It seems as if everyone in Pátzcuaro is selling something.  Fruits.  Vegetables.  Fish.  Chicken.  Things I have never seen before and I have no idea what I would do with.

It is all there.  Just begging to be photographed by a tourist -- or, better yet, purchased and consumed by a local citizen.  After all, Don Vasco did not set out to set up a tourist town.  He was interested in commerce and self-sufficiency.

Don Vasco did not succeed in creating More's Utopia, but he came awfully close to forming a branch of the Adam Smith in Action Club.

And I almost missed all of it.

We pulled into Pátzcuaro in the afternoon and jumped into a brief walking tour of the town's historical highlights.

The historical area is quite compact.  There are two plazas.  The largest (Plaza Grande) is presided over by a statue of Don Vasco.  The smaller square (Plaza Gertrudis Bocanegra) is named in honor of a local independence heroine.

Both plazas give the town a sense of Spanish order and tranquility.  Even though they each have their individual personalities, they were filled with people living their lives. 

No bustle like Morelia.  No self-important preening like Guanajuato.  Just country folk getting on with the day.

Pátzcuaro, like every Mexican town, has its usual array of churches.  And there is nothing special about any of them (with one exception).  What is unusual in Pátzcuaro is that there are no churches on the main plaza.  Most Mexican towns place their major church in a place of prominence on the town square.

Not Pátzcuaro.  Apparently, that was another Don Vasco innovation.  He wanted the church to be somewhere other than near the secular power of the city to draw a line between his work and the evil of Nuño de Guzman.

That sounds very romantic.  But I have doubts about its accuracy.  After all, the same Don Vasco ordered a chapel to be built where the last leader of the P'urhépecha knelt in humiliation to the Spanish conquerors.

Pátzcuaro's greatest visual attraction is not its monuments.  After it lost its attempt to be the area capital, it fell back into being a sleepy Indian-colonial town.  The most obvious proof of that are the buildings.  Mostly made of wood and adobe with tiled roofs.

But, it does have its stories.  One of the most romantic is the story of Gertrudis Bocanegra.  She was one of those heroines who pop up in national histories.  Joan of Arc.  Boudica.  Molly Pitcher.

As a supporter of independence from Spain, she provided two sons to the effort who died in the cause.  She continued to support the movement until a friend betrayed her efforts to the Spanish, who then shot her in the Plaza Grande, and left her body to the flies for a full day.

Instead of acting as a warning to others, her bravery inspired the rebels.  Proving that arrogance cannot trump liberty.

She is now honored not only by having her name on the square, but also having the public library named after her.  The library is a converted church.  And there is nothing special about it -- except for the rear wall.  And I will write about that in a separate post.

All of that was interesting.  But it still did not give me a feel for Pátzcuaro's soul.  I had a good feel for what the town had been, but not what it was today.

I got up early the next morning to climb up to a viewpoint, recommended by our guide, to watch the sun rise over the town. 

A fellow blogger often writes about the light of Pátzcuaro.  And he is correct to do so.  Watching the dawn creep over the town bit by bit was better than a Broadway show.

I then decided to see the one church in Pátzcuaro that is unique -- the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Salud.  Don Vasco had great plans for the church.  It was going to be his cathedral.  A massive structure with five naves that would proclaim the glory of God.

Those building plans never quite worked out the way he wanted.  The bishopric was moved to Morelia, and the church in Pátzcuaro was left with only one nave.  But it is surrounded by Don Vasco's labors -- stalls where Indians sell their handicrafts.

I attended mass out of curiosity, and then walked down the hill.  I had noticed a church at the end of the street that I wanted to see.  But I never got inside the doors.  Because I discovered what I had been looking for -- the soul of Pátzcuaro.

Just outside the church gate were the merchants I mentioned at the start of this post.  The market stretched for blocks and was crowded with early morning shoppers.

Those of you who live in the Mexican highlands are accustomed to this kind of thing.  We coastal yokels have nothing like it.

Instead of our cull fruit and vegetables, the merchandise on sale was plump and fresh -- and offered the appearance of choice.

I came to Pátzcuaro thinking it might be a good place to spend part of my summer.  After all, it was near the top of my list for places to live in Mexico.

If I had any doubts they disappeared when I had cafecitos with the light-poet of Pátzcuaro, "Felipe Zapata."

For all of his protestations of not being a very social fellow, "Felipe" is the type of company you look for to share a cup of Joe.  Well-read.  Better-spoken,  And intelligently frank.  He managed to put up with my ramblings.

When I decided to move to Mexico, I made the amateur mistake of wasting my time looking only for climate and infrastructure that would please me.  "Felipe" and Jennifer Rose have reminded me that nothing trumps relationships -- relationships with the soul of a town and with its inhabitants.

And I think I could have a summer fling relationship with Pátzcuaro.

Note -- The photograph at the top of the post is not mine.  It is the work of my pal Kim G. of Boston, a frequent commenter on these pages, and found its way here through the good graces of Felipe Zapata.


tancho said...

Oooooh, you held audience with are one lucky man. Felipe doe not allow just any bloke to drop in and occupy his time.

Sounds like you found some charm of Patzucaro which is not for everyone. You really should return on the DofD so you can walk on the paths of some local cemeteries.
I hope you enjoyed the weather February-March is probably the best climate of the year.

Don Cuevas said...

By sheer coincidence yesterday, we ate roasted chickens with Felipe and Lady Zapata. Actually, at separate tables, as we arrived at different times and the pollos asados place was near full of customers.

These brief encounters happen from time to time.

Don Cuevas

PS: the mercado is, for me, one of the great pleasures of Pátzcuaro.

Felipe Zapata said...

Now, Tancho, I do believe I have invited you to sit down for a spell as you walk by, more than once. But you're always running off to something or other.

Felipe Zapata said...

Intelligently frank, I like that. Señor Cotton, you were hardly here long enough to see anything. But if you do decide to light here for longer spells in the future, be aware that you must not act as a Gringo magnet because we have quite enough of you people as it is. Come quietly. Thankfully, Mother Nature is our greatest protector in that she will freeze your keister off in winter. It tends to keep most visitors at a lower altitude. Only the hardy survive.

And you were precisely as advertised on your blog: An incredibly nice, sharp guy.

Felipe Zapata said...

Here is an alternate to your top photo. It was taken by Kim G, who leaves comments now and then. With luck, this will work.

sparks said...

I spent a month attending CELEP language school in the late summer of 2005 and was surprised at the amount of rain. I believe the elevation sucks the moisture out of the clouds coming up from the coast while the coast is dry. Great thunder storms

Robyn said...

Since deciding to move to Mexico and building a house here on the Pacific coast five years ago. I have read many blogs, but only two that I look for everyday. Yours and "Zapata". It was very cool for me to think of two great writers having coffee together. Thanks for a good story and the thought of my two "friends" meeting each other.

Steve Cotton said...

I started to write "He does not suffer fools kindly," but that woulld not be correct. He managed to put up with me -- for a short period.

The weather was almost perfect. Warm days. Cool nights. I just returned to the coast from Mexico City. Our nights -- even in February -- are starting to feel a bit sticky.

Steve Cotton said...

I thank you, sir.

When I return, it will be closer to the summer -- when I can no longer bear the heat. After my travels to the highlands, I find I miss those cool nights.

Steve Cotton said...

And the revision is done. Thanks.

Steve Cotton said...

It must be a bit like living on the west face of the Cascades. But it will be better than the heat of high summer.

Steve Cotton said...

Glad to have you amongst the commenters. This is the type of blurb I could use on that book I am never going to write.

Where are you living on the Pacific coast?

teresa freeburn said...

very nice pix and good writing as well. thanks for all the info. the only thing missing was a picture of sr. and sra. zapata.

Mexican Trailrunner said...

Yep, that was me. We got the heirlooms! Every Tues 10 to 1. Be there or be square.
So. . .what kind of unspeakable things. . .? hmmm?
The weather is significantly better, I really miss the beach culture but it's just too much of a trade-off for 6 to 8 months of steam bath. So, I live in the highlands with all the good foodies and take trips to the beach. Also, highlands are a good central point for trips.
See you when you get up this way.
Wow, really! You had an audience with the pope. . .wow.

Neil said...

Steve, I've been a lurker for a long time. I realized recently it was only fair to let you know how much I enjoy your blog. I've been reading it since you and Jiggs first moved to Mexico. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with all of us!
Neil in Olympia, Washington

Steve Cotton said...

I really wish we had somethin g like that down here. It makes our little vegetable store look like a cull pile.

Don Cuevas said...

I love the rainy season. The sound and light shows of the late afternoon and evening are truly spectacular. The clouds nestled afterwards in the mountains are truly beautiful.

The downside is that your washed clothes may take three days to dry, unless you have a clothes dryer. Some people, and I've seen it mostly in Morelia, have a sort of pen or cage on the rooftop, with a translucent plastic roof for a solar clothes dryer.

Don Cuevas

Don Cuevas said...

There's a section near the south exit/entrance of the mercado devoted to amazingly colorful cups of cut fruits. Although I rarely if ever eat any, they are works of ephemeral art available at bargain prices.
There's a photo here
and a few more following that one.

Don Cuevas

Steve Cotton said...

I miss it. But I am glad you added it and that you -- and others -- are using the link function. I will have to try that myself.