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Towers From the Past Emerge in the Present

By Jesús Aguado

On the basin of the Laja River, among corn fields, mesquites, reeds, cattle, and adobe houses, religious centers emerge. These Indian chapels are rich in architectural, sculptural, and pictographic elements,

Currently, after an unsuccessful project a few administrations back, some of these buildings are being used as barns, “for storing triques (things),” as bedrooms, or simply for nothing, according María Ramírez, who is owner of one of this buildings.

The Smiling Faces

The number of chapels constructed on the basin of the Laja River and dating from the 16th and 17th century is unknown because neither a census nor a catalogue of the buildings exists. No register of the pictographic and sculptural elements exists either. Oral history has been preserved for most of them.

Probably, the most beautiful Indian chapel (from the few that still have documental archives) is that of San Isidro. It is dedicated to the Three Wise Men, whose fiesta takes place every January 6.

At the entrance, on the right side, there is a calvary, a small construction for worshiping the souls of ancestors. It is adorned with zoomorphic gutters made of quarrel (a kind of building stone). The wooden door is carved and has shapes of pigeons and angels, and even some representations of the wind. Inside the church is an oil painting depicting a scene of the time when the three kings (Melchior, Balthazar, and Gasper) visited Baby Jesus and gave him gifts. One of the kings is touching Baby Jesus’s foot.

A bleeding Christ hangs at the main altar. The walls and the ceiling are covered with paintings that feature archangels, crosses, and even the sun and moon. The bell tower is crowned with an angel. The gutters made of quarrel are each topped with a smiling face.

The fiesta we witnessed on January 6 was small and very local. There was a folkloric ballet from La Cieneguita. Eventually, from the chapel, a small Christ in a glass cabinet was taken out by a group of women. They walked to one of the main streets, and there they received a cuadro de locos (group of crazies, people wearing disguises, who dance and throw candies to the onlookers). In the small group were a Super Man, an It, a wrestler, and even a devil. All of them kissed the glass cabinet with the Christ.

A Forgotten Idea

When Luz María Núñez Flores was mayor of San Miguel from 2009–2012, 2 million pesos were invested “to improve the economy of some indigenous communities.” The former mayor told Atención that the money was for restoring six of the Indian chapels, and later the federation invested resources for the construction of a visitor’s center and bathrooms halfway along the route. Tourists could have an organic lunch and also purchase the arts and crafts made by the Otomí people.

According to Núñez, in the Otomí communities with restored chapels, her administration organized groups and trained them to explain the history of their community, their worship centers, and also some legends and myths to visitors. They were trained as well to administer the resources to benefit the community. “It was a very interesting project because we wanted to improve the economy of these people as well as empower them and make them feel proud of their roots and their heritage,” Núñez Flores told us.

Originally, the idea was to attract people to Montecillo de Nieto, assisted by the promotion from the Tourism Council. There, the visitors had to rent horses to begin the journey. In San Isidro de Bandita, they could have lunch and rest halfway through the route. The food sold at the Visitor Center was certified by the Federal Secretariat of Tourism as hygienic.

On the Route

It has been six years since the project was launched. Atención took the road through the route that was once used to visit the chapels. At the community of Montecillo de Nieto, there are two chapels, one dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe and the other, to Santiago. Now, the doors open just once a year, during the fiesta. Doña Ofelia told us that nobody remembers a restoration now. She noted that there had been some women, previous guides, who knew the history. However, they got married and left the community.

The route continues to Banda (church of St. Isidro), and the same road leads to San Isidro de Bandita. In that place, two families are responsible for the keys, alternating months. Ofelia told us that the space is dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and opens for special requests. Angels and crosses adorn its walls. Two more buildings, surrounded by adobe houses, stand 500 meters away.

Those who take the cobblestoned road can get to Cruz del Palmar, which has at least eight old chapels, and the towers are easily seen on the houses in main plaza. María Ramírez invited us to see her old building. From the outside, people would think that the chapel is complete, but when they get into the house, they realize that there is just a bell tower and the façade of the former chapel. The family from the adjacent home uses the space as a barn, and on the other side of the street, the family uses a church as a bedroom. Cruz del Palmar is the end of the route, but those who continue exploring can find more towers that appear and disappear in the hills.

The Downfall of the Project

The main promoter of the tourist attraction, Núñez Flores, attributed the failure of the project to lack of interest from the Tourism Council (2012-2015) as well as the operators who began to see it as a way “of revenue for themselves and not for the Otomí people.” Instead of hiring horses, they started using motorcycles (that was never the plan, due to the noise pollution). They also replaced the native guides with urban ones. “Then everything was twisted,” she said.

Former Mayor Núñez said in addition, “It makes me sad that the project disappeared, because much effort, not just from the local government, but from the people, was invested.” She also said that since she finished her administration, she has not been involved in other tourist projects. She highlighted that San Miguel needs projects like this to benefit the people, “and in this one, the work is done. It ought to be reactivated.”

She invited the current administration and those of the future to recognize that “San Miguel has everything for rural tourism to give visitors something to do and not have big concentrations of tourists in the Historic Center.”

“If somebody is interested in recovering the project, I am willing to help, but it has to be something serious, and those benefited have to be the natives of the communities. We have [given] expectations and hope to the people, and it is not fair that with the changing of administrations, some projects are forgotten. The most important are the sanmiguelenses who are there all the time,” she concluded.

A Little Bit of History

Historian Graciela Cruz, who participated in recovery of the chapels’ history, told us that the buildings are complex world views, related to the mountains, the corn fields, rivers, and even the houses of the families that used these religious centers as private chapels or for the general population. She assured that in some communities there are up to 10 chapels.

“If we want to understand these buildings,” said Cruz, “we can compare them to noble titles, but indigenous and ancestral. Those were privileges to caciques (indigenous chiefs) or indigenous people to have land, cattle, guns, and horses, and they could also dress like the Spaniards. They could also have their own chapel to worship their saints, syncretized with their old deities.”

Cruz assured that the construction of these chapels is linked to the advance in the process of conquest in the valley of Mexico. She said it is not exclusive to San Miguel.

“The chapels emerged because the territories were given to the Spanish during the process of conquest, as well as to those who had power from the north to the center of the territory. It was a strategy to open the path to the mining centers. Those Spaniards with power also arrived with indigenous workers who later owned the land.”

Cruz mentioned that this has been one of the most interesting projects she has worked on, and she ended up learning more from the natives than they did from her.

She suggested that if the route is someday reactivated, the promotion should have subsidies from the system but should be administrated by the indigenous.



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