For centuries, Mexico has been a ‘go to’ holiday destination. What’s not to like? Sun, sea, sand, gold, silver?
My Mexican hot pick is Pátzcuaro, a town in the state of Michoacan. Pátzcuaro has been put on the map as the centre of the Day of the Dead ceremonies. Here, they say, the veil ‘twixt life and death is thin, particularly on the 1st and 2nd of November. With sugar skulls and marigold flowers and glamorous with Catrinas and skeletal Caballeros dancing the Danse Jumbie, the Day of the Dead is the height of macabre fashion.
Pátzquaro looks like the film set of a swash-buckling Mex-Tex-Italian Western scored by Ennio Morricone. Around the lake and surrounding countryside, visitors will find awesome panoramas and quaint towns specialising in beautiful handicrafts.
Spanish tourists first arrived here in the 16th century. Aiming to gather territory into ‘New Spain’, the administrative skills of one Nuno de Guzman were utilized to represent Spanish interests. Some years later, following allegations of “cruelty of the highest order”, King Charles the 5th replaced Sr. Guzman with lawyer and priest, Vasco de Quiroga. Don Vasco was appointed Bishop of Michoacan in 1536.
Lake Pátzcuaro is in a volcanic crater and I’ve learned a new word for this kind of lake. It is ‘Endorheic’ which means:
“… a closed drainage basin that retains water with no outflow to other external bodies of water but converges instead into lakes or swamps …”
On a ferry from Pátzcuaro to the island of Janitzio, I see rampant green water-weeds floating just below the surface of the lake. Only a few (large) fronds break upwards from the surface of the lake in order to flower. Requiring continual clearing by specially-equipped water diggers to allow the ferry boats to navigate, keeping this – Endorheic – lake clear of vegetation is a labour of love.
A quintet of five excellent musicians joined us for the boat ride across to Janitzio and as we were the only tourists on board, we had a personal performance complete with special requests.
The Villages – Republicas de Indios
As previously noted, compared to Nuno de Guzmán, Vasco de Quiroga was a saint. With Thomas More’s book Utopia as reference, Vasco encouraged the local people to gather in separate settlements in the area of Lake Pátzcuaro. He called these villages Republicas de Indios and directed each village to focus on a unique type of craftwork by way of being industrious and self-supporting.
The devil makes work for idle hands to do
In organising the craft villages, Don Vasco’s intention was both to support and control the villagers. In line with the cliché, Don Vasco encouraged his people to keep their hands busy with traditional Mexican crafts and new European techniques.
As there are many craft villages, here I’ll mention just four of the towns:
• Santa Clara de Cobre specialises in Copper work
• In Tocuaro they make traditional Masks
• Tzintzuntzan (named for the sound of humming birds) does pottery
• Uruapan produces lacquer work, inspired by 19th c Chinese imports.
Beyond supporting gainful employment, Vasco de Quiroga made efforts to safeguard his villagers from slavery. He had some success in challenging a Royal decree intended to revive the practice of taking Mexicans as slaves.
While his main purpose in organising the craft villages may have been to ‘tame and contain’ the people, even from the revisionist perspective of 500 years on, Don Vasco’s purposes seem largely altruistic. And, the fact the craft villages are still in existence and still producing fine, practical and beautiful wares more than 400 years later is a testament to the work of a visionary leader.