February 24-March 4, 2018
Which is what I muttered to myself as I walked past Pedro OHara’s in Brunswick. Max and I had just returned from a week with friends in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. When there we shared several historical tours with some of our friends, one being a trip to the Cañada de la Virgen archaelogical site 16 miles west of the city.
Albert Coffee, an archeologist, served as our excellent guide offering a fascinating glimpse into the Otomí who built these stone structures. He prefaced his lecture with a caveat stating much of what he’d share with us was based on assumptions. With the Spaniards having burnt the Indians’ codices no written record remains explaining the who, what and why of these sites. Fortunately, scholars interested in the indigenous people of Mesoamerica (from central- northern Mexico to Nicaragrua, roughly between latitudes 14º and 22º N) offer hypotheses that make a lot of sense. Or, so it seemed to me, although I’m no archaeology wizard.
We approached the site in several steps beginning with the pick up from the center of town followed by a quick shuttle through guarded gates and up part of a long road. During our transit Dr. Coffee explained that the site sat on private land and was only opened to the public seven years ago. He said it could have been closed due to a shortage in staff thanks to the upcoming presidential election in July. Most of the workers we saw were locals who rode in on horseback from the surrounding villages, and during the last election they weren’t paid for a month. But, we were lucky. No one had locked the gate and ridden away with the key (which Dr. Coffee said has occurred in the past).
We debarked from the van and began a half-mile walk up a winding road, following the same path that had served as the ceremonial approach to this religious center way back when.
Reaching the top we realized we’d hit the gold mind with Dr. Coffee. His expertise extended beyond the architecture and possible uses of these buildings into the local flora. He pointed out the symbiotic relationship between the cacti and trees (the cactus shades the tree which, once grown, supports the cactus from high winds)
then launched into the medicinal properties of the surrounding plants. Several of us raised our hands inquiring if we could buy any, especially those related to flushing out the liver.
As we walked around the site, we learned about the Otomí who settled in the area around 530 C.E. At 7,000 feet altitude and a cooler and wetter climate than much of Mexico, this central plateau with its rich volcanic soil and hardwood forest provided the perfect ingredients for farming and a settlement. And, it’s during this time the Otomí constructed these three pyramids, two with patios: the House of the Wind; the House of the Longest Night;
and, the most imposing, the House of the Thirteen Heavens. FYI: Dr. Coffee mentioned number 13 being a special one for the Otomí along with numbers 20 and 52, all relating to their keeping time via the sky.
Some believe the patios may have been filled with water to reflect the night sky. Myself, I’d have used it as a swimming pool.
Our guide stressed the extreme intelligence and skill of the Otomí based on the precision with which they built these pyramids. Using mathematics, astronomy and artistry the Otomí perfectly aligned the buildings with key celestial bodies (sun, moon, and planets) and their annual calendar. The buildings also mimicked the topography. For example, when facing the largest of the pyramids you’d see how its outline followed the mountain’s shape behind it.
Interestingly the site may be one dedicated to female gods based on the work of an archaeologist who thought outside the box. In spite of being told to focus on the relationship between the sun and the pyramids, she studied the moon and found a strong correlation between the interaction of that celestial body and the pyramids. Additionally, at the House of the Longest Night they discovered a burial of a young girl (7 – 11 years of age) interred as if she was a warrior. An early Wonder Woman.
At the top of the main pyramid (featured above) we peeked into a small room where Dr. Coffee showed us the the only on-site sample of one of the original colors, albeit faded.
Here they found the burial of a man age 52 who is believed to be a divine ruler. What is one of the more interesting facets of these graves relates to the skeletons’ ages: both had been mummified 1,000 years prior to being buried at Cańada de Virgen in mid-500 B.C.E.
I won’t go into the myriad amount of details Dr. Coffee shared with us (that’s assuming I remembered them all) but I do recall three key dates: March 4, the blessing of the seed; April 17, the planting of the seed; and, August 25, the harvesting of the crops. Our timing of the tour felt perfect considering we were there around that time, which happened to coincide with a celebration we saw in San Miguel.
A drought in 1050 C.E. made living off of farmed land difficult, if not impossible, for the Otomí. Eventually they were pushed out by the fierce Chichimecs, a nomadic people hunting and gathering for their livelihood. The Chichimecs later fought the Spanish (and won!) during the Chichimec War (1550-90). But, that’s another story, one I’m not versed in except to say it’s pretty cool the Indians beat the ‘cowboys’, aka conquistadores.
Remembered when I spoke of the blessing of the seed? Well, we’d been told that Friday, the day of this tour, was the Festival of the Day of our Lord of the Conquest. Starting early in the morning with the boom of firecrackers, Indian conchero (a type of lute made from an armadillo shell) dancers with heads and bodies festooned with brilliant feathery costumes ‘celebrate’ the Spaniards conquest of Mexico and the locals’ conversion to Catholicism.
Both men and women danced to the beat of the same tune, some more energetically than others,
mesmerizing viewers. It was difficult tearing ourselves away from the hypnotic sway of swirling, pheasant headdresses
and the repetitive drumming accompanied by the rattles attached to the shins.
As we headed to our pick-up site for the tour we found ourselves following them as they promenaded out of the main square.
Pretty impressive morning wake-up call.
Later, during our tour Dr. Coffee wryly noted, although the celebration is presented as honoring the conversion to Catholicism, it’s aptly timed to coincide with the annual Otomí ‘blessing of the seed’ ceremony, beginning with waking up the sun by loud, pre-dawn booms. The Spanish co-opted and adapted an historic, indigenous holiday for their own use, to try to gain the support of the local people. A common occurrence throughout religions’ history.
Speaking of the Spanish, this northernmost Spanish settlement in central Mexico began with a mission started by Juan de San Miguel in 1542. Finding a spring a few miles from his initial location, San Miguel moved to the present site a few years later, and that’s where we took another historical tour only this time led by a retired nuclear physicist named George.
George, who moved here with his wife from Los Alamos, provided another morning of historical facts. Being ever watchful for that sneaky cobblestone causing a potential stumble into a face plant, we joined a group of 15 or so wandering through the old part of San Miguel. Like most Spanish cities churches featured prominently.
Meeting outside the largest one–Parroquia (parish church)–on the town square,
we strolled through the city’s history. We passed by the Casa de Allende, now a museum dedicated to one of Mexico’s leaders in the war of Independence from Spain in the early 1800s.
The day before, we had visited this museum, the Casa de Allendes, the Allendes being a wealthy Creole family whose son Ignacio de Allende y Unzaga (1779-1811) is the reason San Miguel de Grande was changed to San Miguel de Allende. As George put it, Allende is the George Washington of Mexico.
Our guide pointed out another building, this one along the main square where Ignacio met with co-conspirators planning their stand against Spain.
Ignacio along with Father Hidalgo started the revolution. In spite of disagreements (Igancio as a professional soldier favored an orderly, military approach while Hidalgo radicalized peasants to form a mob-army), they led Mexicans in their fight for independence from Spain beginning with Hidalgo’s famous “Grito de Dolores” (“Cry of Dolores”)–Dolores being a nearby town– from the church tower on September 16, 1810.
Both of them along with two other leaders were later captured and executed during the summer of 1811. Their four heads were hung on posts on the granary [sounds like a perfect MDT (Max Disaster Tour)] and eventually removed in 1823 to be reunited with the rest of their bodies. George pointed out a plaque on Santuario de Atotonilco (another church) commemorating where the guy slept when carrying the skulls (similar to “GW slept here”...).
The Mexicans won their independence with the signing of the Treaty of Córdoba in 1821, making Mexico an independent constitutional monarchy, ensuring the Catholic Church retained its privileged position, and Mexicans of Spanish descent would be treated as equals to Spanish people while others of mixed blood would hold lesser rights (some things never change).
We walked by another impressive home, Casa de Canals,
whose coat of arms over the main entrance had helmets with plumes denoting this family’s ancestors fought the Moors in Spain.
On another block we entered the former Convent of the Immaculate Conception aka Las Monjas (“The Nuns”) founded by the Canal’s eldest daughter Josefa Lina de la Canal in 1751.
An interesting note about her death at age 33 written by an 18th-century biographer Díaz de Gamarra stated: “hundreds of legged, hairy worms came out of her nose in her final days, later metamorphosing into butterflies.” Nice.
What’s more important than insects flying out of one’s nostrils is this convent became the first art institute in San Miguel de Allende. In 1937 the Peruvian artist Felipe Cossío del Pomar opened the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes. Pomar later returned to Peru selling his ranch and the school to the Mexican lawyer Alfredo Campanella. Campanella along with a wealthy American, Stirling Dickinson, attracted WWII veterans who were funded by the G.I. Bill to live and study in this city. Which, to me, explains why so many ex-pats populate this city’s cobble-stone streets.
With so much wealth and tourism flooding the town I wondered why there didn’t seem to be any worries about violence or crime. The answer was violence is between gangs and, since San Miguel is where wealthy Mexicans come to R&R (including those of the cartels), there’s an incentive amongst all parties to keep it safe.
Interestingly, Mexico’s population is a true mix of Indians, Spanish, Africans, and even Irish. Which is how I began this post mentioning a local Brunswick restaurant, Pedro O’Hara’s. The Mexican-American War broke out in 1846 due to the United States’ annexation of what is now Texas under President James Polk.
A long story short, some Irish-born and Irish-Americans who served as part of the US forces against Mexico switched sides and formed San Patricios (St. Patrick’s Battalion). The romantic version of ‘why’ was the Irish felt an affinity for countrymen who were fighting for independence against a power dominated by Protestants. A more cynical explanation is the Mexicans offered better pay and land to go with it.
Whatever the reason, the Irish are considered heroic martyrs (many were captured, tried as traitors, and hung) honored by the Mexicans as shown in this photograph from the Internet of Mexico City’s memorial to the San Patricios.
They also added red hair into the mix here.
So, now when I see the name Pedro O’Haras an Irish ale with a Mexican fajita sounds perfect together (although I’d still order the margarita).
More to come…
What a great job you did of recounting all of this. You need to get paid to to this, you are so good at it.
Well, I don’t know about that as I’m certain you could have enhanced it with a heck of lot more considering you knew the background! :) Thanks to you and Ellen for asking us to go. Amazing trip, made all the more amazing due to the friends with whom we went.