Are you a tourist or are you a traveler? Do you already know what you want to experience or would you prefer to be surprised. Most, with only a couple of weeks vacation, understandably prefer the first option. In Mexico they head for the coastal resorts where they play and lounge at waters edge while they are treated like royalty. What they see is a facade that Mexico has created to conform to their desires.
There is another Mexico that greets the serious traveler. It is a place of extreme contrasts of dark and light offering expressions of sorrow and joy that pluck at our heart.
Consider this Purepecha woman, her skin as red as the earth, waving flies from her produce. Her black hair falls over a dark rebozo which is shot through with threads of electric blue. Seated amid a riot of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, her environment has changed much since the Conquest. There are plastic containers and the glint of chrome on parked trucks. But something of the ancient culture prevails. Her people, the majority as poor as dirt since the beginning of time, continue to practice elaborate ceremonies and to create objects and clothing of great beauty.
They are the descendants of a powerful empire the size of Switzerland that was never conquered by the Aztec, but they owe much of the survival of this culture and their traditional crafts to a man known affectionately as 'Tata Vasco'. At age sixty Don Vasco de Quiroga was dispatched by the King of Spain to minister to the survivors of the brutal Conquistador Nuño Beltran de Guzman.
For thirty years Don Vasco, a Franciscan and a Utopian, supervised the building of schools and hospitals, he re-established tribal councils and encouraged a demoralized people to integrate their traditional crafts into the emerging Spanish economy. Today the indigenous people of Michoacan are deemed the most skilled craftspeople in Mexico. They are also, arguably, the most prosperous.
Climbing a rocky trail on the edge of an escarpment we are gingerly walking the remnants of a processional causeway that linked the town of Ihautzio with pyramids that rise above the lake. Directly below us a man and his son are maintaining a steep field of maize. Beyond them, past stands of prickly pear and Joshua trees, a patchwork of fields declines towards the placid lake. Roosters crow and and a bull bellows from the direction of our lodgings in Rancho Santiago. Dark clouds brush the tops of distant peaks that encircle the lake. Electric bolts light the clouds and thunder rolls towards us across the placid waters. It's easy, in this context to sense the presence of the ancient gods.
Forty miles beyond these peaks rises the active volcano Paricutin. It's birth in 1943 , in a farmer's cornfield, makes it the youngest volcano in the America's. The mother of our host Arminda Flores recalled the volcanic ash raining, intermittently, down on Ihautzio during her childhood. On our last visit to the nearby city of Guanajuato we visited the childhood home of Diego Rivera This home, which is now a museum of his early work, displays a series of drawings he created after witnessing the eruption of Paricutin.
I will be leading a painting group to Guanajuato and Lake Patzcuaro for two weeks in early January 2010. For further information about this trip visit the "Classes" section of this website. Scroll down until you reach 'Outdoor Painting Classes around Lake Patzcuaro in Michoacan Mexico'. There is also a short video about our last trip.