Nov 092023

We have looked previously at several excerpts from the journal written by Dr. Leo Leonidas Stanley (1886-1976) about his multi-day visit to Lake Chapala in October 1937.

Stanley and Alonzo (his traveling companion) had ridden on horseback around the western end of the lake to Tuxcueca; they crossed the lake back to Chapala on Wednesday 13 October 1937 aboard a gasoline-powered boat—“about forty feet long, fairly narrow, and made of metal.” During the trip, “One Mexican woman… busied herself with searching for little animals, or piojos, in the hair of her small infant. These, she would crack between her thumb nails.”

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

Leo Stanley. 1937 Hotel Arzapalo, Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of California Historical Society.

They checked into the Hotel Nido at about 2.30pm. “It was just around the corner from the Hotel Nido to the hot mineral baths. Here, we cleaned ourselves of the dusts of travel, and went back to the hotel, where comida, or lunch, was being served.”

After a siesta, they decided to walk to the top of Cerro San Miguel before their evening meal:

One narrow street led up a very steep incline to a table-land, and ascending this street was a small burro loaded with heavy adobe bricks. The animal was urged along by a dirty little Mexican boy, who appeared to be not more than eleven years of age, but who, in reality, was sixteen. His father was building a house on the mesa, and this lad was, with his burro, bringing up the material. On top of the level table-land, we searched the ground, and found many pieces of obsidian, or volcanic glass. It was from this material that the Ancients made their arrowheads and spears.”
. . .
We asked him about finding any idols, spearheads, or monos, as the Mexicans call the relics of the ancient Aztecs and Toltecs… We told the lad that if he could find some monos for us, we would give him money for them. Another Mexican, who came along while we were there, told us that down a little canyon at the base of the cerro, was a Mexican, named Ysidoro [Ed: correct spelling is Isidoro], who had found many of these idols.”
This night we did not go on top of the extinct volcano, which some of the natives said was haunted, or enchanted, but went clear around its base, and finally came to the hut of Ysidiro. This lad, perhaps twenty-five years of age, was a bright and intelligent Mexican, who was extremely cordial and friendly. He brought out to us a big box of heavy, stone idols, which he displayed with great joy. These idols were for the most part, figures of squatting deities, rather ugly and grotesque. Some were in the shape of turtles, horned toads, bears, and cattle.
Ysidoro was quite proud of the fact that numerous tourists had visited him and had written him letters which he displayed to me. One was from a poet, named Brynner [Bynner] Witter, a resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Ed: Some years later, after Witter Bynner bought a house in Chapala, he employed Isidoro as his housekeeper”] He also had a letter from Mrs W. F. Anderson, who lived in the Carmel Valley in Monterey, California. These people had all spent happy days in Chapala, and had been entertained by Ysidoro.
Mrs. Pulida [Pulido], Ysidoro’s wife, had, several weeks previously, given birth to a new baby, the fourth in the family, but she had developed a very severe inflammation of the bladder, and was lying quite ill in the hut. I promised Ysidoro that I would examine her the following day.”

After dinner, Stanley and Alonzo walked to the plaza:

This was well filled with people, who enjoyed spending the evening in the cool air. About the plaza were several cantinas and billiard halls. We visited some of these, and found that many of the Mexicans were playing and enjoying the evening…. Upon our return, we found that Maria, the chambermaid, had turned down our beds, and that the electric lights, which were supplied to the hotel by a gasoline dynamo, had been shut off and the motor quieted. We had to go to bed by candle light.”

The following morning, Thursday 14 October 1937, Stanley and Alonzo attended Mass before breakfast:

We heard the church bell ringing for Mass, and, looking into the tower, saw a youth ringing the heavy bell. We went into the church and stayed for Mass. Numerous women were walking on their knees from the entrance up to the altar, and every woman had on her mantilla, or head-covering. The church was highly decorated, and was well lighted with candles. The music and chanting was really very impressive.”

After breakfast they walked round to Ysidoro’s to ask him to help them search for idols. When they reached his home, they found that his wife was being cared for by a nurse, and that one of his friends was busy, “boiling, in a copper kettle over the wood fire, a mixture of cane sugar and milk. He was the candy-maker, and each night vended his wares in the plaza. He gave us some of his candy, which was really quite good.”

Ysidoro led them off, out of town, to hunt for idols:

With a crow-bar, pick and shovel, we started up around the base of the cerro…. Not far from the enchanted hill is a large mound which might prove to be an Aztec pyramid. There were numerous stones which had been brought in by the Ancients. These were probably foundations for some of their Temples.”
. . .
The plain up to the foot of the mountains was furrowed by small gullies and streams, some of which had flowing water. Almost all of this plain was under cultivation, growing crops of tomatoes, onions, chili, or corn. A few of the fields were ready for planting again. We encountered quite a number of Mexicans farming in the fields. To our inquiry regarding the human bones and idols, they usua1ly replied that they were “mas alla,” which means farther on. There were quite a number of out-croppings of limestone and shale. In some of these we found petrified wood, and in others perfectly preserved fossils of small ferns.

By noontime we had walked about three miles, and decided that we would rest under a mesquite bush. Here, we made a noonday meal of green onions and raw tomatoes. Ysidoro had brought along a few tortillas in his bolsa, or knapsack. … In another field… we found a number of scattered boulders, which evidently had been the markings of a grave. Ysidoro thought this was a likely place to dig. He and Alonzo worked like Trojans, and dug a hole in which one could have buried an ox, but the search was unproductive.”

On their walk back to Chapala they took a different route, looking for more likely digging places and found a number of human bones, two dozen beads and numerous pieces of ancient pottery, concluding that, “All through the hills were places where human beings had been buried, some of them perhaps hundreds of years ago, and others more recently.”

Stanley and Alonzo got back to town at about six o’clock and enjoyed a refreshing thermal bath before dinner. Among the other guests at the Hotel Nido were a couple with their two nieces: “young ladies of about twenty years of age.”

Stanley suggested that the nieces walk with them to the band concert in the plaza:

Of course, I asked the aunt and uncle first. They approved. One of the girls had come from Mexico City and there had studied English in a private school. As we walked about the plaza, she and I agreed that she should speak with me in English, and I would talk to her in Spanish, and in that way we would both get practica, or practice, in the language we desired. This was very excellent training for both of us, and we discussed many subjects. She spoke English slowly but correctly. There were many people in the plaza on this night. There was no light in the bandstand but the musicians played their instruments in the dark and really rendered very good music. Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening. There were a few girls on the loose. The Mexican boys, with their sombreros and serapes over their shoulders, would ogle them at times, and occasionally in passing would drop a few pinches of confetti on the girls’ heads. This, they all seemed to enjoy. Promptly at ten o’clock, tío and tía, or uncle and auntie, appeared on the plaza and told us that it was time for the girls to come in. This was, of course, entirely agreeable.”

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My 2022 book Lake Chapala: A Postcard History uses reproductions of more than 150 vintage postcards to tell the incredible story of how Lake Chapala became an international tourist and retirement center.


My heartfelt thanks to Frances Kaplan, Reference & Outreach Librarian of the California Historical Society, for supplying photos of Stanley’s account of his time at Lake Chapala. I am very grateful to Ms Kaplan and the California Historical Society for permission to reproduce the excerpts and photo used in this post.


Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcome. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

  One Response to “Dr Leo Stanley described searching for idols and attending a band concert in Chapala in 1937”

  1. thanks–wonderful read–I was able to glimpse that earlier era in the mid-1960s–but boy wish I had been able to experience the Mexico of that time–but alas–count my blessing to experience what did—look forward to these memories of older Mexico00

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