May 022024
 

The text of “A Brief History of Ajijic,” by June Nay Summers (1916-2001), comes directly from her own 1993 booklet Lake Chapala Villages in the Sun. The full text of the article is on the web, and parts of it were paraphrased during a recent Open Circle presentation in Ajijic. But how accurate is her account of Ajijic’s history?

A Brief History of Ajijic (Ojo del Lago, December 2012)

A Brief History of Ajijic (Ojo del Lago, December 2012)

My critique of the article follows, with quotes from the original in red:

“Ajijic was settled by people who came from the north, and their origin is explained by a legend. There was a place far to the north called ‘Whiteness’, and, from its seven caves, seven tribes set out towards the south.”

Ajijic did not exist until 1531, when it was founded by Franciscan friar Martín de Jesús (or de la Coruña), who suggested to an indigenous group led by Xitomatl (later baptized Andrés Carlos) that they move their existing community to begin a new settlement, where water was more readily available, named Axixic [Ajijic].

Summers’ account echoes a local legend that these groups were descendants or offshoots of the Mexica people (forerunners of the Aztecs) who may have settled temporarily on the shores of Lake Chapala while en route from their ancestral homeland (Aztlan in the north) to found a new city, Tenochtitlan (where Mexico City stands today). The meaning of Aztlan is unknown, with ‘place of whiteness’ being only one of several possible alternative derivations. According to the legend, before living in Atzlan, the Mexica were one of the seven tribes occupying seven caves in a mythical place named Chicomoztoc.

Ethnoarchaeologist Dr Carolyn Baus Czitrom found that all the indigenous people living on the northern shore of Lake Chapala at the time of the conquest belonged to the Coca indigenous group, except for those living in San Juan Cosalá, Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan and Chapala, who were Caxcan. The origin of both groups, and their kinship (if any) with the Mexica, is unknown.

“These primitives lived on Chapala’s vast shores with no thought of founding permanent pueblos. Nor were they curious about their own origins, their forefathers or their names. Their vision of the world was simple. They were completely absorbed with the rendering of tribute to their gods. It was through, they thought, the pleasing of these deities that the sun shone and the rains fell on their land. Obtaining their daily sustenance was their primary reason for being.”

This culturally insensitive claim is conjectural and overly simplistic. There is no evidence, to the best of my knowledge, that these early settlers (whether Coca or Caxcan) “established complex barricades on the shores of this immense lake.” According to Czitrom’s research, the Coca did have multiple deities, but they also had a social structure and settlements, comprised of homes built using adobe, stones and wood. The Coca also crafted several kinds of rafts and boats.

“In 1522, the Olid Expedition reached the eastern shores of Lake Chapala. When they arrived, Captain Avalos met with little resistance. A royal grant gave joint ownership of the area to Avalos and the Spanish Crown.”

This is another immense simplification. The Olid Expedition, which reached the southern shores of Lake Chapala in about 1522, involved Fernando (sometimes Hernando) de Saavedra, the older brother of Alonso de Ávalos. Alonso de Ávalos did not arrive in New Spain until 1523. The two brothers were cousins of Hernán Cortés, who granted them (and a third relative who died shortly afterwards) the encomienda (the right to collect tributes and labor from indigenous inhabitants) for a large area, which included the southern shore of Lake Chapala, and later also the northern shore. After their partner’s death, the two brothers shared tribute payments from the encomienda. After Fernando died in 1535, his half-share reverted to the Spanish Crown. The encomienda system did not, strictly speaking, constitute either solo or joint ownership. The tributes supplied by Ajijic every 80 days consisted of blankets and items of clothing, cotton, fish and provisions.

“Close in Avalos’ (a cousin of Cortez) wake came other relatives of Cortez. One, by the name of Saenz, acquired almost all of the property that is now Ajijic…. By 1530, the Saenz property was one big hacienda. The principal crop was mezcal for making tequila. The hillsides were covered with mezcal plants and their soft blue-green blanketed hill and dale.”

Summers’ timeline is wildly inaccurate. No haciendas had been established in this area by 1530; Spanish settlement had barely got underway. Construction of the first Franciscan friary in Ajijic began in 1531, and the earliest haciendas in the surrounding region date from about a century later. There is no record of anyone named ‘Saenz’ ever owning any hacienda near Ajijic, though a Sebastian Sainz (note spelling) acquired the Hacienda El Cuije (which included land in and around Ajijic) in about 1900, following the murder of its former owner, Hans (‘Juan’) Jaacks. Sainz had no known familial connection to Hernán Cortés. Both Sebastian Sainz Peña (ca 1851-1927) and his wife, María Dolores Stephenson Zambrano (1869-1958) were born in Spain. They arrived in Mexico in the 1890s and quickly amassed an extensive property portfolio in Ajijic and Chapala.

According to most historians, tequila was not produced commercially until the 1700s, and the first exports of tequila (from anywhere in Mexico) were not until the 1870s. Agaves (mezcal plants) are not mentioned in distinguished naturalist Henri Galeotti’s comprehensive description of Lake Chapala’s geology, flora and fauna after his visit in 1837, or in Mariano Bárcena’s meticulous statistical account of Ajijic in 1888. [English translations of excerpts from Galeotti and Bárcena can be found in Lake Chapala Through The Ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]

If either Jaacks and/or Sainz pioneered the commercial cultivation of agaves in the Ajijic area, it was probably in the 1890s, though contemporaneous descriptions of Jaack’s production at the time of his death in 1896 mention cattle, oranges, bananas and coffee, but not agaves. There is no evidence that agave was ever their principal crop, or that “the hillsides were covered with mezcal plants.”

“Later, Franciscan missionaries visited the village and gave it a patron saint, San Andres (Saint Andrew). Royal land grants included the Indians who lived there. Franciscan Fray Sebastian de Parrago introduced the first oranges to Ajijic in 1562. Henceforth, the village was called ‘San Andres de Axixic.’ Its cobblestone streets-laid down during the days of Spanish rule-are still used today.”

Chronologically, this paragraph belongs centuries before any talk of haciendas or tequila. It also contains two significant inaccuracies. First, Franciscan accounts show that friar Sebastian de Parrago introduced the first oranges to the area in 1562, but to Chapala, not Ajijic. Secondly, there is zero evidence that Ajijic had any cobblestone streets prior to the very end of the nineteenth century or early years of the twentieth century.

“After the border wars (1910-29), the Saenz hacienda was split into many small holdings and all Mezcal cultivation ceased, as each Mezcal plant needs seven years to mature and only large estates can devote such acreage solely to growing plants.”

Hacienda El Cuije was owned by Sebastian Sainz for only a relatively short time, and there was never any large-scale tequila production in the Ajijic area, even when Sainz was the hacendado. Summers contradicts her own account in a later paragraph when she claims that “In the early 1920s, Mr. Ramirez, Mayor of Chapala, purchased the Saenz Hacienda.”

“During the Porfirian Era (1875-1910), Ajijic was isolated from Chapala by land. Their commerce with the resort town of Chapala, which was five miles away, was confined to an occasional cargo canoe touching down at the Saenz Hacienda for a load of tequila or coffee beans.”

This emphasis on tequila and coffee completely ignores the important mining activity that was already occurring in Ajijic by the end of the nineteenth century. Overland transport prior to 1910 was poor, and principally by horseback, but Ajijic was not “isolated from Chapala by land.”

“In the early 1920s, Mr. Ramirez, Mayor of Chapala, purchased the Saenz Hacienda. He re-named it Hacienda Tlacuache (The Opossum). The property is still owned by the Ramirez family and has, over the years, been sublet to various people.”

The building referred to by Summers was never an hacienda. It was a taberna—a small, subsidiary building which was part of Hacienda El Cuije. El Cuije’s main residence and buildings (of which nothing now remains) were situated a short distance northwest of Chapala (between a building currently numbered as Prolongación Lázaro Cárdenas #145 and the Chapala libramiento). The taberna was bought by Casimiro Ramirez (who was never Mayor of Chapala) and renamed ‘Hacienda El Tlacuache,’ but this was an honorific title, which did not imply any functional or economic status. In the 1930s it became an inn named Posada Ajijic; the building still belongs to members of the Ramirez Family.

Postcard (published by E Esteban) of Posada Ajijic, mailed in 1974.

Postcard (published by E Esteban) of Posada Ajijic, mailed in 1974.

“In 1925, Ajijic was discovered by European intellectuals and became a refuge for those fleeing political persecution after World War I. Louisa Heuer, a writer, and her brother Paul, were German refugees. They owned Casa Particular—a small inn overlooking the lake. Zara Alexeyewa, the great-granddaughter of Gideon Wells, Secretary of the Navy under President Abraham Lincoln—first came to Guadalajara in 1925 to dance at the Teatro Degollado. She was accompanied by her mother and adopted brother, Holger Mehner.”

This is a mix of fact and fantasy. The Heuers’ arrival had nothing to do with World War I, and there is no evidence that they were refugees or in Ajijic prior to 1933. On the other hand, Austrian count Alex von Mauch did purchase a lakefront property in Ajijic in 1928 (and other non-Mexicans are known to have purchased property in the village even earlier). Zara Alexeyewa (aka ‘La Rusa’) had no familial connection of any kind to Gideon Wells. Her dance partner’s surname was Mehnen, not Mehner. Zara and Holger first arrived in Guadalajara in 1924, and first performed in the city in 1925. They did not live in Ajijic until 1940.

“The trio had just finished a tour of Europe and South America where Zara and Holger had introduced ballet to that continent.”

Zara’s mother did not accompany the dance duo on their impromptu tour of South America. And there had been many many ballet performances of note in South America long before Zara and Holger ever set foot on the continent. For example, European ballets had first performed in Buenos Aires in the 1860s.

Summers later turns her attention to what she terms the Ajijic gold rush, paraphrasing a passage in the penultimate chapter of Neill James’ Dust on my Heart, where James reports (without stating any clear time frame) what she had been told by Paul (‘Pablo’) Heuer:

“In the mid-30s, three engineers, their curiosity aroused as to why a certain red hill (variously called Bald Mountain, Gold Mountain, or simply Quarry) was without growth when all others in the area were wooded, discovered gold in the hill.
Almost overnight the gold rush was on. Corn mills were transformed into gold mines. The women of the village reverted to hand-operated metates to pulverize corn for family tortillas. Farmers left their fields, fishermen dropped their nets, and trouble beset Ajijic as food became scarce. Neighbors quarreled. Murders and mayhem were rife.
Leaders in the gold rush were the ballet dancers, Zara and Holger, for they owned the best mine. Zara found life as a dancer tame, compared with gold mining. Armed with her “treasure finder,” Zara looked for gold, but found only trouble. One associate after another cheated her. The dream of gold began to fade.
There was gold in the hills, but not in sufficient quantity. The gold fever cooled. Men returned to their tiendas. Gold mills went back to grinding corn. Fishermen spread their nets again, and farmers re-plowed their land. The Ajijic gold rush had ended.”

As I explain in Foreign Footprints in Ajijic, gold mining in the hills behind Ajijic began much earlier than the “mid-30s,” and by 1885 there were already thirty silver and gold mines in Ajijic. Production peaked in the first decade of the twentieth century, with occasional short-lived revivals thereafter. Zara’s first investment in a mine in Ajijic was in 1925. The story about the three engineers may well be true, but with the very significant caveat that the reason why “a certain red hill (variously called Bald Mountain, Gold Mountain, or simply Quarry) was without growth when all others in the area were wooded,” was probably because it was the precise site, many years earlier, of a cyanide processing plant, installed by the largest mining company, which had poisoned the soil.

The remainder of Summers’ account is far less contentious, though I’ve never found evidence that the “Dane Chandos” book Village in the Sun ever won an award, and the lengthy excerpt from Sybille Bedford’s book The Sudden View (which Bedford openly admitted was fictional, not factual) has minimal relevance to the history of Ajijic.

Conclusion? “A Brief History of Ajijic” may be short and easy to read, but—in terms of history—it is hopelessly inaccurate.

The time has come for someone to write a more realistic short history of Ajijic.

Lake Chapala Artists & Authors is reader-supported. Purchases made via links on our site may, at no cost to you, earn us an affiliate commission. Learn more.

Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offers more details about the twentieth-century history of Ajijic.

References

  • Carolyn Baus de Czitrom. 1982. Tecuexes y Cocas. Dos grupos de la región de Jalisco en el siglo XVI. Mexico City: INAH.
  • Henri G Galeotti. 1839. “Coup d’oeil sur la Laguna de Chapala au Mexique, avec notes géognostiques.” Acad. Roy. Soc. Bruxelles, Bull., 6, pt 1: 14-19.
  • Mariano Bárcena. 1888. Ensayo estadístico del Estado de Jalisco. Gobierno de Jalisco.
  • June Nay Summers. “A Brief History of Ajijic.” El Ojo del Lago, December 2012.

Comments, corrections and additional material are welcome, whether via the comments feature or email.

  3 Responses to “Fact-checking “A Brief History of Ajijic””

  1. somehow something this off base should have some kind of notation to warn readers–I wonder if some things were just made up–wow–

  2. Hi Tony! Thanks for delving into June’s work. Is this tge sane piece that includes the gloriously and overly poetic description of Ajijic. I remember reading a booklet published by June in the 1990s that includes phrases that wax poetic like the mountains that extend to the lake and dabble their knees in the sunset hued water….Bless her heart. She tried really hard as she eased into dementia abd her husband Cidy supported her sll the way. I wish she had jyst recorded more if what really happened!

    • Yes, Judy, the full version (ie the booklet) has all kinds of lyrical descriptions, all of which would be fine if the basic history was accurate. Abrazos, Tony.

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