Apr 182024
 

When not writing about mariachi, historian Dr Álvaro Ochoa Serrano has dedicated much of his life to writing about Lake Chapala. His latest book, titled La Ciénega de Chapala, published in 2023, is an extraordinarily well-researched account of the history of the eastern end of Lake Chapala, told through four detailed and elegantly written case studies.

Alvaro-Ochoa-portada-1

The first, centered on the settlement near Jiquilpan named Tototlán (Totolán), walks readers through its development from early colonial times, with an accessible account of how the population, land tenure and economy were influenced by demographic factors, disease, banditry, land transfers and disputes, against a backdrop including the numerous political upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The second part, about how the War of Independence played out in the wider region, provides an insightful analysis of the insurgents’ defense of Mezcala Island, and of how the war impacted the existing haciendas and settlements east and south of the lake.

Guaracha, the largest of these haciendas, is the subject of the book’s third part, which looks at the changing and sometimes violent relationships between the hacienda and its neighboring settlements from the mid-nineteenth century to modern times. Guaracha lost its proximity to the lakeshore after the first decade of the twentieth century, when the eastern end of the lake was drained for agricultural use.

The fourth part is a masterful account of the area around Briseñas, Buenavista, Cumuato and Maltaraña, haciendas on a deltaic area formed, over thousands of years, by the Río Lerma where it enters the lake. This section skillfully incorporates details of land transactions, ownership, and reclamation while explaining the significant influence of the Castellanos family in the nineteenth century, and the short-lived meteoric rise to political power of Manuel Cuesta Gallardo at the end of the Porfiriato.

Ochoa is a consummate, award-winning historian. His text includes detailed footnotes, a selection of photographs and maps, an extensive bibliography and a full index for names of people and places. His books are available via Spanish-language bookstores and online via http://www.libreriacolmich.com/ amazon.com.mx and bookstore sites such as https://www.gandhi.com.mx (tip: search using “Alvaro Ochoa Serrano”)

La Ciénega de Chapala: un cuarteto de textos a flote is currently available only in Jiquilpan and in Morelia:
– Jiquilpan: Librería del Portal frente a la Plaza; and from Tere Sánchez, Unidad Académica de Estudios Regionales de la UNAM (9 to 3, and 5 to 7).
– Morelia: Librería “La Galaxia de Gutenberg,” calle Ortega y Montañez, casi esquina con Martínez de Lejarza en el barrio de Capuchinas.

Book: Álvaro Ochoa Serrano. 2023. La Ciénega de Chapala: un cuarteto de textos a flote. Tlalpujahua: Editorial Morevalladolid.

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.

Chapter 6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History is an English-language account of some of the major changes that occurred in this general area during the twentieth century.

Comments, corrections or additional material are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.

Mar 142024
 

While trawling through the archives of the Guadalajara Reporter many years ago, I stumbled across a one-line reference to the German-born film producer Hans Oppenheimer. Anita Lomax, the weekly newspaper’s Ajijic correspondent, commented in 1964 that “Hans Oppenheimer, writer and poet” had just left Ajijic for a visit to Mexico City.

Oppenheimer-title-page

Earlier that year, Oppenheimer’s short story “The Value of the Ear” had been published in the Spring issue of the prestigious Southwest Review. In the introduction to that issue, the editor noted the wide range range of locations from which material had come, including Oppenheimer’s which had been submitted from “Ajijic, Jalisco, Mexico.”

Interestingly, several other Lake Chapala-based authors had work published in Southwest Review, including Paul Alexander Bartlett, Willard “Butch” Marsh, and Witter Bynner, whose “Beach at Chapala” was published by the magazine in 1947.

Oppenheimer’s “The Value of the Ear” is a moralistic tale of a young shoeshine boy, Pedro, who is desperately striving to keep his family afloat in the face of poverty and deprivation. Pedro explains to his family that an eccentric ‘gringo’ has just given him five pesos to take the day off, and has promised that “if you will cut off your ear, so I can see it, I will give you a thousand pesos.”

The upside of this barbaric self-mutilation would be acquiring the means to buy a bicycle—enabling Pedro to sell newspapers—and also pay for his sister to get married and have “a good house, with room for pigs in the back.”

Before and after his decision, Pedro seeks advice from the local butcher and the local Padre. While the village is never named—and no clues offered about its location—the setting can readily be imagined as Ajijic or one of its neighboring lakeside communities.

According to an online movie database, Hans Oppenheimer was born in Berlin, Germany, on 25 April 1892, and died in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 19 August 1965. He produced several movies, including Wir Kellerkinder (1960), So toll wie anno dazumal (1962), Ich kann nicht länger schweigen (1962), Stop Train 349 (1963), Code Name: Jaguar (1965), and The Thief (1966).

As I tried to find out more about his life and writing career, I ran into an unexpected roadblock. Hans Oppenheimer is credited as a co-author of “An Evening With Robert Burns,” released by Columbia records in 1956, and featuring the Saltire Singers. According to a normally reliable music reference site, “The Saltire Music Group was a Scottish chamber music ensemble based in Edinburgh and co-founded in 1950 by composer and violinist Isobel Dunlop (1901—1975) and German opera conductor Hans Oppenheim (1892—1965).”

However, its biography of the distinguished musician and conductor Hans Oppenheim (not Oppenheimer) gives precisely the same birth and death dates as the movie database attributes to Hans Oppenheimer the producer.

Are Hans Oppenheim and Hans Oppenheimer one and the same person, or are they two different individuals whose biographical details have somehow become confused?

Please get in touch if you can help sort this out this mini-mystery!

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.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 16 July 1964, 8.
  • Hans Oppenheimer. 1964. “The Value of the Ear,” Southwest Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring 1964), pp 174-178.

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

Feb 012024
 

In 1901, José de Olivares—author, poet and US diplomat—wrote a newspaper column about his adventures when visiting Lake Chapala. The column has several geographical inconsistencies which suggest that the author may have slightly embellished his real life experiences for dramatic effect. And an unfortunate editing typo resulted in the title of the piece being printed as “Mexico’s Beautiful Island Sea,” instead of “Mexico’s Beautiful Inland Sea,” the sentiment expressed in its final sentence.

Jose-de-Olivares-Title

Olivares opens his column by explaining how he first saw Lake Chapala after a week riding in the mountains south of Guadalajara hunting for wild goats, assisted by an invaluable but thieving mozo to look after their pack animals. Uncertain of their location, late one afternoon, as the sun was setting, they gained the crest of a high ridge and spotted “a vast sheet of water which stretched away from the range of hills… like a placid, billowless sea.”

Olivares is pleasantly surprised: “I had heard of this lake before… [but] my most generous ideas had pictured it as little more than a duck pond, and now it was revealed to me as a majestic inland sea.”

The two men rode down to the shore and bivouaced for the night near where the River Lerma empties into the lake. Olivares learns from his mozo that “at Chapala… some 60 miles to the westward, I could secure marine transportation facilities in any form from a canoe to a modern steamboat.” The following morning, Olivares set off at a gallop for the village of Chapala, leaving the mozo to follow at a more leisurely pace. He finally reached Chapala, after an enjoyable and scenic ride through beautiful agricultural country:

Just at dusk the picturesque little pueblo of Chapala came into view, the tall, white spires of its ancient cathedral silhouetted against the green foothills in the background. This quaint hamlet contains but a few hundred inhabitants, yet its magnificent sanctuary would be a credit to a city many times its size. There is no public inn at the place, and I availed myself for the night of the hospitality proffered me by one of the native residents.”

As a Navy man, Olivares very much wanted to hire a boat to explore the lake, but discovered that all the local boats were on the other side of the lake in Tizapan el Alto, which was celebrating a fiesta. Walking along the shore, he discovered:

“a dilapidated old shallop, long since consigned to “rotton row,” as naval parlance goes, but which I immediately set about to make sea-worthy. I calked her many seams as best I could, stepped a mast forward in her bow, and fashioned a rude pair of oars and broad sweep aft, in lieu of the regulation steering-gear.”

As soon as the mozo and cargo arrived and the boat was loaded, they set sail for Tizapan, where they spent the night. The following morning they set out for Jiquilpan. (Following the embankment and draining of the easternmost third of the lake in the first decade of the twentieth century, Jiquilpan is now far removed from the lakeshore.)

The first few hours of their trip towards Jiquilpan went smoothly, but in the early afternoon the wind suddenly changed direction, whipped up the waves, and threatened to blow them miles off course. “The mozo had completely lost his head and was upon his knees in the bow wildly crossing himself and calling upon his patron saint for deliverance,” when the boat capsized, throwing both men into the water. They managed to scramble onto the overturned keel of their vessel, but were well out of sight of any land.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, “a shrill whistle sounded close at hand” and they saw that a “small steamer was wallowing and diving toward us.” They were welcomed aboard and generously cared for by the captain, “who had sighted us by accident,” and a mere two hours later were safely back in Chapala, setting foot once again on terra firma.

The column is illustrated by three photographs, with the captions “On the river bank,” “Ancient Cathedral by the lakeside,” and “A country seat on Lake Chapala.” These photos are not known to have ever been published elsewhere, so they may well have been taken by Olivares himself.

"A country seat on Lake Chapala"

“A country seat on Lake Chapala”

José de Olivares

The writer and Spanish-American War veteran best known as José de Olivares was born as Jesse Scott Oliver in Oxford, Ohio, on 26 November 1867. Olivares himself, much later in life, claimed on a passport application to have been born as José de Olivares (with the same November birth date) on his father’s estate in southern California.

According to Prabook (an unreferenced online Wiki for biographies), Olivares’s education included classes at the Liceo de Varones (Boys’ High School) in Guadalajara, as well as in business college and at the Berlitz School of Modern Languages.

As Jesse Scott Oliver, he enlisted in the US Navy at Mare Island in California in 1886, at the age of 18, while still technically a minor, and without “the consent of his parents or guardians,” an enlistment was contested unsuccessfully in a legal action the following year. Oliver (Olivares) was a member of the California National Guard (1884-1886), the United States Navy (1886-1893, and in the Spanish-American War of 1898), and the California Naval Reserve (1894-1896).

In 1897, “Jesse Scott Oliver… Los Angeles, Cal. deputy sheriff” was indicted in New York for attempted assault on a 15-year-old girl whom he had met at Coney Island. His counsel argued that he had done so while intoxicated, had since lost his job (and according to one account attempted to take his own life), and asked the judge for clemency. Oliver got off lightly with a fine of $150.

This event may have been the impetus to change his name and make a fresh start. From about this time, he used the name José de Olivares, perhaps to suggest a more personal Latin American background for his writing than the truth.

Olivares married Bertha Lillian Owen in Los Angeles on 2 November 1895, with whom he had two children, both born in California: Leonore Constance de Olivares (born in 1897) and Caspar Louis de Olivares (1901). His wife died when Caspar was only 3 years old, a few weeks after returning to San Francisco from Panama in October 1906. The following January, Olivares (stationed in Panama at the time) gave his marital status as “widower” when he applied for a passport for himself and his children. The following month he married Nicaraguan-born Maria Teresa Ramírez y Jerez.

All of Olivares’ writing for US newspapers was either non-fiction or poetry. The subjects of his columns, some of them syndicated, included “California’s Curio Industry,” “Mescal. A Story of the Southwest,” Mexico’s War with the Yaqui Indians,” and “Daniel Boone’s Western “Palatinate.”

His best known work by far was Our Islands and Their People, published in two large format volumes by Thompson Publishing Company in 1899. This book, lavishly illustrated with hundreds of photographs and numerous color plates, gave readers detailed accounts of the lifestyles, customs and landscapes of the islands ‘acquired’ by the US following the war of 1898, including Cuba, Hawaii, and the Philippines.

Olivares was a correspondent for the 1900 Paris Exposition, and was made an official representative of the Saint Louis Exposition at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo (1901). He won medals for his work as Commissioner of the Saint Louis Exposition to Spain, Portugal and Latin-American countries (1902-1903) and as Commissioner to the Argentine Republic for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (1904).

In 1906, Olivares was appointed US consul at Managua, Nicaragua; he also served in consular positions at Madras, India (1911-1914), Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (1915-1924), Kingston, Jamaica (1924-1929), and Leghorn, Italy (1929-1932).

Olivares retired on 30 November 1932, and died a decade later in Santa Barbara, California, on 30 September 1942.

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.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • José de Olivares. 1901. “California’s Curio Industry.” The San Francisco Call, 7 March 1901, 4.
  • José de Olivares. 1901. “Mexico’s Beautiful Island Sea” (Typo for Inland Sea). Atlanta Constitution, 2 June 1901, 9.
  • Los Angeles Herald: 17 April 1901, 11.
  • Nebraska Legal News: 2 September 1905.
  • Santa Barbara News Press: 1 October 1942, 1.
  • The Brooklyn Daily Eagle: 5 August 1897.
  • The San Francisco Call, 6 August 1897.

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

Dec 212023
 

Carl Sophus Lumholtz (1851–1922), born in Lillehammer, Norway, was a scientist, traveler and anthropologist in the generalist Humboldtian tradition. After graduating from the Theology department of the University of Christianía in Oslo, Lumholtz went to Australia as a naturalist. While living with cannibalistic aborigines in northern Queensland, he became fascinated by the study of primitive peoples, and spent the rest of his life enthralled by the anthropology and ethnology of native tribes in many different parts of the world.

Lumholtz-CoverLumholtz made six separate trips to Mexico, with the express purpose of studying indigenous people and their beliefs and customs. This approach was in stark contrast to that adopted by previous travelers, who had tended to regard the contributions of native Indians to the overall picture of life and work in Mexico as relatively insignificant.

His visits were supported by generous, wealthy patrons, as well as by the American Geographical Society and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Helped by letters of introduction from politicians in Washington, Lumholtz was able to obtain logistical support from President Porfirio Díaz, who Lumholtz considered to be “not only a great man on this continent, but one of the great men of our time.” Díaz helped organize a translation of Lumholtz’s work into Spanish. This was published, in 1904, only two years after the original English edition.

Lumholtz first entered Mexico with a team of some thirty scientists, with specializations ranging from geography to physics and from botany to mineralogy, and 100 horses. By the fourth trip, he had abandoned the team approach in favor of traveling alone, since this allowed him to explore some of the remotest parts of north and west Mexico, and live for extended periods of time with isolated Indian tribes. His respectful, patient attitude allowed him to gain the confidence of his hosts, and be permitted to take some of the earliest known photographs of them and their activities.

He was particularly impressed by the Indians’ practical skills:

“In all kinds of handicraft, for instance, in carving on stone, wood, and so forth, the ancient people of Mexico have no equal today for accuracy of execution and beauty of outline.” His sense of priorities is perhaps summed up best by his statement that he felt he had to protect the “Indians from the Mexicans, the Mexicans from the Americans”.

To his eternal regret, Lumholtz’s work in Mexico was interrupted by the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and he felt forced to turn his attentions to other parts of the world, including India, Borneo and south-east Asia.

A prolific author, with dozens of works to his credit, Lumholtz died in 1922 while planning a research trip to New Guinea.

Unknown Mexico is an account of Lumholtz’s first four trips to Mexico, representing a total of five years in the country between 1890 and 1900. Even today, it remains a classic of anthropological literature. Illustrated with dozens of drawings and photographs, it provides a wealth of detail about the lifestyles, customs, native remedies, music and beliefs of some of the indigenous tribes.

This illustration from Unknown Mexico shows the excavation of ancient jars near Atoyac (a short distance west of Lake Chapala):

Lumholtz. Unknown Mexico, vol 2, opposite page 318

Lumholtz. Unknown Mexico, vol 2, opposite page 318.

The book includes drawings of two ceremonial hatchets “used at sacred sites” and found in the “neighbourhood of Chapala”:

Lumholtz: Two ceremonial hatchets found near Chapala

Lumholtz: Two ceremonial hatchets found near Chapala

I made also an excursion to the beautiful lake of Chapala, the largest sheet of fresh water in Mexico, fifty miles long and from fifteen to eighteen broad. Its name is Nahuatl, which should really be Chapalal, in onomatopoetic imitation of the sound of the waves playing on the beach. The stage runs to a small village of the same name, lying on the shore, where some pretty country houses have been built.

In this lake, especially at its western end, are found great quantities of ancient, roughly made, diminutive jars, and a number of other objects. Near the village of Axixic (Nahuatl, “Where water [atl] pours forth”) the people make a business of diving for them, threading them on strings, and selling them to visitors to the village of Chapala. I gathered several hundreds of them, and the supply seemed inexhaustible. No one knows when or why they were thrown into the lake. Most likely they were votive offerings to the deity of this water, to secure luck and health and other material benefits.

Lumholtz. Unknown Mexico, Illustration from Vol 2, page 357

Lumholtz. Unknown Mexico. Illustration from Vol 2, page 357

Note: This is based on chapter 48 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages: An Anthology of Travelers’ Tales.

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.

Sources

  • Carl Sophus Lumholtz. 1902. Unknown Mexico. 2 vols. 1973 reprint: New Mexico: Rio Grande Press.
  • Luis Romo Cedano. “Carl Lumholtz y el México desconocido.” Ch. 13 of Ferrer Muñoz, Manuel (coordinator) La Imagen del México Decimonónico de los Visitantes Extranjeros: ¿Un Estado nación o un Mosaico Plurinacional? Mexico: UNAM, Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, Serie Doctrina Jurídica, Núm. 56.

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

Nov 232023
 

Bertha Kaiser was the third wife of Swiss printer and shopkeeper Juan Kaiser, who—in addition to selling accounting books and ledgers via his store “Al Libro de Caja” in Guadalajara—also published beautiful early postcards of Chapala and Guadalajara featuring the work of such distinguished photographers as José María Lupercio and Winfield Scott.

Front cover of "Mein Rind. Tagebuch der Mutter" (Bertha Kaiser's diary)

Bertha’s diary, written in German in the first quarter of the twentieth century, was unknown outside her immediate family until relatively recently. Excerpts of the diary were published in 2012 as Tagebuch Von Bertha Kaiser-Peter Fur Ihren sohn Hans Paul Kaiser.

The diary contains frequent references to the members of the small Swiss community in Guadalajara, most of whom had close friendships and ties to the much larger German community in the city.

While the diary is mostly about the family’s experiences in Guadalajara and an extended trip to the US (via train to Manzanillo and steamer to California), there are some significant Chapala links scattered through the diary.

The excerpts begin in mid-1912 when Bertha and Juan’s son, Hans-Paul, was born in Guadalajara. Following his baptism, a celebration for family and friends was held at the Hotel Cosmopolita, before the Kaisers returned to their home in Jardines Seattle.

The Hotel Cosmopolita had been owned until a few years previously by German-born Francisco Fredenhagen (1849-1932), a close friend of the Kaisers, who, in about 1900, built one of the earliest weekend ‘cottages’ in Chapala at (or very near) the property which now has the address of Avenida Hidalgo #260.

Fredenhagen was a partner in a Mexico City brewery (“La Compañia Cervecera Limitada”) when he bought the Hotel Cosmopolita in 1885 and moved to Guadalajara. One of Fredenhagen’s grandchildren later married into the Seimandi family, which included one of the early managers of Chapala’s emblematic hotel—the Hotel Arzapalo—which opened in 1898. This marriage was very much in the tradition of the time that influential families consolidated their status and wealth through intermarriage.

In the mid 1890s, Fredenhagen drew anthropologist Frederick Starr’s attention to the many little pottery objects found in and around Lake Chapala, about which Starr subsequently wrote a short monograph. Fredenhagen also informed Starr about a “dwarf race” living in the hills near Ajijic, which the anthropologist planned to investigate with the assistance of Archbishop Gillow. Gillow is a particularly interesting figure in Mexican history; his story is told in Mexican Kaleidoscope: myths, mysteries and mystique.

After Fredenhagen sold the Hotel Cosmopolita in 1909, he announced plans to move to Chapala where he and his wife owned a cottage, before retiring to Germany. Events in Europe apparently caused them to rethink that idea; Fredenhagen died in Guadalajara in 1932, and his wife died there eight years later.

Members of Kaiser family in Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Members of Kaiser family in Chapala. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Bertha’s diary records a visit to stay with the Fredenhagens in Chapala in April 1915. Paraphrasing Bertha’s text, on February 17th the family celebrated Juan’s birthday quietly at home. Juan was not feeling well (he had a chronic illness), and they were invited to visit the Fredenhagens at Lake Chapala. They left Guadalajara on April 15th in a privately hired stagecoach (diligencia), pulled by “five lively mules” over the “sometimes very bumpy roads.” It took seven hours, but “the beautiful journey” was a “reminder of how people made long journeys in stagecoaches before the coming of the railroad.”

They spent a month with the Fredenhagen family. Bertha and Juan took a pleasant walk in the mountains every morning, before having a swim, a leisurely lunch and a siesta. They took a row boat out in the late afternoon. After dinner, they entertained themselves playing jazz.

Hans-Paul (“Juanito”) and his nanny also had a good time at Chapala. Juanito played every day on the sandy beach, bathed, and loved his time in Chapala, especially after one of his Guadalajara friends arrived with her parents.

Group at Casa Nigg, Chapala, August 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Group at Casa Nigg, Chapala, August 1922. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Bertha recognized that Chapala was facing a difficult time. While the lake and its shores were as beautiful as ever, the unrest in the country had led to everything being neglected: “The beautiful private villas are mostly uninhabited, the hotels are poorly maintained. In former quiet times people flocked to Chapala from everywhere.” When the trip came to an end, they returned to Guadalajara by stagecoach, “taking the most beautiful memories home with us. Mr. & Mrs. Fredenhagen were such dear hosts.”

In the summer of 1915, the Kaisers undertook an arduous journey to California to combine having a family holiday with seeking specialist medical advice.

“It was a terrible journey to Colima…. It is one of the most dangerous routes in the world, wonderfully romantic in quiet times, but in revolutionary times the line was usually out of order, the trains in terrible condition, it was a horrible ride and ridiculed any description.”

Manzanillo was even worse: “The heat was unbearable, the mosquitoes plagued the children, particularly, day & night, bad food, nothing to drink.” About 40 people from Guadalajara were waiting in the port for the steamer “Peru” to San Francisco. After several days, the steamer finally arrived and the nine day journey to San Francisco was underway.

Bertha’s diary covers their California trip in considerable detail, including Juan’s chance meeting at a German music festival in Los Angeles with a fellow postcard publisher, “Mr Ruhland, an old friend whom he hadn’t seen in 12 years.” Emil Ruhland and his partner, Max Ahlschier, founded Ruhland & Ahlschier, the first company in Mexico permitted to publish and market illustrated postcards, in 1897. After selling the company in about 1903, Ruhland had moved to the US.

The Kaisers’ return home to Guadalajara is also described in great detail in Bertha’s diary. From Manzanillo, the “extra train” which arrived to take them to Guadalajara, “didn’t have passenger wagons but only freight wagons. Awful was the ride on this old railroad train that was fueled by wood… [with] the biggest rain of sparks, which was especially bad for the eyes when going fast.” To add insult to injury, Juan’s personal suitcase, containing clothes, cash and business notes, was stolen.

The dangerous stretch between Colima and Guadalajara lasted two days and a night. All too visible in the barranca below at one point were the wrecked locomotives and passenger cars from a train accident in which hundreds of people had died.

Unfortunately, Juan never recovered from his illness and died early the following year (1916). Given the uncertain future for the business, most employees resigned. Fortunately, with the assistance of a business administrator, Emil Keller, the company remained in operation while Bertha negotiated its sale to Juan’s brother, Arnoldo.

The following year, Keller asked Bertha to marry him. Bertha, greatly conflicted but wanting the best for her 5-year-old son, said ‘Yes” and the couple were married in a small civil ceremony at Bertha’s home on 24 October 1917. The newly weds left Juanito with his nanny, and drove to Chapala for a two week honeymoon.

After a week of wondering every day how Juanito was doing, “my husband decided to go back to Guadalajara and bring the little one to me as a surprise, which of course made me very happy… Now we could stay peacefully another week and enjoy the beautiful place.”

Bertha and her husband became accustomed to spending part of every summer in Chapala. Several photos in the diary provide glimpses into the social life of Bertha and her friends. In 1922, for example, Bertha was at the farewell party for the retiring Swiss consul, Juan Nigg. Nigg invited the entire Swiss community for a steamer ride on the lake and lunch at his lakeside home. (Nigg’s successor as consul was Dr Sutter, director of the Faculty of Medicine at the Autonomous University of Guadalajara, who also had a home in Chapala.)

Silver wedding of Sres Jochimsen, Chapala, November 1922. Photo by José Edmundo Sánchez. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Silver wedding of Sres Jochimsen, Chapala, November 1922. Photo by José Edmundo Sánchez. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

In that same year, Bertha and Emil attended the silver wedding celebration in Chapala of Mr and Mrs Jochimsen. The group photo showing the invitees was taken by Chapala-born photographer José Edmundo Sánchez, whose postcards of Chapala are an invaluable source of social history.

The diary also includes this photo of the Lehmann family posing on the beach at Chapala.

The Lehmann family at Chapala. c 1925. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

The Lehmann family at Chapala. c 1925. Reproduced by kind permission of Verena Kaiser-Ernst.

Not long after the period described in the diary, Bertha and her family left Guadalajara to live in Switzerland.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Hans-Martin Kaiser and Verena Kaiser-Ernst for bringing this valuable diary to my attention, and for graciously allowing me to reproduce the photos used in this post.

Help needed

Verena Kaiser-Ernst, editor of Bertha Kaiser’s diary, is interested in having the diary translated from German to Spanish for possible publication in Guadalajara. The book has approximately 20,500 words of text and about 40 photo captions. Please contact me if this is a project that appeals to you!

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.

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

Sources

  • Verena Kaiser-Ernst. 2012. Tagebuch Von Bertha Kaiser-Peter Fur Ihren sohn Hans Paul Kaiser. Stuttgart: T H Schetter.
  • La Tierra: 1 June 1901, 125.
  • The Mexican Herald: 28 June 1909, 11.
  • The Two Republics: 13 Jan 1885, 4.

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

Oct 122023
 

With the exception of Bernardo de Balbuena’s mention of Chapala in his epic poem “El Bernardo,” (written between 1592 and 1602 and published in Madrid in 1624), one of the earliest literary mentions of Lake Chapala is in a story by Andrew Grayson published in 1870. Grayson, an ornithologist, rarely wrote fictional pieces and is far better known for his non-fiction natural history articles, published in numerous US magazines and newspapers in the first half of the nineteenth century.

William Jewett. 1850. Portrait of Andrew and Frances Grayson, and their son, in California. (Terra Foundation for American Art).

In “Ixotle,” posthumously published, the author made good use of his knowledge of Western Mexico, and describes how he is making “collections of Ornithology” when he encounters an elderly local priest who turns out to have an extensive knowledge of the birds of Western Mexico. The priest recounts a local legend explaining why the Tres Marias islands, a birding hotspot, were never settled. The legend revolves around the God of the Storms of the Sea, Tlaxicoltetl, and a beautiful, intelligent 16-year-old girl, Ixotle (“blooming flower”), who has been chosen by her people to be sacrificed to their ancient gods. The girl refuses and prophesies that:

a people with white faces and long, red beards are coming — they are already on the march. They carry in their hands the lightning and the thunder, with which they will demolish your great temples. They are sent by the true God. Not a stone will be left; and on their sites will be erected white temples—the pure temples of the true and only God. Beware, then, and let this be the last of human sacrifice!”

One short section of the story relates directly to Lake Chapala:

From this locality [San Blas] a large, well-beaten trail extended through Tepic on to where Guadalajara now stands, and where then stood a large city, which was called Chapala.

The lake near Guadalajara is still known by that name; and the Indians found near its borders, who yet live in a semi-barbarous state, are called to this day Chapalo Indians, and are a very degraded, thieving race. But previous to the conquest, they were a numerous and industrious people—well skilled in the manufacture of articles of utility. Cotton cloths, both coarse and fine, were largely manufactured by them, as also various kinds of pottery; and their dressed deer-skins were of a superior quality. These kinds of goods were bartered with the Tepic Indians for fish, pearls, etc.

Their principal town was where the beautiful city of Guadalajara now lifts its numerous church-spires proudly over the once heathen temples of human sacrifice. It was then a large city, and continues to be second only to the Capital.”

Click here for the full text of “Ixotle.”

Andrew Grayson. Green Parakeet. (Image believed to be in public domain)

Andrew Grayson. Green Parakeet (a Mexican endemic). Image believed to be in public domain.

Andrew Jackson Grayson was born in Louisiana in 1819 and died in Mazatlan in 1869. A sickly child, he spent most of his childhood roaming the countryside, watching and drawing local birds and other wildlife. As an adult, after failing to run a store profitably in Louisiana, he married Frances Jane Timmons in 1842 and two years later the couple moved to St. Louis, in preparation for the overland trek west to California. They arrived in California in October 1846, where Grayson bought several lots in San Francisco and the surrounding area.

Seeing an exhibition of bird paintings by James John Audubon in San Francisco in 1853 reignited Grayson’s childhood passion for drawing birds. Grayson became a self-taught painter and taxidermist, working first in San Jose, then Tehuantepec, Mexico (1857), and the Napa Valley (1859) before moving to Mazatlán where he owned a general store and began working towards a book he envisaged titled “Birds of the Pacific Slope.”

Grayson spent the next decade submitting articles, mostly about natural history, to a number of newspapers and magazines in California and Mexico. He also supplied the Smithsonian Institution with birds and bird biographies. Despite making exhaustive efforts to find a sponsor for his book on Pacific Slope birds, the work remained unfinished when Grayson died of “coast fever” in Mazatlán in 1869. Shortly after, his wife returned to California, where she later remarried.

156 of Grayson’s stunning bird paintings were eventually published in a collectors’ edition by Arion Press in 1986, accompanied by a detailed biography of the ornithologist-artist.

An archive of Andrew Jackson Grayson papers and paintings is held by The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

Sources

  • Andrew J. Grayson. 1870. “Ixotle.” Overland Monthly, vol. V, #3, (Sept 1870), 258-261.
  • Anon. Guide to the Andrew Jackson Grayson Papers, 1844-1901. The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
  • Robert J. Chandler. 2011.”Andrew Jackson Grayson: The Birdman was a traitor.” The California Territorial Quarterly. #88 (Winter 2011), 46-51.
  • Lois Chambers Stone. 1986. Andrew Jackson Grayson: Birds of the Pacific Slope: A Biography of the Artist and Naturalist, 1818-1869. Arion Press.
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.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary community in Ajijic.

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

Apr 272023
 

Frederic Jennings Haskin was born 1873 in Shelbina, Missouri. With only the most rudimentary formal education, his first job, at the age of ten, was as housekeeper for a weekly publication called Torchlight. Many years later, Haskin became its publisher, and a correspondent with papers such as the St. Louis Globe Democrat and the Kansas City Star. In the course of his career, Haskin traveled very widely, reporting on the sights and sounds of places as diverse as the Yukon and Japan, though it is unknown whether or not he ever saw Lake Chapala with his own eyes.

Haskin wrote several books, including The American Government (1912); The Immigrant: an Asset and a Liability (1913); The Panama Canal (1913); 5000 New Answers To Questions (1933); and The American Government Today (1935). But he was best known for an information column that appeared in The Star and more than 100 other newspapers, where, aided by a team of researchers, he answered readers’ questions, more than 25 million in total according to some estimates.

Haskin title page

So, how did Haskin describe Lake Chapala? In 1916 he wrote that it was:

a shallow and uncertain body of water, given to sudden bursts of wrath without warning, rising suddenly in storm under the whip of a squall, and making life miserable for the Mexican fishermen in their little open boats.

They are poor sailors, anyway, and their methods would awaken the contempt of a Gloucesterman, but they continue to fish in spite of the danger, contenting themselves with a preliminary prayer in their little village church, and in burning a candle for the souls of those whom the squalls have overtaken.

All round about Chapala lies what was one of the rich districts of Mexico under the old regime.”

Then, after a brief discussion of how the hacienda system meant that most of the land was controlled by only a small number of people, Haskin commented on the impact of the Revolution:

Much of that old-time life had been swept away in the storms of revolution. The shores of Chapala are changing, passing through a time of stress that may lead to better things than the picturesque feudalism of yesterday. But the restless lake that saw the coming of the Aztecs and the Mayas, that watched the Spaniards take the land and is watching them lose it back to the Indians is ever the same. Under the moon it whispers its old secret to the pebbled beaches.”

Haskin, a charter member of the US National Press Club and its third president in 1912, died at his home in Washington, DC on 24 April 1944.

Sources

  • Frederic J Haskin. 1916. Buffalo Evening News, 27 Nov 1916.
  • National Press Club Archives. Finding Aid for the Frederic J. Haskin Collection (1911-1969).
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.

The 11 chapters of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History take a visual look at the lake’s past from many different perspectives.

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

Apr 132023
 

What was Ajijic like in 1967? Fortunately for us, that was the year when long-time journalist Ellis E. ‘Bill’ Reed reported from Ajijic on the status of the village’s sister city relationship with his home base of Studio City, California.

Reed, then the Executive Editor of the Valley Times in San Fernando, first highlighted the size difference between the two communities, explaining that Studio City had six times as many inhabitants as Ajijic, which he described as “a picturesque fishing village on beautiful Lake Chapala… now a community of 5,000.” He then explained to his readers how two Dane Chandos books—Village in the Sun and House in the Sun, both published in the 1940s—had introduced Ajijic to the English-speaking world: “Ajijic first gained fame as a Bohemian Center, but this has generally been replaced by a colony of serious writers and artists.”

Had this influx of foreigners had any impact on Ajijic? Reed noted that “Far from taking over the Americans have blended into the landscape and the only way you can tell their homes form those of the natives is by the screens on the windows. They have, however, brought in telephones and electricity.”

Valley-Times-26-Dec-1967

He also commented that “The bar at the Posada Ajijic is now in the earnest hands of former Hollywood producer Sherman Harris” and that “Climbing a hill at Chula Vista… is a Palm Springs-like subdivision of more than 100 lots, about 75 of them with occupied houses bearing names like ‘Dream’s End.’”

Photos accompanying Reed’s article illustrated a concert in a lakeshore park; fruit vendors, and two women cooking over an open fire on the beach.

images-Valley-Times-26-Dec-1967

Two of the images illustrating Bill Reed’s Valley Times article

The sister city program was one strand of the People-to-People initiative started by former US president Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. The executive board of People to People held a lunch meeting at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala in 1964, a meeting attended by Eisenhower’s son (John D. Eisenhower), Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos, former president Miguel Alemán, the Jalisco state governor Juan Gil Preciado, who listened to a keynote address by Walt Disney (who claimed “Jalisco” was his favorite song).

In writing about the sister city connection between Ajijic and Studio City, Reed recalled how a contingent of Studio City residents and merchants had traveled to Ajijic in 1964 and decided that their efforts should be concentrated in youth programs, where the need was greatest. Funds were raised in Studio City funds to help remodel the boys school in Ajijic and provide uniforms for a youth soccer team. The following year a ten-person delegation from Ajijic visited Studio City. The Studio City Chamber of Commerce sponsored a letter writing exchange between students of the twinned communities and helped initiate a daily school breakfast program for 200 children in Ajijic. See also:

Long after Reed’s visit, this sister city connection was still going strong. For example, in 1977, Studio City residents organized a donation of medical supplies, including adjustable hospital beds, examination tables and assorted operating room equipment for Ajijic’s first public health clinic. They also raised funds to speed up construction of the village’s first purpose-built secondary school, which opened in 1983.

And who was Bill Reed?

Bill Reed had edited several other publications before joining the Valley Times, including the Daily Star-Progress in Brea-La Habra and the Daily Independent in Corona. Prior to living in California, Reed had worked as an editor and public relations executive in New York, where he had also taught marketing classes at New York University.

In an unusual claim to fame, Reed directed the first postwar tour of the landing beaches and battlefields of France in 1946, following which the entire group was invited by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (Wallis Simpson) to visit their chateau on the French Riviera. Reed had also been secretary of the International Management Congress in Brussels and a consultant to the United Nations Economic and Social Council.

Though I have yet to locate any details, Reed also apparently wrote several plays, texts on marketing and a regular syndicated column, “Broadway to Main Street.”

Sources

  • Citizen-News, 24 April 1967, A-9.
  • Ellis E. (Bill) Reed. 1967. “Quaint Lake Community Wins Fame.” San Fernando Valley Times (North Hollywood, California), 26 Dec 1967, 14.
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 a detailed account of the history of Ajijic, focusing primarily on the great changes that occurred between 1940 and 1980.

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

Mar 302023
 

This year (2023) marks the centenary of D H Lawrence’s visit to Chapala, where he wrote Quetzalcoatl, the first draft of The Plumed Serpent. At some point in the trip, almost certainly en route to Chapala, Lawrence stayed at the Hotel Ribera Castellanos (located on the lakeshore between Ocotlán and Jamay). This hotel, often called simply Hotel Ribera, no longer exists, but has numerous literary claims to fame dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, when the property was owned by Ignacio Castellanos and his wife, poet Esther Tapia de Castellanos.

In The Plumed Serpent, Ocotlán became Ixtlahuacan (chapter V) and the Hotel Ribera Castellanos the Orilla Hotel (chapters V, VI).

“The hotel consisted of an old low ranch-house with a veranda — and this was the dining-room, lounge, kitchen, and office. Then there was a two-storey new wing, with a smart bathroom between each two bedrooms, and almost up-to-date fittings: very incongruous.

But the new wing was unfinished — had been unfinished for a dozen years and more, the work abandoned when Porfirio Diaz fled. Now it would probably never be finished.” (chapter V)

In the following chapter, Lawrence explained how the “Orilla, which had begun to be a winter paradise for the Americans” had suffered badly during the Revolution but that “In 1921 a feeble new start had been made” and “the hotel was very modestly opened again, with an American manager.” (chapter VI)

That American hotel manager (named Bell in chapter VI) was hotelier-photographer Winfield Scott, who had actually become manager of the Hotel Ribera in 1919. By the time of Lawrence’s visit, Scott had moved on to manage the Hotel Arzapalo in Chapala. When Lawrence and his wife rented a house in Chapala, their traveling companions—Witter Bynner and ‘Spud’ Johnson—took rooms at the Arzapalo. Scott needed little prompting to regale Lawrence and his friends with all kinds of stories of the old days.

Dwight Furness. c 1907. Hotel Ribera Castellanos. (Fig 6-6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History.)

Dwight Furness. c 1907. Hotel Ribera. (Fig 6-6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History)

But when and why was the Hotel Ribera first built? In 1902, American entrepreneur Dwight Furness, who had numerous business interests in Guanajuato, bought the estate from the Castellanos family. Having seen the obvious success of the purpose-built Hotel Arzapalo which opened its doors in Chapala in 1898, Furness envisioned an even grander resort hotel on this lakeside property near the main Mexico City-Guadalajara railroad line, alongside a modern “summer colony” of vacation homes for the wealthy. Plans were announced to add a health spa, golf links and bowling alley. Construction of the first homes and the Hotel Ribera began in 1904. One of the first to build a cottage close to the hotel was Arturo Braniff, from Mexico City, who also bought a much grander house, the Casa Pérez Verdía, in Chapala for his widowed mother.

The Hotel Ribera advertised with the the tagline, “The Riviera of Mexico” and claimed to be a “Sportsman’s Paradise.” It quickly became a highly desirable and popular destination, where all manner of politicians and celebrities would hob-nob over the next decade. Shortly after Furness added 60 more rooms in 1909, journalist Winifred Martin vacationed there; she remarked on the colorful flora and fauna and described the hotel as “picturesque and charming with lawns sloping steeply to the water’s edge… the long rambling building with its tiled roof fits well into the setting.”

When pioneering female travel writer Marie Wright, author of two non-fiction books about Mexico, visited in 1910, she lauded the Ribera as “a fine new hotel of modern equipment.” The following year, Juan Kaiser, the Swiss-born store owner and publisher (responsible for some of the finest early postcards of Chapala and Guadalajara) stayed at the hotel to recover from a relapse of malaria. Not long afterwards, veteran traveler writer Harry Franck arrived by boat from Chapala and stayed a couple of nights, before taking the hotel launch across the lake to La Palma to continue his herculean hike through Mexico.

In February 1911, prolific American children’s writer Emily Huntington Miller (1833-1913), who founded “The Little Corporal”—the first serial magazine for children published in the US—stayed at the Hotel Ribera.

In 1916, Janet M Cummings photographed Lake Chapala for National Geographic. Cummings was one of the first female photographers ever to have work published by that august magazine. She took the image titled “Water carriers at Lake Chapala” in Ocotlán, presumably during a short stay at the Hotel Ribera.

When the Mexican Revolution prompted Dwight Furness and his family to leave Mexico, the Hotel Ribera was sold to Enrique Langenscheidt Schwartz, a prominent German businessman living in Guanajuato. Tragically, his son, Enrique Langenscheidt Jr., was murdered there by bandits in 1919. Despite Scott’s best efforts to revive business, the hotel gradually lost popularity and clientele.

By the time travel writer Edna Mae Stark argued in 1930 that “The most modern town on the shores of Lake Chapala is Ribera Castellanos, which is destined for popularity as a vacation resort. With a good hotel as headquarters, guests may fish, or hunt, swim or ride horseback, go motoring or sailing,” the hotel was in terminal decline. All that remains today of this once-grand lakeside resort are  a few ruined walls.

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.

See chapter 6 of Lake Chapala: a postcard history for an extended history of the Hotel Ribera Castellanos.

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

Mar 232023
 

Artist and author Henry F. Edwards lived in Ajijic, with his wife, Corinne, and their numerous children, for many years in the 1960s and 1970s.

Henry ‘Hank’ Edwards was born on 9 May 1933 and completed studies at the University of New Mexico; San Diego State University; and the University of California. He served in the Navy on the aircraft carrier USS Shangri-La and then worked for a decade in the space industry, as a scientist-engineer on advanced satellites. Having made profitable investments, he retired young to travel the world; the family lived in several different countries before settling at Lake Chapala for more than a decade, most of the time in Ajijic, and a much shorter time on the southern shore of the lake.

Henry F Edwards - book cover

Edwards published and republished several books. The one most directly related to Ajijic is titled The Sweet Bird of Youth . This book, published in 2008, consists of two parts: “Fall of the Globo” and “Living the Lucky Life,” previously published in 1977 and 1997 respectively.

“Fall of the Globo” is a fictionalized memoir of his time in Ajijic. Ajijic is renamed Tzipan in the book, and Jocotepec becomes San Pedro, while Henry and Corinne become Harold and Colleen. The book is a roman à clef, where many of the characters are only thinly disguised. It includes stories about building the Edwards’ family home, nicknamed “El Castillo” because of its castle-like turret, a couple of blocks north of Seis Esquinas. They had previously rented a property at Independencia #41, where artist John K Peterson later lived for a time.

Parts of Playing Prince in a Palace (2009) also relate to the family’s time in Mexico, while The View from Across the Lake (originally published in 2002) is about life on the southern shore of the lake before they then decided to move to Guatemala.

Edwards also penned an article titled “On Lake Chapala” for the Lake Chapala Review, which offers a chatty account of what life in Ajijic was like when he and his family lived in the village. The illustration accompanying that article was drawn by Simón Velásquez, son of long-time village artists Enrique and Belva Velásquez.

What was Ajijic like when Hank Edwards was living there? Well, it was a lot smaller than it is today, as evidenced by this simplified sketch map drawn by Hank and included in The Sweet Bird of Youth:

Sketch map of Ajijic, c. 1970, by Henry F Edwards.

Sketch map of Ajijic, c. 1970, by Henry F Edwards.

The ‘paved road’ is the current carretera, completed in the early 1950s, a decade before Edwards arrived in Ajijic. The line labelled ‘End of Town’ is especially instructive in that there was apparently very little construction north of the carretera, even in about 1960. The “Castillo” was on the edge of the town.

Edwards pursued his art interests while in Ajijic, and held a one man show of 36 oils, done over five years, at what was then the Jalisco state gallery in La Floresta.

Edwards exhibited in a group show in March 1976 at the “José Clemente Orozco Gallery” in Ajijic, a gallery directed by Dionicio Morales at a location three blocks from the plaza on Guadalupe Victoria. Other artists in that show included Jonathan Aparicio, Frank Barton, Antonio Cárdenas, Antonio López Vega, Dionicio Morales, Julian Pulido, Sid Schwartzman, and Havano Tadeo.

Hank and Corinne (Bush) Edwards co-starred as the leading couple in the farce “Here Lies Jeremy Troy” presented by the Lakeside Little Theater in April 1976 at the Chula Vista Country Club. Corinne had performed in Victoria, BC, Canada, and in several previous Lakeside Little Theater productions.

At the time of “”Here Lies Jeremy Troy,” Hank Edwards apparently sponsored the short-lived Wes Penn Gallery (named for the deceased artist ex-husband of author Jan Dunlap). The gallery was trying to organize a two-person exhibit of paintings by Peter Huf and his wife, Eunice Hunt Huf, who, after living in Ajijic for many years, had moved back to Germany. A short press comment adds that, “Hank Edwards and Corinne Bush plan to leave Ajijic at the end of April, at which time the Wes Penn Gallery will be managed by Cristina Rigby of Jocotepec.” Cristina Rigby, it is worth noting, was the wife of British Hollywood writer Ray Rigby (The Hill).

Henry Edwards. c 1970. Street scene.

Henry Edwards. c 1970. Street scene.

Hank and Corinne left Ajijic in May 1976, after throwing a medieval costume party for Frank and Kathy Barton who had taken over “El Castillo,” but returned the following year, when Hank became an active member of the informal cultural group TLAC (Todas las Artes Combinadas).

At the end of the 1970s, Edwards and his wife moved back to the US, where they lived in Oregon and Arizona. Corinne died in about 2016. When I was last in touch with Henry, several years ago, he still owned an island in the middle of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, an island where he and his wife had once hoped to build a castle . . .

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.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the artistic community in Ajijic.

Acknowledgments

My sincere thanks to both Alan Pattison and Henry Edwards for sharing their memories of Ajijic with me via phone, in July 2014 and November 2016 respectively.

Sources

  • Henry F Edwards. 2008. The Sweet Bird of Youth (BookSurge)
  • ___2009. Playing Prince in a Palace (BookSurge)
  • ___2009. The View from Across the Lake (BookSurge)
  • ___2007. “On Lake Chapala,” Lake Chapala Review, April 2007
  • Guadalajara Reporter: 13 March 1976, 21; 3 April 1976, 31; 3 April 1976; 22 May 1976, 22; 16 Apr 1977, 19.

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

Mar 162023
 

This post considers the extraordinarily productive career of historian Álvaro Ochoa Serrano, who has dedicated much of his life to writing about his two main loves: Lake Chapala and mariachi (in its broad historical sense of music, folkloric dancing and partying).

These two interests are not necessarily as unrelated as you might think since some linguists believe that the word mariachi derives from the indigenous Coca language, spoken at the lake centuries ago.

From birth, Ochoa was destined to become a historian of Lake Chapala. Having been born in 1948 in La Barca, Jalisco, his birth was registered in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, so he started life with one foot in each of the two states that border the lake.

Alvaro-Ochoa-portada-1

Ochoa gained his bachelor’s degree at the Escuela Normal Superior De Mexico (1978), and then completed his masters in history at the Iberoamerican University (1988) and a PhD in history (1998) at the Universidad of California, Los Ángeles. He is a member of Mexico’s National Researchers’ System, and of the National Commission for the Preservation of Mariachi.

For many than 35 years, Ochoa has been a professor and researcher in the Zamora-based Colegio de Michoacán, where his major projects included one titled “Personajes y tradiciones populares del Occidente de México”. (Characters and Popular Traditions of Western Mexico). The Colegio de Michoacán, which was directed for many years by distinguished environmental anthropologist Brigitte Boehm Schondübe (1938-2005), has a long tradition of outstanding academic research related to Lake Chapala.

Alvaro-Ochoa-portada-2

During his distinguished academic career, Ochoa has contributed articles to dozens of journals and has co-authored Breve Historia de Michoacán (2011) and Cancionero Michoacano 1830-1940, Canciones, Cantos, Pirekuas, Coplas y Corridos (second edition in press).

Alvaro-Ochoa-portada-3

Books of his sole authorship include Los Insurgentes de Mezcala (1985); Viajes de michoacanos al norte (1998); Los agraristas de Atacheo (1989); … Y nos volvemos a encontrar: migración, identidad y tradición cultural (2001); Resplandor de la Tierra Caliente michoacana: paisaje y sociedad en la era colonial (2004); Los Insurrectos de Mezcala y Marcos. Relación crónica de una resistencia en Chapala (2007); La música va a otra parte. Mariache México-USA (2015); Mitote, Fandango y Mariacheros (2018); Afrodescendientes, Sobre Piel Canela (2020); La Ciénega de Chapala. Cuatro textos a flote (2023).

Ochoa’s work related to mariachi gained him a prestigious Vicente Mendoza Award. His beautifully written paper directly connecting Lake Chapala and mariachi, titled “Chapala, otra cuna del mariachi” (Chapala, another cradle of mariachi), will be published by El Colegio de Jalisco later this year.

Ochoa’s books are available via Spanish-language bookstores and online via http://www.libreriacolmich.com/ amazon.com.mx and bookstore sites such as https://www.gandhi.com.mx (tip: search using “Alvaro Ochoa Serrano”)

Note

Though we never met in person, I am greatly indebted to Brigitte Boehm Schondübe, whose very kind words in print helped inspire my own efforts to disseminate a greater understanding of the ecology and history of the Lake Chapala area.

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.

Chapter 6 of Lake Chapala: A Postcard History is an English-language account of some of the changes that occurred in the area near Ocotlán during the twentieth century.

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

Feb 162023
 

Robert Lewis Taylor (1912-1998) worked as a journalist on the St Louis Post-Dispatch before joining the staff of the New Yorker magazine. He wrote numerous books in a productive literary career which spanned four decades and included a Pulitzer Prize in 1959 for his novel The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, a novel about the travails of a 14-year-old boy and his father during the 1849 California gold rush.Travels cover

Taylor was a frequent visitor to Ajijic from about 1973, and kept a home there (“Casa Sastre”) until at least 1978. Bill Atkinson, a longtime Chapala resident who knew Taylor, once proudly showed me the copy Taylor had given him of his biography of W. C. Fields, with a personal inscription dated 1974.

During his time in Ajijic, Taylor focused on writing books. Interviewed by a journalist in 1978, Taylor, then 65 years old, explained that he preferred research (“digging is such good fun”) to writing, and that he had devoted the past five or six years to writing books:

Every morning I get up at 5:30 a.m. and, oozing pain from every pore, I drink some coffee and then I start writing and keep it up until about 1 p.m. without leaving my desk.

At our home in Ajijic, Mexico (he and his wife also have homes in Connecticut and Florida which they use frequently) I’ve got the housekeeper trained to keep people away from me. She’s marvelous! When she’s there no one gets to see me before I’m through working.”

In the afternoons he relaxed by playing tennis, swimming, lifting barbells and shooting pool.

Adapted for TV, 1963

Adapted for TV, 1963

Robert Lewis Taylor, was born in Carbondale, Illinois on 24 September 1912. After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign he worked at the Carbondale Herald and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for three years and had articles published in the Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. Taylor joined the New Yorker in 1939 and continued to write for the magazine until 1961, even submitting copy during the years he served in the Navy (1942-1946). He married Judith Martin in 1945.

None of Taylor’s writing was specifically about Mexico, though two of his novels do relate to Mexico as it was in the early nineteenth century. A Journey to Matecumbe (1961), the story of a boy on a journey from Illinois to the Florida Keys, was adapted in 1976 as the Disney movie Treasure of Matecumbe. Two Roads to Guadalupe (1964) recounts the adventures of two brothers who served with Alexander Doniphan’s Missouri Volunteers in the Mexican War of 1846-48.

Taylor’s other published books include: Adrift in a Boneyard (1947), Doctor, Lawyer, Merchant, Chief (1948), W.C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes (1949), The Running Pianist (1950), Winston Churchill: An Informal Study of Greatness (1952), The Bright Sands (1954), Center Ring: The People of the Circus (956), Vessels of Wrath: The Life and Times of Carry Nation (1966), A Roaring in the Wind: Being a History of Alder Gulch, Montana (1977), and Niagara (1980).

His obituary in the New York Times remembered him in his prime “as tall and good-looking, a brilliant comic writer and sharply—some say caustically—witty.”

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.

Several chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village offer more details about the history of the literary and artistic community in Ajijic.

Sources

  • Barbara Stewart. 1998. “Robert Lewis Taylor Is Dead, Novelist and Biographer, 88.” (obituary). New York Times, 4 October 1998.
  • Brownsville Herald: 4 November 1976.
  • Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek): 19 February 1978, 35.
  • Michael Hargraves. 1992. Lake Chapala: A literary survey; plus an historical overview with some personal observations and reflections of this lakeside area of Jalisco, Mexico. Los Angeles: Michael Hargraves.

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

Feb 022023
 

Calvin Tomkins, who later wrote extensively for Newsweek and the New Yorker, completed his first novel Intermission while staying at Lake Chapala. The autobiographical novel was first published by Viking Press, New York, in 1951. The book is not set at the lake; its locales are Santa Fe, New York and New Jersey. It explores the tricky and sometimes difficult relationships between two brothers, one of whom is the narrator, and one of their oldest friends and his wife.

Tomkins was born in Orange, New Jersey, on 17 December 1925. After graduating from Berkshire School, he served two years in the US Navy, and then completed a degree program at Princeton University in 1948. Still in his early twenties, and newly married with an urge to write, he got lucky: Tomkins’ father, a New Jersey businessman, offered to finance an entire year for him to focus on trying to become a writer. Calvin and his wife rented a place in Santa Fe, and Calvin began drafting the story which turned into Intermission.

After some months in Santa Fe, the young couple decided to visit Mexico where they:

“ended up in a place outside of Guadalajara, at a pretty little inn by Lake Chapala. . . We were there three or four months, and I wrote there, too. It was a kind of Hemingway-esque experience for me. I remember finishing the manuscript there and sending it to my agent. I heard back a few weeks later that it had been accepted by Viking Press!”

Tomkins - IntermissionOn their return to the US, Tomkins struggled to write a second novel, but did get several short stories published. To make ends meet, he became a journalist, working first for Radio Free Europe (1953-1957) and then Newsweek. He had a freelance contribution to the New Yorker accepted in 1958, and joined the magazine two years later as a staff writer. In addition to short stories and humor pieces, he branched out into nonfiction. Over two decades, he focused on chronicling the rapidly evolving New York City art scene. He was the New Yorker’s official art critic in the early 1980s, and responsible for hundreds of art reviews and profiles for the magazine’s “Art World” column.

Besides Intermission, Tomkins’ major published works include: The bride & the bachelors: the heretical courtship in modern art (1965); The Lewis and Clark Trail (1965); The world of Marcel Duchamp (1966); Eric Hoffer: An American Odyssey (1969); Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1970); Living Well Is the Best Revenge: The Life of Gerald and Sara Murphy (1971); The Scene: Reports on Post-Modern Art (1976); Off the Wall : A Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg (1980); Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews (2013); and The Lives of Artists (2019).

In retirement, Tomkins donated his papers to the Museum of Modern Art and his art-book archive to the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, Rhode Island.

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to artist Peter Holden for bringing Calvin Tomkins’ important link to Lake Chapala to my attention.

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.

To learn more about the literary history of Lake Chapala, see the relevant chapters of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village.

The Lake Chapala-Santa Fe literary-art nexus has had many distinguished members over the years, including D. H. LawrenceWitter Bynner, “Spud” Johnson, Betty Binkley, Josefa (the “mother of Mexican fashion design”), Jorge Fick, Clinton King and his (first) wife Lady Twysden, Clark Hulings, John Liggett Meigs, Alfred Rogoway, Don Shaw, photographer Ernest Walter Knee, poet and painter John Brandi, musicologist Charles BogertBob Hunt, Arthur Davison Ficke and Gladys Brown Ficke. Instrumental in fomenting the links in the 1940s was Santa Fe journalist Brian Ború Dunne.

Sources

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

Dec 222022
 

As explained in a previous post, my on-going fascination with the history of Lake Chapala was stimulated, in part, by the chance discovery many years ago of a copy of Antonio de Alba‘s 1954 book, Chapala.

Antonio de Alba. Chapala, p 115

Antonio de Alba. Chapala, p 115 (Click to enlarge)

The online claim (made only a few years ago) that Chapala is “the most accurate book to date about the local history” may have been true many decades ago, but has certainly not been true since the turn of this century.

The focus of my personal interest has been on when, how and why Chapala first became a center for international tourists. The ‘when’ is the easy part, given that the town’s first major hotel, the Hotel Arzapalo, opened its doors in 1898. The ‘how’ and ‘why’ are trickier to answer, and have led me down innumerable ‘rabbit holes’ related to the lives of early foreign settlers in Chapala.

What has emerged from years of research, and new online friendships with the descendants of many of these early settlers, is that the story of Lake Chapala is far more complex (and interesting) than I had ever imagined. Many of the details in de Alba’s account of the “principal promoters of tourism in Chapala” (page 115) need to be reconsidered, and in some cases rejected.

Please note that I am not, by publishing this critique, trying to disparage or discredit Antonio de Alba, his research or his book. On the contrary, it was his book that got me started down this road! But, like all accounts of history, over time new facts come to light, alternative interpretations are proposed—some of which become accepted—and a new, revised (and hopefully more accurate) version of the story is developed.

Let’s take a close look at de Alba’s account of the principal promoters of tourism in Chapala. It did not take me long to realize that ‘Séptimo Crow’ was Septimus Crowe (with an ‘e’ at the end), who was, as de Alba stated, of English origin, though he was actually born in northern Norway, where his father had a massive copper mine. It took me a lot longer to realize that the “Mr. Leonel Garden,” who built Villa Tlalocan, was Mr (later Sir) Lionel Carden (with a ‘C’), and even longer before I identified ‘Sr. D. Carlos Eissman” as Karl (Carlos) Eisenmann. Once I had their real names, it was relatively easy to find out a lot more about these individuals and their lives, and their connections to Chapala.

It turned out that Septimus Crowe, for example, had abandoned his wife and young son in Europe when he moved to Mexico. His son was informed that his father had died, and never lived to learn the truth; members of the succeeding generation were totally astonished to find a brief reference in one of my articles about Septimus’ life in Mexico.

De Alba writes that Crowe arrived in about 1895. While I can’t prove precisely when the eccentric Mr Crowe first came to Chapala, it was certainly several years earlier than that, as I have pointed out repeatedly over the past two decades. This is known because there is a clear reference to Crowe by Mexican diplomat-author Eduardo A. Gibbon in a book published in 1893. Gibbon’s account refers both to Crowe having built a “very lovely estate that can be seen from the lake on a hill, a quarter of a league from the village of Chapala” (now the site of Hotel Montecarlo) and to Crowe having “stimulated others to build holiday homes and with them give life and civilization to this very beautiful region.”

In the past several years, as I delved ever deeper into the lives of Crowe and others, I have been able to prove that Crowe built all the three houses mentioned by de Alba (Villa Montecarlo, Villa Bell, Villa Josefina), though not in the order he suggested. Before he built Villa Bell, Crowe had built Casa Albión, renamed Villa Josefina after it was bought by American-born beer magnate Joseph Maximilian Schnaider.

In the case of Villa Tlalocan, de Alba is correct that the house was built in about 1896: construction began in 1895 and the Cardens were able to move in the following year, in time to invite President Díaz for breakfast one morning in early November. De Alba is also correct that Carden sold Villa Tlalocan to Carlos Eisenmann. However, de Alba’s claims that the house was then bought by Manuel Cuesta Gallardo ‘after Eisenmann’s death’, and that the new owner built a home there intended as a gift for President Díaz, which the President never received because the Mexican Revolution broke out (1910), are inaccurate.

First, I have never found any contemporary newspaper accounts supporting the idea that Manuel Cuesta Gallardo built any home intended for President Díaz. There are, though, several references to a home being prepared for the President by his inlaws at El Manglar. Secondly, Eisenmann died in 1920 (in Germany), three years after Manuel Cuesta Gallardo had already transferred the title of Villa Tlalocan to a younger sister.

I repeat—for those who have read this far—that none of this post is intended in any way to disparage Antonio de Alba, his research or his book. It was my chance find of Chapala back in the 1980s that led me to become so passionate about exploring the history of how the small fishing village of Chapala became such an important international tourist destination.

Reading the book

Copies of Chapala, which has never been reprinted, are difficult to find. Fortunately for readers, Javier Raygoza Munguía, the publisher of the weekly PÁGINA Que sí se lee! has uploaded the entire text as a series of digital files which can be accessed via the link.

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.

Several chapters of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants – available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes – offer more details about the history of Chapala.

Sources and references

  • Antonio de Alba. 1954. Chapala. Guadalajara: Banco Industrial de Jalisco.
  • Eduardo A Gibbon. 1893. Guadalajara, (La Florencia Mexicana). El salto de Juanacatlán y El Mar Chapálico. 1992 reprint Guadalajara: Presidencia Municipal de Guadalajara.

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

Dec 082022
 

By the 1970s the Ajijic retirement community was sufficiently established that it attracted academic attention. The earliest study, never formally published, was by Dr Edwin G Flittie, a professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming. Flittie visited in 1973 and subsequently presented copies of “Retirement in the Sun,” his analysis of the retirement community, to the Lake Chapala Society Library. Like several later studies of foreign migrants, Flittie considered the Chapala-Ajijic region as a single unit, and not as two communities with their distinct histories as regards tourism and retirement. Flittie interviewed more than 100 retirees and found that many had failed to appreciate the substantial cultural differences between the US and Mexico, or recognized that the emphasis for many local residents was “not on material gain but rather on the attainment of a satisfying existence traditionally based upon agrarian economic self-sufficiency.”

Flittie estimated that about 60% of retirees were aged 60 to 74, and 14% were 75 or older. Very few were fluent in Spanish and 88% reported that their social life centered on fellow expatriates and other English-speaking individuals. Flittie found that most retirees lived much as they would have lived in the US. The main problems they faced were related to excessive drinking, marital and family discord (men adapted better than women), boredom, bribery, interactions with the local community, domestic help and old age. Flittie returned briefly in December 1977 to research the impacts of the massive 1976 devaluation of the peso from 12.5 pesos to a dollar to about 22.5 pesos to a dollar.

Juan José Medeles Romero, in his 1975 thesis proposing an urban development plan for Ajijic, detailed how the village had approximately tripled in size between 1900 and 1950, and then doubled in size the following decade. And this was even before the addition of numerous subdivisions such as Rancho del Oro and La Floresta. Curiously, Medeles ignored the impacts of foreigners and only mentioned them in passing.

academic-studies-titles

A few years later, Mexican sociologist Francisco Talavera Salgado focused solely on Ajijic when, in Lago Chapala, turismo residencial y campesinado, he examined the varied impacts of foreign residents on the local community. His important findings are described in detail in several chapters of Foreign Footprints.

At the end of the 1970s anthropologist Eleanore Moran Stokes also homed in on Ajijic. She divided the evolution of the village after ‘Discovery’ into three phases: Founder (1940s to mid 1950s), Expansionary (mid 1950s to mid 1970s) and Established Colony (mid 1970s through the 1980s).

Several of her informants considered the representation of Ajijic in the Dane Chandos novels (Founder phase) to be non-fiction; to Stokes, this was “the local equivalent to a creation myth.” The nature of migrants changed in each stage. During the Founder phase, Ajijic served, in her view, largely as an artists’ colony. These “young single well-traveled” artists were resourceful and independent individuals who had little impact on the village beyond the employment of domestic help; most of them learned the language, liked the cuisine, and blended into the local community.

Later (Expansionary phase) arrivals tended to be members of the affluent and retired middle class, many of whom had traveled widely, either in the military or working for international corporations. These newer arrivals did materially change the village. By infusing cash into the local economy and starting businesses they created “a new wage labor class in the village.” By upgrading village homes they distinguished their residences from those of local families. By retaining their language, food and lifestyle preferences, these incomers established a social distance from their host community, even forming “privileged associations for recreation, friendship and religion.” In essence, many of these migrants wanted to make many aspects of life in Ajijic more like the US.

Such tendencies continued into the Established Colony phase. Vacant houses became increasingly scarce and agricultural land was parceled for vacation and retirement homes. The foreign community greatly boosted philanthropic activities, especially those helping children, though this stage also saw a marked social stratification develop within the foreign community.

Stokes estimated that foreigners occupied about 300 of the 950 houses in the village in 1979, but comprised less than 8% of the population. Like Talavera, she viewed retirees as agents of change, not merely spectators of ongoing social processes, though they felt a sense of powerlessness in regards to what they saw as deficiencies in the provision of such services as water, electricity, telephone, garbage collection and police.

Sociologist Charlotte Wolf, who moved to Ajijic with husband Rene in the early 1990s, was interested in how individual retirees adapted and constructed a new life for themselves in Ajijic.

Among the conclusions in 1997 of Lorena Melton Young Otero, who looked specifically at US retirees, was that they created new jobs, donated to charities and hastened “modernization,” but that their presence was driving up the cost of living for local people. In a later paper, she examined in detail the mourning ritual and other customs in Ajijic following the death of a child (angelito).

The evolutionary framework developed by Stokes was used by geographer David Truly to examine how the type of migrant has changed over the years and to develop a matrix of retirement migration behavior. Like Stokes, Truly concluded in 2002 that newer visitors (including retirees), and unlike earlier migrants, had less desire to adapt to the local culture and were more keen on ‘importing a lifestyle’ to the area.

Stephen Banks, author of Kokio: A Novel Based on the Life of Neill James, conducted dozens of interviews to study the identity narratives of retirees while living in Ajijic in 2002-2003. All respondents depicted Mexicans, both generally and individually, as “happy, warm and friendly, polite and courteous, helpful and resourceful.” However, at the same time, many shared instances in which they thought Mexicans had been untrustworthy, inaccessible, lazy and incompetent. Banks concluded that the responses revealed:

a struggle to conserve cultural identities in the face of a resistant host culture that has been colonized…. The Lakeside economy is dominated by expatriate consumer demand; indigenous commerce in fishing has disappeared as new employment opportunities opened up in the services sector; local prices for real estate (routinely listed in US dollars), restaurant dining, hotel lodging and most consumer goods are higher than in comparable non-retirement areas; traditional Mexican community life centered around the family has been supplemented, and in some cases supplanted, by expatriate community life centered around public assistance and volunteer programs… and the uniform use of Spanish in public life is displaced by the use of English.”

Lucía González Terreros is the lead author of two recent papers that explore the complexity of defining residential tourism and how alternative definitions relate to property rights, transaction costs and common goods. The research arose from her personal concerns about the rapid increase in the number of foreigners in Ajijic since 1990.

Equally interesting is the work of Francisco Díaz Copado, who looked at how Ajijic is being shaped by both local and foreign “rituals,” such as the annual Fiesta of San Andrés and the Chili Cookoff respectively. In his 2013 report, Díaz Copado also examined “the different ways in which people describe and name the different zones of Ajijic… [which] reflect some historical conflicts.” Two annotated maps sharply contrast traditional locations and names with those used by retirees.

Marisa Raditsch investigated the impacts of international migrants settling in the municipality of Chapala “based on the perceptions of Mexican people in the receiving context.” This 2015 study found that these perceptions tended “to be favorable in terms of generating employment and contributing to the community; and unfavorable in terms of rising costs of living and some changes in local culture.”

Social anthropologist Vaira Avota, writing in 2016, also looked at the relations between foreigners and locals in Ajijic. She drew a sharp distinction between “traditional immigrants,” who wanted to truly understand Mexico’s culture, traditions,… [learn] Spanish and willingly participate in local activities,” and “new immigrants,” who wanted to live in a version of the US transplanted to Lake Chapala.

The impacts of this shift in migrant type were further explored by Mexican researcher Mariana Ceja Bojorge, who focused squarely on the relationships and interactions between local Ajijitecos and foreigners. She concluded in 2021 that the shift “endangers the acceptance of the presence of the other” and that “Although the presence of foreigners has generated economic well-being in the area, it has also been responsible for the reconfiguration of space, where locals have been forced to leave their territory.”

This is a lightly edited excerpt from the concluding chapter of Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village, which offers a comprehensive history of Ajijic including full bibliographic details of all the studies mentioned.

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.

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

Nov 242022
 

Among the chance events back in the 1980s that stimulated my curiosity about the history of Chapala was finding a book titled Chapala in a used bookstore in Ajijic. While the bookstore lasted only a few months, Chapala has been in a pride of place on my book shelves ever since.

Antonio de Alba. Chapala (1954)

Written by Antonio de Alba, Chapala was published by the Banco Industrial de Jalisco in 1954 in an edition of 2000 copies. The 177-page book was published as de Alba was nearing the end of more than two decades of service as parish priest of Chapala.

Chapala is an impressive achievement for its time, and the earliest book to be devoted to a single town or village at Lake Chapala. The first book-length histories of other settlements—including Ocotlán, Jocotepec, Ajijic, Tizapán el Alto and La Palma—all came many years later.

Antonio Guadalupe de Alba was born on 12 December (Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe) 1900 in San Juan de los Lagos. Antonio was several months shy of his third birthday when he lost his father, Jesús Alba Alba (1856-1903), and was raised by his mother, Lucía Rodríguez Murguía de Alba (born in 1859), who died in Chapala in 1946.

Antonio de Alba served as parish priest in Chapala from 1937 to 1954. His initial appointment was not without its critics; a group of parishioners wrote to the Archbishop supporting an alternative candidate. De Alba quickly demonstrated his ability to unite the faithful and gain their respect. Shortly after arriving in Chapala (from Cocula), he helped lead the effort to build a chapel to Our Lady of Lourdes (Nuestra Señora de Lourdes) on the hillside above the Villa Montecarlo. The first stone of this chapel was laid on 18 March 1940 and the dedication service was held on 14 August 1941.

Throughout his time in Chapala, de Alba was held in high regard by his parishioners. In April 1954, de Alba was appointed Canon of the Collegiate Church of San Juan de los Lagos. He died in León, Guanajuato, on 25 December 1958.

De Alba explains in the preface to Chapala that his own interest in the town’s history had been prompted by meeting José Ramírez Flores, the author of an article titled “Chapala y su curato hasta el Siglo XVIII” in the first issue of Estudios Históricos (a Guadalajara-based magazine). In response to some queries from Ramírez, de Alba began to explore the parish archive for answers:

I discovered treasures of true greatness, hidden under the dust of the years and the carelessness of our Mexican character (which does not know how to judge the greatness of our heroes, and is not accustomed to recounting their feats).”

De Alba then devoted a lot of his time to finding and collating historical material. Though he openly acknowledges in his book that he was not a historian and did not write like a historian, he explains that he felt compelled to share “what I had discovered, which is unknown to most people.”

He singled out the need to preserve the memory of clerics, such as Friar Miguel de Bolonia who lived his final years in Chapala, and of the “heroism of our aboriginal Indians, as well as the fine nobility of almost all the Spaniards who conquered these lands and stayed here”, as well as of the “many beautiful and very honorable events in our history, such as the great actions of our local insurgents and the defense of the Island of Mezcala.”

The early chapters of Chapala are based on excerpts from, and summaries of, the early accounts of the region written by Franciscan chroniclers such as friars Antonio Tello, Antonio de Ciudad Real and others, combined with the more formal syntheses written by historians of Jalisco.

De Alba acknowledges that the second part of the book, which focuses on the twentieth century history of the town, is “taken from tradition or personal knowledge.” Some of “the interesting and instructive news related to our town” that de Alba includes is based on the recollections of some older members of his parish. These recollections, which pertain to memories from half a century earlier, are neither comprehensive in coverage nor, with the benefit of hindsight, entirely accurate.

I am quite certain, after reading and rereading de Alba, that he never intended Chapala to be the final word on the town’s history. He acknowledged its limitations but wanted to share the findings of his research, not compile a formal, comprehensive, historical account.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that so many later writers have relied almost exclusively on de Alba’s writing. Tracing the origins of what I’ve come to call the “modern myths” of Chapala’s history—such as President Díaz spending Holy Week there every year from 1904 to 1909—has led me time and time again back to Chapala. The claim about President Díaz, for example, stems from a single sentence (page 117) which we now know is not supported by contemporary documents.

In this separate post – How history progresses: Antonio de Alba and “Chapala”  – I clarify and correct statements made on one particular page of Chapala, in the hope that this will offer some small but significant steps towards a revised history of the town.

For its time, Antonio de Alba’s book is a true tour-de-force, and an invaluable source and inspiration for later authors, including myself. I have the highest esteem for both Antonio de Alba and Chapala. However, this does not mean that everything he wrote should be accepted uncritically and without comment or, where possible, correction. And I am hopeful that this is precisely what future authors and researchers will do in relation to my own work.

Reading the book

Chapala has never been reprinted, and copies are difficult to find. Fortunately for readers, Javier Raygoza Munguía, the publisher of the weekly PÁGINA Que sí se lee! has uploaded the entire text as a series of digital files (access via link).

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.

Several chapters of If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s Historic Buildings and Their Former Occupants – available in Spanish as Si las paredes hablaran: Edificios históricos de Chapala y sus antiguos ocupantes – offer more details about the history of Chapala.

Sources

  • Antonio de Alba. 1954. Chapala. Guadalajara: Banco Industrial de Jalisco.
  • Peter Bello, personal communications via FB, November 2022.
  • Luis Enrique Orozco. 1958. Nuestra Señora de Lourdes de Chapala. Reseña histórica ordenada por el Sr. Cura D. Raúl Navarro… Guadalajara.

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

Nov 102022
 

Inveterate world traveler Norman D Ford (1921-2009) described Lake Chapala and Ajijic in several of his books, including in Bargain Paradises of the World (1952). By 1970, he had decided that Lake Chapala was “no longer the cheapest place in Mexico. Since 1950, about 1,500 American couples have moved into its two dreamy villages of Chapala and Ajijic. Prices have inevitably risen. But building costs still average only $4 per square foot, and you can hire a maid for $12 or a cook for $16 a month.”

“You can have a modern home built for under $5,000…. For two, you can budget about $70 for food and $30 for utilities and your maid per month. The rest is for high living–golf, riding or swimming by day, followed by some of the most fabulous parties on this continent.”

Ford was born in the UK on 8 January 1921, the only child of Frederick William John Matthew and Jessie Shortland Ford. He grew up in Wales, and became a lifelong adventurer, especially keen on cycling, hiking and kayaking. During six years service as a radio operator in the Merchant Navy during the second world war, Ford traveled as far as the U.S., Sri Lanka and New Zealand.

Ford-cover

A few days after the war ended, Ford declared himself president of the Globetrotters Club, a then loose-knit organization which produced “a monthly newsletter describing how to travel the world at rock bottom cost, plus a list of other members.” This helped popularize low budget adventure travel to all manner of unlikely destinations.

In early 1947 he moved permanently to the US where he worked as an editor and began to write travel and retirement books, starting with Where to Retire on a Small Income (1950). The success of this book, and several later books, enabled Ford to quit his day job, move to Florida, and focus on freelance writing. By 1980 travel writing had become increasingly competitive, so Ford moved to Boulder, Colorado, and switched to writing popular books about health issues. He spent the last years of his life in Kerville, Texas, where he died on 19 June 2009 at the age of 88.

Ford wrote a more detailed account of Ajijic in Fabulous Mexico where everything costs less. The following excerpts are from the 10th edition (1970).

AJIJIC. Alt 5,030′, pop 3,500. An ancient Tarascan fishing village, Ajijic nestles on the lush shores of Lake Chapala beneath a steep, green and aesthetically contoured mountain range…. You notice the neat, trim plaza with its well painted bandstand, the picturesque fishing nets strung along the shore. What lies behind those bare adobe walls? Inside are white patios lush with flowers, well equipped art studios and the comfortable homes and apartments of Ajijic’s 300 permanent American residents.”

Ford summarizes how foreigners ‘discovered’ Ajijic and began to change it:

Years ago, a retired British engineer seeking a Utopia discovered this garden spot and built himself an impressive lakeshore home fronted by an acre of color-splashed blooms. After World War II, veterans studying in Guadalajara found they could live well here on their G.I. Bill payments. Artists moved in, led by several well known modern painters. Several writers and musicians followed together with a group of enterprising ladies who reorganized Ajijic’s dwindling handlooms crafts into a thriving industry. With a few exceptions, this group still forms Ajijic’s Old Guard. Getting in early, they bought up the choicest lots and homes, secured long term leases on the lowest rentals and today, most of these old timers offer outstanding examples of the way in which the good life can be enjoyed in Mexico on little.”

Ford explains that while some of these incomers were still paying “fantastically low rents” [$7.50 to $15.00 a month] “and living well on very small budgets,” some were “constructing lavish homes costing up to $14,000 and $15,000. New homes are sprouting all around the village and to the west, ultra modern homes are studding a new hillside subdivision.”

He concluded that “Ajijic today is a slightly raffish, slightly bohemian rustic village where retirees outnumber the artists five to one.” The foreign community was changing: “Ajijic is still no place for suburban conformists but neither is its nonconformity disquieting. Drinks and gossip are still favorite pastimes but criticism today centers on the unstable electricity, the water supply which sometimes runs dry in May, and the water hyacinths which clog the lake rather than on eccentric people.”

Besides writing about Mexico, Ford wrote dozens of other books, including Florida: A Complete Guide to Finding What You Seek in Florida (1953); How to travel without being rich (1955); America’s 50 best cities in which to live, work, and retire (1956); America by car : planned routings to all that’s worth seeing (1957); Where to retire on a small income (1966); Good night : the easy and natural way to sleep the whole night through (1983); Keep on pedaling : the complete guide to adult bicycling (1990); 50 Healthiest Places to Live & Retire in the United States (1991); The sleep Rx: 75 proven ways to get a good night’s sleep (1994); and Natural remedies: techniques for preventing headaches and the common cold (1994).

When Ford looked back on his varied experiences on several continents, including cycling trips in 38 countries, he concluded that:

travel half a century ago was much more rewarding and much more fun…. Overall, the world was much safer then with far less risk of being robbed or mugged. In fact, every year since 1945 I’ve witnessed a world-wide deterioration in the quality of life and the quality of the travel experience. Each year, more Coca-Cola signs appear and almost every country is rapidly losing its national character while it fuses into a faceless industrial monoculture.”

That is so true! The world has changed, and is continuing to change, though not always for the better.
Foreign Footprints in Ajijic: Decades of Change in a Mexican Village (2022) explains the changes that have taken place in Ajijic since 1940 in far more detail.

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.

Sources

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

Jun 302022
 

Vida Hills Shepard (1885-1972) was a journalist who spent several winters in Chapala in the mid-1950s. Shepard was a regular columnist for The Chico Enterprise-Record in California, and several of her columns make reference to her multiple visits to Chapala.

Vida Shepard, 1955

She first visited in late 1954, writing in an early column how she had rented a cottage in the Nido Hotel. The cottage had windows that overlooked a pleasant patio. Though the cottage had no kitchen, the hotel offered to provide three meals a day for 50 pesos ($4). Shepard remarked that the garden was enlivened by the antics of a parrot—“Sra Nido’s best loved pet”—and two mockingbirds in cages. Shepard encouraged readers to consider visiting Chapala, and rent one of the “numerous homes rented by La Señora Nido, who has owned a large slice of the town since her husband’s death four years ago.” (In fact, Ramón Nido had died in 1945, fully a decade before Shepard’s visit.)

In her column the following week, Shepard explained that Chapala had no TV reception, very few radios, and only limited phone service, with the hotel having one of the very few lines available. She also commented on the corncobs used as fuel for most water heaters (“except for the very new ones”), saying that it was a very inexpensive method since a “huge gunny sack of corncobs costs about 16 cents and lasts a few months.”

When Shepard returned to Lake Chapala the following winter, this time renting accommodation in Ajijic, she first had a few days in Guadalajara, where she enjoyed “a very good lunch in the Ajijic restaurant in Hotel Guadalajara.” This is the first and only reference I have ever seen to an “Ajijic restaurant” in the big city.

Her column the following week is about visiting Neill James at her home, Quinta Tzintzuntzan, in Ajijic. Shepard opens by quoting an inscription—“Little by little, drop by drop, one can empty the sea”—carved on one of the hand-hewn beams of the living room ceiling, which “could well be the inspiration which, little by little, has brought this remarkable woman health, a sound business and such contentment in Mexico that she feels no compulsion to leave her picturesque village, Ajijic.”

Other beams were carved with designs from “Aztec codices”, and one had an inscription in Spanish reading “The pen is the tongue of the soul.” Shepard summarized James’ early business enterprises (embroidery and weaving) before focusing on her silkworm operation, claiming that each year James “has a new dress for her traditional Christmas egg-nog party made from threads spun by her own silk worms.” Shepard was charmed by the verdant orchard around James’ home, especially its “15 varieties of bananas” and the massed “scarlet flowers” of “an espaliered poinsettia.”

The following year (1956), when Shepard was staying at Lake Chapala, she described how she had taken visiting friends to explore Ajijic, where they met ‘Stephen.’ Stephen turned out to be the son of artist Alfred Rogoway, and persuaded them to walk with him to the gallery where his father’s works were on show. They arrived to find that Stephen’s mother was busy cooking supper there: the gallery-restaurant had only opened the previous day.

Shepard had a short story, “The Merry-Go-Round,” published in Mexican Life in 1957. The merry-go-round apparently never works properly, and its owner is constantly tinkering with the machinery in a valiant and never-ending effort to get it to work as intended. Shepard had previously co-authored a cook book with Mary Dunbar Lemcke titled Four ‘n Twenty Blackbirds: A Book on Game Cookery With Other Recipes Based Upon Products of Northern California (1949).

In 1958, Shepard apparently spent the summer rainy season in Chapala. In a column written several years later she recalled having watched a dramatic thunderstorm in Chapala from the front porch of a house near Villa Lourdes which “a group of UFO hunters had rented.”

Like so many other visitors in the 1950s, Vida Shepard was clearly captivated by what she found. Her personal accounts of staying at Lake Chapala only serve to show just how much the area has changed since.

Sources

  • The Chico Enterprise-Record (Chico, California) 7 Jan 1955, 6; 15 Jan 1955, 4; 13 Sep 1955, 10; 28 Nov 1955, 10; 5 Dec 1955, 10; 3 March 1956, 5; 2 Jan 1958.
  • Vida Shepard. 1957. “The Merry-Go-Round.” Mexican Life, October 1957.

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

Mar 242022
 

Tobias (“Toby”) Schneebaum (1922-2005) was a gay artist, author, adventurer and activist, best known for living among, and documenting, the Amarakaeri people of Amazonian Peru and the Asmat people of the southwestern part of the island of New Guinea.

Before these trips into the tropical jungle, Schneebaum had lived in Ajijic for several years, and had experienced his first taste of tropical jungle by visiting the reclusive Lacandón people in Chiapas.

Schneebaum’s life and legacy to anthropology have been analyzed at length by later writers who have placed most emphasis, quite rightly, on his adventurous exploits in distant jungles, and on his humanitarian, activist work in New York City in connection with HIV/AIDS.

Tobias Schneebaum. 1970s. (New York Observer)

Tobias Schneebaum. 1970s. (New York Observer)

This post focuses on Schneebaum’s formative years in Ajijic, immediately before he began his major travels. His three years at Lake Chapala undoubtedly left their mark on the young man. Schneebaum later wrote at some length about his time in Ajijic in two of his memoirs: Wild Man (1979) and Secret places: my life in New York and New Guinea (2000). Unfortunately, these two accounts contain some factual inaccuracies and sometimes conflict with one another, making it difficult to reconstruct with certainty the details of his time in the village.

Theodore Schneebaum (his birth name) was born to Polish immigrants in New York on 25 March 1922 and raised in the Jewish faith in Brooklyn. After attending Stuyvesant High School, he studied at the City College of New York, where he gained a B.A in Mathematics and Art.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Schneebaum joined the U.S. army and became a radar mechanic. After the war, he took evening painting classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School with Mexican muralist Rufino Tamayo. Schneebaum was underwhelmed by Tamayo’s teaching but did follow his advice to pursue his artistic dreams in Mexico rather than Paris.

In either 1947 or 1948, Schneebaum headed for Mexico City. In Wild Man, Schneebaum recalls living for a time at a pension called Paris Siete, where political painters such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros (who “liked my paintings”) met every week.

Schneebaum first visited Ajijic in the company of “Madame Sonja”, an elderly “Rumanian osteopath” who he accompanied when she traveled from Mexico City to Lake Chapala to treat Zara Alexeyeva Ayenara, who had recently lost her “adopted brother, a Russian who had been a great dancer”. (New York-born Zara and her Danish dance partner, Holger Mehner, lived at Lake Chapala for years and were known locally as the “Russian dancers”.) In Wild Man, Schneebaum claims that Sonja’s patient was Zara, but in Secret Places he mistakenly says it was “Holga Menha” (which is impossible since Holger had died in 1944).

Schneebaum landed on his feet in Ajijic and it became his base for the remainder of his time in Mexico, including trips to southern Mexico and the one in 1950 to visit the Lacandón Maya in Chiapas. Like many other artists who have visited Ajijic, Schneebaum’s own artistic output during his stay in the village was greatly influenced by his discovery of pre-Columbian motifs and statues.

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Schneebaum also taught art for several weeks each summer and encountered a variety of local and international artists in the village, who formed the nucleus of an active social circle. Moreover, as David Bergman, in his foreword to Secret Places, writes, “Schneebaum had refrained from sex after some adolescent experiences; now in the Mexican town of Ajijic, his homosexual desires were reawakened.”

In fact, these three main facets of his life in Ajijic – art, friends and sexual reawakening – were intimately intertwined shortly after being employed by Irma Jonas to teach students attending her summer painting schools in Ajijic (which were held from 1947 to 1949 inclusive). Jonas also appointed a second American artist, Nicolas Muzenic, and a Mexican artist, Ernesto Butterlin (who adopted the surname Linares), to share the classes. The three became fast friends.

In his memoirs, Schneebaum describes Ernesto (whom he refers to as “Lynn”) in glowing detail: “A young blond painter, born in Guadalajara of German parents, also lived in Ajijic. He was twenty-seven, blue-eyed, four inches over six feet, and very handsome, and was subject to the attentions of both the men and the women who later passed through town… He was engaging and irresistible; he was slender and deeply tanned and had just the right amount of softness to his body and mind so that he threatened no one.”

According to Schneebaum, an ill-fated love triangle developed between the three artists. Schneebaum fell in love with Nicolas Muzenic, who fell in love with Lynn. Matters were complicated by the arrival of “haughty and radiantly beautiful” Zoe, the “fourth member of our group”, who had been living with Henry Miller in Big Sur when she heard about Lynn and decided to visit Ajijic. Zoe “wore sheath dresses of black or white and penciled dark lines around her eyes to shape them into almonds, and enlarge the black pupils. Her skin was pale, the color of pearls.”

To further complicate their relationships, Zoe became obsessed with Nicolas who “arranged her hair in various styles and coated her face with makeup and sequins”. After dinner, “they would dance with their slender bodies tightly together, moving to slow foxtrots and tangos, dipping deeply, and turning with grace.”

Schneebaum recalls in Wild Man that, “Lynn’s casual ways bewitched and irritated Nicolas, just as Nicolas’s arrogant, snobbish manner attracted and mortified Lynn. Nicolas moved into Lynn’s house and began a frenzied, volcanic affair that lasted two years”, ending (according to Schneebaum, though it sounds somewhat fanciful) with Nicolas buying the property and forcing Lynn to move out.

Katie Goodridge Ingram was living in Ajijic at the time and knew this quartet of extraordinary individuals. She remembers Zoe as “one of the most stunningly beautiful woman you could ever see. She slathered coconut oil all over and then went down to the (then) wonderful old stone pier and tanned herself generously for hours. Toby joined her, and Lin and sometimes Nick Muzenik. All of them gorgeous. Well, Toby was quiet, shy, introverted, and stooped, so was not so dramatically attractive.”

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Recalling one of the summer schools he taught at, Schneebaum writes in Wild Man that, “Irma [Jonas] sat with her twenty-six students, only two of whom were male. They stayed in Ajijic six weeks, loved it all, and were very generous with everyone. I received an offer from the aged wife of a Hollywood producer to live with her and two swimming pools in Bel Air.” This number of students does not tally with that provided by Jonas in an article written much closer to the time, but Schneebaum’s description presumably applied to the 1949 workshop, the last of Jonas’ painting schools to be held in Ajijic. The following year, she moved the classes to Taxco. (Incidentally, the students at the summer 1949 workshop in Ajijic included the African American playwright, artist and author Lorraine Hansberry.)

In his two memoirs, Schneebaum mentions various other residents of Ajijic, including authoress Neill James, the Johnsons (Herbert and Georgette), “an elderly British couple” who “had a splendid garden with hundreds of blossoming hibiscus”, and “Herr Müller and Fräulein Müller”, a German brother and sister who ran the village’s only small pension, though “They were nondescript and almost never talked to each other or to any of the guests.” Despite staying at their pension for several months, Schneebaum has recalled their names inaccurately since he is clearly describing Pablo and Liesel Heuer.

While he was in Mexico, Schneebaum (in Secret Places) claims to have had “one-man shows in Mexico City and Guadalajara with the help of Carlos Mérida” but I have been unable to find any supporting evidence or details for these in the local press or elsewhere.

He did, however, participate in at least two group shows in Jalisco. The first, held at the Museo del Estado (Regional Museum) in Guadalajara in March 1949, was of abstract works by “four Ajijic artists”: Schneebaum, Louise Gauthier, Ernesto Linares (Ernesto Butterlin) and Nicolas Muzenic and Guadalajara-based Alfredo Navarro España. Later that year, in August, a group show at the Villa Montecarlo in Chapala featured works by Schneebaum, Muzenic, Alfredo Navarro España, Shirley Wurtzel, Ann Woolfolk and Mel Schuler.

This abstract multi-media (pastel, watercolor, ink and pencil) drawing (below) by Schneebaum dates back to his time in Mexico and is currently listed for sale at DallasModerne.

1950. Multi-media abstract (DallasModerne)

Tobias Schneebaum. 1950. Multi-media abstract (DallasModerne)

After Ajijic and his trip to the Lacandón in 1950, Schneebaum returned to the U.S. where, in 1953, he held his first one-man art show at the Ganso Gallery in New York. After that gallery closed, Schneebaum was taken on by the Peridot Gallery which staged solo shows of his work in 1955, 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1970.

Between about 1954 and 1970, Schneebaum was alternating travel to distant places with a job as designer at Tiber Press, a silk-screen greeting-card company in New York that also occasionally published books. This was when, according to journalist Robin Cembalest, Schneebaum moved into an apartment next door to Norman Mailer. The two became good friends. Mailer and Adele (soon to become his second wife) had also spent some time in Ajijic. After they returned from Mexico and became engaged, “Schneebaum made an accordion-shaped announcement for the engagement… when unfolded, it revealed a long penis.”

In 1954, Tiber Press published a curious limited edition children’s book entitled The Girl in the Abstract Bed. This has delightfully whimsical text by Vance Bourjaily, accompanied by genuine silkscreen prints of watercolors by Schneebaum that were tipped in before the book was bound. Clearly the two men were close friends (Bourjaily himself spent most of 1951 in Ajijic) and the book’s title came from the name of an abstract painting that Schneebaum had done for Vance and his first wife, Tina, to beautify the headboard of their daughter Anna’s crib.

In 1955, Schneebaum was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to travel and paint in Peru, an epic journey recounted in his 1969 memoir Keep the River on Your Right. The book, which became a cult classic, included the sensational story of how, while in the Amazon, he had been forced to participate in cannibalism.

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

Tobias Schneebaum. Undated. Abstract (Sold by Clarke Auction Gallery, 2017)

On other extended trips, Schneebaum explored Europe, crossed the Sahara desert, and ventured into the Congo, Ethiopia and Somalia before completing an overland crossing of Asia from Istanbul to Singapore, Borneo and the Philippines. In 1973, he lived for months with the Asmat people on the southwestern coast of New Guinea. This indigenous group became the focus for the next 25 years of his life. He helped establish the Asmat Museum of Culture and Progress, went back to school to complete an M.A. degree in Cultural Anthropology from Goddard College in 1977, and was a lecturer on cruise ships to the region.

In 1999, Schneebaum was persuaded by film-makers Laura and David Shapiro to revisit New Guinea and Peru for a documentary film, entitled Keep the River on Your Right: A Modern Cannibal Tale, released in 2000. He spent the final years of his life in Westbeth Artists Community in Greenwich Village, New York City, and died, after a lengthy battle with Parkinson’s, in Great Neck, New York, on 20 September 2005.

Schneebaum left his collection of Asmat art to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and his personal papers to the University of Minnesota, where they are part of the Jean-Nickolaus Tretter Collection in Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. His written legacy includes Keep the River on Your Right (1969); Wild Man (1979); Asmat Images, The Asmat Museum of Culture & Progress (1985); Where the Spirits Dwell (1989); Embodied Spirits (1990) and Secret Places: My life in New York and New Guinea (2000).

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Gail Eiloart and Katie Goodridge Ingram for sharing with me their personal memories of Tobias Schneebaum.

Sources

This profile was first published 5 January 2017.

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

Dec 162021
 

Oscar Collier was born 26 February 1924 in Mumford, Texas, and died 3 July 1998. He and his second wife, Gladys, lived in Ajijic for six months sometime in the late 1950s, while he was still actively painting.

Oscar Collier. Self-portrait, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Oscar Collier. Self-portrait, 1940s. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

In this oral history interview in 1994 by Stephen Polcari, Collier talks about his childhood in Texas, his education at Baylor University (where he studied English), the University of Iowa (where he took his first art classes with Philip Guston), and the Art Students League in New York, and his links to many other artists, including Will Barnet, Peter Busa, Robert Barrell, Lee Krasner and Jackson Pollock. Collier describes how he became involved in the 1940s with the style known as Indian Space Painting (named for its links to Pre-Columbian American Indian art), before giving up painting in 1959 to concentrate on publishing as a career.

Collier met his first wife, Gertrude Barrer (1921-1997), while they were both students; they married in about 1942 and separated shortly after the second world war. Gertrude was also a well-known Indian Space Painter, and the couple’s daughter, Greer Fitting (1943-2017), also became an artist and writer.

Collier married Gladys (Whitridge), his second wife, in 1949. That marriage lasted 20 years, and the couple had two children: Lisa Collier Cool, journalist and author who has written for dozens of magazines including Cosmopolitan, Penthouse and Good Housekeeping, and Sophia Collier, entrepreneur (the originator of Soho Soda), investor and artist. Oscar subsequently married Dianna Meerwarth and had a son, Christopher Collier.

Typical Oscar Collier abstract. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Typical Oscar Collier abstract. Reproduced courtesy of Lisa Collier

Oscar Collier was active as an artist in New York in the 1940s and 1950s. He became a close friend of poet Kenneth Beaudoin (1913-1995) who then owned the Galerie Neuf on East 79th Street, in Greenwich Village, New York. Possibly the single most famous exhibit of Indian Space Painting was a show, held at Galerie Neuf in April-May 1946, called “8 and a totem pole” which featured the work of eight Indian Space Painters (Robert Barrell, Gertrude Barrer, Peter Busa, Oscar Collier, Howard Daum, Ruth Lewin, Lillian Orloff and Robert Smith) together with a Haida totem pole. This show had the alternative name of Semeiology. However, Collier’s first one man show at Galerie Neuf in 1947 was not a success.

collier-oscar-book-cover-2From 1946-1947, Collier, Gertrude Barrer and Kenneth Beaudoin collaborated to produce an art and literature quarterly, called Iconograph. Beaudoin was editor, Collier associate editor, and Barrer the art director. Sadly, financial difficulties meant that the quarterly did not last long.

In 1959, Collier abandoned painting for publishing. He became a successful literary agent, managing the publication of such best-sellers as Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment; My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House (by Lillian Rogers Parks, with Frances Spatz Leighton, later turned into a TV series); My Life with Jacqueline Kennedy, by Mary Barelli Gallagher; Barry Goldwater’s first set of memoirs; Harry Browne’s You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis; The Scripps, the Divided Dynasty, by Jack Casserly; and Joseph P. Kennedy: Life and Times, by David Koscoff.

Collier was also the co-author, with Frances Spatz Leighton, of How to Write & Sell Your First Novel (1986) and How to Write and Sell Your First Nonfiction Book (1990).

Acknowledgment

My sincere thanks to Lisa Collier for making valuable corrections and additions to the original post, and for permission to reproduce photographs of her father’s artwork.

Note: This is an updated version of a post originally published on 13 March 2015.

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.

Feb 182021
 

Was George Seaton the first author to include mention of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos in an English-language guidebook to Mexico?

When I was recently re-reading George Seaton’s What to See and Do in Mexico, first published in 1939, a one-line mention of Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos jumped off the page. I can’t recall any earlier mention of Ixtlahuacán in any regular travel guide to Mexico.

George W Seaton- coverSeaton wrote that, “In the little Indian town of Ixtlahuacan [de los Membrillos], they make a famous quince wine. It is good, if you like it, but rather sweet, and more like a cordial.”

Just who was Seaton and how did he come to write about Mexico in general and the Lake Chapala area in particular? George Whiting Seaton was a New York-based author who was born in New York City on 13 January 1888 and died in his native city in August 1944. Seaton was educated in Europe, spending time in Paris, France, (1906-1907) and in Heidelberg, Germany (1909-1910) as well as some time in the UK (1911).

When the US entered the first world war, Seaton enlisted as a private in the US Army. He received rapid promotion and, after being sent back to France in 1918 with the American Expeditionary Forces, was appointed aide to Brigadier-General F LeJ. Parker, Chief of G-2-E of the General Staff. Seaton was made responsible for arranging “tours of the battlefields for correspondents, distinguished visitors, and officials of the American and Allied governments.” After his discharge from military service in 1919, Seaton returned once more to Paris, working on behalf of the American Express Travel Department. Seaton is credited as having led the first party of American tourists to Europe after the war ended.

He remained in Paris for several years, and spent several months traveling all over Russia in the summer of 1922 as a guest of that country’s Tourist Trust to offer them some suggestions about how to establish future tourist traffic.

When Seaton returned to live in the US, he became a tour manager with Raymond and Whitcomb Co., the prestigious travel company based in Boston, Massachusetts.

Seaton occasionally lectured on his experiences in Europe. In 1935, for example, he gave an illustrated lecture on his time in Russia to an audience at the International Relations Club of Colby College in Maine. The newspaper announcement of his lecture said that he would “report only what he saw” and was not a propagandist, and stressed that, in Russia, “He disliked some things he expected to admire and admired others he expected to dislike.” He would, however, try to convince attendees that, “whether one likes it or dislikes it, Russia is the most interesting country in the world today.”

By that time, Seaton was living in an apartment on Grove Street in Greenwich Village, New York, and starting to focus on his writing career.

Seaton traveled widely and authored a series of travel books, including Let’s Go to the West Indies (1938); What to see and do in Mexico: How to Get the Most Out of Your Trip (1939); What to see and do in Scandinavia (1939); Cue’s Guide to what to See and Do in Florida (1940); What to see and do in the South (1941); and What to See and Do in Washington (1941). He also wrote Letters to a Soldier (1942), in which he offered his encouragement as a veteran of the first world war to his adopted son, newly inducted into the army.

When the second world war broke out in Europe, Seaton was hired to work at the US Office of War Information.

J. G. Hatton. c 1905, Juanacatlán Falls.

J. G. Hatton. c 1905, Juanacatlán Falls.

Seaton’s one-liner about Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos in What to See and Do in Mexico is preceded by a detailed description of the Juanacatlán Falls, which “are about 70 feet high and measure 524 feet from end to end.”

From Ixtlahuacán, Seaton continued on to Chapala:

“Chapala is a charming town, the sort of place where you want to linger indefinitely, doing nothing…. The lake shores for miles in either direction at Chapala are lined with villas, parks, and, in the fashionable season, bathers. The best time for bathing is in the wintertime…. Since there are no outstanding churches to see in Chapala and nothing in particular of local interest to buy there, you can devote all your energies to having a good time. Begin by tasting some of the delicious foods they prepare in Chapala. I think the best hotel in town is the Nido….”

Sources

  • The Coast Artillery Journal, vol 85 (July-August 1942).
  • Colby Echo (Waterville, Maine), 16 Jan 1935, 1.
  • George W. Seaton. 1939. What to see and do in Mexico: How to Get the Most Out of Your Trip. Prentice-Hall.

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

Jan 072021
 

It’s not often that obstetrics makes it into my random musings about the artists and authors associated with Lake Chapala. But there’s a first time for everything! Starting in the 1960s, Carol Shepherd McClain, a young California researcher, visited Ajijic several times in order to investigate “traditional” birthing practices in the village.

McClain-textMcClain’s supervisor at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), suggested she undertake research in Guadalajara and/or Lake Chapala. When McClain visited Ajijic in 1965, she knew she had found an ideal place for her work.

In September 1965 the Guadalajara Reporter noted that McClain was visiting Ajijic to gather material for a PhD. Accompanying her during that first visit to Ajijic was her older brother, Spencer Owen Shepherd, who was said to be “adding the finishing touches to a book he wrote in Spain.”

A follow-up in the Guadalajara Reporter in November reminded readers that McClain still hoped that more questionnaires would be returned. Failing to collect sufficient data, McClain was forced to abandon her initial idea of a community study. Instead, on an extended return visit to Ajijic (January 1967 to June 1968) she gathered information for her PhD in Cultural Anthropology (awarded in 1975), which was entitled “Systems of medical beliefs and practices in a West Mexican community.” One of her major findings was that “Ajijicans were more than willing to incorporate modern medical practices as they could easily see that many were effective (e.g. surgery, antibiotics) but that they retained very traditional beliefs about the causes of illness (e.g. witchcraft, fright).”

McClain spent another two months of field work at Lake Chapala from August to September 1973, collecting additional data for an academic article focused specifically on childbirth and midwifery. Published in 1975, when McClain was working at Oregon State University, her ethno-obstetrics research paper looked at the indigenous or “traditional” forms of “obstetrical perceptions” and “the intersection of traditional and modern obstetrical practices,” including the roles played by mothers, grandmothers, curanderas (native healers), parteras (midwives) and espiritistas (spiritualists).

In addition to informal conversations, Carol McClain interviewed 41 mothers at some length about their beliefs and practices, and spent time getting to know four of the local parteras. Doña Carmen was “a popular curandera” who had studied under a hierbero (herbalist) for five years and had “traveled as far as Mexico City to bring patients back to Ajijic for extended treatment.” Her daughter, Josefina, had first become a partera at the age of 25. Doña Josefa, born in Ajijic in 1904, worked both as a partera and as a curandera; she had retired by the time of Shepherd’s second field visit. Doña Petra, born in San Juan Cosalá in 1900, had begun practicing as a partera in 1920 and had spent nine months working under a doctor in Guadalajara; she was the most “modern” (and expensive) of the four.

And what did McClain find out during her research into ethno-obstetrics in Ajijic?

Among other things, that local women believed that four “external factors” affected the fetus: food taboos, sibling jealousy, eclipses of the sun and the moon, and a father who drinks to excess. In the case of food taboos, it was widely believed that “cold” foods might cause illness in the newborn child. McClain quite rightly traced the belief in the potential impact of eclipses back to pre-Conquest times. In Ajijic, it was believed that, “a lunar eclipse will cause an excess of parts, such as fingers or toes, while a solar eclipse will cause incomplete development, and parts of the body which may be affected, such as the nose or the ears, are “eaten by the sun”…. Women who are pregnant will wear a metal object such as a safety pin beneath their clothing to absorb the effects of an eclipse. For protection at night a metal object will be placed beneath the bed.”

McClain’s conclusion was that “Whatever advantages traditional obstetrical care offers women and their children in Ajijic (and these may be considerable), they will be lost if it is completely displaced by modern hospital services. A partial compromise may be the alternative method of home delivery under the care of a physician.”

In 1986, McClain completed a Masters in Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. She then worked for almost twenty years in the President’s Office at the University of California, becoming the university’s administrative director of multicampus research. McClain retired from this position in 2003.

Other academic papers authored by Carol Shepherd McClain include “Adaptation in health behavior in a west Mexican pueblo,” published in Social Science and Medicine (1977); “Women’s choice of home or hospital birth” in Journal of Family Practice (1981); “Traditional midwives and family planning” in Medical Anthropology (1981); “Social network differences between women choosing home and hospital birth” in Human Organization (1987); “A new look at an old disease: smallpox and biotechnology” in Perspectives in Biology  and Medicine (1995); and “Family Stories: Black/White Marriage During the 1960s,” published in the Journal of Black Studies (2011). Shepherd was also the editor of the book Women as Healers: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, published by Rutgers University Press in 1989.

McClain has returned to Ajijic several times in the past twenty years and has conducted additional, less formally structured, research into folk medicine beliefs and practices. This was the basis for a paper she presented at the 2012 meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco entitled “The Persistence of Traditional Medicine: A Mexican Case Study.”

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Dr. Carol Shepherd McClain for sharing details of her visits to Mexico and her research findings.

Sources

  • Guadalajara Reporter: 30 Sep 1965; 25 Nov 1965
  • Carol Shepherd McClain. 1975. “Ethno-obstetrics in Ajijic,” in Anthropological Quarterly, 40: 38-56.
  • San Francisco Examiner: 16 January 1965

Other artists and authors who connect Berkeley/Oakland to Lake Chapala include:

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

Dec 102020
 

John Upton, the translator of poets such as Pablo Neruda and Miguel de Unamuno, and of several seminal works of Spanish literature, lived (off and on) in Ajijic from 1949 to the early 1990s.

In the early 1950s, Upton submitted several colorful pieces about Ajijic and Mexico for the San Francisco Chronicle, including one about the seasonal summer influx of art students:

I had the good fortune to spend an afternoon with Upton at his home in Ajijic in 1990. He was a most gracious host and very supportive of my efforts to document the life of “Zara”— “La Rusa”—the famous ballerina, a longtime resident of Ajijic, who had died in the village a few months earlier.

A couple of years ago, after I’d written a profile of Upton for this blog, I was visiting with journalist and good friend Dale Hoyt Palfrey. I don’t recall how the topic of Upton came up. But she suddenly broke off the conversation and left the room for a few minutes. She returned clutching a small blue notebook which she handed to me. To my surprise it was one of Upton’s notebooks, written and illustrated in his own hand. She insisted on me taking the notebook (I consider myself its custodian rather than its owner) so that I could see what gems it contained.

The pages offer a sneak peek into Upton’s many interests. Scattered notes suggest that it accompanied him on a trip to Mexico City and the Maya region of the Yucatán Peninsula and Guatemala. Page after page contains notes—usually illustrated with informal sketches—regarding the reading of Maya glyphs and numbers.

Extract from p 23 of John Upton's notebook; all rights reserved.

Extract from p 23 of John Upton’s notebook; all rights reserved.

Other pages of the notebook record vocabulary that Upton, for one reason or another, found interesting. Upton, a highly skilled translator, was considered an expert in the idiomatic and colloquial usage and translation of Spanish, with all its regional differences. These pages shed some insight into how Upton acquired his extraordinary linguistic proficiency.

Extract from p 37 of John Upton's notebook; all rights reserved.

Extract from p 37 of John Upton’s notebook; all rights reserved.

Upton was a keen observer as he traveled. The notebook includes this short piece of prose, headed “Extraneous page,” apparently written to share later with a writing colleague:

Could you make a story of this scene in Mexico City?

Couple at the next table: woman of about 45, too much make up, clothes too loud, obviously a whore, sitting with a very shy young man. He is wolfing food as fast as she can order it (she eats nothing – just sits and watches him eat) and as fast as the waitress can bring it: soup, sandwich, order of enchiladas, milk, coffee, large piece of cake – all these are on the table and she orders something else when it occurs to her. She smokes a cigarette and never takes her eyes from his face. (On second look, there are TWO glasses of milk.)

“But, chico! Why didn’t you tell me? Sure you needed a woman, but you can’t spend your last twenty pesos that way. You have to eat, niño!”

He looks up at her from his soup and smiles, shyly; whereupon her battered face lights up and she seems quite pretty.     — [pages 71-72 of notebook]

I would love to know whether this scene was ever incorporated into a short story or book.

Even at the best of times, traveling is sometimes stressful. One evening in San Miguel de Allende, Upton used his notebook (pages 81-82) to vent his frustration at events earlier that day.

Mexicans at their most maddening:

Upon getting off the train at San Miguel A., we were met by two porters who latched on to the suitcases. The women wanted to buy return tickets before leaving the station, as it is some distance from town.

—“Where is the ticket office?”

—“This way.” Men pick up suitcases and we follow them for 300 yards to the far end of the station building. We reach the door and he puts down the bags. “Only it isn’t open right now.”

—“Well, when does it open?”

—“In the morning.”

—“At what time?”

—“In the morning – about noon.”

This information didn’t satisfy me. I walked around the grounds until I found a man who looked knowing. —“When does the ticket office open, please?”

—“The ticket agent just left a couple of minutes ago. It’s closed now.”

—“Yes, I know it’s closed. What I want to know is when it opens.”

—“It’s closed for the rest of the day. The man just left. He went to Celaya.”

—“Well, what about tomorrow? When will he be here?”

—“He won’t open tomorrow, because it is Sunday. Not until Monday.”

—“And when will he open Monday?”

—“Oh! His office hours? From 8:30 a.m. to 4:.00 p.m. every day except Sunday.”

Upton’s deep love of Mexico—enhanced by his study of its people, language and cultures—led to an understanding of the country, and an appreciation for its history and achievements, that is surely a model for all of us.

Acknowledgment

  • My sincere thanks to Dale Hoyt Palfrey for so generously allowing me custody of John Upton’s notebook.

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

Nov 122020
 

Educator, writer and musician Joseph (“Joe”) Cottler and his wife, Betty, first drove south from Philadelphia to Ajijic in about 1957. They returned to the village several times. About 20 years later, following Betty’s death, Joe brought his second wife, Harriet Linton Barr, to Lake Chapala.

Cottler, a high school teacher, mostly wrote biographies of several scientists, inventors and other famous individuals, designed to appeal to his youthful audience. Cottler wrote, or co-wrote, Heroes of Civilization (1932); Map-Makers (1936); The Arch Rebel, Thomas Jefferson (1936); Champions Of Democracy (1936); Heroes of Science (1940); Careers ahead (1941); Ten years, a study in progress (Philadelphia Waist and Dressmakers’ Union, 1943); Man with Wings: The Story of Leonardo da Vinci (1945); Real People: Roger Williams (1950); Real People: Marconi (1953); The printer and the riddle : the story of Henry George (1955); Alfred Wallace Explorer-Naturalist (1966); and More Heroes of Civilization (1969).

Several of these books were translated into other languages. Translations into Spanish included El hombre con alas : la vida de Leonardo da Vinci (Buenos Aires, 1945), Héroes de la civilización (Mexico, 1956), and 34 biografías de científicos y exploradores (Mexico, 1981).

Cottler, an accomplished guitarist and violinist, was also co-credited (with Nicola A. Montani) for a musical score entitled “Lovely babe : Christmas carol for three-part chorus of women’s voices with piano or organ accompaniment” (1946).

Joseph Cottler was born in Kiev, Russia, on 26 October 1899. The family emigrated to the U.S. when Joseph was an infant and became naturalized American citizens in 1915, by which time they were living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Joe was a student at the University of Pennsylvania in 1921 when he applied for a passport to study in France and travel in Europe. He returned to the U.S. nine months later, in March 1922. By the time he next visited Europe to study in Germany, Austria and France during the summer of 1923, he was a qualified teacher. During one or more of these trips to Europe, Joe played violin with a musical combo called the American Jazz Babies in cafes in Paris and elsewhere.

Joe’s first wife, Elizabeth, was born on 4 November 1898 and was also a teacher. The couple traveled to Italy together on a joint passport in 1929. Both Joe and Betty were still teaching (and working as high school counselors) in Philadelphia into the mid-1950s.

While Joe and Betty had no children of their own, they took in a young Harold Weisberg and made him one of the family. Weisberg, who spent much of his life investigating the most notorious assassinations of the twentieth century, paid handsome tribute to the Cottlers in chapter 3 of his final (unpublished) book, Inside the Assassination Industry. Volume 1.

Joe’s second wife, Dr. Harriet Linton Barr, was co-author, with Robert Langs, of LSD: Personality and Experience (1972).

Joe Cottler, educator, author and musician, died on 23 June 1996, having done everything he could to make the world a better place.

Acknowledgment

My thanks to Joe Cottler’s nephew Jerry Forman (a jazz musician who lived in Ajijic 2008-2011) for bringing his uncle’s visits to Lake Chapala to my attention, and for supplying valuable biographical details. Click here for samples of Jerry’s music.

Please feel free to comment or suggest corrections or additional material related to any post, via our comments feature or email.

Oct 152020
 

Educator, translator and all-round good guy John Upton had been living in Ajijic for about a year when he submitted an article about the village in 1950 to the  San Francisco Chronicle. The article focuses especially on the impact of the summer Ajijic Art Workshop, marketed in US colleges and universities.

Upton-Ajijic article

Upton opens by describing Ajijic as “a peaceful Mexican fishing village where life goes on much as it did before the time of Cortes-for 46 weeks of the year.” The bulk of his article is about the remaining six weeks, when — during the rainy season in this “stone and adobe pueblo… almost untouched by the twentieth century” — “Modern Art comes to Ajijic- along with portable radios and falsies.”

Buses from Guadalajara lumber through the burro-clogged streets and discharge members of the Mexican Art Workshop, blinking in the hard, white sunshine.” These art students stay in “La Posada, Ajijic’s only hotel,” which “echoes with the harsh accents of Los Angeles and Chicago.

On the broken brick sidewalks, in the corner store, and under the flame trees in the square, there are little knots of Americans in plaid shirts and blue jeans, carrying paints and canvas and smelling of Dior.”

The workshop was organized by Irma Jonas; its art teachers, headed by Ernesto Linares, included Carlos Mérida, Nicolas Muzenic and Tobias [Toby] Schneebaum. The workshop’s social secretary was Zoe Kernick. The students, mostly women, paid “$275 for a summer of art, inspiration and small adventures.”

Classes are held in one of the town’s largest houses, a sprawling pink adobe with doors eight feet high that open with a key about as large and portable as a pipe wrench. Easels are set up in the luxuriant garden of banana and mango trees until 4.15 in the afternoon, when the daily rainstorm promptly begins. Its downpour lasts little more than half an hour, but after brushes are cleaned and canvases stacked there’s barely time for a rum and water before dinner.

Extra-curricular entertainment is continued largely in gatherings at the inn or in Linares’ cool, high-ceilinged sala, since townspeople frown on women who smoke or drink in public. The cantina has no “table for ladies,” and discourages their attendance-mostly because the showpiece of the establishment is a large, white urinal installed just inside the door.

Music for these evenings is provided by mariachis, local minstrels whose ragged esprit de corps is nicely balanced by their willingness to play anything…. A single evening’s repertoire may include “Quizas” (Number One on the Ajijic hit parade), “Night and Day,” and “Los Blues de San Luis.””

The parties were suitably rowdy, fueled by local tequila, which was “35 cents a liter if you bring your own bottle.”

Acknowledgment

Source

  • John Upton. 1950. “Ah-hee-heek: A Place to Loaf in Mexico.” San Francisco Chronicle, 7 May 1950.

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

Sep 172020
 

José López Portillo y Rojas (1850-1923) was born in Guadalajara. He graduated as a lawyer in Guadalajara in 1871, before spending three years traveling in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East. On his return, he published his first book: Egypt and Palestine. Notes from a trip (1874).

portillo-y-rojas-jose-lopezHe began an illustrious political career as deputy for Jalisco to the national Congress from 1875-1877. Shortly after that first experience of national politics, he returned to Guadalajara and became a journalist, teacher of law, and member of that city’s literary circle.

The group included other young Jalisco writers such as Antonio Zaragoza and Manuel Álvarez del Castillo, one of whose relatives, Jesús, would later start the El Informador newspaper in Guadalajara, which remains one of the city’s most important dailies.

In 1880, López Portillo y Rojas returned to Mexico City as a deputy. In 1882, he became a state senator. In 1886, he joined with Manuel Álvarez del Castillo and Esther Tapia de Castellanos to start a new publication in Guadalajara. La República Literaria, a magazine of science, art and literature quickly became nationally famous, but only lasted until 1890.

In 1891, López Portillo published the first transcription, albeit partial, of Father Antonio Tello’s invaluable 17th century account relating to Lake Chapala. In 1892, he published his only book of verse Transitory harmonies. By 1902, López Portillo was living in Mexico City and had joined the Partido Científico (Scientific Party). After the fall of Díaz, he held various federal government posts before becoming Governor of the State of Jalisco (1912-1914). For a brief period in 1914, he was appointed as Foreign Relations Secretary in the government of Victoriano Huerta, during the time when the U.S. invaded the port of Veracruz.

He left politics shortly afterwards and dedicated himself to teaching and writing. He left a vast body of work, ranging from travel accounts, poems, and literary criticism to historical and legal essays, short stories and novels. His best known collection of short stories is Stories, tales and short stories (1918). His best known novel, The parcel (1898), relates the fight between two hacienda owners for a worthless parcel of land.

At the time of his death in Mexico City on 22 of May, 1923, he was director of the Academia Mexicana de la Lengua (Mexican Academy of Language). One of López Portillo’s grandsons, José López Portillo y Pacheco (1920-2004), served as President of Mexico between 1976 and 1982. In Guadalajara, the Casa-Museo López Portillo, a museum and exhibition space honoring the family, can be visited at Calle Liceo #177.

A short story about Lake Chapala, entitled “José la garza morena” (“José the Great Blue Heron”) was published in Cosmos (a monthly magazine published in Mexico City) in June 1912. It is a tale about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

The story starts by remembering the times before Lake Chapala’s shores has been altered by civilization:

When I visited the lakeside hamlet of Chapala for the first time, now many years ago, I found everything in an almost primitive state, better than now from some points of view, but worse from others.

The author compares the Chapala of earlier times with the situation during the Porfiriato (when he was active in politics as a supporter of President Díaz):

Not a sign back then of the picturesque villas that today adorn and decorate these shores from the town to El Manglar, which is the house where Don Porfirio Díaz used to stay during the time, happy for him, of his all-embracing command; but everywhere was thick scrub, cheerful orchards with severe rocky places, which were in harmony with that rustic and unspoiled landscape.

The scene is set; the action begins with an evening trip in a rowboat on the lake. The beauty of the lake, as depicted by the author, creates an impression of decadence and morbidity, because there are no signs of life out on the water:

But that scene of glorification seemed dead and desolate, without any bird to make it cheerful; not a stork, nor a crane, nor a duck stained the burnished horizon with its graceful silhouette.

Further on, the author continues:

The lake appeared magnificent and solitary under that divine show, as if it were another asphalt lake, a new Dead Sea. But it was not always thus; and the recollections of better times engraved in my memory transformed this most unhappy spectacle because, before the rising tide of civilization invaded these places with platoons of armed hunters with shining rifles, flocks of ducks would rise suddenly into the air from the marshes as the boat approached.

The second part of the short story is about someone finding a heron that has been shot and wounded, and trying in vain to cure it.

Note: The translations included above are by the author of this post, which was first published 18 June 2014.

Credit and reference:

My sincere thanks to Dr. Wolfgang Vogt of the University of Guadalajara for bringing this short story (and his analysis of it) to my attention.

Vogt, Wolfgang (1989) “El lago de Chapala en la literatura” in Estudios sociales: revista cuatrimestral del Instituto de Estudios Sociales. Universidad de Guadalajara: Year 2, Number 5: 1989, 37-47. Republished in 1994 as pp 163-176 of Vogt (1994) La cultura jalisciense desde la colonia hasta la Revolución (Guadalajara: H. Ayuntamiento).

Please feel free to comment or suggest corrections or additional material related to any post via our comments feature or email.

Jul 232020
 

The great food writer Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher is one of the many well-known non-fiction writers to have spent time in Chapala.

Fisher wrote more than 20 food-related works and was considered by contemporaries as “the greatest food writer of our time”. The revered English poet W. H. Auden extolled the quality of her writing, saying “I do not know of anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.”

fisher-mary-frances-kennedyFisher was born on 3 July 1908 in Albion, Michigan. Her first book, Serve it Forth, was published in 1937. Her books, with titles such as How to Cook a Wolf, Consider the Oyster, and An Alphabet for Gourmets, consider food from multiple perspectives, including preparation, natural history, culture, and philosophy.

Fisher spent three weeks in Chapala from mid-October into November 1941, shortly after her second husband Dillwyn had taken his own life. [Dillwyn “was dying from a horribly painful and invariably fatal disease (and could not obtain the only medication that had any effect on the pain in the USA)” – see comments below.] Fisher visited Chapala to stay with her sister Norah and her brother David Holbrook Kennedy and his wife Sarah, who had rented a house there over the summer. David and Sarah were honeymooning in Chapala where David had a contract to paint murals in the municipal baths of Chapala, a task with which the others helped. The entire group (David, Sarah, Norah, and Mary Frances) helped paint the murals, working on them every day for several weeks. After the murals were finished toward the end of November 1941, Fisher and Norah flew back to Los Angeles, with David and Sarah following by car.

Many details and stories relating to Fisher’s visit are told in Reardon’s Poet of the Appetites and Fisher’s The Gastronomical  Me. According to Joan Reardon, her biographer, Fisher drafted some of The Gastronomical Me while staying in Chapala: “No doubt Mary Frances drafted those two chapters [of The Gastronomical Me] during the three weeks she stayed with Norah, David, and Sarah in their little rented house in the fishing village along the shore of Lake Chapala.” (Reardon, 141)

In The Gastronomical Me, Fisher describes what living in Chapala was like in 1941:

“Our house was about thirty steps from the little square, which was very correct, with a wooden bandstand in the middle and a double promenade around it under the thick green trees, so that the boys could walk one way to the music and the girls the other… until the boys found courage or centavos enough to buy flowers and join their loves.

The flower-women sat at one end of the plaza on concert nights, the dark end, and candles or little lamps shone like magic on the blossoms lying on clean cloths in front of them. There were camelias and tiny gardenias, and sometime spidery jewel-like orchids, and plainer garden flowers, all glowing in the soft light on the earth while the women crouched darkly behind, deep in their shawls, and the band wheezed bravely for the innocent concupiscent strollers on the paths.

There were two or three bars, with juke-boxes when the orchestra got tired, and a little kiosk sold bright pink and yellow ices and Coca-Cola.

In the other direction from our house, and around the corner was the market. It was a sprawling wandering collection of stands, some of them elaborate, with counters for eating and stoves in the center, and some of them a piece of cloth on the ground with two little heaps of dried peppers and a bruised yam or a pot of stew waiting to be bought. Of course there were serape merchants and sandal-makers on Sundays, and piles of thin pottery everywhere and always because it broke easily after it was bought.

There were hungry dogs and cats near the one meat-stand, where flies buzzed so thickly over the strange strips of hanging bony flesh that we could hear them before we even turned the corner.

Some days, and perhaps for a week at a time, there would be almost nothing to buy except one thing, like tomatoes, at every stand… little pungent tomatoes no bigger than pigeon eggs. It was the wrong season for avocados when I was there, but now and then we found string beans, or a rotting papaya.” (Fisher, 546)

In general, Fisher was not overly impressed with the quality of the food in Mexico, though she praised a meal in Mazatlán (where she had to overnight between flights on her way south to Guadalajara), brought from the “country” (non-American) kitchen where the waiters ate.

She was far less impressed with the culinary delights of Chapala where  “the meats were repulsive and poorly cooked; there were no salads and almost no vegetables; none of us liked the violently colored stiff sweet pastes that were called desserts.”

Even breakfast was an ordeal. She cooked scrambled eggs a few times, “but it was hard to find more than two or three at once, and there was no cream or cheese in the village.”

The family ate out most nights:

“At night we usually went to one of the little restaurants. They were very plain, and it was best to stop by in the afternoon and ask what there would be for four people. Most of the people ate in them or ordered food to be cooked there and taken home, even if they were quite poor. It was because the kitchens were so bad, I suppose, and charcoal and water and food so scarce. Always at meal times boys would be walking through the streets with food on their heads, from the little eating-places… pots of stew and beans, piles of tacos, sometimes a boiled chicken steaming naked on a platter if it was for a family feast-day.” (Fisher, 549)

Elsewhere, Fisher describes an evening spent in a bar run by a “fat widow”, “a white-faced woman with a shy flashing smile”. This description is almost certainly of the famous bar owned at that time by the Viuda Sánchez (Widow Sánchez), who popularized the tequila chaser known as sangrita.

Sources:

  • Joan Reardon, 2005. Poet of the Appetites: The Lives And Loves of M.F.K. Fisher (North Point Press)
  • M. F. K. Fisher, 1943. The Gastronomical Me (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York), reprinted in The Art of Eating (Macmillan 1979).

Note: This post was first published Oct 13, 2014.

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

Jul 082020
 

Lysander Kemp (1920-1992) worked as a writer, professor, translator, and was head editor of the University of Texas Press from 1966 to 1975. During his tenure at UT Press, he collaborated with the Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998) on numerous translations, including the landmark book The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico. Kemp also oversaw the publication of two collections of Paz’s essays and criticism, and translated the work of several other important Mexican writers such as Juan Rulfo.

Lysander Schaffer Kemp Jr. was born 13 November 1920 in Randolph, Vermont, and died in January 1992 in Harwich Port, Massachusetts. He graduated from Canton High School, Canton, Massachusetts in 1938, where he had been active in tennis, music, and on the stage, in addition to being literary editor of the school magazine The Echo.

He graduated from Bates College, Maine, in 1942 (where he was “class poet” in his final year) and then enlisted in the Army. He served three years in the Caribbean Defense Command, in Panama, Ecuador and Puerto Rico, from 1942-1945. After his discharge, more than 40 poems he had submitted in partial fulfillment of his M.A. (1946) from Boston University were published as The Northern Stranger (Random House, 77 pp). His academic English teaching career included a spell at the University of Buffalo, and publications such as “Understanding “Hamlet”” in College English (Oct., 1951).

Lysander Kemp (at rt) playing the alto sax in The Jocotepec Penguins, mid-1950s

Lysander Kemp (at rt) playing the alto sax in The Jocotepec Penguins, mid-1950s

From 1953-1965, Kemp moved to Mexico and lived for many years in Jocotepec, at the western end of Lake Chapala. His published poems and short articles about the Lake Chapala area include:

  • 1954. “The only beast: Reflections on Not Attending the Bullfights”, pp 46-56 of Discovery #4 (New York).
  • 1955. “Gods: Jocotepec, Mexico” [poem] The New Yorker. Vol 31 (Sept 10, 1955) p 114.
  • 1957. “The Penguins Gather.” Saturday Review v 40 (May 11, 1957) p. 38. This short article, with photo, describes a dance-band in Jocotepec. Kemp was the first saxophone.
  • 1957. “Perils of Paradise.” Travel piece in House and Garden vol. 111 (April 1957) pp 172-4, 177.
  • 1958. “Travel: Tricks in Buying Pre-Columbian Art.” House and Garden, 113, #2, February 1958, p 22-24, 26

Kemp also translated Juan the Chamula: An Ethnological Recreation of the Life of a Mexican Indian by Ricardo Pozas (University of California Press); Selected Poems of Ruben Dario (University of Texas Press); The Time of the Hero, by Llosa Mario Vargas (Farrar Straus & Giroux); Pedro Paramo: A Novel of Mexico, by Juan Rulfo. (Grove/Atlantic, 1959).

In his career, Kemp published several poems and articles not directly related to Mexico. These include the poems “The Last Rose of Summer : Cape Cod” (The New Yorker, 1954), “Are We Then So Serious?” (New Mexico Quarterly, 1954-1955), and “Cat” (The New Yorker, 1958), and a short piece entitled “Krispie News” (The New Yorker, 1955), in which he wrote that, “”In Mexico Kellogg’s Rice Krispies do not say “Snap, crackle, pop,” as they do here. They say “Pim, pum, pam.”

He also wrote four science fiction stories: “The Airborne Baserunner” (1954), “Boil One Cat” (1954), “The Universal Solvent” (1955) and “Silent Night” (1955).

Related post:

Note: This is an updated version of a post first published 8 July 2014.

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

Jun 252020
 

When enthusiastic British traveler William English Carson visited Chapala in 1908–1909, he liked what he found. His book about Mexico—Mexico, the Wonderland of the South—was based on four months’ residence in the country and published just before the start of the Mexican Revolution,

Carson arrived in Guadalajara in November 1908 and stayed over the New Year before staying at the Hotel Arzapalo in the village of Chapala for a few days. His description of a noxious weed infestation at Lake Chapala is one of the earliest detailed descriptions of its kind:

“All along the shores of the lake, and in the Lerma River which runs into it, hundreds of peons are employed in gathering and burning yellow water-lily which has invaded the waters. A few years ago, some imbecile planted a quantity of the lily in the river, thinking it would look pretty. In an incredibly short time it spread like wildfire; some of the streams were completely choked with it, and when I visited Chapala the river was covered in places with green masses of the plant. It had spread all along the lake when the Mexican government took the matter in hand and appropriated a large sum of money for its destruction. At night, fires can be seen blazing along the shores of the lake where the peons have collected and are burning large piles of the noxious weed.”

Either Carson’s sense of color was flawed or his description of the “yellow water-lily” was not intended to refer to the violet-flowered water hyacinth described at about the same time in Terry’s Mexico Handbook. More than a century later, the water hyacinth is still periodically a problem.

Commenting that “very few Americans have ever heard of Lake Chapala”, Carson described how “a number of pretty villas are dotted along the lake’s edge, embowered in bougainvillea and hibiscus, palms and orange trees. ” The popularity of the village had led to some land speculation:

“On a hill a short distance from the shore some land has been divided into building lots for villas, with the idea of starting a model American summer village; but the price of the ground is so high—about $1000 per lot—that very few purchasers had been found.”

After an eloquent description of the tourist life at Chapala, and the lake’s potential for fishing and hunting, Carson wrote that,

“A short distance along the shore, within sight of the beautiful electric-lighted villas, there is another of those queer contrasts so often met with in Mexico. Here is a little village of Indian fishermen who live in huts or wigwams of rushes and adobe, some of the fishing houses being built on piles in the lake like those of the prehistoric lake-dwellers in Switzerland…. To visit this place when the sun is setting, and see the weird figures flitting about beneath the semitropical foliage, conversing in low tones in their ancient dialect, living the most primitive of lives, makes it almost impossible to realize that hardly a mile away are comfortable hotels, a railway, Pullman cars and other adjuncts of latter-day civilization.”

Elsewhere in the book, many of his views about Mexicans will strike modern readers as stereotypical. For example, in an otherwise fascinating chapter about “The Mexican Woman”, he makes several outrageous over-generalizations, including:

—  “As a rule, the Mexican women are not beautiful”

—  “no foreigner, unless he be associated with diplomacy, is likely to have any chance of studying and judging the Mexican women

— “the Mexican girl has but two things in life to occupy her, love and religion”

According to Carson, “fevers and malaria are certain to result from exposure to the rains or the intense heat of the midday sun.” He attributed the progress (as evidenced by the bustling city and high costs of living) in Mexico City and elsewhere to American influence. Carson thought that “Americanization” was such a positive impact that Mexico might one day become “peacefully annexed to the United States.” (!)

Very little is known about his early life, but journalist and author William English Carson (1870-1940), apparently toured the Outer Hebrides in 1897 in the company of future tabloid pioneer Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe). Carson later made his home in New York and became a naturalized American citizen. He also wrote The marriage revolt; a study of marriage and divorce (Hearst’s International Library Co., 1915) and Northcliffe, Britain’s Man of Power (Dodge Publishing Co., 1918).

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.

[This is a lightly edited excerpt from chapter 52 of my Lake Chapala through the ages: an anthology of travelers’ tales.]

Source

  • William English Carson. 1909 Mexico: the wonderland of the south. New York:
    Macmillan.

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.

May 142020
 

Thomas Philip Terry (1864-1945) was born in Georgetown, Kentucky. Terry first visited Mexico in his early twenties and spent 5 years working for The Mexican Financier, a Mexico City weekly, while writing a series of short stories and news reports for U.S. newspapers and completing a popular Spanish-English phrase book. Terry then lived briefly in New York before moving to Japan for a decade.

He had a flair for languages and this inveterate traveler and reporter witnessed first-hand the China-Japanese War, the Boxer outbreak, the Russo-Japanese war, and the Spanish-American war in the Philippines. He returned to Mexico, with his wife and their two young sons, in 1905 as manager (administrator) of the Sonora News Company, a position he held until 1910.

The Sonora News Company was a prominent publishing house, founded in Nogales, Arizona, in about 1884 by W. F. Layer. Layer established the company in order to control the news business along the Sonora railroad which ran from Guaymas to Nogales. In 1888, not long after the company opened a Mexico City office, it won the contract for supplying periodicals and other items on the Mexican National Railway (linking Mexico City to Nuevo Laredo), and for running news agents on its trains. As more and more railroad lines were built, the company continued to expand; by 1891 it had contracts with the Sonora, Central, International, National, Monterrey, and Mexican Gulf railroads.

In addition to its regular news gathering and disseminating activities, the Sonora News Company published two seminal guide books about Mexico. The first was Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico, by Reau Campbell, published in 1899, and the second was Terry’s Mexico handbook for travellers, first published in 1909. This encyclopedic guide, thoroughly good reading, covers lots of ground that was, and still is, hard to find elsewhere.

Terry-map-Chapala

This map in Terry’s handbook, which helped persuade D. H. Lawrence to visit Chapala, shows the lake larger than it really was in 1909—the eastern swamps had been drained and reclaimed as farmland by that time.

Terry’s Mexico handbook was so well-received by President Díaz and his cabinet members that they ordered copies to be sent to every Mexican embassy, legation and trade office across the world. The guide quickly became the travel bible for Thomas Cook and Sons and other travel agencies and tourist organizations, and remained the tourist “bible” for decades.

Its description of Chapala is credited with convincing the English novelist D. H. Lawrence that he simply had to see the town and its eponymous lake for himself. During his residence at Lake Chapala, Lawrence wrote the first draft of The Plumed Serpent, using local settings and characters for inspiration.

Terry’s research was meticulous and his informative guide delves into the details of everything from history to hotels, and from shopping to excursions. It was expanded in numerous subsequent editions as Terry’s Guide to Mexico, with later editions revised by James Norman.

In 1914, Terry produced a second book on Mexico: Mexico: an outline sketch of the country, its people and their history from the earliest times to the present.

Thomas Philip Terry died in Hingham, Massachusetts in 1945.

In a curious twist of fate, Terry also has a much more recent connection to Lake Chapala in that Robert C. Terry (his grandson) retired with his wife, Judith, to Ajijic in 2007.

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.

For more about Terry and his description of Lake Chapala, see chapter 53 of my Lake Chapala Through the Ages, an anthology of travelers’ tales.

Sources include

  • Reau Campbell. 1899. Campbell’s new revised complete guide and descriptive book of Mexico. Mexico City: Sonora News Company, 1899.
  • The Jalisco Times, 22 August 1908.
  • The Mexican Herald, 31 March 1910, 3.
  • The Rock Island Argus (Rock Island, Illinois), 26 Mar 1910, 4.
  • Thomas Philip Terry. 1909. Terry’s Mexico Handbook for Travellers. México City: Sonora News Company and Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
  • James Tipton. 2011. “Peace Corps couple retire to their Mexico paradise.” Article on MexConnect.com
  • The Two Republics, 2 Sep 1888, 4; 2 Nov 1888, 4.

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.