April 24, 2010

Patzcuaro: We Stop at Pichátaro

During the last three years, we’ve traveled through the wee town of San Francisco Pichátaro several times driving between Pátzcaro and Paracho. I’ve taken blurry photos on the run of intriguing carved wood pillars and furniture displayed outside rustic workshops; we’ve been stuck in two-way truck traffic on the narrow roadway, and were once delightfully slowed to a crawl in the midst of costumed, waving, laughing people during a twilight carnival event. We considered picking up our dinner produce from street vendors… 

…but we never did, because we never stopped.

This year, driving back from Paracho, we passed the small church on the right that seems unfinished but is in use anyway, then approached the large modern-faced church directly across the plaza from the road. For the first time, I got a good look at an older church to the left of the new one, behind a government building.  Hmmm, intriguing.
Two weeks later, after Chuck and I and Terri and Tuck picked up my repaired mandolin in Paracho, we said…Let’s stop! And, we did. 

I think everyone should! The church is a gem! The town is interesting!

Templo San Francisco de Asís is very old, judging by crumbling exterior mortar and the construction styles within. The date 1895  is carved high on the church face, but because we’ve seen many churches that are inscribed with several dates marking multiple renovations, it’s hard to bet whether this is the actual date…or not! As we entered the courtyard, a boy was ringing the bells for the afternoon service. We followed the early arrivals into the church, past the choir boy statue at the entrance.

The church interior is lovingly cared for. The traditional, beautifully painted curved ceiling has the slatted structure used in churches built in the 15th-16th century. The blue walls and stenciled flowers  look recently painted, but are well integrated with the temple design. It would be fascinating to compare old interior pictures, if they exist! Maybe we should ask around next time.  

New additions, such as the lovely large paintings in carved wood frames, have been carefully selected and beautifully executed. Peek into the dim recesses of the confessional, and see the baptismal room with its old stone font and painting!

Suddenly, altar boys and the priest strode in with smoldering censers, and women in dark rebozos moved into the pews. It was a small congregation. We sat down and watched smoke fill the church.
Then we moved out into the town plaza. Which way to go first?
Strolling  the street as the sun grew lower, we saw Pichátaro homes that proudly incorporate highly carved traditional construction. Below is a second floor residence balcony. It was fun to browse the low tech shops and see high quality work! We saw no painted pieces – but you could color these to your own design. We also saw lovely embroidered blouses for sale.

I’ve often wondered…what are the round, green, somewhat soft fruits next to the guavas?
Yes, there is a lot to contemplate in San Francisco Pichátaro!

To find out much more about Pichátaro woodwork and about forest protection and loss in this region of Michoacán, check out the very fine Mexico Cooks! Pichátaro blog.

April 21, 2010

Patzcuaro: We Need to Visit Paracho

A scene on the road to Paracho, a town between Patzcuaro and Uruapan. 

Paracho is a quiet town full of craftsmen, and many are known worldwide. It’s a town dedicated to creating music, although on an ordinary visit you may not HEAR any music … until you ask!

I needed to visit Paracho. Why? Because my mandolin was broken! Yes, Paracho is a town where dozens, or perhaps hundreds of skilled “constructors” make stringed instruments of all kinds - especially guitars. They call it the Guitar Capital of the World.

Notice something unusual about all these shops?
The artists are all members of a single family with long instrument-building traditions!
The Loncheria is where we ate during our last visit.
The man working at his small bench is R. Amezcua, a member of this talented family.   

Last year, we went to Paracho looking for someone to repair an instrument with a crack below the sound hole (my mandolin #1). We stopped at a shop where several gorgeous mandolins were hanging in the window. That is how we met Jose Luis Diaz Reyes, Constuctor de Guitarras Clasico, Estudio y Flamenco. He’s about two blocks north of the church on Avenida 20 de Noviembre #361. Dedicated, gracious and quietly humorous, he solved my problem!

This year, we had a different problem with my mandolin #2. The neck was separating from the body and needed gluing. Some readers will recognize this as a dry weather problem. I must pay more attention to humidifying the instruments! Jose welcomed us back, and we left the mandolin with him. When we returned along with friends Teri and Tuck, Jose took us into his tiny workshop, located under the stairs leading to the building’s second floor.  I tried the mandolin. It was terrific!  
We all got acquainted around Jose’s workbench. It’s made by hand as are many of his tools. Tuck and Chuck are both experienced in building many things – homes, boats, furniture, crafts. There was much talk about wood.

Jose has been building instruments for 57 years, and has no plans to stop.  He has trouble getting tools, however. We agreed that next time we came we would bring along a new Stanley 110 plane. It was totally OK with him if that might take a year or two.   


Paracho is fun for everyone, whether musician or not! Even if you do not play an instrument, you will be welcomed into a workshop/showroom to chat with a man who is making one. Many renowned musicians, like Carlos Santana and John Williams, own instruments made in Paracho. This man, Jesus Fuerte, made a guitar for Santana! He’s just sold two guitars to Barry & Susan, who are taking them back to Canada as gifts … or maybe Barry will learn to play! A beautiful instrument can be extremely affordable, even when ordered to specifications. Be sure to try them out - a Mexican-style instrument may have a wider neck than you’d expect! And bring your own strings. Mexican strings are, well, not so hot.

In addition to the makers’ workshop/sales rooms, other shops sell instruments, instrument cases, instruction books and crafts - wooden boxes, earrings, bowls, t-shirts, baskets, lacquer work, toys and more. Nearly everyone seems to play the guitar, and will demonstrate how great they sound. Senor Limon will play the miniatures he makes and displays in his shop/museum, Guitarras Limon.
It seems that in Paracho, the Indigenous women’s clothing is particularly lacey and beautiful – especially on the young women, who all seem dressed in their best and newly married! Wednesday is Paracho’s market day, but there are always women selling flowers and embroidered goods on the plaza.
How many of these young people are already building guitars?
It would be fun to visit Paracho in mid-August, when they hold an annual  big bash music festival.

April 19, 2010

Patzcuaro: Tzintzuntzan Good Friday

To state the obvious, most Mexicans are Catholic. Interestingly, the number attending church regularly is the lowest of all Catholic countries, less than 50%. Some of the most striking public events in Mexico are rooted in spiritual pageantry. We got up early on Good Friday to head for Tzintzuntzan, a town not far from Patzcuaro that is famous for their elaborate Easter celebrations. The successive events begin early with the Passion Play, and continue with an enactment of the via crucis/stations of the cross, crucifixion, procession of mourning, church services and more processions late into the night. For the faithful, the occasion is a spiritual pilgrimage blending sorrow and joy. It is also an event that stems from medieval times, is steeped with history, and colored by the character of Mexico’s Indigenous peoples.

Tzintzuntzan, a Purépecha town celebrated for its history and crafts, was once the capital of the great Tarascan civilization that repelled the powerful Aztecs. Sadly, their strength was broken by European diseases even before the Spanish Franciscan monks began to build churches here in the 16th century.
Five beautifully reconstructed round Tarascan temples overlook the town.
Hooray,we found a great parking place close in by the cemetery!

No wonder, we were quite early! We strolled the huge grassy courtyard and visited the churches while waiting for the Passion Play to begin. Many huge, gnarly olive trees provide welcome shade. These were brought from Spain and planted by the Franciscans in the 16th century, and are said to be the oldest in the Americas. The pix below is just one tree!

At the end of churchyard is the Ex-Convento de San Francisco, a lovely building now restored for visitors, and the attached Templo de San Francisco, built for use by the monks and priests. In early days, the Purépechas worshiped only in the Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Salud nearby. A few of the faithful were making a long, slow passage on their knees across the churchyard to one or the other of the two churches. Family members shuffled blankets to soften their path.

Inside Templo San Francisco, the mood was sober. The large space seemed hollow, with all the images shrouded in purple and only a handful of visitors. The walls and ceiling are painted, an infinitely varied feature of the churches that intrigues me.
By contrast, the Templo de Nuestra Senora de la Salud was alive with brilliant flowers, worshipers, wandering families, and men preparing wooden images of crucified Christ for display. Everyone seemed to be welcome, and no one minded the two wandering dogs! My photos were few and furtive, as we did not want to intrude, though locals were free with their cell photos.

The walls and wooden ceiling are intricately painted in the construction style used in the earliest Spanish churches.

Outside again, an eerie devil/ogre strode up to us, pointed a clawed hand to his small leather purse, and demanded coins! We quickly complied, and he was off to find another mark. When he demanded a contribution from one man, the guy looked stern, held his left hand up with elbow bent out and made a flicking motion under the bent elbow with his right hand. Later, the devil confronted another who did offer coins, but apparently not enough, because now the devil himself did the elbow thing, and the man gave him more! If anyone out there knows the meaning of this versatile gesture, please tell us!

Meanwhile, across the courtyard, Jesus had appeared beneath an olive tree with head bowed and hands bound, guarded by warriors. There he would stand in silence, occasionally suffering a blow of the guard's rope whip, until the audience arrived and the play began. He accepted this important role months ago, and began to prepare himself for a difficult responsibility requiring much personal preparation.

Next, penitentes with grilletes/shackles began to enter the courtyard. They wore only a cloth wrap and hood. With one hand, each man clutched a rope that was tied to and supported their iron shackles. In the other hand they carried an alms plate. Aided by two men, the penitentes shuffled their way slowly through the crowd begging coins. Men apply to assume these roles as a personal sacrifice or atonement, surely a life-changing experience. It is a brave and sorrowful act that I admire. They were my favorite aspect of the day.

This person seemed to be a sort of silent observer... fate? Justice? Anyone know?  Dismounted, he sat on a chair, anonymous and rather encumbered by his costume, at the edge of the stage during the entire performance.

The stage was ready, set up along the wall joining the ex-convent and Templo San Francisco. Jesus was escorted back into the convent to await his entry, and the play began with rumors flying about Jesus' doings in the town.

The production was well-rehearsed, emotionally acted, and projected over a good sound system. Also, it was long! The woman above was clearly a professional. As the story evolved, Judas appeared, told his tale, and gathered up the silver coins thrown his way. Soldiers then escorted him to Gethsemane, where he betrayed Jesus with a kiss.                                    

Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, where bold speeches and much debate ensued about what to do next. He was beaten with whips and very real switches. This actor would have a long, difficult day.

The audience and the young guards watched, enthralled and perhaps rightly concerned.
Finally, all the actors moved off the stage, ready to move through the courtyard for the Via Cruces and Crucifixion to come. The Priest appeared, with blue-robed Christ figure and attendants. Much of the crowd began to regroup behind the actors, ready to follow.
The church's collection of large crucifixes was set up on a platforms with four carrying handles, ready for a procession through the town, probably late in the day.
Chuck and I decided to depart, and joined a flow of those also leaving the churchyard. We had a picnic beside the cemetery, and came back to explore the extra large crafts market set up for the occasion.

Tzintzuntzan is particularly known for its pottery and plaited straw and natural fiber crafts. No, we didn't buy anything this day but preserved figs - we took home only memories! And pictures.
After a day that exercises all our senses, it's always a pleasure to come home to our tranquil campsite at Villa Patzcuaro, the pleasant small hotel where we've stayed during two long visits to Patzcuaro. The owners continue a long family tradition of hospitality. The property, residence, office and rooms were once part of a large hacienda at the edge of town.
The end of another very fine day!