Hunters of the Haciendas: El Luz
Just off Highway 54 we headed down to the bottom of the
canyon, stopping along the way for directions to
Hacienda El Luz.
A couple of days ago I went on a long road trip with some amiable gringos. We headed north, taking the ring road around Guadalajara’s congested and funky flank, looking for a road sign to tell us where to go, but there were none that pointed our way. We had all manner of road maps, even a talking navigation system, but we still ended up trial-and-error backtracking, and then paralleling the road we were looking for, which was—like so much else—under construction. We finally made our way over to Highway 54, the latest incarnation of an ancient trade route, from which—twenty miles out of the city—we eventually found the cutoff to our destination.
Our first view of the hacienda’s walls didn’t offer any clue
of its former status.
This was the beginning of my baptism in the “Hacienda Hunt”. An ex-pat labor organizer from Oregon and well-read local historian named Jim Cook started this benign madness several years ago and now the group of cazadores de las haciendas numbers about a dozen. Once a month they—“we”, now—go into the countryside within about a hundred miles of Ajijic to look for the remains of several of the four hundred or so haciendas that enjoyed a heyday lasting some 250 years until early in the last century.
A former anteroom of the casa grande now serves as a pig sty.
These remains have occasionally been lavishly restored and the group has been given a grand tour and feted in sumptuous style. The usual drill, though, runs something like I experienced on Thursday. Jim had read a couple of books that described a hacienda begun on land seized in the typical manner from los nativos in the late 1600’s. It had passed through numerous greedy hands over several centuries of exploitation until the last owner fled and the casa grande with its high walls, many outbuildings, and chapel slowly began to decay.
Descendants of the people who had worked this land, both free and enslaved, for countless centuries, still live in the general area around the ruins of the hacienda. They were the ones we counted on to give us directions to the exact location. Part of the motive for this exploration is to walk the grounds, put our hands on the iconic sites in this nation’s history and imagine how it might have been three hundred years ago. Part of it is the questing nature of the hunt itself with the prize being the discovery we signify in photos, and the sustaining part is the connections we forge, using our smiles, interested good intentions, gestures and pidgin Spanish, with the invariably welcoming people we meet.
The stone, adobe, and brickwork of the chapel’s
exterior hint at past restorations and/or interrupted
From Jim’s research we knew the general area where Hacienda El Luz had been located as a working “plantation” and way station along the four hundred-year-old road between the fabulous silver mining town of Zacatecas and the center of commerce in Guadalajara. After we descended from modern Carretera 54 into the barranca, or canyon, formed by Rio Santiago, we began stopping to ask for directions. We bumped our way along a winding dusty road on an undulating terrace above the river until we found a small, scattered settlement and lots of wide-eyed stares and hesitant responses to our smiles and waves.
After we stopped a friendly-looking fellow standing next to his pickup, announced to him our intention, were given understandable directions and assurances of where we could park, we felt that our welcome had been largely secured. We piled out of two dirt-streaked cars, arranged to satisfaction our clothing, cameras, agua, fanny and back packs, and headed down the rutted track to which we had been directed. It wasn’t long before we saw, across a cultivated field, a red pickup parked in front of a worn adobe structure that the more knowledgeable among us sussed out as our destination.
The week-old offerings and flowers at the chapel’s altar
are to honor the nearby village’s patron saint, San Antonio.
It didn’t look like much to me. The packed-earth blocks appeared indeterminably old, or viejo, but it wasn’t until I saw the rusted metal grillwork still attached to a very worn wooden window frame, that I became convinced that this might well be the Hacienda El Luz Del Salto we had been hunting. The walls that had once housed the casa grande were still standing on two sides and their vestibules were put to use housing farm equipment and a pig sty. Inside a makeshift barbed wire gate we saw the chapel where for two centuries or more the haciendado, his family, the estate foremen and their families worshipped, and perhaps—on occasion—even the peons, who had once considered this land their own, and who provided the back-breaking muscle power for their new overlords.
The twin waterfall, or salto, that gave this hacienda its name
is visible in the notch at the top of the plateau above the canyon.
Far below it are fields of nopal, a cactus cultivated for its edible
paddles, or leaves, and fruit.
All things pass, and it wasn’t long before we were greeted by Cristóbal, the current farmer of this land who graciously, with good humor and hospitality, confirmed our find and showed us around. He unlocked the chapel, or capilla, which even after all these years and changes was still in use. It had recently been decorated, in fact, to honor San Antonio, the patron saint of the village. Behind the chapel was the maiz field Cristóbal and his sons had just been cultivating to plant the new season’s crop. Surrounding this field were rows of nopal cactus which they were raising for the edible leaves and bulbed fruit. And far above the cactus, falling from the high plateau above the barranca, was the waterfall, or salto, from which the hacienda had derived its name.
After many photos, lively if ill-understood conversations with Cristóbal, and much tromping about, we made our way back to the cars where one of our number had retreated to suffer in silence (well, not quite) from an awfully uncomfortable case of stomach malaise. We headed posthaste for a baño and our next destination, the village of San Francisco Ixcatán, another way station on the old silver road. As all but one of us lunched well at its immaculately maintained plaza, we admired the local church which was being built, someone pointed out, just as the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth rock.
The expedition for the next two haciendas on our list continued for three more bumpy, hot and dusty, up and down hours, following stops for directions from a matron we accosted on Ixcatán’s main street, several groups of impossibly young teenagers driving trucks through the outback, lots of workers in countless pickups, men loitering on corners, families out picnicking, and trabajadores from Guadalajara picking some of the legions of ripening mangos in a shady and incredibly isolated arroyo. They each invariably had an opinion about how to get to our destinations. That’s not to mention the “guidance” of our own xeroxed copies of hand drawn maps, published maps both large and small scale, both spiral bound and intricately folded, several hand-held GPS trackers (one running low on batteries), and an even-tempered, if robotic, female voice from our onboard navigation system.
All to no avail…not to mention the suffering of a proud and sympathetic member of our team who'd been stricken with Montezuma’s Revenge. True, we didn't find everything we were looking for, but we’ll be back next month, for we are (cue the trombones!) Los Cazadores de las Haciendas.