No less than nine Roman Catholic churches lie within the city limits of little Tepoztlan, population 33,000. I had seen the biggest, Parroquia Nuestra Senora de la Natividad – Parish of Our Lady of the Nativity. Nuestra Senora is the centralized cathedral that lies at one end of the zocalo and has a former convent attached to it. And I had passed La Santisima every day, as it lay on the corner of the main road and the road we were staying on. At La Santisima, you turn one way to go to the zocalo and the market, turn the other way to climb the mountain to the pyramid. But now, looking at the map, I could see that La Santisima was one of eight parishes spread throughout town. Together, they form a circle of churches that ring the main parish like planets orbiting the sun.
These are the neighborhood churches, the Iglesias Barrios: Santo Domingo, La Santisima, Santa Cruz, San Pedro, Los Reyes, San Sebastian, San Miguel, and San Jose. I decided I had better try and see a few of them.
I began by walking toward Santo Domingo, which was the closest parish to our residence, though before today I had seen only its rounded steeples from blocks away.
Like the churches I had seen earlier in the week, Santo Domingo looked old, very old. Were all of these churches built in colonial times? I looked for a date on a cornerstone but found none, at least none on the outside stone wall that surrounded the parish. The iron gate was locked. I stood gazing over the stone wall for a few moments. A man walked toward me along the cobblestone road. As he passed the church, he slowed down, took off his hat, crossed himself, then returned his hat and kept on walking. I gazed a few more minutes, decided I had better make the sign of the cross myself, and then I started off again.
The next parish was Santa Cruz, an equal distance from the main road on the opposite side of it, and uphill quite a ways. I was dripping in sweat when I reached it. Over the road that leads to Santa Cruz’s main entrance is the wire frame of a canopy, but with no canopy currently on it. I guessed it must be there for celebrations, and imagined how glorious it must look with colorful paper decorations hanging from it, colorful paper decorations I’d seen hanging elsewhere in town.
Like Santo Domingo, Santa Cruz had that same old, colonial look to it – the buildings of these churches, if they really can be dated to the 1500s, must all have been built more than two hundred years before the Declaration of Independence. What made Santo Domingo different, however, was its steeples, which looked to me like the hull of a ship, with various clay and ceramic objects stuck to it like barnacles. The church as a ship, embarking from an old age into a new one; I rather like that.
On to La Santisima, the familiar parish which now deserved a closer look. La Santisima’s gate and front doors were wide open, offering any passerby a good look inside. If you look closely, you can see that Moses has horns. Ten points to the first seminarian who can post an explanation why in the blog comment section.
The outside of La Santisima has a few things in common with the other Iglesias Barrios. Besides the stone wall and wire frame canopy, there is a little covered outside seating area, like a stone gazebo, visible to the right in the picture below. People wander in and out of La Santisima, sitting for awhile, offering their prayers, and walking out again.
I continued on to the main Parroquia, in whose convent there was a museum I had read about but hadn’t yet visited. Nuestra Senora de la Natividad is surrounded by a massive courtyard in which you could probably fit all of the other neighborhood parishes. The bustling market surrounds the parish courtyard, but does not enter it.
An archway serves as the entry to the courtyard. All the guidebooks say this archway is decorated in a mural made of different colored seeds that changes every year (it´s like the Mitchell Corn Palace of Mexico), but I could find no mural of seeds. A walk into the courtyard showed why: this year’s mural was still being made. I took a photo of the part that was finished; it had an Aztec warrior raising some kind of weapon on one side, and an Aztec woman on the other with one curious detail: the Aztec woman was wearing a crown, holding a scepter and holding baby Jesus.
The Parroquia itself, the central church of Tepoztlan, towers over the courtyard; it is visible from almost anywhere in town. It dates from the late 1500s (thank you Lonely Planet Guidebook). Inside it looks much like you would expect from a cathedral, with towering walls, an arched ceiling, and fabulous artwork in the nave. This cathedral lacked the gaudy, over-the-top gold interiors I’d seen in other Mexican cathedrals, instead doing its cathedralesque-work of drawing the eye forward and upward with the simplicity of white marble.
But my favorite part of the Parroquia Nuestra Senora is the stone baptismal font, which is at the entrance of the church, and lies in a circle three steps lower than the rest of the floor. After watching a few other people do the same thing, I walked the few steps down into the metaphorical river and dipped my fingers into a baptismal font for the first time since I left LSTC.
I left the church and made my way over to its neighboring convent. The convent hasn’t been in use as a convent for centuries; it’s now more of a museum than anything. As I walked in, an attendant asked me to sign the guestbook: Matt Keadle, Chicago, IL, USA.
The first thing that strikes a visitor to these halls are the red lines that form abstract designs and images of animals and people all along the ceilings, walls, and archways. An interior square courtyard lets light in through the arches. From the guidebook, I learn that this former convent served as a fortress during the revolution. I believe it.
Eventually there is a room with friars painted on the walls. The friars (monks?) are holding crosses and books (presumably Bibles). The paint of these murals is peeling off the walls, yet they remain vivid; the monks look as though they could walk off the walls. It is their eyes that stick with me. One monk faces toward another, but his eyes seem to look back at something else. Another’s seem unfocused, and it is unclear whether he is lost in meditation or merely tired of living amid the ancient isolation of these mountains.
There is a stairway leading up a second level, and I follow it. There is not much in the way of artwork up here, but there is a museum telling the history of Tepoztlan.
Tepoztlan, I learn from the various museum displays, is divided into several barrios (neighborhoods), each named for its local neighborhood parish.
Yet there is another detail: each barrio has its own animal attached to it, like a mascot. Santo Domingo’s animale is a frog; Santa Cruz’s is a scorpion. Later, when I took Chris past Santo Domingo, we noticed something I hadn’t noticed earlier: subtle frog designs etched into the sides of the veranda.
This combination of Catholicism and animal imagery harkens back to Tepoztlan’s past. Earlier I mentioned the seed mural that is created by local artisans every year. There is a replica in the museum that features the entire scene, archway, market, and courtyard, all in a massive mural. In the mural, Mary stands atop the arch with Jesus in her arms. An Aztec warrior kneels beneath her, and a friar stands above him, smaller than Mary but standing over the Aztec. The friar appears to be baptizing him.
The museum displays also show the breakdown of Tepoztlan land ownership: 84% of Tepoz farmland is under communal ownership (!), just as it was, the museum tells me, in the prehispanic age. About ten years ago a private development company tried to buy up some of this communal land and make it into a golf course. NAFTA had just passed, and the developers had the support of the national and state governments. But the local Tepoztecos weren’t having any of it. They organized and staged protests that lasted over a year. The climax of the incident was when a 64-year-old leader of the resistance was shot to death, his body shoved in a burlap sack and deposited in a field miles away. In an earlier age these tactics might have ended the resistance, but this was the dawn of the information age. The development company got nervous at the bad publicity, and backed out of the project. Tepoztlan might look like a tourist town, but its community bonds are tight, and fierce.
By now it was almost lunchtime, but I thought I could find one more Iglesia Barrio before heading back. San Miguel lay on the outskirts of town, at the end of Av. 5 de Mayo. It was a bit of a hike, but well worth the trip, for San Miguel differs from any other iglesia in Tepoztlan. The parish itself looks as old as the others, but its stone wall and gazebo are splashed in vivid colors of gold-rush yellow, rustic red, and beach-sea blue. If God has a beachhouse, it looks like this.
Over the main arch there is a green lizard, the animal mascot, it seems, of San Miguel and its neighborhood.
Its iron gate – painted a bright yellow – was locked, so this would be the only glimpse I would get of San Miguel. I headed back for lunch, amazed that there were this many churches in one little town; equally amazed that they were so close together that I could visit half of them in one morning.
I feel as though I have only scratched the surface of Tepoztlan. But what a surface it has been. As we prepare to turn the page to a new adventure in Mexico City, I can think of no better way to close, after today, than with an Our Father.
Padre nuestro que estas en los cielos,
Santificado sea tu nombre;
Venga a nos tu reino;
Hagase tu voluntad, asi en la tierra como en el cielo;
El pan nuestro de cada dia, danoslo hoy;
Y perdonanos nuestras deudas asi como nosotros perdonamos a nuestros deudores;
Y no nos dejes caer en la tentacion;
Mas libranos del mal.
Porque tuyo el el reino,
El poder y la Gloria
Por los siglos de los siglos.