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Exploring agave country with the Fearless Hacienda Hunters

Last Thursday it was my pleasure to tag along with Jim Cook and Jim Boles on the latest adventure of the Fearless Hacienda Hunters of Ajijic.

pg9aI have long admired the Cooks’ blog, Jim & Carole’s Mexican Adventure, which describes, among a great many fascinating sites, 16 haciendas – a mere sampling of the many they have visited over the years. In my opinion, locating a typical hacienda is difficult enough, but getting inside to have a look around often requires considerable investigative and diplomatic skills, with which Los Cazadores de Haciendas seem amply blessed.

Jim Cook told me he had been searching out these old casonas for over five years and had succeeded in visiting many of the most famous. Nowadays, he said, the group was tracking down more elusive haciendas and there was no guarantee we’d find something of interest.

Our first stop was in the little town of Santa Teresa, situated just west of Tequila. Surrounding this pueblito we found vast fields covered with blue-green agaves. In the center of town, we found a plaque telling us that all those agaves used to be grown for Ana González, owner of La Rojeña Distillery (one of the first two commercial tequila distilleries) and owner of the 19th century Hacienda Santa Teresa, which, we quickly discovered, was a bit hard to see, having been integrated right into the present-day life of the town. For example, part of it had been turned into what seemed to me “The World’s Longest and Skinniest Church,” with numerous doors along one wall, opening into small classrooms.

pg9bSan Andrés was another hacienda that has blended into the town surrounding it.

“Look around all you want,” a local man told us, “but don’t wander into any rooms because there are people living inside.”

One place we were able to explore all we wanted was the hacienda’s rooftop, where our informant proudly showed us a heavy bell cast in 1871, which had a marvelous ring. From here, we had a good view of one of the hacienda’s former granaries, a massive buttressed building which looked more like a fortress than a storage point for food, and, in fact, it seems like those impenetrable walls had been deliberately designed to keep people out.

That granary reminded me of a revealing interview conducted by culinary researcher Maru Toledo with an 80-year-old veteran of the Mexican Revolution. His name was Don Isidro and he talks about meeting Emiliano Zapata. He also describes the nearly impossible life of the campesinos before the Revolution. As a 17-year-old, he was required to rise at two or three in the morning and walk 12 kilometers to bring in and feed the oxen with which he had to plow the fields at first light.

Relates Don Isidro: “If one of us didn’t appear at sunrise, he got no food for all the rest of the week … and what was he going to eat?  We hated the hacendados (hacienda owners) with a great hate … and then one day the government (under Zapata) arrived and opened the stores, which were brimming with corn. ‘Come on, ladies, take what you need,’ shouted the Federales … and they forced the hacendados to give us ejidos, plows, yokes, carts, everything we needed, and after that, life was beautiful because now all the people could work for themselves.”

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Of the five haciendas we visited that day, the one I liked best was La Providencia, out in the country, far from the hustle, bustle and noise of the typical small town. (If you think pg9cthey are all sleepy and quiet, go visit one – you may be in for a surprise!)

At La Providencia, all we could hear was the occasional moo of a cow as we parked beneath the thick branches of an absolutely enormous ficus tree and wandered toward an enticing wall covered with creepers.

La Providencia is located 13 kilometers east of Etzatlán and seven north of Ahualulco. Jim told us that the hacienda had been built in the 17th century and had the distinction of being one of Mexico’s first two officially registered commercial tequila producers. The other was La Rojeña, whose agave fields we had seen outside Santa Teresa. Sadly, there is no plaque stating that you are visiting one of the pioneer distilleries that brought the modern tequila industry into existence. If they ever do make such a plaque, it could also mention the fact that in 1856 the substitute governor of Jalisco, Doctor Ignacio Herrera y Cairo (a liberal), was captured at Hacienda La Providencia by Coronel Manuel Piélago (a conservative) and executed the following day in Ahualulco. I guess modern liberals haven’t much to complain about, compared to how they were treated back in the days of Porfirio Díaz!

In the past, I have driven down Guadalajara’s well-known Calle Herrera y Cairo naively imagining it had been named after some Pepe Herrera who had wandered off to Egypt. Next time, after only one trip with the Fearless Hacienda Hunters, I will recall my pleasant walk through the ruins of Hacienda la Providencia, in the shadow of the spreading ficus tree.

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