October 19, 1943 – Neill James sets off to visit various nearby highland towns:
Got up a 5 am to catch 6 o’clock bus to Chapala. It went early at 10 to 6 – so walked the 9 kilometers from Ajijic to Chapala – maiden trip on my fractured leg on a real walk – we left [Chapala] at 10:30. Caught 11 am boat across lake to _____. We later found a truck going to Mazamitla and took it arriving about 6 a.m.
Jiquilpan is birthplace of ex President Cardenas. Very pretty, large plaza with fountains. Fine library given by the president. Statue with water streaming over several fountains (4) with flowing water. Anyone walking to fill water jugs connects one of several cane pipes to flowing water and fills jar. – from Neill James’ diary -courtesy of Lake Chapala Society
October 18, 2018 – Almost exactly 75 years later, Joyce Wycoff and I arrive in Jiquilpan, (which comes from a Náhuatl word meaning “place of tint plants”) after a much quicker 90 peso taxi ride from the nearby town of Sahuayo where we spent the previous night.
Jiquilpan today is a bustling university town, with two universities and one of the few places outside of Mexico City that offers post-graduate courses in sustainable agriculture, biochemical and industrial engineering, and others. Jiquilpan is also known as the city of Jacarandas, making spring one of the best times to visit when the town turns purple.
In ancient times Jiquilpan was part of a large forest, but extensive farming has left a much smaller forest footprint that still contains cabins, picnic areas and hiking trails, because Lázaro Cárdenas passed some of the first conservation laws to protect it. Jiquilpan was also an important cultural center during pre-hispanic times.
Our hotel for the first night sits on the large pretty plaza that Neill describes, and the fountains where people came to draw water are now ornamental. We find the plaza immaculately maintained with restaurants and coffee shops scattered around.
Lázaro Cárdenas Library
We set off immediately to find the library donated by Lázaro Cardenas that contains murals by my favorite Mexican muralist, José Clemente Orozco, painted by commission of Lázaro Cárdenas in 1940 and depicting the suffering of the Mexican people during the revolution. It’s clear when reflecting on this, looking at Neill James’ diaries and talking with her students, that she arrived in Mexico during exciting literary, artistic and political times. In the very same diary, she notes her visit to see Diego Rivera painting in Mexico City. She never mentions Orozco and I wonder if she saw or heard of him, since he and Rivera both painted in front of the public?
From there we headed towards the Lázaro Cárdenas museum, which we couldn’t seem to locate despite the fact that we were practically standing in front of it. Slightly disappointed, we headed back to town and found a taxi to the forest above the town that contains Lázaro Cárdenas’ humble stone summer home and a silk weaving workshop that makes fine silk rebozos. After a tour of the workshop, we made our way to the Feliciano Béjar Ruiz Museum, housed in the former family home.
Feliciano Béjar Ruiz
We had never heard of Feliciano Béjar Ruiz or his magiscopes, but after a private tour by a young curator we were captivated and I had to get one for myself. In the evening we were treated to a local music event and the beauty of the town after dark.
We Meet Carlos Flores
Stumbling out of my hotel the next morning to the nearest coffee shop, I find Joyce bright eyed and announcing that we are about to interviewed. Carlos Flores is a photographer and videographer who is one of Jiquilpan’s greatest promoters, and produced this Pueblo Magico Jiquilpan documentary which is worth a watch even if you don’t speak Spanish. We were charmed by the warm welcome and Jiquilpan’s obvious desire to attract tourists. Carlos in turn introduced us to his friend, Sergio Valencia, who gave us a tour of the small hotel owned by his family on the plaza that he is renovating. You could feel the excitement as the whole town seemed to be busy preparing for their huge 5-day Day of the Dead celebration.
Lázaro Cárdenas Museum
Who knew that the anniversary of Lázaro Cardenás death was October 19! The reason we couldn’t find the museum the day before turned out to be because there was a special dignitary tour of the museum for this important anniversary and we were invited to join in. As we went through the exhibit in chronological order, I couldn’t help but think about the times that Neill James lived in and how her vision of education for Mexican children reflected the thinking of many well-known Mexican thinkers and writers who were her contemporaries.
We spent our last night with new friends Sergio and family and were delighted to meet his children ranging in ages from 9-23, particularly Diana, a budding young artist.
Thank you Jiquilpan for the warm welcome and special thanks to Tony Burton, whose book Western Book: A Traveler’s Treasure, is an invaluable guide to this part of Mexico.
Stay tuned as we continue the journey through Neill James’ Mexico life and travels.