In the Wild Country

Headquarters for the Jesuit Mission
Along the Camino Real Road in Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

6. Acazónica: Mid Way Along the Camino Real

Preparations for the Trip
Although it´s only about an hour and a half from the port of Veracruz, it felt like it would be a long trip. Perhaps I was imagining what it must have been like for the old Spanish friars and the campesinos to make the trip on horseback, or on foot.

Here are some of the maps, I used during the preparations for the trip.

Acazónica, The Coastal Headquarters
For several months, I had pored over the old maps, and Acazónica, perhaps because of its strange and unique name always stood out as a place I wanted to visit. It looked like it would be an important way stop along the Camino Real between San Bartolomé and Paso de Ovejas.

From a strategic point of view, it looked like the half way point along a rough trail through the badlands, and a good refuge and resting place between the cool mountains of the "tierra fría" and the "tierra caliente" of the Gulf Coast.

At the same time, there was a possibility that there might be some remnants left from before 1767 when the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico. Perhaps there might even be some pigeons left.

Overview Maps of the Trip

Searching an Old Map--Looking for Acazónica.
On this old map it´s spelled "Acasonica".

Overview Map of the Whole Trip

On the Way to Acazónica

Land of Opportunity
On the Way to Acazónica
Much of the success of these trips depends on the amount of preparation made before the trip, and your expectations.

As we drove the dry country road through the badlands, I was wondering what to expect when we got to Acazónica.

I wondered how much had survived from the original ranch headquarters since the time of the Spanish Colony.

When the Jesuits were expelled from Spain and the Spanish Colonies I wondered if they had left anything.

From the looks of the sign outside of town, I wondered if there were many opportunities here.
Old Houses and Dirt Streets
Red Tile Roofs and Round Columns
As we drove into town, I noticed the many small houses had the same look of the 19th century homes in Tlacotalpan.

The red tile roofs, the special angled slant of the roof, and especially the round columns of a small portal in each of the homes.

The portal is where you could sit with your family in the warm evenings and talk with the family or neighbors as they pass by in the street out front.

At the same time, because of the large number of these old homes, you could see at one time, this was once an important hacienda.
An Enthusiastic Welcome
Meeting Friends
My travel buddy has some friends in Acazónica, so we drove through the quiet streets and pulled up in front of his house.It was the home of Don Fernando Vallejo, the Agente Municipal, which is the same as the mayor of the town.

"He knows a lot about the history of Acazónica, and is a nice guy."

We shook hands all the way around, and Don Fernando welcomed us to Acazónica.

"Let´s take a walk around town", he said, and grabbed some keys he kept in the living room.

As we walked the two blocks over to the small plaza, I noticed how quiet it was. There weren´t many people around in the streets.

Kids in the small towns of Mexico are always friendly, and this one waved and welcomed us to Acazónica showing off his new Tee Shirt.
The Old Administration Building
On the Old Maps
During my initial research about Acazónica, I wasn´t able to find much information about the small town. Yet on the old maps, in those days it looked like a large settlement.

In Mexico, counties are called "municipios" and the county seat is called the "cabecera municipal".

From about the year 1600 until 1880, Acazónica was the county seat until it was changed to Paso de Ovejas.

Later the people told me this was the old administration building.
Thick Columns
Historic Building
Back in the days after 1810, and the Cry for Independence, many of the fighters for Mexican Independence from Spain operated in the area around Acazónica.

One day I was reading that Nicolas Bravo, or maybe it was Guadalupe Victoria, was promoted from Colonel to General in here in Acazónica.

While I was looking at the old ruins of the administration building, I thought to myself that perhaps this is where it happened.

I will need to go back to the history books because the local people weren't able to tell me anything.
The Traditional Atrium Cross
Saints, Churches, and Changes
As we walked over toward the center of town, I was thinking that old religions are to be admired.

Even the Aztecs and Mayans who performed in human sacrifices on top of pyramids thought this was the right thing to do. Perhaps it was effective for the people of those days.

Yet, you don´t have to be a believer in these things to admire many of these old religions, the structures they left, and what might be considered unusual customs.

The people of those days had their reasons for doing things the way they did.

The Atrium Cross
Now days, most churches don't have an atrium cross, and when you find one you know this holy ground goes back for many centuries.

In those days, the people knew they were protected by a higher power in times of need.

Twin Church Bells
The Influence of Spain
The influence of Spain in America is vast.

The Spaniards left two huge legacies that can be seen today: First the Spanish language, and second is their form of Christianity.

In most cases, it is the Roman Catholic church and the churches they built centuries ago.

Over the past 5 centuries, both the language and the churches have changed and been updated to reflect regional tastes.
A Pigeon in the Shade
A Roosting Pigeon
In the churches out in the countryside, I look for pigeons. They are the descendents of the first generations of friars who came to found the first church in town.

The pigeons were used to carry messages, and for food when it was necessary.

As we stood outside looking at the bells, I looked a little closer.Then I saw one of the clues to the past. It was a pigeon hiding in the shade.

Maybe its ancestors had been brought over from Spain by the early Jesuits.
Inside the Church
Church is Different Now
In my own case, I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and for several of my early years served as an acolyte.Then for a number years, I became an inactive churchgoer.

When I went back to the Episcopal Church, I found that the service had changed so much it seemed more like a Methodist service.

Then, when I attended the Roman Catholic Church services on the Gulf Coast, I found the service was more like the church of my own childhood.

I guess the Catholics had changed, too.

In the highland areas like Mexico City and Puebla, the Catholic Church is still very traditional and formal.

The church on the Gulf Coast of Mexico is more charismatic, and perhaps a little more accepting of sinners.
Inside the Church
Inside the Church
Don Fernando opened the front doors of the church and let us in.

A couple of pigeons flew out from under the rafters.

It was a very simple church, perhaps typical of many small towns and villages.

It also had a quiet air of peace.
For Holy Water
For Holy Water
I decided to get a closer look and saw this recipient for holy water.

It looked very old, very much like the little "pockets" next to the front door of the church at Angostillo.

Although it probably wasn't part of the church when the Jesuits were here, it looked like it was a construction of the 19th century.

But, I am not an expert on these things and will have to ask some of the people at the Cathedral in Veracruz.

Still though it was very old and looked like it had been there for at least a 100 years.

In reality, I think it has been there a lot longer.
A Family of Saints
Sharing the Same Saints
In the mid 1500´s, the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, made the formal separation from the Roman Catholic Church.

Later in the US it became known as the Episcopal Church.

So, until that time, the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches recognize the same saints and same church calendar.
Sorrowful Mother Mary
Over the years, I have become familiar with most of the saints found in the churches in Mexico, and the interesting stories about the miracles they have performed in their local communities.

The statues of the saints in the local churches are also a reflection of the feelings of the community.

Each church is different and you can see this in the choice of the statues of the saints, and the expressions on their faces.

They are the reflection of what is in the hearts of the people who placed them there since each was a request for a miracle, or an act of thanksgiving.
Old Saints
What I Look For
Most of the time, the very old churches in Mexico are barebones affairs, and it's a miracle that any of the old relics, especially the statues, or "images" as they are called, are still intact.

In the 1920's to 1940's, the Cristero Wars in many parts of Mexico closed the churches in Mexico and drove the religious people underground.

Families had to hide these relics in their homes, or in caves, to protect them from the government, or from legalized vandals.

This part of the history of Mexico is still very recent and sensitive, and some people find it difficult to talk about what happened in those during those grim years when the church bells went silent.

Just about everything you see in the churches of Mexico is a gift of a request for a miracle, or thanksgiving for a miracle granted. This is what makes each church a little different.
Old Saints
"Look into the Eyes of the Saints," said the Priest
Once I was was shown the storeroom of a small church in a little town along the Papaloapan River near Tlacotalpan.

We were looking at some very old statues of different saints.

The priest told to look into the eyes of the saints. He said that after the year 1900, they began to use glass eyes.

If you see a statue with painted eyes, then they are probably before the year 1900 and are very old.

On the Right
0n the right was a table with several images of the more popular saints.

I could identify the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Virgen of Guadalupe, and a small statue of a very sorrowful Mother Mary.
Old Saints
In Mexico, people go to church when they are in pain, and when you feel this way, you can easily identify the Mother Mary watching her Son slowly dying on the Cross.

Somehow, the pain one feels is less when you look at this statue.

At the same time, this statue is very old because it doesn't have the glass eyes.The eyes are painted.

I thought to myself that this is very much in contrast with the great works of Italy and Spain with the virgin and child full of color and beauty.

It looked like the person who made this statue many years ago was in great pain.
Old Saints
And the person who touched it up with the recent paint did their work with great reference knowing that it would help a mother who was also suffering the loss of a son.

The Expressions Change
On the left was another table with some other religious statues

The flowers were fresh, and there wasn't much pain and suffering.

The statue of the child also had painted eyes, and was very old.
Saint Joseph
Then I noticed the Virgin of Guadalupe had an almost oriental look in her eyes, and her clothes looked like those worn by the women of India.

Then I noticed how the expressions on their faces seemed to change as you moved around.

St. Joseph
Every town and village in Mexico has its patron saint and the parish is named after its patron saint.

The full name of this town is San José Acazónica, and in the middle of the altar is a tall statue of St. Joseph.

I have always liked St. Joseph, and here he is with the Christ Child wiggling around in his arms, looking towards Heaven.

Saint Joseph is strong and to be admired.
A Very Old Saint from One Piece of Wood
Looking for Evidence of the Past
As we walked through the old church, Don Fernando and I were talking about the Jesuit headquarters here in Acazónica.

He said, "We don't know much about the distant past but from the size of our little town and all the old houses the hacienda must have been very large in those days."

"From the large number of colonial homes with the round columns on the porches, you could see that these structures were very old."

"Here in the church there are some old relics from the past. "

"Let me show you a couple of things," he said.

As he carefully unlocked the storeroom next to the main part of the church, he apologized for the condition of what he was about to show me.

"This is a very old saint. It is made from a solid piece of wood. We don't know who the saint is, or how it got to Acazónica."
El Cristo Chino
Remnants of the Past
When we walked into the old storeroom, pigeons flew out the rafters.

There was a heavy presence of these birds in these rooms, especially in the smell and little feathers everywhere. This was also an important part of the past.

I remembered what the old man had told me in Veracruz.

"Look for the pigeons. Often, they are the only indications of the distant past."

In this small room, there was plenty of evidence of the distant past.

From the Orient
Don Fernando said they had found evidence of relics here in Acazónica that may come from the Orient, perhaps as far away as China.
El Cristo Chino
Even in those days of very slow transportation, there was evidence of an oriental influence.

He said that some of the original statues in the church looked oriental, and that perhaps it had been brought from the Philippines.

"If you look at the eyes of the Cristo, you can see they are almost oriental, and the color of his skin looks yellowish."

"Some people say it came from the Philippines a long time ago."I wondered if it could have been sent over by the Jesuits.

Evidence of pigeons was everywhere. There were even old pigeon eggshells in the coffin of the Cristo.

Footnote: August 2, 2007
For several months my friend Alberto Vallejo, brother of the Agente Municipal, and I had been talking about restoring these two old statues with the help and support of the priest in Paso de Ovejas.

Today Alberto told me these statues were stolen from the church.

If you see these old statues in a flea market or in a museum, please notify the authorities at once. Stealing from the small village churches is like stealing from the poor.

The Little Box called "Limosnas"
Each time I leave a church like this, I usually leave 20 or 30 pesos in one of the little boxes for alms. The sign says, "Limosnas". It is not because I see the poverty of the church and know it must be a struggle to keep the church going.

It is because it makes me feel like I am a member, and part of a very old congregation in a remote place, and maybe the silent prayer I pray may be granted one day. At the same time, I give thanks for what I have today. Then for a moment I realize I feel better than when I entered the church.

Then it was time to go, and nobody saw me leave the coins in the little box called "Limosnas." That is the way my friends have told me it has to be.

The Old Wall
My Real Interest
After our tour of the church, don Fernando invited us to his house where we sat on the porch talking about the history of Acazónica.

Don Fernando had a lot of information.

He said that several years back a team of historical investigators led by Dr. Juan Ortiz Escamilla from the University of Veracruz in Jalapa came to the town to conduct a study.

Dr. Ortiz Escamilla left the results of his studies which had led him as far as the Archives of the Indies in Spain.

After the Jesuits Left
Don Fernando told us that after the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico in 1767, all their properties were placed under the custodianship of a committee called "La Caja de Temporalidades."
An Original Structure of the Coast

Their duties were to dispose of the assets which included some 25,000 sheep and the vast concession that covered parts of the states of Veracruz and Puebla.

Most of the homes in Acazónica appeared to be coastal architecture of the times after 1767.

The early Jesuits were austere in their living conditions, and were good business people investing their money more in land than in the frills of city living.

Their structures of those days were probably made of cane like this nearby house.Perhaps the original church in Acazónica was built of the same material.

La República de los Indios
Don Fernando went on to say that in 1791, a group of Indians from near Santiago Totutla approached the Viceroy of New Spain with the proposal of the formation of the República de los Indios. The Indians promised to continue to manage the sheep and wool business and, most importantly, continue to pay taxes to the crown. This was very important to the Viceroy, because he needed the taxes that had been previously paid by the Jesuits. A contract for the formation of the República de los Indios was signed and the Indians agreed to pay the taxes on their new republic.

The Spanish legal system was well developed by that time, and a very wealthy man, Count Cornide, became the cosigner of the contract of the República de los Indios. He satisfied the requirement of solvency in case the República de los Indios defaulted on the agreement or were unable to pay the taxes.

The Failure of the República de los Indios
Ten years later in 1801, the Indians had not paid taxes on their republic and the land reverted to the cosigner. Later, he began to sell the land off in parcels. In later years, he sold off the area around Acazónica to Francisco de Arrillaga.

Don Fernando showed us the original limits of the República de los Indios from Dr. Ortiz Escamilla´s study and I outlined the areas in yellow that could be identified on my old map. The area was huge. The red line in the center was the old Camino Real.

The República de los Indios

Acazónica in the 19th Century
Acazónica in the 19th century continued to be an important center along the Camino Real. From the looks of the red tile roofs and the round columns on the front porches, many of the homes in Acazónica were built.Municipal governments were formed and Acazónica became the "cabecera municipal" or county seat for the area.

Replaced by Paso de Ovejas
However, at the same time, Paso de Ovejas had also become an important agricultural and business center along the Camino Real between Veracruz and Xalapa. By 1880, the Wars of Independence, revolts, the seiges of the Camino Real at Puente Nacional were now part of the past. The railroad from Veracruz to Paso de Ovejas was finished in the mid 19th century and helped the town to grow even faster.

In 1880, the Paso de Ovejas eventually became the new county seat, displacing Acazónica, because of the growing traffic along the now peaceful Camino Real to Xalapa and the new all weather railroad to the nearby port of Veracruz that eventually reached Mexico City. Now Acazónica was left out of the mainstream of commerce and cultural activities in the area.

During the Revolution of 1910-20
During the Mexican Revolution of 1910-20, most of the people in the remote areas fled to nearby small towns and cities for safety, and in the Agrarian Reform Movement of the 1920´s and 1930´s, Acazónica became an "ejido" or communal farm area depending heavily on government subsidies that covered the bare necessities of life. In the late 20th century many of the young people migrated to Veracruz, Mexico City, as well as New York and New Jersey to send money home to their families.

Some people jokingly told me the town should be renamed, "Acazónica de Nueva York." But, Acazónica is not unique because the same phenomenon is happening in many of the small villages and ranches in the area around Veracruz.

Also as time went on, the history of the Jesuits and their sheep ranching business was bypassed and forgotten by historians perhaps because it is too far from the paved highways. All that remains today are the very old houses, and the statues in the church and the people who are now the caretakers of their communities.

A Beautiful Horse
Distracted by a Horse
By this time, I was saturated with history and dates.

While we were sitting on the front porch, I began to watch as one of the neighborhood teenagers began to wash his horse.

It was a beautiful horse, too. It had an Arabian look about it and it looked like a fine horse.

Don Fernando must have sensed I was becoming distracted by the history lesson, andsoon she came back with a plate full of mangos for each one of us.

A Special Time of the Year
The summer months are special along the Gulf Coast. It´s mango season and this year they were especially plentiful and sweet, too.
An Afternoon Snack for the Road
Planning the Next Visit
So, for a few minutes we declared a timeout on our search for the Old Camino Real, and take time to enjoy the day, perhaps as the Jesuits also had done in those early days.

While we were eating the mangos, Don Fernando said not far from here is a huge barranca, or ravine, and the ruins of a fort to explore.

The fort is probably 200 years old. He also said the local cemetery is also very old and I might find something there.

When we finished the mangos, I knew it was time to go.

I decided that when I had found the end of the Camino Real from my map, I was looking forward to coming back to Acazónica to explore the ruins of the old fort, and look at the dates in the local cemetery Don Fernando had told me about.

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