One of the many cultural projects that Mexico runs is El Pueblo Magico. This little city situated in the Sierra Madre Mountains holds a very important part of Mexican history as you will discover later on. Because of this, and mostly because of its beauty well conserved in the passing of time, it was included in a protective program that promotes it for its culture, tradition and ethnicity. The main scope of this program is to propose places like this to be included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Before I begin this magical story, I want to stress that this article is based only on word of mouth, the famous “it is said”, that comes directly from the descendants of the 3 big families that once ruled the San Sebastian: Encarnacion, Sanchez and Conception.
Right after the fall of the great Aztec empire, as the Spanish conquistadors started exporting all the gold to Spain, there was a need to find other places that bared such treasures. In this pursuit of gold, one brave man from Cortez’s army took it upon himself to find one of this places. He had heard that up in the deep forests of the Sierra Madre, lie a little mining town that generated a lot of silver and gold through its mines. It took him 2 years to find this town and another 3 to send word to the Spanish Empire of his discovery. So it is then, in the fall of 1605 that San Sebastian first started its journey of transformation.
At that time the humble town had only 7 mines, but with the proper investment, that was conducted in the New Spain, by 1785 the town developed 30 mines for both silver and gold and more than 10 silver reduction haciendas, where esteemed families from Spain have settled. 3 of these families are the most important to mention, as they were running the export business sending all the product to Spain. It was a good business, and it brought a lot of profit to the little town, thus developing it from roughly 1500 occupants, to around 10 000 by the beginning of the 1800’s.
The New Spain
Having to deal with a lot of oppression and high demands from the Spanish Empire, and having to hear rumors about their northern neighbors gaining their independence, the Colonial New Spain decided that it is about time that they start walking on their own feet rather than being pushed back and forth by their discoverer.
So it is then, that from 1810 to the 1821 the New Spain starts fighting for its independence. Why so long? Well, mainly because the fight was led against 2 parties: Spain and the Spanish Royalists settled in the new world but still faithful the crown land.
As any war ever led has its pattern, this one had its own as well, where the richer got even richer and the poorer got even poorer. As the war itself lasted for 11 years, time in which the Tecos (indigene folk) had the most to suffer, they had to start finding a way to provide for themselves as well. So they started working for the rich.
The same happened in San Sebastian. But the payment was not cash. As the rich wanted to keep their wealth in the family, they came up with a payment system, where they invented their own currency in coupon value. Those coupons consequently had to be used at particular family stores in order to achieve goods like food, clothing and other necessities. This method kept the Tecos under a slavery system, even though they were said to be free people.
It is here, between the gaining of Independence and the Great Revolution that San Sebastian reaches its peak, as one of the most important mining centers, it’s population increasing to about 20 000 inhabitants. When we talk about reaching its peak, we talk about wealth, and imported goods of the best quality, where women wore only expensive gowns and jewelry and men were smoking cigars and hosting parties and indulging in food from all over the world. How was this possible? Well, money talks, and as we look back to of the main routes to reach the now esteemed town, were either from the sea, from what now is Puerto Vallarta, or from inland, meaning Guadalajara.
The Golden Era
During this time of wealth and prosperity the town developed and the society flourished.
There were 3 types of inhabitants in this unique colonial town, and they ruled on blood line. The ones considered the high in grade were the pure Spanish blooded families mentioned above, then followed the Mestizos (the term defining the mix between the pure blood and the local blood) which occupied the second position in hierarchy, and the local blood (the Tecos) which lived in this so called slavery system.
In order to maintain their superiority it happened that the main families would intermarry, so it happened that 2nd, 3rd cousins or nieces were marrying each other.
Walking around this magical place as a tourist you see a well maintained gazebo, benches and lots of stunning flowers enhancing the decor. But close your eyes and the magic begins. Imagine the 18th century European fashion, where ladies were wearing long puffy dresses, of the finest materials, gloves and were covering their smiles with a fan, which they kept in hand in order to chase away the heat of a Summer Sunday, and men wore their suits, with a gelled haircut, neatly tucked around the shape of their heads, long mustaches ( it was said that he longer the mustache the higher the statute, and the more appealing to ladies was the individual) and a cane hanged on their hand, close to their elbow.
In this high esteemed decor, on a Sunday afternoon, after the morning service, while a band was playing in the gazebo, so started the mating games. A young woman and a young man liking one another would pass each other in a glimpse of a second, and if the man was determined, he would gently pass a flower over to the young lady. If the flower was accepted, the engagement was on. Simple as that! For the young lovers, there was nothing more left than to wait for the approval of their families. For the families however the hard work began, as there would be a lot of investigation performed from each side. The young gentlemen’s family would have 3 demands: 1. That the young lady to be untouched (in modern terms, a virgin), 2. That her family was of the same blood as them, and last but not least 3. That the dowry was a consistent one, matching her family’s statute. From the young ladies family the demands were that 1. The wealth of the young gentleman was secured to be passed down to him, 2. The blood line was the same, and 3. That in modern terms “he is not a player”. As soon as the negotiators would agree on the above terms, the courting would be allowed to begin.
Courting the young lady would be performed for several months, while the preparations for the wedding were taking place. In this time, the lady was never to go to the gentleman’s house but the other way around. They would both sit on the porch of the house, chatting under the close eye and ear of the future mother in law, who was secretly listening in on their conversation from the inside of a window.
On the other hand if the lady was to refuse the gift of engagement and the young man would not succeed in acquiring another fiancée, there was only one thing left for him, and that was to choose a future bride from the second level of the plaza. On the second level one would find the impure women of the society, like widows, ones that passed already the age of marriage (around that time it was of around 17), those that did not have the required monetary statute or those who sinned before marriage.
As we already know, the Spanish influence could be found everywhere. As tradition dictates, any town always gets its name from the patron saint. In this case, Saint Sebastian. For those that do not know the legend of Sebastian, here it is: It is said the Sebastian was a general in the Roman army, and that during the conquering expeditions that he performed he came across Christianity, and being a strong believer in God he converted and started converting other fellow romans as well. As other generals found out about his betrayal, they sought to kill him. Sebastian had a choice to run and hide, as he was warned about the plan that was to happen, but instead he stayed and tried to convince his persecutors of his beliefs. For his betrayal he was sentenced to death, tied up next to a tree and killed by a rain of arrows. And then the magical happens, as it is said that no arrow ever pierced his skin, as God protected him as a reward for his commitment. Scared, the Romans ran away, but Sebastian went after them trying to convince them of the true power of God and the miracle that was performed. The Romans ended up cutting his head off, in order to make sure nothing else defends him. For this, he was later sanctified, and nowadays is the patron of both this little colonial Mexican town and the amazing city located in Spain.
The miracle performed under that tree is reproduced in the church of San Sebastian as well. A small church, cast in stone, that in those times served for both a place of prayer and a primarily escape route for the towns bank, as it is said there was a tunnel that connected the two, back in the 1800’s. Visiting this church you will find yourself in a humble place of prayer, not extravagantly decorated, with a simple altar, and vivid colors.
The Cobble Stone Road and the Haciendas
Right after you cross the bridge, as you enter the town of San Sebastian, the very first edifice that greets you is he cobble stone road. Original from the 1600’s, the road has been very well maintained as the work performed was no random one. The pattern is still visible, and is consistent throughout all the town’s streets. This proves the attention and quality work invested in the making that preserved the road in almost perfect condition to the present day. The road is now one of the most important landmarks of the town as it is now over 400 years old.
Connected by this road are the frozen in time haciendas. After the Spanish model, these large constructions were proof of statute and wealth. Walking the streets is like stepping back in time. The architecture of that time reflects the life of its townsmen. These haciendas were both privately and publicly owned. The bank, the prison (next to the bank, coincidence or not), the trade market and the church, all represented around the main plaza and connected by the cobble stone road.
Today, the cobble stone road serves not only its traffic purpose, but is a symbol that connects the past to the present, connects memories, and most important people. With the passing of time, this is the only land mark left unchanged. A statement in time, giving the folk of San Sebastian something in common.
With the passing of time, the landlords became greedier and greedier and living and working in a silver mine, became harder and harder. Since the gaining of independence, and the separation of the New Spain from the mother Spain, there was no need to export the silver. So now during this 100 years of wealth and abundance the silver and gold processed from the Mines of San Sebastian, were sold to the north population and even to the newly formed United States.
But the work was becoming too much and the money too little. So during the fall of 1910, the Mestizos and the Tecos decide that enough is enough and that the autocratic regime of Porfirio Diaz (the president at that time) needs to come to an end, as throughout Mexico, 95% of the country’s wealth was controlled by 5% of the country population.
One of the names that made a difference in this decade fight against oppression was Pancho Villa. He heard about the wealth and slavery that was taking place in this mountain city and decided that it must come to an end. Word went out in San Sebastian that Pancho is heading that way with his army. In desperation and fright of death 90% of the wealthy nobles fled the town together with their families.
The remaining 10% that decided to stay and fight for their estates and wealth, were killed by the poor masses.
And the town was left deserted.
For about 100 years no man lived there. Mostly because of the bloody history that it had. But in time the grandchildren of those that once lived there, started returning and claiming back their families estates.
Today, the town counts around 600 souls. They live their lives peacefully. The haciendas have turned into very private hotels, where if you are looking for a quite escape, you have found your place.
There is only 1 last living granddaughter to talk about the Encarnacion history. Her museum “Casa Museo de Donna Conchita Encarnacion” (that looks more like a grandmother’s living room) is packed with history and antique furniture. Donna Maria Guadalupe Encarnacion holds the memory alive with such deep passion and pride. If asked, she can talk for hours and hours about the rich history that her family has, and how it descends from high esteemed Spanish noble blood. Her family tree stands as proof that intermarriages were well regarded in this town. Her son is the first Encarnacion member that does not bear the true royal family blood.
Today’s san sebastians live of their own businesses. The town has a kindergarten and a primary school. From high school on, the children travel to nearby cities. There is a clinic that has 2 doctors that provide family services, but again the townsmen have to travel to nearby cities for any other services. During the year the town seems almost deserted, as all the young folk learn and work in Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara. But it becomes magical during festivals, when everyone returns home. Fall has been and will always be a symbol season for San Sebastian, as in past time, all major changes that occurred in this colonial town took place during this season.
If you ever find yourself visiting this colonial town, you will understand why Mexico decided it’s a magic city. Visit the raicilla factory (family business) and try and authentic Mexican drink. Visit the coffee farm (another family business) and indulge in the fresh aroma of organic grown coffee. Emerge yourself in the town’s history, so you can understand it. Take a breath from time to time, close your eyes and envision yourself standing in the same place 300 years ago. Exercise your imagination!
Although the towns cobble stone roads are wide enough to accommodate small cars, leave yours in the plaza! Grab a camera, and go explore. Go Traveling!